Brian Harris had a bit of a shock when he moved to the Westman Islands, but says that it was a life altering experience which taught him a valuable lesson.

Imagine you’re going to be an exchange student for a whole year. You’re sixteen, you want to escape your small town in USA, and the world is your oyster. Brian Harris had briefly seen Iceland from the airport of Keflavík when he was a kid traveling between France and the US and thought it was so magical that it was his first choice when applying to become an exchange student. Little did he know that AFS Intercultural Programs would send him to an even smaller town than where he came from. Westman Islands, of the south coast. Oh, and we should mention: This is the year 1989, before Skype, Facebook or even emails, and Brian had accidentally just come out to his parents.

Brian made it very clear that he could have done the interview in Icelandic. "Ég vil bara segja að við getum alveg talað saman á íslensku," or “I just want to say that we can speak together in Icelandic”. But since it would have to be translated into English anyway, we decided to speak English.

Brian made it very clear that he could have done the interview in Icelandic. “Ég vil bara segja að við getum alveg talað saman á íslensku,” or “I just want to say that we can speak together in Icelandic”. But since it would have to be translated into English anyway, we decided to speak English.

“It was a bit of a shock”, admits Brian, when recalling what his first reaction was when he first came to the Westman Islands, after having travelled from Charleston, Illinois to Iceland. And adds that it had a lot do with how small the culture was.

“Everything in Westman Islands was more homogeneous. Everybody was Icelandic and sort of Lutheran (laughs). Everybody had a similar pattern of life, same television, and same five types of cars. It was so much the same.

There are all these families that have lived there for hundreds of years and you can be Icelandic but still be seen as a foreigner there. Two of my friends, one who had moved there from the mainland and another one, Ása (Ásgerður Jóhannesdóttir) who had moved back there from the mainland, they both kind of felt like foreigners on the island. Which is why I think the three of us became close. There were only a few real foreigners on the island and I was the only exchange student. I was THE exchange student!”

Brian says that initially he imagined ending up in a place that was more instead of less cosmopolitan than where he came from. So for the first few months he was sad he wasn’t in Reykjavík. ”I think I was disappointed initially. But… to be clear, I would never trade that now because the experience was so much richer. The cultural experience was so much more immersive than if I had lived somewhere else. My host parents didn’t speak English so I simply had to learn Icelandic. In Reykjavík, I would probably have had a family that spoke English so I wouldn’t have had to learn Icelandic as well as I did. Of course, we didn’t have email or Skype. We had letters coming in and one five minute phone conversations a month with my family, since it was so expensive.”

“I was sixteen, I was sort of out, but not really. I had a boyfriend in the United States, but I also had a girlfriend.”

To be an exchange student in another country is difficult enough. But for Brian, it was probably more difficult because just a few days before leaving for Iceland, his parents had accidentally found out he was gay.
“I was sixteen. I was sort of out, but not really. I had a boyfriend in the United States, but I also had a girlfriend (laughs). My boyfriend knew about my girlfriend, but my girlfriend didn’t know about my boyfriend. He was three years older than me, had just come home from being an exchange student in Turkey. We had just confessed our love for one another, a real Romeo and Juliet moment (laughs).

This was just a month and a half before I left for Iceland. I had just got my driver’s license, just got my braces off; you know, big things happening for a teenager in a short period of time. Then I went to France for a month where I hiked the Pyrenees and visited friends. While I was there my boyfriend wrote me a bunch of love letters, in aerogrammes, you know where you write on the paper but you fold it so it becomes the envelope itself.

When I got back from France I had four days before leaving for Iceland. Those four days were to spend time with all my friends and my family, and my girlfriend, and my boyfriend. My mother, supposedly, had to look for a letter so she went into my room and read all my mail, among them the love letters from my boyfriend. That’s how I came out to my parents. My mom was devastated, she was crying, telling me I was a freak. It was not pretty. And then it was time to leave for a whole year.”

So when Brian left for Iceland there had been no resolution between him and his parents and the situation was still very tense. “So you can imagine that these once a month phone calls for five minutes were strained,” Brian explains. “On top of that I was trying to negotiate all these feelings about my boyfriend who I couldn’t be honest about and my girlfriend, which I feel sorry for today.”

When Brian arrived in Iceland he was understandably still very upset and felt he couldn’t talk to anybody about his situation. “It was awful. It was so emotionally charged and made me feel particularly lonely, especially at first. I would only leave the island every couple of months, so for the most part I was on the tiny island the whole time. I didn’t expect to be quite so isolated, as I mentioned before I had hoped to stay in a place more cosmopolitan than where I came from.

“In Westman Islands it was harder to connect to other people because everybody does things themselves. But the good thing is that I learned I could do that as well when I saw other people doing it.”

“In Westman Islands it was harder to connect to other people because everybody does things themselves. But the good thing is that I learned I could do that as well when I saw others doing it.”

“On top of that I was trying to negotiate all these feelings about my boyfriend who I couldn’t be honest about and my girlfriend, which I feel sorry for today.”

Brian explains that it took him a while to see how much heart people have there because everybody was really shy about opening up – until they had a drink (laughs.) Then he was surprised at how warm and open people could be.

“It was really strange for me, since I’m a very emotional and open person, to see how the gloves came off about their feelings as soon as people had a drink. I didn’t realize how much they cared because they’re so stoic. Now I understand that it doesn’t mean that they’re not loving, that they don’t really care, they just have a harder time showing it.

A strong connection to the Westman Islands. “It's difficult to explain,” says Brian, “and I had tried to explain it to my husband Pato, but I knew that as soon as he would visit the island, he would understand. Then, he came with me to visit the island six years ago. He's an artist and has traveled all over the world and he was just interviewed a few days ago and was asked what was the most interesting place he's ever been to and he said: "the Westman Islands”. He was simply infatuated. He just loved it. And I understand that. It is physically such a magical place.”

A strong connection to the Westman Islands. “It’s difficult to explain,” says Brian, “and I had tried to explain it to my husband Pato, but I knew that as soon as he would visit the island, he would understand. Then, he came with me to visit the island six years ago. He’s an artist and has traveled all over the world and he was just interviewed a few days ago and was asked what was the most interesting place he’s ever been to and he said: “the Westman Islands”. He was simply infatuated. He just loved it. And I understand that. It is physically such a magical place.”

Even after I got to know people more it wasn’t until Spring I got to know people who were interested in having more emotional conversations. But I still didn’t feel like I could open up and say: “Oh my God, I’m having this really difficult emotional time,” because they would have been like: “Wait till I have a drink! (laughs)

Of course, all teenagers have a difficult time. We’re having this emotional whirlwind inside and we think no one else is going through any of it and we have no way of communicating these feelings, you don’t know how to say it, even to your best friends. That’s one of the most difficult part of being a teenager.”

So it took Brian a while to get used to his new surroundings but as time went by he really started to enjoy himself, and eleven months later when it was finally time to head back home he had mixed feelings about leaving Iceland. A part of him was excited to see his family and move back home. A part of him knew that he had had this amazing experience and he was sad to leave it behind.

“I have never felt a physical longing for a place like I have for the Westman Islands. Even years after I left I had these dreams of coming back to the island. It was always about the physical component of the island.

It’s really difficult to explain. I’ve never felt this before or since, my heart was drawn to the land. I didn’t expect to be so physically connected to the land and the landscape.”

Asked to look back and describe what it felt like to be an exchange student in the Westman Islands, meaning whether it might somehow have affected his perception of life, Brian pauses in a clear moment of reflection. “Yes, you could say that it taught me a valuable lesson,” he says. “You see, when I was growing up I was the younger of two children and I didn’t think of myself as being independent. But living in Iceland I had to be because everybody there is so independent.

For example when the main island erupted in 1973 the islanders had to pick up all their stuff and move to the mainland and when the eruption and its aftermath were over they came back with their shovels and cleared out the ash and just went: “OK, let’s start again!” It says so much about their resilience as a people.

“Gay people are allowed to, at least through AFS," says Brian, here pictured with his husband Pato (on the left). "They usually pair up LGBT children with gay couples. I and my husband live in New York and as many know, apartments aren't very big there, unless you’re a multi millioner and can afford those. We are planning to adopt so that is our priority. But we would love to have an exchange student, since we both had that experience and know how great that can be. But we would also want our child to be a bit grown-up so that it would be able to connect to the experience. But yes, we would love to share this experience with someone else.”

Can a host family of an AFS exchange student be gay? Are there any regulations regarding that? “Gay people are allowed to be host families, at least through AFS,” says Brian, here pictured with his husband Pato (on the left). “They usually pair up LGBT children with gay couples. I and my husband live in New York and as many know, apartments aren’t very big there, unless you’re a multi millioner and can afford those. We are hoping to have a child so that is our priority. But we would love to have an exchange student, since we both had that experience and know how great that can be. But we would also want our child to be a bit grown-up so that it would be able to connect to the experience. But yes, we would love to share this experience with someone else.”

Same with the shipwrecks. Every few years there is a terrible shipwreck but the people have to pick up the pieces and move on. You move on because you have to, and you do. And that is something I really learned in Iceland. I learned so much about independence, resilience and survival.

My life would be very different if I had not learned those skills. Because a year after I got home to Charleston from Iceland my father and my brother left the family and moved into a religious cult, which was horrible and very traumatic. Later, when I was twenty-five, my mother committed suicide.

There is a point to this, which is that being in Iceland taught me so much about my own independence. I didn’t realize until many years later how powerful it was, but it taught me to stand on my own two feet. I don’t know how I would have managed to go through these difficult times in my life if it hadn’t been for my stay there.”

Brian has visited Iceland a few times since then. The first time he came back to the Westman Islands almost nine years had passed and he hadn’t been in contact with his host family for almost seven years. “But I knocked on their door and after a moment of surprise they invited me into their home, made my bed and said: “Help yourself to the food in the kitchen, make yourself at home as always”, and just treated me like a son coming home. It was a really beautiful learning moment for me.”

“I learned so much about independence, resilience and survival. My life would be very different if I had not learned those skills.”

But the Icelandic family weren’t the only ones surprised. When Brian entered their house he saw a photo of himself hanging on their wall. “I understood at that moment how loyal the people there are. Once they’ve taken you in, they’ve taken you in. If they have decided you are part of their people, you are part of their people. And it’s actually very rare to find that.”

He says that his Icelandic family has accepted him and his husband well.

brian and beddi

Brian and his Icelandic brother Beddi, attending Ása’s wedding.

“My host dad Svenni (Sveinn Halldórsson), who is like Popeye, loved my husband Pato when we visited them together six years ago. And my host brother, Beddi (Bernódus Sveinsson), also loves my husband – way more than he loves me (laughs). Pato is a bit more masculine than me so I think Beddi sees him as this typical Icelandic version of a masculine guy.

Pato was also an exchange student. He came from Argentina to New York, actually lived only ten blocks from where we are now. And we talk about how that were transformative experiences for both of us.”

Six years later, Brian is still in contact with his Icelandic family, especially with the help of Facebook. “I can track what’s going on (since Brian is still fluent in Icelandic!) and not only are my host brother and sister (Ágústa Berg Sveinsdóttir) my friends on Facebook, but also their children. So it’s nice to be able to see what’s going on in their lives. My host mother (Þóra Bernódusdóttir) died a few years ago and it was good to be able to grieve with them through Facebook, I didn’t feel as much alone being here in the US. She was a really wonderful presence in my life. She was loyal and loving and she was clear in her feelings. She did what she could do for her people.”

Asked if he plans to visit Westman Islands again in the near future, Brian says that if he’ll travel back to Iceland then he’ll definitely go to the islands. “I’m hoping in the next few years. Pato and I are trying to have a child and when that child is old enough to appreciate the experience I would love to visit Iceland.”

Brian has been a Music psycho therapist for twenty years. He started working in Bosnia with children who had trauma from the war. He just received his doctorate degree and has an office in Manhattan. Couple of years ago he started an agency to work with people with Alzheimer and dementia. For the past few years he started focusing on LGBT clients.

Brian has been a music psycho therapist for twenty years. He spent two years working in Bosnia with children who had trauma from the war. He just received his doctorate degree and has a private practice in Manhattan. Several years ago he started an agency to work with people with Alzheimer and dementia. For the past few years he ‘s been focusing on clinical work with LGBT clients.

The Hamburger Factory
- gourmet burgers

Ok. You’re in Iceland. Most likely for the first time.

You will probably bathe in the Blue Lagoon and take a road trip to Gullfoss and
Geysir. That’s all well and good. But neither Geysir’s nor waterfalls are
something you eat. That’s why we have 15 brilliant and creative hamburgers at
The Hamburger Factory. And they are all perfectly square. Don’t miss out on
Iceland’s most beloved hamburgers.

The Hamburger Factory is Iceland’s most innovative gourmet burger chain.
Packed with burger-craving customers since it’s opening in 2010, among the
regulars is Iceland’s best known fisherman, Eric Clapton. In our restaurants we
welcome tourists with our newspaper like menu and smiley service. They are
packed with fun items and memorable connections to Icelandic pop culture.

Locations:

Omnom Chocolate
- award-winning chocolate maker

    Omnom Chocolate is an Icelandic craft chocolate company based in Reykjavík. We produce handcrafted chocolate from organic cacao beans sourced ethically and sustainably. We’ve developed direct relationships to create premium chocolate with fine flavor cacao beans.

    Our creative flavors are carefully crafted by meticulous chocolate makers. The cacao beans are roasted, winnowed, ground, and refined into melty-smooth chocolate.

    Omnom’s process is one of constant exploration, invention, and experimentation. If it doesn’t please us, if something isn’t absolutely delicious, there’s no reason to be doing it. So, we always start with our taste buds and follow our instincts. Our team searches for the finest ingredients in the world and new ways to improve chocolate. This obsession with knowing where our ingredients come from has led us around the corner to dairy farms in the Icelandic countryside and all the way to rainforest cacao farms of Nicaragua.

    In only a few short years, we’ve grown from our 50 sq. m. petrol station space and become an award-winning chocolate maker. Now, with our headquarters in 101 Reykjavík, our chocolate is sent out around Iceland and all over the world.

    At the end of the day, our goal is to make chocolate.

     

    Alfred’s Apartments
    - gay owned an operated

      Alfred’s Apartments and Alfred’s Studios is a gay operated and owned accommodation in the heart of Reykjavik.

      Alfred’s Apartments offers spacious apartments at a good price located just around the corner from Laugavegur shopping street. You can choose the apartment starting from a Small Studio for 2 persons to a large One-bedroom Apartment with balcony for 5 persons.

      Their staff will ensure your comfort during the stay and provide the most updated information about the city, gay and night life in Reykjavik.

      Each apartment has a private bathroom with a shower, fully equipped kitchen and free Wi-Fi. Guests can buy groceries at the local grocery store 50 meters from the apartments. Because of their very central location, numerous shops, restaurants and cafés are available in the surrounding area. The Church of Hallgrimur is located 350 m from the apartments, a tourist agency is just 50 m away and the nearest gay bar is less than 5 minutes walking distance.

      Laekur hostel
      In the hostel we have dorms for 4-8 persons with shared kitchen and bathroom facilities. The rooms are furnished with free internet, lockers, and a USB charger by each bed. The beds have linen provided and you can rent a towel in the cafe on the ground floor for 5 EUR.

      All the dorms are mixed with both genders. You can also book a whole room with 4-8 bunker beds.

      Blue Lagoon
      - a world of wonder

      Named by National Geographic as one of the 25 Wonders of the World, the Blue Lagoon is a shimmering expanse of warmth, relaxation, and rejuvenation. Its unique geothermal seawater comes from 2000 meters within the earth where sea and fresh water converge in a tectonic frontier of porous lava and searing heat. Propelled by extreme pressure, the water ascends to the earth’s surface, emerging enriched with silica, algae, and minerals: the elements that endow Blue Lagoon geothermal seawater with its radiant, healing properties.

      From its humble beginnings in the shadows of a geothermal power plant, Blue Lagoon has evolved into a world of wonder, now encompassing a hotel, a restaurant, a luxury lounge, a renowned line of skin care, a research center, in-water massage, and a wealth of spa and refreshment facilities.

      Achieving harmony with the volcanic landscape of Iceland’s Reykjanes lava plain, the lagoon and its surrounding architecture embody the unification of the man-made and the natural, and adhere to the highest principles of sustainability.

      Blue Lagoon. A wonder of the world. A world of wonder.

      Whales of Iceland
      - larger than life

      Whales of Iceland is the largest whale exhibition in Europe (and perhaps even the world), where guests can learn about the giants of the sea in a calm and modern environment. The permanent exhibition features whales like guests have never seen them before. It is truly a giant experience.

      Landsbankinn
      - leading financial institution

      Landsbankinn is a leading Icelandic financial institution. It offers a full range of financial services and is the market leader in the Icelandic financial service sector with the largest branch network.

      The present bank was established on 7 October 2008 but the history of its predecessor dates back to 1886. The bank is owned by the National Treasury of Iceland, which holds 98.2% of its share capital, and other shareholders who own 1.8%.

      Landsbankinn’s strategy is to provide comprehensive financial services that meet customer’s needs. It emphasizes providing exemplary service to customers, developing e-banking for their convenience, increasing the efficiency of support functions, modernizing its technology and ensuring effective utilization of its balance sheet.

      The bank’s vision is to be exemplary and its role is to be a trusted financial partner.

      Special emphasis is placed on promoting a performance-oriented culture in the bank. To follow up on the implementation of this strategy, the bank has defined key goals which are measured regularly to determine progress. These goals include, for example, customer satisfaction and loyalty, profitability, cost efficiency and the correlation between risk appetite and employee satisfaction.

      Landsbankinn wishes to lead the development of a sustainable society in Iceland by integrating economic, social and environmental concerns in its operations. The Bank aims to ensure that both its owners and society at large benefit from its activities.

      It intends to achieve this aim by building solid infrastructure and a strong team of 1.100 employees, by listening to its customers and by respecting and encouraging its employees to actively participate in their community. Landsbankinn was a founding member of Festa, a Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility, and is a member of the UN Global Compact.

      Landsbankinn has been a proud sponsor of the Reykjavik Pride since it was first celebrated in Iceland.

      Dohop
      - get inspired

      Dohop allows people to find the cheapest flights available with just one click. Founded in Reykjavik in 2004, it is the only Icelandic company of its kind and quickly became the go-to tool for finding cheap flights among the locals. Dohop finds the best deals among hundreds of different airlines and online travel agencies, to make sure that the user is getting the cheapest price. Dohop also offers hotel and car rental search engines, so users can make all of their travel bookings from a single website.

      Dohop‘s specialty is finding so-called “self-connect” flight options, which can save travelers money by booking a ticket through two or more different airlines. The ability to look for these self-connect option is what sets Dohop apart from its competition, as it can save people hundreds of dollars on certain routes.

      More recently, Dohop has developed a unique product called Dohop Go!, which allows users to check for the cheapest available flights from their home airport. This tool is perfect for those who are looking for travel inspiration but are not willing to overpay for their flight ticket. Dohop Go! is now available in the Dohop Flights App, both for Android and iOS, along with its traditional flight, hotel, and car search engines. “

      Macland
      - for all your Apple needs

      From starting out as a proper startup with only a good idea and the need to change things, to becoming an established company with 6 employees. Starting from scratch and expanding organically has allowed us to love our expansion and take our customers on the ride with us.

      Macland is located at Laugavegur 23 (101, Downtown Reykjavik)
      For all your Apple needs. We are here.

      Aurora Reykjavik
      - northern lights center

        Aurora Reykjavik is a Northern Lights Center situated in downtown Reykjavík at the Old Harbor next to Icelandair Hotel Marina and Vikin Maritime Museum.

        Aurora Reykjavík is Iceland’s first educational and recreational Northern Lights Center where multimedia is used to explain when, why and how the Northern Lights work, with the highlights being large HD projection of the Aurora’s. We also share myths and legends about what our ancestor thought about those mystical lights.

        The Northern Lights Center is for all ages. Children are our favorite guests and we created the exhibition in a way that children can have a look freely and parents don’t have to worry about things being broken.

        Aurora Reykjavik offers a great selection of souvenirs that are designed and made by Icelanders along with nice little coffee corner, where you can enjoy free coffee and tea while browsing through the souvenirs or just planning your next step.

        Contact Aurora

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        Ísey skyr
        - once tasted never forgotten

        Our Story
        Once upon a time, 1,100 years ago in fact, Nordic settlers began arriving in Iceland. They brought with them the skills and knowledge for producing skyr. As time passed, the know-how and recipe for this nutritious food slowly faded out elsewhere in the Nordic region. Luckily, the Icelandic skyr-making tradition continued.

        For centuries, Icelandic skyr formed a cornerstone of the national diet, helping to keep people strong in living conditions that were often harsh. On family farms countrywide, it was the women who nurtured this dairy and passing on both the recipe and the original Icelandic skyr cultures from mother to daughter.

        Ísey skyr builds on this remarkable legacy. It was some of those very same women, the recipients of their mothers’ expertise, who, around 90 years ago, taught Icelandic dairy scientists the art of skyr-making. The production process is more high-tech these days, and the quality standards more rigorous. However, the basic recipe and the use of original cultures to ferment the skimmed milk remain the same. Protein rich, fat-free, creamy and delicious – Ísey skyr is as relevant to consumers now as it was all those centuries ago.
        This is our secret and you are in on it

        You can read more about Ísey skyr on our website.

        Núðluskálin
        - noodle bar

        Núðluskálin is a small gay owned and operated fusion noodle bar.

        All of our courses are individually made from fresh ingredients and therefore highly customisable.
        We offer fully Vegan versions of all courses.
        Though originally a take-away we now seat over 30 people.

        Núðluskálin is located right in the heart of Reykjavík on Skólavörðustígur 8 (street leading up to the big Church) near the junction with Laugavegur (main street).

        Seatours
        - adventure cruise

        Ferry Baldur – the gate to the West fjords
        and VikingSushi Adventure – Bird & Nature watching Tour for everyone all year around

        The “VikingSushi Adventure” is the right boat tour for travelers who are adventurous and want to experience something new – close up to the nature seafood simply doesn’t come fresher than this! The archipelago area of the Breidafjordur Bay always surprises her visitors during winter or summer with spectacular sights. Where else you get to try delicious fresh scallops and sea urchin roe straight from the ocean served with soy sauce, wasabi and ginger.

        600x400-seatours-tasting

        This old volcanic area, characterized by the typical basalt formations of the islands, is the home of countless birds. Here you will also find the strongest currents in Iceland. The VikingSushi Tour takes roughly two hours and our captain is also the tour guide.

        600x400-seatours

        The VikingSushi Tour is a true adventure through incredible nature which should not be missed by any traveler to West Iceland.

        Birds, possible to spot:
        -puffins (from the middle of April until the middle of August)
        -eider ducks
        -shags
        -kittiwakes
        -fulmars
        -white-tailed eagle

        The car ferry Baldur is the bridge to the West fjords via the island Flatey
        Ferry Baldur crosses Breidafjordur Bay daily from Stykkisholmur on the Snæfellsnes peninsula to Brjanslaekur in the north. A ferry ride considerably shortens the route between the south and mid-west of the country and the West Fjords region. It also gives you the opportunity to experience a floating restaurant.

        Take a stopover at the charming island Flatey when you are crossing the bay or go to a day tour to Flatey and back to Stykkishólmur. At Flatey are no cars allowed and between the houses of the 18th century you get the feeling of a journey back in time.

        Contact Us


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