"Please remove all clothing, and shower without a swimsuit, before entering the pool."
Well...that must be a typo. I open the door to the women's locker room and enter. I have the hesitant gait of a person not quite sure what she has gotten herself into. Surely they don't mean...naked? In a little vestibule I slowly remove my boots and socks. To my right there is a little basket to place my clothing. Lockers to my left should I have valuables to store. I stand there, striped Baggu bag in hand with my fringed bikini and hamman towel bunched inside. I came prepared. In style no less. But my brain cannot compute this naked thing. You mean...in "public"?
I inch my way over to the lockers. It's July in Iceland, so I've got about...2-3 layers of clothing to remove? I hear a door open and close, a shower running, and I'm joined by a woman and baby. Here I am, deciding which layer to remove first to protect my modesty. Here they are, both stark naked. Two other women come in, quickly strip, and they're off to the showers. I look around. The woman coos to her little blonde babe. The babe peeks at me with curiosity. As if to say "what's her problem?". I take a deep breath. When in Iceland right?
I make my way to the shower. Expecting to find individual stalls, I'm confronted with one open room and eight shower heads spaced along the walls. In the middle is a free standing bathtub for babies, and a handheld spray. I see Iceland is really going to teach me a thing or two about confidence. The sign is repeated here. "Please remove all clothing, and shower without a swimsuit, before entering the pool". I take a quick warm shower, don my bikini, and open the door. It's f*cking cold. The outside entrance gives no indication of what's to come. Two hot tubs. One pool. All fed by geothermal energy, the naturally heated water that powers much, if not all, of Iceland. I had entered my first sundlaug. The famous Icelandic public pools. I stand there in my neon green fringed bikini, sucking in my stomach, lest anyone judge my commitment to the gym, or lack thereof. Not a soul is looking in my direction. Friends, families, babies. Many are immersed in conversation, a few have the soon-to-be-familiar lean of the utterly relaxed. I make a mad dash to the hot tub with just enough room for one more, and sink in up to my chin.
I repeat this daily. There are more than 120 public pools in Iceland, and every town, no matter how small, has its own pool. Could this be why, despite the harsh winters, Icelanders come in only second to Switzerland as world's happiest people? Relaxing in a warm mineral bath certainly isn't new in terms of the benefits to health, but I admit to finding another benefit. Here were scores of naked bodies. Mothers, expectant mothers, young, old, middle aged. Naked and completely comfortable. This wasn't Equinox. The six pack had no merit here. Health was found in community, camaraderie, and good long soak. For some, in silence. To this I add the stunning visual surroundings, so breathtaking that I have to tear my eyes away to engage in conversation with my fellow bathers, and I too find myself at my happiest for six blissfully long summer days in Iceland.
P.S. The above photo was taken on a hike through Reykjadalur valley, an area that leads to the most incredible hot river. There are small partitions to change into swimsuits along the banks (yes, everyone flashes each other), and you sink into a sublime, warm, rock bottomed river surrounded by this view. My camera died in protest by the time I reached the river, but along the way the steaming valley gave hints of what was to come!