In January 1961 I flew from New York City to Scotland via Icelandic airlines. I had decided to go to Europe to learn to speak French and upon arriving in New York City I learned the cheapest and most efficient way to get to Europe at that time was via Icelandic airlines. Most of the airlines had gone to jet propelled aircraft but Icelandic was still flying prop jets and they needed to stop in Iceland on the way to Europe to refuel. Since the plane was stopping in Iceland and I had never been in Iceland I decided to lay over a week between flights and see what Iceland was like. We didn’t have the Internet in 1981 and I don’t believe I even went to the encyclopedia and looked up Iceland to see what I was getting into.
At that time in my life I was proceeding as if I was guaranteed good luck without even knowing I was an extremely lucky person. I was so naïve about life I didn’t even know I was naïve. When the plane landed in Iceland at the Rekjaviac airport all of the passengers deplaned and walked into the “terminal” to wait for the refueling process to finish and to stretch their legs. The terminal was a frame building with a stove to warm the interior. It was the only structure on the airport. When the refueling was finished everyone else got back on the airplane and I stood on the side of the runway alone in the dark and watched it take off for Europe. After it was gone, I remember standing there with my single suitcase looking at the lights of Rekjaviac in the distance through the dark January night. I don’t recall being frightened but by any standards of normal care considering my ignorance of Iceland I should have been. I walked the mile or so into the city of Rekjaviac and not having any idea where to go I did what I now realize was the easy thing.. I must have decided it would be comforting to find some other Americans so I went to the American consulate. There was an American Marine guard at the door and it was comforting talking to someone familiar. Security was a much more casual thing in those days and after we visited a bit he suggested I could sleep in one of the empty bunks at the Marine quarters where he and his fellow guards spent their nights. I jumped at the chance and had a place to lay my head that night. A day or two later, someone must have thought of the fact no one knew anything about me and I could be some kind of a spy or bad guy. They decided I shouldn’t probably be allowed to stay in their quarters under those circumstances. I understood and thanked them very much for their hospitality, took my suitcase and left. Not knowing what else to do I went to the least expensive hotel I could find and rented the least expensive room in the Hotel. It turned out to be directly underneath some kind of equipment on the roof that went on and off during the night. I believe I only spent one night in the hotel and after being there for part of the day and the night a realized no one had really spoken to me in any way other than to talk to a customer. I was nearing the end of my weeks stay in Rekjaviac and had not yet met one Icelandic person from whom to learn anything about Iceland.
It might have been at this point I first realized, at least subconsciously, the danger of doing what was easy. I had been doing the easy thing and had gained very little. I decided I would walk the streets the last night in the city until I met someone I could communicate with and learn more about Iceland.
After walking a while I stopped in a small café and ordered a cup of hot milk which I had learned was a common drink in Iceland. While sitting at the counter I spoke to a man a few stools away to see if he spoke English. He did and expressed an interest in where I was from etc. He said he was on his way to a chess tournament. I had never heard of a chess tournament but and I told him I had played chess a few times. He asked if I would like to go with him and be an observer at the tournament. I jumped at the chance and spent the rest of the evening watching people paired up at tables with little clocks to time how long it took them to make their moves. At some point during the evening or at the end of the tournament he asked if I had a place to stay. I told him no. He invited me to come to his house and sleep on his couch. I accepted and when we got there he told his wife who I was and she went off to bed.
We ended up talking until two or three in the morning. It became obvious to me as we talked, this gentleman whose name I no longer know, knew more about the way the United States operated in almost every way than I did. When he finally went to bed he set an alarm for me and I slept a couple of hours before getting up and walking back out to the airport to catch my plane for Scotland.
One of the two significant things I learned at my first out of the country stop was how abysmally ignorant I was about my own country. The second significant thing I learned, even though I wasn’t aware of how significant it was at the time, was to be cautious about taking the easiest solution to a problem or the easiest alternative. If I had spent my last night in Rekjaviac in a hotel which was the easiest thing to do, I would have learned nothing from that first week in Europe.