This Is How We Chill
We are standing in the parking lot surrounded by an army of baby blue Ísbíllinn ice cream trucks—ambitious soldiers of cream and sugar and happiness. Each one is equipped with a ship’s bell attached to the driver’s side window. The bell serves as a charming alternative to the traditional ice cream truck jingle, and a necessary precaution for sanity when the route takes, say, upwards of seven days to complete.
Neither rain, nor snow, nor…threat of polar bear
Collectively, this ten-truck fleet has seen every nook and cranny of Iceland. Those that are reachable by road, anyways. And occasionally, accidentally, a few that aren’t. Since the company’s inception in 1994, Ísbíllinn has provided for Iceland’s ice cream loving population unceasingly. A map of the country that hangs on their office wall displays a colour-coded net of routes and schedules. From a six-day trek weaving through the Westfjords, to a fourteen-day traverse across the North, to a quick four-hour pop over to Mollsfellsbær, Ísbíllinn has Iceland covered—with one (slightly ironic) exception: Reykjavík. But they’re working on it.
Yerzhana’s cigarette fizzles down to a soggy stub, finally allowing me to escape the elements. As we enter the garage, a man named Sigurður G. Jökulsson—Siggi—emerges from the back with a steaming cup of coffee. He jumps headfirst into the conversation, embellishing Yerzhana’s information with his own anecdotes, countering some points, supplementing others. It is clear by the way they engage with each other that they understand each other a little too well, like a cross-country team. Or a writer’s circle. Groups that only have to tell half of a story to elicit a reaction, because they were all there for it. Groups united by a common interest, and simultaneously set apart because of that interest. Ísbíllinn’s interest: ice cream.
Between the two of them they stack story upon story of mishaps and malfunctions, tales gathered from nearly two decades of servicing Iceland. They tell me how one of their drivers, Helgi, got his nickname, “Helgi Highland,” after he and his truck were stranded in the eastern highlands due to a GPS system that didn’t take into account the seasonal restrictions of Iceland’s roadways. “We weren’t too worried about the ice cream, up there in the highlands. And Helgi was fine, he wasn’t in polar bear territory” Yerzhana says, giggling.
“The polar bears,” she continues, “they are found more up here” and circles a region on the map with a red route snaking through it. “We had a truck tip over there one time because of the extreme winds.”
There are plenty more tales like this one, breakdowns in the Westfjords many kilometres from the next village. Icy roads mocking the weak traction of the ice cream truck’s tires. More misinformed GPS systems. But they are a persistent bunch, and it’s all a part of the job description.
Trading the ship’s bell for the door-bell
As I enter the office two potential employees are exiting. They’ve just gone through an interview with Ásgeir Baldursson, Yerzhana’s husband and co-owner of Ísbíllinn. The young girls’ inexpressive faces don’t give me any information as to how the interviews went. Ásgeir follows them out and introduces himself gleefully. I ask him how the interviews went and he gives me an inconclusive mumble. I wonder if I would make the cut, so I ask him what he looks for in employees.
“You have to be a people person,” he answers. Most of the routes include remote farm houses where transactions occur at the doorstep, sometimes even after having been invited in for a cup of coffee. “It’s nerve-wracking at first,” adds Siggi, “but you soon realise that you’re not a vacuum salesman, and people are actually very happy to see you.” On top of door-to-door service, the company also updates their website regularly to let followers know when they will be embarking for certain neighbourhoods, along with the phone numbers of the drivers, in case you’d like to request a detour or a reserve a box of the best-seller, Hnetu Toppur. How’s that for customer service?
Serving smiles is just my side job
It’s a great job for students, and people of artistic professions, adds Yerzhana. “It’s a very flexible, temporary summer job—you get to see the country and eat ice cream.” To demonstrate her point, Ásgeir reaches for a book off of the office bookshelf that was published by a former employee. Simultaneously Yerzhana opens the ‘Extreme Chill Festival’ line-up on the computer and points out one of the featured artists, Modesart. “He worked for us too” she confirms.
The flexibility of the job doesn’t impede the company’s reliability. “People assume that we run according to the weather,” says Yerzhana, “but if you run a business that way in Iceland, you’d never get anything done!”
Even though the trucks don’t run as frequently in the wintertime, Ísbíllinn’s popularity remains pretty consistent throughout the year. “Sure, you’re like Santa Claus in the summertime,” Yerzhana says, “but ice cream tastes good in any weather.”
I can vouch for that. Siggi offers me an ice cream bar from the truck. Even though the rain is coming down harder than before, and my impressively absorbent jean jacket is not going to let me forget it, I take him up on the offer. “I’ll have one of your specialties,” I tell him. “Have you ever had a Tyrkisk Peber?” he asks me, “those are quite special.” I haven’t, so he props open the back of the truck’s cooler, fumbles around with a couple of boxes and hands me one.
At first glance the Tyrkisk Peber is appalling. It’s shiny, black, and cold—like a tiny police baton. Siggi grins with the same threatening innocence of a child playing a prank, he warns me of a “spicy surprise” that waits in the middle. But the only surprise was a pleasant one, as it was actually quite tasty. I can now confidently confirm Yerzhana’s statement: ice cream really does taste good in any weather.