You can go so far north on this earth that everything feels like a dream.
Iceland is strange. There seems to be something secret but in plain sight, known and familiar yet obscured. An odd little animal in the viewing area.
It was summer. There was light all day and all night, pausing in its great gasp for a momentary rest. Every day for a week there was a strong wind, cool and mild. I was broke – not the most helpful thing to be in Reykjavik. I was camping, of sorts, with two friends in a little wooden hut at the edge of the botanical gardens. I had hot dogs with three types of onions and brown sauce, which is very rudimentarily European and hard to find in America.
There is a bus between the airport and the city, a 40 minute ride. There are fields because they cut down all the trees long ago, and you can see the places where the lava cracked. At the time I had read an article about murder and how the authorities couldn’t say for sure how many bodies were down there. The land is witness. It knows.
The walk downtown is framed by the sea, and large tectonic rocks, and the brisk smell of atomized sea salt, broken by the waves into particles. The opera house was designed to look like a whale, beached on the shore, its mammalian form encrusted in glass. The streets are very clean, much like Canada. The famous church feels sterile and unused, as if everything and the organ is covered in plastic furniture wrap to prevent stains, though of what kind it is hard to say.
The Icelander is peculiar. Perhaps just as strange as the land, in a good way. When you live in darkness for half your life and in light for the other it must have an effect; you think in nocturnes, sonar, the sound of your presence echoing over dark fields and the water. Something in you reverts to the primal time when we told stories to take our minds away from the unending night. It must feel very solitary. Winter does that.
I wonder why death metal has such a hold in Nordic countries. It must have something to do with the winter or perhaps with the curt brevity of Northerners, or the inner anguish at being held apart at arms-length all the time, but I haven’t quite figured it out yet. I am an outsider after all, from a place where it is always warm, where we lose our minds and all semblance of society if ice appears.
The public pools are a point of pride, for good reason. You must shower first before going in, and this is where the American runs into trouble. Even among your own sex there can be a hesitancy to be naked, a nervous laugh, because we have been taught to be ashamed about our natural form. I did mind, but not much. Life is too brief to be frightened about something so insignificant. N’importe quoi.
Once you pay the toll of bodily humility, there are winding steps up to the indoor pool, then up to the tubs, then the separate tanning and lounging areas, covered in a plastic green grass. A Norwegian asked me and my friends what books we liked to read; I think ours were too British for his liking, but we did talk about Ibsen.
The showers at the camp smelled of eggy sulfur. There was a communal kitchen, with plenty of brown sauce left by other campers. Reykjavik has a very lovely design; our camp lounge was in a building all made of glass, like the beached operatic whale; like a greenhouse, it was warm, and more importantly it let all of the sun in.
Before we left, I spent an entire day at the gardens by myself. My friends had gone to an elvin village and I had wanted to stew in imposed misery over a faux pas the day before, errors of miscommunication. Disappointment is not a particularly welcome feeling, because I had thought a birthday abroad meant the day would be special and because, more so than any other day, you want to feel celebrated, and being served with the fact that you and your day are just as ordinary as anything else feels like eating a cold lunch when all you wanted a hot meal.
So I was in the gardens. I felt hurt, and forgotten, and I wanted to be around the plants. I thought too much, I thought about the Agony in the Garden, and how ridiculous I felt for even thinking about it, because it’s one thing to have an internal tantrum over a bad birthday and it’s quite another to be a Messiah on his knees coming to terms with his eventual betrayal and execution. My head was not on the block; I was in a place that felt like a dream. I was very glad I was there. There are some dreams, however, that are more lonely and more beautiful the longer they continue, and I was getting tired of the sun always being around.
I’ve written before about traveling in loneliness. I don’t often feel lonely, so perhaps I should say solitary instead. There are moments, clear and lovely and helpless, that always find me when I least expect them, usually when I travel but sometimes not. I will be alone, outside, in a setting where everything synchronizes into a moment of epiphany where at once I realize the utter solitude that haunts myself and every other being on this rock, and yet I am overwhelmed by a terrible love, love of everything, love of the day or night or whatever time it is, the air, the sky, people. It affirms the whole reason why I bother to do anything, lights everything from below, and just as illusory in its content and form, it goes by quickly, very quickly. But, it convinces me that I am not a pessimist. “To be a pessimist means I have accepted that life is an academic matter,” and there is nothing academic about the moment that feeling comes upon me.
My friends bought me a cake the next day, using a trick from a movie I love and writing ‘sorry’ out in candy. I believe that, more than anything else, I wanted a gesture, something to acknowledge that my time is relevant and that someone would notice if I was there than if I wasn’t; a respite from solitude.
We flew out the next day. I had a book with me, more of a bound packet of texts, that I had picked up at the camp’s shelving for wayward and donated items; hiking boots, maps, various packets of sugar, literature. I have the feeling it was for some sort of class, because it had clips from Dubliners and also a story about the 1973 eruption of Eldfell, a volcanic cone on the island of Heimaey in the southwest of Iceland. The fire was sudden, the tephra rain covered everything. The apalhraun flows were over a hundred feet thick.
The excerpt was a chapter from the book “The Control of Nature”. I haven’t seen the rest of it, but from the chapter I did read I assume it is an academic investigation to our relationship with the rock, something quite sacrosanct, perhaps too much so. It’s definition often escapes intelligence, often is something you feel not something you know. What did I know of the land? What did I know, really, other than what the island told me?
It is hard to come to conclusions; a reoccurring theme of mine, it seems. What does the earth ever say when we bother to listen? Iceland was an oddity, the form hidden despite all the light; ice in the sun. I’d like to visit it in the nighttime one day.
Carson, Rachel. “The Marginal World“. Best American Essays of the Century. Ed Joyce Carol Oates. Houghton Mifflin. 2000.
Joyce, James. “The Dead“. Dubliners. 1914.
Whitman, Walt. “A Song of the Open Road“. Leaves of Grass. 1856.