Saturday, June 29, 2002

Ilsafjord, Iceland

The hotel is a tiny concrete slab. Stalin with seasonal affective disorder. The lobby is all Danish surgical ward sterility. The obligatory Icelandic wool sweaters, Viking postcards and tourist twaddle are stacked amidst an expanse of blond wood and chrome.

And the place is utterly deserted. No wandering guests. No one at reception. No one anywhere at all. It’s like a TV news set after hours.

Feeling homesick, I pick up the lobby pay phone and dial home. Just as I start talking, from behind one of the pine slab of a door erupts laughter. Cackling, raucous gales of mirth. Not a soul is stirring anywhere. It’s a little hard to concentrate, standing as I am in the middle of such a perfect metaphor for my experience here in Iceland.

Somewhere close by everyone is have a grand old time, drinking and laughing and screwing on their blustery little island paradise. And I’m standing just outside, staring at my feet and wondering if I said something wrong.

The door swings open and a lone man walks out. Cheeks flushed, he’s wiping away a single tear of laughter. Seeing me he is transformed; assuming what I have taken to be the national expression, that of a Lutheran pastor with fallen arches and a nagging conscience.

He walks through the lobby in funereal silence, and only when he rounds the corner do I hear a single snort of suppressed laughter.

Thursday, June 20, 2002

Gullfoss, Iceland

I jumped the fence. I always do. Why is it that picture I want is always just a couple of feet on the other side of where I’m supposed to be? And how was I to know the President was watching.

There he was though, dapper but otherwise undistinguishable from the thinly assembled rabble of tourists out admiring Gullfoss waterfall just like the rest of us on a blustery summer night.

How was I supposed to know El Supremo anyway? Where’s the motorcade? Where’s the beefy guys talking into their sleeves?

I’m not in the habit of breaking the law in front of heads of state, but there I was, blithely hopping fences and scrambling around one of Iceland’s most beloved landmarks. In any civilized country I would have been rightly arrested, imprisoned, flogged and sent packing. But you have to admire a country that doesn’t take itself quite so seriously. Belatedly seeing my error, I slunk up to apologize. El Supremo gave a hearty handshake and laughed it off. But then he turned mean. He invited, no he insisted that I come back to Iceland sometime. In February.

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Reykjavik, Iceland II

Exchange in downtown Reykjavik in 40 mph gale.

“This is nice.”
‘Oh, ya. It’s like autumn here, this wind. But then it’s raining. Or February. Then it’s cold, too.”
“And snowing.”
“But at least it’s dark.”
“It’s important to have sometime to look forward to.”

Sunday, June 16, 2002

Reykjavik, Iceland I

Imagine the Norwegian military conquest of Patagonia and you start to get the idea of this place. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much what happened one thousand years ago. The same glaciers and fjords, the same sheep and green hills. The same bloody cold, relentless winds whipping in off an ice-clotted sea.

But it’s the fair-haired sons of Oslo here, not some scruffy band of lisping Castilians. And the lads have grown strong and tall on all the fresh air and herring. Lacking an indigenous population of natives to slaughter, they had to settle on bashing the odd Irish monk. And each other, of course.

But the market for pillage and rape is not what it once was. And the sons of Vikings are now reduced to bashing around in Toyota Land Cruisers tarted up in monster truck drag, with a couple of baby seats in the back.

The presidential motorcade speeds past, consisting of two cops on Harleys and a Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham left over from the Nixon Administration. El Supremo is touring downtown Reykjavik in honor of Icelandic Independence Day. The sidewalk caf├ęs are jammed with patrons affecting a studied nonchalance in the face of twenty-knot winds keening in off the North Atlantic.

Onstage it’s battle of the bands here, with white boy rappers taking on with the death metal band next door and some imported Jesus acapella group getting drowned out by the Akuryeri Hillbillies, twanging with all their considerable might.

Keflavik, Iceland

We fly into the night, but darkness never comes. The north sky goes from a deep blue to crimson through the hours, and back again toward violet. As we pass over the vast icefields along Greenland’s coast, the sun unexpectedly crests the horizon. At three o’clock in the morning. I sleep not a wink.

Descending through a crystalline sky into Keflavik along Iceland’s west coast, the broken lava surface looks like nothing so much as an over-cooked brownie straight from the oven.

Two nights with precious little in the way of sleep and my head is spinning.

They say that Reykjavik’s storied nightlife doesn't get kicking until after midnight. I no longer posses that kind of devotion. As I wander vaguely through the downtown streets killing time until my hotel room opens up, all that remains of the previous night’s festivities are smashed beer bottles, pools of vomit coloring the sidewalks and little tornadoes of trash carried on the swirling wind. At 7 am the street crews are hard at it, tidying up the wreckage.