Ssons and Dóttirs  

Thursday, April 15, 2010

I have this disease that mimics love. I can recognise it in you. Synchronicity, I reflect, is what's landed me in this situation; every situation that counts towards my being here. Here? Well I've certainly been in worse places. Holding my passport, tickets, mobile and a second hand copy of Diski's Skating to Antarctica, I shuffle my bag forward with my feet and secure my place one mini step ahead in the queue for flight FL105 to Reykjavík. Like Diski I am seeking some sort of refuge in ice; clinical whiteness, isolation, clarity.

All day I've followed the trajectory of my 'luxury express' coach as it's wended its way along from Falmouth to Heathrow. Interesting use of the word 'Express'. Nine hours reminds me more of the chicken buses I travelled Guatemala in. The journey has provided time for reflection. First the familiar country roads of Cornwall littered with their plethora of memories and events from my twenty-nine years of living and sometimes just existing there. From Falmouth to Penryn we followed the river upstream passing the decaying form of Integrity the sunken Brixham trawler as she wallows in river mud. Something I did more than my fair share of when living aboard The Black Pig. Fingers up to the system – gathering water, collecting wood, shitting in a bucket – hardly the romantic dream, but a time in which I met many of the interesting characters I now call friends. I contemplated the sinking of my own integrity, silently wondering if it can ever be dragged up from the mud?

'While you are away/ my heart comes undone/ slowly unravels/ in a ball of yarn' sang Björk, which brings me round to remembering my mother's disappointed email from Portugal; 'Why Iceland?'. Well Björk is of course only a contributing factor, but why not Iceland? Northern lights, glaciers, geothermal spas and eternal night; sounds like exactly what I need right now. I have some preconceptions of this country largely gathered from my listening to Icelandic music; Sigur Rós, GusGus, FM Belfast, Emiliana Torrini, múm, Seabear and of course Björk make regular appearances on my playlist. I have arrived at the conclusion, through listening to them and having looked at other text, that the country moves at a slow pace; the landscape is dramatic, slow, empty, stark and dark, but with twinkles of light. Rather fitting for what I hope to experience.

The bus shuddered me awake upon reaching the Truro depot. I recalled my college years in the mid-nineties when we'd spend hours wandering about this city stoned. I was probably listening to Björk then. We gathered, among others here, a beautiful voluptuous woman who carries echoes of Nys in Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy. At St. Austell I watched the winter sun low in the sky and shrouded in cloud like the sun that stays late in the night in the Northern summer. Rows of pines point upwards framing the village of St. Blazey. Here I recall the Czech border and the endless security checks myself and my be-dreadlocked boyfriend had when inter railing from Amsterdam in 2001. My first proper failed love affair; we were good at playing house, but too young to negotiate our differences. I wondered what Chris would be doing right now? Still living the dream in New Zealand?

As the bus neared Heathrow I recognised the suburbia I lived in for six years before my parents split up and my mother moved us to Cornwall. The sprawling cityscape with its scattered reservoirs reminded me of trips back and forth to visit various relatives. Gasometers always make me chuckle as I recall my Dad telling me it was one of the first words I said as a child. First sentence; 'Daddy... Those sheep! They're moving'. Proclaimed on the way to Cornwall. I'd seemingly only seen pictures of still sheep prior to this revelation. During my acid years I'd developed this obsession with sheep moving when I came to the realisation that 'if we act like them, they'll think we're one of them' at a party on Exmoor. I've no idea how long Mel and I were crawling along on our hands and knees making sheep noises but have always wondered if a young child in the hot-air-balloon that passed overhead may have said 'Daddy... Those sheep look like people' or similar.

The Icelandair plane is spacious, efficient and boasts extensive in-flight entertainment as well as some Christmas goodies left for us by Stekkjastaur the first of the jólasveinarnir, or Icelandic Yuletide men. Icelandic folklore would have it that the children are not just visited by one jolly fat man at Christmas, but thirteen mischievous imps from the hills. Like the seven dwarfs, each has a name that discloses something about them, though rather than simply a personality trait, their names indicate their particular modus operandi. Stekkjastaur translates as sheepskin wearer, and he is the imp who harasses sheep trying to steal their coats. Each of the jólasveinarnir leave small gifts on the first night they visit if the children have been good. Otherwise they can expect potatoes left in their shoes! I am impressed with my hot chocolate and cinammon cookies and decide that I think I am going to like these yule lads.

I settle back, selecting Juno from the list of movies to watch. Excellent soundtrack and acid-tongued dialogue. I've seen it before; a quirky film about a teenager who gets pregnant and decides to give the baby up for adoption. I rub my stomach protectively and contemplate. The headrest displays advice on speaking Icelandic correctly. I usefully have 'elska is the verb 'to love' when addressing people, thus 'I love you' is Ég elska þú rather than Ég ást þú as is commonly thought.' Elska means to love. It's a pretty sounding name.

It is after midnight when we arrive at Keflavík airport amid some drizzle and nothing exciting to report in the sky. I'd had secret hopes to fly through a light show if the Aurora Borealis was playing ball. Sadly this is not to be. Nor is the land a blanket of white as I had hoped and actually I'm feeling a bit suffocated in my long coat, hat, scarf and gloves with sheepskin boots toasting my legs. I board the 'flybus' which is conveniently waiting for my flight and am slightly concerned to be moving at Iceberg pace throughout the “forty-minute” journey to my hotel. Something like two hours later I am deposited into the night with what could have been any city to my right. The ever present umlaut my only clue that we are perhaps not in Kansas anymore, in this darkness it is hard to make anything else out; except for the fact that the Icelanders love Christmas lights. Disappointed that I cannot see my reflection in the snow covered hills, but with Stevie's voice ringing in my head, 'well I've been afraid of changing, 'cause I've built my life around you...', I swing my rucksack onto my back and breathe in the cold sea air before checking-in to Hótel Cabin at Borgartúni.

I am given the key to room 520 – on the fifth floor – and take the lift to my sanctuary. The flight to Iceland only takes 3 hours, but what with the added journey from Cornwall and waiting around; I get to bed some 20 hours after getting up the previous morning. My twin room offers me two beds in which to sleep. One quickly becomes my wardrobe before I slide between the crisp white sheets of the other one and give a thought to Diski and her yearning for clinical purity. At last Iceland has delivered. I am surprised to find that despite it being mid-December I can sleep with the window open.

Around ten the next morning I am jerked awake by a low metallic grinding that wouldn't be out of place in a The Knife track. The Swedish dark electro duo are what started my obsession with Scandanavia and its rich music scene and so it seems rather apt that I should think of them on my first day in Reykjavík. 'I was looking for you/ When I'm glad I found me/ A special kind of personality'. I'm luckily in time for my free buffet breakfast and head downstairs to help myself to toast, coffee and cereal. Skyr is a kind of Icelandic natural yoghurt, which I add in mountainous peaks to my cereal and study some tourist information booklets I swiped from the reception desk.

At around 10.30 dawn is breaking as I walk along the bay towards the city. It is only as I am crossing the busy road from the hotel that I notice the large mountains in the background and see what a wonderful view I must have from room 520. There's snow in them there hills too and an icy wind blowing across the bay. It stings me into addressing this reality and my hands flutter across my tummy again as I pause to take a macro shot of the igneous rock with its tiny worlds inside it. Winter is everywhere on the twisted branches that grab at the sky, intercrossing each other with the same complexity as the bus map I tried to understand.

Nabokov says 'You can get nearer and nearer to reality; but you can never get near enough, because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable.' 1 For this reason I try to avoid making plans when I travel, preferring to be carried where I'm carried and avoiding disappointment by searching for someone else's reality. That said I do want to visit the Blue Lagoon – one of Iceland's Geothermal Spas – and to go on a Northern Lights hunt, which I manage to book through Iceland Excursions; a sister company of the 'flybus' operators. I am travelling with a very limited budget and each of these trips costs 5-6000 kroner (about £25-30), which means I have very little left for anything else. So I spend this day getting a feel for Reykjavík; and taking quirky photos of trees and colourful houses. At 2pm I realise I am shivering almost permenantly when I walk and decide to stop for coffee in a bakery. I pay around £8 for a biscuit and a coffee and find myself marvelling at how people ever came to visit here before their economy crashed. “More coffee? Always more coffee.” Drawls the counter assistant gesturing towards the machine. I am relieved to discover I have paid for endless refills and stay a little longer allowing the warmth return to my bones.

The sun is sinking again as I get to Hallgrímskirkja, a modern church that resembles an organ to me, with its stepped sides reaching up to a pinnacle. It was designed by the architect Guðjón Samúelsson, who was inspired by the basalt columns of Iceland's geology. It provides many good photo opportunities inside and out – at 75m high it stands proudly over the city – and is the perfect place to watch the day wither into night at only 4pm. I begin my lonely walk back to Borgartúni; Reykjavík's centre of commerce. It is now dubbed Reykjavík's own Wall Street, which I hardly find surprising when I pass another busted neon sign and vacant office blocks surrounded by empty parking lots. There is a feel of desolation and starkness, even here in the city, which resonates with my mood.

Returning to room 520 I want to feel warm and this time get into the other bed. If I have to pay extra as a single occupant then I might as well get as much use out of the room as I can, right? I take the duvet from the unmade bed I slept in the previous night and snuggle up to watch some American cartoons. I have not had a TV in over five years and have come to associate it with hotel rooms. I am transported back to the town of Tenosique on the Mexico/Guatemala border where after a narrow escape from Cockroach Hotel I watched films on cable for the first time in the luxury of my air-conditioned room. The two scenes couldn't have been more different, and yet it strikes me how they inform one another. If landscape itself is text, then this is a form of intertextuality.

It's an early start the next morning in order to get to the Blue Lagoon. I want to see the sun rise over the volcanic landscape. I am the only passenger on the bus, although there are plenty of other vehicles on the road. Leaving Borgartúni and central Reykjavík we pass busy office blocks with glass fronts, calling to mind a Gursky exhibition I saw at the Modern Art Museum in Stockholm last year. Floors upon floors of people, each in their neat little box. The bottom floor with its gym; each individual running their own gauntlet. When birds look into houses, what impossible worlds they see. 2 As we crawl across the lava fields dawn's not so much creeping in fresh and rosy fingered as rather seeping cooly round the edges; like the time my tent was flooded at Glastonbury. Mist rises across the lunar landscape, silhouettes emerge from the rocks and I congratulate myself on a good decision to get up early and experience this with a degree of solitude. The sight of warm steam hitting frost, revealing small islands from the milky waters, the crunch of frosty moss-covered lava underfoot and the vicissitudes in the colour of the sky combine to make this a magical morning and I've not yet got into the pool.

The water is a wonderful temperature and l feel privileged and relaxed to be one of the very few people at the spa so early. My belly feels weightless, and the water nourishing as I push my mental battle under the rug again and try to enjoy this treat. There are crates of silica mud positioned around the pool, so I treat my skin to a couple of full applications of this, and feel glowing for some time afterwards. Iceland has the biggest Geothermal system in the world and the water heats many homes as well as protecting the two main shopping streets in Reykjavík from ice. Protect their consumerism, keep people spending money; that's the Icelandic Government, I cynically think. After a couple of hours of luxuriating in the pool, sauna and steam room I get out and get dressed with the intention of walking down to nearby Grindavík to explore. It is absolutely freezing outside and the surrounding area is so beautiful now that the sun has properly come up and illuminated the land, I instead spend some time photographing the lava fields with their teletubby land hills and taking macro shots of ice crystals.

I am tired when I return to room 520 and crawl back into the alternate bed, with extra duvet again to watch more mindnumbing television. I pick up a few words of Icelandic by reading the translation, also noting that in Icelandic surnames are passed from the father to their child, including son or dóttir. Sóley Stefánsdóttir is Sóley, Stefán's daughter, Kjartan Bragi Bjarnason is Kjartan Bragi, Bjarn's son. Elskan means loved one or darling. Will I have enough love to be the only parent to this bunch of cells created under the wrong circumstances? I can't help but laugh at the irony in the fact that the man I love is named Edmondson, but this unborn child cruelly is not his son. Or dóttir.

That night I am booked for my Northern Lights tour. It largely depends on weather conditions and the tour won't operate unless the company feel there is a fair chance of seeing some activity. I wear all the clothes I have brought in my little rucksack and take a seat next to the window. I am later joined by a friendly Polish Jew en route from Boston to Germany for Christmas. She reminds me of Anja, Spiegelman's mother in Maus with her mild unassuming manner and delicate mousey features. We arrive into a forest in the middle of Iceland lined with firs. Icelanders seem to find their trees the source of much amusement. I'd read somewhere that the Christmas Tree outside the Town Hall was donated by Norway because the Icelandic ones were too small, and tonight 'Hussy' our tour guide cracked the joke 'If you ever find yourself lost in an Icelandic forest, just stand up and you'll be able to find your way out.' It was 11.30, it was very dark and the temperature was at least -5ºC and Hussy was urging us to be excited about the constellations. Don't get me wrong, Orion was looking stronger than ever and I could make out my little pisces kite above us, but I haven't paid £30 to freeze my ass off in a forest just to look at the stars. I grumble and sit back in the bus lamenting the GusGus and FM Belfast gig I turned down in favour of this tour.

The bus pulls into a different location for people to use the bathroom. I'm catatonic with cold and staring blankly ahead as a young couple shush their crying child by taking turns to walk the floor of the bus. Everyone is subdued with the disappointment of not having seen the Aurora Borealis and hostile eyes curse the parents. We are getting ready for the journey back into Reykjavík when an Australian voice pipes up “Is that it?”. How rude, the English are thinking. Hussy is not to blame if we can't see the lights, it's hardly as if the government can put a tax on them! “Over there... I mean is that it?” She points across to a green cloud. Everybody starts shouting to open the doors and turn off the lights and Hussy begins to get extremely excited. We all pile off the bus, and in our new, even more exposed, location shiver as we watch the sky do the same. The green cloud moves in ripples and undulates around the glittering stars; so crisp and beautiful in the night sky.

I was searching for answers in snow, in ice in solitude, but that night my decision came to me from those stars and I travelled back to England two days later with a heavy heart preparing to face the hardest decision of my life; alone. He takes his time like a Northern winter night. The darkest hour happens before it dawns. His eyes hold constellations, his heart a kaleidescope. Broken particles alone won't make pretty patterns.

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