It was dark when we arrived, and the fields of black lava were covered with snow from the largest snowfall ever recorded there. My two sisters and I had discussed taking a holiday together for years. With the clock ticking faster now, we figured we’d better do it soon and chose Iceland in February/early March. We drank coffee at the airport after getting our passports stamped at 4:25 a.m. and, as first light appeared on the eastern (polar) horizon, we walked into the cold air to find our ride to the Blue Lagoon. An hour later, after driving from nowhere to nowhere, snow covering all, I stood shivering in my old black bathing suit on a ramp. It was 28 ° (-2.22° celsius) and freezing breezes rippled across my skin. I knew I wouldn’t/couldn’t take the plunge, but siting my sister’s much-loved faces, knowing this was the real start to a holiday that would come but once, that I was the big sister, once gutsy, once a trailblazer, I dashed toward the rising mist under which lay soft iridescent blue waters, 99° (37.222° celsius) giving off an eerie sulfur hue.
Sinking up to my neck, warmth spread, even enfolding my exposed face, though it tingled slightly. I could have stayed there for the rest of my life. [Blue Lagoon on a Winter Day] And so I (we) floated, swam, paddled amidst rising mist and beyond. Louis MacNeice wrote in Letters From Iceland in 1936:
Holidays should be like this
Free from over-emphasis
Time for soul to stretch and spit
Before the world comes back on it.
And how! This one it! Out of normal time and place, our stay might have been an eternity, a month, a year, or one long day. Our other lives (our poisoned homeland) seemed unconnected to this timeless sojourn with its unusual, treeless, snow-blanketed landscape. For our pleasure were the mystical Northern Lights, geyser’s with erupting waterspouts, a galloping waterfall, quiet volcanos, a spectacular site where in 930 AD and afterwards laws were read, tribal chiefs and the entire population would gather. We viewed the flowing stream into which women convicted of something were flung to drown. (Convicted men were beheaded, we learned.) Our thorough guide Hermann – see below with my sisters – seemed to know everything there was to know.We spent an entire day together – never rushed, never overwhelmed – while Hermann gently explained, answered all questions completely, left us alone in silence for our own reveries. (I fell a little bit in love with Hermann, here was someone I should have encountered oh … twenty years ago.)
Yes, our troubled homeland felt far away, had no connection to this decent, clean, sane, compassionate nation of barely 330,000 folks, all of whom have healthcare, free education, gender equality including gender pay equality. Louis MacNeice’s Icelandic travel poem continues:
So I write these lines for you
Who have felt the death wish too,
But your lust for life prevails –
Drinking coffee, telling tales.
Our prerogatives as (wo)men
Will be cancelled who knows when;
Still I drink your health before
The gun-butt raps upon the door.
And it was so. Our ‘lust for life prevailed’ as the long days/nights stretched and stretched ahead without punctuation. We ate what the Vikings once ate: fresh fish, skyr, potatoes. We skipped dried fish as I’d read W.H. Auden’s comment (also from Letters From Iceland): ‘Dried fish … should be shredded with the fingers and eaten with butter. It varies in toughness. The tougher kind tastes like toe-nails, and the softer kind like the skin off the soles of one’s feet.’
Also skipped: Fermented shark, jellied sheep’s head, smoked Puffin though it’s supposed to taste like pastrami. In Iceland, though we barely saw nor tasted a vegetable, we loved every bite of food eaten, every careful step taken on slippery snowed-on roads and paths. Before departing, we siblings left a bit of our hearts along with our shadows there frozen evermore in time beside a gyser then flew back to hang up our watch caps and gloves and bend our necks into the pelt of the falling “hard rains.”