Tuesday, September 29, 2009


[Disclaimer: Due to an unforeseeable sports injury involving the blogging muscle, I have not updated in, to quote one reader, "a bazillion forevers." Posts previously conceived and/or composed, including this one, are being processed as quickly as possible and will be released when I goddamn get around to it! Please note that the time and date of posting bear little if any relation to those of the events recounted.]

Further note: The events recounted in this post were originally recollected in the author's travel diary, an honest to god travel diary which is this adorable little physical item left in the author's apartment by two lovely ladies in thanks for one wonderful weekend. Aforementioned ladies shall go nameless, and the character nicknamed for inexplicable reasons AtoZ shall receive no further identifying characteristics, as the mention above and the details below may qualify as defamatory and may be actionable, depending on jurisdiction.

I write this whilst returning from Iceland to Berlin after spending one week there (Iceland) with AtoZ. I landed last Thursday night, just a bit before midnight, not to the hostel until well after midnight (still light out), and didn't see AtoZ until the next morning. Although it should be conceded that I heard him as he entered our shared room, boozily and some time after... I suppose I'd place it around three a.m. Friday and Saturday nights we moved from our affordable hostel to more impressive digs, a hotel in the center of Reykjavik, and then rented a car to tour the rest of the island. (Each of these itinerary points was at the suggestion of AtoZ, who'd recently broken up with his girlfriend and had heard that Icelandic women are easy and ... well, you can imagine, can you not, what was on his mind?)

Credit must be given: AtoZ's a natural traveler. His strategy (such as it was) of stopping at tourist info centers and asking the clerks, or assistants, or whatever, to suggest sleeping accommodations in the area where we were likely to end our day, and upon receiving such suggestion to lean on them to phone ahead and make reservations on our behalf, was inspired (if forward) and never steered us wrong. I shudder to think, though, what would be the fate of two Icelandic vacationers in America without a plan who hoped for such a favor to be repaid them as they drove down, say, I-95. But then some countries speak about crime in terms of "the murder" (no exaggeration, there---they had one murder there. Not one in all of last year; not one since 2001---one.) and some countries eat their young.

The rumors are, I can report, all true: Everything in Iceland is the most beautiful gorgeous got-damn thing you've ever seen. Well, in the case of the women it's exaggerated: people there look just like people. But Reykjavik is very pretty, and the countryside is nothing short of spectacular. AtoZ can't drive stick, and in any event spent the days dozing while trying to recover from what he blamed on a hangover and then overwork and what I suspect was swine flu (recall), so it was me behind the wheel as we cruised counter-clockwise 'round the country, my cursing at the natural splendor becoming more repetitive each time we turned the corner upon another scene of really just incomparable beauty. "Goddammit!" "Jesus Christ, will you look at hat?" These required more effort than was consistent with maintaining appropriate concentration upon the road, and after the first day or so took second stage in favor of the simpler replacement: "Fuck." That was short for "This scene of the Iceland countryside rushing past my eyes is so astonishingly beautiful I'm rendered incapable of but the most guttural and monosyllabic utterances." But within the cabin of that car perhaps most of the subtlety was lost.

The Icelandic believe in elves---not the Santa's-workshop variety, but human-sized dark creatures that lurk amid the countryside at night and play pranks upon their neighbors---but believe in them, not in the sense of belief in the afterlife or in humanity's inherent goodness but like belief that the sun will come up tomorrow or that it's carbohydrates that make you fat, like of course there are elves out there in the darkness beyond the bedroom window. But you can't really understand that intellectually, or at least it feels immediately different when you've been there, crossed the countryside. The eastern coast of the island, where the island's sole highway turns northward along the short, climbs the mountainside one hundred feet, and passes between the deep blue waves making their assault on the rocky foothills below, slashing through the jagged surfaces and points of the mountains' tiny pickets, those points and edges shearing the aerated seafoam swept along atop the waves, a beach if there even was one appearing only amid brief coincident moments when the tides all ebbed at precisely the same time, the ocean's spittle ricocheting off hard black stone and taking to the air as a blanket of mist soothing the angry surface of a stormy sea, below, and above, the mountaintops stretching up until they seemed to puncture the clouds in the sky, immense and glowing green with the grasses that managed everywhere the impossible feat of clinging to their near-vertical face, here and there a shelf appearing where the winds and the rains and the ices of winter had pried loose a stone wedge from the stony giant, where you hadn't actually yet you would've sworn you must have spied a lone eagle circling slowly above it all. It's so much more beautiful than anything you've ever seen that the natural world, that mundane thing you deal with all the time, seems somehow insufficient as an explanation. Here one understands superstition. Here one cannot disbelieve in magic, or in elves.

Our nights we spent in those few inns randomly dotting the highway map we got from the rental agency. Tourism seemed an oddly underdeveloped industry away from Reykjavik, in keeping with the generally depopulated tone of the back country. Travelers could (as we did) sleep in a converted schoolhouse in the southeast, an odd sailors' lodge in the north. But for three quarters of the perimeter of the country, which encircles probably fewer than ten thousand people (although possibly more sheep), the evidence of human intrusion into the land is only occasional. Settlements reaching a size worthy of the title hamlet are the exception, although one of which yielded us our beds on our first night away from Reykjavik. The rest of development consisted solely of a farmhouse and a barn, perhaps some odd other structure useful for agricultural purposes, but not after that first night's stop did we see a church house until the whaling village all the way on the other side of the island, in the northwest.

A few more highlights from the road:
  • Glaciers are imposing things. The first we saw up close we came close to treading upon, but only watched it, as it stretched from mountaintop to valley floor on its way to a long black sandy, hilly span between land and sea, from a little ridge to its west. The second had already plunged into a bay and was in the process of breaking up, surrounded by flocks of birds swooping, otters splashing, and one assumes fish, although those last remaining at a safe depth beneath the surface away from the innumerable predators floating or flying above. Barn-sized slabs of eerily blue ice hung in the water, the water the same perplexing color as the undersides of the icebergs, which invited the question which, ice or water, was naturally that color and which only reflecting the hue of the other. It seems water at that temperature, a thin sliver above freezing, adopts a new property whereby its coldness becomes visible, as though its component molecules were brittly near to solidifying as semisolid ice the same temperature but instead vibrated faintly on the surface of the sea, giving off a telltale pattern of little shivers. The icebergs, lapped on all sides with the slow waves from the otters and the sea birds' business, appear almost to be rocking back and forth, but when one focuses the eyes again the movement becomes that of the water surrounding them, and the 'bergs remain still, moving if at all only downward at an imperceptible pace, sinking lower into the water a thin sliver above the freezing point of water or the melting point of ice, as amid the caws and squawks and chortles and camera snaps and whirs, one imagines it possible to hear a dull, slow cracking sound.
  • There's a tiny ancient village squeezed among the inlets and coves that shred the island's northern shore. Or actually there are many, but I'm speaking of one. There's a village up in the north, enormous if you're coming from Reykjavik in the counter-clockwise direction and in three days you haven't seen anything larger than two farmhouses back to back, where when you drive into town you're greeted by what appears a great whale skeleton, a cluster of mere trace outlines against the sunlit sky until you get closer and see it's actually a structure built of thick beams the size of masts, lashed together as a building began and abandoned, or else some odd plaything for children to climb atop, which one later learns is or was once intended for great hides to be stretched and dried. A town where a handful of east-west avenues cross but a single north-south street, yet that street changes names multiple times without so much as a traffic sign to warn visitors, so comfortable is the assumption that one must be a native, mustn't one? One imagines being built up when the whaling trade could support a town of such size, and dwindling with the passage of time and the revolutions of the earth out of that era when whaling could support a town like that, before the rise of the petroleum age at once made going to see an expensive proposition and provided a cheap substitute for the whale oil that was the whole point of the venture, before humane causes scowled on the whole practice of whaling and a newly small world pulled away all the children who once might have grown to learn the trade, and one imagines a Northern summer, chilly and short yet bright, inexorably giving way to the long winter of history. And then one imagines the same town being discovered by the industry of international tourism, of a town nearly forgotten to history awakening sleepy-eyed and confused by the thought that Americans, Italians, South Africans would pay to ride along on the ships, the same ones that once hunted whales in these waters, and merely take photographs of them.
A beautiful country. I could say more, I could go on forever saying more---and perhaps I should, perhaps it's not fair that I even should try to wrap up this week in scant paragraphs---but they're announcing our descent into Berlin now. It's odd---I could tell when I really had moved there when flying into New York felt unmistakably like coming home. There's no other home for me, now, but Berlin doesn't feel like that. Not yet, at least; hopefully soon.

... reading: The Recognitions. Still. I am... very still.
... listening: Billie the Vision and the Dancers. Everything by them. Especially this one.
... obsessed with: ... pitching a reality show: "Housecat versus Roomba. Two will enter. One will retreat to the top of the dresser and look nervous until dinnertime."

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