Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Iceland's Playful Gloominess

Instead of flying home directly from Amsterdam, we broke up our crossing by stopping over in Iceland for five days. Ever since I saw my first Fridrik Fridriksson flick at the Toronto International Film Festival (Reykjavik101), I've wanted to take in a Saturday night in downtown Reykjavik. Unfortunately, Dan and I slept through our 11 pm wake-up, dead exhausted from a trip to the interior, so Saturday night Reykjavik mayhem remains at large.

We took advantage of a special offered by Iceland Air to break up our trip home to Canada from Amsterdam with a five-night stopover in Reykjavik. So in mid April, we left the bursting colour of a Dutch spring for Iceland's playful gloominess.

You need to be a bit strange to live in Iceland, situated barely a frozen finger south of the Arctic Circle. With an average summer temperature of 14 degrees, the island has been likened to a fridge that's left open for six weeks a year. At least that what author Hallgrimur Helgason says in his quirky novel (and therefore classically Icelandic), A Hitman's Guide to House Cleaning.

One day, we're on our way to the Laundromat Cafe, a popular eatery that merges three happy pastimes: chowing down on puffin steak, reading paperback novels, and doing one's laundry.

But first, a blond teenager stops us on the street demanding that we listen to her sing while her giggling friends take her picture. She has a sweet voice and gives us her take on an Icelandic song about running away. Growing up in the company of 33 Holocene volcanoes (young and active) and 2 Pleistocene volcanoes (older and active) probably explains the theme.

Reaching the cafe, Dan is delighted to see thousands of paperback books lining shelves under the bar. He's been carrying around a kilo of pulp fiction throughout Europe not finding any used book exchange.

"Yes, we trade books," responds the blond waitress.

"My books are nearly new so I want to exchange them for good ones. Which ones work for an exchange?"

"It depends on the colour." she explains.

We bend our heads to examine the collection looking for some kind of colour-coding.

"I don't understand."

"If you bring us a book that's mostly blue, you can take any other blue book from the shelf. If you want that title, referring to the one in Dan's hand, you need to give me a white book in exchange."

I stand back and look again at the library. Indeed, all books with predominately white spines are grouped together, then blue ones, then red. There's no topical or alphabetical organization to the books; it's only by spine colour. Until now, I've never noticed that The da Vinci Code has a red spine, as does The Accidental Tourist. These are side by side with Face Down in the Marrow Bone Pie, another fine piece of literature with a red spine.

After lunch, Dan and I return to our walking tour. It's so damp-cold, Dan broke down and bought a sheep wool headband. I'm dressing in layers. It won't creep past 6 degrees today.

I was expecting the old town to look like St. John's Newfoundland with clapboard houses and colourful paint, but Reykjavik's wooden or stucco-clad structures are mostly white. Perhaps a white house is easier to see when you stumble home in the dark six months of the year.

There's an eccentricity to the architecture and an artsy quality to many products displayed in shop windows. I admire the expensive salmon skin purses for their design and suppleness. And unusual combinations keep surprising me, like freshly squeezed orange juice accompanied by cod liver oil on our breakfast buffet.

One building in particular is eye-catching. It's the grey-white, unpronounceable Hallgrimskirkja Church dominating the horizon. Its cement buttresses, inspired by natural basalt rock formations on the coast, remind me of gigantic organ pipes up close. But from far away, the buttresses make the church tower look like an upright rocket ready for launch. Gothic-meets-Viking in the twenty-first century. In my mind's eye, I can see the entire population of 300,000 blonds filing through its enormous doors when this geothermal time-bomb blows. Then it would take off to a new home in the sun.

Dan says I'm sounding like an Icelander. "Stop it."

Speaking of unpronounceable words, Icelandic is a language that baffles me. But we're not alone in being unable to remember or repeat place names. A few years ago, when six days of volcanic eruptions shut down air travel throughout Europe, journalists gathering here just gave up trying to pronounce the name of the belching volcano, Eyjafjallajökull. They settled for "that volcano over there."

While speaking and spelling words are one thing, singing the language is something else. You can only imagine how hard it is to sing any language with more consonants than vowels. So when we took in Les Miserables a couple of nights ago at the National Theatre, and it was performed entirely in Icelandic, we made sure to get seats outside of spitting range.

It's time to go home.

For our last afternoon here, we visited the famous Blue Lagoon, a large outdoor thermal bath. In this chilly weather, the steam billows up and rolls over the hot water opaque with finely ground minerals. Dan and I can barely see each other. It's all foggy white, bathers are shadows lightly sketched on a blank canvas. It's when we leave the steamy pool that we become clear.

Such is travel.


No comments:

Post a Comment