Reflections on the Real #1: Iceland

We are sitting in a concrete trough with several other people in the almost-arctic morning. Clouds of freezing moisture droplets surround our heads. Before us curves a stretch of sand, suspiciously yellow against the volcanic rocks, and an inlet of steely sea waves, called the Big Bay of the Little Seal. The lady who took our money at the entrance to the concrete changing area told us sunnily that the temperature out there was a diabolic 6.6 degrees centigrade, today. Jamie has taken me to the hot springs in Reykavik frequented by Icelanders, a way of curing my cold and sprained ankle in time for the conference in the US tomorrow.

The trough is wide enough to stretch out your legs, deep enough to lie back and have the hot, slightly sulphuric water up the back of your neck, long enough to accommodate many more without us having to sit too close together. It is very comfortable. The Icelanders sit with the slightly ironic smiles of northern Europeans, magnified as they know their actions here are insane by civilised standards. There is an air of camaraderie; one man in red woollen bathers with shoulder straps and a hat is having an animated chat with the attendant. He turns; his face is reddened, laughing, frank. On the other side of the bay are some functional looking square buildings, reminiscent of hangars in the far north, speaking of being erected in a hurry and triumph against the elements.

As we sit warming ourselves and watching, a muscular woman with wide hips strides determinedly out across the sand, clambers over some rocks at the far end of the bay and disappears out of sight towards the water. We soon see her swimming across the sea channel. I am not entirely comfortable with the idea that we, too, will eventually leave this warm thermal water, which is entirely the sort of experience I had associated with Iceland, for the steely seawater, not at all an element I had envisioned broaching this far north. Such a thing is only for natives, surely. The succession of Amazonian matrons who set out in her wake have frames far better adapted to near freezing temperatures than mine, and it couldn’t be at all curative. Some of them wear wetsuit gloves or shoes to stop their extremities freezing off, though not another concession to the freezing cold do they make. I am wearing a bikini I brought yesterday in a charity shop in London, which not only fits closely but is of a thick grey stuff like sealskin. No selkie, I though. I am a coward with cold water. I relax, and watch the natives.

Last night the Northern lights were amazing, Jamie tells me, streaks of green and purple lights shooting across the sky as my plane landed. By the time I cleared the airport at midnight, it had calmed into the illumination of an entire sector of the sky as though the moon were shining out through delicate cloud, a silvery mist hanging over the stars, the edges of which shift like sand through a hourglass. It was the night of the new moon. We turned off on the way to Reykavik down a side road and climbed out of the car to watch a while, sipping from the whiskey which made a welcome present for a Scotsman stranded up here at ten pounds a shot of scotch. We stood huddled close together for the cold, and saw the lights separated out into a series of rings targeting some space across the sea, before condensing into a single space of green above a bank of cloud. I have never been this far north before, at least in this body, in this life, on this planet, and am vastly excited to see what it holds. Offering cheap flights to those who fancy making a stopover in Iceland is an ingenious way to reanimate the economy, supporting an already cunningly marketed tourist industry. A series of in-flight documentaries featuring a presenter in series of fur hats and hoods marketed the country’s isolated looking hotels and their idiosyncratic owners, cheerily lauding the freezing volcanic landscapes of their end of the world like settings. I like experiencing what I fly over, at least in this sense of alighting tranquilly on dry land.

An entire expedition force, led by a veritable superman with strong shoulders and narrow waist, one of whose members is incongruously dressed in a nineties neon patterned bikini, are now marching off toward the water, and we decide it has to be done. Scarcely able to believe the wonders the water has done for my ankle, I jog across the sand, and clamber at the edge of the beach down a slippery chute of volcanic rock, which I have time to notice is textured like a bed of oak leaves underfoot. It must be the shapes into which the rippling lava has set, for there are few trees here. Beyond the water is a clear, clean, deceptively innocent blue. Inspired by the rest I run into it, reach the knee height, and throw myself down, to rapidly come up again. Out in the bay a crowd of swimmers floats, chatting unconcernedly, between two buoys. I fling myself down again, and immediately and without capacity for reflection or reason shoot straight back up, with vital elements of my person sending signals that at any moment they are likely to be frozen clean off. Respect to the Icelanders.

Driving away from the baths we get the single malt out again, and take a sip, and the inside of me comes to feel as stone clean as the outside, my skin smooth with sea salt and sulphur. It sends waves of excitement to the stomach, combining with the waves of cold and warm that are still radiating from my centre to the skin. Energised and clarified we set off for the coast through a country of mosses in a million colours. Icelanders notice colour, Jamie tells me. Despite the sunlight- starved nature of the shrubby landscape, it is complex and vivid; miniature birch trees with orange leaves against magenta flowering mosses. Greener mosses cover rocks curling into endless miniature caverns and crevices. Jamie is playing Icelandic music, sweet sounding folk. Oceans of ice between us, he sings.

We walk a wooden bridge across the fault line between the American and Eurasian continental plates, a crevice of silty ash spreading another couple of centimetres apart every year. The earth shoots up spouts of steam, and factories trap it to turn turbines which make clean electricity, covering 25% of the country’s requirements.  They have some ingenious energy solutions, also collecting the methane coming off rubbish for fuel. Icelanders derive hot water directly from the earth, and it comes streaming slightly sulphurous out of the tap.

Further on in this tourist attraction that Jamie literally translates as ‘The Volcanic Playground’ is a boiling pool haunted by Gudrun, who became a demon after her landlord, when she couldn’t pay rent, took from her the only thing she owned, a cooking pot. She went crazy and, refusing holy water, dropped dead, a sign tells us amidst clouds of steam that shoot from the earth like kettles were boiling below it. This terrible injustice was felt up and down the coast, with people reflecting her fate in bouts of madness and unexpected deaths, haunted by her spirit. Eventually a holy man tricked her into falling into this sulphurous pool, and those with second sight can still see her walking round the edges of it, the sign concludes. A geyser streams up like a whale’s spout out of the water, rapidly condensing and falling back on itself with soft gushing sounds. I try to stand in the steam, as the air is freezing.

The earth is red clay mixed with other minerals, salted with white, spotted with rocks. There are the remains of a hearth set into it near the pool, where a Norwegian man and Latvian woman set up house together after the second world war, making flowerpots out of the clay earth which they fired with heat from below its surface. They then cultivated flowers in the warmth given up by the ground. Jamie tells me this is a technique widely used in contemporary Iceland, where the range of crops that can be grown is greatly enhanced by greenhouses set up over hot earth, which can even grow tropical crops like coffee and bananas.

We are drawn on by the sight of a lighthouse, and the road becomes a track of fine black silt on which the little rental car does its best. It looks like the most remote place on the planet, and as we near it see it sits above a comfortable family house- there are still lighthouse keepers. Past it is is a lip of land, a volcano half fallen into the sea. When we make it out of the car again- this time I am wearing all the clothes I have- I brave the bitter winds which make the weather change continually to watch the waves coming crashing tremendously in, the translucent turquoise water of the cleanest I have ever seen crashing into snowy spume sticking far up the sand.

A rock coated in green mosses stands up out of the sea, a broad shouldered shape, fostering colonies of sea birds, white waves crashing about its base. The combination of the wind blowing wet with spray and moisture off the sea and bright sunshine shows the rock through a light mist that magnifies its every aspect. It is hyper real in its colours and the clarity with we can see its every detail, and so seems surreal, dream-like. When one can really see the complexity of the cosmos, I reflect, it becomes more like a waking dream in texture than the solid structured reality we imagine we live within. I eventually express this to Jamie and turns to look me in the eyes, smiling. I understand why he came out here away from the comforts of capitalism, to a land of ice and snow that is irrevocably, sharply and startlingly real.

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