A little (read: actually quite long) memoir about Iceland ~~

I’ve mostly lived in cities, or at least large towns. Brief stints in rural Northern Territory left lasting impacts though. The three years of my memory there are rich with the happy feelings of childhood. Running barefoot in our little neighbourhood pack through the gates that joined our houses out the back. Jumping off the top bunk bed onto a cushioning mattress on the floor when we were supposed to be sleeping. Pushing plastic, buckling chairs against mango trees to get a boost to the nearest branch. Climbing till we waved in the wind along with the smell of sap and fruit. We would dig holes in the parklands backing onto our street in anticipation for the rain season. Home-made swimming holes. One time we found a brown snake in our hole and we ran until our little bodies were heaving. We would play in the pooling water at the bottom of our down-sloping cul-de-sac after that. The road still warm on our bodies as the cold rain came down. When we left that town in the still, dark hours of the morning, driving away from a hotel we had stayed in for the last few nights (we had already sent our things away in a truck) I left my clothes from the day before in the washing machine. I didn’t quite understand we weren’t coming back.

The next month we spent in the car, slowly making our way south seeing our sprawling country Australia straight down the centre. My dad had gone on ahead of us, starting his new job that had caused us to move in the first place and so it was just my mother and our maternal grandparents and my three siblings of course. We saw things mostly reserved for tourists, most Australians remaining along the booming East Coast.

We would often drive for holidays because there were so many of us – it was far cheaper than flying to visit our relatives. Every year we would go to Sydney or Melbourne, often both, by car from wherever we lived at the time. Jabiru, Gove, Port Lincoln, Mildura and Brisbane. Often we would drive straight through but sometimes camping along the way meant we saw new areas, mountains, national parks, beaches.

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As an adult I mostly flew, its cheaper and less time consuming for a single adult that way. But still I would make my annual pilgrimage to meet with my family for Christmas, Easter and other noteworthy events. In that way I have always travelled. I didn’t set down roots until we stabilised in Brisbane when I started high school and I continued there until I completed my university degrees even after my parents moved on. But my restless origins remained.

I travelled overseas for the first time the year after high school with a thrown together group of girlfriends. We went to a music festival in New Zealand – I didn’t know any of the bands but it didn’t really matter. From then began my new annual pilgrimage overseas. Uganda, Thailand, Cambodia, Fiji, Germany, Italy, Czech Republic and now Iceland.

I think I have an inclination toward the obsessive. Once I decide I want to do something I usually will. I don’t often let things go easily. I was like that with Berlin. As a 15-year-old girl discovering by trial and error who I was and what I actually liked I read in an arts magazine about the art scene in Berlin. A couple of artists, writers and filmmakers were interviewed for the piece, mostly ex pats living in community and working within their creative field. The article made my heart pump with anticipation. It filled me with a great hope that there were people out there and places we could go where nine to five office jobs weren’t forced on you. Where you could escape the tut-tut of judgey uncles and the braggy Christmas newsletters of primary school friend’s parents. Where you could say I am a writer, a poet, an artist, and people wouldn’t smirk at you. I desperately wanted to go there. In 2014, I arrived by bus with a friend who had been living in Germany for a year. It was a short trip but my hope was rekindled and a little bit of peace settled in me. It was an old city built on a lot of pain but art was making it new.

Similarly, when I first moved out of home I saw on a photographers blog that she had taken her family to Iceland. The pictures were beautiful obviously and she spoke so fondly of the place that it stuck. The momentum built slowly and eventually it became an ongoing joke, taunt, understanding with my boyfriend that we would go over for our honeymoon. The more we researched the more we loved, from the low crime rate to the Christmas Eve tradition of giving books and reading all day. Orcas could be found in their waters and some of the most incredible scenery we had ever seen. When he proposed it was nearly the first thing we decided, “Does this mean we are going to Iceland?” “Yep.” Real life squeals ensued. I think we booked our flights before we booked our venue. This meant a lot of time for talking and researching and waiting. It felt like so long before we finally got on a plane.

We aren’t really planners. That’s not really true. I’m not really a planner. Andrew is. But I find the best way to travel is to have a flexible outline and let the rest happen and that’s the way we did it. A four day stop over in Amsterdam, 12 days in a camper van driving around the country, five days in the capital Reykjavik, a four day hike finishing with another two days in Reykjavik. What we did each day we kind of just made up along the way.

Amsterdam was lovely. It felt so good to be back in Europe, that little part of me flickering again. Australia will always feel like home and even our little city Brisbane has come a long way in culture and art but Europe is Europe and it will always be special. It’s so easy for me to settle in; even the rising anticipation of Iceland dwindled while we were in Amsterdam. It was all just so normal that it could have been normal and we could have been living there and maybe we were and maybe we wouldn’t have to leave after all. But of course we did and of course we wanted to, even if we were just a little bit sad.

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I guess its funny how fickle feelings are and how much you can’t really trust them. The night before we were set to leave home Andrew was going through our itinerary just double checking things. We still had heaps to do. We were going to pick up some food for our hike and some warm clothes, we hadn’t yet started packing and we still had plans the next day to see our families before we left that night. I was just collecting my things before leaving for the shops when Andrew called from his computer. We weren’t leaving at 7pm but am and our travel agent had made an error. Lucky we checked! At least we still have time! Quick call the rellies! Etc. But when we were still packing at 2am we weren’t at all that excited to go to Iceland and maybe even a little bit annoyed.

But Iceland did inspire us. The last time I’d gone on a hike was in grade 10 and I wasn’t sure that even counted. But you had to see it like that. It would never be enough to view those sights from our car or a look out. We had to be in it, surrounded by it, to really experience it. And so we found ourselves wandering into Kathmandu, Anaconda, the like. One night after I’d fallen asleep to a movie Andrew woke me up to the news he had ordered me hiking boots online; I fell back to sleep again happy. We even climbed a local mountain the week before we left, this one a lot more steep than we’d have to manage but not nearly as long as the 55km Laugavegur trail. We drove up the coast to Mt Tibro with our takeaway coffees and our smiles, professional hikers here we come. In the end I was so scared I cried. Twice. I guess I’m fearless until I’m not. But I did make it to the top in the end.

Arriving in Reykjavik was a little jilting. The airport is actually in a nearby town – Keflavik and the 45min bus trip shows you nothing but remoteness. A surreal other worldly nothingness interspersed with rocky outcrops and probably far off mountains though I can’t really remember. Another Australian hopped off at our stop – Kex hostel – and we small-talked our way to the reception area. I only really have one experience of making friends in hostels. In Berlin Erin and I met a couple of guys and we went out with them that night. We stumbled around for probably hours trying to find a suitable place before dancing to Baltic music in a warehouse until 6am. No life-long friendships ensued – truthfully they were pretty weird. I’m only sometimes sociable but I enjoy knowing people so I am always ready to go through the meeting process to get there. Funnily enough the closest we got were 11 and 14-year-old siblings that we met on our hike. Kex in the end was quite a trendy restaurant slash bar with rooms upstairs and lots of nooks to sit and read. It was converted from an old biscuit factory apparently. The food is ridiculously good and the vibe is effortlessly cool.

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I read three books while I was away and scratched my tiny drawings into books. I didn’t really journal but I thought a lot. 12 days in a car gives you plenty of time to think I guess. Especially if you are the introspective, self-reflexive type. I became increasingly aware of where my mind settled when at rest. A friend who had been the previous year described it as the roof lifting off her mind. It was more than just having time to think and drift and let go. The surroundings enhanced it. They had to.

I think we knew this somehow already. Even though pictures and films and stories never really capture anything exactly right, somehow we recognised that feeling when we felt it because we’d seen it before in every picture of Iceland, and in the music that comes out of there, and the countless other ways we had encountered the culture. And so, after that at first jilting nothingness and once we were on the road with our expectations of beauty being thrashed, we settled into our minds expanding and let our thoughts seep and seep, wide and long as the mountains and lakes and caves that were surrounding us.

It’s hard to explain this now and even to remember it. Being back at home and surrounded by normal. People don’t get that things changed and that I was happy and still and alive. No one really can. And so I always say ‘you have to go, you absolutely must!’ because how else will they know, and what else can I say?

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I think it’s interesting that Australia is considered easy-going, carefree, friendly. Our willingness to ascribe the stereotype is odd when set alongside our propensity to be set in our ways, tear down the tall poppy and pull together in a mob mentality. We are also one of the safest countries in the world thanks to an unending list of rules and regulations. Not to mention the majority of the population live in large cities and haven’t picked up a surfboard in years, if ever. We are up there with the worlds most anxious and depressed. And yet, it’s still embedded in each of us to recite that the Australian culture is laid back, down to earth, accepting. It’s something to do with the sunshine and proximity to the beach; we eat outdoors a lot and drink a lot of beer. And yet compared to Icelandic people I felt our culture to be almost loud and intolerant. I love Australia and there is nothing like a trip overseas to remind you how fortunate you are to live where you live, but Iceland made me wonder about things at home that I had never questioned before.

I was severely surprised to find how much American culture had seeped into Iceland, though many of the tourists we met came from there so it’s not hard to see why. Reykjavik was full of American diners and restaurants and on the road every grill served Iceland’s version of hot dogs, fries and burgers. Unless you were eating seafood it was hard to see Iceland’s culture come out in the food. But the people were really different.

Understated, creative, special but still very cool and on-trend. Sometimes a little outrageous. In touch with the land too, almost as if each of them were experiencing the mind seeping still. Living there hadn’t taken it away, they were peaceful and thoughtful and internally alive, a little spark that came from awareness. They could be seen as a little unreliable I suppose with their propensity to be late, but these things come with a dreamy demeanour and I’m not one to complain about that.

There is one highway in Iceland, route 1, the ring road. Mainly we stayed to it, leaving Reykjavik heading north but we did deviate when adventure called for it, spending some amazing days in the Western fjords with incredible winding roads and stunning, stunning views. We did a small day hike up to one of our favourite spots – Glymur waterfall. A four-hour return that made us feel like we’d been transported to Jurassic Park. Lush green moss-covered mountains with trickling water and hundreds of bird’s nests lining the canyon. The tallest waterfall in Iceland before us, and snow-capped mountains either side. Amazing.

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Each night we would find a little inlet, a car park, or a dirt patch to park our van and sleep. It was so light and we were so alert that we often did some more driving after dinner, occasionally walking to sights at 11pm or later. Andrew took a photo of our view each night and we had a little routine of transferring our bags to the front seats and putting up our curtains. It was so lovely to just park anywhere and decided which view we wanted to look at as we went to sleep. Sometimes it was hard to find a spot and we’d be tired and cranky by the time we pulled over but it never lasted long. We both preferred that to staying at a designated caravan park. Most towns had them as the ring road was quite a popular route, ranging from quite large motor home towns to little colourful tents dotting lush, green hills.

When we had to shower we would stop into a local pool, which was easy as most towns had one. They were more popular than shopping centres and all heated from geothermal power. We didn’t swim in any of the pools though, we saved that for a few natural springs along the way (and of course the Blue Lagoon) but we paid our $5 or $6 admission and used the bathroom and shower for a while. Luckily it was cold so we didn’t sweat much and baby wipes and dry shampoos are without a doubt life-saving inventions, but even still – showering makes me happy. Iceland, like a lot of Europe, is pretty free-spirited when it comes to nakedness and in true form the showers were open and attached to locker rooms where you got undressed first. Generally, I’m not exactly a fan of public nudity (read: never) and at first I was quite uncomfortable, I mean come on, I had been dreaming of this shower for four days I wasn’t too keen on sharing it with ten other ladies. And yet I kind of embraced it and felt kind of free in the end. Thankfully, the other women weren’t all tall blonde goddesses like the rest of Scandinavia, that Viking blood meant curves were common too. Awkwardly, my shower didn’t work the first time and I had to actively engage another naked human to help me, which made for a long giggle-filled debrief with Andrew afterwards. But I kind of thought it was healthy and refreshing and would have been a good way to grow up, knowing that bodies aren’t something to be ashamed of – they’re just bodies after all.

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Hiking was incredible. By far our favourite moments were along those five days. Of course the sights alone were moving and breathtaking and indescribable but it was kind of like school camp in the way that the time was so rich and full and you’ll remember those people forever and that fun forever and it’ll never be replicated (until next time). The whole trip away reminded me how much Andrew is my best friend, coming back after a few hours of silence to share where our minds had drifted without the slightest inhibition. We had some of the most giggly, silly, fun times and even though we are of course still very young it felt like we were. Without stress and work and the daily grind of hair in the bathroom and running out of bread we could just sit, be and realise how happy and full and okay our lives were and are. We are okay.

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It was hard knowing that when I got back I would be graduated and things would change and I’d probably have to fully embrace the adult life that I only been half-straddling for the last five or so years. But those moments really showed me that everything would be okay. As cliché as it sounds. We are so, so rich and I don’t ever want to feel like I’m not because it’s a lie. This was something I’ve always believed and been passionate about and I don’t want to say that you need a month long holiday to figure that out but these are the things that I remembered and reflected on while I was there and they aren’t any less powerful just because we were on the other side of the world removed from everything normal.

As a writer you kind of have this desire to be able to connect to people. It’s the mission of art really. Explaining yourself, sharing yourself, even if it’s only a tiny part, so that someone else out there can understand. We are all seeking connection I think and artists feel that burden in their work. I was talking with a friend about this since coming home and she said to me that it’s kind of special that you can’t. That there is a little bit of life that you’ll never be able to share. No one you meet will really get it. And even though we want to be known and to know, that’s okay. It’s beautiful even. Iceland will always be that. Even though I’ve written all of this and we’ve made movies and taken pictures and talked about it with our friends. It will always be special because I’ll never be able to share it exactly. It will always just be mine.

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A little (read: actually quite long) memoir about Iceland ~~

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