Heiðmörk (pt. 1)

I found out about Heiðmörk’s existence from Bart (as an aside, Bart introduced me to many things, most of them NSFW and not suitable for this blog). He said it’s going to be a nature reserve, people-free, and look awesome. Heiðmörk delivered on each count.

The comment I read about God using Iceland to make a beta version of a whole different planet, then sort of getting over the idea and leaving it there to attend to more important matters… Heiðmörk is the only proof you need to know it’s true. It looks like I imagine Mars to be. Except more interesting, and with that magically clean air. My book takes place between 1885-1920, and I can’t imagine people who were often losing toes and fingers to frostbite, or found hardly any fodder for their horses got super excited about the quality of air, or beauty of places as Heiðmörk. In 2018, it feels like magic.

Let me try and give you an idea of the scale. A small idea, because we didn’t have fisheye lens.

And here is what I was looking at:

Iceland in late spring and summer (although technically, of course, April 18 was the first day of Icelandic summer…) is covered by lupines. Billions and billions of relentless lupines. Seeing the same place without them made it almost scarily different. That feeling you get when you bump into a friend, and he’s lost his long hair, replaced the leather jacket with a suit, got botox, sold the motorbike and bought a Mercedes, and his girlfriend is no longer Natasha with the dreads, but Amal with the suitcase. You know it’s still your friend George, but you keep on being tempted to ask if he is sure it’s him.

Here, for comparison, is a random photo of Heiðmörk in June 2017.

The entirety of Heiðmörk is 3,200 hectares, and apart from all the Mars landscapes it now is the home to a pretty impressive forest, more about which in part two. But I can’t resist telling the anecdote anymore. Helga Maureen’s father, when faced with the perspective of being forced to live in a country with trees in it, said grumpily “I don’t know why they have to put dem forests everywhere! Now with all those trees you can’t see the landscape at all!”

In general Iceland is a place where I want to go simply so that I can hide from people and not see any of them. In Heiðmörk there quite a few people, but I didn’t mind too much…

We went horseriding at a completely different spot, but this would have been perfect. Imagine being on a horse, peacefully (if painfully) trotting through Mars. My list for next visit is already filling up, and we won’t be able to afford another visit until someone finally buys all my internal organs from eBay.

Before finishing part 1, here’s a look at something. The colours and shades of lava are incredible. You can see them on those pictures. Not much Photoshop had been used, other than bumping the exposure and fixing some of the burn-in of the sky. And I am posting this photo without a single bit of Photoshop below. All those lava colours exist in the nature. Some create gradients. Purple, orange, red, brown, black, grey, yellow… This alone is sufficient proof for me that nature felt extremely generous, and perhaps a tad tipsy, when creating Iceland.

“Yeah, I’ve got all those colours… how do I pick just one or two… oh what the hell, I’ll just give them EVERYTHING”.

“But what about other countries, mom? They like colours too!”

“I told you not to call me mom. It’s MOTHER Nature. Also, bugger ’em. They can do with grey and brown. I like this spot particularly.”

In part two, coming soon, I will introduce you to a proper Icelandic forest… and the photo books… and the calendars… but let’s not get carried away. Yet.

The sound of the water falling

The first waterfall we encountered was accidental. We went to Guðrúnarlaug, and as we were bathing in the hot tub, Husby pointed something out.

We had no idea if this six-year-old sized beauty had a name, but it was just a bonus to being able to be completely alone, bathing in a hot tub surrounded by snow. It gave us something to listen to.

The second one you have already seen – it was a little bonus that came with our trip to Snæfellsnes. Because why not? Iceland is generous like that. This one has a name: Bjarnarfoss.

But why settle for two when you can have four and are greedy AF?

I am all scientific and shit, researchy and hermity (and authorsy and writersy). But there were touristic places even I had to visit. When we came here last year, we’ve walked through a large chunk of Þingvellir, but didn’t quite get to the end of one of the paths. This year I found what was at the end of that path, and it just so happened to be a waterfall: Öxarárfoss.

In order to get there, we had to walk through a path made largely of snow, ice, and black ice. Very little sunshine and warmth gets that deep between the rock walls. (As you might know, Þingvellir served to film The Wall for Game of Thrones series. It really is that size.) By the way, the green water really was green, and I didn’t know why, but all I wanted was to sit there and be. And I got my wish. We got there early, ehmm… for our standards, and were lucky enough to avoid most tourists.

This is the end part of the path, and I mostly took this photo to prove we survived.

On our way back to the car we found out how lucky we were to go early, because we bumped into the content (i.e. tourists) of two buses. I helped an old lady not to fall on one of the icy rocks, and she smiled, and so did I. But then we had to stop, because we encountered two girls…

“Ermagerd Kareeeeen it’s slipperyyyy!!!”
“Noooo Janet I can’t, I am staying here!!!”

(I barely resisted the urge to say “that’s fine, humans die quite fast without food and water”.)

“But Kareeeeen!! Help meeeee!!!”
“I caaaaan’t!!! OMG!!!”

If they could speak in emojis, they would. But finally they managed to balance themselves a meter further, thus allowing everyone else to move at least a bit. And this was when I realised I was a bloody hypocrite. Because Karen and Janet were tourists, but so were we. We paid to be in Iceland, but so did Karen and Janet (and when you know the prices of those tourist trips, I bet you they paid much, much more). It is not illegal to act like a twatwaffle just because you are surrounded by a place that is holy to many people. It is not illegal to squee and be drunk, offensive, obnoxious in front of statues, waterfalls, or mountains. But I didn’t want Karen, Janet, and all other people to be there. I wanted to be able to sit in front of Öxarárfoss and listen to nothing but its roar. This is not how tourism works. (I have a certain idea what I’m going to do next time, though. It’s based on the fact that in the summer it never gets dark in Iceland.)

Iceland is currently so popular, their unemployment rate is 2.2%. Anything below 4% is generally considered people who don’t want to work for various reasons (not: can’t, but don’t want). In other words, Iceland has practically minus unemployment. This is caused by the amounts of tourists. The repairs of the roads, the attempts to create public transport more refined than a bus network in Reykjavik – all for the tourists. But the tourists also damage the country. They yell “Kareeeeen!!!” in it. And the fact that I am judging them like the Harry Potter hat doesn’t change the fact that they kept the economy not just afloat, but booming in the recent years.

When we went to Gullfoss I expected the worst, people-wise. But most of the people, even kids, kept quiet. Although there was a chance they were yelling. I was busy. Because Gullfoss is enormous, and it sounds the way it looks.

This is probably the most touristic place we’ve seen. This photo might not look so impressive. But look on the left. That’s the road. Then look at the blue dot. That’s a full-sized human person.

Gullfoss has an official site, which states:

The water plummets down 32 meters in two stages into a rugged canyon which walls reach up to 70 meters in height.

I can absolutely believe that. Although at some point I lost the ability to say how tall the canyon was. It was just…gigantic.

One of the things that draw me to Iceland so much is that the nature doesn’t give a shit about you. You’re just a bit of it. In so many places (I live in Amsterdam, enough said) the nature seems to have been conquered, at least until a hurricane starts tearing trees out of the ground, throwing them at cars, killing people. Not so in Iceland. This waterfall’s safety measures again extended to miserable rope hanging a few inches over the ground. If you want to die, the waterfall seemed to say, suit yourself. Just don’t expect me to care.

Can you believe in 1907 there was serious danger that this incredible, terrible beauty would have been turned into a power plant by an English businessman? Read more here, but I would like to thank Sigriður for almost single-handedly ensuring that this wouldn’t happen. A sculpture of her likeness can be seen at the entrance, and Sigriður fits the place.

I left with enormous respect. For Sigriður, for force of nature, for the fact that all those places just…exist. And when we dispose of mankind by pressing Larger Red Buttons That Actually Work, or just drown in emojis, Gullfoss will still be there, roaring, impatient, angry, and not interested in any of us, whether it’s Karen, Janet, Chad, Husby, or me.

Horsing around

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Stjarna (my new girlfriend, pictured) is not a pony. Icelandic horses are small, compact, strong, have incredible endurance, lots of patience, and ability to cross very rough terrain. Which I experienced.

In my novel, Gunnar the blacksmith is an owner of a horse called Karl. Karl is – guess what – small, compact, strong, patient, and very strong-willed. Karl is also kind of self-driving, which allows Gunnar to get in the saddle, sort of doze off, then wake up when they arrived in town. This was a part of in-person research that really worried me, because reading about horses while never having been on one didn’t fill me with confidence that I will be able to accurately describe the experience. Therefore I made a decision which was, no joke, very difficult. Because I suffered two spine injuries almost three years ago. I spent most of 2016 in so much pain I could barely move, building piles of pillows to keep me at this one exact angle where the pain was least excruciating. Towards the end of 2016 I gave up on the idea that I would ever have a pain-free life, and decided to end it. I didn’t. Instead, on January 1, 2017 I started work on the novel.

Getting on a horse, for me, brought risks different to those it had for others. While the injuries are as “fixed” as possible, I still occasionally require heavy painkillers, and some parts of my back have most probably degraded due to the fact it took way too long to diagnose the actual problems. I knew what I was getting into. I knew there would be price. I hoped it wouldn’t be too high. But at the same time, you only live twice, and I felt my previous life ended in 2016. Having considered all this, I decided I would take a ride, and booked one with Laxnes Horse Farm. I had no interest in their day tours, I only wanted to experience the Icelandic horse.

On our way I started getting somewhat anxious. Like, “I wish I brought a diaper” anxious.

“Are you OK?” asked me one of the guides, handing me a helmet.

“I’m terrified, ma’am,” I answered truthfully.

“Why?”

“Because I just realised horses are living creatures.”

I am a child of the city, trying to make sense of living in nature. There’s nowhere I would rather live than a log cabin far away from people, but I still shriek when a spider finds its way towards me. And the problem with a horse is that it doesn’t have a steering wheel, set of pedals, or buttons.

I had the steering sort of explained, and tried to do it. Stjarna gave me approximately 10% of her attention. Yes, she reluctantly turned left or right when I pulled at the reins, but that was about it. I could sort-of-kind-of make her stop, but there was no way she would start moving when I wanted her to. (This, by the way, is incredibly useful research for my book, because obviously Gunnar’s horse is going to be exactly like this.) At one point, the guide’s horse was ready at the gate, and Stjarna – again, unprompted – positioned herself right behind. Then the gate opened, and we started moving. “I guess I decided to go first,” I announced into thin air, hearing some shrieks behind me. Husby was nowhere to be found, and later told me his horse (uhhh… Indiana Jones) decided to go last.

(This is Stjarna thinking “I am SO over this, can we go home yet, because I hear Netflix calling my name”.)

Without a warning, we started moving faster, going from the “pffft this is so easy” gait to “OMG I MIGHT DIE” gait. (I think that’s called “trot” which is somehow mure humiliating.) More shrieks followed, and some of them might or might not have come from me. But that was still OK. Even when we were going downhill and I was as relaxed as an average statue. Until we got to a nice stream.

“How funny,” I thought, looking around. “We can’t go either left or right from h–”

Stjarna LOVED water. She loved it so much that while most horses picked the shallowest spot, she decided to get herself thoroughly cleaned. Well, herself and my boots. The inside of my boots. (The farm offers riding boots, but you have to ask for them. I was kind of expecting to be babysat like an American that I’m not, so I didn’t ask.) I could feel her horseshoes slipping in the water, and I prayed for my life.

Somehow, we survived. One of the guys’ horse was in a mood to, eh, horse around a bit. The guy would sometimes shout “I guess this is goodbye!” or “I see I decided to take a break”, as his horse – just as self-driving as Stjarna – did whatever it felt like doing.

I said to one of the guides that I was doing research, and this was the most exciting research I have ever done in my entire life. I felt fantastic. Grin hadn’t left my face for a second. We got to a spot where we took a break, I got off the horse, back on, then again, and I was super pleased that it was actually something I could do – I was half-expecting that I would need two bodybuilders and a wooden box to get on a horse, then end up sitting with my face towards the horse’s back.

(I think both Stjarna and me blinked at the same time.)

The way back was exactly the same, except faster. The tour takes 1.5 hours during the winter period, and 2 hours outside winter period. I’m a greedy bastard, so I was all like “I want two hours! Give me my extra half an hour!” and oh yes, I got that half an hour alright. Except both Husby and me ended up looking greedily towards the direction we expected the farm to be. Trust me, two hours is enough.

When we arrived back, I thought, well – now that I am a super-experienced rider, I’m going to park Stjarna WHERE I WANT. Hella no. She picked a spot next to another horse, and decided to stay there. “I guess you’re staying there,” I said in a resigned voice.

We went inside for a coffee. As our hands, bums, legs, and other parts continued to shake, we were invited to grab some coffee. When I asked who shoes the horses, I found out it was the guy helping us recaffeinate, Haukur. Immediate BFFing followed. And this is where I’m going to go on a tangent, which always irritated me in books. A lot of authors don’t bother researching blacksmithing in the slightest. Sharpening swords with hammers. Hitting the iron and making sparks fly around. FYI, that means the iron is burnt, and you can throw it away, unless you’re forge-welding, which is not what one does with swords. Because in books blacksmiths always make swords. Unless they are making gleaming horseshoes.

This is what actual horseshoes look like.

I suppose this…could be called gleaming in some sort of light? I asked Haukur whether he was using any finishing at all, but no, this was just standard low-carbon steel. A horseshoe lasts between 6-8 weeks, at which point it generally gets replaced. Similarly as with tires, all shoes need to be more or less at the same degree of being worn out, so you don’t replace a worn out with a new one. Therefore the shoes generally get used twice, giving them a useful life of 12-16 weeks. The funny thing is that once they are actually being worn by the horse they become somewhat gleaming, because the soil and rocks tear off the rust.

I’ll stop now.

I am not a t-shirt buying sort of person, but I bought one before you could as much as blink. I SURVIVED THIS.

The day after every single bit of my back hurt so bad I had difficulties breathing. As if my ribs became too tight, and stopped the lungs from properly expanding. It had been very different to say “yes, I am ready to suffer”, rather than, you know, actually suffer. The second day I could breathe again, as long as I spent most of the time sitting. Today is day three, and it’s getting much better. Knowing the amount of pain I would go through later, I would have done it again in a flash. In fact, had it not been for the (uhem… TMI coming) fact my bum is bruised, I would be doing it today.

I ran… er. I crawled towards the sofa to quickly make notes about the ride. I will still need an actual rider to take a look at this part of the novel so I don’t end up with the equestrian equivalent of “the blacksmith making gleaming horseshoes”, but the biggest problem is that I am completely in love with Stjarna, even though it doesn’t seem reciprocated at all.

To finish it off… they look very authentic, but I think I should clean them a bit, whaddayathink…?

I love doing research, even if it hurts for days.

Saga Museum and National Museum (Þjóðminjasafn Íslands)

My brother came over to spend the weekend, and one of his wishes was to see a Viking museum. Of course so was mine, and this is how we ended visiting the Saga Museum.

Don’t expect to spend a lot of time there. The guided tour (audio in various languages via headphones and a little player) takes 30 minutes. The museum is, in my opinion, aimed at teenagers rather than history nerds. Having said that, I had a blast. There is a section where you can try on (real) chainmail, play with (fake) weapons, and take photos. I happen to have tons of chainmail at home because of Husby, so I skipped that bit. But one of the props is a very, very surprised Viking, whose facial expression reminded me a lot of how I must have looked when on a bad hair day I bumped into an ex.

The Sagas are an incredibly vast collection of stories. A lot of people are aware of Ragnar Loðbrok (although most people don’t know that while Ragnar might have existed or not, his sons definitely had, and their stories outnumber daddy’s by roughly a factor of ten). From what I saw at the museum I was most fascinated by the story of a nun called sister Katrín. I am very tempted to try my hand at turning her story into a novella. I will keep you posted on how that goes.

Perhaps this proves my real mental age is 14, but I would absolutely recommend a visit. While visually the museum was a bit less exciting than I would like it to be – a commentary of two minutes accompanies one wax statue – it managed to expose the listener to quite a lot of knowledge without becoming boring. However, it is not a Viking museum that my brother expected, even if the website is the first hit I get on Google. It is a Saga museum. Don’t expect shirtless Ragnar and Rollo to appear, and you’ll have a great time. Pro-tip: I took pictures of all plaques with written explanations, and greatly regretted they offered maybe ten percent of the text in the headphones. As we were departing, I found out that it was possible to buy a programme with full transcript. I consider it one of the best purchases I made during this visit.

The National Museum was, of course, a very different beast. First of all, it is enormous, the way a National Museum should be. It spans the period from 9th century when Ingólfur Arnarson decided Reykjavik would be a nice place to live at until more or less 2010. Yes, you will see something related to Björk. Strangely, from the technical point of view this museum offered a rather difficult visual experience. The text boxes placed next to many artifacts were illuminated so brightly I would have needed to cover the text and give my eyes a minute to accomodate in order to see anything.

(The black part on the left is the wood the display is embedded in. The black part on the right is a glass cabinet with tools listed. I think. It’s kind of hard to say.)

This is a minor complaint, just surprising for a museum so meticulously arranged. There are pieces of silver jewellery which look new hundreds of years after they had been made. A woollen glove from centuries ago which looks as if it was just bought five minutes ago, then accidentally ripped in one spot. Blacksmithing equipment from Viking times. Costumes. Embroideries. Stories of chieftains, bishops, politicians. Photographs. Paintings. And agenda.

It is, of course, very difficult to create a truly agenda-free presentation of history, because history is not made of facts. Had Hitler won the second World War, we would now be learning very different “facts” from very different books. But I left the National Museum with a strange feeling that the Saga Museum was more objective in its presentation. One man’s “torturing and executing those who did not ‘accept the Faith'” is another’s “extensively increasing the acceptance of Christianity”. Executions had indeed proven to be a very successful way of converting those who enjoyed being alive, but they were somewhat glossed over by the museum.

I was also somewhat surprised at the amount of times the museum’s curators found it apt to repeat phrases such as “Icelandic men…and also some women”. Bear in mind, however, that I have my own agenda that makes me mention those things, and not others. One of the motifs running throughout my novel in progress is that the same story told by two people will be at best similar. I believe the most objective non-topical museum I have visited in my life had been the Amsterdam Museum, but then…do I know enough to be certain of that?

The fishing team of Captain Magnus most probably used a similar boat.

Why, yes. I might have a slight bias towards everything related to metalwork.

The reason why I wanted to visit the National Museum was to immerse myself in Iceland throughout the ages, and my wish was one hundred percent fulfilled. In fact, having spent three hours in there (we only left because it was announced through the loudspeakers that we had to), I started feeling oddly…responsible. As if I have taken too much upon my tattooed shoulders. I needed coffee, cake (the museum cafe = AWESOME), and a lot of rest afterwards to digest everything I saw, read, heard. Not once in my life have I devoted so much attention to history. When we arrived at the museum’s store, I got a tiny bit nuts. Unfortunately, unlike the Saga Museum, Þjóðminjasafn Íslands does not offer a full catalogue of everything (which is because one would need a truck to take it home), but I spent an awful lot of time staring at an awful lot of books. I reminded myself over and over again that I have a backlog of 200 or so books that I need to read, and that I already bought twelve new ones here in Iceland. But my heart exploded when I got to a full collection of Icelandic Sagas. How lucky, I thought, that they’re in Icelandic. I don’t need them! And then I saw the English edition. Five hardcover books in a box. If you click this link, look at the prices.

 

I will find a way to somehow make the purchase of this boxed set count as research. But not this time, because my credit card is in process of getting a restraining order against me.

Bjarnarfoss and Snæfellsnes

For this one I would like to thank Ásgeir of the DoMoreAsgeir fame.

I found Ásgeir’s site via Iceland Magazine, and started clicking around. Snæfellsnes was among my 500 links I saved in the MUST SEE folder, but it was his photos that convinced me we had to go. It was a trip of over two hours one way, and I had to convince Husby that it was worth driving there. The page I linked to at the beginning of this post was enough. We got in the car, and off we went.

Driving in Iceland is a pleasure in itself (said the person who doesn’t drive). You’re driving on scenic motorways. But we got more than we ever expected. We got a bonus waterfall.

This is Bjarnarfoss. According to the website I linked it’s “a moderately tall waterfall visible from Highway 54”. I didn’t see it, but Husby did, and started parking the car without even warning me. “What?” I asked, bewildered, worried something car-y broke. He just pointed at…this.

I have never seen a proper waterfall in my life, even a moderately tall one, unless you count the approx. 1 meter tall one at Guðrúnarlaug. It wasn’t windy, so we didn’t witness a sideways stream. But I had no complaints (and stayed dry). It was hard to tear me away from the bonus waterfall, but we knew the actual attractions awaited us further, at the Snæfellsnes peninsula.

Ásgeir begins his description of the journey with Arch Rock, but I got stuck the second I saw Bárður Snæfellsás.

I won’t get into Bárður’s story, because I’d be retyping Regína Hrönn’s words (I have such a sis-crush on Regína Hrönn). I’m just going to say this – seeing him in person is a breathtaking experience, the first of many at this part of Snæfellsnes. I had to touch him and feel the energy myself. He is the work of Ragnar Kjartansson, and the most incredible thing is that the statue looks like a part of the landscape that always belonged there. It looks much more natural than the actual nature. Because this is what nature actually created for us to look at…

Once you get over the fact that a large part of this photo is, er, bird shit, you will notice the columns in bottom left part. I can’t come up with a reason for Mother Nature to make them so straight and angular other than simply that She can. In the top left corner you see some random person whom I got on the photo on purpose. For scale.

The water inside roars, as it stays there on the bottom. Then, without a warning, similarly to a geyser, it shoots up. Sometimes higher, sometimes not so much, as if the Gods found it amusing to ruin my attempts to capture it on film. I tried not to be That Person who hardly sees anything apart from their phone’s screen, and managed, because I kept on getting stuck in various spots where I just wanted to stay forever and watch. When I die, and I hope that will not be anytime soon, I would like my ashes to get scattered here:

The water took all colours. Steel grey, coldest blue you’ve ever seen, yellowish, sickly tint, but also deepest emerald – everything but the blue you’ve seen in my previous posts. And I just sat there on the cliff – that’s where I took this photo from – as the view went forever. The clear air, even on a somewhat rainy day, allows you to look for miles, and being here in April ensured that we wouldn’t see many tourists.

By the way, remember when I mentioned Iceland doesn’t fuck around when it comes to marking the dangerousestest spots? Here’s how they decided to mark a spot where you could kill yourself super fast:

I hope this thick fence makes you feel extremely safe, and it better would, because a few meters later it ends. The path you can see in bottom right corner continues, there are no “do not approach” or warning signs. Having seen what some tourists were doing (the longer we hung around, the more people arrived) I am seriously surprised that the bodycount isn’t measured in hundreds.

Hellnar (I think I’m identifying the spot correctly) doesn’t belong to people – very little in Iceland really does. It belongs to the birds. The kittiwakes (pictured above) make a lot of noise. So do the waves, and the wind. As with most things and places I love, I very quickly started feeling possessive, and tempted to accidentally throw the shrieking children off the cliffs. I had to forcibly remind myself that children are our future, and that they are actually also a natural phenomenon. And once the wind got stronger it became possible to find a spot where I could close my eyes and not hear any sound that was human-made.

We didn’t find the cafe Fjöruhúsið that Ásgeir mentioned. We went into a restaurant at the parking lot, ate caramel apple pie (possibly best apple pie I ever had), drank coffee, then returned into the car. We felt we gorged on the views enough, and skipped the rest of Snæfellsnes. We drove home mostly in silence, interrupted by Google Maps (you wouldn’t believe what the voice of Google Maps can do with words like “Hafnarfjörður”…), expecting nothing more…

…and then nature gave us one parting shot.

A little note. The only image in this entire post where I used Photoshop at all is the first one, the featured photo with a little house. All other photos are unretouched. This is what everything actually looked like…except the reality was not limited by a phone camera’s resolution.

This is my seventh post in the series. I have three more waiting – of the things we’ve witnessed in the meantime. I don’t know if we managed to see one percent of what Iceland has on offer, my bet would be no, as we’re still staying within three hour radius from Reykjavik. I came here hoping – not a joke – that I would become bored, that the weather would put me off, the rain and wind make me count the days until I can go home. It hasn’t worked. The more I see, the more greed I discover in myself.

In unrelated news, I need to find a way to quietly dispose of tourists’ bodies if they don’t stop making noise.

About my novel, or: why all the Iceland?

I am currently in Reykjavík, Iceland. The sky is fully covered by clouds, which doesn’t stop us from hoping to see Northern lights just one more time before we depart. Yes. I’m greedy like that.

 

But how did all this happen?

It all started with a dream I had many years ago. I dreamt of a fishing village, where three brothers – one of whom was a pastor – fell in love with the same woman. There was more to the dream, of course. Blood, gore, fire, drama, and that final scene where the pastor confesses his sins to all the parishioners, and gets chased out of town, as the church burns in the distance.

It was the most cinematic dream I’ve ever had. It was also, frankly, quite ridiculous. Entertaining, but ridiculous. So I thought I would forget about it, same as all my dreams before, but I didn’t. I carried it in my head for years. Every now and then I would see or hear something, and then be reminded of the dream. My writer’s mind – I’ve been writing since I was 7, blogging for 15+ years with thousands of readers who followed me when I moved on – kept on adding and removing details. Expanding on them. It became one of my multiple “yeah this might become a novel one day, I mean look at those horrible books that get published nowadays lulz I could do so much better if I only tried”. But I never tried. Who’s got time for that?

A few years ago I had enough to do. I was working at the forge aiming to become a full-time professional blacksmith, I was renovating and selling an apartment, getting married…and somewhere in the middle of all this I lifted a piece of IKEA furniture, something snapped in my back, and that was the moment my blacksmithing career was over, although I didn’t know it yet.

 

Enter Ásgeir

 

Someone sent me this video. There are two people who could have sent me this song. Both insist they heard about it from me. I listened, then again, and fell in love with the song, but didn’t like anything about the album. I dismissed it as muzak. Then, a while later, I noticed husby was playing something really beautiful. I asked “what’s that?” and he answered, “oh, it’s this Ásgeir guy”. My jaw dropped, and I listened. And listened.

In The Silence would later become my album of the year for both 2014 and 2015 (nothing better came out). I’d buy the regular CD, Icelandic version (Dýrð í dauðaþögn), the vinyl, the 3CD special edition, acquire (thanks Jens!) the 7″ picture disc for Nú hann blæs, cry my eyes out during the concert in Amsterdam – the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

Once I realised who translated Einar Georg Einarsson’s – Ásgeir’s father’s – lyrics into a language I understood, I fell hard for John Grant. A little book called “Bad/Good sides of Iceland” lists John Grant as the only celebrity who moved to Iceland and bothered to learn the language. (Which didn’t stop him from singing “I hate this fucking town” about Reykjavík, but that’s a different story.) I listened to the music, the dream marinated quietly in my head, until one day something in my brain sort of clicked.

A thought appeared: “I wonder if they used to have fishing villages like ‘mine’ in Iceland?” Had I known the timing of this thought would prove to be important, I would have written it down. But back at that point all I knew was that Ásgeir’s Dýrð í dauðaþögn sounded divine, the English translations were beautiful, and everything about the music largely describing freezing cold felt like home and warmth. Which was something I needed a lot at that time…

 

2016

I spent most of 2016 in horrible pain from the back injuries. I tried, and failed, and tried, and failed to return to the forge. 30 minutes of work would result in three weeks of pain. I started dreading going to the forge, already wary before leaving the house of the pain that it would cause. Finally, I gave up. (And tried again, and gave up again, because that’s how I roll.) I missed – still do – the smell of hot iron and burning coal more than anything in the world, but still not enough to voluntarily cause myself massive suffering.

I survived this year because of the love of my husby and friends; music; sheer stubbornness. But it got close, very uncomfortably close. Maybe that was why on January 1, 2017, I opened the laptop and started typing in my story of three brothers in a fishing village. The date wasn’t a symbolic gesture. I was mildly depressed, in a bit less pain than usual, had nothing better to do. People with spine injuries don’t party too hard on New Year’s Eve. So I sat on my profiled pillows, and typed. For two weeks. Averaging 12 hours a day. I finished the first draft, 180 pages of text, in two weeks.

 

2017

When you write a story down, you start seeing the problems with it. The weaknesses, parts that simply make no sense at all, but also the research and problems you’ve just placed in front of yourself. To begin with, I didn’t actually know if villages like the one I needed existed at all. I couldn’t place it right in time – it had to be historical-ish, but I never really read much about this period. I hated things that had to do with war, shooting each other (what’s wrong with a good ol’ axe???), digging trenches, throwing grenades, and writing letters to your beloved one back at home. I had a story about people, and this story required the right timing, place, backdrop… and Ásgeir continued providing the sonic landscape.

I did not do a bit of research until this first draft was finished. I didn’t even check whether Iceland would work for me at all. But when I bought ‘Wasteland with words’ by Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon it felt like magic. I received answers to questions I didn’t even know I had. Mostly, though, I was shown very clearly that Iceland was the right setting for my novel to take place. Better than right. Perfect. Reading ‘Wasteland with words’ resolved problems I didn’t notice I had. Sigurður Gylfi’s book allowed me to write down a list of all research questions I needed to do before proceeding.

Research

I read a lot and I started work on the second draft in March. At this point I was already trying to contact historians and church officials in Iceland, asking on my Polish blog whether somebody could perhaps help me with some things (my blog readers are magical). I talked husby and my dear friend Ulf into going together for a few days in June. But no blacksmiths or historians responded to my queries, and I gave up on the idea I would get to talk to anybody. Weeks before our departure I heard from Helga Maureen at Árbæjarsafn – yes, she would be happy to meet up and help me find answers to my questions. Bart the Leatherman, whom I met through my blog, helped me figure out where to go and what to see. In disbelief, I watched my dream coming true.

 

 

This first trip in June 2017 would give me new friends, new adventures, and turn Iceland from a place suitable for my novel into a full-blown obsessive love that began as the plane was landing, and I saw the shape of the island.

More to follow…

Reykjavik and surroundings

The main photo is a pretty good example of what Reykjavik is like, but it misses this certain je ne sais quoi…

Oh yes. This.

But also this:

Reykjavik makes me think that someone took a few towns I know – Warsaw, Cracow, Birmingham, and Berlin, then threw them all in a cauldron, stirred just a tad, then threw them in one spot, and surrounded by incredible nature for no reason at all. You can walk past a butt ugly building site with view on the mountains. Buildings that are nearly falling apart will be found right next to new and shiny ones, and both will be covered in breathtaking graffiti. Or in the “Bjarni was here lol” graffiti, of course. A super pricey jewelry store will be found next to something that looks like a neighbourhood cinema from an early Almodovar movie. And then Sun Voyager in front of, I kid you not, a gas station. Actually scratch the rest, this is what Reykjavik is like. (The sight of Sun Voyager puts tears in my eyes no matter how windy or sunny the day is.)

Guðrúnarlaug

Confession: I don’t really like people in large amounts.

I’ve always wanted to see what being in a hot geotermal pool/hot spring feels like. I’ve also always wanted tourists to cease existing while I was having my bath. This resulted in us taking a 2.5 hour trip (one way) to Guðrúnarlaug, a very well hidden place in West Iceland.

The trip itself looked mostly like this:

It’s easy for me to say, because I was not the person driving, but Iceland just…shows off. You’re on a motorway, surrounded by all this for no reason other than that Iceland can. And then you find yourself on a brink of actual precipice. Without anything similar to barriers. This country will kill you just because it can, too. Be careful, or be dead.

Northern lights

We booked a Northern Lights Special Tour Amazingness Mostly Guaranteed Three Decks And Free Overalls for Thursday night. Weather prediction was “not a single cloud on the northern hemisphere”. The aurora forecast – 3 (moderate). Which unfortunately has been the best so far. But it was also 3 on the Wednesday night. When, as you might remember, we were back from Seltún and, frankly, rather tired. We played cards for a bit before sleep, and on our way to bed I just took one look at my messages, and discovered our landlady sent us a few…

As we walked the street – with complete set of street lights, of course, and the streets of Reykjavik are BRIGHT – we already saw it. But we were aiming for the Sun Voyager, which was the darkest spot we could think of at such, er, short notice.

There was a bunch of people. Scots, Poles, Brits, who even knows. They were behaving like tourists, i.e. making noise, taking photos of themselves, etc. I tuned them out.

Seeing Northern lights on YouTube or photos just doesn’t prepare you for the reality of them. The photo above is maybe one percent of how bright they were; I just took a snapshot with the phone to remember the moment, the timestamp is more important than anything else. I know they are some sort of magnetic blah phenomenon of physics yada yada. To me they are Earth rubbing edges with Midgard. And the worlds were very near that night. As tourists squealed, trying not to fall in the water, cars passed by roaring, I stared at the stars, the sky, the magic.

The dance lasted about 45 minutes. We walked home, still casting looks up at the sky, awake like we’ve never been before. Upon our arrival home I felt as if someone punctured and deflated me. I dropped into bed and fell asleep. I dreamt of friends from many years ago, somehow connecting with people that are in my life now. Those I haven’t been in touch with for a decade hanging out with those who are dearest to me today. Finding old posters of music concerts that never happened. There were no Gods or auroras in my dreams. But there was magic of very different sort.

As you can guess, this built incredible expectations in us for Special Magical Northern Lights Tour On A Boat With Free Overalls. We arrived in time, joined the crowd, some of whom immediately started putting the Free Overalls on top of all the layers they already wore. This was an aurora equivalent of the sort of people who queue at the gate at the airport before the plane even arrives. The boat departed on time. We stood on the deck, waiting. The sky was cloudless. The further we were from Reykjavik harbour, the more stars we could see, and the more I realised how difficult it really is to escape light pollution. We waited.

And then we waited some more.

And then we returned to the harbour at 1am. Some people who wore Free Overalls got so overheated they fell asleep. But other than stars in the sky and shockingly delicious waffles they missed very little.

I have grown to respect nature. Not just Icelandic, nature in general. Because nature doesn’t give a fuck about what you planned or paid for. You can’t make Northern lights appear because you booked a tour. If the Gods so decide, you’ll be subjected to the magic in the middle of the city, with a bunch of half-drunk Scots shouting around you. The aurora forecast which says “moderate” may be incorrect. The “quiet” (this is when we saw the lights a day earlier) may be equally incorrect. We fly to the moon – well, not recently – carry supercomputers in our pocket, access all pornography music ever recorded via invisible waves going between phone towers and our pocket supercomputers. But we still don’t know how to get rid of mosquitoes, or cause natural phenomenons to happen because we booked them.

Earlier today I have rewritten the entire scene in which an American girl witnesses an aurora for the first time. I might have overused the word “magic” a bit. But if you haven’t seen it, you’ll have to trust me – there is very little that compares to Northern lights chasing the stars as you stand next to Sun Voyager, watching.

Seltún

Despite my near-death experience with manflu I decided we couldn’t spend a sunny, warm day sitting at home and fiddling with our laptops, and dragged husby out to Seltún.

Google Maps and Iceland don’t really cooperate very well. Entering “Seltún” into Google Maps led us more or less in the right direction until we arrived at a gravel path wide enough to accommodate one Victoria Beckham, and covered in “DO NOT ENTER, ESPECIALLY BY CAR, BUT GENERALLY DO NOT ENTER AT ALL” signs. What you need to know is that Icelanders don’t fuck around with those signs. This is not a country where a coffee cup says “may contain coffee, and said coffee may be hot, which you will recognise by the fact you ordered a hot coffee”. If they put warning signs on everything that’s actually dangerous for you, you wouldn’t be able to leave Reykjavik, and from what I know about its nightlife even that might be doubtful. If a sign in Iceland says “danger”, that means “while everywhere else you can break a leg and die a slow, painful death, here you will break your legs and arms, then die a very slow, painful death, being forced by elves to listen to ‘My Heart Will Go On’ on repeat”. If it says “DO NOT ENTER”… that means you do not enter.

We did not enter.

The visitreykjanes.is website fortunately provides more than just names of the spots: it has geographical coordinates. Which is how we managed to get to Seltún. Husby was dripping with sweat – apparently driving in turns on ice, gravel, and ice mixed with gravel is not very easy. But nevertheless he decided to put on his winter jacket. And that’s how we discovered he left it at home.

Luckily I have yet again proven that I am a diva who has no clue how to dress in Iceland. I brought along my new-old sweater, my old-old sweater, a winter hat, a lumberjack baseball cap (don’t ask), and two pairs of gloves. Plus, of course, my own coat. And that’s how it’s been proven once again that we truly complete each other. Suitably dressed, we spent two hours walking through the snow and mud, inhaling the beautiful smell of rotten eggs, and…

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