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.

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.

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…