Tarnmoor’s ABCs: Iceland

Land of Fire, Ice—and Sagas

Land of Fire, Ice—and Sagas

I was so very impressed by Czeslaw Milosz’s book Milosz’s ABC’s. There, in the form of a brief and alphabetically-ordered personal encyclopedia, was the story of the life of a Nobel Prize winning poet, of the people, places, and things that meant the most to him. Because his origins were so far away (Lithuania and Poland) and so long ago (1920s and 1930s), there were relatively few entries that resonated personally with me. Except it was sad to see so many fascinating people who, unknown today, died during the war under unknown circumstances.

This blog entry is my own humble attempt to imitate a writer whom I have read on and off for thirty years without having sated my curiosity. Consequently, over the next few months, you will see a number of postings under the heading “Tarnmoor’s ABCs” that will attempt to do for my life what Milosz accomplished for his. I don’t guarantee that I will use up all 26 letters of the alphabet, but I’ll do my best. Today, we’re at the letter “I”:

I have been to Iceland twice, first in 2001 and then in 2013, both times by myself. (The first time, Martine didn’t want to go; the second time, she couldn’t.) During the two trips, I traveled around almost the entire circumference of the island, and through the interior on the Kjölur route, where we traveled on a long dirt road and forded several rivers between Geysir and Akureyri. Would I go again? Yes, in a heartbeat, but I’d like to go with someone so that we could rent a car and see some of the lush countryside off the main routes.

What led me to Iceland was, not surprisingly for a bookworm like me, was reading the Icelandic sagas. In the 13th century AD, there was no better literature being written anywhere in Europe. Other than a handful of Arthurian legends and a few devotional books, there just was no competition to the “Big Five” Sagas of Icelanders, namely: Njals Saga, Grettir’s Saga, Egils Saga, the Laxdaela Saga, and the Eyrbyggja Saga. I have read all five at least twice; the Njals Saga, the greatest of them all, at least three or four times. The last time I went, I visited two museums dedicated to individual sagas, in Hvõlsvollur (Njals Saga) and in Borgarnes (Egils Saga).

Both times, I did all my traveling by bus. Occasionally I took tours when I had to. Otherwise, I used the public Stræto and Sterna buses. It isn’t terribly difficult, as all bus drivers and just about everyone else under the age of 70 in Iceland speaks English. This is a function not only of education, but of the prevalence of English and American television programming.

At least once a day, I would have delicious fish dinners. At the majority of restaurants where I dined, I was no farther than a couple hundred feet from the fishing boats that had just brought in their catch. Until I went to Iceland, I had no idea of what fresh fish really tasted like. Now I do. I would just order the fish special of the day, even if I never heard of that fish species before. It was always scrumptious, whether it was arctic char, salt water catfish, and most especially my favorite—cod. In Southern California, I am allergic to shrimp and lobster. In the cold waters off Iceland, I had no allergy problems.

Until global warming becomes more prevalent, the tourist season in Iceland is a necessarily short one, lasting only from June to August. Already, at the end of August, many tourist facilities are converted back to school facilities and visiting hours are slashed. People start thinking about the darkness of winter. Toward the end of June, the sun never entirely sets. It is up when you go to bed, and up when you awake. I thought I would not be able to sleep under those conditions: If I tire myself out, which I frequently did, there was no problem.

I would love to fly back to Reykjavík with a Kindle loaded with Icelandic sagas.