Letter from Iceland

View Around Mývatn in Northeast Iceland

In the Thirties, two English poets, W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, took a trip to Iceland. Auden wrote a book, published in 1936, called Letters from Iceland, which consisted of mixed prose, poetry, and photographs. The following is from a longer poem in Chapter III entitled “Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard”:

So I came here to the land the Romans missed,
Left for the Irish saint and the Viking colonist.
But what am I doing here? Qu’allais je faire
Among these volcanic rocks and this grey air?
Why go north when Cyprus and Madeira
De jure if not de facto are much nearer?
The reason for hereness seems beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture,
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth.
The tourist sites have nothing like Stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge,
And yet I like it if only because this nation
Enjoys a scarcity of population
And cannot rise to many bores or hacks
Or paupers or poor men paying Super-Tax.
Yet further, if you can stand it, I will set forth
The obscure but powerful ethics of Going North.
*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *    *     *
In England one forgets—in each performing troupe
Forgets what one has lost, there is no room to stoop
And look along the ground, one cannot see the ground
For the feet of the crowd, and the lost is never found.
I dropped something, I think, but I am not sure what
And cannot say if it mattered much or not,
So let us get on or we shall be late, for soon
The shops will close and the rush hour be on.

The reference to a “lack of wealth” refers to the relative poverty of Iceland until it became an independent country in 1946. Under the Danes,  the Icelanders were one of the poorest peoples in Europe. No longer.

In Dubious Terrain

Volcanic Steam Vents Near Þingvellir Iceland

It is almost five years since I last set foot in Iceland. Curiously, most of the vacations I have had since then have been in earthquake and volcanic zones. It is almost as if being in highly dubious terrain has become a metaphor for my life. All those Icelandic steam vents, all those fumaroles—they are a handy symbol for the curve balls that life can throw at you. I am reminded of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in which Pilgrim must walk a straight and narrow path from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, which is Heaven.

My first memory of Iceland, going back to my first visit in 2001, was of all the steam vents on the Reykjanes Peninsula between Keflavík Airport and Reykjavík. Then, too, there were those fields of geysers where one had to stay on the path if one didn’t want to fall through the crust and end up boiled to death within seconds.

The Volcano Sabancaya in Eruption Near Arequipa, Peru

In my seventy-third year on this earth, I find I must walk on the straight and narrow path lest I fall by the wayside. Living with Martine was a pleasant distraction—one I would gladly suffer again—but on my own, there are more things that can happen to me. I am determined to take good care of myself, insomuch as that is possible.

As you read these little squibs of mine, I should not be surprised if you could tell that something is wrong before I can inform you of the details.

In the meantime, I continue to plan for my vacation later this year in Guatemala, another land of earthquakes and volcanoes.

 

Mad About Travel

Crescent Lake Oasis Near Dunhuang, China

Immanuel Kant was a great philosopher, but I have no desire to emulate him. According to an editorial in Philosophy Now:

A curious case, this Kant. They say that travel broadens the mind, but Kant never in his whole life travelled more than ten miles from his home city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). He scraped a living for years as a private tutor before eventually becoming a hardworking professor at the university. He lived a life of disciplined regularity, taking the same walk around Königsberg at the same time each day, with such regularity that it was said that the inhabitants set their watches by him.

Living in Cleveland in the 1950s and 1960s, I desired more than anything else to travel. Even when I came out to California and got a job, it was a full seven years before I could afford to go anywhere but Cleveland. And when I did, my parents were appalled. “Why don’t you come to Cleveland?” Mom wheedled. “I’ll cook my favorite dishes for you.” That’s all I needed—to get even fatter.

I started out with baby steps, going to Mexico and traveling all around the country by bus and train (back when there were trains). I went to England and Scotland, too, and even joined my parents in 1977 to visit Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

In 2001, I went to Iceland; and, in 2006, I discovered South America. Now my desire for travel is insatiable. On the left corner of my kitchen table is a collection of travel guides from Lonely Planet and moon. While waiting for my morning paper to be delivered, I can read about the Trans-Siberian Railroad (2 guides), Iceland, Bolivia, Ecuador, and New Mexico while sipping a cup of hot tea.

December 29 is the last day of my working career, so I may not be able to afford some more distant locations; but Mexico and Guatemala continue to beckon. If I should win the lottery (hah!) I will try for the Trans-Siberian Railroad between Moscow and Vladivostok, though maybe diverting through Mongolia to Beijing. I can always dream, can’t I?

 

 

 

 

Midnight in Iceland

My Room on the Top Floor of the Guesthouse Óðinn at Midnight in June 2013

Now that we are fast approaching the darkest time of the year, my mind turns to my visit to Iceland in June 2013. In that Land of the Midnight Sun, I stayed out until midnight. When I returned to the Guesthouse Óðinn in Reykjavík around midnight, I snapped this picture. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to sleep with all the light, but fortunately the guesthouse had good blackout curtains (which you can see on the upper left of the third floor in the above photo).

My first day in Reykjavík was a long one. My Icelandair flight from Toronto arrived early in the morning. I had to busy myself for eighteen straight hours before turning in. Otherwise, I would have awakened in the middle of the night—rarin’ to go. That way I managed to minimize the jet lag which otherwise would have bedeviled me. It was a good thing, too, because the next day I had an all day tour of the Golden Circle (Þingvellir, Gullfoss, Geyser, and the geothermal power plant at Hellisheiði on the return to Reykjavík.).

 

Flateyri Will Get You Nowhere

The Town of Flateyri in Iceland’s Westfjords

One of the most picturesque parts of Iceland is its northwest, usually called the Westfjords. Here the mountains come close to the coast, and distances between towns are magnified by roads that laboriously travel around the shores of the long fjords that characterize the region. One town I went through in 2013 was Flateyri on the shores of Önundarfjördur, scene of a disastrous avalanche in October 1995. The town had a small population to begin with; and, after twenty people died in the avalanche, many of the survivors pulled up stakes and moved to other parts of Iceland which were not as susceptible to avalanches.

There is still an active fish processing industry in Flateyri, so guest workers from Poland and the Philippines were invited to take up the slack. This caused some problems, as the town fractured on cultural fault lines, with the native Icelanders not mixing well with the Poles and Filipinos, and the latter not making much of an effort to mix with the natives. You can read about this in a 2006 article from the Reykjavík Grapevine. I imagine that, over the last eleven years, the situation as changed for the better. For one thing, there is now a tunnel connecting Önundarfjördur with Isafjördur, the largest town in the Westfjords, taking hours off the trip by highway. I took this tunnel, called the Bolungarvíkurgöng, and it is quite an achievement—17,717 feet in length,

To protect against future avalanches, the Icelanders built a retaining wall (visible in the above photo, shaped like an upside-down “v”). The local restaurant, Vagninn, has re-opened; and a cultural center has been built.

Small towns in Iceland have had a difficult time surviving, especially when there are no large local projects such as aluminum smelters to act as an employment draw. Meanwhile Reykjavík continues to grow at the expense of rural Iceland. One possibility is that global warming will benefit rural Iceland, with more cash crops being grown outside of greenhouses.

Unfinished Business

Accordion Player in Downtown Buenos Aires

Accordion Player in Downtown Buenos Aires

I always say I have unfinished business with the people, places, and things that I love. Take Argentina, for instance. I have been there in 2006, 2011, and 2015. The first time, I broke my shoulder by slipping on the ice in Tierra Del Fuego; the second time (the best), I went with Martine and saw a good chunk of the Patagonia; the third time was mostly just fill-in, with visits to Iguazu Falls and Sar Carlos Bariloche. But I am by no means finished with Argentina, nor Argentina with me.

There is a broad stretch of the South Atlantic I’d love to see between Rio Gallegos and Carmen de Patagones. I would not mind taking long bus rides to God-forsaken ports like Puerto San Julian, Puerto Deseado, Caleta Olivia, Comodoro Rivadavia, and Bahia Blanca. I don’t even care if there aren’t that many notable tourist sights. I could easily put up with some slow time, especially as I would have two Kindle readers with me, and some 3,000 different titles to read. At my side will be my pocket digital rangefinder camera to catch people and places in the process of being something special.

Guanaco in the Buenos Aires Zoo

Guanaco in the Buenos Aires Zoo

Argentina isn’t the only place I’d like to see again. I wouldn’t mind spending more time at the English Bookshop in Quito, Ecuador. And Iceland will continue to be a lifelong love of mine. I only wish I could get Martine to come with me. She has some idea that she would have to dress like an Eskimo amid huge snowdrifts. Far from it! Iceland will be one of the few countries to benefit from global warming. My favorite destinations in Europe are on hold for now, because I suspect that mass immigration will change that continent forever. I also want to see more of the American Southwest, and Martine and I are planning one such trip right now that will take up large swaths of New Mexico, Colorado, and possibly Utah.

As Lao Tzu wrote, “From wonder, into wonder, existence opens.”

 

Not So Uncivilized

Carved Door at Reykjavík’s National Mseum

Carved Door at Reykjavík’s National Museum

“From the fury of the Norsemen, Oh Lord deliver us!” This was the cry of Western European churchmen in the 8th through 10th centuries as the Vikings raided coastal areas throughout Europe, seemingly killing and plundering at will. By the time any effective resistance was formed, the marauders had sailed away in their ships.

What many historians neglect to say is that these same marauders were every bid as advanced culturally as their victims. The main difference was that, until around AD 1000, the Scandinavian peoples were still pagans worshiping Thor, Odin, and Freya. By the time they themselves were Christianized, they left us a literature that was in no way inferior to that of the English and French.

The Icelandic sagas were written down in the 13th century, but they celebrated the deeds of their pagan ancestors (with a few Christian touches). In fact, I believe that no one could understand the period until they read the following five sagas: Njals Saga, Egils Saga, Eyrbyggja Saga, Laxdaela Saga, and Grettir’s Saga. (The first two sagas listed have entire museums dedicated to them in Hvolsvöllur and Borgarnes respectively.)

If you visit the National Museum or the Culture House in Reykjavík, you will see the work of a people who do not deserve to be thought of as barbarians.