Following on from my previous blog, the question many friends have been asking me since my return is, how was Iceland? As in Iceland, the place, not the writing retreat. I feel somewhat unqualified to answer. Firstly, I spent very little time indeed in Iceland and most of it cooped up in a hotel attending writing workshops. Secondly, the brief time I did spend out and about was largely marred by my own incompetence.
Take, for example, the Blue Lagoon, which I visited on my way from the airport to Reykjavik. As I basked in the milky blue waters amidst the alien volcanic landscape, I noticed people all around me sporting selfie sticks. I realised this wasn’t, after all, the most original or trail-blazing experience. That evening, a fellow retreater told me how she’d taken herself off instead to the local geothermal beach, which was selfie-free, and joined the locals in the practice of rubbing coffee granules onto the body before bathing.
My fellow participants, mostly from the US or Canada, were far more intrepid than me, and far less defeatist about the short amount of time on offer. They managed, somehow, to catch the northern lights, visit glaciers, eat sharks and discover underground comedy clubs and experimental music performances in downtown Reykjavik.
When I ventured into Reykjavik during a free workshop period, I got lost in the suburbs and, running out of time, had to give up, having visited precious few key landmarks. ‘It’s not a city with an obvious gravitational pull towards the centre,’ I explained to a new writer friend back at the hotel, trying to justify my failure. ‘Gee,’ she said, imagining an adventure, ‘I just love to get lost.’
Writing workshops concluded, the third day was to be given over to sightseeing. On offer were two bus tours: the well-trodden Golden Circle tour or the alternative ‘literary’ Borgarfjordur tour. I opted for the Golden Circle. I wanted Iceland’s gems handed to me on a plate. However, when the bus stopped after only ten minutes at the Kjarvalsstadir art gallery for a reading by an eminent Icelandic author, I realised I was on the wrong tour.
I was devastated. I would return home without seeing the geological triumvirate of the magnificent Gullfoss waterfall, the great spouting Geysir and the Pingvellir rift valley where the North American and Eurasian continental plates were tearing apart. I climbed back on the bus feeling bereft and stupid.
Our tour guide introduced himself. He was a geophysicist who had published forty textbooks on subjects including geology, volcanology and glaciology. He had also published seven volumes of poetry and four novels. Ha, I thought. Now, at least, everyone else on the bus feels stupid too. As we skirted Hvalfjordur Fjord, site of the Allied Arctic convoys, he pointed towards the mountains and remarked, ‘I am also a mountaineer.’
We lunched at Snorrastofa, home of celebrated medieval chieftain and writer Snorri Sturluson. Standing by Snorri’s old geothermal bathing pool a fellow passenger told me, ‘You know, I’ve done the Golden Circle before but, to be honest, nice as this tour is, I wish I’d done it again.’
‘Oh yea,’ another chimed in, ‘the Golden Circle is absolutely spectacular.’
I descended the bus at our next stop with eyes downcast, traipsing disconsolately after the others. The sun came out to illuminate the turquoise swirls of the Hraunfossar and Barnafoss waterfalls. Wait. Did someone say waterfalls? Yes! Ribbons of water cascaded down the lava riverbank, spooling out of the landscape. By now, my fellow travellers had taken it upon themselves to cheer me up. They slapped me on the back as I took out my camera. ‘We’re boiling eggs at Deildartunguhver next!’
And so it was. We ate the eggs cooked by our guide in the bubbling hot springs, accompanied by smoked salmon and ginger beer. The sun came out again and brought with it a rainbow. Steam rose in the air and enshrouded the pipe carrying hot water to Icelandic homes, stretching away into the hills.
‘I hear The Golden Circle tour has experienced heavy precipitation throughout the day,’ said our guide. Whoops of glee broke out on my behalf.
On the way home, our guide recited an ancient Icelandic poem before treating us to an in depth account of the current political landscape. He concluded by saying, ‘Four years ago, I myself ran for president.’
Far from feeling inadequate, I returned to Reykjavik strangely empowered. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.
And that, my friends, is how Iceland was.