Iceland: Returning to Reykjavík

June 21 (2007)

(June 21 photos here.)

(Earlier photos here.)

(Earlier Iceland trip reports here.)

The long summer days have been pulling my thoughts back to Iceland. The first time we visited, I found the constant June daylight hard to deal with–I especially remember waking up at 3 a.m. one morning, seeing the sun shining brightly through the curtains, and hating the world as I tried to fall back asleep. But our second visit, I just sort of went with the rhythm of the long days–and waited for the sun to at least dip below the horizon before even trying to sleep–and found I loved them. I miss those days; some part of me feels, back in Tucson this June, like the sun sets way too soon. (And then some saner part of me remembers that if the sun didn’t fully set here, the temperature would never dip below 100 F/40 C, and I come to my senses.)

Anyway, I know I left off my trip reports ages ago–I got caught up in revising Bones last fall, and somehow couldn’t be in the world of that story and in Iceland at the same time. But opening my journal today, I see that I left off just over a year ago, on year’s long day–and the shortest night of the year.

That morning we made our way south, back toward Reykjavík. We still had a few days left in Iceland left, but heading back toward the city reminded me that soon we would be heading home, and I still wasn’t feeling ready to leave.

I find my journal at this point filled with countless small details that I wanted to remember. Like what went on Icelandic hot dogs. (Crunchy and fresh onions. Ketchup. Brown and yellow sauces.) The way the weather can change in an instant when the sun comes out, or when clouds cover the sun, or–especially–whenever the wind either kicks up or dies. (That stillness, when the wind dies down in Iceland, is it’s own special sort of magic.) The feel of the cool, damp air against my arms. (I think I was storing up that memory to get me through the rest of the Tucson summer.) The way the land’s colors grow muted beneath gray skies, but turn vivid and green beneath blue ones.

The varieties of alpine wildflowers: lupines, dandelions, cecily, rhubarb. (Dandelions especially–swathes of bright yellow against the green hills.) The rivers that everywhere cut through the land. The varieties of birds: swans with goslings, mallards, eider ducks, gulls, ravens. (I left out the terns in my notes. But there were arctic terns, too, small aggressive birds.) The concrete houses (in the south) and the corrugated aluminum siding (in the north). All the pale houses with their bright trim.

The cairns at the roadside, reminding us of the older paths that used to cross the land, leading to the Alþing.

As we drove past low green hills and steep black peaks patched snow, we began to see occasional areas of steam rising from the ground again, too–evidence we were moving back toward the rift along which Þingvellir lies, and where we started our journey. The rocks around us became more clearly volcanic (not the rocks ever stopped seeming volcanic there), and we saw more fissures and gaps among those rocks.

We stopped in Borgarnes, home of Egill Skallagrímsson. Who isn’t the saga character officially known as “the troublesome poet”–that would be Hallfreðr Óttarsson, whose saga I’ve not yet read–but who I always thing of as a troublesome poet anyway.

All through our journey, people had been recommending Borgarnes Settlement Centre, telling us the exhibits there were a must-see.

Maybe they would have been, if we’d started there. But after all the history we’d absorbed at other museums and exhibits as we traveled through saga country, this one felt like too shallow, somehow–some cool touch-and-feel exhibits, but they didn’t cover all that much new ground for us. Still, we spent a pleasant enough couple hours making our way through narrated exhibits about Iceland’s settlement and about Egil’s Saga, and I did take some notes, especially on settlement era ships. One of which claims that the journey from Norway to Iceland may have taken as little as 72 hours, which impressed me then and impressed me now.

I also came upon an interesting discrepancy I need to research further: the settlement museum claimed the settlers didn’t have compasses (making their impressive navigational skills even more so); but the folks at Eiríksstaðir were just as convinced they did have compasses. Either way, navigation by the stars was little use this far north; settlement-era sailors relied on the sun, as well as (for signs of land) the presence of birds. They may have had sextants, too; the museum was undecided on that.

And the lurid (in a gothic sort of way) retelling of Egill’s Saga was kind of fun, too.

From Borgarnes it was a pretty quick drive to Reykjavík. We checked into the city campground behind the hostel, set up our tent, and headed over to Cafe Flóra, in the botanical garden behind the campsite, to meet hildigunnur for dinner.

Much good conversation followed–about everything from the weirdness of American television to politics to whether Gunnar wasn’t just a little bit stupid in Njal’s Saga. We wandered through the gardens after, and then hildigunnur gave us a terrific tour that wound through Reykjavík’s many neighborhoods, beyond where tourists limited by how far they want to walk from the bus generally get to go.

She also told us her grandmother’s take on the long summer days, which I find myself thinking of as the days grow long again: “This is no time for sleeping.” 🙂

A lovely evening, and a lovely way to return to the city.

After we got back, I stood out in the campground and watched the year’s-short-night set, sometime after midnight.

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