The ponies don't even care

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The weekend before we finally went to Iceland, my friend Geert came for a visit from Holland. Since he had never been to Berlin, I took him to see Tempelhof airport and we  made a round on the tarmac of the city’s former Tempelhof airport, which was full of people enjoying the late fall days. To Geert, the most striking thing was not the historical site: “I can’t believe everyone is acting like this is normal”, he exclaimed.

Iceland is a bit like that: It doesn’t seem real.

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A little more than ten years ago, I dug out Björk’s “Post” at a flea market in my hometown. I went home with the record and never stopped being fascinated with the strange place the singer was from, talked about going to Iceland for years. Finally, on a bright and warm day in October, Anika and I boarded a plane, flew for three hours and arrived on that ice-cold volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic.

It felt amazing; a bit like being granted a wish. That is because for the longest time, the country had proved all too elusive: Iceland is too remote to reach quickly, not really on the way to anything and used to be way too expensive to afford. Then came the economic crisis and the low-budget airlines. Still, it remained out of grasp for such a long time that each passing month added a bit of mystery. When I met people who had actually been to Iceland, it felt like talking to an astronaut: “So, what was it like?”, I would ask. I obsessively collected facts, looked a photos and in time, it dawned on me that I would most likely be disappointed. After all, that is what overblown expectations tend to do. “Just buy a ticket an go”, Thiago said, when I told him of the dilemma a year ago.

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I am glad to report that my worries were unfounded. And that I had mostly collected useless facts rather than actually useful information. Sure, I knew that Icelandic mountains have different names, depending on the side they are viewed from. But little did I know that the drinking water smells strongly of sulfur. Or that traveling so far to the North in winter meant that the light would be completely different than what we are used to: The sunrise takes two hours and it never becomes brighter than on a nice fall afternoon. At 4, the two hour sunset begins, with the light lingering dramatically long beyond the clouds. All of this makes it impossible to take a bad picture in the country, everything is cast in a golden, dramatic light. And with the weather conditions changing every few minutes, it might be overcast in the morning and perfectly clear an hour later.

We rented a car to experience it all firsthand. Which was a great idea, because the landscape is just so dramatic that it takes strong willpower not to pull over and stop the car every few minutes. There are geysers, craters and volcanic fields dotting the landscape, the are raging rivers, mellow green fields, dotted with the occasional sheep or pony that acts like the vista surrounded it is nothing out of the ordinary. Never mind the strong wind, the drifting clouds of sulfuric smell or the clouds racing across the sky.

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Our friend Pete from New York is a bit of a veteran when it comes to Iceland. His passport contains two pages full of Schengen visa stamps, a rather impressive feat. Or, as he put it: “I have a problem.” Like us, he had come for Iceland Airwaves, the annual indoor festival that takes place in Reykjavík. Unlike us, he actually knew some places in the city, took us from bar to bar, pointed out the masses of avocados at each supermarket. “They are really proud of their avocados.” Who wouldn’t?

Pete joined Anika and me on one of our trips by rental car. We left the city early and and headed North on deserted streets, trying hard not to stop every five minutes to get out and experience the landscape firsthand. It did not really matter where we drove, since each turn held some surprise in store for us – be it an abandoned house, an icy bridge or a steep road leading straight up a snowy mountain pass. We found ourselves on a mountain in a small car, with the streets covered in ice. It became immediately clear why Icelanders have a genuine respect for their country – they know it could very well kill them to head to the highlands in winter.

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At night, we would frequent the many concert venues in Reykjavík to see a whole lot of artists we had never heard about. The magic about Airwaves is that it does not really matter where you go. If the type of music at the festival is your cup of tea, chances are you will like the artists they have selected. The shows we went to were mostly little, intimate affairs; the bands plays in bars, show windows or the bus station. Everyone in Reykjavík seems to be in some kind of band. I wondered about this for a while, since my colleague Max had pointed out how remarkably productive the Icelanders are, considering the small population size. How did this happen? At some point in time, they must have crossed a threshold of sorts, accumulated such a critical mass of creative people that peer pressure took care of the rest. If all your friends are playing the guitar, you would be damned not to join them and form a band. Everybody is acting like this is normal.

We had long crossed the border from normal to surreal, though. One night back at our apartment, we ran into our host. Had we seen the Northern Lights yet? He made it seem as though the Northern Lights were something you went to, like a movie or a landmark. “No”, we responded. “How does one go about doing that?” He pulled up a website and showed us that the lights were, in fact, close to the city. “If the skies are clear, you might have a chance.”

I remember a day of light snow in early winter during my university years. It was the first day with a decent amount of white on the ground and after the lecture, the students from Southeast Asia ran out of the building to experience snow for the first time. They were incredibly excited since they had never seen anything like it before. One night, after unsuccessfully queuing up for one of the busier concerts, Pete, Anika and I walked through the city and suddenly caught a glimpse of a strange light in the sky. We must have looked exactly like those students, running down to the harbor where it was darker than in the city center. And there they were, faintly glimmering above us. We stayed out until we were frozen to the bone, tried to take some pictures and listened to the excited calls coming from the city where more and more people came out to look at the sky.

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Things just fell into place like that. Neatly and effortlessly, as though it had all been planned in advance.

A year ago, it had been so windy during the festival that people could barely walk. It sounds like the trip back then must have amounted to the disappointment I always feared. We simply got incredibly lucky during this trip. And I am not just saying that because we eventually made it off the icy mountain top in one piece but because no matter where we went, the country showed its nicest face. No wonder it has returned to seeming unreal in my head.

Only this time, the feeling is comforting.

Anika

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Black beach

There were seals

Polar bears. Of which there are none in Iceland.

Reykjavik Roasters

Paper

Road in nowhere