I’m unsure exactly what my preconception of Reykjavik was, possibly somewhere around the glossy tourist shots of sophisticated bars and famous nightlife, but it was subtly defied by the grounded reality. Everywhere in Iceland, there is a certain understatement, a purposeful and silent foundation. For me, the atmosphere was of warmth, a certain recent growth, and the unmistakable sense of a working port: a busy environment with only the thinest veneer of the ‘international’ overlaid. Certainly once you got beyond the main shopping street (which by any pace would only take you fifteen minutes or so), you are into a much more direct and utilitarian space.
I enjoyed Reykjavik as much as any of the rest of my time in Iceland, although my time in the city itself was deliberately short: cities are the backdrop to an expedition, not the destination. The two nights in the city punctuated my wider journey around the island. In some ways, that punctuation satisfied: one visit as a stranger, one as a friend, one outbound, one homecoming.
The city itself falls away remarkably fast: not since my time exploring the former Soviet block cities of Eastern Europe have i been so struck by the lack of edgelands, the sudden transition from urban to rural. In the latter, it’s a result of central planning, whilst here, it’s because the landscape dominates. The city is carved from the land. Where you stop carving, you are straight to nature. And here, nature is a landscape of ice and fire, stone and water.
I find myself obsessing over tractors.
They settle, like particularly fat migrating birds, everywhere. Not one or two, but dozens, often three or four together on a farm. I can only suppose that they each serve a specialised purpose, that farming here is particularly labour intensive, or that nobody ever throws anything away. Or possibly a combination of all three. I rarely see a new tractor, but i see plenty of middle aged and well maintained vehicles. Just shuttling around. Periodically, i encounter a rusty dinosaur: rubber stripped from metal wheels, paint rusted away, gently oxidising to the earth from which it crawled.
One day, i follow drive through a small town, little more than a harbour, a few warehouses, two dozen houses. Unloading takes place from a bulk carrier: on the dockside, a bright yellow JCB hauls wide fabric bags of something from a boat. From the illustration and my pigeon Icelandic, i surmise that it’s horse related. Food supplements maybe? Whatever: many times a day i pass farms that seem to carve their subsistence from horses (although i never quite fathom out how, despite an in depth conversation with a farmer who tends to them) I am unclear if they are exported, ridden or eaten, or in what ratio of the three they exist.
Through the rest of the day, i pass the loaded lorries, distributing this new found bounty down impossibly narrow roads. Motoring from farm to farm, they follow a predictable choreography: the lorry simply stops on the road, the farmer trundles down in his selected tractor, and greetings are exchanged. The slow process of transfer pays scant regard to any other traffic and my one attempt to engage with a smile and wave is quietly ignored. They’ve seen it all before.
Everything is shut: we are in the shoulder season. Not the midwinter nighttime of the Northern Lights and perpetually optimistic tourists, nor the midsummer days, keeping you wakeful through the perpetual dawn. Rather, the edge: mid days, mid nights, rain, sun and snow. A gentle season of holidays and shuttered shops: tea rooms boarded against the snows, a season of repainting, regeneration, restocking, and renewal.
Tourism sits gently upon the shoulders here: rarely intrusive, but clearly the most popular sites are creaking. I see signs of this in the new pathways built through the landscape: desire lines obliterated by carefully constructed walkways and steps. An attempt to impose order upon the wandering chaos. Often ignored.
Each day picks up a rhythm: waking, breakfast, then the map. Maps are abstractions: we learn to read them just as we learn to read books or sagas. We interact with the paper, but visualise the land. Winter hills and mountains, water and slopes. We inch our way across the landscape, one page at a time. In places, the snow is deep upon the road: in places, the only sign of where the road runs is the yellow markers, religiously set up for just this eventuality. I pick my way carefully.
The map does not capture the cold, does not show the view, does not sense the precipitous wayfaring, showing simply a tinted representation of hills and dales, creased and stapled, fixed in print.
The interior is closed. A harsh statement that puts this country starkly at odds with my own. Here, nature claims the centre, leaving communities to cling to the perimeter. Whilst the map shows a dotted red line crossing the middle, the track is firmly shut. Iced, snowed, rock filled and impassible. Even the peripheral roads in the Western Fjords are shut for much of the winter, until the road crews break through again come the Spring.
Roads here are not permanent, but rather trodden anew after every storm and subsidence. The winter ice reshapes everything. I like the sound of the ‘road crew’, invoking images of rugged Icelanders, carving through the rockfalls and battling the power of the storms. When i finally come across one, it’s something of a disappointment to find them drinking tea at the gas station. Everything changes i guess.
You read a landscape through the cultural filters of your youth: i grew up on rolling hills, ancient woodlands, clear chalk streams. Here, it’s a harsher landscape with few trees at all. I can ‘read’ timber buildings, but the stone structures here elude me, and the the jump from ancient to modern seems to be one single step: there is the old, there is the new, but there is little transition. Almost everywhere i find a town it is steel and plastic clad. Practical, pragmatic, new.
Brands are so endemic, so deeply permeated through almost every culture, that i fail to spot the signs. When i visit the supermarket, it’s not particularly different from the supermarket at home. Sure, the trimmings and trappings vary, but the principle is the same. Mass produced, distributed, plastic clad. Whilst i am spared Starbucks, the infiltration of global brands is clearly a move in progress. Progress? Of sorts i suppose. The generic colonisation of culture strikes me ever more, the more i travel. Brands lead the way, but bring with them language, cultural signifiers, uniformity and, ultimately, evolved identity. It’s convenient, but i suspect our future histories will judge us harshly. Still: you cannot protect culture by law: you have to live it and crave it. Ultimately, you have to create it.
There is a stark beauty here. I find myself more deeply reflective than usual: it’s time out, not simply away from home and work, but away from my everyday reality. Removed from comfort, both spiritually and physically. This is a harsh landscape. But a deeply satisfying one. A place to explore. Not, i suspect, for the last time.