The first Icelander I met was a poet and playwright who was visiting my home city, Belfast, in the early 1970s. He told me how, when he was a boy, Saturday night was invariably bath night. He also told me how, week in and week out, his mother would stand at the bottom of the stairs and call up to him, “Please be careful not to use all the cold water.”
One of the delights of Iceland, and of Reykjavik in particular, is the ongoing catalog of incongruity, beginning with the sense that this very laid-back country and city are both perched on top of a pretty lively steam vent. Indeed, the famous spa at the Blue Lagoon was developed as a “repurposing” of the spillover from a geothermal power station.
This practical aspect of life in Iceland has been a feature since an exploratory force of Norwegians arrived there in the ninth century. The story goes that they threw a pair of poles known as “high-seat pillars” off their ship and then searched the island for where they’d drift in. They were operating on the principle that the tides would carry in all sorts of bounty to just that spot.
Reykjavik means “smoke harbor,” and one of the things I love about spending time in the city and environs is to go whale watching in Faxaflói Bay on a gray afternoon. Yet another incongruity of Icelandic life is that one may move quite naturally from listening to a guide spouting about the precarious existence of the minke whale to listening, later that same evening, to a waiter holding forth on the ways in which minke meat may be made semipalatable.
The ability to go with the flow is nowhere more tellingly embodied than in the Icelandic horse. While the horse is itself a feature of some menus, it’s more often available for a trek across the extraordinary postvolcanic landscape of much of the island. The Icelandic horse is a slightly scaled-down model of equinity that has, in addition to a capacity to walk, trot, canter, and gallop, a fifth gait known as the tölt. This is a speedy but smooth gait that did not, however, serve the horse particularly well in the aftermath of the 1783 eruption of Lakagigar in which three quarters of the stock was wiped out. One of my favorite photographs is of the Irish poet Louis MacNeice clinging to the back of an Icelandic horse, and despite my fear of horses, I’m driven to emulate MacNeice’s equestrian skills.
Iceland’s ability to get back in the saddle after a fall, to rally in the face of clouds of gray ash or the depredations of merchant bankers, is beautiful to behold. The range of colors used by the locals in painting their houses would cheer Matisse. I find it so exhilarating to trot (or even tölt), down Hverfisgata, a street that is at once homely and humming with intensity. It’s a street on which one might at any moment run into the mayor of Reykjavik, the brilliantly outré Jon Gnarr.
Gnarr is like a strange combination of Jesse Ventura and Václav Havel, a former punk and practicing funnyman who founded his own political party, the Best Party. When the Best Party, which uses Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” as its signature tune, won six of the 15 seats on the City Council, Gnarr insisted he would enter into coalition only with councilors who had watched all five seasons of The Wire. Gnarr is a pal of the Sugarcubes, the band with which Björk was herself first affiliated, and once proposed that “we should have this huge statue of Björk at the harbor like the Statue of Liberty and instead of a torch she would be having a microphone, and she would shout out some information about Reykjavik in three different languages ... Her eyes would shoot lights on interesting tourist spots in Reykjavik.” Only a spoilsport, or someone
who doesn’t love Reykjavik, would want to throw cold water on that idea.