We are in Saudarkrokur (Sau∂árkrókur), which Helgi said to remember as “sodacracker.” The town is like Holar, another Shangri-La nestled between snow- capped mountains. We are here to watch Christina and Helga compete in a regional horse competition. It is a bright and sunny night with a cold, brisk wind. We are in parkas, hats, gloves and yes, it is the end of June.
Kat backs into a parking space and, being a cautious driver, looks over her left shoulder. And, because we are participatory passengers, we all look over our left shoulders, too, which is how we all notice him at the same time. In a group of men, he stands out because he is darker than the usual Icelander.
“That guy is handsome.”
“The dark haired guy?”
“Yeah. With the gray in his beard.”
“Yeah. I thought so too.”
“Beth, there’s your guy.”
Beth is the only single woman in our group, and the youngest (young being a relative term here). Beth decided to join us this year on impulse: one night in March after a few beers at Esther’s house, she spontaneously bought tickets online. The next day she read her horoscope– You will make an impulsive trip and fall in love. Up until this moment we all thought she would fulfill her horoscope by falling in love with a horse (something that has become de rigueur on these trips, culminating in that awkward call home to the husband, “Honey, I bought a horse”). But that is before we see tall, dark, gray-tinted Handsome. We recalculate. “Beth, maybe it’s a guy you’re supposed to fall in love with!”
Beth reminds me of one of those women in a rom com movie, not so much a Meg Ryan, more like a classic Kate Hepburn type, super intelligent and charmingly goofy. She says, “I’m in no shape to meet anyone.” She isn’t feeling well, has a cold and an upset stomach. She sniffles and goes back to reading Game of Thrones on her Kindle. And we go back to watching the competition, popping out of the car every time Christina and Helga have their turn. We listen to what the judge says about them in Icelandic, understanding nothing but their names.
Then we scurry back to the car, turn it on, turn the heat on, and watch all the riders we don’t know. We take particular notice of one rider dressed all in black on a big dark bay. Esther recognizes him first: “Hey, that’s him, in the beard.” And there he is—Handsome —putting a stallion through tölt, trot and canter. “Wow, he rides too.” Beth looks up from her reading briefly, momentarily impressed, and goes back to the world of Westeros.
The night goes on like this, watching the riders, getting in and out of the car. The sky is tumultuous with swirly clouds; it’s the perfect setting for, oh, I don’t know, the Rapture? I am overcome by a feeling I get often in Iceland when I am in a tiny town on the edge of the world– I feel as if I belong, as if I could molt into a life here and stay indefinitely.
Of course, you don’t really know a culture until you speak and think in the language, and that I can’t do, none of us can. Not only that, so difficult is this language on our tongue that we can barely pronounce anybody’s name right or any place name properly.
When it comes time for us to leave, Kat turns the key and the car just makes a weak click-click-click sound. “The car’s dead,” she says. We’re usually a loquacious crowd, but we turn mute at this news. We can’t bother Christina during competition and Helga left for home a while ago. But Kat sums up the situation and quickly takes charge. She digs up the car rental number, calls up the guy in Reykjavik (a 7-hour drive away) and explains the situation.
“We’re in Soda cracker,” she says. “No, so-da crack-er,” she says slowly.
I interrupt her, “I think its pronounced soda croak-er.”
She says in the phone, “soda crock-er.”
I pipe up from the backseat again, “soda croak-er.”
She says in the phone, “Soda-crack-er.” She holds the phone away from her face, “He doesn’t understand; he’s going to put his wife on.”
Kat goes through the “Soda cracker, Soda crock-er, croak-er” thing again with the wife, and then says, “It’s near Holar.” Pause. “No we’re not in Holar, we’re near Holar, in Soda cracker. Okay, I’ll find someone here who speaks Icelandic.”
Bev is out of the car in a flash, asking a group of men on the hill. “Does anyone speak English? Our car seems to have died.” I don’t have to see them to know they are laughing at us, in Icelandic. But one of them comes down from the hill with Bev. Kat holds the phone out to him, “Can you talk to this person and explain where we are?”
I knock Beth’s knee, “It’s him! Handsome! Beth, this is meant to be. Get out of the car!” I’m thinking destiny, but Beth isn’t feeling it. “I can’t just go out there and talk it up. I’m not like that.”
But I convince Beth to get out of the car and just hover around him. While he is on the phone explaining our situation in Icelandic to the other end, Kat turns the key on and off and says, “Hear the click-click-click?” As if to overstate the obvious, I point to the car’s hood, “Tell them it’s the battery, the battery is dead.” He is nodding politely to us and trying to continue his conversation on the phone. Beth stands nearby politely crossing and uncrossing her arms and legs, looking longingly at her Kindle in the car. Finally he gets off the phone and tells us, “I have a friend in town I’ll call. He’ll get here faster.”
We thank him profusely. He goes back to his friends on the hill and we get back in the car and wait. And wait. Though the competition is still going on, the place begins to empty out and without being able to turn the heat on the car is cold. Esther asks, somewhat irritated, “Where is he?”
Kat says to me, “Go out there, put the hood up so we look distressed and get some attention.” The minute I do this a pickup truck pulls up and Handsome comes down from the hill to meet it. As the car battery re-charges, Kat revs the engine, Beth reads in the backseat, Esther is unusually quiet in the front seat and Bev has disappeared down the road. Since everyone else is preoccupied, I feel the need to be friendly with Handsome. “Did you ride in the competition? (even though I know he did). Do you have a horse farm?” He does. “A few miles away,” and he tells me the town. I try to keep up the patter of conversation, which isn’t difficult. He seems willing to talk, even friendly, and I realize that he is more than handsome –he is kind with kind eyes. And he is a horseman with a horse farm. I am stalling for Beth, who is hiding out in the car and not accepting that this is meant to be. “You speak English so well, did you ever live in the States?” He says, no, but he’s traveled there. I notice his friends on the hill are looking at us and laughing, “I think your friends up there are laughing at us.” He looks amused, shakes his head and reassures me, “it’s nothing.”
Bev is walking back to the car and I summon her over. She immediately asks his name. “Baltasar,” he says, which doesn’t sound Icelandic to me. I can tell this occurs to Bev, too, so she asks his last name. He hesitantly says something that sounds like Cormico. I think, that doesn’t sound Icelandic. But what I think, Bev says– “That’s doesn’t’ sound Icelandic. It doesn’t end in ‘son’.” He says his mother is Icelandic, his father is Spanish. Soon the car is recharged, we thank Baltasar profusely and theatrically–Bev does a deep salaam-style bow and Kat gets out and does a yogi-style bow, “Namaste.” And we’re off.
Back in the car, Bev and I relay all the information on Handsome, the most relevant first– “He has a horse farm around here.” But when Kat hears he is half Spanish/half Icelandic and his name is Baltasar, she screams, “I know his father! He’s a well-known artist in this country. His name is Baltasar, too. I have his painting in my living room. We went to his house in Reykjavik to buy it. He and his wife put out strawberries and Champagne for us. It’s the law of attraction! We have to find him.” Suddenly, we are charged with this mission. We must find him! Why? Ostensibly, to tell him Kat knows his parents.
Baltasar–his name suddenly means everything to us: handsome, gallant, rescuer, stallion rider, car charger. It’s as if a collective, hormonal rush comes over us and we are all a twitter, squealing like lovelorn 13-year-old girls. Who knew we had that much estrogen left in us. “Where is he? Baltasar. We have to find him.” We can’t seem to find our way out of the parking lot, let alone locate him. “Wait, where’s the road?” We’re giving Kat directions all at once. “Here. No here. Turn around. Try that lane. Down there.” We back up, turn around, the tires squeal. Kat jumps a curb that bounces us high in the air, alarming people nearby. Then she has to back up over the curb again, which requires gunning it in reverse. In the end, we can’t find him and it is nearly midnight as we drive away, emotionally depleted and slowly coming back to our senses.
It’s after one in the morning when we get back to the farm, but Helga is up and we retell the story of Handsome rescuing us and Kat’s connection to him. Helga knows him. “Ah, yes,” she says, “that’s Baltasar Kormákur. He is the son of the painter. But he is also a well-known actor and director in Iceland. He has an American movie coming out, an action movie.” She is matter of fact about this because Icelanders aren’t impressed with fame. It is refreshingly not a celebrity culture.
But the new information about Baltasar sets us reeling all over again. We can’t help it– he’s like the George Clooney of Iceland, only better, kinder. We Google his name and his work; his new movie is 2 Guns. We recap the whole night and it gets more and more ridiculous with each of our roles in the plot producing belly-aching laughter. We can’t go to sleep. We’re wired. We don’t want the night to end.
The thing about travelling is you never know who you’re going to meet in some little town, on the edge of some horse track, in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere with a broken-down car and an auspicious horoscope. You’re one of the proverbial ships that pass in the night – so fleeting, and rapturous.