The Color of Living Things

A Chinese friend once told me that the word for blue and green was the same, and that it meant the color of living things. She spoke a Cantonese dialect at home, and learned Mandarin for business. From a Google search though, I can only find that there is a word for blue-green that means the color of water. Close enough. The idea was planted in my head that in other languages the object signifies the color, not the other way around.

In the spectrum of blue-green I often tend to think of warm places like the Caribbean, where along the shallow shoreline the water is a chalky blue-green from the silt of limestone and pulverized shells. And down in the islands, the vegetation is humid and dense with thick vines and rough-leafed trees. Jungle growth is constant and but also somnambulant, as if it’s got all the time in the world to wrap itself around the Equator.

At the far Northern end of the earth, I’ve come to appreciate the blues and greens of land and sea near the Arctic Circle, like Iceland. There, the sea can be a hard gray Northern blue. And while it may be colorless and full of ice all winter, eventually the sun hits and light refracts– the water turns a bracing cobalt, metallic blue—a completely different color of life.

theSea

Northern Blue

During the short intense summers the midnight sun produces a gigantic green, a verdant quickening, where the photosynthesis is drastic, a grab-it-while-you-can act of desperation. Especially in the north of Iceland, where there is little reforestation, among the treeless vistas of thrown up turf the blades of grass are waxy and thick, full of nutrition for grazing horses and sheep. There the green cliffs topple into the Northern blue fjords, and the object and color become one living thing.

Arnarstapi

Snaefellsnes

#Postaday#Green

Flatey: Island of Zen

This post was originally published September 19, 2015 in Stuck in Iceland.

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Beth is afraid of getting seasick on the ferry, and says she’s not going onboard if the sea looks rough.

Noni is still upset about the price of the Reykjavik hotel the other night, and says she’s not paying for a single room in Stykkishólmur.

Deb and Alison are late walking down to the ferry and we worry that they will miss the boat.

After two nights of insomnia, I’m feeling faint and directionless: I lead, well, mis-lead, Esther straight for a bright blue fishing boat and insist it must be the ferry.

There are seven of us traveling together this year to Iceland, two are new to our group and group dynamics, as Beth points out, always take a couple of days to work out.

We finally find Kat at the ticket office waiting on line, trying to strike up a conversation with a group of young American tourists. But they hold back and smirk at the mere sight of us. Americans are no longer friendly to each other in other countries, and that’s fine with me— what bothers me is that they are there with us at all, going to Flatey, an off-the-grid destination.

I first saw Flatey in an Icelandic film, “White Night Wedding”, that I happened to catch on an Icelandair flight a few years ago. Directed by Baltasar Kormakur, the movie had a Bergmanesque comedic plot that I can’t now recall, but it left me with images of lush green grass and long shadows of the midnight sun, which is to say, a pretty typical summer Icelandic scene.

Flatey is billed as an island that is a return to the past, a place where time has stood still; a description that pulls me like a magnet to its coordinates. Take me somewhere that puts me out of the relentless currency of our times. Please. Drop me off on an island in the middle of nowhere. I beg you. Somewhere off the face of this mad, mad world.

Basalt Cliffs

Basalt Cliffs

The ferry leaves from the port town of Stykkisholmur, from a harbor where big toothy cliffs of basalt buffer a bevy of brightly colored fishing boats. The sun is out; the water is placid. Beth agrees to board and we agree to keep her company outside on the upper deck. The mood turns upbeat. Esther says, “See, we have manifested the weather.” This term “manifesting” is new to me, but obviously au currant with my co-travelers from the Berkshires.

Within ten minutes of pulling out of the harbor though, the sun goes in and the wind picks up. All the other passengers have cleared the decks as the speed of the ferry and the wind conflate to make the temperature drop below freezing. We pull out our parkas and woolen hats. It’s not going to be that smooth, but we all stay outside with Beth in case she gets queasy.

For an hour and a half, the ferry smacks the waves as we head into the middle of Breiðafjörður, a large shallow bay with over 2700 islands and skerries that separates the Snæfellsnes peninsula from the Westfjords. It was from this bay that Erik the Red left for Greenland, using Snæfellsjökull as a navigational promontory. Banished from Iceland for doing “some killings,” his friends escorted him out past all the islands in Breiðafjörður to the greater sea, protecting him from being murdered. (On a personal note, any location that has to do with the Norse settlement in Greenland just makes my heart trill— and that’s just hard to explain.)

That's it?

That’s it?

The second time I see Flatey is from the ferry. I think, this can’t be it. It must be a mail stop. It looked much larger in the movie. We disembark and follow the herd of about thirty passengers onward, along the path that rings the island. Signposts explain what we are looking at: an intertidal basin, where the difference between low and high is 6 meters (nearly 20 feet).

On the path

On the path

We have no grand plan for touring Flatey. We came with nothing specific to do or see. It is enough that the island exists, populated only in the summer with its historically-correct restored houses, where a lucky few Icelanders seasonally return to a traditional life similar to that of their great grandparents. Down in the low tidal basin, a father is showing his young daughter how to mend fishing nets. Children walk around in brightly colored Wellies and woolen sweaters, carrying buckets and fishing rods.

Flatey is only about a mile long and half mile wide, which in Connecticut, where I’m from, would be regarded as a Thimble island. No cars are allowed on Flatey, but there is a small motorized wagon that takes visitors to the one and only hotel, Hotel Flatey, which looks like a quaint seaside rooming house on Cape Cod.

For about an hour, we aimlessly stray off on our own to make our own discoveries, though it is such a small island that it’s hard to lose sight of each other. It is also an island of singularities: one church, one hotel, one café, one store, one graveyard, a campsite.

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I enter the churchyard as Esther is leaving it. “Jesus will not disappoint you,” she tells me with mock seriousness. The main attraction of the church on Flatey turns out to be murals painted by none other than Baltasar Samper, the well-known Icelandic-Catalan painter, and all things and humans being closely connected in Iceland, the father of Baltasar Kormakur, above mentioned director. Huh.

Behind the altar there is the painting of Jesus that does not disappoint. A culturally relevant Jesus, too –  a big shouldered northern sea-faring man wearing a classic Icelandic sweater. He’s slightly bearded, like a gentle Viking who hangs out in Brooklyn. Sticking to the fishing theme are the two disciples, Peter and Andrew, who are hugging his legs like drowning men clinging to a lifeboat. But this Jesus isn’t looking down at them with mercy or grace, he’s ignoring them and defiantly looking out at you -well, me actually. I may not be much of an art critic, but this Jesus does not inspire spiritual awakening; he more inspires a certain reverie of someone I wanted to date in college.

"Jesus will not disappoint you."

“Jesus will not disappoint you.”

In the 12th century there was a monastery on Flatey, and it’s easy to see why the monks found this place sacred. There’s no evidence of it, but it’s easy to imagine a hermitage here, too, of the Irish monks who supposedly first inhabited Iceland 1500 years ago in beehive huts, long before the Settlement Era.

I meet up with my friends at the restaurant café, Samkomuhúsið. After a nourishing lunch of curried squash soup and fresh-baked bread, we ask the café owner for advice:  “What do you do in Flatey?”

He says, “We have birds. You look at the birds. You go to the end of the path along the cliff until there is a stop sign. You stop.”

And so we do. We walk along the path to the endpoint and stop before the stop sign. Instinctively, we separate out to our own places on the cliff, into the hollows of turf between rocks where we can sit in meditative positions. The arctic terns swoop so close to my head that they make me flinch. Puffins flicker in the water below, eider ducks bob, and kittiwakes soar above. The sun’s glint on the northern blue sea is entrancing. The human world hushes as I enter the plaintive calls of the seabird world and slip, ever so briefly, into a liminal state. Time stands still.

Ah, Zen

Ah, Zen

The Queen of Iceland, Dethroned

QueenEsther_3781

Esther was dubbed “the Queen” on the very first trip to Iceland. She was, after all, the ring leader, the eldest, the social magnet who gathered friends, and who originally befriended Helga way back when—we’re talking 2003, when they took a long car ride together to look at a horse in Saratoga Springs. They drove many hours in the wrong direction, got lost in the dark, but found a long friendship. On that drive, Helga invited Esther to her farm in Thingeyrar and ever since, Esther and the rest of us have traveled there.

Helga now says, “I didn’t think you’d show up the first year. And here you are on your tenth year.”

The very first time Esther walked in the doors of the guesthouse at Thingeyrar, it was like her little kingdom. She flounced about and although there were eight others, Helga in her wise bemusement, deferred to her, “You are like the Queen, my friend.” And Esther said, “I just like to be taken care of.”

The honorific stuck. One night after much beer we officially dubbed her, Esther the Red, Queen of the Hestar, from the House of Bidwell, Kingdom of Massachusetts. Informally, we referred to her as Queenie, especially in times of crisis.

For ten years Queenie had not been unseated. Okay, there was this one year someone, a veritable harridan, tried to dethrone her and take over the trip. But we all fought back like the musicians of Bremen, kicking and biting and chasing her out of the guesthouse. Actually no, that’s just what we wished we’d done. In reality, we all huddled in our little herd, shaken to the point of tears about the horrible things the harridan did and said to us. But we’re over that. In our folklore, she has become: “She-who-must-not-be-named.”

Notwithstanding that unsettling episode, Esther the Queen had not been unseated in Iceland, unsaddled, that is, until last year.

It was the day of the wild river ride. The ride takes us along the riverbanks of Vatnsdalsâ and it always gets hairy. This is entirely due to the herd of young horses from another farm that grazes there. They like to play, these young’uns, and as we trot by like a Monty Python troupe trying to stay the course, they see our steeds as playmates and friskily gallop beside us.

We are used to this, expect it and try to prepare for it. But still.

Helga was leading up front on a tall grey horse, a horse that looked like the grey charger Cate Blanchett rode as Queen Elizabeth when she urged her soldiers into the battlefield. Unlike the Queen of England, though, Helga gave us all several chances to turn back. From almost the moment we headed out of the farm’s gate, she started with, “Anyone want to turn back?” No one took her up on it. Then when we got to Sveinnstadir, the farm at the end of the road where we cross the bridge, Helga gave us another chance, “Last chance. Anyone want to go home, speak now or forever hold your peace.“ But, no, we all voiced our eagerness to continue.

All went as planned and unplanned. As we got closer to the herd of young horses, the pace picked up. The young wild horses tried to weave into our line, darting in and out of our formation, riling up our saddled, bridled horses. “Don’t let your horses gallop,” Helga warned us. “Hold them back.” Helga pulled her horse to the right of us to ward off the infiltration. She snapped her fingers at Gauper, the yellow lab, who understood the cue to bark and nip at the young horses’ heels. Christina shouted, “Hup Hup,” when the wild horses got in our way. We all took this up. “Hup, hup.” I like shouting this—it makes me feel like a cowgirl, like I know what I’m doing.

But the pace quickened and Christina, who was the sweep, our safety check in the back of the line, became the leader. Then a horse’s shoe was thrown up in front of me.

“Someone threw a shoe,” I shouted. And everyone had an opinion on this as the news traveled up and down the frantic line of riders: “Esther’s horse lost a shoe. Queenie, your horse lost a shoe. What? No, never mind, it was Alison’s horse. Whose? Alison’s. No, I think it was Bev’s, it was Bev’s horse. Mine? Yes. Or maybe it was Kat’s.”

Beth T. yelled out, “Forget about the shoe, guys, there’s a stampede going on!”

It took a while to get the young horses behind us, but we all managed to survive. Helga returned to the front and we tölted swiftly, peacefully along the soft trail that edges the fast-moving river. This is why we do this ride, for the unbelievable smooth tölting path.

When it came time to cross the river, Helga led us in. Alison followed, then Beth B., then a few more of us in single file, then Esther. The river was deep, the water was high from all the rain that year, and the river’s bank was unusually crumbly and broken. Esther’s mare lost her footing and sunk deep into the muddy silt. Down the horse went, dumping Esther into the cold river.

“Esther fell off!” someone shouted. “Esther’s down!” The news traveled up and down the line.

Helga, though midway out in the river, immediately turned around to rescue her, but by the time she got there Esther had dragged herself to the river’s edge.

“Are you alright? Are you alright?” Helga asked, we all asked.

“I’m just annoyed,” Esther said. “I was feeling so good riding, so proud of myself.”

“Consider it a baptism. The Queen was baptized in the river today,” Helga said. And like a pack of Monty Python merrymakers, we cheered.

The Queen is down, the Queen is up, long live Queenie.

AnyoneWantToTurnBack_3457

“Anyone want to turn back?”

“Last chance. Speak now, or forever hold your peace.”

Let Us Eat Cake

Icelandic cheesecake

Icelandic cheesecake

Blonduos is the closest town to Helga’s farm. The small town sits where the mouth of the river Blanda meets the bay of Huna (Húnaflói). In the summer, the river sparkles blindingly as if flows over the catchments and empties into the deep cobalt blue of Húnaflói. Huna means young bear. The area is named and known for the occasional polar bear that gets stranded on drift ice from Greenland, then floats east to Iceland where the bear swims to shore. Well, hello!

Awww

Awww….

It doesn’t happen often and the last time it did, in 2008, the authorities shot it because they didn’t want it terrorizing the town or livestock. Polar bears tend to be quite hungry when they reach land. Apparently, shooting it was fiercely debated in Iceland, maybe for the first time. Why not stun gun it and return it to East Greenland, whence it came (and where it could then be repatriated and legally hunted)?

Every year we hit the booming metropolis of Blonduos (population 700) and we alternate each year between visiting the textile museum and the sea ice museum, where the above-mentioned polar bear sits stuffed and benign behind glass.

This year at the sea ice museum there was a special exhibit documenting a winter in the 1960s when the entire harbor in Blonduos was closed for months, packed with “sea ice.” It was the worst winter of the century with the town cut off, marooned by the ice. We watched a video that featured old townspeople remembering the tough times. The video also showed actual black and white film of that frozen winter with the howling wind, all life temporarily stuck in chunks of ice until the slow crunching breakup of the harbor brought the town to life again in the spring. I am a huge fan of “Storm Stories” on the Weather Channel, so this exhibit and video was right up my extreme weather fantasy-fear alley. I wanted to reach out to my husband, who was an ocean away, as if I were home and on my couch: “Make some popcorn, honey, we’re in for a good yarn of weather and woe.”

I sat through two and a half loops of the video and phew it was exhausting, all that storm porn. I desperately needed caffeine. The textile museum, the sea ice museum—they’re interesting, but they are just the excuse we give ourselves to come into town. The real reason we come to Blonduos is to stop into our most favorite haunt, the Blue Cafe. It has another name, Vi∂ Arbakkann, but the outside is painted bright blue and its best not to confuse things too much.

Inside, the café is painted a muted green, the tables are covered in white tablecloths, and on each table sits a vase holding a single yellow rose. It’s a bakery by day; a family-style restaurant by night.

The previous night, in Reykjavik, our Icelandic friends Sibba and Ljótur took us to a tapas restaurant on the wharves. The menu was a pre-fix with three plate options, which led us all into complications. We had only been off the plane for maybe 12 hours and were still stuck in the rigidity of our homeland dietary dos and don’ts. In another country, this comes off as prissy at best, intolerable at worst.

“I’ll have plate #1 without the lamb, just chicken and fish.”
“I’ll have plate #2 but completely vegetarian, no fish, no meat.”
“I’ll have plate #1 but without bread, no gluten at all.”
“I’ll have plate #3 with just fish, no shellfish.”

The poor waitress got the full gamut of our dizzying array of self-imposed dietary restrictions. To be fair, sometimes this is due to allergies and sometimes it’s due to personal preference; sometimes it’s personal guilt about impending weight gain and sometimes its worldly guilt about ecological, economical, sustainable eating.  All this gets thrown out, first pitch, at our first stop in a restaurant in Reykjavik.

At the Blue Café our order was mercifully uncomplicated. I could see the dietary limits of the night before recede. “Tea, coffee, cappuccino…” There was a lengthy pause as we looked at the list of cakes. Bev piped up and happily led us all into temptation. “Let’s get a large piece of the cheesecake and share.”

The cake came to the table with many forks. We each dug in with a feigned daintiness that failed to mask an impending frenzy. With the first bite, though, an ecstatic calm hit us. “This is like no other cheesecake I’ve ever had,” Bev said. We all shared the sentiment, it was like none other. The cake popped with airy butterfat and melted with soft love in your mouth. It wasn’t dense like New York cheesecake, but made from skyrr whipped into a puffy sweet yellow cream. There was flour in the cake, but it was almost undetectable. It was sweet but not sugary. A crust of dark chocolate under the rim of frosting provided a satisfying crack. This must be how Blonduos villagers make it through tough winters – with a cup of coffee, a piece of cake. Kat got up and stood over it, fork pointing. “This is the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten.” She shimmied her hips, “I just want to get inside that cake.”

We finished the cake, licked our forks dry, sat back and looked at the world a little differently. It was warmer, sunnier, altogether a better place. It was a sweet, sweet world in the Blue Café in the town of Blondous where the river Blanda meets the bay of Huna.

Sea Ice Museum

Sea Ice Museum

Blondous

Where the river Blanda sparkles

Sweet, sweet world of the Blue Cafe

Sweet, sweet world of the Blue Cafe

Ghost Stories: On the Trail of Agnes

This post originally published in Stuck in Iceland.

Headstones

We start by telling ghost stories sitting around the kitchen table at our guesthouse in þingeyrar, where we look out the kitchen window at a circle of tombstones. Now, we have sat at the kitchen table and looked out on that mini skyline of gravestones for ten years without questioning it too much. In fact, we have become rather ho hum about the sight, like Oh, there is the church, the laundry line, the gravestones. “Pass the skyr, please.”

gravesitewitnesses (3)

The gravesite of the witness

Icelanders have told us the guesthouse is haunted, presented it as a blasé fact, “Yes, many people are visited by ghosts here.” And many of us have seen (Alison), felt (Kat) and heard (me) the ghosts over the years. Nor is it an impediment to our stay here: every year we still greet our rooms in the guesthouse with giddy excitement, and exhale, “We’re he-eere.”

But this year we have new information. This year we have been told that all those headstones were moved there when our guesthouse was built, and they all belonged to the people who witnessed the beheading of Agnes Magnusdottir in 1830.

This gets us going. ”What does it mean that they were moved? Were they all underneath this house? And were just the headstones moved?”

See this year we know who Agnes is; we did our homework—at least we read the new novel Burial Rites before arriving in Iceland. So they are no longer nameless, generic ghosts that visit us; now they are ghosts with a purpose.

In all fairness to our host, Helga, she had told us the story of Agnes the summer before and had mentioned it over the years, too. But for some reason it fell on deaf ears until last fall when I picked up the book in a store and had a “hold on, I know this story” moment. I dashed off an email to my fellow travelers. “This book is about that story that Helga was talking about, that song at the concert in the church, that movie she mentioned.” We were hooked then, gripped by the life and death of Agnes Magnusdottir.

In the Footsteps of Agnes

Seeing that the story finally resonated with us, Helga scheduled a full day of sightseeing through Vatnsdalur, home to Agnes Magnusdottir. Thirty minutes south from us, she was born; thirty minutes west, she lived with Natan; twenty minutes inland, she stayed with a family before execution; and ten minutes from our guesthouse she was put to death.

The night before we set out, Helga brought over the 1995 Icelandic movie, Agnes, where actor, director, and our personal Samaritan, be-still-my-heart Baltasar Kormákur plays the lead role of Natan, Agnes’ lover, who she was convicted of murdering. When we saw him in the opening scene we sighed like thirteen-year-olds, “That’s him, that’s our Baltasar,” stressing the possessive. We ogled him in the steamy— literally in hot springs— love scene. But it was not a swooning type of role for long and we had a hard time separating Natan’s character from the Baltasar we had met last year, “Uh-oh, he’s doing her, and her, too? What a womanizer. A beast. How could he.”

When we set out the next day to follow in the footsteps of Agnes, these were the two competing interpretations that filled my head: the Natan and Agnes of the book, Burial Rites, and the Natan and Agnes of the 1995 Icelandic movie, Agnes. And there was a third interpretation hovering over the story that had not yet been made—the Hollywood version whereby nineteenth century Icelandic Agnes will be played by America’s reigning sweetheart, Jennifer Lawrence. I remembered Jennifer tripping on the way up to the podium to receive her Oscar; a detail in the book has Agnes tripping and falling down in her last steps to reach the chopping block. I expect Jennifer to nail that scene.

The Church at Tjörn

Church at Tjorn

Our first stop is at the church at Tjörn where Agnes’s head is buried, ur, reburied. We rush out  our cars, charged with a mission, “Where’s her head?” It’s as if we are on a Dan Brown mystery-history- literary tour and this is Rosslyn Chapel. Impatiently we scan the names of each tombstone. Finally we find the gravesite. The grass is thick and long with a sprinkling of dandelions. The marker has just their names, birth date and death date. There is nothing indicating their story, or the fact that it is just their heads buried there. And is it just their heads? The stone looks like new marble. And Agnes and Fridrik share the site, like a marriage bed.

Headstone (heads) of Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson

Headstone (heads) of Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson

This surprises us because, in truth, Fridrik gets short shrift with us. We are so focused on Agnes and the doomed affair with Natan that we forget Fridrik, who was beheaded in Þrístapar just minutes before Agnes for the same crime. After the execution, their bodies were quickly disposed off, and their heads were put on pikes facing the road. I know, it sounds more like bloody old England than Iceland.

All of Us

 

But how their heads got to this churchyard in Tjörn is a curious story, a ghost story within a ghost story. Back in 1932 a woman in Reykjavik, a psychic type, was “summoned” by Agnes who expressed her desire to have her head and Fridrik’s buried in the churchyard at Tjörn. A picky, demanding ghost, this Agnes. She apparently told the psychic exactly where their heads were buried in Þrístapar, though they were buried secretly in the middle of the night. With the psychic’s direction, the heads were dug up, complete with wooden pikes embedded in skulls, and reburied in Tjörn.

We spend the rest of the time looking to see if Natan is buried here, too, figuring maybe that’s why Ghost Agnes chose to this as her final resting spot. But there is no headstone that reads Natan Ketilsson.

The Farm at Illugastaðir

The Farm at Illugastaðir

Natan’s View

The sky is overcast. The tide is out. Seaweed is thick in the tidal basin. It’s a wild, moody place on earth, and easy to imagine a mad love affair gone deadly wrong. A mound nearby where a new house stands is where Natan’s house once stood, where a destitute Agnes came to him hired as a housemaid and stayed as his lover. The remnants of his workshop where he made his medicine and potions are nothing but fallen planks, broken sticks of wood.

Eider Duck

Eider Duck

The land itself is now a nature preserve for eider ducks. There is a car park, a restroom, and a well maintained path where we pass the ducks protected in the grass by old tires. The path ends at a point where there is a bird lookout with a sign-in guest book. Looking west there is a spit of land where the seals are trying to sun themselves on the rocks. The sun shoots out in brief intermittent flashes of light. And beyond that, across the fjord, is land blue and white with snow-capped mountains, a sparkling winter land in great contrast to the green summer land we stand on. It hovers almost as a mesmerizing mirage. Helga points to that blue wintry coast, which looks for all the world like something out of a fairy tale, and tells us that is where her mother was born. She gives us the place name, but I can’t find it on a map.

Blue Wintry

Blue and Wintry

 Þrístapar: The Site of Execution

It’s easy to miss the sign on the side of the road and the three little hills. We have passed the sign every year on the road to þingeyrar and have never noticed it.

Thristapar

Thristapar

It is warm and rainy as we walk to the site of the executions. We don’t engage in our usual chatter. We walk solemnly, single file, as if in a funeral procession. The three hills are just small mounds, only about twelve feet high. I’m not thinking of Agnes and Fridrik as we walk to the site. I’m thinking of the neighboring farmers who were forced to witness the event, the ones who haunt our guesthouse.

Thristapar

Thristapar

Site of Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson’s Execution

The site’s marker is weathered, pocked with lichen and moss. It looks a thousand years old. I can’t make out the letters. It’s not much to look at, but the views are vast in this part of Iceland. Look one way and there are the hills of dry dirt, a result of a landslide from the Ice Age. And inland from there is Kornsá, a deep valley, where Agnes lived with a family before her execution. Look the other way and the land opens up to the rolling green farmland that gives way to Lake Hóp. I can easily make out the black basalt of þingeyrakirkja, and our guesthouse.

The Things We Ask

At dinner that night, we pepper our Icelandic hosts with questions about the details of the execution. We, who come from a country that just bungled a supposedly fool-proof chemical execution in Texas, are fascinated with the idea that Icelanders rejected capital punishment almost 200 years ago.

But Helgi corrects us and explains that the Icelanders didn’t really have a say in the matter, they were then a colony under Denmark’s rule. A reprieve would have had to come from the King. And capital punishment wasn’t officially off the books for another hundred years.

Then we throw out a barrage of questions about Agnes and Natan. “Did she kill him like in the book out of mercy, or was it like in the movie, when she pulled him from the burning wreckage? And did Agnes have a child or not? And why were Agnes and Fridrik buried in the same plot? Was it assumed they had an affair? And where is Natan’s body buried? Yeah, where is Natan’s body?”

We throw so many questions out at them that we’re talking over each other and the Icelanders have to sit back and take a breath.

What more can they tell us?

No one could have anticipated – either in 1830 or 2014 – this sympathy for Agnes, the novel, the Hollywood movie coming out, and eight American women (and who knows how many more) obsessed with a love-murder-tale that took place so long ago.

They just didn’t see this coming, folks. They did not see this coming. Imagine what Agnes would have thought.

 

 

My Iceland Thing

I have recently returned from Iceland and am at a party, looking for someone to talk to. This is a deluxe party with a DJ, a pizza truck, a crepe stand—I’ve heard oysters and lobsters will be coming out soon. Waiters circulate with trays of Mojitos. I lunge for it, I’m thirsty. This lawn party is at beach house that sits on the Connecticut Sound. If I were a New Yorker or a map, I’d call it the Long Island Sound, as would most of the country. But that’s how we are around here. We take our watery borders seriously. We have Small State Complex.

Iceland is still with me in many ways. I still have a bit of jet lag, a leftover sense of peace, and a mysterious smile from certain memories of the trip. I still have the gravlax and smoked lamb that I bought at Keflavik airport in my refrigerator. And I still feel as if I don’t want to re-enter my regular life yet.

The waiter walks within my vicinity and I reach out again for him. I thank him profusely as I lift another Mojito off his tray. “Can I give you this?” I ask, dangling the empty other glass. He says, of course you can, and he has a French accent, which seems trés swank. “You are too kind,” I say, because he is—he’s very attentive—and because drinking makes me a bit of a phony.

There’s something about this particular part of Connecticut that reminds me of the coastline in Iceland. Maybe it’s just the color of moss and seaweed on the rocks during low tide. Maybe it’s that the beaches have dark sand, the rocks are big and they tumble forth into a blue gray sea. It also reminds me of Maine. It’s a cool, northern coastline, even though it’s a hot summer day.

Finally someone starts talking to me and my lonely Mojito. Someone I haven’t seen in a while. “Oh, did you do your Iceland thing?” she asks me. I am known around here for doing my Iceland thing.

“Yes, I just got back.” I’ve been back a week or so, but I don’t want acknowledge how quickly vacation time fades.

“How was it?”

“It was great,” but I don’t offer up anything more. My Iceland thing is not cocktail hour chit-chat. It’s more like late at night, heart to heart, and only with certain people, preferably the people I travel with. Anyone else, if they’re interested, they can read my blog where I tell all.

“Did you ride the ponies?”

“They’re horses, but yes.”

She’s nodding her head smiling. I’m nodding my head smiling. We both look around for that savior of a waiter with the sugary, minty drinks. I’ve tuned out the music the DJ is playing because it’s mostly trilling songs by warbling pop divas. I’d rather listen to the gulls screech.

But then I hear the trumpets and the folk music chorus, “Hey!”

“Oh, Monsters and Men,” I exclaim, “their song, Little Talks.” The woman looks confused. “They’re an Icelandic band,” I explain.

Every year on our trip to Iceland we stop at a bakery in Borgarnes on our way up to the farm. It’s always our first stop. And it’s usually our last stop driving back from the farm to the airport. This year however we stopped at the Settlement Centre in Borgarnes, not to go to the museum but to its café. We got coffee and five lavish pieces of cake to share among eight of us. At the end of our trip, we show such restraint.

After the five pieces of cake, we went into the Settlement Centre gift shop. Beth T. was looking for felt liners. I wandered around picking up woolen things, wondering if my daughter would like another Icelandic hat. I was antsy and a tad melancholy, feeling like I always leave Iceland too soon. A recurring daydream of mine is that I spend a month or two there in the summer, instead of a brief week. I was mindlessly humming along to a familiar song playing in the background, when I realized it was Of Monsters and Men, singing “Little Talks”, but in Icelandic.

Anyway, this is where my mind goes, drinking a Mojito at a party on the Connecticut Sound, looking at the shoreline. It’s nice here—the party, the setting, the drink—but I’m wishing I were back in Iceland. I’m sure the poor woman talking to me is wishing she could get out of this conversation, because I’ve mentally popped out. All that’s left is a mysterious smile on my face.

Don’t listen to a word I say
Hey!
The screams all sound the same
Hey!

 

Kinda looks like Connecticut

Kinda looks like Connecticut

Kinda looks like Iceland

Kinda looks like Iceland

 

Weekly Writing Prompt-Mystery Ending 

 

The Wind, the Wind in Those Places

Arctic Sea Black SandsIMG_2405

Before my very first trip to Iceland I visited my father in the nursing home, pushing his wheelchair out to the sunny spot of the parking lot where we often sat. I told him I was going to Iceland. Since he had been in the Air Force, he had been in Iceland and Greenland in its early NATO station days, well over sixty years ago.

“Why? Why would you want to go there?” he asked.

“Because I’ve always wanted to go,” I said. “Why, what do you remember of it?”

His foggy blue eyes looked off into the tall trees that surrounded the nursing home. “The wind, the wind in those places,” he said, shaking his head.

And that is the central character, the main mood, of Iceland to me:  Wind.

It is the whistling background, the white noise machine in my ear the entire time I am there. It gets in my ear so much it becomes almost a silent, yet constantly audible, partner to my inner narration.

Even in the summer, it often has a brisk Arctic bite to it. Fresh off the ice caps of Greenland and Iceland, it smells as clean and pure as snow. Most of Iceland is treeless, so the wind isn’t filtered through shaking leaves. It has no buffers. There has been an all-out government effort to plant trees in Iceland to avoid erosion, so driving around you do see fledgling pockets of forests. But the common joke is: “If you get lost in the forests of Iceland, just stand up.” It is hard for the trees to grow tall; the relentless wind stunts their growth and the trunks are bent with what looks like a form of arbor scoliosis.

Up north on the farm, there is often a roaring wind, like an ocean wave that never breaks. When we are out on the trail riding and the already brisk wind picks up a notch, it brings an added dash of adventure to the ride. The horses, already peppy, pep up more. The wind gets their blood up, too. It’s all we can do to keep them calm. When we get to the sea with the additional din of the ocean waves along with cross currents of wind, we always dismount. The horses would be too wild to ride.

Someday, I think, I’d like to take that wild ride. This is what the wind in Iceland does to me—it’s a persistent dare, urging me to go bolder, bigger, to take in more air.

There have been a few sunny and still days I’ve experienced in Iceland without wind and it disorients me. It’s like the music stops. People stop. Women lay out in the sun impromptu, taking off their shirts to lie down in the grass with just their bras on. You can hear conversations ten feet away. The sun bears down full strength. I need sunscreen. I need a brimmed hat to keep the heat off my face. It just doesn’t feel right.

I miss it when it’s gone. Iceland is wind.

Often I can’t sleep in my guesthouse bedroom because the bright sun angles in my window at 2am and the whole midnight sun thing disturbs my circadian cycle. I hear the wind blowing outside, muffled against the double paned windows in the room. Even in its muffled state though, it thrusts its power like a pushy banshee: “Let me in.”

So I do. I crack open the window and the full storm of fresh Arctic air whirls in with the you-can’t-sleep sunlight. The wind fills up my eardrums with its reckless chatter. It puts me right again. It helps me breathe. It makes my life seem large and the world larger.

The wind, the wind in this place.

 

Daily Prompt, Climate Control.