Tag Archives: Icelanders

Ghost Stories: On the Trail of Agnes

This post originally published in Stuck in Iceland.


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.



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.



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 Advice: Go, Don’t Go

White Icelandic Horse

“Hi, I’m a friend of so-and-so and she said you go to Iceland every year and I‘m planning on going and was wondering if you had some advice.”

I frequently get voice messages like this– on my landline yet– so I know they don’t know me. In my local social circle, I have become the de facto expert on Iceland, and I’m getting somewhat practiced at giving Icelandic-centric advice. Since it is my favorite topic of discussion, I feel instant camaraderie with said friend of friend. (You like Iceland? I like Iceland. Are you my new best friend?)

But I’ve learned over the years not to come on too strong, not to gush. I now temper my voice and enthusiasm, calm down the inner eccentric screaming, “I’m thinking of dumping my life and moving there!” and present myself like a reasonable adult. (Because I once had a two-hour conversation with an “advisee” and we talked ourselves into a frenzy about doing the annual Icelandic sheep round up, then hung up miserable– we both had to go to work the next day.)

And if someone is on the fence about going, that is, if they have not bought airline tickets yet, I start with a disclaimer: “I love it, but it’s not for everyone.” I do this because I once told my next door neighbor it was the best place in the world and she should definitely go there and she must, must ride the horses and, and, and…  She came back unconvinced. “Eh? I don’t get it. It’s a strange place,” she said, “cold and damp and I had a bumpy ride on a nasty horse in freezing rain.” I said, “yeah that happens, you have to get through that part of it,” but I could see she thought I steered her wrong.

Basically my Iceland travel advice breaks down to recommendations, general impressions, and warnings.

Museums:  I am a huge fan of turf museums (I know, who isn’t?). I always recommend a trip to these reconstructed houses of old. They are built into the side of a hill and covered with grass and dirt (thus “turf”). There are several of these museums around the country: Glaumbær, Holar, and Laufás are my favorites. Walking around in these cozy hobbit-like houses with earthen walls, it’s easy to envision the past, and the not too distant past either. They are dark, earthy little houses that smell of grain and the ages.

All in for the Turf Museum!

All in for the Turf Museum!

In the capital there are plenty of modern art museums. It’s a big art scene, much like the music scene, though not as portable. There is an artist collective—a huge renovated dairy barn — on the outside of Reykjavik that is divided up into about 20 separate studios for artists. The day I visited the sun poured in through the skylights and the entire place smelled of coffee brewing, oil paint and turpentine. I was told it was subsidized by the government. Really, the government sponsors artists? Maybe that’s why when I feel like dumping my life and moving I think of Iceland.

Currency: the króna.  It’s a little like the Italian lira before they adopted the Euro; that is, you are dealing with bills of thousands and you have no idea how much it means. I have yet to figure out a trick to doing the conversion in my head. 10,000 króna isn’t a lot of money, at least I don’t think it is, but maybe it is. Whatever, I spend it with an alarming amount of alacrity. I recommend getting the app on your phone for easy conversions and debt prevention.

The people: They’re beautiful and it’s guaranteed to make you feel ugly. That’s just the way it is. There are a few countries like that in the world–Ethiopia, Argentina, Tibet, Thailand come to mind– that have an unfairly beautiful populous. Get over it. Don’t whine. Just gawk. Maybe in your next life.

Nota bene about people: Iceland was voted the #1 friendliest country in the world last year. Wait, whoa, what? I mean, maybe at 3:00am in a bar in Reykjavik with everyone blinded from alcohol, maybe someone will talk to you, especially if they mistake you for a goddess or troll. When I think friendly, I think of Dublin, where I walked down the street looking a little confused and people stopped  to see if I needed help. That is friendly. But the street temperature in Iceland is tepid at best. Most of the time, when my friends and I are a little lost, which happens to be a regular, not unpleasant state of affairs, and we ask for directions, we get tetchy answers, or worse, an attempt at humor. For instance, we once asked a man where the horse show was, he told us, “Horse? I eat horses, I don’t ride them.”

That said, there was this one time when we met a friendly, charming, handsome, helpful, kind, handsome, charming man—oh Balthasar, will I ever get over you?

The food: Throw caution to the wind and try it all (yeah, sure, even the rotten shark). Make sure to eat at the roadside cafeterias (Nesti or N1s) along the highway. Stop at every bakery you pass and sample the goods (not hard to find since it’s spelled ‘bakari’).  It’s not fancy food, but it’s fresh, local, tasty. Eat up. Gain weight. Don’t diet. Never diet there.

Don't ever diet here

Don’t ever diet here

The language: It’s most difficult. I download language programs before I go. I listen to Sigur Ros, hoping the words will seep into my brain via eerie music osmosis. I try out the words I have practiced, but it only evokes blank stares or grimaces. I think Icelanders are like the French this way– they’d rather you don’t even try to use their language than use it poorly. But I do try, for instance, using the basic greeting, “Góðan daginn” meaning “Good day” – I will casually, quickly say it when walking into a shop. (My mnemonic for pronouncing this is “go-then, die-in.”)  To which, an Icelander will reply with an abbreviated guttural sound something like “ga-dunk.”

Weather: In winter dress warmly for any type of weather. In summer, ditto. It always seems to be raining in Reykjavik, and the north always seems to be sunny. Occasionally it is so gloriously sunny I come back sunburned. And that’s just hard to explain.

A random warning: The hot water smells. Really badly. Like rotten eggs, bad gas. It’s just sulfur. And when you shower in it, it feels slippery, as if you can’t wash off the water. It’s like greasy glue on your skin. Enjoy.

While on the subject of bathrooms, I’ve never seen a tub  – and what’s with the showers? There is no lip or edge to the shower stall and no doors, even in the nicest hotels. All you get is the shower head sticking out of a wall in a designated corner of the bathroom. There is a drain on the floor, but that’s it. The water floods the bathroom floor and slowly goes down a drain. I’m not one to use the hair dryer but after a shower I would be cautious— zip zip zowey, you know what I mean?

Drowning: Someone once told me the tide was so strong on the south coast that during a photo shoot,  a model wading in the water ankle deep got swept into the ocean, never to be found again. This sounds apocryphal, but at least one person has corroborated it, and the visual is sort of hard to resist.

One of my friends I travel with every year to Iceland said, “Let’s keep it a secret, so it won’t get ruined.”

I agree, but it’s a little late for that, at least ten years – or a couple of thousand –  too late. Word is out. Iceland is hot.

So my advice: Go, don’t go. If you go, don’t tell anyone. Shhhh.

Swept away?

Rare, oh rare sunny day in Reykjavik

Rare, oh rare sunny day in Reykjavik

Shut Up and Suck It Up

In 2010 Iceland was a mess. They had, in succession: a financial meltdown caused by three men who absconded with the country’s money (Reykjavik was full of scaffolding and dangling cranes hanging off unfinished buildings); the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajokull that stopped air traffic for weeks, halting tourism and causing more financial loss; and worst of all in my view, a horse flu that had been brought into the country by a German trainer (yes, they could track it down to the very person!), leaving most of the horse population incapacitated.

In June 2010, our group of women visiting Iceland for the sixth time were a mess, too. That spring I had broken my elbow; Esther had been thrown from a horse– titanium helmet cracked– and was nervous riding; and Kat was having her own financial crisis due to the U.S. economic downturn—she was losing her business and because of that, she had to put her beautiful farm up for sale. Kat’s farm was like a collective, friend and strangers alike stayed there, ate there, and rode the horses. Part of the problem, I suppose. She and her husband, Mark, were generous to a fault, and they shouldered all the costs alone. So anyone close to them, meaning all of us, grieved the impending loss of their farm. Esther was losing Kat’s farm, too. She and Beth ran their therapeutic riding program there, which meant the program would have to close. By the time we landed in Iceland, we were falling apart.

Outside of Reykjavik, the roads still had a white wispy layer of volcanic ash that rose and disappeared like smoke as we drove down them. Before heading to Helga’s farm, we met up with Sibba and Ljotur as we often do. They are old friends of Kat and when their teenage son was wild and exasperating, they didn’t know what to do with him. Kat took him in on her farm for half a year. He rode and trained the horses, fell for a local girl, and returned to Iceland a changed kid. It was more than just a farm Kat had: it was a place where kids and adults were given a time out. And as Kat, Esther, Beth, Bev, and Robin are fond of saying, “Horses save people. They heal the soul.”

So we spent the first day and a half in Iceland caravanning north with Sibba and Ljotur. Sibba is cheerful, petite, and stylish like a Parisian woman, always wearing beautiful shoes, Hermes scarves, coats made of unusual leather or wool. Ljotur is healthy looking, ruddy-faced, and playful. They have both traveled to every corner of the earth, having worked for Icelandair most of their lives (she as a flight attendant, he as an engineer). And probably because of that, their camper van was packed up like a plane. At Stykkisholmur, from little cupboards and overheads, they brought forth a picnic: reindeer meat pate, smoked salmon, gravlax, cheese and flatbread served with a jam made from local currants, and the ubiquitous hothouse cucumbers and tomatoes. They provided plastic cups of tea with sugar cubes or Nescafe instant coffee with milk—all utterly, indescribably delicious. They brought us to towns we had never been to before: Olafsvik, Rif, and Arnarstapi, where we stopped in a tiny one room restaurant for the house specialty, a fish stew. We went off the beaten path to stop at Eirikstaddir, to see a reconstruction of the original longhouse of Erik the Red, complete with out-of-work actors looking primitive (and sort of artsy) giving tours.

We parted company with them on the night of the summer solstice, as Ljotur told us his plans for the night: it was an Icelandic tradition on the solstice for the man of the house, in this case a camper’s van, to run around his home naked at midnight. We, regrettably, missed that.

We left them laughing, but once we were at Helga’s farm all was not right. Most of the horses were sick and couldn’t stand up in their stalls. The worst was Thorka, a beloved old dependable white mare, who was in the throes of the flu. Lying in her stall, covered with her own muck, her white coat dirtied to a matted brown, she struggled for breath, wheezing and coughing. She looked to be near death. Helga reassured us that the flu hadn’t killed any horse on the island. They got terribly sick, but recovered.

We rode other horses from the nearby farm, horses that had gotten the flu earlier and had recovered. But our hearts just weren’t in it. Fear and doubt permeated our thoughts. “My horse just tripped,” Esther said, “it’s still sick.” Kat said, “My horse coughed, we should turn back.” Kat was often the most adventurous rider, but that day she rode pitched awkwardly in her saddle with her shoulders tight and hunched forward. Esther whispered to me afterward, “She is half the person she normally is.”

We couldn’t ride much so we spent a lot of the week driving around. We didn’t talk about plans for our trip the following year. We didn’t talk much at all. We didn’t even find any sweaters to buy. I kept thinking of the Otis Redding song: The Thrill is Gone. We were disassembling as a group. I only remember Alison remaining her upbeat, stalwart self. It didn’t help that Bev wasn’t on the trip that year. I missed her. But she was had gone to Texas to spend time with her son who was on furlough after serving his tour in Iraq.

One night at dinner we succumbed to my least favorite conversation, especially on vacation —our country’s problems. We wallowed in the general complaint that things were awful in the States. This and that, terrible and broken, we despaired. Referring to her country, Helga said, “Young people nowadays whine a lot about how hard their lives have become, but I tell them, ‘yeah it will be tough for a few years, we’ll have to work harder and do without, but that’s the way it is. So just shut up and suck it up.’”

We laughed at this, repeated it like a mantra. For the remainder of the trip, we reminded each other of Helga’s advice– “shut up and suck it up.” It helped.

On the next to last day, Helga drove us to the perimeters of her property. “I want to show you this, because I don’t think you’ve seen all the farmland.” She drove her Jeep out to a point on the bay we had never ridden to, where the beach was gray sand and windblown heather. Then she drove us due east to another point, telling us that the farm extended from one point to the other. 8,000 acres. On one spit of land, Helga told us that last summer she had a big birthday party for herself. Everyone came on their horses; it was an eight hour ride each way. Gunnar had driven out and pitched a big tent and dance floor. He built a paddock for the horses to stay in. Everyone camped overnight.

Finally something sparked in us. “Can we do that next year?” Esther asked. “And camp out overnight on the beach?” Alison added. “I’d be up for that,” I said. Still a little timid, Kat said, “maybe we could do half the trip; we could ride out and Gunnar could pick us up in the truck on the way back.”

But it was a plan; we had a plan for the next year, a goal, a destination. We would return. Iceland would recover. The thrill was not gone after all. Our mantra switched from “shut up and suck it up,” to “next year, same place.”

Can we camp here?

Can we camp here?

Better walking than riding

Better walking than riding


Read my mood

Read my mood

To Baltasar, with Love

Cold, bright night

Cold, bright night

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.

All we understand is their name

All we understand is the rider’s name

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.

The Rapture

Looks like the Rapture to me

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.

On the way home it's nearing midnight

Going home, nearly midnight

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.

Somewhere In the South of Iceland: Part I

Because we arrive in the wee hours of the morning, we usually spend the day in Reykjavik hanging out, which means coffee shops, museums, shopping…coffee, shopping, coffee. But this year Bev and I have plans to do something more adventurous, and dare we say it, without horses. Before we went, we threw out suggestions: spelunking in a volcanic cave! Snorkeling in Silfra (which is the continental rift)!  Bev said: “I’m willing to stretch myself, go a little beyond my comfort zone.” I said: “Me too! ” She: “Like minds!” Me: “Yes, like.”
Of course, given the fact I had a stray day, I researched quick trips to Greenland. This is my default wish: Must. Go. To. Greenland. (What, yours isn’t?)  It’s only a two-hour flight from Keflavik. But it was a hard sell to Bev. “Eer, some other time,” she said.

Wait For Me, Greenland

Wait For Me, Greenland

As runner up to Greenland, we settle on an all day trip where we hike glaciers and such in southern Iceland with an outfitter. (In truth, I didn’t really read the whole description of the trip. Still pining for Greenland, I signed on after seeing the word “glacier”.)

I saw Glacier and Signed On

We’re going here?

When the van pulls up at our hotel and we first meet our mountain guide, a tall, lanky young man named Gudni, he appears shy. We introduce ourselves and he quickly ducks in the back of the van to fiddle with some gear. “I don’t know about this,” Bev says, “this could be a long trip.” Never fear, no one stays shy around Bev and me for long. We chat him up, tag teaming him with questions. Within minutes we find out where he lives (Reykjavik); what he’s studying (mechanical engineering); where his family is from (East Fjords); who was on his trip yesterday (people who couldn’t hike); what his name means (Gudni is a shortened version of a longer name meaning “God’s friend,” though, he added, his parents weren’t religious). Really the poor guy doesn’t stand a chance against women like us. This is all within the five minutes that it takes to pick up the other group of women who are joining us. And the women we pick up are –oh no– just like us (poor, poor guy), yakky American women who are horse crazy. And, as Gudni wisely remains quiet, we have a loud, ten minute discussion in which we find out vital statistics, meaning name and state, how many times we’ve been to Iceland, and who owns what kind of horses back home. They are Big Horse People. This is how Icelandic horse lovers refer to people who ride other horses. We picture them needing ladders to climb aboard their horses.

We leave Reykjavik and head for the hills. The first stop on our way is Hengill, the energy center. Unlike the one in Snaefellsnes, which is spiritual and literary, this one is geothermal and provides much of the energy for Iceland. It’s like the oil rush of Texas, only it’s not fossil fuel. It’s a never-ending, limitless source of heat and power for all of Iceland.

Spitting steam

Hills that spit steam

 Gundi brings us up to the edge of the path and says, “Don’t go any closer.” Oh, why? we ask innocently. “There are sinkholes. And they are very, very hot.”  What surrounds us basically looks like wasteland: an unearthly, hellish Mordor of Iceland, with bubbling boiling cesspools of mud.

bubbling boiling mud

Mordor or Iceland?

Gudni explains: You could boil lamb meat in this and steam bread. Back in the old days, this was the outlaw area. If you were accused of a crime, like murder or sheep stealing, you were banished to these areas and you had to live off the harsh land. You usually got a three-year sentence; if you survived the hardship and providing no one killed you (no questions asked when killing an outlaw), you could come back to society. This leaves me contemplating the U.S. penal system. Medieval Iceland seems fairer.

cave and steam

Rikers for medieval outlaws

We hike on to dryer and higher, less steamy ground. Gudni points to the cliffs that are full of bird activity. “That is where the fulmar nest.” He explains their behavior: they spit at predators. It’s actually regurgitated stomach oil that has a very bad smell.
This reminds me of that scene in Jurassic Park, where the nasty dinosaur spit-kills the nasty person stealing the dinosaur embryos. This is harsh land, indeed: spitting steam and spitting birds, hot sinkholes and bubbling mud. The outlaws had it tough.

Fulmar nesting in cliffs

Where the birds spit

It’s a hot day for Iceland, more sunny than cloudy. I’m not used to hiking in Iceland and start longing to be on a horse instead. I’m even watching myself walk as if on horseback. Would a horse step here? Would I guide the horse around this craggy part? We come to the crest of a hill and stop before going down, and I’m thinking I’d definitely dismount my imaginary horse before going down the steep gorge. The path is full of warning, “Haetta!” but it’s not really scary; it’s just a slippery slope.



It’s only 10:30 in the morning and we’ve got the rest of the day in front of us. I don’t really have a clear idea where we’re heading but we have a trusty, now friendly, guide and Bev takes this picture of me dancing.

I'm dancing

Doing a little jig

Welcome to Iceland

Keflavik airport

Just before midnight

Arrival in Keflavik is always a dreary affair. Maybe it is because we arrive just before midnight, but it is eerily quiet for an airport even though four flights have deplaned at about the same time. And even though the sun is on the horizon and it is the longest day of the year, the light is gray and dusky. The airport is efficient, however. Our luggage arrives on the baggage belt by the time we walk there. At the passport check, they ask us the usual questions with poker-faced officiousness: How long are you staying? Business or vacation? Iceland has a population of 320,000; last year it had 800,000 visitors. But all this attention to their country seems to leave Icelanders extremely apathetic. When Bev steps up to the passport booth, she tries to awaken them with a loud, “Hello!” Then they take an especially long time looking at her passport, flipping the pages back and forth. “It’s like a book of Iceland, with one trip to China,” she says cheerily. Their response is deadpan. It means nothing to them that we suffer from Icelandophilia.

What welcomes one to Iceland are the billboards. They are friendly, pretty, and culturally informative. This year it’s a campaign of Icelandic sayings. At least the tourist industry is trying.

Ha ha, the Skyr joke

The Skyr joke

Everything Nice

Everything Nice

Of course, my favorite, favorite

Of course, my favorite, favorite

The geographical placement of the airport is not exactly welcoming either. It is on the western tip of a rocky, brown, inhospitable part of the Reykjanes peninsula. Nothing but volcanic rocks, the famous lunar-type landscape on earth our first astronauts practiced on. This is the first looksee of the country and it is not pretty. Certainly no green and pleasant land. Just hardscrabble lava turf and a scattering of rough grass.  And rain. Did I mention the constant rain?



I got into a conversation on the plane with a woman who sheepishly admitted that she had been to Iceland three times already and people can’t understand why she keeps going back? “Welcome to my world,” I said, “This is my 8th trip.”

So upon arrival my enthusiasm always wanes for the country, “Um, why am I here again?” Why this otherwise forgotten island thrown up by volcanoes in the North Atlantic ocean? I hear my husband’s pesky voice in my ear: “Why can’t you be obsessed with Italy?”

Bev and I meet up with Kat, Esther and Beth coming in on the Boston flight. We all look a little flight fatigued and disheveled. Kat goes off to pick up our rental car and we wait, and wait some more. We buy yogurt and chocolate covered cookies at the airport foodmart. An hour or so later Kat comes back with a set of keys. “We had to get an SUV; I hope all our luggage fits.”

We stuff, push, jam our bags in the back of a Lincoln SUV and slam the hatch door shut. The latch catches and we cheer. Then the five of us, with the overflow luggage at our feet or on our laps, head merrily to Reykjavik. And I mean merrily, too. All of us are talking at once, in a voluble banter.

–Kat explains about the snafu at the car rental place. The station wagon we reserved was too small but the people who reserved the SUV thought it was too big, so we switched. “It all worked out. See, the universe takes care of it.”
–Beth talks about her equine-assisted psychotherapy, and the influence of the positive psychologist Tal Ben Shahar.
–Bev talks about her tai chi trip to China last year, which segues into Esther talking about Iyengar yoga. “Finding the perfect balance is nirvana,” she says.
–There is a brief aside on why Kat and I like Game of Thrones so much.
–Then we’re on to people we know in common.
–Bev talks about the necessary ingredient of friendship: “a measure of grace.”
–Beth says [friendship] is “like energy attracting like energy.”
–Esther, apropos of nothing I can remember, declares: “I have hypomania. I do!”

The engine light is on and the brakes grind and squeak, but Kat assures us, “the car rental guy said that was normal.” After a short pause of concern, we pick up where we left off.

And the dreary landscape gets softer and greener. A farmhouse on the coast is illuminated by a burst of two a.m. sunshine. Beth says emphatically, passionately, “I can’t believe I’m here, you guys. This is so beautiful.”

And it is. Truly wondrous.

I am with this group of women I travel with every year to Iceland, and my heart is full of deep affection for them. Hurtling toward Reykjavik with lousy brakes and an intense camaraderie, there isn’t anywhere else I’d rather be, or anyone else I’d rather be with.

Truly wondrous

Truly wondrous

The Truth about Elves and Trolls

Overview Holar


So we’re sitting on an orange leather couch at Helgi’s house, a golden sun pouring in the window at eight in the evening. Helgi sets out six shot glasses of amber-tinted aquavit—and Esther and I are the only ones who imbibe. We are drowsy. Very drowsy. Out the living room window are Tolkien mountains and Tolkien mists. It’s a Tolkien town. Before we even got to Helgi’s, we stopped at a turf house museum where we all commented how hobbit-like the houses looked. Coincidentally on the coffee table where our empty shot glasses sit, there is the first book of the trilogy, Lord of the Rings, in English. Another one in Icelandic. This starts to add up to something, even in my somnolent mind. We are in a place, another state, and it is one of sheer contentment. All beauty and peace has descended here at Helgi’s house in Holar. The world is still or at least slowed. For Esther and me, admittedly, the aquavit may have helped, but the others who aren’t drinking feel it too. We cannot move or speak. Even Esther, who never runs out of things to say, is silent. Not only that, her eyes are closed and her face bears a beatific smile. Finally Bev, maybe sensing social pressure and noticing that her hitherto garrulous friends have checked out, picks up the slack and asks a few questions to Helgi. Thank god for that, because the rest of us are not being good guests.

Turf House Museum: camera view

Turf House Museum: camera view

Turf House Museum: what I see

Turf House Museum: what I see

Gudrinn, Helgi’s wife, comes home from Akureyri where she had been attending a conference on the economy of the Arctic States. She looks full of information. Their 8-year-old niece shows up, too. Blond-haired and brown-faced from the sun, she speaks in a whispery, angelic voice. Surely she is an elf child. Helgi calls us to the dinner table. I float there. He puts out a meal of onion quiche, mushroom bisque, tomato salad, and skyr tarte, He has performed his kitchen magic.

Holar: what the camera sees

Holar: what the camera sees

The talk turns to the supernatural. You never know if Icelanders are pulling your tourist legs when they tell you stories of elves and trolls. And politeness stops you from asking if they believe. By most standards, Iceland is the sanest country, but the sagas and myths lodge deep in their psyches and they relish telling the tales. Helgi and Gudrinn explain the oh-so obvious:

“Trolls are giants. It’s the Icelandic word for giant. Trolls can only move in the night. If the sun comes out and catches them, they turn into boulders.”

“They are always getting into trouble. Mostly with their engineering feats. They start moving rocks and then get caught when the sun comes up.”

“Elves are invisible people. They are the beautiful people.”

“How do you know if they’re beautiful if they are invisible?” I ask.

“You know because there are times when people can see them. You can corner one at a crossroad, for instance, and if you do, it will offer you everything to let it pass. There’s a story about an elf cornered by some guy and the elf offers him gold, silver, horses–anything to let him pass. But all the guy wants is sheep fat.”

“Elves know the secret of the universe. If they tell it to you, you have to keep it quiet. Or else.”

I’m going with it. I’m gullible. I get suitably woo-woo in certain settings, especially  in the recreation of Middle Earth.  I want to know the secret of the universe, but I’m also happy just knowing that there is a secret to the universe.

Before the conversation is over, Helgi  says, “I think it is all the subconscious at work. That we project dreams, that sort of stuff.”

Well, that’s the equivalent of  a buzzkill, and puts an end to the cowardly lions’ voice in my head, “I do, I do I do believe in ghosts.”

Later that night….

we are driving home on a mountain road, we have troll-like boulders to our right that are perched along the edge of a steep cliff, and to our left, the other lane of approaching traffic. We come to the crest of the road just as  the blinding  globular sun cuts at an angle that obliterates our vision, including Jill’s, who is driving. She says worriedly, “I can’t see the road. I can’t see where I’m driving.” If she drives to the right too much, we hit a boulder or missing that head right off the cliff. Too much to the left, there could be oncoming traffic. She stops the car in what feels like the middle of the road.  We are encased in the glare of the midnight sun waiting for it to move an inch on the horizon to give us room to see. But in those few moments, when blinded like that, you can see anything: an elf at the crossroad or a troll turn into a boulder.