Travel: Iceland - a surreal place to spend long, heated summer nights
Sunday 14 June 1998
I flew from Heathrow under dark, north Atlantic skies, the kind of skies that cod and sprat and herring have always liked. But by Wales the sun was coming out. And from the north-west coast of Ireland onwards, the sea looked positively Mediterranean. Here I was flying north towards the North Pole, staring down over blue waters suggestive of tropical temperatures, palm trees and beaches. Lunch, a chocolate mint and a couple of face flannels later, I saw a brown line on the horizon: miraculously, in all this vast expanse of the ocean, the pilot had managed to locate Iceland. (Just how do they do that?)
Come to think of it, how the hell had anybody found Iceland in the first place? This zone of perpetual fog, cloud and icy, hurricane-force winds, lying a good 800 kilometres from the west coast of Norway, is not the first place I would come to looking for magical islands of perpetual summer. I might have tried my luck in, say, the Aegean or the Adriatic. But, then again, my name is not Egill Skallagrimsson or Magnus Magnusson. I do not write skaldic poetry or sail in a long boat. Had I done so, the sight of fog-shrouded volcanoes in Arctic waters over my prow might not have seemed so odd.
Within minutes I was flying over encrusted lava flows, shining warmly under the bright sunshine. I saw little Greek- island-style houses dotted about, all white walls and clean red roofs. "The trouble with Iceland is that it is so windy," people had told me. Of course we landed in a total calm.
At least Reykjavik Airport was not going to dumbfound me. It would be small and clean and parochial with a lot of nordic bare wood. It was. But the next four flights on the departure board (New York, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Chicago) were considerably less nordic than I would have dreamt of. The airport bus into town then turned out to be full of Americans, none of whom seemed remotely surprised to find themselves in my dream. I didn't get this. Just for starters, I asked myself how could we be in the middle of the Atlantic - but on dry land? How could anyone not be retching and gasping for air at this ludicrous geographical joke?
We hadn't even walked round Reykjavik yet. The city has grassy, road- side verges of surreal lusciousness. Traffic glides silently along the ring road. Right in the middle of town, I found tiny little earth-movers operated by girls in tank-tops at work, resurfacing a street. This really is a kind of toy country, a fabulous figment of the European imagination, a country where optimists can dress for summer while pessimists wrap themselves up in seal skins. Social problems are introduced merely for the sake of realism. I saw a single vandalised bus stop in a back street, which had clearly been reserved as a means for Icelandic youth to gather and to express themselves.
Hours later, it is nearly midnight and that midsummer sun is obstinately refusing to set or even to hide behind a cloud. My hotel room is uncomfortably warm, a punishment, I am sure, for those of us who dare to take Iceland for granted. All that volcanic rock caking the landscape - it is giving me a creepy feeling that at any moment the country could vanish in a renewed explosion, blasting me to the bottom of the sea, leaving the ocean to the icebergs. Out there in the rest of the world, continental geography will revert to normal service.
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