I have a pact with Ragga. When I point my fork at things on my dinner plate, she will tell me what they are. She will say “sheep’s head” or “blood sausage” or “sour shark” or “whale.” She will do this until I point to a thing she doubts I can swallow. In that case, we’ve agreed that Ragga will say nothing at all.
We’ve just found seats at Thorrablot, a banquet dinner held in towns all over Iceland. It’s a late-winter feast that hearkens back to the cruelest chapters in Iceland’s history, when volcanoes blackened the sky with ash, when famines swept the land and deforestation was so complete you couldn’t even warm your hands by a fire.
The menu at Thorrablot—a nauseating list of whey-soaked meats and near-rotten fish—explains how early Icelanders made it through the grim homestretch of winter. They squirreled away the dregs of the fall harvest, buried shark meat underground, and when spring still felt like a far-off dream, swallowed them down. It’s some of the worst food in the history of eating.
Alcohol, I’m told, helps. I believe the people who tell me this. I’ve had two gin and tonics by the time I arrive at Thorrablot, thanks to Ragga and her husband, Biggi, who invited me to their preparty. It was around their coffee table, over pretzel sticks and tall cocktails, that I announced to my hosts and their friends that I was going to be “adventurous” at Thorrablot. I will swallow that word with a forkful of sheep and a shot called Black Death.
Nobody goes to Iceland for the food. Even less of a draw: winter. In December, the sun arrives as late as 11:20 a.m. and flees as early as half-past three. The darkest day of the year is a mere four hours long. You can track the amount of sunlight Iceland gets—and many Icelanders do, down to the second—on the web. That’s how I know that there were seven hours, nine minutes, and fifty-eight seconds of sunlight on the early February day I set out for Thorrablot in Kirkjubæjarklaustur.
Kirkjubæjarklaustur sits on the southern fringe of Iceland, three hours east of Reykjavik. There isn’t much to the town—its name means “church-farm-cloister” and that about covers it. Only if you were a natural-disaster geek would you pull off the highway here: Kirkjubæjarklaustur is sandwiched by a fearsome volcano and the largest ice cap in Europe. Laki, the volcano, once erupted so passionately its ash blotted out the moon for months. Vatnajökull, the giant glacier, is ungirded by volcanoes. If there’s a more calamity-prone place on Earth than Kirkjubæjarklaustur, nobody lives there.
I drove east from Reykjavik midday, anxious to see Iceland’s hinterlands while the sun was making a showing. But the sky was a thick gray cap: no layers, no nuance, no movement. I pulled over a few times to take photos but deleted them. I might as well have been shooting a cement room featuring cardboard boxes.
Something strange happens in the mind of a person deep in the interior of Iceland. It begins with the color problem. The palette of the land gives you no assurance of life. In fact, its mold-green moss and straw-yellow grass and the vast blackness of the fields that lava made all suggest this place either drains life, or ends it. Which explains why I quit taking photos. Not just because the images were pathetically grim, but because I was having trouble getting out of the car.
Outside, I felt bare in a way that had nothing to do with clothing. It was cold, but no more than New York in winter. There were no people to stare me off, let alone predators. So why did I know in my bones that it was unwise to walk more than three feet from my car? How could a place this quiet and static and uncreatured, the very antithesis of jungle, tell a person with such force to keep inside?
And then it got dark. And radio signals vanished. And even the monster jeeps I kept spotting, racing back from the glaciers, were gone now. Deep in the noiseless dark, glacial melt oozed over their tracks. I drove with both hands on the wheel and stared into a blackness flecked on either side by yellow reflectors—a long, unchanging tunnel—and made the mistake of glancing in my rearview mirror: a chasm, all black. It began to feel possible that none of this was happening. Possible that this blackness was not a real place. Possible, then, that I was not here, that I could just vanish like a character in some late-morning dream that suddenly drops off.
That’s when I began taking great heed of my GPS.
It promised just fifty miles more. I was fifty miles from Kirkjubæjarklaustur. In fifty miles, I might hear noise, see a face, speak. I looked many times at the screen, at this word, the promise. Kirkjubæjarklaustur: It had a silent j, just like Reykjavik. The a and e were melded Icelandically. On screen at least, it looked like a real place.
The phone rings in my hotel room, and I give it a look.
Bullshit. Who could be calling me in Kirkjubæjarklaustur? I’m not even certain I’m here, yet; how could anyone else be?
The phone rings again.
“There’s a gentleman here to see you,” an Icelandic voice claims.
I promise the voice I’ll be right down, which isn’t true. First, I need to blow-dry more heat into my socks and shoot some tea and find the tiny notebook where I’ve written the name of the gentleman I believe is here to see me: Birgir Thorisson, husband to Ragnhildur Ragnarsdottir.
I’ve gotten permission to call them Biggi and Ragga, from their daughter, Brynhildur, a woman I’ve known for five years as Bryn.
I met Bryn on the cusp of my maiden voyage to Iceland. I was waiting to board the red-eye that would deliver me to Reykjavik and tensed with desire to say that aloud, to feel the new reality: Iceland. There was a pretty brunette with an upturned nose standing at our gate on steep heels, her bangs cut boldly short. I wanted her to be Icelandic, and she was.
Across the ocean, Bryn’s boyfriend awaited her in the bright dawn. He offered to drive me to my new flat, knowing that Icelandic prices could break a scrappy traveler in days. It was the island’s economic peak, three-and-a-half months before the financial meltdown, and mere days before the solstice, when the light vivified everything.
There was a throb to the light, a thrust in it. Crack light, I called it, disoriented to a degree I didn’t know possible. I stayed all summer, subletting a room in a creaky yellow house on a street called Lindargata, where the pull-down shades did a laughable job muting the most ebullient blast of light I’d ever seen.
When people told me what time it was that summer, my usual response was a long, doubting “noooo.” I talked back to clocks, too. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” The hour always sounded made-up, so blatantly mismatching the shade of the sky.
Light, Iceland taught me, did not fall evenly on all the world’s places. How had no one ever told me that? How could years of science teachers have drilled me on nematodes and Jupiter’s rings and cephalopods, skipping over the basic fact that light in this world varies wildly? Wildly. The sun reaches some places; it soaks and pierces and drenches others.
I slept little that summer. I filled wide, white pages with notes, biked to the harbor, said yes to every invitation. I went to a party on an island called Videy where beautiful women wore capes and Björk’s son showed up in a helicopter. I got the hang of sulfur-scented showers, electrical outlets that carried the force of geysers. I bought sagas and believed I’d read them. Instead, I read the phone book, its long columns of Ingibjörgs, daring Iceland to be that strange—a land without last names.
I night-jogged. I night-cleaned. I night-wrote. I did all of the above under a sky that also suggested: Why not picnic?
I pored over early Icelandic history books, grew obsessed with the story of Floki, a disgruntled Norwegian who believed he’d found paradise when he landed on the shore of west Iceland in summer. Floki fished late into the bright June nights, oblivious that this was a season, not an Eden. Misery awaited Floki: His animals died; Floki gave up. You can find trace of Floki in the menu at Thorrablot: prepare for winter, bury your shark meat, dark times ahead.
My summer in Iceland was the second-brightest on record, when polar bears were washing up on melting ice floes from Greenland. The island’s wealth was also at its height—poised for a phenomenal crash in October. But in June, all through July, people left work early. They made pacts to hike the faint mountain at Reykjavik’s back. I’d never experienced a season so dominant and it fascinated me—the way it told a nation of people what to do (renew) and when (right now) and where (outside). Björk threw a free concert. Sigur Rós joined. The whole country showed. We all jumped up and down to a song called “Hoppípolla.” The light never quit. It put an entire society in a heightened, hyperactive mood.
Of course, winter played a role in this. There was a preface to summer’s glory that I’d missed entirely—a reason the people around me seemed newly switched on. The lead-up to the brightest summer on record was Iceland’s standard, brutal winter.
I’d have to come back in that other season, Icelanders told me. I’d hung out in the greenhouse, but Iceland was also a cave. I wouldn’t really know this place unless I saw the flip side, they said.
To call me light-sensitive would be like calling shark meat unsavory. In winter, I feellike a plant, ready to contort and bend toward any source of light. I’ll change seats in cafés three times to get the most sun-lavished seat, leap over snow mounds to reach the side of the street where the sidewalk glows. By February my eyes feel squinty, half-open. I don’t take a multivitamin; I pop just vitamin D.
One winter, though, I withered long before February. My home had just come apart: My partner and I had just split, in what felt like a fortnight. I kept our place and he dragged off his things, leaving the rooms hollow and haunted with memories of painting their walls as a team. I got skinny in the way that announces something’s up. Close friends asked whether I was eating, and I was—predominantly green apples. My face had a new chisel in it—the cheekbone cut straight down to the chin. I checked mirrors for the chisel, wanting beauty in a way I never had before. Thin felt like a power and I needed one, alone now and significantly older.
Every weekend was a full-on battle to not feel terrible. I threw parties because I wanted invitations to parties. Old friends were delivering babies, turning their attention to strollers; I needed to refill my ranks with people alone enough to make room for me. Dating often meant hard drinking, and usually on an empty stomach: one cocktail, then another, while I had the body mass of a high-school cross-country runner. I worried about the long stretch of winter ahead. The year already felt dark.
And cold. I’d never felt the chill of winter that acutely. I felt like a person who’d lost her coat.
One morning, I hurried aboard a commuter train, on my way to work. No sooner had I plunked down in an empty seat did I look up at a bright, blown-up photo. An airline ad. I froze, staring at the image like I would a portrait of my family, hung in public with no explanation. What was Iceland doing here?
I knew the spot so well: Jökulsárlón. It was the lagoon, way in the eastern corner of Iceland, where calving glaciers break off into hundreds of pieces, cutting every possible silhouette—hooks, ramps, claws, domes. They float in mesmerizing stillness, like razor-edged clouds, gleaming. It has to be the most sublime vista in Iceland.
I got in touch with Bryn—did I remember right? Was there a party called Thorra-something? Rancid food in the dead of February? Yes, Bryn wrote: It’s a dreadful affair—why? Thorrablot: Winter Survival Night. I pitched an editor. Send me to Thorrablot. Other people had Christmas parties and snuggly lovers and twinkly-eyed kids. I wanted to sit in a room with strangers just barely enduring winter.
It’s bright like a hair salon just inside the banquet hall in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, making it impossible not to notice how dressed up everyone is. I look around the foyer of the banquet hall and see sequins, bowties, stilettos, heels no one should dance on. You can smell the hairspray.
There’s an unmistakably bridal feel to this Thorrablot. There’s a receiving line, where eight or so townspeople stand, beaming and shaking our hands. Icelanders get tapped at random to serve on their local Thorrablot committee; it’s a passing, shared duty, and from the looks of it, an honor. The committee women hold the posture of hens; the men look like they personally slaughtered tonight’s sheep. They stand in the blast of light, roses pinned to their breasts, like all eight of their daughters just got married.
It’s brilliant, the more I think about it: a wedding with no bride, no groom, no priest, no planner. It’s a party everyone can come to, put on their Sunday best for, split the bill for. There are tickets, just forty dollars a pop, and a date everyone agrees upon—late winter—because everyone’s stuck in the same dark cave and jonesing for a party. Nobody carries any pressure to impress with food. The food is supposed to be dreadful. If the food tasted good, in fact, someone would be pissed.
It strikes me—fast—how awkward it is for me to be here. Even my hosts, Bryn’s parents, suddenly look a little sheepish about my presence as their guest. It was so much smoother in their home, where we were faint, glowing faces to one another in the dim den, and I warmed so fast to their friends, Birgir and Hrafnhildur. Birgir and Hrafnhildur, who so kindly renamed themselves for me Biggi (II) and Habba.
Habba! My face crumples with fondness every time it’s Habba’s turn to talk. A tiny woman with ponytailed gray hair, Habba’s favorite topic is whatever delights her. And many, many things delight Habba. Someone once told me that in Icelandic you don’t love things, just people. Habba’s English is choppy, but she has full command of the verb “to love.” Habba loves Thorrablot. And Habba loves rams’ testicles. She tells me this with the gusto of an American woman in a commercial for chocolate-truffle ice cream.
Habba boils Thorrablot down to this: In a winter this dark, in a cold this severe, in a season in which rising from bed is the national challenge, you need something to look forward to. Over and over, Habba repeats these words like she’s passing on an age-old secret.
The problem with Habba is that, as a native and a nurse, she’s way too beloved in Kirkjubæjarklaustur to be my sidekick at the winter wedding. Habba vanishes fast. She leaves me to my adopted parents and an awkwardness that deepens by the minute.
I am severely underdressed—a black-jean-and-leather-boot combo that will inspire one guest to nickname me “New York.” He is one of about five people who will speak to me tonight. Basically, I’ve invited myself to a small-town wedding in a country with the population of Toledo, Ohio. And worn pajamas.
There is one way to get through this night: drinking. Biggi hands me a Viking beer and I drain it fast. I open the menu and pretend I can read it. Lundabaggar, Kartöflumús. This can only go on so long. Hákarl, Svid. I take notes in my head about how obvious it is when women feel their most beautiful, how you can see smiles tamped down in their lips when they scurry to the bathroom in pairs. I go to the bathroom myself to jot down notes in a stall. Someone bursts in on me, and not when I’m taking notes. Someone bursts in on me when I’m pulling up my pants.
This is how a person begins to look forward to heinous food.
My first mistake is taking a little bit of everything. It’s such an obvious mistake, in hindsight, but by the time our table is called, I’m so desperate to do something, and scooping little pale piles of food from bowls is something to do. Besides, the sour food—set out in glass dishes down a white-clothed table—doesn’t look all that heinous. There are no placards.
Back at our table, a quick glance at everyone’s plates makes clear I’ve gone overboard. The others have chosen favorites. Four or five favorites. I have no idea where everyone else got mashed potatoes. My plate is straight meat and fish, a palette of the same five colors: faint pink, soil brown, fishy white, formaldehyde, and putty.
Again, the color problem. Just as the palette of Iceland’s hinterlands, with its coal-black pastures and gray masses of ice, warns the traveler this is no place for life, the hues of my Viking dinner promise there is no nutrition here. I chase barely green peas around my plate and work up the nerve for herring.
A flakey piece of it lifts upward, tempting in the way a single French fry would. But dried herring is no quick bite. I press my teeth down and nothing happens. I dig in harder, I clench like a dog at odds with raw hide, and still—nothing. Are my molars even denting? They are not. I set down the herring, give my jaw a rest, and recall that Icelanders once ate their shoes.
Or so claim histories of the brutal 1700s, a century of astounding catastrophe. Natural disasters don’t just strike this part of the world; they inspire and layer upon one another. Earthquakes set off volcanoes. Volcanoes melt glaciers. Glaciers flood the land. Ash blocks the light. Winter comes and steals what’s left of it.
Consider the year 1783. The Earth shakes, ripping open the Laki volcano. Rivers of lava pour over the land, burying farm after farm. It’s an outpouring of magma never before seen by living people: 3.5 trillion gallons. This eruption goes on for eight straight months. Its ash cloud dims the world.
Global temperatures drop. Crops in Europe fail. Parts of the Mississippi freeze. The Nile shrinks. As far away as Siberia, trees grow less. But in Iceland, things just die. Birds die, grass dies, a year’s worth of hay is poisoned. Iceland loses a fifth of its people, and most of the livestock on the island dies. According to one historian, the Icelandic people verge on extinction. This is when people begin eating shoes.
“Nothing will make you sick,” Ragga assures from my left, “everything has been boiled and boiled.”
Boiled and boiled. Singed of its hair and thoroughly smoked. Buried under stones then hung like laundry. Desiccated, then beaten to a pulp.
Directives in the Viking cookbook sound authored by someone terrified of her ingredients. Most verbs are synonymous with “to beat” or “to break down.” The whole endeavor is to undo flavor, to dismantle texture, to outsmart poisons, to apply heat and wind and months of time until the result is something that can actually make it down the hatch.
To keep Viking delicacies straight, I need a close study of synonyms of “disgusting.” “Putrefied” means rotten. “Putrid” means rotting. It also means emitting a horrid smell. “Rancid” means smelling or tasting horrid, as a result of rotting. I am not surprised to learn that the root of it all, “rotten,” has Old Nordic origins. Rotten, in this part of the world, is a whole genre of cuisine.
At a more old-school Thorrablot, I might be eating seal flipper, gagging on pig’s-head jam, or hiding smoked horse meat under my peas. I am also fortunate that the eyeballs of tonight’s sheep are not out on the table, adorning the cooked carcass. But the greatest blessing of the night is that no one has prepared skate. A night-before-Christmas specialty, skate has to rot for a month until urea breaks down the bacteria that would make skate poisonous. The smell is so noxious that most people prepare skate outside.
What can I praise at Thorrablot? Edibility? There’s a blood sausage that’s more grainy than sinewy and so I say, “That’s not bad!” Ragga nods. Alone, I’d spit it in my napkin.
Soon I feel a low-grade nausea. I haven’t wretched yet; my body is simply saying no. It says: Do not ever touch that again. Do not so much as touch that gray jelly thing you just put in your mouth. Don’t. Very soon, 90 percent of the sour meat and fish wads have been scraped, sampled, and firmly ruled out.
So I do the stupidest possible thing. I send myself back for a second plate. I have delusions about mashed potatoes—that some plain puree could make this all work. Everyone else has them. Everyone else is managing. But the search uncovers too many more edible things.
Poor man’s pita bread. Pickled herring. Turnips. Boiled and boiled turnips. I return to my seat with two very full plates of every single thing served at Thorrablot in Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Continuing feels out of the question; so does stopping. Sveinn, the Thorrablot caterer, is collecting plates, but only the empty ones. He reaches over mine to clear everyone else’s.
I look down. I look for anything that has yet to repulse me. There’s a small putty-colored wad, and my fork lingers over it.
“What’s that?” I ask Ragga.
She stops chewing and follows my fork. “Do you want me to tell you?”
There’s only one thing on tonight’s Thorrablot menu you would not tell a faint-of-heart foreigner about. I shake my head and, before there can be any rethinking, eat my rams’ balls.
The room goes quiet. People concentrate on their plates.
“Everyone’s trying to get through their own personal zombie movies,” a veteran expat said, summing up the dark weeks leading up to Thorrablot. “They get together and just swallow it down.” The metaphor was so perfect. Life serves you putty-colored, near-poisonous shark, and you stomach it. You take it like a Viking.
But that’s just not what I see. At the next table over, a blond man who’s beaten his family back to the table is painting some bit of sour mystery meat with mashed potatoes with such care, such patience, deep in anticipation of that one single bite. And down at the end of the table, there isn’t a trace of rams’ testicles left on dear Habba’s plate.
Habba: I watch her all night—so enthused to be here she can’t sit down. Someone tells me later that Habba barely survived a heart attack this year. Her absence would have made this a very different night: the first Thorrablot without Habba. There’d have been an ache in the room that everyone felt. When I hold this in mind—how much time steals from us, and how suddenly—I understand better than ever why people take such care with tradition, preserving what constants we can while time moves unrelentingly forward.
People all over the world do this with heirloom food—the delicious kind. Only Icelanders stick to the rancid. Maybe they know something. Maybe the more pungent the food, the better the bridge to the past. Maybe that’s why everyone in this bright hall looks like they’d appreciate a moment alone with the last bites of the disgusting dinner they ate exactly this time last year, and every year, deep in the dark of winter, in this very same room.
A brown curtain parts, and everyone turns toward the stage. Familiar people—the Thorrablot committee, their boutonnieres still on—stand before us, straight-faced, looking like the Icelandic impersonation of American Gothic. Slack cheeks, stony eyes, no creeping smiles. They’re pretty good actors, turns out. Or just playing themselves.
Finally someone in the audience breaks the silence; he chuckles, inviting another chuckle, enabling another, and soon the whole room is laughing at the miserable-looking cast of Kirkjubæjarklaustur.
“Farmer humor,” Ragga says, struggling to translate the comedy, as the actors begin reading scripts, dour-faced. I know she’s trying her best, because when men appear in nun costumes, she whispers, “Nun costumes.” And when the projector stalls, she tells me, hand curled around my ear, “The projector failed.” Just about everything else, apparently, is way too local to translate: “Who’s got the better snowmobile and that sort of thing.”
I was told before coming to Thorrablot that the comedy portion of the night was basically an open mike for winter misery. But no one’s getting up to unburden her heart. It’s more along the lines of a wedding roast. What’s roasted, in place of a groom, is winter. It’s a retrospective, because the worst of the year is pretty much over.
The same held true for me. By the time I got my ticket to Iceland, I’d survived the holiday. I’d looked for recompense in my hollow Christmas: a third fewer gifts to buy—his family was big, and no longer mine. Instead, I wrote them goodbye letters. I’d put it off because it felt like the saddest thing. It was the saddest thing. I did it, finally, in the far corner seat of a subway car: put my head down and wrote holiday wishes that were obviously goodbyes, one right after another, to a mother and a sister and a grandmother I would never see again.
Back home for a Christmas I was dreading, I told my mother in plain language and without any embellishing stories that I was sad. I needed to say this to my mother: the woman who taught me to get out of bed, who trained most of the strength I have in me. Through the fall and into winter, she’d praised me—my motion, my forward lean, my back-to-back dating. She needed to know and I needed to say that I was sad. I was doing Christmas like everyone else but all the while felt a single, simple thing: sad. I am sad, Mother. I can make it, we know I will, but this is winter. I need to call this winter.
Ragga stands up to crack a window, letting a chill waft right in. The banquet hall’s heating up with laughter, for reasons I’m hopeless to know. I do get a clear summary of last year’s comedy—Ragga and Biggi had leading roles. The theme, they tell me, was the volcano. I assume they mean Laki—the 1783 eruption that put their tiny, indomitable town on the map.
But Biggi isn’t talking about the volcano of lore. He means the volcano that filled the air with ash the year before last—in 2011.
Grímsvötn didn’t make world news because it didn’t halt global air traffic, as the Eyjafjallajökull eruption had, just one year earlier. Nonetheless, when the Earth opened up by Kirkjubæjarklaustur, it got hard to see the sky.
Biggi was working at a fish farm and got trapped there. The air was so thick with black particles, he didn’t dare step outside. Back at their home, grit covered every surface. Every cabinet, every drawer, everything cloth. Ragga was out of town, and when she finally returned and opened up her front door, the first thing she did was cover her eyes. She lifted a hand and covered her eyes.
The ash would take months to clean. And when February came around, they dressed up, got up on the stage, and made a parody of the volcano that buried their town in black.
“Were you nervous?” I ask Biggi. “For the skit?”
“Yes.” Little smile. “At first.”
I try to imagine either of my host parents on stage, delivering jokes. It’s hard.
“Did it go over well?”
“Oh, very well,” Biggi says, startled by the question, which tells me it was never a question. It was the end of a year of complete calamity. Of course people came into this hall ready to laugh.
Tonight’s is about lean times: the town’s tightening budget, the fact that Kirkjubæjarklaustur can no longer afford its thermal pool. An actor bumbles on stage, slouching like a nerd, camera dangling around his neck. No one has to tell me we’re parodying tourism.
Every summer, when the nights get long and bright, Iceland gets a tidal wave of outsiders. Every magazine I pick up in Reykjavik is full of articles that chew on the dilemma: Can a country so tiny handle so many guests? Will a million hikers and bikers and Northern Lights seekers tread too hard on Icelandic ground? The questions I returned to in Iceland were so drastically different from the ones whispered through the brightest summer on record: Why so many private helicopters? How could all that wealth be real? How could it last? It couldn’t, of course.
“Is it a coincidence that the history of Iceland seems to duplicate world history, though on such an extremely small scale?” asked Icelandic historian Gunnar Karlsson. “Or is that just the form that stories tend to take, whether fictional or historical: the romantic form of initial happiness, times of trouble and regained happiness?” Perhaps. What doesn’t seem a coincidence, though, is that a place where cataclysm is so chronic, where disaster is on repeat, and where every year’s seasons fling you from one extreme to the opposite, is so prone to radical, sweeping societal change. Prone, or maybe just practiced.
The laughter is getting so loud I beg Ragga to translate. She cups my ear and whispers the story of the foreign couple that rolled into town when there was not a single bed left. Someone in town, eager to make a buck, brought them to an old shipping container. The tourists were furious. The people around me are about to piss themselves.
I give up, at a certain point, trying to follow the plot of the comedy. It’s not for me and that feels right. The entire town’s in here, in this hotbox of laughs. I think about how some people’s laughs make other people laugh. How one hearty, unbridled laugh can change a room. I think about Bryn, about what I’ll tell her. That ram went down easy, that she was right about the bright lights, and yes, it was strange for me to come here, alone. And I think of the dark highway, threading east, all the way to Jökulsárlón, the lagoon from the poster, where I still want to go. Bryn says it’s too far, impractical for this trip, but I can’t give up the fantasy. I want to wrap east around Iceland until the sudden view of a hundred tiny glacial boats catches my breath. I want to see it again but in a different season—this strange pool of blue-tipped wonders that once froze me still.
There’s a picture of me, right at that spot, so clear in my memory. I look like another person. Her hair is chopped short—she doesn’t yet try to be beautiful—and blows easily in the polar wind. Her squint is hard—she doesn’t yet care about wrinkles. I know what’s behind that squint, in those slivered eyes. I know she’s worried about love, about never fully loving. So much has yet to play out. She hasn’t met a man she can love totally. She doesn’t yet know she can. Here at the lip of the lagoon, she’s hoping, she’s ready. She wouldn’t mind the wind blowing her right into some new person’s fixed life. She wouldn’t mind borrowing his anchor.
It’s hard for me to look at this person, this squinter, without wanting to tell her things. Love can relocate you and fetter you and change just about every detail in your life. But the work of figuring yourself out: That’s yours, I want to say. No shortcuts, no magic answers, no savior suitors, I want to tell her. Like Bryn put it yesterday when she called my hotel and reached a jet-lagged person who had no idea who was phoning: “Sort yourself out and call me back.”
From nowhere, his memory sweeps me: Dan. I’m at the foot of Europe’s biggest glacier, at a sheep farmers’ sketch comedy, and somehow the man I expected to grow old with spreads out over my mind, seizing it all. From nowhere, and completely: There he is. My eyes close. They have to. Dan. I can’t hold in mind the love and the ruin, the completeness of both, without shutting my eyes. I must look like a person savoring something, lidding the present to stay in some moment.
In a way, I am. Behind that long blink, I let the loss spread out, take up all of me. All of me: mind and chest and every vessel threading. The swell comes with awesome force. My eyes stay closed. I cooperate. I wait.
Down by the lagoon, if you lock your gaze on those white silhouettes, you eventually notice the melt. A white talon slides off; a glimmering blade coasts elegantly past it. All of this ice is about to float off. This lagoon is the terminal lake of the great glacier, Vatnajökull. It’s a kind of waiting room, where broken glacier goes, right before it glides off and gives itself to the sea.
Black Death should be the end of me. One shot and lights out, hotel bed, hard sleep. I am jet-lagged. My body is full of scraps of farm animals killed last September and Arctic fish caught Lord knows when. My stomach feels bloated and confused. Like it needs to think on all this before formulating a response. Add to this strange brew the unsweetened schnapps of Iceland.
It’s made from grain and potatoes. It’s bottled at 80 proof. There’s really just one way to drink Brennivín: shooting quickly.
I order two: one for me, one for Ragga. This is my way of rewarding my host for all the social pain incurred in bringing me to the dinner table. I’ve commented twice that rams’ testicles weren’t that bad, neutral really, like the base of a broccoli bunch, but Ragga deserves better than that. Black Death on me.
The bartender sets down chilled shots of clear liquor in front of us. Ragga takes it down like a Viking; I do okay, for a second, then shudder like a kid. I don’t know if alcohol has ever felt more like poison, more immediately raised the question, why do we do this to ourselves? Imagine cutting a permanent marker in two and sucking out its ink.
Even more remarkable is that after drinking poison, after drinking beer, after drinking gin and tonic, twice, what I still feel, more than drunk, is awkward. I can’t leave and get into my hotel without finding Sveinn, who is not only the caterer but the hotel manager. The hotel is full of British photographers, sound asleep. Sveinn locked them up, for fear of drunk Thorrablotters stumbling inside and causing trouble. My worry is this: In the time that it takes to find Sveinn and get that hotel key, someone here will make me dance.
Because every other Thorrablot prophecy has come true. Icelanders warned me that the food would be gray, and the lights would be bright, and the texture would cause me trouble, and that shark was best treated as a cube of stinky cheese. But many people also predicted that a drunk old man would sidle up and request a dance.
A four-man band fills the room with trumpet and tambourine and lyrics everyone seems to know by heart. The dance floor is a mosh pit, then a bruise pit. Men toss around women in high heels like boys tempting their toys to smash. There’s a lot of twirling, twirling of people whose reaction times seem a solid beat late. Women fall and get right back up, eyes glistening, mock-slapping their tossers. At one point, Biggi lifts a hand to tap a woman about to topple back into her dance, like a volleyball player at the net. I watch, mesmerized by the violence, the revelry I always opted out of in Iceland.
I never did hoot with the owls that summer. I was up as late as anyone; I was sleeping as erratically as anyone, but I just never let loose. Not in the wild way I heard Icelanders did, late, late into the summer nights. I left bars hours before the bacchanalia ensued, before there was any hitting on strangers, before the legendary fights broke out. I only knew things got raucous from the jagged broken beer bottles in my path up Klapparstigur, ablaze in morning light. I didn’t partake, didn’t let go, because I was too earnest about renewing, doing, making lists, and also because Reykjavik was a city where everyone seemed to be watching.
I’m feeling safe on the sidelines when Biggi II asks me to dance. A drunk old man for sure, he is also Habba’s husband. He needs a partner while his wife dances through the room. There is no way to say no.
It happens so fast. His hand, my rise. We’re dancing, in the light, on the open floor. Biggi’s got my hands and he’s twirling and I’m spinning, and we might even be fluid were the other twirlers not bumping us, were the bumpings slightly gentler. It’s like a hoedown with the etiquette of Grand Central at rush hour.
Habba’s out here, hopping, hands out, fingers spread, the portrait of glee. Someone starts jumping and Biggi gets jumping and we’re all soon jumping, and jumping lets me veer Biggi toward the dense center, where I can jump like a kid, hidden by the others, aided now by the boots. The New York boots! I jump with
abandon in boots with the bounce of gym shoes as the band plays a song with one word I can join in singing: “Maria!” It’s easy to yell out, right when everyone in the bumping forest does, “Maria!” Then there’s a chorus line and we join it and kick hard, “Ma-ria!” and then go back to collecting bruises and shouting in a crowd of people almost done enduring winter.
I sit down, red-cheeked, breathless with the proof that we can rekindle our own fires when the sun forsakes us. And it amazes me, really, that I almost didn’t do this. That I came back to Iceland and almost sat this one out.
You do not wake up to spring the morning after Thorrablot. You wake up later than you should and you tell the clock it cannot be. It cannot be that time, you say to Iceland’s clock. It is. Iceland never answers, because it always is.
You step barefoot across the carpet and catch a tickle of pink in the horizon out your giant windows and it’s gone by the time you trudge downstairs, and so are all the British photographers, off to chase the Northern Lights.
You find Sveinn manning the desk of an emptied hotel. He offers you coffee; you drink a pot. You find out how long Thorrablot went on without you: hours. Of course. You learn that the cook “passed away in a chair.” You know Sveinn means passed out; nonetheless, the blurring of drinking and dying in Iceland thrills you.
Outside, the town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur is slow to resurrect. The parking lot of the banquet hall is full of cars, their drivers sleeping hard, still negotiating Brennivín. You climb into a chilly jeep and ride past a familiar woman on the empty road. She’s from the comedy—one of the funniest actors, a plain-faced brunette—coming back for her car. Her face is stony as ever, and she’s the last human being you see for hours.
Because you’re about to make a wrong turn. Iceland has one main highway: a “ring road.” You amaze yourself by missing it entirely. Instead you go snaking down gravel roads through the most barren land ever farmed, where the homes are tucked low among great swells of dried lava, past barns but no animals, and the sound of your wheels spraying black rocks is the only noise for miles.
Until the wind. Until winds from what you think is north gather enough force to gently tip your car, every few seconds, nudging you toward what must be south. The winds carry snow. Fat pieces, hardly spaced. By the time you find the Ring Road, finally, you’re in a blaze of sideways snow. When the wind blows, you are swimming in white. Your hands are on the wheel, your foot on the pedal, and there is nothing to see but white. The jeep tips south, and the view erases.
You go as slow as wheels can turn. You slap yourself on the cheeks. You shimmy in the seat, grip harder. You roll down a window like someone could be out there, like there’s a way to flag for help, and wet snow pours on your lap. Idiot. You are now soaked. The road is so illegible it makes more sense to follow the purple cartoon line on your GPS screen. You know this land and this winter enough to remember that light will vanish by dinnertime. If you’re still on this mountain pass at six o’clock, you’ll be out of gas, buried in white and wrapped in dark. This seems to mean you will freeze here.
Is there a way to tell Iceland that you get it? That you hear her? The point, you’ve got it: Survival at this latitude doesn’t mean wading through your winter blues, learning to quit famishing yourself on a diet of green apples. This is the place where people almost went extinct. And you came here. You came back here. You asked for a lesson in human survival.
Someone dies on this mountain pass today, but not you. You’ll hear about the person who died in this blizzard on the day after Thorrablot, which means you live. You reach the city. You pass through the white fugue toward the red beads of what must be taillights. You pass a sign for Reykjavik: a word that means something else to you now. It’s the name of the settlement that saved your life.
Indoors, my blizzard story gets little play. Nobody’s much in the mood for a winter’s tale. I want to tell someone that I followed a purple line through a white void, but parked cars cram the glowing streets. Everyone’s kept inside.
Only Bryn’s boyfriend humors me, wanting all the near-death details. He hasn’t had enough drives like that this year, he says, sounding envious. He’s the second person to share this concern: This winter hasn’t been brutal enough. Can spring lose its power without a true winter first? Do we need to be held down—long and hard—to feel the lift?
But there’s a lift that even a foreigner can feel after just three days in Iceland. Gray pillows of clouds break open on my last afternoon and sun slices down, remaking the city. Down by the lake, where two days ago boys were treating the frozen water like turf grass, diving and sprinting for the soccer ball, no one but a trio of waddling swans dares to tread. The ice looks sure to crack. The difference is written in light.
Light. How could I forget? Light does not fall evenly on all the world’s places. What pours down on Reykjavik is more than warm and crisp and clear; it’s transforming. It gets inside what it touches—the moss on trees, shutters on windows, every letter on every sign. It’s light you feel like soft heat behind closed eyelids. Crack light, Floki’s light, the bath of sun that beckoned him back to Iceland years after he’d left and said good riddance, defeated by winter.
I stalk this light all over the city, basking in familiar scenes, feelings of everything ahead, the feeling I love more than anything: pure horizon. In that very first inkling of spring, everything’s ahead of you—not a single day’s been subtracted yet from the brightest season. The promise is in the light. That top-of-the-world light.
Light can’t fall evenly on all the world’s places, because the world tilts. When sun hits the equator, it’s a straight beam. At the poles, it’s striking at a twenty-three-and-a-half-degree angle. The light spreads; it pours over twice as much space. It stretches in Iceland, and in late winter, it builds. It adds up. Fast.
Just before Thorrablot or just after, depending on when your town throws one, Iceland gets seven more minutes of sun every day. The daily gain in December was just three minutes. In January, it’s four, then five. But February is a tipping point: suddenly, seven minutes. Seven plus seven plus seven is twenty-one. Add four more sevens to get forty-nine. A few more sevens and the sun hangs an hour longer above your head.
People must be counting. I can’t find anyone who will talk about the winter. “This isn’t dark,” people say when I try, when I call Iceland dark. “You should have seen December.” I start to test people, asking everyone in my path, all the way to the airport. “How do you handle the dark?”Not even Edda, my ever-clad-in-black landlady, will hate on the dark. I find her wearing a rainbow skirt as bright as a Moroccan souk; her hair is dyed violet-red. “It was a shit year,” Edda says, “but it’s over now.”
Down at the lake, I watch gray windows turn to sun mirrors, long boxes of brightness, holding praise straight up to the sky. I watch one yellow house regain its creamy glory. I stand there and hold it, I bring it far into the mind. I imagine someone in that attic room, drenched in the fresh light of the next season.
My socks are damp and my skin is goose-bumped when I turn in my rental jeep. The man who takes the keys must notice my chill. He tells me I really should come back to his country in summer. “It’s a whole new world,” he says, repeating the promise one more time. A whole new world.