So, twelve years after the thought of going to Iceland first seriously occurred to me, I finally made it there in June 2005. Well, I say I made it there, but some might take exception to this definition: it was basically an extended weekend break in Reykjavik, and I didn’t see much of the country beyond the capital but for a quick trip to the Blue Lagoon.
That visit in itself was the least stressed I had ever felt in my life – as if someone had lifted my body and soul from all earthly meagre considerations and taken the geothermal spa out of earthly orbit at the same time – but I understand if more hardy travellers want to brook debate over whether this was a serious Iceland visit. Visiting London and London alone is not the same as laying tracks over and investigating with fortitude the landmass and cultural heartbeat and the essence of the UK as a whole – same goes for Paris/France, New York/USA, Buenos Aires/Argentina, Reykjavik/Iceland. I had merely served my Icelandic prologue.
When I first stared at the prospect of Iceland in 1993 – and blinked – I was painfully inexperienced in world travel. By 2005, I’d redressed this balance somewhat. I’d been a student in Vienna for a year and inter-railed myself with gusto around virtually all of the old Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe and some other stuff besides. That excited-puppy-dog-with-a-passport whirlwind came to a delirious head as my travelling colleague and I stepped onto the Asia Minor side of Istanbul – in between our attempts to fend off a three-legged Alsatian and a trigger-happy solider at the Topikapi Palace and the hustling shoe-shiners in the Grand Bazaar.
The USA and summer camp teaching work followed. Thence Eastern Europe again. Thence the first of innumerable Scandi visits. Thence my 2005 world tour. I’d been working long hours for the best part of two and a half years in media monitoring, but hoarding away the cash thanks to considerable amounts of overtime; this essentially bank-rolled a whistlestop tour of European cities (well, mostly capitals, and we know that’s not the same as countries) followed by life on the very peak and ridge of life itself as I landed on South America, Australasia and Asia in quick succession.
So many memories to commit to the time capsule forever, but none more entrancing than Rio de Janeiro. If the Blue Lagoon had seemed briefly like experiencing weightlessness and being capable of touching the stars, then the cable car ascent to Sugar Loaf Mountain took the notion of transcendence a step further. I’d fallen through a wormhole into the most paradisical and engaging galaxy of them all – and somehow it still was technically described as Planet Earth. Staring out over the azure bay, the sheet-white buildings, the sheeter-whiter sand and the foliage of a fit-to-burst greenness, I wondered why I’d ever been mildly worried about the prospect of the cables snapping. If they did, I was in the palm of the most hypnotising heaven, and this was the best way to go.
Back on terra (relatively) firma, amid the scuttling apes and brooding toucans that took up sentry-posts on the telegraph poles near my hostel, I got talking to a Swiss guy named Claude. The conversation turned to Iceland; I said I’d been to Reykjavik. He looked at me evenly and with a little concern even as he remained chatty and amiable: ‘Just Reykjavik? You don’t want to see the whole island? And Akureyri?’
As I attempted to sleep at the same hostel, the top of my right foot was consumed by a tickling, but incessant, itch. It drove me berserk in the night as I tried to rationalise why something on the margins of annoyance, rather than intense pain, could take me captive. Claude provided a reasonable, though not scientifically unimpeachable, explanation (‘It’s the insects..they like licking us in their own way’) but he’d triggered a new frustrating itch in me quite easy to define in medical terms: Rashus WantingmoreofIcelandis.
I’d nipped between continents with relative ease in the 21st-century jet-setting age – because I’d only really scratched the surfaces of the places I was visiting, my own itch had come home to roost. Time to stop being peripatetic and not giving landscapes comprehensive consideration. Time to stop jaunting off willy-nilly; better to be contemplator within one environment rather than gallivanting conqueror of several. I was Leif Ericson in reverse.
Claude disappeared from my life (hello if he is reading), but he has as important a bearing upon my own Icelandic travel saga as Leif the Lucky has upon Iceland’s own sense of national identity. Thus do characters of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and legacies combine in the tapestry of our ongoing Icelandic sagas – from the most widely distributed epics flung over every corner of earth to the relatively low-key and obscure tales that may be just as, if not more, poignant.
Two years later I was back and looking at much more of the whole island. And Akureyri. If Sugar Loaf Mountain was the most sensual paradise, then fishing in the fjord by Iceland’s second city, albeit a city with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants and a predominantly rural backdrop, was the most utterly calm one. On those nights, in August 2007, we’d still be trying to scout out cod and haddock at 10 in the evening, and the daylight would still be hanging on in there, as if it wanted to envelop and sequester us from outside proceedings. In Andrew Brown’s wonderful Swedish memoir, Fishing In Utopia, we are invited to think of Sweden as the idyll on Earth that deserves the name deriving from Thomas More’s literary tract. Perhaps, within the whole Scandinavian mosaic, it is, at its best, no more than Utopia Central. A genuine one rather than a chilling Orwellian one – but in that case, on those precious days four-and-a-half years ago, I was fishing in Utopia North-West.