Seven Stations of a Grímsey Journey, March 2012 (with a photo interlude)

Part One – Reykjavík to Akureyri

One more jolly, burly taxi driver, full of rude health and good inquisitive humour, asks us about our trip to the Arctic island of Grímsey as we head southward from our hotel to Reykjavík City Airport.

’Where are you from?’

’England.’

’And this is your first time in Iceland?’

’No, our second and fourth time respectively.’

’Wow! Where have you been before?’

 ’Reykjavík, Akureyri, Höfn, the West Highlands, Stykkishólmur and Flatey..’

’And now you’re going to Grímsey?!’

’Yes.’

’When are you not going back to the UK?!’

Good point.

The taxi driver is, in his own words ’so excited thinking about Grímsey’ that he misses our turning and has to U-turn. The City Airport is ridiculously modest by Heathrow or Gatwick (or even Keflavík) standards – and so informal we just take extra handfuls of stuff onto the plane alongside our hand baggage and no-one really bats an eyelid. It’s like being in a provincial bus station (but without lurking menacing youths or the squalor).

The plane lifts off and for the first time it dawns on me that Reykjavík really is surrounded by water and on a conspicuous peninsula. Over the years, I’ve just got used to assuming that the screen of water to the north of the main waterfront and imperturbable basalt block of Mount Esja in the distance, more oblong than peaked, were the features that defined water within this most intimate of cities. Not so: there is, of course, water to the south. I crave the sight of sea or fresh water and really can’t go a long time without looking at it. Back home in England, the River Kennet near my house is running bone-dry after a prolonged drought, all chalk and no watery glug, glug, glug. The smell of the Thames I prefer not to think about. Indeed, when are we not going back?

Part Two – Akureyri to Grímsey

At Akureyri airport my heart and stomach carry out a familiar plunge – but we’re off the plane by that point, so it has nothing to do with the landing. On terra firma, I carry out a check of all our various belongings and…oh no.

Not the passports, thank the Lord. Just various e-tickets and e-bookings that could technically be reprinted. But I am furious that I left these behind on the plane, having purposely taken them out of my rucksack and placed them in the seat pouch in front of me so that I would remember to see them.

(Note to self: keep them in the bag next time.)

My other half, fielding enquiries with airport staff, deals with the mishap brilliantly – so does a young, casually-dressed man behind the enquiries desk (he could have actually passed for a very casually-employed worker but for his benign and total professionalism). They’ll call up the plane which is now heading back to Reykjavík. They do – and they deal with it. The documents have been located.

But. For one moment I wonder if I was subconsciously trying to engineer some kind of ruse. Lose the tickets so we are stranded in Iceland? And then, for good measure, throw the passports into the fjörd on the day that we are not going back?

Part Three – To Grímsey and Into Its Friday Heart

We are on a twin otter aircraft heading from Akureyri. Until now our air journeys have been relatively smooth and serene. Like distorted porridge, this is the lumpy and bumpy journey. It’s a tiny plane and there’s just us and a small group of schoolchildren excitedly chattering at the front. We’re strapped in, us two at the back, capable of looking straight into a cockpit and all its dials and levers a few yards ahead at the front. (Actually, our limitation of movement when strapped in means we don’t have much choice but to look straight ahead whilst open-eyed.) Although I have seen Akureyri before, that was in the summer – now it is a far more challenging and barren environment.

The children seem so sure of themselves and so in their element in these surroundings they are like immortal and indivisible sprites, like multiple takes upon Shakespeare’s Ariel. I am more shaken than them but I am still hypnotised by the view of the mountains around Eyjafjörður, blinding white jags descending into water that is the deepest, darkest, uncompromisingest blue – or as William Morris repeatedly described the colours of nature in his Icelandic Journals, inky.

The narrow slither of ink where the fjord starts at Akureyri inexorably turns to inky chasm as the plane presses on northward. Again and again, I have discussed how humans seem almost incidental to proceedings in Iceland. It’s Mother Nature and the forces of nature that rule the roost. But now it doesn’t seem like hyperbole to suggest that, up here as the plane very obviously shakes and judders, pure unrefined nature – and the unrefined wind scouring and buffeting the plane only inches away – might go the whole hog and take us over and turn us into creatures divorced from conventional Western civilisation.

This sounds to me like something from the Icelandic sagas themselves. In that case, would that make me Aidan the Wind-Scoured? It is amazing one can even countenance such flights of the imagination; it has a lot to with the fact that although we are still technically in Western Europe, this part of it still feels like the realm of the unknown in the 21st century. For all that, such a feeling is liberating even being hundreds of metres up in the air – rather like being on Sugar Loaf Mountain in Rio in 2005. I was cross when I got on the plane at Akureyri – but this journey has served as a destresser.

Finally there are no white jags and just inky blue void beneath us. A pulverisingly cold cluster of seas – at least one of them, the Arctic Ocean, imprecisely defined – lies all around us; it’s around this point that it dawns on this traveller that there is little else beyond the final mainland Iceland district other than sea life, ice life and polar life. That the little else – in this case, Grímsey, an island 25 miles north of Eyjafjörður – is still inhabited and commercially and spiritually kicking in the 21st century,  evokes some of the most stirring words from science-fiction history, with the words of Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes now equally applicable to real Icelandic life. Except in this case, it is inventive, invincible biped homo sapiens sitting out amongst the sea rather than literally amongst the stars.

For one moment the plane seems to be heading to both the northern pole and to the stars, churning onwards past the rock island of Grímsey before swooping back in a U-turn and taking to the airstrip amid sloping land that feels very rubbly and reconstituted. Indeed, a repeated sensation in the next few days will be the notion that Grímsey’s residents are trying to refine and process the landscape itself simply to make it manageable for the inventive and invincible humans. Again and again, I see a tractor/trailer trundling over just about every inch of the airstrip as if it, and its drivers, know no other option or operative course in life. Presumably they’re trying to keep the snow and ice at bay – but for all I know, they could be trying to keep the underground winter trolls in their place as well.

Prior to our arrival, we had booked to stay at the Guesthouse Básar, which, as it turns out, is merely a few feet away from the metal fences surrounding the airstrip. The lady taking charge of our booking, Gagga, had told us that she would welcome us at the airport, as she also worked there and took charge of ’opening the plane’.

Now that’s perfectly good and understandable English and it makes perfect sense – be it opening the main door or opening the luggage compartment in the bottom of the plane. But even before we had arrived, this e-mail had caused my partner and I to look at each other in mild wonder – as if we were forced to re-evaluate our understanding and interpretation of the phrase. It sounded as if Gagga was capable of anything and that she could actually open the plane from the top, tin-opener style.

I mention this not out the spirit of old-style ’laugh at foreigners’ British colonial condescension but for the exact opposite reason, because Gagga and her compatriots did end up evoking awe and admiration on the part of both of us. It may be that in the UK, a country far more industralised and densely populated, people from both sides of the political and cultural spectrum have a valid point when they complain about feeling coddled and stymied by bureaucracy and the sense that they are always being told what they can’t do.

In this respect, the very simple idea of ’opening the plane’ gave us a prescient idea of how life in such remote communities hinges on what you can do – and whether you are prepared to muck in and carry out all sorts of activities so as to shorten the odds on surviving. Gagga always had a smile for us whilst we were in Grímsey – and,as we shall see, she seemed to spend her whole time mucking in.

On that bitterly cold Friday, Gagga did indeed open the plane and welcome us, wrapped up in serious winter wear but face flushed with life and eyes glinting. As soon as I said I’d left some documents behind in Akureyri, she offered to help and said that she would contact the airport there. We shuffled towards the guesthouse on our own, respectful of the fact Gagga had to finish dealing with that particular plane load but also rather thrilled that such a few small steps could for us constitute an adventure. As long as that feeling remains, I’ll keep on travelling.

The two-floor, custard-yellow guesthouse sat amid thick scalloped walls of snow. It had obviously been exposed to the elements over the years, but we were still mindful of removing our winter boots as quickly as possible once we’d levered the metal door handle down and escaped in. We are given certificates to show we have entered the Arctic Circle already; on top of that, no-one else is staying here and we have the guesthouse to ourselves for 48 hours. ’Just stay where you want’, says Gagga, who is living and sleeping off-site. ’You want breakfast, I’ll bring in some food.’

Two realisations become clear quickly. One is that this feels like a real house (indeed, it previously served this purpose), with generously large and cosily dinky rooms on either level apposite for a large family of varying ages. No area of the guesthouse feels cordoned off; there’s no huge office, no separate workers’ kitchen, no definable employee area. One vital touch is the presence of books and photos on both tiers of the house; the numerous pictures of fishing, municipal and leisure life on the island itself evoke civic pride and homeliness but not tourist-mollifying tat.

The second realisation is that it is going to snow a lot here. In the next 48 hours, we get used to snow that appears to annexe the howl of the wind, snow that softly sheathes everything in sight (ie it sheathes more snow), horizontal snow, vertical snow, static snow, kicked-up snow and snow burying the lunar-esque footprints where snow has been kicked up. It’s only about half a mile to the main community on the island, Sandvík, and yet I’m treating a shopping trip for some basic provisions like Scott and Amundsen themselves grappling for polar glory.

That trip ends up being half a mile of physical arching, straddling, sliding and ploughing in a show of enforced gymnastics for thirtysomethings along a lone road, with the wind inevitably bashing into us. Improbably, the island’s football pitch looms up on our left. In such an isolated environment, it actually becomes harder to work out which building you should be aiming for. They all look like scientific research centres, but they don’t feel forbidding. Maybe it is this, the effort to transform the inhospitable into the hospitable, which makes the walk just as stimulating as it is arduous, even as a new flourish of white particles with the consistency of sand rears up from the ground into my eyes. For sandstorm, read sandy snowstorm. And add to that list of all the different kinds of snow to be encountered here another one: the snow that goes upward.

We find the supermarket and realise we will have to shop there if we want to eat tonight; the island’s cafe/restaurant looks as if it is in serious hibernation. We buy all the basics, knowing that they will seem as luxurious as sturgeon’s eggs when the weather is this raw and there’s only brick and window in the way. We trudge back through the still forbidding snow and then enjoy perfect quietness as the sky and sea texturally dissolve into the same shade of dusk-time inky blue, but for the waves winding themselves up for one more almighty foamy crash. And, of course, all the different types of snow. Solitude could not be more companionable; this should be the moment when we are not going back anywhere.

Part Four – Another Grímsey Journey and A Talk With Gagga

We didn’t go into the Arctic Circle the previous day, although it was inches from our house (did I say our house? a Freudian slip there). Now we make up for this, clambering in turn for the signpost and the camera whilst I separately try to do some reportage into the video facility on my mobile phone as if I were some seminal 1950s television correspondent and doing a cutting-edge pilgrimage rather than a very well-trodden one.

To be honest, it doesn’t matter that others have done this journey before and that my reportage is rather haphazard; the photo of my other half on the exact Arctic Circle point is worth the trip alone. It may have a domestic swivel-style washing line amusingly intruding into the left-hand side of the picture (sadly cut from the enclosed version), but it also has a perfectly circular disc of sun majestically arching over all and sundry. The streaming light scythes through the sky and essentially lights up the huge sheet of cloud that noses all the way down to the chunks of mountain on the mainland itself. My other half nestles against the main signpost and loops her arm around it; the base onto which the visitor ascends appears to be crouching on loose pieces of flint or firewood. I would not wish to trade places with anyone anywhere else in the world when my photo is taken – but I still appear to be scowling.

We’re determined to both get to the district church and drop in at the community centre, which runs a Saturday sweetshop for children for a very brief period in the early afternoon. And buy more provisions (again, in a narrow window of time). Again we face the elements, again I don’t really take on board that there is no natural shelter of any sort here. Vegetation doesn’t grow, land doesn’t curl up and enable the visitor to huddle in rocky or soft inlets.

By the time we get to the church, a New England-style construction in copper and lily-white colours, I am bolting for the door and the inside, having scrabbled with cold-anaesthetised hands to open the gate at the front in the first place.  Inside, the ceiling is painted light blue and the walls lily-white again, making it difficult not to think of cold skies bearing infinite snow. The decor is seriously spick and span and minimal; the wooden railings, the ridiculously clean carpets and the presence of a lace tablecloth beyond the altar somehow give the impression of an aged relative’s study which youngsters enter at their peril.

We feel a little like we’re in breach of something simply because we’re so snow-ridden – but my other half somehow manages to balance on a ladder and get the church bell itself within range of her camera. I think I can now safely reveal that I plug the electric organ and treat the invisible congregation to a rendition of Polska Efter Hultkläppen in A Minor. That’s strictly speaking dance music – I imagine dancing wouldn’t be an inappropriate action when the barometer mercury’s plunging and you need to stay physically mobile to keep your circulation circulating.

We do some more shopping and manage to drop in at the community centre whilst it is indeed open. We immediately get clucked over and looked after by a maternal, super-competent lady who ushers us around the library and tells us about the legacy of the US-born Daniel Willard Fiske, a 19th century bibliophile, professor, Nordic scholar and chess enthusiast who to all intents and purposes became the island’s patron, providing vital financial support for Grímsey’s first library and also bequeathing the island a number of chess sets (although Fiske never actually visited Grímsey).

There is a chessboard built into a table opposite the community centre, homage to both the enduring gratitude felt towards Fiske and the ongoing Icelandic/Grímseyan preoccupation with chess as something that is more a key staple of existence than a token sport. Grímsey may be the only place in the world to have an annual chess-related holiday given that the islanders use Fiske’s birthday primarily for coffee and cake and leisure; the only thing more remarkable than this is the fact that a serious archive within the library, marble chess sets and all, is left out for the public to peruse.

The lady in charge on that Saturday simply lifts up a glass case and lets me hold the beautifully contoured pieces and demonstrate what I (inaccurately) think is an opening pioneered by Fiske himself. To cap off this thoroughly egalitarian display, a chessboard signed by Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky is casually nestling among these spoils; Gagga will later tell me it’s one of just nine signed by the two when they met in Reykjavik for their watershed 1972 world championship match. It ended up on the island after being bequeathed by the grandfather of a minister on the mainland. I, the chess fanatic, feel like a kid in a sweetshop – and conclude my visit to the centre by buying a paper bag chunky with self-chosen real sweets at a counter in a small booth yards away from the library.

We make our way back for 4pm, when we have agreed to meet Gagga for a tour of the island. She drives us around and tells us stories of Grímsey and of her life.

One of the most endearing images of the island is that of birds simply sitting still in the sea water, yards away from the shore but ready to absorb all the adversities of winter. ’They’re Eider ducks,’ says Gagga. ’The males are black and white and the females are brown, and they just wait for the springtime. There’ll be an even bigger group of birds in the summer.’ By way of contrast, Icelandic horses know a different way of resisting the cold: ’They put their backsides into the wind.’

We’re disappointed not to see the puffins commonly associated with the island, but apparently we’ve missed them by only a couple of weeks: ’They arrive at the beginning of April. The paired puffins are husband and wife for life and they take to the same hole (or residing place) every year.’ It’s not just us undergoing an eye-opening pageant of rural life in the far North, as Gagga points out: ’When I first moved here, I knew just two birds – the raven and the hen.’ But Gagga is realistic about the harsher side of the environment here: ’There are no trees here because of the salted atmosphere. We just have bushes that only grow to about thirty feet.’ As Gagga points out, repair and maintenance work is always going to be necessary in one sense; everything metallic is very susceptible to rust because it’s so salty here. Mercifully, there is a garage man who can ’fix everything’.

Having four wheels is no less important here than it is anywhere else – perhaps it’s more important. Gagga shows us a Range Rover complete with English-style right-hand drive and the legend Slökkviliðið (fire team) on it and then tells us that it’s commonplace for people to leave their keys in their car in case anyone else wants to use the car to drive somewhere on the island: ’If someone’s missing their car, it’s not a problem, as they’ll eventually find it. We have a kind of police guy who is 82 years old – but we have no criminals here.’ But there is one transport rule brought about by tragedy; there’s a no cycling sign down by the harbour as someone fell into the water and drowned in 1977.

By the fire team Range Rover, Gagga shows us the fish processing factory that is a vital part of the island’s economic wellbeing (’almost every man here is a fisherman’). I’d call it a cottage industry but for the fact the word cottage seems way too quaint; six workers, two of them Polish, work with ferocity and ease as they decapitate, gut, wash, stock and ice the various goods that come their way. At one point, Gagga picks up a shovel and takes care of the icing herself. The firm running this operation has three boats and its employees need to be dedicated yet canny; overnight fishing is a reality in this part of the world, but it can’t be done in the summer (’the fish are too clever and can see the net in the sunlight’). Perhaps it’s not surprising that one of the main catches here – if it can be caught – is called the grásleppa, or, as Gagga translates, ’the grey getaway’.

What of that time at Midsummer when the fish can indeed see the nets? Is there any holiday for the inhabitants? ’No, here everybody works.’ They probably need to; in the summer, six to seven thousand people visit the island, with many simply coming over on the ferry to do a four-hour stopover. It’s a different matter at Christmas, when there are around ten days of respite. In Gagga’s words: ’Everyone goes to visit each other at that time. On December 21st we have twenty minutes of sunshine.’ But then there is no dark in the two weeks before Midsummer and the two weeks afterwards…

’Do you have a doctor here?’ I ask.

’He comes every three weeks from Akureyri. He goes to the community centre. The church minister lives in Dalvík and comes over three to four times a year.’

I think of the schoolchildren who seemed so relaxed, happy and sure of themselves on the aeroplane coming over.

’How many children on the island?’

’There are four under school age and twelve at the school, which teaches kids from the ages of six to fourteen.’

’What about education after fourteen?’

’They go to the mainland and stay with their families in Akureyri and get educated there. This is what I did myself; one of my sons stayed with my sister between the ages of fifteen and sixteen.’

Gagga herself moved from Akureyri to Grímsey in 1987. She has been taking care of the guesthouse since 2007 and has worked at the airport since 1993. She shows us her house, which has the date of completion on it: 1988. She built it when she came here.

She points out all the intriguing nooks and crannies on the island – a stone painted just like a puffin outside a house, a tiny stuffed bird museum opened up there and then following a quick mobile call simply because we happen to be here. She tells us all the stories of legend, history and reality (sometimes all the same thing) integral to Grímsey’s cultural DNA: the polar bear found on shore in 1969 by the brother of the woman currently working in the handicraft shop; the beautiful and delicate angel models that are made by a woman missing four fingers on one hand.

She shows us the rocks shaped like trolls and tells us how the ghosts of Grímur (the 12th century farmer from whom the name Grímsey supposedly derives) and his wife can be seen in the fog (they are believed to be buried in the sandtops). She discusses how water is sourced from holes in the grounds and then pumped up the hill and streamed to all the houses here. She notes that the husbands of Grímsey belong to a club called Grímur and how there is a separate Women’s Society (‘we do everything together’). When we are in the handicraft museum, I hear her say to the employee there: ‘Hann skrifar allt’ (He’s writing everything).

This is because she is telling me everything I need to know and because everything which she does say does feel like compulsory knowledge. This is an island stripped of the superfluous and the distracting (no Internet cafes full of mentally foggy idlers here) and forged on unyielding graft and substance – and unyielding hospitality to go with it.

‘We didn’t witness the economic crisis here in the same way in 2008-09. We’re not leading an extravagant lifestyle.’ 

I ask Gagga if she is happy here.

‘I think you can live wherever you want if you have a good family – a good husband and good kids.’

But she then says, very simply:

‘This is a strong community.’

What more can you say? Photo interlude.

Part Five – We let the pictures do (most of) the talking

Near the airport - walking on the land that feels reconstituted

Near the airport – walking on the land that feels reconstituted. Photo EE Pridgeon

Outside Guesthouse Basar. The sky is bright for March but I am a dark Nordic troll

Playing the organ in the main church in Grímsey. Taken from a very funky angle. Photo EE Pridgeon

From a more conventional angle. But my sweet darling worked wonders to get up there. Photo EE Pridgeon

My Macarena Snow Silhouette. Photo EE Pridgeon

My Macarena Snow Silhouette. Photo EE Pridgeon

And every kind of snow to come. The walk was more arduous than it looks. Photo EE Pridgeon

And every kind of snow to come. The walk was more arduous than it looks. Photo EE Pridgeon

The church from the outside. Severe beauty of landscape not sullied by classy Iceland Express label protruding from my rucksack

The church from the outside. Severe beauty of landscape not sullied by classy Iceland Express label protruding from my rucksack. Photo EE Pridgeon

At the Arctic Circle. Mercifully you can't see me inexplicably scowling - this was fab. Photo EE Pridgeon

The photographer finally gets photographed. The washing line is missing in this edit alas. Photo Aidan McGee/Worldly Scandifriend

The photographer finally gets photographed. The washing line is missing in this edit alas. Photo Aidan McGee/Worldly Scandifriend

Part Six – The Booze. The Macarena. The Lights

Intriguingly, Gagga did admit to us that she couldn’t remember the last time she had seen the Northern Lights. I see intriguingly not because this surprises me but because, as we start to count down the hours of our last evening in Grímsey, we both understand exactly why this might be the case, even if the lights are regularly on show here.

 If we were to stay indefinitely, we would get accustomed to a certain kind of life and a series of associated rituals, habits and processes; if life is that good, if work is that hard and if a community is that strong, the Northern Lights appear more as I feel they really are – something nebulous that hangs over your head, no more, no less. As such, they would be an accepted element of one’s existence rather than the core element itself.

On that final evening, we too stop thinking about the lights because we’re in our own element of contentment. Back in the guesthouse, we eat the terribly addictive salt liquorice pastilles synonymous with Scandinavia and made in the Netherlands; we pore over our travel guides and take to our books. I’m reading Independent People by Halldór Laxness, the most celebrated novel by the most celebrated Icelandic author of the last hundred years.

I’ve read War and Peace, I’ve read Ulysses, I’ve read In Search of Lost Time and I’ve read all the published volumes of Robert Caro’s ongoing biography of Lyndon B Johnson. Independent People is shorter than all of those yet a giant modern saga, a secular bible, a national history, and an epic Greek tragedy but for the fact the narrative takes place in Iceland – and the fact that, in the book’s dying paragraphs, hope and human reconciliation surge out of nowhere like a geyser in a landscape where apparently only tragedy was previously permitted to exist.

And I find myself reading this book in a settlement similar in some respects to the one Laxness describes – a place where people do indeed strive for self-sufficiency and aim to conquer adversity,  but yet one where the book’s protagonist, the perennially obtuse and suspicious Bjartur of Summerhouses, might balk at the inhabitants’ sophisticated openness and dignity. Like the Dutch soccer team of the 1970s that pioneered an all-embracing style of play christened Total Football, I wonder if being exposed to all of these cultural considerations might take me that bit closer to a tangible organic state of consciousness: Total Iceland.

The snow in the backyard is now solid and neatly compacted like a large square shipment of cargo on a quadratic pallet. As the dusk falls, the snow genuinely seems to take on a blue-indigo hint. Unlike the square sweets that look round in Roald Dahl’s most iconic children’s novel, this is square snow that looks blue. Anxious to use every minute of daylight productively, I hurry outside and make inroads into the square with my snow boots; exhilarated to the point of silliness, I do the Macarena dance and get captured on camera. I wonder how – or if – the facetious flurries of foreigners might fit into the Total Iceland equation.

When all is calm again and we are inside again, we open the wine we bought at Gatwick Airport and talk of things to come – including marriage – and things that have been. The mobile reception is so good I can easily call my family in South-West England and speak to my mother, relaying my stepfather happy 87th birthday wishes this St Patrick’s Day. A few months later, I will struggle to get any mobile or Internet reception at all in Central London only weeks before the city is due to host the Olympics.

We drink more and talk more; the time slips by like sliding snow and we implicitly acknowledge that we are going back – at least, once we have spent the coming week in Reykjavík and taken our wedding vows in the process.

‘Yeah, well that’s the way it is,’ I say. ‘Aren’t those the lights?’

A faint trickle of something in the sky notches its way towards us, almost imperceptibly pulsing. The trickle becomes a less faint, more luminous funnel shape, the funnel gropes for more space.

Vaguely, amid the haze of booze, I remember how, having finished a night shift of work some nine years earlier, I returned to the flat where I was living in South-East London, slept all day and then put on Beethoven’s choral symphony in the small hours. On that occasion, I watched above me as, in the glass lightshade, a single wasp appeared to hatch and beget from itself two, three, four colleagues, a family, a small herd, a contingent I can’t remember expelling.

Here in Grímsey, as the funnel of light turns to large tube and then striding channel above me, this memory gains clarity. There is no sudden eruption of light like the tense chord that comes out of the initial murmurs of Beethoven’s Ninth, but the lights are essentially being wasps and Beethoven, visual show and symphony, all at the same time. The striding channel seeks width as well as length. For one moment, it’s incandescent like white lava – and then, as if the greatest Christmas lights display of them all had been switched on from a space station, the wide channel becomes a gargantuan, glorious, snowy, streaming highway, not quite green, not quite white, not quite grainy like sugar, but wraith-like in its shifting, evolving, impermanent state.

But it is with us for long enough.

We force ourselves to be sober and compis mentis. Like some Commedia dell’ Arte farce, we race from bedroom to bedroom in the guesthouse in a bid to get the best view possible. We realise the camera simply won’t capture what we are seeing and that our naked eye viewing has gained even more urgency as a result. I call up my stepfather and speak to him personally to relay what’s going on, as part of a bid to offer him Total Iceland for a Total Birthday, I guess.  Maybe, I reason, if the messenger is effusive enough, the experience for others might be more than vicarious.

And then the lights don’t grow any more.

We’re quiet as the spectacle detensifies. We’re very still as the human process of reasoning notches down from Wow! Quick! Look at that! To Wow? Did We Really See All Of That? One moment we’re desperately trying to tally and ally our experiences; the next we have the comfort of sharing experiences no longer immediate.

The sky fully recalibrates itself. I say: ‘Did we really drink all that wine?’

Part Seven – The Four-Hour Fidget And An Eternal Welcome

A morning of packing and then trying to blank the 1pm flight back to the mainland out of our minds. Our actions start to resemble a four-hour fidget. But we do walk up the duney, precarious cliffs to the north-east of the guesthouse, making use of a well-established track for vehicles whilst being more concerned about getting back in time than worried about our immediate safety. I look behind the island, almost entirely visible, and think of the last 48 hours or so: everything is behind me.

We go back and peruse an extraordinary book charting the history of the island and going into house-by-house detail at one point. It’s not a small, soft-backed, cheap-print pamphlet or sketchy guide; it’s a hardback, photo-stuffed, encyclopaedic tome. It’s Grímsey’s own very real saga or local history made as intimate as it is vast. We the inveterate historians wonder how we could source a copy. Sit here and read it and not go back?

Gagga can’t process my card payment. Maybe we won’t go back! She phones the company in charge; the payment is processed. ‘But let me know if there’s been a double payment or something.’

We do start to go back. At Akureyri, the super-efficient customer enquiries worker knows who we are and returns my documents. On the plane back to Reykjavík, we see a squiggly but ongoing crack in the otherwise interminable white bed of land that’s miles below (‘The Mid-Atlantic Rift? Must be’).

At Akureyri, a middle-aged lady seeing her parents off on the Reykjavík flight caught me reading Independent people. With her soft hat and long coat, wearing shades of light colour, dark colour and pure colour colour, she looked debonair yet down-to-earth, a child of the 1960s and timeless.

‘Oh! That’s the best Halldór Laxness book!’ she enthused. ‘How wonderful! How long are you here?’

Retrospectively, I see this juncture as the final evidence (if it was really necessary) that Iceland and its people were always reaching out to us. The hospitality never receded. We were eventually physically going back to Britain. But it’s not hyperbole to say that whilst we were on Grímsey and on the Icelandic mainland for this visit, someone, or a gestalt of someones, always seemed to be intoning: Welcome forever.

Words copyright Aidan McGee/Worldly Scandifriend 2012; photos copyright Ellie Pridgeon 2012 unless otherwise specified

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3 thoughts on “Seven Stations of a Grímsey Journey, March 2012 (with a photo interlude)

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