A LONG NIGHT'S JOURNEY INTO SPRING
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 sat 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 followed, and deforestation was so complete that a starving person couldn't even warm his 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 arrived at Thorrablot, thanks to Ragga and her husband Biggi, who invited me over for something of a Thorrablot pre-party. 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. The same can be said about winter. In December, the sun arrives as late as 10am and flees as early as 4. The darkest day of the year is a mere six 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 7 hours, 2 minutes, and 1 second of light, on the early February day I set out for Thorablott in Kirkubaerklaustur.
Kirkubaerklaustur sits on the southern fringe of Iceland, four hours east of Reykjavik. It's a couple hours past Vik, where people pour out of cars to see puffins, and a couple hours shy of Hop, where people pour out of cars to see a lagoon. Only if you're a geologist or a calamity-geek would this town of 200 sheep-farmers pop on a map. Sandwiched by two of the most formidable natural features in Iceland, Kirkubaerklauster is next-door to a volcano named Laki and a glacier called Vatnakjokll . Laki once erupted so ceaselessly it changed the color of the sky. Vatnakjokll, the largest icecap in Europe, sits atop a medley of volcanoes that only sleep so deeply. If there's a more disaster prone place on earth, nobody lives there.
My journey to Kirkubaerklaustur was a long ride into the color grey. The monochrome of the hinterlands was astounding. The Icelandic ponies looked like mourners, heads down, forbearing. I understood quickly why the maitre de at my hotel had distinguished between "good daylight" and the not-so-good kind. The not-so-good kind (stands no chance of slicing through) barely gets through a filter of the thick sky. I stared up at it through the sunroof of my jeep--a window that stretched across half the car's ceiling, a symbol of the country's desperation for light. This sky had no layers, no nuance, no varieties of blue, no movement. It was as solid as a plastic cap. I pulled off the road by a slouching wooden shack, thinking I'd take some good pictures. Hardly: I might as well have been shooting a cement room featuring cardboard boxes. Everything looked anemic in the grey-filtered light of winter. It felt fairer to call this daylight non-darkness. It did nothing more for the landscape than make it visible. (Never have I been more aware of the first lesson of every photography class: you're not hunting for images, you're hunting for the prime light).
Once a half-hour, a fellow car passed by: usually a gargantuan jeep. They passed in tight teams, looking a full car taller than mine. I could tell they'd just monster-trucked across a nearby glacier, and had I rolled down a window, I felt like I'd hear them grunt. But I didn't dare. It began to feel like a risk to brake and pull of the road. I gave up on taking photos not because the light was hopeless, but because I was getting scared to leave the car.
Something strange happens in the mind of a person deep in the interior of Iceland. A disturbance of some kind, a creeping one. 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 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, to a degree that should have at least been interesting and wasn’t, 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. What was it? 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 un-creatured, the very anti-thesis of jungle, tell a person with such force to keep inside?
And then it got dark. And radio signals vanished. And even the gargantuan jeeps were gone from the roads. 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 squares--a long, unchanging tunnel--and once made the mistake of glancing in my rear view mirror. A chasm, all black. I 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.
Iceland offered nothing at all to ramify my belief in the actual, and so I began taking great stock in my GPS.
It promised just 50 miles more. I was 50 miles from Kirkjubæjarklaustur. In fifty miles, something would twinkle at me. In fifty miles, I might hear noise, look into eyes, speak. I looked many times at the screen, at this word, the promise. Kirkjubaerklaustur: it had a silent letter 'j', like in 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, then shoot some more tea. I need to yank on boots and find the tiny notebook where I’ve written the name of the gentleman I think is here to see me.
Biggison, husband to Raggasdottir.
I’ve gotten permission to call them Biggi and Ragga, by their daughter, Brynhildur, a woman I’ve known for five years as Brynn.
I met Brynn on the cusp of my maiden voyage to Iceland. I was waiting to board the red-eye that would deliver me to Reykjavik. There was pretty brunette with an almost elfin nose standing at our gate on the steepest heels, bangs cut boldly short. She was obviously bound for Iceland and I was obviously bound for Iceland, but I was so bursting with this fact I needed to to say it aloud. I found some way to strike up conversation, and Brynn humored me.
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, mere months before the financial meltdown, and just days before the June 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.
Every morning felt like the day after the international flight in Reykjavik. When people told me what time it was that summer, my usual response was a long, doubting, nooooo. I talked back to clocks, too. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” There was a clock store up on Skolavorstigur and one July day I stood there, shaking my head at all those clock faces in the window. 9pm: they agreed. 9pm, and I hadn’t yet thought about dinner.
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. There’s at least one island where it finds your bones.
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 Bjork’s son was delivered in a helicopter. I met Jonas, met Julia, found Paul. I got the hang of sulfur-scented showers, 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 Ingibjorgs, daring Iceland to be that strange—a land without last names.
What else, asked the sky. What more. I night-jogged. I night-cleaned. I night-wrote. I did all of the above under a sky that also suggested: why not picnic? Well past 2am, I'd patter to the bathroom and end up gawking out at the window the luminous coral smears and purply clouds reflected off every window of a condo building facing the sea. I went back to bed, not to sleep but to write descriptions like shitty love poems to the sky.
Never had a place made me so keenly aware of where I stood on the earth. I felt like I'd been picked up off the earth's surface and set back down upon it anew, like I was getting my bearings as a human, an earth-dweller for the first time since my unremembered birthday. Iceland made me picture my planet from above, miniaturize it like a pocket globe and imagine its flight around the sun. That was the only way to make sense of all the disturbances in the natural order I knew: why night was no longer, why I couldn't find a moon, why opening my eyes at 3am was a mistake. I'd forgotten the fourth grade basics. Not even when I raised a bowl in the air and make it orbit my coffee cup, could I be sure what was happening. I had to cue up YouTube videos for kids. Stare at cartoon earths, twirling on their axis, floating around the sun, at a tilt that meant near total brightness or near total blackness for its poles.
I pored over early Icelandic history books, grew obsessed with the story of Floki, Iceland's first settler, a disgruntled Norwegian who believed he’d found paradise. It was summer when Floki arrived, and he fished late into the bright June nights, oblivious that this was a season not an Eden. I loved Floki's story because I was living it out, seizing on the light, possessed with a new sense of promise, the fresh ambitions that come with energetic sprees, delusions fed by the doubling of daylight, the sky's indifference towards rest. I could do it all. I was fresh out of the gates of grad school and no place on earth could have met my hope for a blank slate quicker than this treeless, hardly-peopled island where a plain white, glowing room was mine to rent all summer.
It was the warmest summer on record, and polar bears were shoring up on melted ice floes from Greenland. The island’s wealth was also at its height, just two months before complete economic collapse. Brightness seemed to guide the plot of everyone's days. People left work early. They made pacts to hike the faint mountain at Reykjavik’s back. An Icelander who’d recently divorced and whose eyes gleamed told me he was hiking those 3,000 ft every day. Bjork threw a free concert. Sigur Ros joined. The whole country showed. We all jumped up and down to a song called Hoppipolia. The light never quit. It put an entire nation 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 flipside, they said. I believed them. That sounded true. True and terrible.
I'm light-sensitive to an extreme. We could use the words seasonal affect, or just liken me to a plant, because that's exactly how I feel in the dead of winter, like there's something photosynthetic happening in my body. I switch tables at cafes until I'm in the most sun-lavished seat. I leap over snow mounds and dart through traffic just to reach the side of the street where the sidewalk glows. February, every year, is my wilting month. My face gets longer; my eyes feel squinty, half-open. A despairing record plays at low volume in my mind. And when I step out from any indoor space, my entire body lets me know I've done something right. Light.
But the terrible idea of Iceland in winter came back, every year. I thought about Iceland not to remember that it could be worse, but because my winters were getting worse. Every winter found me standing stiffly at February’s door, like someone about to be taken to the hospital. I began sending myself on sun walks, making up errands just for light, tugging off my hat, in case wool blocked its passage. One winter, I caught myself I began liking people better when they told me they popped Vitamin D. When a friend told me he loved his basement apartment, I looked at him hard, like someone I’d never get. I only knew February was my danger zone.
One winter, though, I felt withered by October. By Halloween, I was already dreading Christmas--for the first time in my life, just wishing the holiday over. My apartment was newly hollow--I'd just split with a partner, subletted the second room to a just-graduated girl. The walls felt haunted by the man who'd helped me paint them, but I was too busy and broke to move. I got skinny in a way in the way that announces something’s up. Close friends asked whether I was eating. I was eating. Predominantly green apples. My butt more or less disappeared; my face had a new chisel in it—the cheekbone cut straight down to the chin. I checked mirrors for it; I liked it, wanting beauty harder than every, now that I was back on my own, and fearful I wouldn't pair up for years.
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. Or so it felt. Dating meant drinking—often, and on an empty stomach, so one cocktail, then another, without dinner, with a body mass of a high school cross country runner. So began a drinking habit, and with it, the daily urge to drink. When it hit one early winter afternoon, when I caught myself wishing it were socially acceptable to go read a book in a dim pub hours before anyone I knew was cooking dinner, 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. There was so little insulation left on my body, and by November I felt it contantly. I felt like a person who’d lost her coat. My coat’s gone, was all I could think, trembling on subway platforms late at night, too seized with cold to read.
Here’s how despair felt: ever at my back. Right there. It was catching up, clipping my heels. One winter 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 a bright, blown-up photo--an advertisement. 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—the lagoon. Way in the eastern corner of Iceland, there’s a lake 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 stared hard at the poster, as the train bumped off towards Connecticut. The projects of Harlem smeared by, but my gaze wouldn’t unlock from Iceland, that spot. An editor had just offered to send me somewhere—anywhere, he said; pitch me something. It sounded like permission to go straight to the top of my bucket list, pick a new promised land. It wasn’t like me to loop back to an old place (For the first time in my life, I longed to report a journey, maybe because I believed the promises that Iceland was in a radically different mood now, as was I.) But the terrible idea of Iceland wouldn't go away. I got in touch with Brynn--did I remember right? Was there a party called Thora-Something? Rancid food in the doldrums? Yes, Brynn wrote: it's a dreadful affair--why? Thorablott: Winter Survival Night. Thorablott! This was my party. This was my pitch. Send me to Thorablott. Other people had their Christmas parties and snuggly lovers and twinkly-eyed kids. I wanted to sit in a room with a people just barely enduring this winter.
It’s bright like a hair salon just inside the banquet hall in Kirkubaerklaustur, making it impossible not to note how dressed up everyone is. I look around the foyer of the banquet hall and see sequins, bowties, stilettos, one aqua sash, heels no one should dance on. This night began hours earlier in bedroom mirrors, with women sucking in, girls turning their bodies like actors at a callback, appraising from all directions. I can almost smell the hairspray.
Deja vous hits hard, because I’ve attended my share of weddings, and there’s an unmistakably bridal feel to this Thorablott. There’s receiving line, for starters, where eight or so townspeople stand, beaming and shaking our hands. Icelanders get tapped at random to serve on their local Thorablott 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.
[But there is no bride tonight, no groom or mass or wedding planner either. The more I subtract from the classic wedding recipe, the more I see that Iceland’s version is pure brilliance. It’s a party everyone can come to, put on their Sunday best for, split the bill for. There are tickets, just 40$ a pop; and a date everyone agrees upon—late winter—because everyone’s 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 it wasn't, people'd be pissed.
The awkwardness of my being here slams me in seconds. Even my hosts, Brynn's parents, look sheepish about my presence as their guests suddenly, like they didn't think this through either. It was easier to assimilate me back in their home, which was boxy as a military barrack but glowing with candlelight. We sat by candlelight by a table with pretzel sticks and stiff cocktails, and I could just barely make out the stuffed puffin on the bookshelf, the edge of the room. (where the limits of the room dropped off). We were faint, glowing faces to each other, smiling each time Hoppa, their old friend, set about explaining the promise of Thorablott.
A tiny woman with ponytailed back grey hair, Hoppa is a woman who loves to express her delight, whose hands rise to her face each time she does so. Her name feels beautifully suited to her. Hoppa loves rams testicles, eats them as a snack Hoppa is adorable. She speaks a halting English, but gets across her basic point. So her points come across crude and clear. In winter, Hoppa says, you just need something to look forward to. Hoppa says she sometimes can't get out of bed in winter. The trick is to have something to look forward to. Hoppa can't say that many English words so she says the same things, many times, brightening so much they nonetheless fascinate.
I get lost in candlelight, thinking about how candles, what they do for us in the dark, how they make in a cave of dark a cave of light. Soft light, curving/doming over us. Candles create a center, a bright point to huddle around, inside the soft, stretching halo, after which, outside of which nothing matters. It sit back and sip gin and let the sound of their Icelandic, a weird brogue (like a brogue but with some fairy tale element/ a dash of) pour over me memories of Iceland’s fanastic quirks. The gasp.
Hoppa! I feel my face crumple in fondness everytime we talk. Hoppa is one of those people who’s constantly talking about what delights her, who could pass an entire day talking about what delights her. I begin to wonder whether the construction, “I love…” is the one H knows best. I remember someone telling me that in Icelandic, there is no way to say you love a thing. When Hoppa flips to English, pretty much all she does is tell me what she loves, hands up, fingers spread, face bright. Hoppa loves rams testicles.
*Look back at notes on what they told me about refrigeration. And also how excited I was by where we were on the map, calamity stories.
It begins to make sense: putting a night on the calendar that occasions looking your best, digging out the suit, trying on the sequins. When I think about it as a community wedding that no single bride and groom have the onus of throwing together, Thorablott began to make sense. I think about how much we all need this, a chance to feel our most preened, most suited up, most luminous, and how it makes sense to just put it on the calendar—this mandate to shine midwinter.
But ten feet inside the door, I'm too alarmed to intellectualize. I did not get the prom dress memo. 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 speaks to me tonight. Basically: I’ve invited myself to a small town wedding in a country with the population of Topeka, Kansas. And everyone at the wedding is thrilled to catch up with the people they know, in Icelandic.
I miss Hoppa. If anyone in the room is playing maid of honor, it's Hoppa. She floats around the room like tonight’s mother-of-the-bride, kissing cheeks, glowing. Mention that she no longer lives here, never misses a T. Underscoring that Thorablott is the night when you see everyone--everyone from your deepest past--at once.
Time starts to drag. I wish it took longer to hang my coat. I wish fewer people had beaten us to the tables and claimed all but one. Just five seats remain and I see why. We pull out chairs across from a sour-faced mother and sour-faced father and their grown, blank-faced sons, all of whom have no idea what to make of me, so look quickly away. Social agony is part of the deal in Iceland: how could I forget? I felt it on my first summer night, when I ended up on an island where Bjork’s jammed under a psychedelic sunset. I stood so long on the fringe of a conversation between Icelanders that I had to bite my twitching lip, feeling shamed by the lack of introduction. Someone explained later: nobody, in a place this tiny, in a nation of not-so-distant cousins, is in the habit of making introductions.
My strategy of adventurousness devolves: I will get drunk. As soused as I can without getting sloppy.
I see no way to get through this night without getting pretty soused. Biggi hands me a Viking beer, and I very quickly drains its neck. Biggi's sitting on one side of me, Ragga on the other—an arrangement that makes me feel like their foreign exchange student. There's a red paper napkin in my water glass and I take it out. I stare long and hard at the menu, as thought I can read Icelandic.
Lundabaggar. Kartoflumus. Svid. I have no idea what I'm looking at. I will later find out/get translations. The great mercy of the night is a man named Svein, who catered everything, and I'll find later, who explains.
I will find Svein in three, slow, memory-inscribing hours,
For now, I sip my Viking beer. I try to pay my water glass equal attention. I steal glances at the sour-faced sons of the sour-faced parents, because I can, because they look right over my head, towards a stage where the curtain is pulled. 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, not to peacock in the mirror, but to jot down these notes in a stall. Someone busts in on me and not when I’m taking notes, when I’m pulling up my pants.
Could we just laugh at this, Iceland? I would really appreciate the sound of laughing on the other side of the stall. No. Hands-washed silently. Icelandic. Unamused women talk in Icelandic. Long walk to table. Cognizance of jeans. Back to mom and dad. Beer, water, waiting. 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 a scripted thing anyone can do. Besides, the sour food—set out in glass bowls 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 painter’s palette of a couple dozen very similar colors: faint pink, soil brown, fishy white, and puddy.
Again, the color problem. Like the palette of Iceland’s hinterlands, with its coal-black pastures and grey masses of ice, warns the traveler this is no place for life, the color scheme of my Viking dinner promises 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 jerky, and An unlikely fascination. Light was the obvious one; my mind wouldn't let go of questions of light, begging everyone to tell me how they slept in a season like this.
Light: I veered everyone towards the topic of light. I wanted everyone’s thoughts on light. Their tips on light.
How fantastical it all sounded! As history can.
I’d never read a history so fantastical. There were things I had to read twice, a third time, and still didn’t quite believe. Icelanders hibernated through the home stretch of spring? What did we mean by hibernate? Lie about in turf homes like bears in caves?
still—nothing. Are my molars even denting? They are not. I put my herring back down on the plate, hoping nobody saw that. And thinking about…
“Nothing will make you sick,” Ragga assures from my left, “everything has been boiled and boiled.”
Crude translation is doing terrible things to already horrible food. “That is head of sheep.” “That is jelly from sheep.” “That is a special whale. We can kill fifty each year.”
My fork tines poke and scrape at things the consistency of cat food. When I press down hard on the middle of the special whale, it collapses and bounces right back up. Special whale, like dried herring, rejects the notion of being eating.
I look down at the pale collage, at a loss. What to poke; what to say. I’m so used to navigating meals with foreign strangers in faraway lands by praising their food. It’s how I pay thanks to those who make room for me at their table—enthusiasm, the universal sound hmmmm—and it has failed me nowhere else. What can I praise at Thorablott? 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.
One or two things are bland--like the very bottom of a broccoli stem.
Soon, I feel a low-threshold 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 grey jelly thing you just put in your mouth then swallowed. Don’t. Very soon, ninety 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 for mashed potatoes uncovers too many more edible things.
Poor man’s pita bread. Pickled herring. Turnips. Boiled and boiled turnips. For the second time in a half hour, I go overboard. I return to my seat to face two very full plates of every single thing served at Thorablott in Kirkubaerklaustur. Continuing feels out of the question; so does stopping. They’re collecting plates now—the empty kind.
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.
Ragga 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 or nausea rising, eat my rams balls.
"They just swallow it down," Jonas summed up the spirit of Thorrablot. Jonas, a Texan, had lived through five Icelandic winters, had nothing cozying to say about them. "Everyone's trying to get through their own personal zombie movies," he explained. In Thorablott, he went on, you can read the Icelandic strategy. Life serves you puddy-colored shark, and you stomach it. You take it like a Viking. You muster up your Icelandic forbearance muscles, and stomach your lot. This is an Iceland of people who mother nature--many times--tried her very best to wipe out. Icelanders are the progeny of the most stubborn survivors. Floki gave up; he went back to Norway. The founding father of Iceland is the man who stayed.
I latched onto Jonas metaphor; it was so tidy.
But what I see around me looks nothing like forbearance. No one's grimacing, holding a napkin to their mouth in that vomit-ready way. The room's quieted, finally, but that seems in the name of concentration. I watch a thirty something man at the next table painting his sour meat with mashed potatoes with such care, such patience, readying to taste that one bite. I don't have to ask Hoppa whether rams balls are delighting her; they always do. She explains her Thorablott joy over and over in the same three words, "Once a year." She eats all this just once a year, every year. Once a year. Hoppa no longer lives in Kirkubaerklaustur, just comes back for Thorablott here, the village where she worked as a midwife for years. Most of the young people here, Hoppa delivered into the world. She sees this town’s grown-up babies, just once a year, this time of year, the dead of winter, at Thorrablot. On the night she comes together with everyone, dinner always tastes the same.
*Or end with nostalgia comment, and transition with my own nostalgia. Nostalgia had attended every hour of my trip to Iceland.
Iceland was a place I loved, never a place I savored.
My hunger in Iceland felt primal. Like if someone passed carrying a baguette, I’d rip off a piece. Fortunately, the café on the corner was already serving lunch. “Mashed fish.”
One night, I had a silly amount of yogurt for dinner. For lunch, a haddock caserole that I smeared across dense grainy bread. The mandarin oranges that I ate between meals, to say nothing of the Icelandic chocolate, sunk into my mouth like manna. I held coffee like medicine. I carried around the luke warm cups longer than necessary. when I paused on R to buy a hot waffle from the lady with the griddle, and she handed it to me right there in the chilly night and I ate it, that sugary wad of warmth, gloves on, standing on Laugavegur street.
Will a waffle ever taste better than the one I ate right there on the street I know better than any, front to back, the waffle whose griddle heat smoked and twirled up into the winter air, a pocket of sugar and warmth? I ate the crystal-covered wad of dough in four bites, gloves on, and as thought the moment needed another brushstroke of contrast, a pop-pop-popping turned me back around to see, over the waffle truck, arching across the black chalkboard of night sky: green streaks of fire, blue sprays overlaid with gold rings.
The taste of Iceland: sour yogurt and hot dogs with crunchy onion bits, sour peaches and grilled cheese on square slices of nutty bread, gobs of a German roommate's nutella. I come back to Iceland for the food, but
Wolfing the syrup-less flapjack in my rental car, I realized it tasted exactly as bland as it did that July morning on the way to Keflavik, and that that was entirely the point. Not a delicious breakfast, but a way back.
I felt like a hunter in Reykjavik, hourly in pursuit of my next winter fix: hot cocoa, haddock stew, waffle-off-the-griddle. They weren’t whims; they were orders from the body, inspired by the ferocity of winter by this pole. And because these craved things were available, all over the city, because I could just go buy them, from friendly people in glowing, heated, nearby shops, I felt every hour on my own side. What was more essential to survival than this? Every time I asked an Icelander how winter was going, and heard more about the difficulty of getting out of bed, more methods for rising from bed instead of lingering in bed, commanding yourself with eyelids still closed get up, I was reminded: nothing. Nothing was more essential than taking your own side.
Winter put everyone was on my side, it seemed. The barista who foamed that milk, whoever hung the velvet curtain just inside the door at Kaffibarin, the concierge who lent me an umbrella like a flagpole with an awning on top, knowing the sleet would assault from the side; I needed a full-on shield. This was my winter survival team, while the sky was against us.
I try to make sense of this through my own strange cravings in Iceland. Since landing on this island in the winter dark, I’ve had urge after urge for strange, local foods I hardly enjoyed the first time.
I lived on grilled cheese and sour yogurt and hot dogs with crunchy onion bits sold by the port, late in the bright nights. None of it was especially good; it was food that did the job. So, why then? Why do I spoil my first dinner back in Iceland by eating a series of pasty blueberry yogurts? Why do I linger so long by the gummy candy bins at every convenient store?
Because sour peaches were the very first things I ate in Iceland, a big duty-free bag of them, sitting awake on a sundrenched bed, too stunned to go looking for food. And back here, plunged into the same place in a radically different season, I craved that pungent first taste of Iceland, even if it meant a stomachache.
The yearnings took me by surprise. I hadn’t come back to Iceland to relive that summer; I came to feel the difference, to plumb it, to study a place in a polar opposite mood. But nostalgia doesn’t need our invitation. It sweeps in, gale-force. It overtakes us.
Flavor can work like a potion. It unmoors what’s stuck on the floor of the mind, hardened there. It stirs up what’s otherwise stuck.
The streets called Lindargata and Laugavegur and Hverfisgata sent me right down into the past, hungering for the most pure and potent taste of the way things had been then, when Iceland was bright and Icelanders were rich and foreigners were so few. Much had changed. When a friend in Reykjavik told me that Laugavegur Street was now more crowded with foreigners than Icelanders in June, I knew there was no going back. I would never repeat that summer.
But flavor, I learned, could unlock the past. Out on the highway, deep in the hinterlands, I finally pulled over to a gas station and gave into the urge to eat a cheap, snack-wrapped pancake—Iceland’s equivalent of the oatmeal pie. It tasted exactly as bland as it did that July morning on the way to Keflavik, and that that was entirely the point. Not a delicious breakfast, but a way back.
Here’s why the taste of food was especially transporting in Iceland: I’d eaten none of these weird flavors in a full five years. They’d mingled with no other memories, surprised my tongue in no other place or time, surprised my tongue in no other place or time. Each swallow pulled me right back to the first place, the first time.
I don't feel a swell of hardening, but rather nostalgia. I feel it . I feel it watching Hoppa—so enthused to be here she can’t sit down, Hoppa, who I learn narrowly survived heart attack this year, Hoppa whose absence tonight would have made this the first Thorbalott without Hoppa—and I understand for the first time in my life why people take such care with tradition, preserving what constants we can, as time moves unrelentingly forward. We’re building chutes for ourselves, where it matters, where it’s worth the ritual, to slide down into the way it was, with Hoppa, or when Svein, or that first time, or before it all crashed.
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 pungent the food, the better the bridge. Maybe that’s why everyone in this bright hall looks like they’d appreciate a moment alone with the last couple bites of the disgusting dinner they ate exactly this time last year, and every year, in the same room. Maybe Thorrablot isn’t just a night to find that light-switch in the dark, or an occasion to shine like the prom queen, but also a door, into a room, where the floor falls, and there you are, savoring a moment you already lived out.
A brown curtain parts, and everyone turns towards the stage. Familiar people—the Thorrablot committee, their bootoners still on—stand before us, straight-faced, looking like the Icelandic impression of American Gothic. Slack cheeks, stony eyes, no creeping smiles. They're pretty good actors; turns out--or just good at playing themselves.
Finally, someone in the audience chuckles, which invites another chuckle, enabling another, and soon the whole room is laughing at the miserable looking cast of Kirkubaerklauster.
“Farmer humor,” Ragga struggles 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 to local to translate. “Who’s got the better snowmobile and that sort of thing,” Ragga sums up, apologetic but tickled.
This is not the baleful performance I came expecting. No one is narrating a moment of hardship, delivering a soliloquy about the winter’s cruelest hour. Smiling up at a performance more like roast, I realize I’ve come a little too late in winter to catch Icelanders in their personal zombie movies. Thorrablot comedy is a retrospective of the year’s worst, which means the worst, by now, is over.Iceland
I could say the same myself, really. By the time I got to, winter felt nearly behind me. I’d gone from holiday party to holiday party, fit in date after date, clutched my phone like a walkie talkie that might crackle and break up the hours of aloneness. Just before Christmas, I’d gotten a friend to sit beside me in the lobby of a hotel while I did all my shopping, online, in two hours. Done.
I looked for recompense in my empty Christmas. I bore in mind I had to buy 1/3 as many gifts—his family has big; no more presents. Instead, I wrote them goodbye letters—something I’d urged myself to do on week after week of to-do lists. I’d put it off because it felt like the saddest thing. It was the saddest thing. I did the saddest thing, finally, on a long subway wide, in the corner seat. I put my head down and wrote goodbye letters, one right after another, to a mother and a sister and a grandmother I would never see again. I might one day hear they were gone, but never see them. I dropped those three letters in a cold mailbox, heard the soft plunk, and flew off to go through the motions of Christmas in my childhood home.
There, I told my mother in plain language and without any 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 let the true word do all the work. 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.
I did call it winter, and something happened. Something shifted. A lift is the best way I can describe it. Some very heavy thing began letting me go. The seasons hadn’t changed, but the lift was immediate. How strange but simple—like all that time, the thing chasing me just asked that I turn around, pause, and call what I saw. To get through this, I had to first be in this, hold in mind the truth of what I was living. Winter ended, I suppose, when I learned to honor loss.
Remember Julia’s saying she wanted me to make the point clearer: that there was power in putting a word on it. Hanging a word on it. I guess almost like a lasso. Language as a lasso to catch the thing, the fearsome thing.
Ragga stands up to crack a window, letting a chilly waft right in. The banquet hall’s heating up with laughter, for reasons I’m hopeless to know. I do get a good summary of last year’s comedy, however. Ragga and Biggi had leading roles in that show. The theme, they tell me, was the volcano. I assume this means Laki—that their skit hearkened back to the year that put this tiny, indomitable town on the map. But the eruption they poked fun at wasn’t the volcano of lore but the one that filled the air with ash the year before last—in 2011.
It didn’t make world news because it didn’t halt global air traffic, as the Grimsvotin eruption had, just one earlier. Nonetheless, here in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, when the earth opened up, 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. What did they do? They cleaned. Ragga dusted. Biggi came home. They breathed again. 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. I ask Biggi whether it went over well, and realize right away that’s a silly question. “Oh very well,” he says. Of course people came into this hall ready to laugh. It was a year of calamity. The end of a year of complete calamity.
My thoughts drift out the open window. Amazing how long it’s been off my mind—outside. I think of the waterfall, thrushing in the dark to no one. The entire town’s in here, in this hot-box of laughs. I think about how some peoples’ 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. I think of the dark highway, threading east, all the way to the lagoon, where I still want to go. Bryn says it’s too far, impractical for this trip, but I can’t quit wanting to go. I want to wrap east around Iceland until the sudden view of a hundred tiny glacier boats catches my breath. In my mind I’m already on the edge of the world, why not just a few more kilometers to the edge of the world, where the ice breaks off, floats for the sake of what feels like beauty. I want to see again, 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, and it’s so clear in memory. I look like another person. That person’s 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 loves fully yet. She doesn’t yet know she can. Here at the lip of the lagoon, she’s just looking, ready, willing. She wouldn’t mind the wind blowing her into some new person’s more fixed life. She’d like to borrow someone else’s direction. It’s hard for me to look at this person, this squinter, without wanting to tell her things. Like that’s cheating—to sort herself out through love; that’s nobody’s job but her own. But she needs to get him, then lose him, then get all the way back here, alone and older and sturdier than ever before.
Love can relocate you and anchor you and change just about every detail in your life. But the work of figuring yourself out: that’s yours, I want to say. Brynn’s voice comes back to me—the groggy moment when I realized this wasn’t a wake-up call, but my friend, my oldest friend in Iceland, wondering where I was: “Sort yourself out and call me back.”
Me against her. The searcher, the one who willed the wind to take her, to blow her somewhere, who invited direction from without. I was fortified. In whatever you call the deepest place in us, wherever the core is, in whatever comprises our core, I was fortified. I knew my way home, with tout anyone pointing me there. Without anyone pulling me to shore. This was winter, the end of winter, but I was not in thin air any longer. I was well beyond that time of thin air. Another thing, one more way I knew, Iceland assured me I’d make it.
Where does he come from? 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 the past.
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 and running between them. The swell comes with awesome force. My eyes stay closed. I let them.
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 the float to sea. The lagoon is a waiting room, where broken glacier goes, right before it’s water again.
Behind the lids of closed eyes, I’m sure of one thing: his loss will never overtake me like this again. It can’t. Not with this much force. Funny, how true this feels, how only later do I rethink it. How can I be so sure? Who guarantees that loss diminishes with time? That pain must ebb? People say this, proverbs assure us, but there is no way to know—not at least with the certainty I feel in that bright room, on that dark night in Iceland.
I wonder whether this place is lending me certainty, whether it has to do with being precisely here, at the top of the world. Because nowhere have I stood more aware of the earth’s moving and tilting and rotating than in Iceland. Nowhere does a person feel the force of the season’s change. It might just be that simple—my gravity back here. Not about comedy or catharsis or a culture of survival. Just some evidence that the earth turns, and time passes, and so the seasons change, and as long as we do our part by simply getting out of bed, resisting hibernation, and leaning into a tomorrow, we cannot get frozen in our misery.
A brown curtain parts, and everyone turns towards the stage.
Biggi leans in to explain: this is the comedy, a Thorablott tradition. It’s an after-dinner skit, written and enacted by the committee—the same people who greeted us, beaming. While our stomachs puzzle over all we’ve swallowed, the town’s actors are about poke fun at everything that went terribly over the course of the year.
Last year, Biggi and Ragga were tapped to play roles in the comedy. I ask Biggi whether there was a theme.
“The volcano,” he tells me.
I think he means Laki—that their skit was a throwback, to the year that put this tiny, indomitable town on the map.
Laki is known for an explosion so robust and unceasing that it changed the color of the sky.
There’s a story all the history and guide books tell about Kirkubaerklaustur and it’s set in the phenomenally cruel year 1783. One day, when the sky was a haze and the lava flows would not quit, the magma took aim at Kirkubaerklaustur, racing right towards its farmsteads, threatening to bury everything. At the pastor’s orders, everyone came together in the church. There, the pastor delivered a fiery sermon to people about to meet their end. But something strange happened. When people peeked out from the turf-roofed church, they saw the magma cooling, at a safe distance. The river of fire had halted. They were saved.
It’s one of Iceland’s great survival stories—a tiny band of stoic people weathering nature at its most brutal. 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.
It didn’t make world news because it didn’t halt global air traffic, as the Grimsvotin eruption had, just one earlier. Nonetheless, here in Kirkubaerklaustur, when the earth opened up and the lava poured out, it got hard to see the sky.
Biggi was working at fish farm and got trapped there. The air was so thick with black particles, he didn’t dare step outside. Drawing a breath meant darkening his lungs. I try to imagine this—a snow-globe, speckled coal black? Back at their home, grit covered every surface. 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, disbelieving. The ash had found its way into everything. Every cabinet, every drawer, every flat surface, every cloth. The ash would take months to clean.
What did they do? They cleaned. Ragga dusted. Biggi came home from work. They breathed again. 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, like that’s a silly question.
Of course, I think. Of course the volcano roast would get a town-wide laugh. I smile my own little smile, imagining my shy Icelandic parents bringing down the house.
Tonight’s is about lean times: the town’s tightening budget, the fact that Kirkubaerklaustur can no longer afford its thermal pool. That, and some jokes Ragga promises are way, way too local to translate. “Farmer humor,” Ragga tells me, “Who’s got the better snowmobile and that sort of thing,” when the men of Kirkubaerklaustur appear in dresses, dour-faced. Swallowing sour food is a fantastic metaphor for enduring winter’s worst, but as the banquet hall gets hot with laughter, so hot Ragga has to crack a window and let in a cold blast of outside, I can tell the more cathartic part of the night is the comedy.
A camera, dangling from one actor’s neck, tells me we’re parodying tourism. Every summer, when the nights get long and bright, this village of about 200 people, most of them farmers, saturates with foreign guests. Last summer broke all the records--a tidal wave of outsiders hit Kirkubaerklaustur.
The question gripping Iceland was could this tribe handle a million guests? It wasn’t hard to read/discern the country’s preoccupation—the worry of the moment. The great unanswered thing—the matter weighing over this island—was what to do about the popularity. All the non-Icelandic people who now wanted to come. Who wanted—in the sunny season—to brush against the brute force of nature, to lay eyes on the rugged beauty, to know a land without trees. How much would Icelanders be of service to them? The question, five years ago, was how would Icelanders handle all this wealth? Could they? Would they lose themselves in helicopters and credit cards and new SUV’s?
The snap-happy tourists are getting such I rise, I beg Ragga for a translation. 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. There is a whole lot I will never understand, and that’s fine. In fact, there’s something nice, yes, something cozy about how insidery the comedy is. How local it makes Thorrablot. This is the season for Icelanders only, a party for family alone. My thoughts drift out the open window to the hotel, just across the snow-patched grass, where I left behind a big old tripod at the last minute. For the fourteenth time tonight, I thank myself for not bringing it in here.
Black Death should have been the end of me. One shot, and lights out, hotel bed, hard sleep. After all, I was jet-lagged. My body was full of scraps of farm animals killed last September and Arctic fish caught lord knows when. My stomach felt bloated and confused. Like it needed 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 Brennavin: shooting quickly.
I order two: one for me, one for Ragga. This is my way of rewarding my host for all 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 child. I don’t know that alcohol has ever felt more like poison, more immediately raised the question, why do we do this to ourselves? Imagine cutting a permanent market in two and sucking out its ink.
Even more remarkable is that after drinking poison, after drinking beer, after drinking gin, and tonic, twice, is that what I still feel, more than drunk, is awkward. I can’t escape the fear that in the time that it takes to find Svein and get that hotel key, someone here will make me dance.
Because every other Thorablott prophecy has come true. Icelanders warned me that the food would be grey, and the lights would be bright, and the texture 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 tamborine 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 lots of twirling, twirling of people whose reaction times seem a solid beat late. Women fall and get right back up, eyes glistening, slapping their tossers, fondly. At one point, Biggi lifts a hand to tap a woman about to topple back into her dance, like a volleyball player at 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. It’s a shame, because 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 that caught the crisp morning light on my walk up Klappistigur. I didn’t partake, didn’t let go, because I was too earnest about renewing, doing, making lists, and also because Reykajvik was a city where everyone was watching. Not looking, never looking actually, but registering what I did. How this worked—the city’s eyes—I didn’t know exactly, but I felt it, always. “There’s an article about you in the paper today,” a barista told me one morning. I found the photo, and saw I was wearing the same lime green shirt I’d put on that morning. I went back home and changed. Everyone who read that newspaper walked down Laugauvegur. I never walked that street without imagining someone taking note.
“That girl. There she goes.” Reykjavik, as edgy as cosmopolitan as it was, had the peep-holes of a village.
Wedding dancing is a version of that. For all the people dancing, there are people in chairs, watching, sitting it out by uneaten slivers of cake. You feel them, or at least
I do. They are the reason I rarely rise to my feet at weddings—weddings I’m invited to—and why there is no chance of my dancing at Thorablot. I have my polite no ready. I rehearse it in my mind, prepared for the Drunk Old Man I’m beginning to doubt will seek my hand.
Biggi does instead. I’m prepared for a Drunk Old Man, but not Biggi, who is old, and surely drunk, but also sweet Hoppa’s sweet 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 so I’m twirling, and we might even be fluid were the other twirlers not bumping us, were the bumpings slightly gentler. It’s like a hoe down with the etiquette of Grand Central at rush hour. Nobody begs the pardon of those they smash.
Hoppa’s out here, hopping, hands out, fingers spread, the portrait of glee. I try to hold her in mind and not the fixed figures of my host parents, watching. Someone starts jumping and Biggi gets jumping and we’re are all soon jumping, and jumping lets me veer Biggi towards 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 like 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.
Light: everyone has made it through three months of stingy light. Thorablott isn’t celebrated on the darkest day of the year—it isn’t a solstice bash—it’s deeper into winter. That deep moment in winter when it gets easy to believe the cave is permanent, that light will simply not return. This is always winter’s worst for me, when you can see the dimming in my face. February brings a morale problem, one I try to fight by chasing light. It’s mysterious to me how light powers us, and why it wrings our morale so hard. I’ve just known for years that it does—that enduring winter calls for a survival plan, from popping Vitamin D to jogging the eastern side of certain streets. But emerging breathless and sweat-damp from the inner circle of leaping and bumping Icelanders at Thorablot, that the battle through the very end of winter isn’t just about light. When one energy source fails, seek another, I think. Kinetic energy, of course. Because leaping like a child in a room vibrating with fresh music, in a co-ed crowd of liquored up strangers, has at least the power of a wash of crisp winter light. Dry grey embers in the bone begin to glow. And it’s the craziest thing, now: 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 Thorablott. You wake up later than you should and you tell the clock it cannot be. It cannot be that time, you tell Iceland. It 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 Svein manning the desk of a virtually empty hotel. He offers coffee; you drink a pot. You find out how long Thorablott went on without you: hours. Naturally. You learn that the cook “passed away in a chair,” and take this to mean “passed out,” though appreciate how thin a line Icelanders keep between drunkenness and death.
Outside, the town of Kirkubaerklaustur is slow to resurrect. The parking lot of the banquet hall is full of cars, their drivers sleeping hard, still negotiating Brennavin. You climb into a chilly car and ride past a familiar woman on the empty road. She’s from the comedy—one of the actors, one of the funniest, 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, called the ring road—and you amaze yourself by missing it entirely. You begin instead a gravel-road joyride through the most barren land ever farmed, where the homes look to be hiding among great heaps of lava rock, meek and tucking low into the fickle earth, past the barns may very well be abandoned, 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 your SUV towards what must be south. The winds carry snow. Fat pieces, hardly spaced. By the time you find the Ring Road, finally, you find yourself in a blaze of sideways snow. When the wind blows, you are swimming in a can of white paint. Your hands are on the wheel, your foot on the pedal, but there is nothing to see but white. The jeep tips south and the view erases.
You go as slow as wheels can turn. You hunch over and squint like a granny and watch in breath-stopping horror each time it happens, the white-out. You slap yourself on the cheeks. You shimmy in the seat, grip harder. You try to channel the wisdom of an Icelander. What would a person who knows this land and season do? Pause? Pull-over? The voice of the Icelander brings up light, dark, the sky--it’s about to get pitch black. You have gas but two hours, max, of decent light. If you’re still on this mountain pass, by six o’clock, you’ll be buried in pounds of snow and wrapped in dark. This seems to mean you will freeze here.
You turn off that CD. No more Ofrassa. You can’t hear Ofrassa, Ofrassa. You don’t know what Ofrassa means. You know only that Iceland is trying hard to finish you. The road is now so illegible that it makes more sense to watch the GPS screen, and take aim at the purple cartoon line. You’re about to crash a jeep and drive it like you would a video game.
Is there a way to tell Iceland that you get it? All those whispers about life ending, those clues that this land could end your life? You know, now: they are not idle. Nature means it; it could take your life. You should have known that, should have brought a cell phone and read the weather, and known you wouldn’t get away with abstraction. Not at this latitude, not in this season, not in the dead of winter on the edge of the world.
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 Thorablot, which means you live. You reach the city. You pass through the white tunnel into a white haze beaded with red lights and yellow lights of other cars. You get it now, what Brynn's husband….Later that night, over a dinner that is the most cozy of your life, David
Indoors, my blizzard story gets little play. Nobody’s much in the mood for a winter’s tale. Bryn’s been decorating her bathroom, Edda making pasta, Darren moving into a new home. I want to tell someone that I followed a purple line through a white void; I want to say I lived, after almost not living, but conversation in the warm glowing chambers of Reykjavik has a different tenor. It’s a domestic Sunday. Parked cars cram the glowing streets. Everyone's kept inside.
Only Brynn's husband humors me, wanting all the near-death details. He’s envious, I realize, watching him grip the air like a steering wheel, gritting his teeth—he hasn’t had enough of those drives this winter, David says. Winter has been a disappointingly gentle--not enough brutal days, brushes with death.
I give David a look: too soon. I'm too rattled to find any glory in my blizzard drive yet; I want the cocktail David is pouring me, and I want Bryn's company on the leather couch, and I want to stay a very long while in this second story home that feels like an attic, lit like a lantern, warm as a bath. But I have to grant it to my friends, after we've shared a drink and spooned through the pot of tomato curry David let simmer all afternoon: the way I experience dinner in their home has everything to do with that drive. It’s the blessed end of a day that almost killed me. I might not have lived through.
And so it all encodes: the illuminated beads dangling down their balcony curtains, the cinnamon in the basmati, the yogurt’s dill, the flush on Louis cheeks, his belly laugh, halting us, summoning predictions: Louis would an actor, Louis would be a charmer, Louis would one day be a happy man. When will I next see Louis? How long I lingered, on that couch by the tiny red lamp, legs tucked under me, and on the top step, too—it was hard to go down the stairs, into the dark. This night with David and Bryn and little Louis will claim a full chamber in my memory for a long time—I’m sure. They warmed my hands, my white knuckled hands. They taught me why a person might worry about a mild winter. Can March lose its power without a true February first? Do we need to be held down—hard—to feel the lift? Without stark contrast, do we move too breezily through our years? Without it, how else could certain moments, well into our journeys, have the feel of a first?
[What got oppressive about all that light. There were days I wanted to dim it, not just to sleep, but to humor a less than exuberant mood, or an all-out, a simply bad one. The summer sky in Iceland never allowed for gloom—it never matched/enabled a blaise day. It refused to enable and encourage anything but our cheerleader, mountaineer, go-get-em selves. When I woke up a dim version of myself, in the polar opposite mood, the banner of light above me got oppressive. I wished it had a dimmer—summer. Summer in Iceland. I wished there was some sort of break. Which is precisely what that glorious lacked, the problem of that season. There was no contrast. Life, without contrast, I learned once I allowed myself the chance to scowl at the brightness—that was fair—because without a break, it got hard to value sun, and with only one mood suggested, a person began to resist—my blue side, my inner cynic protested. I felt like an even more sour grape. Unhappiness felt wholly mine, self-grown. Misery didn’t fit in this place, and wouldn’t for weeks, months, a season. Misery had no place under a sky like this. So misery was all your doing, homemade. Ascribable to nothing but you. Entirely your darkness. There were moments that summer when I felt like a wretched person. A miserable soul. Someone with a secret sourness in me.
I feel it, already—a shift, by the end of four days in Reykjavik. I've been in Reyjkavik just four days….
I can’t get anyone in this city to call the sky dark. If I say it’s dark, I’m told, “that’s nothing.” I’m told I should have seen December. “This isn’t dark.” I start to test people, everyone in my path, all the way to the airport. By the third of February in Iceland, nobody in Reykjavik will talk dark with me. Not even Edda, my former landlady who wore all black every day of the brightest summer on record, will take a dim view of the current moment. She’s wearing a rainbow skirt as bright as a Moroccan souk; her hair is dyed violet-red. “It was a shit year,” she says, “but it’s over now.”
Everyone’s talking seven minutes. Every day, from here on in, Iceland gets seven more minutes of light. December’s increments were just three. In January, four minutes, then five. But there’s a tipping point in early February. The seven-minute mark: when that far-off season begins to come fast and steady. Hoppa called them “chicken feet”—tiny steps, quicker and quicker, across the thawing tundra. 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.
The sun is absolutely above my head as I wander down to the frozen pond in Reykjavik, where just days ago I watched boys playing soccer, diving and tackling with complete abandon, like the ice was turfgrass. Now, the pond is empty save three white swans, waddling with hesitance across its center. Only a fool would walk this pond today; it looks sure to crack. The difference is written in light.
The light. What pours down on Reykjavik today is more than warm, more than bright and clear; it’s transforming. It’s the light I called cracked light, the light I sometimes wanted to lid, the light I never needed that much of, to feel entirely awake. How could I forget? Floki’s light. It’s the kind of light that changes the temperature of everything. The kind if light that gets inside what it touches—the moss on trees, shudders on homes, letters on signs. Light you feel like soft heat behind closed eyelids. Light that strikes. I stalk this light all over the city, studying what it glorifies, how it gives stern yellow facades their creamy coat back, casts some ducks as grey paupers, others glowing kings. I catch of this light what I can before leaving Iceland a second time.
It's not the amount of light. It's the quality of it.
Maybe seven minutes is plenty. All anyone needs to pivot. Maybe that’s what Thorablot marks in Iceland—not the bottom of winter, not the beginning of spring, just the day when people begin to lend more credence to what’s ahead than to what’s past, when heads that were all down, start to lift in unison, when the traveler talking darkness gets shushed, because we’re past that, the switch just flipped, everyone’s agreed now to look ahead and feel the world turning, bringer a kinder season.
I get my quotient before leaving Reykjavik. I hunt it down as soon as it breaks through the grey pillowing of clouds over the city. I stalk it down by the lake, where just days ago I watched boys playing soccer—diving and tackling with complete abandon—like the frozen water was turf grass. Now, the pond is empty save three white swans, waddling with care. Only a fool would walk this rink today; it looks sure to crack. The difference is written in light.
Light. Of course. This isn’t just any light. What pours down on Reykjavik is not just warm and bright and clear; it’s transforming. It’s the light I called cracked light, the light I sometimes wanted to lid, the light I never needed that much of, to feel entirely awake. How could I forget? Floki’s light. Insomniac light. The light that says, renew.
You need to see this light to believe , to remember, its power. A person deep in the dark will forget. But you don’t need much at all.
The clouds will bury it, take it all back in minutes, like they know everyone in Reykjavik is counting the seven minutes, bearing in mind the magic seven (Everyone counters my questions about darkness with the same fact of the seven minutes). The clouds of February won’t dole out a second more.
But seven’s plenty. Seven’s enough to remember how light gets inside what it touches—the moss on trees, shudders on homes, feathers of swans. Enough to study the way light glorifies, how it gives stony facades their creamy coats back. In seven minutes, Reykjavik is as a kingdom, facing the sea, not huddling from it. Seven minutes is all you need to believe that everything under this sky is about to transform. Seven will erase anyone’s doubt: it’s underway, already.
Maybe that’s what Thorrablot marks in Iceland—not the bottom of winter, not the beginning of spring, just the day when people begin to lend more credence to what’s ahead than to what’s past, when the traveler talking darkness gets shushed, because we’re past that, the switch just flipped, everyone’s agreed now to look ahead and feel the world turning, bringer a new and maybe kinder year.
Down at the lake, I watch grey 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 all far into the mind. I think I see someone up in that attic room, drenched in the new light of the coming year.
like my body was pushing for an equinox, fighting the bipolarity that I had a way of pushing harder, extremifying.
What was it about this light?
My socks are damp and my skin is goose bumped when I turn my rental jeep in at the Reykjavik airport. 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.
Things to research:
difference in grades and intensities of light around the world. True that what reaches the poles in summer is a more diffuse light. Then how to explain how activating it is? Does the grade/apperance/effect of light differ at every latitude?
What is depression? Lost faith in movement, change. For me, it's a lost faith in motion, in change, in potential of both. It's a stuckness that feels so certain. A cage so legible in my own mind.