first impressions

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The drive to Reykjavik is different every time: though it’s mostly one long road, and on a clear day you can see your destination across the water even before you’ve left. We are staying in Keflavik , where Johann is from, where the airport is, a sprawling village in the Reykjanes peninsula. There is exploring to do here, but I have also been going in to the city quite a bit, meeting new friends and family, accompanying them on errands and doing some wandering by myself, which means a 45 minute drive (or 80 minute bus).

The day after we arrived, we got in the car and drove to the city. The road runs along the coast through the lava fields. A vast expanse of pockmarked rock, fairly flat, but when the late evening sun falls across the tiny hummocks of pale grass and small undulations it seems a mountainscape in miniature. That first drive, the plains were covered in snow, just a week after Reykjavik experienced more snow in one night than ever before. We pulled off the road onto a small roundabout where the road becomes a track and heads for the hills.

img_20170308_161028396.jpgI crouched down on the black rock, pressed my hands into the crunchy snow when I thought no one was looking. You could look for hours at this tiny world of moss and stone, snow shrinking from their forms, grass waving in the wind. That is, if it wasn’t so cold.

Every time we drive the land is different. When the snow has faded almost everywhere else, it lingers on in the far mountains to the right, making them bright. In the foreground there are a few pockets of it in the shadow of rocks, and these glow blue when all around is brown. One morning we are dazzled by sun shining straight at us, shades down, sunglasses on, but by evening the sky has come down close and it’s sleeting.

Flurries on and off this past fortnight speckle the ground now and again. The skeletons of low bushes show themselves, and I’m told if I’m here in autumn we can come and pick crowberries. Moss replaces snow as the oozing substance icing the rock. More colours appear: the pale, straw-coloured longer grass, the grey-green of the moss. All is golden brown in the sunset.

There is more space between everything here. Houses stand alone in aprons of goose-nibbled grass, they seem part of the landscape, not so much castles shutting it out. Fences are often low, gardens visible from the street. Echoes of Dungeness, in the UK: anchors and stone for garden ornament, if anything, with no boundary between house, land, sea. Maybe high fences blow down. It is extremely windy here. Maybe, probably, the Icelandic weather prevents the mollycoddling of an outdoor space, in the way we British tend to tend our gardens. The seafront has been extended so the waves no longer crash up to the buildings but rush to a halt out of sight. Even the mountains on the city-bound road are set back behind the wide lava fields, flattened into a paper cut out with no way to gauge scale. It struck me this morning that my memories of mountains are always of being amidst them, in the Scottish highlands, or the Swiss alps, and it feels strange and unfamiliar to view them at a remove. I expect there are answers to be found in the geology of this volcanic land, but I confess I am short of attention span for researching the science and prefer to look and wonder, content in not knowing how and why the landscape is, and enjoying only that it ‘is’. Drawing the shapes without knowing their past.

My first two weeks in Iceland are characterised by how I am taken up by small things. The difference in the everyday. The things I notice on walks – that scaffolding is made of wood! Yes, it’s more long-lasting. The ice cream shop is a drive through! Yes, ice cream is very popular here. These rocks look airy, and full of holes! Yes, they are made from lava. Always patient answers and explanations from my trusty local Johann. When we walk around the town I notice the subtle difference of things one takes for granted. The grass, pale ochre tinged, close cropped and having survived 20 hours of darkness a day over winter. Despite my pencil case full of greens for colouring garden designs, I can’t get anywhere near recording it faithfully. The walls of buildings being corrugated metal, an unfamiliar texture. In the harbour the wind pulls groans from the platforms the boats are moored to, a sound that won’t be caught in any holiday photograph but is so irrepressibly now and of this place. img_20170309_121035.jpg

I listen through swathes of language for the few words I recognise, hold them close, repeat them often. I get joy in being able to describe what I see, clumsily, with many mistakes, in Icelandic and now in long-form English on this blog.

I have been glad to stay in Keflavik and dip my toes in the city. It’s given me the opportunity to observe and savour the small, everyday new things, at a slow pace, unobscured by attractions on a checklist. I know we’ll be here for a good while so I have no rush to chain-visit waterfalls. Grand sights can be familiar through others’ photographs, guidebooks and film, and I sometimes find it hard to connect. Big Ben leaves me cold, the Eiffel Tower wasn’t as spectacular as the waffle we ate nearby. But when I kneel down on the stony verge of the lava field to survey snow, moss, stone and grass in miniature, the feeling of wonder bubbles up inside me and I see what is in front of me for the first time.

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