An Icelander looking at you, who you cannot see, creates your desire to be seen in a way matching your desire for the Icelander — to strip away the cold gaze for intimacy, and to be in the secret group looking out.
People, this is chess.
Most Icelanders live in Greater Reykjavik, and most live in beautiful subdivisions and new apartment neighbourhoods between the mountains and the sea. Everything is practical, tidy, and simple, in keeping with a people having to pay for maintaining a country in the face of large currencies and their power. Things get a little harder out in small towns and in the countryside, as they do in downtown Reykjavik. That’s the old part of town, the one with the greatest need for being rebuilt to better standards, and the only one that lower-earning Icelanders can afford to live in. It’s also the place where the (estimated 2.5 million this year) tourists settle. The significance? Tourists (like me, blush) with the power of foreign currencies behind them are displacing a vital part of Iceland. In touring the indigenous parts of Reykjavik, I have failed to run into other tourists, not in the suburbs and not here, right downtown. The separation is, sadly, complete. How could this be good for the soul?
Isn’t this a better tour than another visit to geysir in the orange muck?
In Iceland, the major architectural monuments from the past are also way-finding cairns of stones passing across inhospitable terrain. They were essential for commerce and the maintaining of a low technology culture in a harsh environment. They are now essential links to the past, as important to Icelanders as, say, the pyramids in Egypt or the Strasbourg Cathedral in France. In other words, they led somewhere, and still lead somewhere important, even as people continue to try to read them.
Unfortunately, many contemporary visitors to Iceland, being humans and liking to make their own presence into lasting magical gestures, a signature of their kind, obscure the landscapes with their mark-making. Please don’t. It’s ugly and aimless. They don’t let you do it in Paris. Respect goes a long way towards creating beauty.
They will find each other, but will be powerless. Iceland is currently financing itself on this illusion, based on a thousand-year-old tradition of hospitality. The land’s hospitality reveals itself when you turn away and walk for, oh, ten minutes into the earth.
There are also ancient traditions of Icelanders reading this mixed landscape of water, volcanoes and wind. Keeping the tradition alive has never been so important or, under the business, so difficult.
This troll is marked on no map, yet so many travellers have found it that access has been blocked — an unusual thing for Iceland, but necessary. I leave it for you to find it yourself. Note the old house site to the troll’s left. Yeah, on the grassy slope, and at its base. People used to live closer to trolls than they do now.
Still, take a look in the troll’s ear to the right above, and then to the goofs chatting in there, as if they were on the set of a silent movie.How can you block access to what doesn’t belong to you in the first place? How can you stop a conversation that has no sound? You can’t, but you can give it space.
This is Iceland. It’s not so friendly to human life, really, but it is sold to tourists, who want “real experience.”
That’s the art of Iceland: remaining hospitable. It is a kind of mercy. Art and beauty are reduced to a line of thought here, in a language of “eye” and “body” but not so much of mind, and that line is reduced to gentle gestures, lest the bodies of visitors scare.The language of mind (below) might just scare them off.
Not that there are polar bears in Iceland, but what the heck. The practice speaks to a tremendous self confidence, and the secrecy of all islanders: everyone is the island.
All who come remain within the gesture of arrival, until they choose to either leave or stay. Everyone gets to decide for themselves. No one will help you… unless you get lost. Then you will be brought back and warmed up, and will be once again within the gesture of the island itself. It’s the same if you try to leave. You might find yourself leaving and staying all at the same time.
The island is the one doing the speaking here. Humans are almost speechless in its face.