May 15

First Dispatch from Iceland


It is 10:30pm in Reykjavic. Although it is still nearly daylight outside – strange, even for a Canadian used to long, northern days – Moonira and Amedeo are already asleep. We’ve done more walking in the five days we’ve been in Iceland than we have in the previous month at least. Our Iceland nights end early and wearily.

Aside from a presentation from Walls at a local bookstore, this trip has been exclusively touristic. We went on a walking tour of the city, visited a couple of museums, and embarked on a whale-watching excursion. The latter was a bust. The water was rough and the wind cold. Amedeo spent the entire trip laying down seasick and asleep. He didn’t even raise his head to see the pod of dolphins we sailed through or the quick-diving sea birds. No whales appeared at all. And I left Amedeo’s hat on the boat.

On land, it is impossible to forget that the entire country is still being born. That magma bubbles and rumbles not far beneath our feet. All the stones here are volcanic, and the water we wash our dishes and brush our teeth with smells of sulphur. We swam in a municipal pool warmed by the heat of the earth just below. I feel I am always on the steamy border between water and fire.

There is good coffee and beer here. And great seafood and lamb. The downtown, though, has nearly given itself over to tourism. The manager of the bookstore that hosted my reading told me that she can no longer buy a pair of socks in central Reykjavic “unless they have a picture of a puffin on them.” The main downtown shopping street reminds me of Banff Avenue. But Banff was always Banff. It was built for visitors. Reykjavic was built for and by Icelanders. What do they think, I wonder, of great swathes of their city being handed over to visitors? This fascinates me.

The most interesting thing about this place so far, however, has been learning about the “settlement period.” Iceland is a young country – a barren, uninhabited rock settled relatively recently in human history. This is something even a citizen of Canada, another infant nation, cannot comprehend. Canada was already occupied when Europeans, possibly from Iceland, “discovered” it. Only Canada’s First Nations can claim a “settlement period.” Icelanders, though, were the first people on this hot and cold rock. I wonder what it means for national identity to be able to say “we were the first people here.”

Eleven o’clock now. And still light.