A writers’ retreat in Iceland was an irresistible opportunity and I went to the Land of Fire and Ice with an open mind. I’ll cover the writer’s retreat another time, but let me focus on the land in this article.
Made up of 130 volcanoes, stunning waterfalls, geysers spouting boiling water into the air at periodic intervals, receding glaciers, hot springs for a refreshing dip while en-route to or from the airport, and tectonic plates parting ways in the the middle of the country, this land is a civilized moonscape. Iceland is also writer’s Mecca: more books per-capita published than anywhere else in the world, sagas that date back to the 13th century and that gave birth to modern literature, literary walks, talks and landmarks throughout a land half the size of the United Kingdom, a land where the hidden people (trolls, elves and other magical people) are kept alive in a flourishing mythology that seeps into the quotidian.
Tourism bailed out the country which sank under fiscal mismanagement during the 2008 financial crisis, and now tourists are everywhere, 1.4 million of them a year in a country of only 330 thousand souls, fueling inflation again. While I visited, the Panama Papers scandal had sunk another senior politician, and now everyone in the country was running for president because they felt they could do a better job of governing. And as I passed the parliament buildings and the presidential palace I did not see any high security fences or security guards; in the olden days, with Iceland being the youngest and westernmost country in Europe and far away from Rome, local priests and bishops had sired children as the Pope had been too far away to check on them; similarly, I figured, the Icelanders must have reckoned that their country was too remote for terrorists, even in these days. We hope so too. Perhaps their Viking legacy and those exploding volcanoes, were deadly enough to send any bad guy packing…
And yet the city, which reminded me so much of St. John’s, Newfoundland (less hilly, perhaps) and which was full of museums, art galleries, bookshops and great restaurants, didn’t hold my attention as much as the stark countryside did. The drive from the airport to the city was through a lava field covered with moss – no trees, no flower gardens – and the lava fields continued as we travelled south and inland. Iceland is an agglomeration of land surfaced by exploding volcanoes over the centuries. When we traversed the volcano Hekla, we were told that this one exploded every 10 years and hadn’t done so for the last 15, so its next explosion was overdue. Catholic priests sailing past Hekla in the olden days had called it Hell as it was the closest they had seen of fire and brimstone when the old gal was in full blossom. And the volcano at Eyjallasokall was supposed to take the town below it into the sea when it next blew. The walk down no-man’s land between the American and European plates to the Alþingi (the seat of first Icelandic government in the 10th century) in Þingvellir, overlooking open fields, meandering streams and the impressive Law Rock from which the laws of the land were proclaimed, was a step back in time.
And despite this constant threat of doom, economic or geological, the Icelanders seemed to soldier on with a dour sense of humour. Perhaps they embody the writer’s psyche of living on the edge where most human experience accretes. Yes, definitely a land of contrasts – “fire and ice” is an apt descriptor.