White smoke rising up off the coast

I stumbled into Bakarameistarinn before the sun had really even moved above the horizon, bleary-eyed and starving. I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but I was aiming for the Bonus in Kringlan, crossing the huge dual carriageway – heavy now with rush-hour traffic – that separated it from the residential block where I was staying. Once across, I’d trekked almost the entire perimeter of the shopping centre in search of a pedestrian entrance, only to discover that it didn’t open for another two and a half hours. My stomach, last satiated eleven hours ago with a Cup Noodle and snack-sized pot of Skyr, contracted sharply. I’d spent so long kicking around the city the day before that by the time I’d arrived at the Bonus on Laugavegur, it was too late. I’d already eaten all of my provisions – Scottish Tablet and a grab bag of salt & vinegar Kettle Chips that I’d picked up for the plane from the Sainbury’s outside Queen Street Station – so I’d taken refuge in the nearest corner convenience store, but that was too far away from me now. The bakery, immediately off the dual carriageway, reminded me of the sort back in the United States that serviced white collar commuters from the distant suburbs, but it’d have to do for now. And thus, I spent my first morning in Reykjavik, sitting at a bar at the window with a freshly baked cinnamon roll (which always taste much better straight out of a Scandi bakery) and a much-too-frothy flat white, watching the late-rising sun come up over the morning traffic. I was overjoyed.

I’ve been back in Scotland for over a month now and I have written nothing, but nothing is the same as it was then, when I sat in that bakery waiting for Bonus to open. Everything has changed, and Reykjavik is the tangible barrier between how things were before and how they are now, or perhaps it was the catalyst? I don’t know if the timing of that trip had turned out to be coincidental, or if the stark contrast of the landscape up north that I’d first seen from the plane as we glided over Reykjanes, the Southern Peninsula that houses Iceland’s only international airport, had jarred something in my head. But the last time that I did write here, a tiny entry executed on my phone as I sat alone on that empty flight, there was a sense of disbelief at the easy nature of what I’d done. Staring down at the black Atlantic as it lapped up against the snowy shoreside was absolutely no different to me than staring out at the Southern Uplands on the cross-country service back to England, and how important that sensation turned out to be. I’d longed for years to see Iceland, and it struck me as profound – beautifully so – to find that there was nothing extraordinary about it all. After all, there is little that I love more than spending a few hours on a train, rolling through the hills and heading to nowhere in particular.

I never left the city while I was there. My dorm-mates seemed to have dropped tens of thousands of krona on every over-priced excursion that was on offer, and my excuses to them about my decision to stay in Reykjavik became less defensive and more half-hearted the more I recited them. But I didn’t want to go to the Blue Lagoon or to Gullfoss or Seljalandsfoss or the Black Beach. I did want to go to Vik and I kept an eye on the auroral forecast, but all the same, I felt so soon after landing at Keflavik that this would not be the last time that I would be here. I wasn’t so much disinterested in the Icelandic wilderness as I was straight-up interested in Reykjavik, so instead, declaring my hostel as the true centre of the city, I took all roads that led out from it and I walked for miles in every direction. The woods, the financial district, the impossibly quiet residential areas, across the frozen lake that separates city hall from Háskóli Íslands, and always down to the waterside. I stopped and watched tiny planes take off from the domestic airport in the middle of town, headed out to Greenland and Egilsstaðir and Akureyri. I drank a lot of coffee (the best being from Kaffitár on Laugavegur, although I was sad as hell when I realised that I’d forgotten to hit up Reykjavik Roasters before I left) and very little beer. I read through Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow, and two issues of the Reykjavik Grapevine. I fired through nine rolls of 36-exposure film on my ex-partner’s point-and-shoot camera. And I listened to the Wooden Sky’s Let’s Be Ready on repeat for five days straight as I wound my way through the city, a Canadian rendering of such northern lands. I can hear Gavin Gardiner’s voice ringing out every time I think about it: “White smoke rising up off the coast / heaven surrounds me now.” In the lavatory of the plane on the way back home, I learned some Icelandic. Reyk means smoke; Reykjavik literally translates into “bay of smoke”, named such for the geothermal hot springs nearby. I think I laughed out loud when it dawned on me. Stupidly profound, really.

And all of it so commonplace. As a teenager, I’d created an image of this place that was shrouded in mysticism, taken primarily from my love of Sigur Rós and my lesser interest in the ancient Icelandic sagas. I can hardly remember now what I imagined it to be back then, because instead, I can see perfectly the view of Faxa Bay from the corner of Snorrabraut and Eriksgata. Iceland is invariably white, you know; the only respite from the monotone snowy ground and the overcast sky comes from the sea and the eccentrically coloured buildings downtown. But in this instant, as I stared down that long street, a busy thoroughfare for traffic, a spot of sunlight, low in the sky and brilliantly golden, broke through the clouds and landed on the lower slopes of Esja on the far side of the bay. It lingered just long enough for me to register that it was there. I turned my head towards Perlan on the hillside for a moment, and when I looked back, it was gone, and I carried on, hands deep in the pockets of my coat.

It was so banal, so goddamn beautiful, and finding myself in that instant was no trouble at all. A train, a bus, a plane, another bus, and miles upon miles of footwork over the ground. All of it so simple and agreeable to me, and isn’t that it? Gavin Gardiner’s voice is ringing out again, singing a much older song now: “You were born a fair-haired child of the valley / and though at times it felt that you were tethered to the ground / you’re not a stone.

Two weeks after I landed back in Scotland, I moved out of the ‘burbs and into a room closer to town. My new housemates, themselves recently moved in, are folks who’ve just decided to take a break of indeterminate (but not indefinite) length from the full nomadic lifestyle. I laughed out loud when it dawned on me. I’ve been so wrapped up in chasing something, in forcing a sense of purpose here, in elevating myself to something that means something to others, but why? If what I find truly satisfying is the sensation of my feet on the ground, running through the streets of a North Atlantic city, moving over the neutral tones of the airport carpet, down the centre aisle of a train racing southwards, or glued to the pedals of my bicycle as it races down the street at 15 kilometres an hour, then why? 

I came home one night a few weeks ago and retracted my enrolment on a postgraduate course at the University of Stirling. I completed the half-finished application for a work visa in New Zealand. It was approved three days later. And isn’t that it?

I don’t know, but I do think so.


reykjavik diptych 2reykjavik-7


4 thoughts on “White smoke rising up off the coast

  1. Another great piece…but different, which is how it should be. I like the way this trip was inevitable and inevitably will happen again. It is a special (particular) place and had a special- good- effect. I went for a few days a while back and wrote a short story set there. About a rowing tourist couple! I have always found it easier to write short fiction on short away sojourns, using those settings. Of interest Cam?

    Liked by 1 person

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