It all seems so long ago now, a time of panic and horror. If time permits and the mood strikes, I'll detail the myriad foibles that attended the preparations for this journey, but let us just look back 24 hours.

Checked the hotel, again, for the 98th time in case it had changed location or closed. This time I notice it's not right by the main airport. Taxi from our arrival point to hotel? Only 113 Euros!

HAH HAH right. No Well, let's reserve some bus transfers and print them out. It's 1:07 AM now. Next step - email to the dogsitter about when she would pick up Scout. Searched her name. Looked at the first email in the chain: I had given the wrong arrival date. By four days. Ah criminey. Also, there's two emails about pick-up time, sent but unanswered.

Do we even have a dog sitter?

It's now 1:15 AM. I make a reservation request at a kennel where I have an account. I draw up a list of emergency contingencies. I pour myself a stiff drink and finish it and go to bed, trying not to think of what tomorrow will be like if we don't have a dog sitter. Didn't sleep well. Nervous starts from bad dreams. Sister-in-law texts from PARIS at 4:59 AM. I dreamed the dog sitter called and said everything was fine. Then I woke and realized the dog sitter had not called. But the phone was ringing. The kennel. They said they'd called the animal clinic, and Scout was due for vaccinations in 7 days, so unless he had them he couldn't stay. Granted, they were full up, but something might change.

Stab email button on phone: dog sitter confirming date and time.

Ahhhhhhh. Everything will be fine now. Took Scout to the vet to get his shots in anyway, because hey! Plane doesn't leave for a while. Cleaned the house. Tried to get everyone to PACK PLEASE so we could leave at the appointed time, but I live with women who regard the taxi's honk as a sign they should get a bag down and put together a few things. To give myself something to do I decided to go to the grocery store and get a sandwich for the plane. Might as well get some cash, too. I had Euros, and everyone uses cards, but good American hard cash has its uses. At the ATM I realize I was using the credit card for cash, when I wanted to use the debit. Pressed CANCEL. The ATM whined and clicked and told me to PLEASE WAIT and it whined and clicked some more and said OUT OF ORDER and shut off.

With my card inside.

The card I needed for the trip.

Which began in two hours.

Many little such things attended the final hours before the Annual Jaunt, but now here I am in the terminal, about to board in 15 minutes with Wife and Daughter for another great adventure. This one's different. No cruise. We're on our own, and I arranged every detail. Every flight, hotel, train, bus, transfer, and skip-the-line museum passed.

In other words, we are quite possibly screwed.

We are sitting in the Reykavik Roasters, waiting to get into our hotel room. They will let us in at 3. We got in at 8. Between the three of us we probably have seven hours sleep. It's Sunday. Nothing's open. The temperature is 54, which is projected to be the high for the day. The wind is like a drunk who wants to argue. This is an interesting country. I want to go to bed. This isn't going to happen.

As I've said before, expecting people to be amazed and disappointed when they merely say "oh," Iceland is six hours from Minneapolis. That's the good part. The bad part is the utter disruption of your sleep cycle, and yes, I know, boo hoo, poor me, a big sleepy-head in ICELAND. But still. You leave at 8. You get there at two. Except it's 6:30 AM or something. I slept 45 minutes on the way over. If that. Drinking coffee is like rubbing meth on the gums of a corpse, which isn't to say you don't try it.

We get to the bus and trundle along the road, getting our first look. (IMPORTANT NOTE: these little videos will always be short.)


Once into Reykjavik proper, you look at the street sign, and nothing really makes sense.


It's like a sausage made from loud sleepers.

The driver takes us to the Einholt Stay Apartments. I'd said I wanted the Bolholt Stay Apartments. He says this is that. I say no, it's not. It can't be. He studies the map, and sighs: "You are right." That's great, because the Einholt looks like a charmless fraying apartment building. The Bolholt, by contrast, is a charmless fraying office block. I punch in the entry code; we stagger exhausted into a small lobby distinguished by an East German sense of gaiety, and push the elevator button. It's about three minutes before we realized the elevator is here, and it's always been here. The door has to be opened manually. Up to the fourth floor, to the hotel front desk.

There is no front desk. Now, I knew this. It's an automated hotel. No one on duty. Your keys are in an envelope with your name, placed on a shelf. There is no envelope, but I hadn't expected it. Check in time is 3 PM.

It is 8:00 AM. Wife and child are sitting on a sofa in the lobby, looking as though they really expected a bed at the end of all this. Sorry. There is a phone, though, and you can call the hotel's mysterious manager. I think I woke her up. She says that check-in is 3 PM. Yes, I know, but there are already three people checked out - I can see by the keys in the drop-off box - and the cleaning staff is here. Might we get in early?

Check-in time is 3 PM. But if earlier was to be possible, she would call. I got the impression she would also call if the moon turned pink and started to sing opera, that being as likely. We stow our bags in the common storage area - help yourself to our passports, folks - and walk over to the Hilton across the street. Here is another world: money, beds, coffee in the lobby. Most important: bathrooms. We ask someone if there is anything anywhere, and are informed that the street outside will take us downtown. Eventually. We start walking. It is the third of July. It is 49 degrees.

NOW: We are sitting in the Reykavik Roasters, waiting to get into our hotel room. Apparently it's the locale for hipster brew in Reykavik; all we knew, or cared, was that it was open.

The wall of the cafe has a huge mural that tells you what your coffee is, depending on whether the notes are pepper or leather or elderberry or petrol. When I ordered my Americano the barista pointed to a list of five coffees, each with their own attribute, and I wanted to weep: we have come so far and slept so little. We are in Iceland FOR SOME REASON and it's EIGHT AM. Okay, this one.

The barrista nodded and smiled, as though they'd had a wager it would be that, because we were obviously Americans, or I had somehow embodied The Ways of Coffee by choosing that one. Later he brought me a card with more information about the beans, perhaps so I could add them to the "Taster's Notes" section of my Moleskin dedicated to sampling Nordic coffees.

The virility of a society can be determined by the number of questions the men have about coffee. At the minimum, they should have two questions. 1) is there any? and 2) If not when will there be coffee? The more questions they have about coffee, the more the country has trouble meeting its recruitment quotas.

Oh, just kidding.

LATER, ELSEWHERE After we finished we made our way towards downtown. The crowds picked up and the wind died down. The sun decided it should turn up the bass and turn down the treble, and for a few blocks it felt like Spring. Well, early spring. Charming place, though. Is this what you imagine Iceland to be?

Or this?


As I've said over the years, I have profound admiration for the people who build these outposts of civilization in unlikely, hard places. Its's easy to build a Palace in Rome; it's building an outhouse in Iceland that requires some ingenuity. First, you have to get there. Then you have to figure out why you're staying. Then you decide you'll need a privy - and if you need one of those you're going to need a house. And a church. And a harbor. And so on.The peoplewho came to these places just because the chance of dying at the hands of Nature was smaller than the chances of dying at the hands of man, so there was a certain urgency to building out the basics, but it's still remarkable. This doesn't have to be here.

Always seems odd that they're proud of their Viking forebears, yet seem to have renounced everything about them. I suppose it's better than renouncing them, proclaiming their shame, and insisting everyone else had to be ashamed, too.

At the end of a street, a scale model of the big hotel in Pyonyang:

Our first cathedral of the voyage! It's the Hallgrímskirkja, but you knew that. You were practically shouting it out, right?


It is the definition of anti-rococo. It's not as if the ornament is restrained. There isn't any. Not a jot.

Took 41 years to build; perhaps they took their time just to give themselves something to do.

By the time we got out it was cloudy and cold, and we still had two hours to kill before our room was ready. It's not the most auspicious start to a vacation: oh if only we could just go into a dark room and lose consciousness. That would be so good. But instead we are fated to wander the streets of this strange new city, studying its curious quirks and bright colors. Gah! What horrible lapse of judgment has led us here? Were we not happy at home? Was not life good and warm and familiar?

Explore we must. A bookstore! Designed in the early 60s, as far as I could tell. Wife found a table upstairs and slept for four minutes; Daughter and I looked at all the English language sections, which had all the franchise names and movie tie-ins. Once upon a time news from the outside world came by boat; now there are magazines in the stands about movies that haven't opened yet in America.

Move on. We must keep moving. Are we hungry? We are. Ah: here's a cafe on the second floor that serves soup in bread bowls. That was all they had. Nothing more. Two kinds of soup. One kind of bowl. Never before on the Third of July had we enjoyed such hearty pleasures, feeling restored to the tips of our fingers and toes.

My phone rang. I was confused. Who knew I was here? It wasn't as if I hadn't used the phone, but it had been a navigation tool up to now. There had been a moment when I was frustrated because the phone had to load Iceland. C'mon. It's 2016. You're telling me I have to download Skrirljribirlbroten Avenue over 3G. Okay, everyone hold up, don't cross the street. We're not lost, we're just waiting for Maps.

"James Lileks," I said to the phone.

"Mr. Leekus?"

Yes. Yes, that is exactly what I said. Mister Leekus.

"Your room is ready."

Joy! Soon we will be dead to the world! Thank you!


On the way back we stopped at a Bonus grocery store for something to eat later, after our tour. Of course I had to take some snaps of the Native Products, which were peculiar in name and style. Yum! Bonus Hafrakex! BONUS is the name of the grocery store; we saw quite a few, all showing the piggy bankwith the cockeyed guilty smile, as if he's farted in a teller's cage.

Up the elevator, into the non-lobby - oh, joy. Keys! With my name! The keys that permitted us to become safely inert!

The room is odd - but nice. It's big. Hip! Cool art. There's a kitchenette. The water stinks of sulfur, but you get used to it. We fall asleep like stones dropped down a wellAND UP BEEP BEEP BEEP three hours and 45 minutes later, because we were off on the Golden Circle Tour in a small transfer bus. Duration: six hours. Expectation: eh, maybe a geysir. Verdict: It was entirely possible that our day in Iceland, which began with such frigid exhaustion, might just turn out to be the highlight of the entire trip.

Ladies, and gentlemen, welcome to Iceland.

It's unbelievable. That's the spot where the island is being ripped in half - one plate belonging to Europe, the other belonging to America. The wishbone island.

(Of course, there's no such thing as plate techtonics - but we'll get to that next week.)

Our driver was Roman, a garrulous Ukrainian, of all things. He'd been here for a long time. He did not choose it, as he said later; it chose him. He was full of stories and lore, and told them not like a practiced guide ticking off the boxes, opening up one can after the other. He laughed at his own stories. He cursed and apologized. He loved this land and was fascinated by it - the geology, the moods of the sky, the character of the people it had created. A few miles out of town, we all felt the same. (All seven of us on the tour.)

So: first, the green world of Iceland, warm below and cold above, a frying pan on the stove in front of an open fridge door. It's a small island. It feels vast. The first hour was all mountains and narration about the history and geology, with occasional stops. We hiked up a path to a gorge where Game of Thrones was filmed, the hillside dotted with commonplace wild flowers whose appearance must gladden the heart of all, so simple and numerous and temporary. Off to a waterfall:


Walk with me, won't you?



I should note that there's a big restaurant / store by the waterfall, built to service the tourists. Beautiful and modern, with nothing around for 30 miles in any direction. It was like the hotel we stopped at an hour before - nothing but landscape, nothing but distant mountains, no traffic, no people, no houses - then a low-slung building with a lobby containing six people watching a 55" TV showing soccer, the setting sun painting the land a deep glowing gold.

It was always setting, but the night never came. This time of the year, it dips, grazes the horizon, and rises again. It casts long strange shadows. It was nine, but felt like five.

The next stop was a geothermal plant where the water boiled in small pits, and the lake itself was almost too hot to touch - except a yard away, it was cold. You could run your hand between the two extremes.

What a strange land this must have seemed to the settlers; you can understand why they believed in strange creatures. The light, the distance - it makes for unnerving apparitions. A man in the field is a pile of rocks; a man on a hill is a horse standing still.

One more destination. The geyser. Roman told us what to expect before it blew, how the water formed a perfect dome right before it blew. We saw it go twice. Well, some of us saw it. There were about ten people present. Eight were watching it through their camera phones. I caught it as we walked up.


We all fell asleep on the way home. Slept more in the Bolholt, even thought bright light burned outside. The city was in mourning over its soccer loss, and by mourning the driver explained they would be getting powerfully drunk. Same if they'd won, but more morose, perhaps. If possible.

You don't know why people live here but you're glad they do.

At the end of the day we felt as if we'd lived three. This was just the layover. Tomorrow was a travel day. And then?



blog comments powered by Disqus