The Iceland Saga: 4

In Iceland, Uncategorized on July 9, 2009 at 1:51 pm

 EAC 154

The bus drops me off, and again I’m walking the lonely streets of Keflavik, shivering and resentful. I duck into a large bierhall, surprised to find the door open. (I imagine that Icelanders have a different tolerance for heat – 60 degrees must be stifling). I sidle up to the bar, seeing my dreary expression in a dusty mirror. The bartender is a tall and bulky woman – a coarse grimace, her frame slung with massive breasts, hipless and bullish. But she says hello, right away, and soon we’re talking: Where I’m from, why there’s nobody here (a slow night, it seems), the strangers in the corner (a truck-driver and a woman from Haiti, who designs and sells clothes down the block). The two strangers are mingling in the corner, playing slots machines. I’m surprised not only by the slots, but also by the sight of a black woman – here, in the most homogeneously Aryan nation on Earth, and in a small town, no less. She’s also beautiful – sleek and elegant, wrapped in silk of tropical green, her wrists jingling with bracelets. She laughs with the old truck-driver, who is loud and laughs heartily.

After awhile, the bartender pours me a shot of clear liquid.

“On the house,” she says.

“What’s this?”

“You drink. Then I tell you.”

And my heart melts once more – such a generous gesture, so warm and kind, keen to my interests this evening. “Skoll,” I say, and knock back the glass. The alcohol tastes like a mixture of tequila and vodka. I swallow my cough and say, “Good! What is it?”

“It is called Brennevin.”

“Like brandy wine?”

“No, it is not this. Brennevin. It means”— she pauses for dramatic effect— “the black death.”

Later I will learn the nature of Brandevin – how it’s considered a Viking delicacy, consumed the same way that Jews drink menashevitz. But the locals rarely order it, even for most special occasions. Instead, they keep the rumor going, marking up the prices, so that visitors think they are indulging a local treat. Icelanders laugh behind their backs.

Now, I’m not aware of this tradition. Instead I just lick my lips and resist the urge to try another. It’s been that kind of day, but the costs of Iceland proscribe over-indulgence. Instead, I chat with the bartender about the cost of things here.

“I like to visit New York,” she says. “Everything is so cheap there.”


“When I visit, I go to Wal-Mart. I buy many, many things.”

We compare costs: When she was young, Olga rented an apartment. She converts the kroner to dollars: “I would pay three thousand dollars per month.”

I am wowed, but also disheartened. This place is clearly unaffordable. Even if I could find a work-visa – which is strictly off-limits to almost any kind of American – how much would I have to earn to live even in the slimmest closet? Here, where the Icelanders can grow nothing, where they survived on sheep and fish for a millennium, waiting through periods of starvation and burying elders and children in the very land that resisted agriculture – how does anyone manage? Shipping one load of necessities after another, even those exotic boxes of toothpaste – how did this tiny civilization survive, enduring Swedish rule, then American occupation, only now fostering the electricity it takes to compete with foreign throngs?

“You know what I hate?” Olga says. “I hate the Poles.”

I stare at her, too tipsy to hide my confusion. “All the Poles?”

“Yes,” she says.

Tracing all the racist comments I’ve ever heard, it occurs to me that most Americans express their bigotry with a cushioned preamble: I have Hispanic friends, but—

“So, uh, why do you hate all Polish people?” I ask.

“They are loud. They fight. They don’t wish to learn Icelandic. They are not clean people. We never had crime before, but now we have this European Union.” She scoffs. “All the Poles, they move up here, and now we have crime and violence. Last year, there was a murder.”

 “A murder?” Like, one?

“Yes. They carry weapons. Before, two men, they have an argument, so they have a fight. But they use fists only. Now, the Poles carry their weapons. I do not like to go to Reykjavik. I do not feel safe.”

But everywhere in Iceland is safe.

Maybe this is the disillusionment I needed. Now I can turn away from Iceland, my utopian bubble finally burst. But I can’t let it go.

“I feel like this always happens when there are immigrations,” I say. “Two culture, they don’t understand each other. They have to adapt. Right? I mean – how did Iceland deal with other immigrations? In the past?”

Olga looks at me blankly. She cocks her head sideways. Now she is confused.

And it occurs to me, an epiphany: Iceland has never inherited immigrants. No ships arrived onshore, packed with hopeful human cargo. This was never a destination for hungry wanderers, desperate for a new life. No-one ever left a despotic country to live in Iceland, begging for jobs in the streets of Reykjavik. Nor did Icelanders ever leave their home – for all its ruggedness, what famous Icelanders ever packed their bags and started afresh in Boston? Aside from Bjork, what Icelanders ever abandoned the island, tired of the familial villages and non-tyranny? For all those thousand years, life in Iceland was wearying, but it was the only life they could imagine. The only arrivals were invaders, looking to expand their empires. Iceland is the land of Icelanders, a singular ethnic group, intermarried and branching from the same few family trees. The branches have always tangled; the roots are always the same.

Now, more than ever, I realize why I can’t live here. Even my sojourns will always be cut short. These can never be my people. I will never weave myself into the Icelandic yarn. Kind and generous as they are, this will always be an island nation, in every conceivable way, isolated by sea and mind, forbidding the wanderer to overstay his welcome.


From The Legend of Pangkor, ©2008 by Robert Isenberg.


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