17 Hours in Iceland
“It’s surreal,” I commented as I sat eating ice-cream with my parents in Helsinki’s Esplanadi, “To think that I’ll be home tonight.”
As it turned out, I wouldn’t be home that night but I wouldn’t know that for another hour. Having spent two months back in Europe, in places that feel as much home as anywhere, the idea of finally returning to Toronto was a strange one. I was looking forward to it, I knew that much – I’d quickly found myself missing my latest home while I was gone, and two months of constant moving and living out of a suitcase didn’t much help in trying to feel settled in whatever temporary location I was in that night.
It had been a bizarre two months. Two months of feeling at odds with my daily routine, of feeling displaced as I walked the streets of a city that I once lived in but no longer felt like it had a place for me. Two months of frequently finding myself with my head in Toronto but my body not, often out of necessity rather than will as I started making plans for what I would do when I returned.
It was with all this still playing heavily on my mind that I found myself looking forward to getting back, to being able to settle into one place again and hopefully feel less like I was living with parts of myself scattered across the globe.
A one hour delay quickly became two which became three and my hopes of getting home that night faded into a distant memory. I boarded a plane to Reykjavik, the first leg of my journey, with no idea as to where I was going to be spending the night or when I would reach my final destination.
It was easy to slouch through the whole situation with a frown, an additional weight on top of existing stress and exhaustion. Arriving into a deserted Keflavik airport late on Sunday night, I wandered this way and that trying to find someone who might be able to give me some direction. A bored-looking service representative eased my earlier concerns with a new plane ticket for the next day, as well as vouchers for a night’s stay.
Clutching my slips of paper, I dragged my bags out to a bus. The sulphuric smell outside of the airport brought back memories from long back – my only trip to Iceland, aged thirteen, most of which was spent in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by hot springs. Days spent waking up to that exact smell and a landscape that stretched out for miles on all sides.
Only once on the bus did I realise that I still had very little idea as to where I was going. I relied on being told where I was supposed to get off as we rolled off in the direction of Reykjavik. To one side, piles of volcanic rock and, in the distance, the rising steam of a hot spring. To the other, the sun was setting a magnificent, blazing orange over the water.
With a moment to breathe, now that I had some sense of security for the coming hours and the passage home, I allowed the day’s events to reform in my mind. Easy as it was to complain or to see the negative, I was chugging on through the Icelandic countryside for a free mini break in a city I’d never been to. I have been saying for a long time that I’d like to visit Iceland again and although this wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind, I could surely make the most of it.
The burst of colours from the sunset that spilled across the skies, the purples and oranges and pinks, refreshed me and I begun thinking, rather than of getting home, but of what I could do with 17 hours in Reykjavik. I sat in my eighth floor hotel room with a paper map laid out in front of me, marking out places that I might like to go.
Fortunately for me, Reykjavik itself is a straight-forward city to navigate with a centre that is small enough that you can cover a lot of ground in the course of a morning’s self-guided walking tour. Fuelled up and checked out, I left my bags for the morning, and headed west on Laugavegur.
While known as the main shopping street of the city, it was quiet still as I strolled down, slipping a side street as the peak of the Hallgrimskirkja came into view. I meandered my way around to the cathedral, the imposing architectural design quite a contrast to the more traditional statue of Leif Erikson in front. I took the short trip up to the top of the cathedral as much to take in the view as to get my bearings. From up here, I could see the streets spilling out, dotted with the colourful buildings that Reykjavik is known for, and chart a vague course towards the water’s edge.
I took the long way around, in the end. I passed a pond and city hall, another cathedral far more traditional in design, before finding the harbour. It was near the concert hall that I found the most impressive views out towards the islands and land beyond. The shore was rocky but not in the usual sense – stones piled up into pillars dotted along the edge of the water. I found no clue as to who had put the stones there, be it natural or otherwise.
(Only later would I look it up to find articles suggesting that these have been built by tourists, in some kind of modern-day take on the historic use as markers – cairns – as from Gaelic tradition. The recent uptake, though, appears to be a custom that is much hated by locals. So, maybe the lesson here is sometimes it’s better just not to know – I had a far better time sitting and observing them and floating the idea that there might be some interesting historic symbolism to the present ritual.)
It had been a cloudy but bright morning, not quite sunny but not quite not, either. But the deep blues that spilled out across the water and into the distance from that sky were like nothing I’d ever seen. Behind me were a mix of hyper-modern high-rises and older, more traditional buildings, but ahead of me was this landscape that is at once old and new, ever-present but ever-changing.
Last year, when I left Finland for the summer, I stopped past Stockholm on my way home. I hadn’t been since I was a child and had been learning some Swedish that I was keen to try out. I had a lovely, planned, few days in Stockholm, walking from the new to older parts of the city, kayaking across the lake under an intermittent thunderstorm, and successfully ordering coffees in Swedish everywhere I went.
This year’s Nordic stopover wasn’t planned but it ended up being possibly the nicest morning of my summer so far; a quiet, contemplative walk around a unique European city that served to help me find a little headspace after an unsettled couple of months and an altogether hectic year.
I did make it home, to a rainy and humid Toronto much like the one that I’d first arrived to nearly a year ago now. Life doesn’t necessarily always take us to the places we plan to go but maybe it brings us to the roads that we should take. Here’s to finding that next road.