My Land, Your Land, Iceland
Recently realized a long-held dream of taking my son to a mystical place.
I first went to Iceland in 1983, in a moment of abandon from the tedium of graduate studies. I needed to get away for a while, and the far reaches of the earth seemed an appropriate destination.
Actually, there was more to it than that. The very idea of a people thriving on a volcanic, subarctic rock, speaking the same language as the Vikings, and enduring half the year in darkness appealed to the adventurer in me.
I arranged to live for a summer on a farm in the far north of the country, in a river valley that had been settled a thousand years ago. For months preceding my trip I corresponded with the farmer who would be my host. He wrote impeccable English, so it was easy for me to communicate my desire to learn as much Icelandic as possible during my stay. At that point I had been studying the language from tapes and had managed to commit only two phrases to memory: "It is getting dark and cloudy," and "Isn't the odor splendid!"
After flying to Keflavk, I boarded a bus for the six-hour ride to the north of Iceland. I told the bus driver to let me off at "Sveinsstadir" ("Pig Place"), as Eggert, my Icelandic farmer, had instructed me to do.
The bus threaded its way northward along the west coast of Iceland. I was struck by a landscape devoid of trees or other softening features. Iceland was built of rock, and the bare precipices and ledges seemed to be everywhere - a merciless landscape embellished as if by intent with dreamily placed cloud bands, waterfalls, and steam vents wisping up from the earth.
Six hours after our departure, the bus suddenly stopped. The driver announced "Sveinsstadir" and handed me my backpack as I disembarked. I watched forlornly as the bus rumbled away, still farther north. Then it was gone.
I looked around and saw nothing but dark, volcanic mountains, the hard-packed dirt road we had traveled, a briskly flowing river, and a haze of grass on a broad meadow in which a scattering of sheep grazed. There wasn't even a pig to validate the name. For all appearances, I was the last person on earth.
And then a Land Rover pulled up. A young woman nodded gravely toward me. Without a word I got in, and in absolute silence we drove 40 miles through the heart of a river valley as green as anything in Ireland. We arrived at a simple farmhouse. An older woman - the mother - ushered me to the kitchen table and put some cake in front of me. The daughter sat opposite me. Then her three younger brothers joined the group. For the next 30 minutes we sat together, no one uttering a syllable. They simply stared at me as I nibbled at the cake.
The silence was broken when Eggert burst through the door. Big-boned, broad-shouldered, and with a great gray mane of hair, he swung a passel of trout onto the table, which brought great commotion to the family. Then he threw his hand out to me and said, "Welcome to Iceland!"
I WAS more moved by the sound of English than by Eggert's sentiment. "I'm so happy you speak English," I said. But Eggert just shrugged. Then it struck me: He couldn't speak English. Later I learned that a friend of his in Reykjavk had written all those perfect letters to me.
Before I had much of a chance to think of the home I had left behind, I was fully immersed in the eternal work of the farm.
It was the hardest and dirtiest work I had ever done, but evenings spent strolling along the river or riding horseback under the midnight sun were ample reward for my labors. Within very few days I had come to think of Eggert's family as mine, too. I was at the end of the earth, but I felt as if I were at the center of the world.
Now I have a son. I promised myself that I would give him the gift of feeling comfortable in the world beyond his own backyard. Thirteen years after my inaugural visit I boarded a plane with Alyosha, and we flew north over the Atlantic. The closer we drew to Iceland, the more my anticipation rose.
We settled in with friends in Reykjavk, who also told Alyosha of all the adventures that lay ahead of him. All the while he was staring out their window at a soccer field brimming with Icelandic children. The next thing I knew, he was on that field, undaunted by new faces and an indecipherable language. For the next five days he played soccer every day until midnight. I had to drag him from the field, while the sun was still burning above the horizon.
ALL of my energies and aspirations were focused on taking my son north, to Eggert's farm, the place where I had first experienced the allure and power of Iceland. We made the same six-hour trip I had taken years ago, arriving at the farm in early evening. The children were no longer there, but Eggert and his wife greeted us with warmth and accepted Alyosha as a member of the family.
Nothing in the environment had changed. The hills were still treeless but green; the salmon river flowed briskly behind the farmhouse; sheep wandered over the meadows; and the most intense silence reigned. But while my emotional response to this homecoming was almost overwhelming, my son was beside himself with boredom. I took him on a hike to a waterfall, and we observed salmon from a precipice. To no avail. By the second day of our stay he was almost in tears.
And then it struck me: This was my place, not his. It was special to me because I had brought so much to it. When I offered my son an opportunity to catch the next bus to Reykjavk he was elated, and I was not offended, but relieved.
The next morning we headed south. Six hours later, Alyosha was on the soccer field, hobnobbing with a gaggle of tow-headed Icelandic boys, laughing his heart out and scoring an occasional goal. Oh, we did squeeze in a geyser here and a volcano there, but when we returned home and my son's friends asked him about Iceland, his response was singular: He had played soccer under the midnight sun.
I have my Iceland, and my son has his.