Notes from Reykjavik: Prioritizing Beauty
My trip to Iceland was years in the making.
We didn’t see the northern lights, unfortunately. Supposedly they were there at the same time we were, but so was a layer of clouds in the sky. I could’ve sworn some clouds had a pretty green tint, but maybe that just came from me wanting to see the lights.
Auroras aside, Deanna and I had an incredible time in Iceland.
We spent some time both around Reykjavik and beyond, road tripping to the southern edge of the island, climbing behind a waterfall, searching for some geothermal hot springs, going on a glacier walk, and going on a scavenger hunt for local foods.
It felt like every single minute while we were in country, we were staring at something gorgeous.
Iceland is a place where I’d wanted to go for so long. Sigur Ros turned my attention towards the complex language, and the 2010 Eyaffjallalokul eruption turned my attention towards its geography. What really piqued my interest, however was the book The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner.
The Iceland chapter of this book explored how Iceland is consistently one of the world’s happiest countries, in spite of harsh weather and a winter that hides the sun for months. What he discovered and described was a country where art was constantly celebrated, quirks were embraced, and folklore was flaunted.
In recent years, I would see friend after friend visit the country, thanks to increasing bargain flights to Reykjavik. I wondered if they were seeing the same world that captured my imagination.
Iceland embraces the unique challenges created by its geography.
“You don’t need to go in the Blue Lagoon,” our host Heimer replied, when we told him we weren’t sure if the country’s biggest tourist draw- a natural spa- was worth it.
“Right here,” he pulled up a spot less than an hour south of Reykjavik on Google. “There is a river of glacier water, and next to it is a hot spring so hot you can boil eggs. Where these two meet is the perfect spot for a swim.”
The idea of a hot tub in a late Icelandic winter seemed golden. By the end of the next day we found ourselves on a trail towards that hot spring. Steam billowed out of creeks and holes in the ground. We walked, getting closer, but worried that we were running out of daylight.
We didn’t quite make it to the swim hole. Anywho, Eric Weiner’s chapter centered on the idea that Icelanders are so happy because they don’t fear failure. We looked around at the green, steamy mountains around us and realized that we were completely immersed somewhere stunning.
Iceland’s geography is uniquely harsh. With Reykjavik being the northernmost capital in the world, constantly freezing temperatures, months where the sun never rises and never sets, and infertile soil, it’s not the easiest of lands to live in, even with modern conveniences.
Still, the locals embrace it, basking in coziness in the winter or celebrating the light of summer. This same geographic harshness also creates the country’s stunning glaciers and fjords.
Icelandic society and culture has invested in creativity and thought.
The very first place in Reykjavik we went to after arriving was a music and book store. It reminded me of how my introduction to Icelandic culture came through its artists, to namecheck Jónsi, Of Monsters and Men, and FM Belfast.
Literary art might be an even bigger deal around the country. I heard an estimate that one in every ten Icelanders will publish a book. Christmas Eve is celebrated in the country with a book exchange and an evening of reading. (Yes to that!)
Icelandic society highly values creativity and beauty. It prioritizes beauty. The French philosopher Simone Weil says that the longing to love the beauty of the world in a human being is essentially the longing for God, but it’s Icelandic culture that acts on this. In some cases, the government even subsidizes artistic efforts.
I see such a strong contrast between this and American creativity. Back home, creativity is competitive, utilitarian, and often a tool for survival. Icelandic creativity is freewheeling. The process is as valuable as the product and artists have permission to fail.
Of course this results in a lot of crap, but Weiner makes the analogy that this crap this crap is really fertilizer. It allows the good stuff to grow.
I left Iceland with a heart full of memories, and a memory card full of heart. The time spent outside was refreshing, and even if I couldn’t manage a longer stay, Iceland fully delivered on expectations that were years in the making.