First I notice the earth—black boulders and small rough pebbles, volcanoes, a conical mountain, and the enormous expanse of tall, brown barren land that lays slumbering across the bay. In Iceland, the land rises and falls sharply, exposing tectonic plates, deep fissures. Here, unabashed, the continental plates ripple then bunch into piles, disrupting the long panoramic view. A craggy peninsula riddled with lava rocks transforms into a mountain of silt before quickly turning into a bluff full of caves. Mountains grow into obscure shapes, sleek strong cliffs and white snowy glaciers, before falling into fields of tall brown grass that breathe thermal steam. The landscape of Iceland carves a deep impression.
And then there is the sea. Peninsulas, bays, lakes, fjords. From so many vistas, there is the ever-present view of the Atlantic. Some mornings, I stumble out of our house and onto the bike path out front. Stretching for hundreds of miles, the path winds along the noiseless and sinuous peninsulas. Ducks and gulls swim in flocks beside me, gliding seamlessly along the still water or ducking their heads to avoid the windy whitecaps. Last week, two swans floated in front of our home and at the end of my run, a family of geese waddled by over the craggy coastline.
Tucked away in a quiet and peaceful suburb of Reykjavik, our A-framed home is spacious and lovely. Out front, our yard, like many on our block, is a lava rock garden. From certain angles, mostly on tiptoe, there are views of the bay. Our street, like most, is a cul-du-sac, ending with a small path for walkers and bicyclists to cut through, but minimizing traffic. Everything here is clean and well-designed, minimalistic.
In Reykjavik, things get more quirky and interesting. The tiny capital is quaint and hip, full of walk-streets and tiny boutiques selling outrageous modern one-off dresses or artsy knickknacks. There are dozens of coffee shops and bars. Buildings constructed of tin siding with colorful roofs and A-frame houses are tucked between older concrete estates. A large pond full of ducks and swans anchors the city on one end and the famous modern tower of the modernist church stands as a beacon for the entire peninsula. Small gardens offer quiet rests alongside the sometimes busy main street and at the harbor, a brand-new, glass-fronted concert hall, the Harpa, reflects light in opaque and opalescent hues, at times looking like part of the sea, at other times, standing on its own right as a symbol of new growth for the city.
Asleep in a stroller outside of a new trendy café a tiny infant stirs. Inside, sipping coffee is his mother, wearing bright purple tights with a green vintage dress and a shockingly bright orange sweater. Set against the textured retro wallpaper of the café the mother looks like she is part of a modern art painting. Many of the locals dress like this, eclectic, curated, and in something wonderfully trendy that echoes of a Scandinavian-like theme. Long draping wraps in brilliant colors and of course, the famous Icelandic sweater, worn with black leggings or multi-colored tights or bold, patterned socks.
Even without brightly colored garb, the tourists are impossible to miss. Having come for outdoor adventures they dress as if they are ready to scale Everest. Strolling along the main avenue, perusing the adorable boutiques or tucking into a nouveau wine bar, these outsiders look outlandish in their bulky hiking boots and head-to-toe North Face gear. Many carry backpacks or fanny-packs filled with what I imagine are camping stoves, tarp, and headlamps. It’s hard not to giggle as they clumsily maneuver through the delicate design stores.
But my settling into a life in Iceland means more than just walking these gorgeous streets, people watching, or staring at the sea. Despite the number of times I’ve done this, moving is always hard. After the busy bustle of Moscow, adjusting to the silent suburbs means really downshifting, adjusting to a new norm. Luckily, this first month, I’ve been too busy getting the kids settled into school and extra-curricular activities, to notice the silence and figure out how to exist within it. Both kids are at creative wonderful institutions that seem to have the perfect balance of structure and freedom to develop organically. I’m hoping the picturesque locations inspire their pedagogy. Both children will have to learn Icelandic (M’s school is only in Icelandic.) Located right on the sea, going outside to explore everyday is an integral part of both curriculums. On the second day of kindergarten, B’s entire student body took a field trip to a lava field to pick blueberries. And that simple act seemed to tell me so much about this new home. For this common activity, like so many of the things I’m introduced to in Iceland, at first appears so familiar but quickly reveals itself as kooky, original and particular to this unique place. (Who knew you could find blueberries in a lava field!?)
Adjusting too means dealing with the mundane. It took a few weeks for our car and household things to arrive and for school to start. I was on round-the-clock childcare for three weeks after our arrival. It was particularly hard to unpack and find my way around town when two toddlers were in need of constant attention. On the tails of a five-week home leave without regular childcare, these extra weeks were particularly trying. Spending time with my babes is precious, yet I don’t know how people do this. I’m a much better mama when I have a few hours a day to myself and can focus on writing or my work-projects or exercise and grownup time in a café. Last week, when I finally got M to go alone to preschool, I was totally fed up with cooking and cleaning and playing full-time house-mom. But despite getting the babes into school, there’s still more to do to help M adjust to the all-Icelandic school and turn our house into our real home. And before I can truly dive into my work-projects, I know I have to get us set up. I’ve learned that if I let the unpacking drag on, I never feel truly here. Present. I’m hoping to get our pictures and shelves hung this week. To get more bookshelves from the embassy warehouse so I can find a place for all the piles of things that tease me from a corner of each room.
Maybe because I loudly voiced my fears on this blog, or maybe just because it is that kind of place, we’ve been welcomed warmly by the community. The embassy team quickly invited us to a handful of events, including a fancy welcome lunch for me (very cool) and I immediately set up play dates and accepted offers to join a book club. Expats abound and I’ve already met some fun ladies that look like they will be great for girl’s night (fingers crossed) and other moms that I look forward to playing with while our kids frolic at our feet.
In our first month, we’ve even managed to sight-see. Arriving during the glistening sun of August was a spectacular idea. Reykjavik has never looked more beautiful then it did on Culture Night, the day of the marathon and a major city-wide festival. Under the warm sun we raced with our kids in a fun-run, went to puppet shows, listened to the bands set up on every corner, danced with the old accordion players, and schmoozed with local politicians. The following week, Mr. G had a speaking engagement in the north and so we accompanied him to the emigration museum in Hofsos. Driving across the rugged and wild landscape, we stopped to watch seals in the Vatnses peninsula, we ambled aside the Icelandic horses and sheep grazing on the plane, we climbed on the fishing boats inside the herring museum of Siglufjordur, and then we soaked in the hot pot in a pool steps from the Arctic Circle. Another weekend, we got up early to head out on a whale watching boat in the Reykjavik harbor. Bouncing over the rolling waves, the kids grinned while gannet birds with black-tipped wings dove vertical into the sea and minke whales breached the surface. Yesterday, we took a Sunday drive out toward Keflavik and found a troll house built beside the sea, complete with a loud snoring papier-mâché troll that thrilled and spooked the kids.
Today, exactly a month after our arrival, a cold front moved in, sweeping across the bays. Clouds covered the sky, stretching from one end of the horizon to the other. To my left they filled with black, full of rain and hovering high over the tall mountain. To my right they shone white, wispy and graceful hanging low over the road. The season is changing. Northern lights will come. Now, only a few blueberries remain, leaving the strong wind to blow alone across the fields of lava.