Claudia Casper: First Impressions of Iceland

My travel companion, the much-decorated Anne Giardini (and I don’t just mean her necklace and earrings, she has a QC, Jubilee Medal, is president of Weyerhaeuser, a writer, and new Chancellor of Simon Fraser University) and I arrive in Iceland for the inaugural Iceland Writers Retreat. We spend the first night in Reykjavik learning that: Iceland boasts the smallest gender gap in the world; subsists almost completely on renewable energy (geothermal, wind); continues to hunt whales which are then mostly consumed by tourists on a dare or luxury dogs in Japan; and has a pervasive sense of humour that has the quick wit of Westjet attendants but with something mordantly ironic added.

The next morning we pick up our sad car rental on the outskirts of Reykjavik – Sad Car is the name of the rental agency. The car, a red Subaru, has a couple of warning lights on permanent yellow, and a few rattles and dings, but its 240,000 km on the odometer proves it’s too tough to break down, right? Anne and I are taking two days on a tour to kickstart our muses before the retreat, where we will attend workshops lead by authors including Joseph Boyden, Geraldine Brooks, Susan Orlean, James Scudmore, Iain Reid, Randy Boyagoda and Sara Wheeler.

We head north-west toward the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Black volcanic mountains saddled with melting snow loom like a giant pod of time-captured Orcas. Flatlands of bubbled lava eroded into to lumpy fields lead from the ocean up to the soft scree skirts of the mountains. The ground is carpeted with humps of straw-colored grass. Very little evidence of agriculture exists on this side of the country, only an occasional small hay field, the bales wrapped in plastic beside small barns where the cows apparently hide out until summer. The only animals we see are Icelandic horses with their windswept hair swept coyly over one eye, and a few seagulls, which Anne dubs the rats of the sea.

Three hours later we arrive at the Budir Hotel on the south coast of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. We fall thirstily on a cup of tea at the bar –Anne cannot drink tea without being suffused with existential pleasure – and checked emails, etc. while glancing out at the view of a river merging into the ocean and a long line of black mountains. The walls are decorated with art pieces made of bone, owl feathers, shell, wire and grass, and the room is furnished with wild shaggy sheepskin stools. Our room overlooks the windswept flats and causes us to channel the Bronte sisters and imagine holing up here, drinking milky tea and writing for months. We head outside across the lava fields, the constantly changing sky overhead dislodging any mental habit of defining weather, and experience the dynamic, fully dimensional topography with its sudden holes, clefts and eruptions, covered with lichen, moss, ferns, sebum and latent grass.

The next day we head up the Snefellsjoskull Glacier on snowmobiles, being told to keep our legs tucked in if we start to tip. The night before, Anne had rather gleefully read out the many ways in which a remarkable numbers of tourists manage to get themselves killed in Iceland: picnicking on an ice floe that detached and floated away, falling into crevasses in glaciers covered by recently fallen snow, and so on. We roar on our machines (admittedly at ladylike speeds) over recently fallen snow, following our lead man, Oddur, into a total white out, and surrender there to the wild white mystery of the cold and the wind.

A drive, a dinner, a bottle of wine and another sleep later, we head back to Reykjavik for the first day of the inaugural Iceland Writer’s Retreat, founded by Erica Green and Eliza Reid. More tomorrow from Anne!

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