You get lost. The bus takes you into what might be the suburbs of Reykjavik instead of the Saga Museum. You expect that the museum stop will be easy to notice and it’s not until you’re on some strange Reykjavik highway that you start to wonder if things have gone awry.
The bus driver is probably the only person in Iceland that doesn’t speak perfect, fluent English, and struggles trying to figure out where you’re going. He suggests a different bus. You suspect he’s just suggesting a you get off the bus so he doesn’t have to deal with you anymore.
You transfer, getting on a bus carrying mostly youths and teens, and head off into small residential streets. This is not the way to the museum… Idealistically, you get off the bus hoping to catch one going the other way. Maybe you can retread your steps and figure out where things went wrong?
The places where real people live are very similar almost anywhere. The sound of children playing carry from a schoolyard. A bell rings, calling them back into class. There’s a strip mall, lawns, and houses.
It’s cold and it’s raining and you might be near one of Iceland’s famous thermal pools, but it’s hard to tell because everything just looks like suburbia. In the distance, the sign for a taxi stand mocks you with its lack of taxicabs.
Besides, you bought a three day bus pass so you could save money, so it’s probably best to wait a bit longer.
This damned bus is never going to come.
The Saga Museum, once reached, turns out to be an audio tour of Iceland’s discovery and settlement, up through the ages to shortly after the Inquisition. Seventeen numbered exhibits, exquisitely crafted by Special Effects people, the eyes of the past stare out at you.
Then one of them breathes and you freak out.
Later, the clerk explains that the building is actually a giant water silo, collecting the 90 degree Celsius water that steams from the ground and is held here, used to heat the homes of everyone in Reykjavik. This small exhibit is the only museum attraction in the museum.
(It turns out there’s a classy revolving restaurant in the top of the building the museum is in (The Pearl or “Perlan” in Icelandic), but the woman refers to it as a cafeteria at the time, so you have no idea until someone tells you this a couple nights afterwards.)
You trudge back out into the cold and rain, looking for a bus to get back downtown.
You’re walking down a street in the rain, looking for someplace to duck in out of the cold when you hear drums. Drums, and the faint throb of a bass through a wall.
Around the block, you walk into a tiny record store, where a band is playing in the middle of the floor.
Makronir. The singer’s guitar is labeled in bold, block letters: MAKRONIR
The mystery of what this means won’t be solved until later.
Iceland is great.
(MAKRONIR means “macro” in Icelandic, it seems.)
Entering a town square in Reykjavik, you come upon a mass gathering of small schoolchildren. They wear yellow safety vests with their school name emblazoned across the back like little hockey players.
A police escort leads them into the square where they arrange into a pattern of lines and a circle. A woman remarks in Icelandic, then English when you express confusion, “We need a helicopter to see from above! They make a peace symbol.”
Two women playing accordions begin a jaunty tune and a sing along breaks out. The children chant in Icelandic, “We choose to have peace! We choose to have peace!”
You choose to call this awesome.
You push your way into a bar. It’s over crowded and probably close to a fire code violation, but the place is so small if a fire started, everyone could get out by shrugging the walls down.
Standing at the door to the toilet, a strange, bearded fellow asks if he can cut in line. When you ask if there’s an emergency brewing, he points out he’s the singer, going on next. You decide to let him go first.
You can’t stand in the way of rock, yo.
Once the music starts, the band plays a strange kind of post-punk surfer rock while a machine belches theatrical smoke into the air and two female dancers writhe about on the floor in bizarre, lurching motions. Behind them, some strange shock-gore film plays.
After the madness of the show, you head out into the night and stumble across the most popular restaurant in Iceland: a 70-year old hotdog stand in the middle of downtown Reykjavik. You figure if it’s good enough for Bill Clinton, it’s good enough for you.
Turns out it’s fucking amazing.
Art is everywhere in Iceland. A glass and scrapmetal rainbow ends at the airport, metres from a giant, metal seed.
Any random space you pass by in the city is as likely to be decorated with some sculpture as it is to stand empty, rocky and barren.
For some reason, however, almost none of the art scattered around the country has a plaque letting you know what it is. You decide to call this statue Horse and Little Horse.
The people of Iceland speak Icelandic, a strange and lilting language that produces words like “snorrabraut”, “nooduitgang” and “bifreidastodur”. If you get lost, don’t expect to be able to pronounce the street name.
Meanwhile, Icelanders can read ancient Viking texts.
After a long flight, everything seems more bleak. Driving across rocky, empty fields under a grey sky, you feel like this might just be the most alien place you’ll ever visit.
But you’re on a bus, and there’s sun peeking out behind those clouds, and the people on the highway are driving to work like anybody else anywhere.
You pass a roundabout. Ash fields with brown scrub. The bus hums a high, droning G. An antenna stands on a barren plain.
Civilization begins. One house lonely on a hill, then two, three. Streetlamps and small apartments, stoplights.
The sun breaks over the hill.
It’s Wednesday on Earth.