I saw a little something, just once

February 17, 2012 at 3:06 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

Blindur er bóklaus maður.

Blind is a man without books.

‘Are you a writer?’

I finished the word I was scribbling and looked up. He was wiping the bar top as I nodded.

‘Is that why you’ve come to Iceland?’

He topped me up with Brennivín and pushed the glass back towards me. I wanted to take a sip, but didn’t want to splutter in front of him and his ridiculously stylish haircut. Three days’ experience with the toxic Icelandic burnt wine, however, had taught me it was more than likely.

‘What do you mean?’

He gave an impressively melancholic and utterly Scandinavian sigh.

‘They say that one day there’ll be a statue in Reykjavik dedicated to the lone Icelander never to write a poem.’

And I almost saw him smile as he walked away.

My last post spoke of an upcoming trip to New Orleans, where I’ll raise a glass in Tennessee Williams’ favourite bar. Since then I’ve been counting the literary footsteps I’ve placed my size eight army boots in across the world so far – and yes, the glasses I’ve raised.

In Iceland my hands were so frozen I couldn’t quite hold a pen. Of course, being the contrary wench I am, I went to Reykjavik with winter just around the corner, so I only really have myself to blame. I’d get up each morning before dawn, pull on my red and white striped gloves, and walk down Snorrabraut to the harbour. I’d curl up cross-legged next to Sólfar, the sculpture of a Viking ship on the water’s edge, and watch the sun rise at the top of the world.

In my list of blissful travel moments, that’s definitely in the top three.

I was drawn to Iceland for the cold, the solitude, and their adoration of the written word. We’re talking of a land of skalds, of Old Norse sagas, a country where in the Middle Ages vagrants could find work on farms as storytellers. They used to write on calf skin, scraping the vellum with dry lime to remove fat, using boiled bearberry juice for ink.

I discovered this in the Þjóðmenningarhúsið, the Culture House, where I spent so long in their Medieval Manuscript exhibition that a guard came in to check on me. He found me cross-legged on a bench, transcribing Old Icelandic into my little red notebook with the slightly wild eyes of a woman overdosing on ink..

Ȯ, hvernig erftlt er að skrifa: Þrir fingur skrifa, allur líkam inn Þjáist.

 Oh, how difficult it is to be a scribe: three fingers write, the whole body stiffens.

 I came across the work of Halldór Laxness, the only Icelander to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and clamped my frozen hand around a copy of Íslandsklukkan, translated into English as “Iceland’s Bell.” Given that Bell is my nickname, curling up in a bar on Hverfisgata with warming Brennivín poured into my coffee, and cracking that spine, was a fine moment indeed.

I ate Skyr for breakfast each morning, thick yoghurt sprinkled with crowberries. I walked out into a -10 degree afternoon in my bikini, and swam in the thermal springs of the Blue Lagoon. I counted the statues dotted across town in honour of poets and storytellers, brushing off the snow to read the names. I walked past an abundance of tattoo parlours and strip joints, and bought an appallingly expensive cowhide skirt at Sputnik, a vintage clothing store on Laugavegur so I could say “Oh, this old thing? I bought it in Iceland.”

I haven’t worn it once, but I’ll never throw it out.

On the other hand I won’t conceal the fact from anyone that once upon a time a little something happened to me. I saw a little something. But never except just that once.
Halldór Laxness



  1. Matthew Dalton said,

    Your descriptions of the time you spent in Iceland are aching and beautiful. They are lonely, but in the best possible way.

    And I love this quote, Bell:

    Oh, how difficult it is to be a scribe: three fingers write, the whole body stiffens.

    • inkymouth said,

      Matthew, I loved everything about Iceland, but mostly the isolation, I think. I could easily live there for six months – but of course, they all speak impeccable English so there’d be no work for me!

      The Australian government has a program where they send artists to Antarctica for three months, to produce writing/photography/music that’s reflective of the place. I would go in a heartbeat, but they have such strict physical criteria that it ruled me out. I’d love to see what words you could weave there though. Just a thought…

  2. Hindupur Avinash said,

    Wow.. wonderfully described feelings! The pictures look beautiful too 🙂

    • inkymouth said,

      I can’t recommend Iceland enough. It’s honestly the most enchanting, spellbinding place I’ve ever been. Thanks for reading 🙂

  3. The skulking wolves keep calling « inkymouth said,

    […] blog I’ve been tracing the steps I’ve taken overseas in search of ink: chasing Viking sagas in Iceland, Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath in New York, and Kafka in Berlin. I love this last city so much, […]

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