Medusa knows best

May 30, 2017 at 10:55 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

My friends are particularly adept at selecting stellar gifts for me. These range from a taxidermy workshop to Culture Club concert tickets, a bat skeleton to a tattoo design. An artist friend drew me an astounding Medusa for my thirtieth birthday; she decorates my left arm with her mesmerising stare and defiant pose, reminding me whenever I need it most how to straighten my own spine.

Medusa

Icelandic fortune cards found at a Reykjavik flea market: ‘Let go of it.’

This present, however, was not on my birthday but as a random I-love-you-and-I-thought-this-would-make-you-happy gift.

The Wolf bought me a DNA test.

I’ve always known my heritage to be Celtic. My grandfather was from Belfast, and passed on to me both an adoration of books, and an Irish passport, in addition to my Australian one. I overdosed on the Pogues and Van Morrison by working in an Irish pub for almost a decade, and studied Gaelic for years (although it’s so challenging that all I can do now is order a Guinness, and tell someone to fuck off – a heady combination).

But while I’m deeply grateful to be able to travel so easily through Europe, it’s not Ireland or the UK that I’m drawn to.

I head for the fjords, every time.

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Ólafsfjörður, northern Iceland

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Siglufjörður, northern Iceland

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Akureyri, northern Iceland

I’m so smitten by the snowy lands; always have been. Last month I returned from my beloved Iceland, with my Wolf and best friend Lisa in tow. We drove from one side of the country to the other on ice slicked roads in gale force winds, Lisa and I sharing capfuls of duty free vodka to stem the nerves. I showed them the tiny fishing village up near the Arctic Circle where I did my first writing residency, and where my novel ends (or will, when I finish it, all muses considered). I walked around Siglufjörður and Ólafsfjörður in my army boots and red riding hood, tracing where my protagonist eats, drinks and dreams, and then headed to Reykjavik to consider her stomping ground down south.

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The street in Reykjavik where Elva lives, the protagonist in my novel

It was my fifth time in Reykjavik. The city – and country – spellbinds me. The bright primary colours of the buildings, the veneration of literature and language, the crunch of boots on snow, the glorious northern light, the stench of sulphur water when you turn on the shower….wait, that last one was kind of hard to cope with, actually. But the magic worked again, as I suspect it always will in that otherworldly land. I’ve returned to Melbourne even more full of a desire to head there again and again, and importantly, to pour out more of my novel as often as I can.

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Downtown Reykjavik

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Blues gig poster, Reykjavik

My muse works well in sub-zero temperatures, as writing residencies in Iceland and Finland have shown me. She’s standing over me with a bowl full of Skyr and a snow boot tapping impatiently, reminding me to WRITE WRITE WRITE.

My DNA test results came back. When I saw the circles drawn on a map of Europe, showing me my ancestry origins, the 36% Irish surprised no-one. There were tiny traces of the Iberian Peninsula, Central Asia and Jewish heritage, which fascinated me. But damn, the intake of breath when I saw the second biggest area of ancestry, a circle drawn around the northern countries I adore.

Nordic: 35%.

The Wolf was right: happiness guaranteed.

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Siglufjörður snow in day

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Where the fire god lives

May 20, 2013 at 8:26 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

Here is what she knows about Iceland.

Any horse who leaves the country can never return.

The Icelandic word for goodbye is bless.

Roads are rerouted to avoid underground elf homes.

And she will never go.

She keeps her Reykjavik guidebook close. She pulls it out on the tram and slides a finger down the spine and into the depths. Certain pages show her longing; a coffee stain on the flea market at Kolaportið, tobacco flakes on the bookstore at Skólavörðustígur. She doesn’t know how to speak Icelandic but she would try, lord knows she would try, her throat aching to make the sounds.

She would open her mouth and watch the words spiral out, snowflakes catching on their edges.

She reads about shark meat left to ferment underground. After three months it’s dug up, rolled in salt, and washed down with caraway schnapps. She wonders if she would gag at the ripe ammonia smell, covering the spasm with the back of her hand.

She reads about winter blizzards over the black volcanic soil where tourists are discovered, weeks too late, with snow piled over the roofs of their cars. And she knows she wouldn’t be found clutching the door handle when they scraped the ice from her windscreen.

She drinks down these words as the tram clanks by, sliding a fingertip between her breasts to wipe away the sweat of an Australian summer. A blowfly lands on the cracked window as the passengers moan about the heat, and try to unstick their damp thighs from the vinyl seats.

Here is what she knows about Iceland.

The heart of the Arctic whale weighs more than one tonne.

Hot water from the taps stinks of sulphur.

Strip clubs were outlawed a decade ago.

And she will never go.

She glances out the window. She watches the football ground flash by, blackbirds swooping over sun-bleached grass, and then turns back to her guidebook. She raises her pen and with thin, vicious strokes, underlines all the places she won’t see.

She reads that fifty years ago, a volcanic eruption off the coast of Iceland sent plumes of black smoke spiralling into the sky. Out of the churning waves rose a new island, one square mile across, spitting lava into the ocean. She strikes her pen underneath the Norse fire god who lent it his name, Surtsey, and keeps reading.

Over time birds came to roost, mosses and lichens formed, and spiders nested into the black volcanic soil. But no human has ever lived there, in a land at the top of the world where isolation is constant and the northern lights snake across the winter sky.

Someone pulls the tram cord as the man next to her hums. She keeps reading. She frowns, and slides the top of the pen between her lips. She’s looking at a small triangular hut on the north side of Surtsey, a shelter for the shipwrecked. She’s looking at the rusted roof, and she’s already seeing her hand on the door, pushing it open.

She would have burnt wine in her coffee as she looked out at the ocean, standing at the cliff’s edge. She would have no words on her tongue but it would be all right, for once it would be all right, as she stood and watched the waves roll in, and remembered a time when she was still brave enough to set sail for new lands.

She chews on the end of her pen as the tram doors hiss open.

Here is what she knows about Iceland.

In the Middle Ages it was thought to be the mouth of hell.

Icelanders read more books than any other nation.

The fur of the Arctic fox changes colours with the seasons.

And she will never go.

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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

 

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