Travel column: Reykjavik, 9-10 June 2017
I booked my ticket to Iceland as soon as the dates were announced in our Nordic Philosophical Practice facebook group.
Brought along a lunch box full of cashew nuts, coconut flakes, dried cranberries. Five bananas. Especially expensive knäckebröd baked with seeds and not so much wheat. Chicken meatballs and cherry tomatoes. Prided myself on being practically and economically minded.
There are no trees! Toilets are called snyrtingar! I exclaimed super excitedly on facebook as we’d landed, overwhelmed by delight and gratitude for the stuff I get to experience.
I got to my guest house shortly after 9 am. “Hello,” I said happily, my heart in my throat (as we say in Swedish,) “I have a reservation.” “Come back at 2,” said the reception man, in a remarkably straightforward way for someone with such nice eyes. “You can leave your bag under that table, but we’re not responsible for it. I think the guy will be here at 2. Or 3-4.” “Oh,” I said, a little confused. I took my bag (I’m master of travelling light) and walked back towards the city center. It wasn’t very far, after all.
Internet in my phone worked just like at home – really? I decided to trust the system. Google maps. Etc.
Tourist shops. Many. Called Icewear and Icemart. Knitted jumpers in wool. Ceramic puffins. Fridge magnets with phonetic spellings of Eyjafjallajökull.
My ears were cold. (I had considered bringing the beret I’d worn all winter, but had somehow decided against it.) The sun was wonderful. But the wind was like March. Bought head gear that made me look like a skater. Walked towards the harbor. A large, glassy beehive building – I could see people walk in and out of it so it must be open. Could see brown mountains, snow covered tops. Sea dark blue, the bluest I’ve seen. I started running towards it.
The glassy beehive was cultural and social center Harpa.
A ship was making a turn in the bay. I heard myself breathe as I filmed it, time after time. (It was a heat of the moment thing.) Some Germans walked by, also taking pictures. “Have you seen The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?” I shouted, without warning. “No,” said the poor man next to me, frightened. “It looks exactly like this,” I added softly, smiling as nicely and quietly as I could.
Ben Stiller flashed by my mind. A scene from Seinfeld, where George Costanza’s dad exclaims, “What!?” made me so giggly I nearly cried. I felt like watching Tropic Thunder for the first time but I’ve already seen it twice.
Someone had made a tower of stones, like a metaphor for philosophy.
I found Túngata, where the conference was about to begin at 4 pm. Timed walking distance approximately (20 minutes tops), so I’d be on time later. It was on the top of a hill, right by a bunch of embassies. The view was this:
What happens to you if you wake up to this view every day? I thought. What does it do to you? What kind of person does it make you?
(I remembered thinking the same thing the first time I came to Delft in the Netherlands. Anyway …)
A bookstore/tourist shop/café back in the city center. I found the loveliest small, grey seal among the coffee cups, fridge magnets and snowballs. “I need this” I told the man by the counter, seriously. He took my card and said he understood.
Got back to the guesthouse an hour early and prepared to wait. Had brought a coffee from the gas station behind the bend. Sat in the garden, watching sheets dry in the sun. I was reminded of New Zealand and important times – a kind of outback homeliness – omni-wonder and pathos, but no chafing. “You’re here!” shouted reception man, making his way towards me. “Let’s get you to your room.”
Eyes don’t lie. I knew it.
I saw Are from Norway outside our venue; we went in together. Skúli the organizer gave me my name badge. I started practicing how to say “Sweden” in Icelandic. The þ is “th” in think and the ð is “th” in this.
Michael from Norway/Austria was already there too. I was thoroughly looking forward to his Guided Imagery keynote later, as I had experienced it at the 6th Nordic Conference in Stockholm last year, along with another guided meditation exercise with Kalle Grill. (I have, through books, tried to imagine myself inside a golden egg, or whatever such exercises ask you to imagine, reluctantly concluding that it simply doesn’t come naturally to me. But something had happened in Stockholm – I had started to believe that you could get better with practice.)
First keynote was Ólafur Páll Jónsson, “Humanity as a layer: What is beneath?” Our relation to nature could be seen as a kind of self-management, Ólafur noted. But it isn’t, often. When the first satellite was successfully sent to space in 1957, he added on a quieter note, “there was a general sense of relief. As if we’d taken the first steps towards escaping ‘Prison Earth’.”
(Hildigunnur later said, “We live on the land rather than in the land.”)
Ólafur also said he’d taken students out on a three-day hike, and that they’d got university credits for it. Fabulous, I thought.
During Michael’s guided imagery (“A Stoic imagery exercise about universal nature”), I daydreamed that my friend Malin passed on a gift from someone behind my back. Someone who didn’t want to be seen. And it was a gift that I wasn’t allowed to open yet – I had to await further instructions.
I love daydreaming.
We brainstormed “universal nature” in groups.
Finland came up at dinner. “Their song for Eurovision this year was very good,” remarked a philosopher I think was called Johannes. I was quite taken aback – someone normal talks about the Eurovision Song Contest without treating it like a guilty pleasure!
I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that 99% of Icelanders watch the Eurovision Song Contest. Currently unable to find a source for this statement, unfortunately.
Looked through the day’s camera folder. Erased multiple videos of a ship turning in the harbor. Found a picture of a hot dog stand where you could get Pylsa og gos for 700 kr that I had posted on facebook earlier. A friend of mine had shared it on his page.
Walked back to my guest house through the park by the pond. Supposedly tired but more like hyper – I had been civil for 22 hours straight. Sat down for a minute with a guy from Poland who was reading Deepak Chopra. He said there were lots of Poles in Iceland. Went to my room, collapsed in thankfulness.
Woke up in good time – I could smell coffee and toast from downstairs. “You don’t have breakfast!” said reception man as I approached. It was something about the date when I had done my booking. “You can buy coffee at the gas station,” he added, eyes glittering. I went and bought a coffee and some kind of spread for my fancy knäckebröd. All right, no worries.
Towards Túngata, Saturday morning. That’s the City Hall in the middle there, in front of the pond.
First keynote was “Philosophy and man-made environment” with architect Hildigunnur Sverrisdóttir. “There are people who see a difference between philosophy and architecture,” she started. “I’m not one of them.”
“Everybody says you should ‘think outside the box’,” Hildigunnur continued. “But what’s ‘the box’? It’s man-made consensus.”
“For instance, it is no law of nature that you have to teach philosophy to 60 people at a time in a lecture hall,” said Hildigunnur. “That’s also just consensus.” I found myself wishing today would never end.
Einar Kvaran’s lecture was called “Philosophy, nature and flattery.” Flattery – flaður in Icelandic – is all the stuff that gets in between on our paths towards knowledge and wisdom. Flaður are the fleeting, ungrounded experiences; the competition, comparison, speed, news, noise. Flaður is insincere like a licking, jumping dog that presents itself to all without discernment. “So much is jumping dogs in society,” said Einar.
I thought about Alain de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual that I’m currently reading. New things. I’d like to know about important things, not new things, I said to myself, tryingly.
Lunch. I think I had about 10 of these. Plus desert thingies.
Our conference venue was a school largely decorated in one of my favorite nuances of greyish green. RISAEÐLUFJÖLSKYLDUR means DINOSAUR FAMILIES.
Sigríður Þorgeirsdóttir made us do more imagining in her keynote, “Philosophical practice and experiential, embodied knowledge. Reflections on Eugene Gendlin’s method of philosophical practice.” Eugene Gendlin, apparently, discovered that the felt sense of words gives meaning. “Why do some people benefit from talking/conversation therapy, but others do not?” This was Gendlin’s question too. “What is significant about people who get something out of this kind of therapy? They mumble, stop, hesitate: They’re looking for the felt sense of words.”
“The sofia in filosofia is embodied, tacit knowledge,” said Sigríður. “We’re not literature. We’re not religion. We’re a special kind of thinking.”
We moved on to guided imagination. (Guided meditation? Meditation as in Montaigne’s meditations, etc.) By now I loved these guided, imaginative meditations. How could I ever have found it difficult? I’m made for this stuff!
Furthermore, Sigríður had a knitted scarf with buttons. I was wondering if she’d made it herself (and how, exactly.)
Lastly, Elsa Haraldsdóttir on “the Natural Philosopher.” Her presentation made me remember that the conference was organized by the Icelandic Philosophy Teachers’ Organization. I was so impressed. Possibly also a bit jealous. Imagine being able to lead like that.
We applauded, concluded and let everyone say something about what was going on in their countries. Michael and Are announced that Norway will host next year – 21-22 April, in Oslo. Marie from Denmark and I remarked that this had just been the best conference we’d ever been to, and wished Norway good luck. Everybody laughed.
Going to philosophical practice conferences is one of my favorite things in the world.
Then, Ester Auður Elíasdóttir’s guided bus tour.
Thirteen of us who had signed up to come along. Half an hour outside Reykjavik, the landscape is covered in mosses. (It takes 200 years before anything at all can grow on lava.) We stopped for leftover sandwiches and wine at lake Kleifarvatn. I was in a dreamy yet present, blissful state and had spoken Swedish with Nadja (same expression in group pic), a philosophical French teacher who is 100% Finnish but grew up in Sweden, all the way here.
Seltún mudpots. I knew about these places in theory, of course. But the ground is actually is boiling. It’s boiling. You’re not allowed to step off the path, because you may fall through the earth’s crust.
There once was a flightless bird, 75-85 centimeters tall, called Auk. The last pair, according to Wikipedia, were killed with their eggs on 3 July 1844, “on request form a merchant who wanted specimens.” We went to see its memorial site on the bird cliffs at Krýsuvík.
I remembered the giant Moa I’d seen at the museum in Auckland.
Black beaches. Those logs are driftwood. And you can eat the little lilac blossoms. I picked lava stones, dark, holed, heavy, rounded by waves and throbbing, and held them tightly in my hand. My sneakers filled with sand.
The hot springs of Gunnuhver. When you step out of the coach, you see a pillar of steam.
There’s a wooden platform close by – if you run across, your face, glasses and skater hat will only get a little moist. Then you see the old wooden platform. This place obviously means business. There’s a strange smell. Licking your lips feels dangerous.
Kristian and Einar were seen wandering off, deep in conversation. Ester called the restaurant to say we were going to be ever so slightly late (as we were supposed to have been there already). “We’re very sorry,” said Kristian to all of us when they got back. “But I tell you sincerely: It was Einar’s fault.” Everybody giggled. As we drove off, Ester added that the guided part of the tour was now officially over, unless we had questions. “I have a question,” said Ingimar matter-of-factly. “What is the meaning of life?”
Ester running back to the bus after trying to get hold of Kristian and Einar.
Erased some apps to make room for camera.
Last stop, a seafood restaurant. “You haven’t told me about your guided imagery experience yesterday,” said Michael as we waited for our food. So I told him. “That’s very interesting,” he said at the right places. He didn’t think it was too weird at all. A little later he asked whether I find it difficult to be patient at this point in my life. I said yes. He laughed.
It was very late when we got back. Sun still up. An Irish pub somewhere in the city. Nadja found six French guys in clothes suitable for the weather and we sat down with them. “She practically has no accent,” said the one I sat next to, admiringly. He’s name might have been François. “Yes, she is my new friend of yesterday,” I conversed. “I have also studied French,” I added, trying to creatively have a conversation recycling my 200 word vocabulary. “For two years, at school. But there are 19 years.” François and his friends talked politics. “Politics are difficult,” I commented.
Long, long shadows on the streets of nightly Reykjavik in June.
Sunday, all my own. “You get up now!?” the reception man exhorted. “Yes,” I admitted. (It was only about 10 or so – I figured that it was still reasonable, considering, and introvertedly blessed the blackout curtains for having slept at all.) “You look very nice!” he added. “Every day, you look nice!” I curtsied courtly and pointed at my t-shirt, which bore a picture of Nelson Mandela’s face inside a sun. “I got it from my sister,” I explained. “He was a nice man,” said the reception man. I left through the narrow, familiar hallway, the door creaking a little as I pushed it open.
Brilliant sun, again. Colors dark and bright. Some public sports event in the park by the pond; children in rainbow skirts and jogging shoes. Music. Sunny youth in charge of diverting traffic. I was in “I love everything” mode.
I headed towards the city library, softly whispering to myself in what I felt sounded very Icelandic. (Hrafnafjörður. Gunnarhjörtur. Things like that.) The library was practically empty. I walked around a little, noticed a well-equipped children’s area and, through a window, a marching band with a tail of followers on the other side of a parking lot. I found an orange couch a little out of the way, and sat down. I closed my eyes just a few minutes.
When I got back and told my mom about the trees, she said that there were no trees even in Reykjavik city when she’d been there (“30 years ago … No, 48 years ago”.)
There is a forest on Iceland, and it’s about 2 meters tall, Nadja said. She said that she’d heard similar stories from several Icelanders who go to treed places abroad. “At first, they think it’s really cool, to be so small next to such big trees,” she said. “But then, they just think, ‘I can’t see anything’.” (I said that when I’d first landed, I’d had the reflex to want to bend down and crawl, feeling thin and tall, unrooted. Strange things.)
An infomercial video on the plane said that Iceland is the third windiest place on earth. But that’s not it (it continued) – it’s that nobody lives in the first two places. Anyway, I found a place close to the Café Paris with happy hour wine prices and an empty chair next to a young American lawyer from Atlanta, Georgia, who had come to Reykjavik for a wedding. “I’m not at all hungover,” he remarked, ordering his fourth pint. “It must be the light. I was drinking, like, all day yesterday.”
Happened to run into Michael from Austria/Norway, who was going to the Art Gallery with Marie from Denmark. A good opportunity to discuss the differences between introverted and extraverted Thinking; Michael had kindly obliged to take the MBTI test the day before. Said I’d send him my favorite links and some stuff I had written.
I remembered Hildigunnur talking about Heidegger. “He’s one of my very complicated boyfriends,” she’d said. Haha.
Took a walk uphill on the other side of the downtown area. Found a bookstore called Mál og menning. See the reflected light blue and yellow houses? It looks like they’re made of wood, but there’s not a lot of wood in Iceland; it’s corrugated iron.
Colorful houses and a gregarious cat. Had my last nut and seed salad with banana (not entirely yellow) meal.
Poïesis, said Hildigunnur, means to make. It means to reconcile thought with matter and time, or to reconcile person with world.
“When thought, feeling and emotion become one, we can move mountains.” Can’t remember where I heard it, but it came to mind.
What are you reading? (I didn’t read anything whatsoever, not even on the plane. I had brought three books.)
Back home in Göteborg, I walked my normal route through a park. The trees seemed positively prehistorical sized huge. I wondered how old they were. I hoped that the Icelanders would come here, and that they would like them.
Why I really needed that little grey seal.
See you in Oslo.
Miriam van der Valk
kontakt @ filoprax.se