Iceland To Go

How a place with the wrong name has the right idea about life.

Illustration by Dola Sun

I remember two things about the geography class I took at Northern Kentucky University circa 1993: I got 100 percent on the test where we had to locate every country in the world on a map, and I learned that Iceland was misnamed. The first hasn’t helped me much, because I routinely get the answers wrong when my son uses his “Countries of the World” placemat to quiz me at dinner.

But the second thing? That was a keeper. I can still see the professor’s handsome thirtysomething face telling us that Iceland was the “green” land, whereas Greenland was actually the “ice” land.

Apparently, the Viking who named Iceland saw a fjord filled with ice and thought it made for a catchy name. Then about 100 years later, when Erik the Red got kicked out of Iceland for murdering people, he settled in a place he called Greenland, which likely was greener than it is now. He sounds like a tool, though, so maybe his judgment wasn’t the best.

I’ve always been attracted to the idea of places that aren’t what they seem, whether because of nuance or misunderstanding. It’s probably because I live in Ohio now but grew up in Northern Kentucky, which is Kentucky but isn’t, while it’s absolutely not Ohio but mostly is. As a child, I was told I was a Midwesterner, though I could have sworn, when I spotted my state on a map of the U.S., it looked like the East.

Hence, traveling to this misnamed country seemed like a wonderfully weird thing to do. Someday. Which probably meant never. Still, I randomly read articles about Iceland and found reasons to say aloud the name of its capital city, Reykjavík, the sultry consonance of the Ks calling to mind a sexy, starlit landscape: Raaaaykavickkk.

Nothing happened for years. Decades. And then something did.

In 2021, two of my friends ran for our town’s city council, and I helped them campaign. I was at their meet-and-greet event, chatting with supporters, when I heard a man behind me introduce himself to someone. He said that he wrote travel books about Iceland and helped people plan trips.

I was suddenly a 6-year-old child, seeing a merry-go-round she wanted to ride. “I want to go to Iceland!” I heard myself exclaim as I turned around, bursting into his conversation. I think he probably said something like, “You should.”

Then, a few weeks later, a writer friend from Instagram—which is to say someone I didn’t know at all but who seemed really cool—posted that she was going on a yoga retreat in Iceland. I messaged her. What was this retreat? She sent me a link, fully expecting that we’d never speak of it again.

Instead, I signed up. The trip would be in September 2022, nearly a year away. I bought the best travel insurance available and figured there was a 50/50 chance of cancelation, because COVID taught me that life can just get canceled sometimes.

I dug through my purse to find the card of Eric Newman, the man I accosted at my friends’ campaign event. Turns out, he lived a few streets over from me. I bought his book, Iceland With Kids (though I would definitely not be going with my kids), and hired him to help me plan days outside of the yoga retreat. Other than that, I did shockingly little research, though I did binge-watch Trapped on Amazon, a murder mystery series set in a small Icelandic town that becomes completely cut off because of a blizzard, a blackout, and an avalanche. It was terrific for hearing the language, but it did make me wonder what I’d gotten myself into.

Whenever I mentioned my upcoming trip to Iceland, which was frequently—because it’s a crackerjack way to start a conversation: “So I’m going to Iceland in a few months…”—the response I inevitably got was, “Why?” I tried out various answers, including the one about geography class. But was that really a reason to spend a chunk of change on a 10-day trip taking time away from my family and my writing income? A more acceptable reason seemed to be, “It feels like a wild, beautiful place I need to see before I die.”

But no answer was the whole truth. Because I didn’t know why I was going. Not really.

September came, and I bought a pair of hiking shoes and read up on driving in Iceland. And then, a few days after my birthday and a night flight featuring zero hours of sleep, I landed in Reykjavík (actually Keflavik, because they have a CVG bait-and-switch situation too) hungry, bleary-eyed, and feeling like I was on a strange rock in the middle of nowhere. I chugged coffee and started driving. I had a full itinerary, thanks to Newman, who I simply called My Iceland Guy. Over the course of two days, I would make my way north to the artsy town of Akureyri, where I would meet my retreat group.

That first morning, everything seemed gray during my drive. It was raining. I had to pee. Signs were in kilometers. What was I doing here? Why had I been enamored with a random comment from some baby-faced adjunct professor 30 years ago?

And then I sunk into my first geothermal spring just outside of the city. I plunked my credit card down without even trying to convert the Icelandic Krona, followed the confusing shower ritual required to get in, and finally glided through steaming waters in a state of complete bliss. I floated on my back in the delicious hot water, stared up at the brightening sky, and wondered, Is this why I’m here?

During that week, spending time both alone and with my group, I would visit two more geothermal springs. I would see waterfalls—so many waterfalls!—and volcanic craters. I would walk in a lava forest and smell boiling earth. I would sit under the Northern Lights, clear and green and spooky.

I would stand on a sharp cliff, the sky so piercing blue it seemed a mistake, and take in the North Atlantic, a sheet of aquamarine glass. I would do a cartwheel over the continental divide and a handstand at what felt like the edge of the earth. Every time, every incredible thing, I would ask, Is this why I’m here?

By the time I pulled into Akureyri after my solo driving adventure, an early winter storm was brewing. In Iceland, a storm (stormur) means wind. I’m talking wild-ass wind. It canceled our first day of activities. As we settled into our apartments, hunkering down against the gales, Andreas, our mild-mannered Swiss ex-pat retreat leader who had moved to this enchanted land a dozen years before and was now raising his family here, gathered us around and said, “Þetta reddast—it will work out, but you have to let go of expectation.”

Pronounced something like THEH-ta RREH-dust and sounding like a magic incantation, it’s the unofficial motto of Iceland—one shaped by living in a country of volcanoes with months of either too much light or too much dark and harsh, fast-changing weather. The saying wasn’t about giving up or sitting back and doing nothing. Rather, it was about rethinking, adapting, and trusting that the answer will present itself.

What I would finally understand is that I came to this land of elf magic, with its medieval language and snaking green sky, mostly to encounter this idea, which was at once completely familiar and completely foreign.

The wind died down eventually, of course, and the week’s activities shifted around in ways that turned out to be better; then the Northern Lights, which weren’t predicted to show themselves, suddenly burst through one evening. But I felt þetta reddast at a deeper level than getting to see tourist highlights.

Perhaps it landed so hard because I have teenagers at home and, on any given day, it feels like nothing will be all right and I won’t know what to do. There is so much I’m afraid of losing: people I love, hard-won rights, democracy, the ability to do a handstand in whatever corner of Earth I find myself. But here was this Swiss man—from the land of precise timekeeping, no less!—reminding me to loosen my grip.

In truth, this idea that it will work out, maybe with an unexpected answer, was a huge part of my worldview in my twenties and thirties. But, like so many things, it had become harder to remember in midlife. I think that’s why Iceland used its sly name to grab my attention all those years ago. It never stopped calling to me, but it increased the volume as I got older. I need to show you the idea you’ve always flirted with. I need you to see where it comes from.

Or, as Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams like to say to each other in the preposterously funny movie Eurovision, about an Icelandic duo who accidentally make it into the European singing contest, “I see you. There you are.”

I see you, þetta reddast. There you are.

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