Is it strange to visit a place where you’ve never been to before and where you don’t know the language and to feel totally at home? I’ve been living in the New York City burbs now for over a decade and still don’t feel at home, but I travel to Reykjavik for the Iceland Writers Retreat and get a knot in my throat when it’s time to go. Maybe it’s as President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson says, that the city is adorned not by statues of politicians but by statues of writers. Maybe it’s because in Reykjavik, where one in ten residents publish a book, writing is a respected profession and residents adore writers and equally adore writers’ books. Maybe it’s because books are a popular Christmas gift or maybe it’s because when you tell someone in Reykjavik that you put pen to paper every day, you don’t get a blank look followed by the proverbial question “So you teach English?”
Last year, I met a guy in Taos, New Mexico, who was from New York City, but left the Big Apple nearly twenty years ago to go live a more artisanal life, for lack of a better word, and to run his business in a town where many artists live on less than $20,000 a year. “All New York cares about is money,” he said to me last Christmas, and the words stung because it’s true. Tell anyone in my leafy, affluent suburb of lawyers, doctors and managers that you’re a writer and the conversation goes like this:
“So you teach English?”
“No, I don’t teach English.”
“Oh, so then you do what, PR?”
Awkward pause, at which point I feel the need to throw this person some kind of social buoy. “I do communications for nonprofit and corporate clients.” (Because the word ‘communications’ sounds more important and lucrative than ‘writing.’ Anyone can write but apparently not everyone communicates.)
“Like brochures and stuff?”
Ah, there we go! That’s the lingua franca my snobby suburb with all its nail salons and leaf blowers and hyper-helicopter parenting understands. Until I get that first novel published, no one here can picture what being a writer means, so sure, why not: let’s say brochures and stuff, at which point the lawyer, doctor or manager nods in confused approval. Because the people who sit in their jammies all day writing are the weirdos living in rundown apartments in Brooklyn…right?
So let’s get back to Reykjavik, which means “smoky bay” in Icelandic. This city of 200,000-plus people living between sea and mountains, and dealing with constant wind and cold, have a wicked sense of humor and worship color. First of all, the city buses have mustaches. You read that right. We saw buses painted with everything from classic bushy handlebar mustaches to twirly villain mustaches. Secondly, the city pops with color. The houses are painted every shade from lime green to saffron yellow to carnation pink, and the wool yarn spun year-round and sold at stores throughout the city match the houses. When we visited the week before Easter, shop windows were bursting with sunny fashion.
Gray skies may loom above Iceland most days, but down on the ground Reykjavik is a painter’s palette. Color was everywhere, inside and outside. Murals weren’t hard to find, and even the artists behind these murals revealed a sense of humor.
Elsewhere, you can read about what to see in Reykjavik or where to eat or the ten best places to do this or that or all the other “hidden gem” travelogue out there that will show you a great time in this great city. For me, Reykjavik wasn’t about scoring some off-trek adventure or tasting some exclusive dish or checking off another destination from a bucket list (I don’t believe in bucket lists). Reykjavik was a mirror; a place that loves words, loves color, loves a good joke and loves a good story. It’s where what your bank account holds or what kind of car sits in your driveway or how often your yard is manicured by immigrants or where your kid goes to summer camp doesn’t matter. In Reykjavik, to be a writer didn’t mean scraping by and living some off-the-grid lifestyle, but that you were contributing to the world’s bookshelves, that you were adding your story which hadn’t been told by anyone else before you and couldn’t be told by anyone but you. To be a writer was an admired calling in Iceland, something I will remember the next time I get those blank looks at suburban backyard cookouts.