First we eat, then we do everything else.
—M. F. K. Fisher
Breidafjordur stretched on into a blue distance, a wind up that afternoon, and a nearly cloudless sky over the stern deck of the ferry. It was hard leaving behind such excellent sausages, but if our luck was right, we’d find more down the road. I pulled on my toque and Gore-Tex jacket against the burgeoning cold. Taking up a bench while Scott hit the head, I fished out a portion of Icelandic licorice from the top of my pack. I had seen it for sale everywhere, and naturally had to give it a try.
“Good choice,” said a middle-aged woman sitting across from me. She wore a heavy wool sweater, tall rubber boots, and her face was deeply creased, probably by the wind and cold. “Icelandic licorice is the best in the world,” she said.
“Is everything here the best in the world?” I asked. “Best lamb? Best hot dogs? Cleanest water on earth? Most beautiful women?”
“It is,” she said. “You can drink right out of any stream. Our hot water comes directly from the ground. It’s never ending, so you can shower indefinitely. We’ve won three Miss World titles from the pool of our little population. Our women are gorgeous.” Then she paused and considered, “But don’t eat too much of that licorice all at once. It’ll give you terrible farts.”
“I’ll be careful,” I said.
She winked at me.
Scott and I planned to spend the night on Flatey, a complex of some 40 islands, the largest of which (Flatey proper) is about two kilometers long and 400 meters wide with nary a hill to be seen. The people of the area have long been known for their interest in books. A literary monastery was established on Flatey in the 12th century (now gone), and a library in 1864 (still here), which once housed the famed Flatey Book, or Codex Flateyensis, a medieval manuscript of Icelandic Sagas. The little church near the library was consecrated in 1926. For the better part of a thousand years, Flatey supported a bustling fishing and farming culture, part of a rich complex of island life and industry in Breidafjordur. Historically, the quality of life was better here than in other parts of Iceland due to the productive waters of the fjord, and the rich soils of the surrounding land and islands. Today, Flatey is the only island in the fjord with year-round inhabitants (five or so people live here in winter). The collection of small homes clustered around the hotel that make up the village, are mostly summer residents, whose privacy is compromised by the daily disembarkation of travelers from the ferry. It’s “all-good” though, as the saying goes, because tourist money makes it possible to make a living here, without which this would be an island with a once and glorious past, abandoned to time, decay, and birds.
When the ferry came in on Flatey, Scott and I loaded our packs and walked the dirt road to a farmhouse where we paid for a tent site in a fenced enclosure. We set up behind a little guest cabin out of the wind, leaving the open grassy field to fill up with our travel-mates from the boat: a cyclist, a group of young French mountaineers headed for the Hornstrandir, like us, and some others drifted in on the wind. I could feel evening coming on, a subtle shift in the day’s light as the sun came closer to the horizon, a softening like the slow transition from a color print to a sepia. But it wasn’t going to get dark. I set up our stove to cook supper. On the menu: a packaged pasta alfredo dish with a can of tuna added, a bit of onion and kale mixed in, then enlivened with cayenne. On the side, multi-grain Wasa crisp bread, for dipping and scooping and crunching. Then a dessert of chocolate digestive bisquits and hot tea. And to cheer us as we cooked, Brennivin.
Ah, Brennivin, that clear, unsweetened schnapps—a distillation of potatoes, flavored with cumin, caraway, and angelica—that is the national drink of Iceland, the national drink that Icelanders don’t too often drink. (In fact, they drink far more Coca-Cola. The per capita consumption is among the world’s highest.) The word Brennivin means “burning wine,” but it is also known as “black death,” not to be confused with the plague, or the dark beer by the same name that Scott and I drank in Stykkisholmur. It’s an essential chaser when eating hakarl, and is drunk religiously during Thorrablot, the mid-winter festival in honor of Thor, my favorite Avenger. And naturally, when cooking tuna pasta on a low island in the middle of a fjord near the Arctic Circle, you drink it still wrapped in its brown paper bag, as we did, like the dispossessed living the pure life of the road.
After our hearty supper, we thought we’d make a walking tour of the island, up the grassy way onto the dirt road, northeast along a row of village houses and passed the old barn with the sod roof flanked by its windmill tower. Such vibrant color in an Icelandic village, homes of corrugated sheet-metal siding, painted in bright blues and reds and greens, teal too, the color of the sky. It was near 10:00 pm, but the lights were still glowing in the windows of Hotel Flatey and the fabulous restaurant within.
Later, I would have a look at their menu, and discover what delights we passed over that night for our simple backpacking fare. A set menu of blue mussels from the fjord, fillet of lamb with blueberry salt, a “little surprise from the kitchen,” potato cakes, and hot rhubarb delight with whipped cream. Or, marinated lumpfish roe on blini (a Russian pancake folded like a crepe) with sour cream and onion, pan-fried cod from the fjord with lobster sauce and potatoes, that little surprise again from the kitchen, and a chocolate cake with whipped cream that the chef calls, “With the Sun in Your Heart.”
So much of human life centers on food, and so much the better when that food is thoughtfully and lovingly prepared. The very words for such beautiful dishes are a poetry melting into the porches of the ear, which then reach out for all the other senses and touch the tongue to delight in. Not so with such foul foods as chicken fingers and buffalo wings (half of which are chicken legs), Easy Cheese and buttery flavor, Hamburger Helper and Oreo Cakesters, Velveeta, Southwest Chicken Tornadoes, Hot Pockets, Pizza Pockets, Pizza Pops, Pizza Stuffers, and the list goes on to the moon. None of it is food at all, but might be better classed as snacks, an ugly American word encouraging a life without dining, not to mention an early death. Just stuff it down the gullet, whatever it is, plastic or otherwise, while speeding in your car from one dull moment to another. It’s disgusting. Such detachment from the thing that sustains us is enough to puke a snipe, as my father would say. Do not stand for it. You must fight back. “For me there is too little of life to spend most of it forcing myself into detachment from it,” writes M.F.K. Fisher, the great American writer, cook, and lover of life. “When shall we live if not now?”
We walked on, beyond the village now where the brown road became a green path. I could see all the way to the end, to a low rocky promontory spinning with aerial birds, where the path turned to the southwest on the opposite side of the island. If we kept on, we’d arrive back at our camp, and so we did, until a sign ordered us to go no farther. The end of the island was closed this time of year, a nature preserve for nesting birds, among which were the snow bunting, common eider, mallard duck, common snipe (there really is such a thing), red-necked phalarope, and the Arctic tern. We paused a moment, happy to comply, taking in the glorious light, the breeze, the promising wild of Flatey island, then started on our way. We walked easily along, visiting a tune come up in the mind, minding our own business, when quite suddenly, we were set-upon by a squadron of Arctic terns, barreling down upon us, swooping and chirping and rushing us at the head. I looked up just in time to see one of them hovering before me, squaring with me, measuring the distance and shape of the wind, and then the dark menace of its gaping cloaca, perfectly timed, so as to drop a substantial shit that floated a perfect arc straight for me.
“Aaahhh,” I called out, ducking and plunging, dropping my left shoulder as I wheeled away. “I think it got me.”
“Let me see,” Scott said. “No. It didn’t get you.”
“Yeah, I think it did. I heard it. Look again.”
“Nope. I don’t see anything.”
“Are you sure?”
“Here comes another one,” I said.
“Damn,” Scott said. “Berzerkers all. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
We kicked it up double-time, trying to out-distance them, these little white and black birds on the wing. But, it turns out, there is no out-distancing an Arctic tern. In 2007-2008, Danish researcher and photographer, Carsten Egevang, led an international team to track Arctic terns on their annual migration with a tiny geo-locator tag. What he discovered had been, until then, mostly undocumented. The Arctic tern makes the longest annual migration of any animal on earth, from its summer nesting grounds in the polar north (which includes Iceland), to the polar south (the Weddell Sea, Antarctica), a journey of more than 70,000 kilometers a year. In a lifetime, this little bird may travel the equivalent of three return trips to the moon. Among his discoveries, Egevang found that on their journey south, the birds don’t make a bee-line for Antarctica, but hang out in the middle of the north Atlantic for nearly a month to feed, a great dissimulation of birds soaring on the wing, swooping and dipping and plunge-diving for little fish. The area is characterized by what Egevang calls “cold, highly productive northern water and warmer, less productive southern water.” The collusion of these two currents creates a region of “high eddy variability,” a “hot spot” where fish and other sea life congregate, a great oceanic grocery. During all this time, all this distance, Arctic terns rarely, if ever, land or sleep, but remain in-flight, a bird of the wing. Egevang told me that swifts can stay aloft for up to 200 days without rest, and he believes Arctic terns “can perform something similar.” What’s more, Egevang notes, the Arctic tern—nesting during the polar summer, and “wintering” during the austral summer—experiences more sunlight than any other creature on earth, prompting him to call it “truly a bird of the sun.”
Having retreated from the boundary of their nesting site, the attacking Arctic terns seemed to melt into the air, but looking up I still imagined them there, their long easy wings pulling up on the wind, hovering and bobbing in the sky over our heads. I could not help but wonder what these little sea birds were seeking by making such immense journeys to the ends of the earth, always in sunlight, always on the wing? What force drove them to fly so far for so long? When I posed this question to Egevang, the answer was simple: food. Arctic terns are perfectly evolved to exploit these hot spots in the north and south Atlantic, and the fecund polar seas. And yet, even as I know they are after fish, it is hard not to think of these little birds as feeding on the light, light from the great proximal star that is our sun, the engine that feeds us all, and makes our planet go.
Our walk took us out to the Flatey church, where inside we gazed upon a painted mural of island life: fishermen at their work, ewes with their lambs, and Jesus, wearing an Icelandic sweater. We walked on, passed the little library there, and returned again to our camp. Scott and I brewed up mugs of hot tea and sat huddled next to our tent out of the colder wind, watching the night linger in the light. Near 11:00 pm, a group of young women appeared with meat and vegetables and beers, and fired up the barbie. One of them worked at the hotel, and her friend had come for a visit with her new baby. Apparently it had been a long time since last they met, as they talked incessantly and joyously over the cooking and eating of food.
In the morning, we took the ferry to Brjanslækur to catch the bus to Isafjordur. Coming up the road from the terminal, the stench of fish blossomed on the air. We walked along a row of industrial buildings, where the smell seemed to be emanating. This really was the fish-basket of Iceland.
“I wonder what’s going on in there?” I said, making conversation.
“Slaughtering fish,” Scott said.
We watched the French mountaineers hit the road, thumbing for a ride, while we stepped into the coffee shop to buy our tickets. The Sterna bus, a small and relatively new company (the Arctic tern belongs to the genus sterna), awaited us outside.
“That bus?” the old woman said, shaking her head. “No bus to Isafjordur until 5:00 pm. Maybe 7:00 pm.”
“The bus is just outside,” Scott said.
“It goes to another place,” the woman said. “It comes back in the evening.”
In retrospect, we should have taken the bus to wherever it went, and rode it back around to the ferry terminal. At least we would have seen some new country. But we decided to wait.
We waited. We read. We waited. We played a few dozen hands of a card game Scott knew called “Dirty Oyster.” We waited some more.
“We might as well get a pylsur,” I said, noticing a man putting in his order. “You want one?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Scott said.
The old woman pulled two hot dogs from the steamer and laid them into their fluffy white buns. We loaded them up with the only condiments available to us: ketchup, mustard, pickle relish. They didn’t look at all like those glorious dogs in Stykkisholmur, but rather the poor, weak wieners you buy at high school sporting events in America. Still, maybe the combination of beef, pork, and lamb made these dogs superior without all the pomp of deep-frying and baked beans and Doritos chips. We tucked in.
“Not really that good,” Scott said.
“No,” I said. “Not really.”
“I guess all pylsur are not created equal.”
“Nor all equally created,” I said.
“What does that mean?” Scott asked. “What’s the difference between created equal and equally created?”
“I see your point,” I said. “Just something to say, I guess. How about another game?”
“Yeah,” Scott said. “Let’s play. It’s going to be a long afternoon.”