Feb 26th, 2024, 02:15 PM

Þetta Reddast: Letting go in the land of fire and ice

By Ira McIntosh
Students exploring Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, Iceland. (Image Credit: Ira McIntosh)
Learning to be an ethnographer in a tourist’s haven.

“Why doesn’t it smell like the ocean?”

“It does.”

In the days we had been in Iceland, we had recited our mantra over and over again to ourselves: “We are not tourists, we are ethnographers.” And here I was, falling right into the trap.

The cinematic landscapes and “final frontier” of Iceland have called to me for years, my romantic heart yearning for the stark glacial beauty of the country and its inhabitants. I longed to stride over snowy black beaches in flowing gray scarves, walking stick in hand, calling upon the old magicks and feeling some semblance of life as it was in the before-times. 

Imagine my surprise, then, when we landed and it really was what I had dreamed! Sure, we were on a tour bus driving from an airport to Reykjavik, but outside the bus window was the tundra that had captured my imagination all those years ago. 

The passing mountains seemed to never leave us. Whether we were drinking spiked hot chocolate at our shabby-chic hostel, exploring geothermal energy plants, chatting with the nation’s leading brand expert, or perusing the city center with the world’s best donuts in hand, the tall icy peaks were constantly standing sentinel, making sure we never set a foot out of line. 

Iceland is a land of contrast. From its flowing magma and enormous glaciers, to its fragrant lamb soup and pungent preserved shark, you feel the push and pull of a land that taught its people how to survive the hard way. One thing that struck me as we learned more of  Iceland’s history was the measures early settlers had to go through to grapple with the elements. Iceland was not an easy place to call home and its history proves that fact. The early vikings had to constantly deal with seasons they were unused to, crops that would fail, trees that just would not grow – a new world that wanted them desperately to leave. 

This experience brought to mind the history of my own country. Being from the United States, history shows that the Pilgrims who colonized what is now New England had no tools or information with which to settle such a rough land. Yet,  instead of learning from the land and growing by trial and error, they stole the information necessary to survive from the indigenous populations and began to replicate without thought, surviving in a place they had not fought for. 

Students approaching Skógafoss Waterfall, Iceland. (Image Credit: Ira McIntosh)

This dichotomy can still be seen in the way these two countries deal with their land. While the United States deflowers every new bit of earth it finds, Icelanders are keenly aware that the land they live on is just barely allowing them to stay and are, therefore, much more gracious with how they extract the necessary components for existence. The people of Iceland care about what seafood they pull from the oceans, they care about how they garner energy from the volcanos and water; Iceland knows that its resources are precious. While citizens saw these concepts matter-of-factly,  to me they were so alien. People who care about the land they live on and the history they are a part of is a beautiful thing. 

I had the opportunity to attend a queer event while we were staying in Reykjavik. I worried about going on my own, recalling previous negative experiences across major US cities. The queer scene in the Western world can be a dangerous place filled with people more invested in themselves than in those around them. Fair, considering where they’ve come from and what they’ve been through, but no less daunting. 

As soon as I stepped into the room I felt it was different. I saw people speaking across generational lines. I saw cisgender people interacting with trans people. I saw jocks and twinks interacting with bears and chubs. This was not the same sort of event I was used to attending. Soon I was in a group of four or five people from very different backgrounds talking about life and exchanging cultural information of all sorts. It felt nothing short of utopic. 

During the event, I also had the privilege to talk to the organizer. He mentioned that two of his exes were in attendance, and that he hoped the third would show up. He explained, “He’s new to the city and could use some friends. He’s trying to be dramatic about the breakup, but you just can’t do that here because there are so few of us.” Even here, the lessons taught by the island were taking shape. You grow and you learn, or you leave. 

“Þetta reddast” (theht-ta ret-tast) is the Icelandic saying for “it will all work out in the end.” A variation of my own personal motto, “keep moving forward.” The entire country’s values can be summed up in these words. It doesn’t matter what you are going through right now. If you stick it out and allow yourself to learn from it, it will come out right in the end and you will be better for it. That is the lesson of Iceland – it’s not pillaging vikings, or incredible food, or world-class performing arts centers. The lesson of Iceland is that perseverance is key.

Why didn’t it smell like the ocean? It did, it just didn’t smell like the oceans I grew up next to. It was different. It required learning, listening, and stillness. I needed to take off my tourist hat, put on my ethnographer glasses, and realize that there is always room to learn, regardless of where we are – be it physically or mentally. 

It will all work out in the end.