Iceland: The Magical Destination on Everyone’s Bucket List

09.12.2017 Arts & Culture
Genevieve Medow Jenkins
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Have you ever heard the old folk story of Stone Soup? One version of the story goes something like this: these penniless travelers are far from home and have lost their way. They are starving and running out of ideas for finding food. When they ask the people of the nearest town for help, the townspeople are skeptical of their strangeness. Eventually, they come upon a stream in the town, and one of the travelers gasps, picking up a stone. “I’ve figured it out!” the traveler says, putting the stone and water from the stream in their only pot. The traveler excitedly tells the others of the idea, but the travelers say, “It will never work.” However, the group had run out of options, so they had no choice but to follow the latest plan, going door to door through the town. At each door, they explain how they are traveling through and are making this amazing soup from their homeland called Stone Soup, and would the villager be interested in having some of the soup? Every time they address a new person, they are greeted with initial suspicion that evolves into excitement. Each household not only wants to try the soup, but contribute to it! As they move from door to door, more locals begin walking with them. With the help of the villagers, the travelers are able to make a soup full of vegetables and nutrients to feed the whole village and themselves. A massive party ensues.

Iceland has millions of tourists every year. But in reality, there are only about 300,000 full-time residents of Iceland. The annual exponential growth of tourism is extreme, with the latest increase between 2015-2016 being 40%, totaling 1.7 million visitors. Tourists are the majority and locals the rarity. These statistics are reminiscent of my hometown of Big Sur, where locals struggle in both needing tourism to sustain the local economy and loathing the tourists for their un-mindful behavior. As with Big Sur, travel to Iceland is not expensive, but staying there is very pricey between renting a car, staying in a hotel, participating in any activity, and eating. In 2015, tourism contributed to 30% of the Icelandic economic export revenue. I am not sure how most Icelanders feel on the topic of tourism, but my background has led me to always treat international travel in this way: when staying in someone’s home, contribute by bringing a gift to leave behind.

When my boyfriend booked a concert celebrating the summer solstice in Iceland, I was elated. Naturally, I wanted to bring the land of fire and ice a gift; I decided to bring my brainchild, Secular Sabbath to Iceland. I convinced my best friend Nathalie to come along and suddenly we were knee-deep in plans for the ambient music night. A little over a year ago, I founded Secular Sabbath which was first presented in Los Angeles, and has since debuted in New York City, Big Sur, Atlanta, Summit At Sea and Lightning in a Bottle. It is a sanctuary of sorts, a night that incorporates various modalities of sensory experience, allowing attendees to drop into a deeper body-mind connection. Often the evening includes a variation of a living and singing plant installation, a Chinese tea ceremony, an Esalen® Massage bodyworker, a poet to write a poem on the topic of choice, an ambient drum circle, cacao ceremony, a space to collage or just pillows to snuggle with. The event is always changing and evolving. It is my version of Stone Soup.

As I began researching spaces I stumbled upon Mengi — an experimental music space in the heart of Reykjavik, whose managers agreed to collaborate with us, but warned that we needed to promote it as much as possible; evidently, the last time people from California tried to do something at Mengi, no one showed up, leaving the managers of the space feeling skeptical about future collaborations. With a promise that we would all do our best to get the word out, the event was planned, and the intention was set: Secular Sabbath Iceland. It was scheduled to occur on our last night in the country, after an entire week of exploring the amazing foreign land. When we boarded the airplane that would fly us to the land of fire and ice, we had no idea how much synchronicity would ensue.

There’s something undeniably sweet about my best friend running up to me in an airport in a foreign country, especially when she is lugging the most impractical Bhutanese wicker basket filled with her tea ceremony supplies, while I have an equally impractical hand embroidered wooden desk in hand. It is the nightmare of my practical, travel-savvy boyfriend, who spends most of his life on tour with bare essentials. But for us, these unique travel items were necessary.

We immediately looked up local things to explore — such as a weekly flea market that was scheduled for the following morning. When we arrived at the hotel, we were pleased to stumble upon Mengi, just a block away, and Icelandic natives Amiina. Amiina is a group composed of individuals with whom my boyfriend Mike had previously collaborated with in Copenhagen, and they were just about to begin a show. After connecting with the space, watching the locals perform and confirming the date and time of our upcoming Secular Sabbath, we headed to bed to be rested for the morning flea market.

At the market were many stalls with traditional Icelandic wool sweaters, blankets, and the usual flea market smorgasbord. We found old copper incense burners, macrame and vintage hats. But there was one stand that caught our attention: Nus Nus Iceland, a local Icelandic husband and wife duo that had founded a Moroccan import company. Partnered with their daughter, who lived in Morocco with her Moroccan husband and children, all of their pieces were pristine and perfectly fit the aesthetic of how we curate the ambiance of Secular Sabbath everywhere.

We told them about the event and asked if they would be interested in not only coming, but also collaborating with us by allowing us use of their rugs and cushions to decorate the space. In exchange, we would announce that everything was for sale, so that event attendees could purchase the articles at the end of the evening. Not only were the Nus Nus Iceland folks excited to come, they were also elated to participate! Ambient music was something they had never heard, and they were curious, while we were excited to have new like-minded friends.

Reykjavik is a city, albeit a small city, which thrives on tourism and narrow cobblestone streets. Seeing the rest of Iceland was of paramount importance to us, so as soon as we awakened on the morning after the festival Mike played, we jumped into our rental car and began driving north. In the northwest of Iceland, close to the Arctic Circle, lie the isolated “Westfjords.” ‘Fjords’ means fingertips, reflecting the aerial view of the landscape that reaches out extending into five land masses surrounded by sea. While its beauty is unmatched, the Westfjords endured a hard history, having experienced the highest migration rate away from the island, due to difficult weather conditions, a poor economy and dark magic. Some say it is best known for the most notorious executions for sorcery and witchcraft between 1625-1683. Locals were believed to have turned to dark magic to make ends meet, as its isolation hindered the capacity for trading and surviving.

I think our first instinct as humans is to try to make sense of new sights based on what we have previously known. For me, this history and landscape was amazingly akin to Big Sur. When I saw steep dirt mountain roads, I instinctually thought of the ones where I was raised. However, as we were driving north along the rocky road, I realized that this landscape held its own uniqueness. Grassy island pods ran parallel in the ocean beside us. There was a shipwreck at the edge of one sand bar that looked as if it had belonged to pirates and had been sitting there for ages — a fixture, having settled into the portrait of our eyes, as if it had always been there.

With the sun coming and going, but never completely falling, we ventured for 17 hours across rolling hills, navigating through rogue families of adventurous sheep and angry birds. We stopped often, taking pictures and letting our feet touch the earth. We found ourselves atop a peak, and then we dove, bare-skinned, into the icy glacial waters. We had inspiration from Wim Hof and tried our best to feel the heat in the freezing water. What it did was make us feel more alive. We discovered that by cozying up in soft moss, we could find heat afterwards. One of the strange things about being in a place where the sun never goes down, is that one never has to overcome jet lag; in fact, we found that with our jet lag, we were able to traverse lands in privacy; there were literally no other visitors, except for a lone hitchhiker.

We were rounding the bend in a series of endless green country road switchbacks when we saw a young girl walking with a backpack half the size of her body. As Mike was pulling over to tell her we didn’t have room, we looked into her young face, long dark brown hair drenched in sweat from the sun, overcome by the weight of her baggage, and we knew we had to take her with us. We squeezed her in the back and she began to tell us of her experience growing up in Slovenia and moving to Reykjavik. She had a week off from her waitressing job and wanted to go explore the fjords, so she was walking, with just a tent and sleeping gear in her backpack.

We traveled with her for an hour and a half, discussing everything from growing up in Slovenia in a close-minded community, to tapping into the service/travel microcosm, to heartbreak and open relationships. The roads were twisting and turning, shades of green, intertwining and expanding at every ridge and through it all we got to know this girl. She was my age, 26, and like me, had also managed to find a way to travel the world, by working in the resort/travel/service industry. There is an entire microcosm of people who work seasonally in different exotic places, from ski lodges to resorts, young people hustling jobs for the opportunity to experience and learn about other cultures and lands, a much more common practice in Europe than America. When we parted ways in Isafjordur — she to a gas station and grocery near her intended campsite, and we to Tjöruhúsið, we were bewildered and tickled by such a happenstance experience, and of course, we invited her to the imminent Secular Sabbath.

Tjöruhúsið is a historic family-owned and run restaurant on the edge of Isafjordur. Later, when people asked us why we drove for 17 hours straight in Iceland, we tell them it was so that we could go to this restaurant. Seated in a tavern-like log cabin, with only family-style wooden tables and benches, there was no menu. Instead, pans of variant fresh fish dishes (caught that day!) were rotating in and out on buffet. We found ourselves sitting with a local man who silently ate his meal, as if it was religious. We understood his concentration, because we too were deeply moved by the detailed flavors and presentation.

Our waitress was the daughter of the owner of the restaurant. Her father opened the restaurant, but the building had been there for a century. The whole town supported the family-run restaurant. As the daughter spoke she rested our empty dishes against her braless underbreast. When she walked away, fish sauces stayed on her shirt, like a painter of her own art. I liked her even more. Under different circumstances, I was sure we could be friends, but we had a long drive to go and wanted to find a natural hot spring on the edge of the sea.

By the time we found the hot spring, using unreliable Internet sources with latitude and longitude and landmarks that didn’t exist, and getting caught in a herd of sheep, we were ready to soak. The sky was deep into the famous four-hour sunset (at 3am — totally characteristic of an Icelandic summer). After our soak against the sea, gazing out at pink glaciers beyond the horizon, it was time to head back. We had an event to plan.  

What we brought to Secular Sabbath Iceland, was what we have known all along and also, what we came to know again through exploring the land and interacting with the people. The Nus Nus couple decorated the space, Nathalie led a tea ceremony and Mike sang for hours experimenting with Icelandic local Olafur Arnalds. None of us had previously heard him explore his voice with such freedom. It was as if the expanse of our experience was being carried in the exploration of his vocal chords.

People sat close together, uncharacteristic of Icelandic culture, and stayed late, hanging out into the night. Though the managers had worried, the floor was not empty. It was full of Icelanders and people whom we had met. We had randomly discovered ourselves here, in Iceland. And that’s when we decided to come back to Iceland again, a promise to return for winter solstice and to share another Secular Sabbath. It brings people together, new and old, to celebrate… and to create Stone Soup.

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