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The island that was waiting for me: Iceland in March (1/2)

A deserted street runs in a straight horizontal line below snow-capped mountains glistening in the sunshine.

I don’t know why the perfect world has to be an island. I just know I’m not the only one who feels that way.

Thomas More never clarified if he conceived his Utopia as the happiest of places or the place that can’t exist. On the other hand, he was so adamant that it should be situated offshore that he made its inhabitants create the island by chiselling away at the bare rock of what originally was a mere peninsula.

This could mean two things. It could mean that what is too good for this world has to exist outside of it, not only because it needs to be contrasted, elevated, mystified, but more than that actively protected from a possibly destructive outside force. It could also mean that what seems like the consummate creation a higher being is in fact the product of many hands moving shovel after shovel towards a shared vision. Paradise is not found, it is founded on imagination and hard work.

If we assume that there is enough support for both of these readings, the ideal island represents the pinnacle of mankind as much as it represents its doom. With every advancement in justice, equality and freedom, the distance to the mainland increases. A new arrival may be welcomed and even integrated into the community, but only after she has left her previous life behind. The utopian society can never grow, it can never be challenged, it can never benefit anything or anyone but itself. And how long until somebody turns their momentary frustation with the supreme state into action and breaks the island into smaller pieces?

I am thrilled to go to Iceland. There are the pictures, of course. Pictures that have been popping up more and more frequently on my screens. Finally I get to see for myself the lava fields, the hot springs and the waterfalls and the endless tundra glistening in the arctic sunshine.

There’s also the fascination of a country which so often makes headlines not speaking of war, corruption or inequality, but a society so peaceful and fair that it looks almost comical compared to the large parts of the world lying in shadows.

The only problem is that my companion and I have no idea of what to expect from actually travelling there. Will we be wading through knee-deep snow? Not an unlikely scenario in early March. Will we still be freezing underneath five layers of clothing? We check temperatures, compare them to the Berlin weather and after finding out that the difference is not that extreme, we pack some more jackets and jumpers anyway. Will we be looking in shock at the price tags in one of the world’s most expensive destinations? We fill an entire suitcase with rice, pasta and canned beans. Oil and spices go into small cosmetic jars.

It’s easy to forget how remote this island really is. After hours of flying over the Atlantic, we see it for the first time. They weren’t lying: It really is a land of ice, and snow, as far as the eye can see. I try to make out streets or at least some kind of settlement, but there is nothing. I’m looking at a blank sheet of paper floating on an endless ocean, cut into the most intricate shape, like a fractal but without any discernable logic. Only as we start our descent on the southern peninsula, the white suddenly fades away and reveals the power slumbering in the volcanic rock underneath.

Stepping across the border into Iceland means walking through an open door. This is still Europe, after all, and I am privileged enough to own a European passport. In a perplexing way, it feels like everything has been arranged for us by invisible hands: The bottle of water standing on the shelf of what seems to be a small design museum rather than a shop, the rental car waiting for us with a full tank of petrol, the celltowers eager to communicate with our phones at no additional cost.

It’s not that I haven’t had this feeling before, of being welcomed with open arms when I didn’t think I deserved to be, and then realised that we should treat everyone like that, always. What’s different this time is that there is no one to welcome us. There is only the arctic sun shining down on us in the most careful manner, as if this island turned painting had to be illuminated not too brightly to protect its colours, yet never too dimly as not to make it look anything less than enchanting.

After dark, we walk through Reykjavík and point out the houses we would like to live in. The next day, we find ourselves at an outdoor swimming pool. The air is so cold that we run from the heated interior to the heated pool, and the water is so warm and relaxing that we briefly forget about the world and its worries. The most remarkable thing about this experience is that we aren’t tourists, that the people around us speak English like we do, that they are also free to spend their Thursday afternoon bathing in the warmth provided by eternally gracious nature.

The golden light follows us as we head north, discover our first waterfall and stop every couple of minutes to try and make sense of the beauty that lies before us, or at least capture it. When the sun slowly fades away, we don’t really notice. There are signs that the elements are not to be underestimated, but it is easy to ignore the biting wind from the inside of a car. Shortly after, we have to lean against the gusts as we set out to greet some Icelandic horses.

Finally inside, in the room that is going to shelter us for the night, it is colder than expected. We fumble around with the radiator, to no avail. As we have half resorted to making the best of it with the few blankets that are provided to us, our host shows us how to turn up the heat. We are save as we watch the snowflakes quickly piling up underneath our window.

A man has parked his tiny red car at the end of a pier and is unloading his fishing gear while the sun is shining on a deserted harbour framed by distant mountains. Left: In Reykjavík, a man is paying his parking ticket standing underneath a window filled with porcelain figures. Right: A bright red 'do not enter' sign matches the colour of a house's typically nordic corrugated metal facade. Left: A duck stands in a pond outside Reykjavík's Harpa Concert Hall. Right: A boat is moving away from the coastline where rocks are stacked on top of each other in several small piles. Left: The Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavík is a huge, cubic building clad in a mosaic of glass panels, each of them forming a different polygon shape. It sits right next to the sea and the snow covered mountains across the bay. Right: A detail of the glass panels from the inside, with some construction site cranes visible on the other side. At the Harpa in Reykjavík, Florian Lehmuth is staring pensively into the void, a secret smile on his lips. An empty street stretches from the foreground to the horizon in an almost straight line, leading through fields of volcanic rocks with distinctive green lichens growing on the surface towards a jagged mountain chain that is covered in snow. At the bottom of a volcanic mountain that was formed by layers of rock piling up on top of each other in a highly geometrical fashion, there is a small tent in the shape of a tetrahedron with a windsock fixed on top. A white house in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by subpolar tundra stretching in all directions. A farm at the bottom of a very steep mountain chain, sitting in a field of dry grass with some occasional spots of snow. Transmission towers lead up a hill that is covered in the green of lichens, the white of unspoilt snow and the light brown of dry grass, with a black, jagged mountain in the distance and dark clouds looming above. Transmission towers rest in a snowy landscape devoid of life but with a small stream coming down from a hill in a cascade. Left: Mount Kirkjufell is a steep mountain with an almost triangular shape. It's light brown vegetation sets itself apart from a dramatic grey sky. Right: Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall is half frozen. Its large icicles fit well into surroundings dominated by ice and snow. A view of Mount Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall, which is mostly frozen. It is a peaceful scene, although some faint rays of sunlight are contrasted with dark silver clouds. Underneath the arctic sun, Icelandic horeses are grazing on the dry grass that nature provides, with snowy hills telling the story of an austere landscape.
Florian Lehmuth
6 June 2018

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