Poppets, lovelies and dears ones,
Here is the next instalment. From next week I will try and keep this blog to once a week- aiming to post on Sundays. Know that I am safe, warm and happy now- but I do apologise to my family and friends, for the retrospective worry some of this post may cause! It’s been easier to write about it now that I’ve had a few days to settle and process the journey myself. And I wanted to be honest about the things that I share about my adventure. So here we go..
Although excited to finally think about the prospect of reaching my destination, this was probably the day (01.02.17) I was most anxious about when I started planning my trip across Iceland. Packing up at Apotek guesthouse that morning, and after a fretful sleep I realised I still had no real firm plans for getting to Stöðvarfjörður.
I had decided to take the bus instead of an internal flight from Reykjavik Domestic to Egilsstaðir (the airport in the east of the country), as there were rather limiting weight and size restrictions on Air Iceland (and it turned out I needed every extra kilo for my art materials!) The idea of a bus journey, felt like a true adventure and a way to see some of the country that I may not get a chance to go back to again on this trip. However, during my planning I had realised there was a slight problem. After trying to get my head around Icelandic bus timetables, and after contacting several different bus companies, I established there was one patch of road that was not served by buses in the winter- and of course this was the bit of road I needed. I worked out I could get as far as Djúpivogur from Höfn, but then there was a complete gap in service between Djúpivogur and Breiðdalsvík. The best advice SVAust, the local bus company could offer was to hitchhike (to the horror of my family)! (* Despite watching and reading numerous Scandinavian thrillers that suggest otherwise, I am now realising that hitchhiking and carpooling is considered very safe and is a very normal practice in Iceland). But before I left the UK I was reassured by the Centre that somebody may be coming from that direction and could offer me a lift so not to worry, as Djúpivogur is only an hour from Stöðvarfjörður, or absolute worst case scenario I assumed I would be able to just get a taxi.
The man at Apotek guesthouse phoned the bus driver for me and he agreed to come and pick me up to save me walking to the stop at the campsite (these extra little kind acts are just commonplace in this country and when you try to thank Icelanders they almost seem embarrassed). When I say bus, this time it really was a people carrier-to my immediate family, cast your mind back to our Toyota Space Cruiser off of the 80s and 90s- this was my bus! This time it was only me travelling, and I realised why there just isn’t the requirement for public transport in this part of Iceland in the winter. It seems to serve more as a delivery service. We stopped at Höfn airport and waited for the tiny plane to arrive, bringing just a handful of passengers, and supplies- some of which were loaded onto our bus.
I had been sitting in the middle of the bus expecting more people to be getting on and off, but a few miles from the air field, the driver realising I was craning and straining to look out of every window so as not to miss anything, pulled over and told me I would get better views in the front. A kind, quiet man whose English was good but not perfect (as so many Icelanders seem to have), but we managed to communicate very well. He told me about a lake that in the spring would be full of thousands of whooper swans, and made sure to point out the wild reindeer, shrugging with a small amused smile at my excited face and wide eyes, “We see them all the time.”
We made a quick stop so he could deliver a newspaper to a sick friend- I told him people in the England would never receive this level of service from a bus driver! He shrugged and smiled. The sea raged and we sped around the mountain roads and came to a stop as a digger was scooping soft looking earth from the mountain side, crossing the road and depositing it over the edge to the black sand beach and sea below. The driver explained there were regular land sides in this area and this is why there was need to move the earth. He chuckled at my obvious horror, and we accelerated onwards.
As we begun heading further east the fjords revealed themselves, still and beautiful. It made me long for the co-ordiantion and skill to skim stones- but being super dyspraxic and hyper mobile (read clumsy and bendy!) it is unlikely I will ever look like anything other than a heron about to take off as a stone plops into the water at one skim! The landscape felt wilder and more ancient here. We were in Austurland.
I arrived in Djúpivogur at around 12.30; a small quiet fjord side town and we stopped at what seemed to be the heart of every community outside of Reykjavik- the cafe come local shop, Við Voginn. The driver had promised he would help me with the next leg of my journey, making sure I had a backup in case there were any problems with my anticipated lift. As he spoke to the woman who worked in the cafe, I realised that taxi’s were in fact non-existent here, and she told me if I had difficulty with a lift from my contacts who had gone a bit quiet (* I later found out that changeover day-the departure of the previous months artists the day before, and the arrival of the new artists on the first of the month, means everyone is run ragged- hence the radio silence), that hitchhiking really was my only option. I ordered some food, emailed the Centre and decided to sit tight. This didn’t seem like a terrible place to get stuck. Three weeks ago I was working in office, and now here I was consuming a meal of a million meatballs, and looking out to mountains and over a beautiful fjord!
I heard from the Centre, they said that I needed to get to Breiðdalsvík which was another 35 minutes further on, and I would be met by someone from the Factory there. I was repressing the panic rising up inside me as I was sending reassuring messages to family and friends- “A lift was being organised, someone would be waiting for me, I just had to wait.” Which was true. I just needed to get to Breiðdalsvík…and I had no idea how to do that. There really weren’t any buses or taxis…but not a big deal…right?! I couldn’t have them worrying about me from so far away when there really was nothing they could do on this one. I had to deal with this on my own- I’m a notorious worrier, and I was just about holding it together. I was worried but didn’t want anyone else to project anymore fear on to me- otherwise I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle things at all, I’d dissolve into a big puddle of anxiety and would want to come home instantly.
At 2pm the bus driver came back to check up on me. He said that whatever happened he would make sure he had secured me a safe lift before he left. He went away and spoke to someone he knew, when he came back he told me that I would definitely be able to get to Breiðdalsvík, but his friend would not be going until much later. He would come in when he was ready, and if I was still here he would take me. I told him he was very kind, he shrugged, smiled his quiet smile and left. I did not even know his name.
By 3.45pm I had been offered two lifts for the evening, the lady in the cafe had posted my situation on a local car pooling page on Facebook and another local has said if I was bored I could go and wait at his family home (* It was a genuine and very kind offer, but the Londoner in me was screaming at me to stay put!!). I drank coffee and hot chocolate, and the cafe lady kept popping over to check I was ok. Two Americans heading for Höfn in a hire car asked me how I’d become “stranded”. I told them I didn’t feel that way, I was exactly where I was supposed to be and I would get to Stöðvarfjörður when I needed to. That was what I was telling myself anyway! People are kind. And someone would help. But I wanted to cry- I had got so far, but I was in a strange place and I was stranded and without transport options. I wrote in my journal and pulled out my sketchbook in an effort to distract myself and I felt instantly calmer.
At around 5.15pm I had a plan and a lift was organised. A friend of the cafe lady, a good man from Akureyri; she knew him well, he checked and fixed the soap dispensers of the cafes and hotels all along the east fjords. He could not only take me to Breiðdalsvík where I could be met, but it turned out he would be passing through Stöðvarfjörður so he was happy to take me all the way to the Factory if I wanted. It felt like hitchhiking and there was something about that term that induced all shades of fear in to my British sensibilities. I’m a cautious person and it felt really flipping reckless. I would be horrified to hear of someone I cared about taking such a risk whilst travelling on their own, but in this moment I really had to rely on the kindness of strangers. Really, everyone I had met so far in this country was a stranger and I was fine, and the people in the Factory were strangers too- that’s what I kept telling myself…no different to heading off solo with the unknown bus driver this morning- and he was lovely…it would be fine. No different to a taxi. But as the light was fading, childhood thoughts of stranger danger kept ringing in my ears…”Charlie says, you must never get into cars with strangers!” Seeing my obvious anxiety, the lady in the cafe promised I would be safe- she would not send me off with someone she didn’t trust. I had to have faith in goodness. I remembered hearing someone once say “A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met.”…Right?! That had to be my mantra. I let the Factory know my plan, so that they knew my movements, and I told Emma, so at least someone from home knew. I couldn’t and wouldn’t have everyone else worrying.
The lady in the cafe was not wrong- he was a warm, funny, family man who put me at ease straight away. We chatted the whole way- his English impeccable despite the fact he had never been to the UK. He joked about Icelandic driving, roads and the possibility of large stones falling from the mountainside- teasing foreigners about the roads, appears to be a national pastime, he laughed as I was clinging on with white knuckles! He told me about his family- his two sons, one still studying and one a carpenter, with two jobs and a passion and talent for sports (Crossfit at competitive level. Parents are the same the world over though- he had to have a fallback career!) They had a strong work ethic- “He wasn’t going to raise losers!” He told me I would like Akureyri, where he had lived his entire life, and that I should visit when the better weather came. I told him about my family, my life in the UK and what had brought me to Iceland. We talked music, and we talked football- in particular the 2016 Euros! Such pride and still so much surprise at how well the national team had done. It was because they “played together and had team spirit” that they had beaten England he said. I wholeheartedly agreed.
His whole face lit up when he told me about his first trip to the UK, which he had planned for the spring. The entire family were going to Liverpool for a home match as he’d supported them since he was a little boy. He was hoping they would have a chance to travel a little but was undecided whether they would visit London or Edinburgh. I suggested Edinburgh might be a better place for a first trip to the UK. I thought of this lovely man and his family, lost in London! I worried they would be overwhelmed by the size and occasional unfriendly welcome sometimes to be had in London. It seemed strange that I had been so anxious about this situation half and hour earlier, and yet here I was worrying about how this stranger would manage in my homeland!
As we approached Stöðvarfjörður, he told me to call my contacts at the Factory, and insisted he would wait with me until I was with someone. As Peter came to meet me at the Factory door, I thanked this the wonderful human who had rescued me profusely. “Why wouldn’t I give you a lift,” he said “we are going in the same direction.” *Shrug*. I told him I would not forget his kindness and wished him a happy, safe trip to the UK and a good match- and then with a wave the man from Akureyri who supported Liverpool and worked in soap was off into the darkness. People were kind, and they did help. That’s the sort of country Iceland is.
It was then, as I followed Peter inside, that I got my first look at the Factory and the studio- but at this point I couldn’t really take it all in. I was tired and though half of me wanted to explore my new workspace, the other half was emotionally and physically drained from four days of travel and fretting. I wanted to get to my new temporary home and curl up. But first a quick cup of tea in the Factory kitchen, while preparations at the houses were still being made. I met Vinny, one of the project managers and founders of the Factory, an Irish musician and sound engineer with a fondness for tea- I liked him instantly! And I met the three other new resident artists, all of whom had the sense to fly from Reykjavik…! The studio kitchen was warm and cosy. Now that I’d finally made it I had a good feeling about this place.
I met Una, another of the Factory project managers, and Nisa, an intern from Turkey, and was put into Bjarkarlundur, a four bedroom house three minutes walk from the factory. I would be living with Nisa, and two other artists, Ina from France and Nicole from Denmark, as well as a beautiful little cat from next door, Boosti, who comes and goes as he pleases- he has squatters rights! In my capacity of crazy cat lady, I was just as pleased to meet him as I was my new human housemates!
As I had no food, and the other three newbies very little (they had done a small shop on the way back from the airport), Peter invited us over to the other house for something to eat. This was most welcome, and a good chance to chat- but also brief as I think all of us wanted a chance to settle and sleep after long tiring journeys from across the globe.
Back in my room and in need of comfort, I unpacked all the strange little objects I had brought with me to help me feel safe in a strange place, and stuck my photos up on the wall. Everything else could wait. I think if you have something on the walls you can instantly feel at home. Having all my favourite faces surrounding me was comforting and I didn’t feel alone at all anymore. After a long trip I could finally breathe again. Lugging heavy bags about, pushing myself so much physically and having to be aware and on it all the time had taken a bit of a toll, so now was the time to start taking care of myself again. I had been so brave and intrepid and had held it all together- in a way that I would never have believed possible. But now I could rest.
I had my first good sleep in over a week, and it was a beautiful morning (02.02.17). I opened the blind and forgot all about the problems of my first few days as I looked out and got a first proper look at my new home. From my bedroom window I can see down to the Factory, the fjord and over to the mountains. Except for the tops of the mountains, there was none of the snow I had expected before setting off from the UK (it has been an unusual winter I have been told on several occasions. The wind is still very cold though), instead the sun was shining, and it looked like the Stöðvarfjörður of Google Street View! Which I certainly wasn’t expecting until at least the end of April.
We were having an team/artist meeting at 2pm, so I took my time, enjoying a slow start. I knew I would be having a proper tour of the facilities later in the day so I decided to just settle in to my own studio space. The Factory itself is a huge building- an exceptionally ambitious arts based cooperative project, dreamed up to help regenerate the area (industry all but disappeared from Stöðvarfjörður when the Fish Factory closed in 2005). Even just glancing around, I could see, only half done, it was impressive.
My studio space is far bigger than the one I had at university, in a shared studio for six (although there are only five spaces occupied at the moment). And within minutes I feel less of a charlatan- after a break of a few months I am a proper artist again! I started with a little experimentation using my new ArtGraf (water soluble graphites), which I love, but soon I was making a start on a new mini project. I begun starting to recall from memory the faces of those that had helped me on my journey. Small portraits honouring kindness. This feels like a good way to start. Some feel close to the memories, some not so much, but I feel like it’s something I can keep revisiting- maybe I will keep trying to remember those same faces as well as new ones in the weeks to come.
As I had no food other than the little stash of British chocolate that had survived the great purge (when my suitcase was overweight) and the shared provisions and left-behinds from previous residents, I decided to pop to Brekkan, the local cafe-cum-convenience store. I had been told it would be a little expensive, but at that point I thought I would have to survive until the main shop on Monday- so I needed essentials. They had peanut butter, courgettes (seemingly no courgette crisis in Stöðvarfjörður!) AND Heinz baked beans- what more could a Brit abroad ask for! (It turned out I didn’t have to wait too long for the bigger shop…more on that later).
At the meeting we all got a chance to be in the same room. Una, Rosa and Vinny, (who run and Project Manage the Factory together) Nisa, Peter (Australian, volunteering and working hard with Vinny on all things practical at the factory), and the artists; Nicole and Ina (who I live with), and Sara (Danish), Yang (Chinese) and Brynja (Icelandic)- who are sharing the other house. We also met, very importantly, the studio dogs- Tumi & Skotta. All were here for the next month (Brynja and Nicole having already done one month), so I am the only one staying on into March and beyond. After a brief meeting and being given our studio keys, the newcomers were given the grand tour. The facilities are fantastic despite not even being finished yet. And the building is MASSIVE. As well as the studios there are ceramic, print, wood, metal, and textile workshops and a recording studio in the process of being built- and there is a concert hall. I cannot wait to get into the print studio next week! It’s amazing now but it will be INCREDIBLE when it is all finished. I am blown away by the passion and commitment of Una, Rosa and Vinny, not only to this project, but to the community. This place is something special.
After a little more work I headed “home” and caught up with my Mum and Zanna on FaceTime. I cannot believe how brilliant Wi-Fi is, not just in my house and the studio, but all over the country- three days ago I was on a bus in a lava field sending messages on Whatsapp and listening to Spotify- mad! I want to really experience being here, but I know if I didn’t have a way to communicate with those I love I would not function. So I have to embrace the tech sometimes, and be present and in the moment at others!
I spent Friday morning (04.02.17) at the Factory writing. I am keeping a travel journal (which is forming the basis for this blog) and I feel like writing is going to be an unexpectedly important part of this trip. Whilst I am getting on well with the other artists, maybe because so far I don’t have the connections and bonds I have at home, I can’t just blurt out nonsense like I do usually (!), so writing it down feels like a good release.
The afternoon was reserved for the weekly supermarket trip- which had been brought forward because I had no food! The supermarket is in Reyðarfjörður which is 45 minutes north along the fjords. The rain was hammering down as we were about to set off. Una and Nisa were sharing the driving whilst Sara, Yang and I were crammed into the back of the rapidly steaming up car- me in the middle! Una chatted constantly- she has an ability to make you feel comfortable discussing any topic, so soon we were comfortably bouncing around all subjects, from Factory life, to food (one of my favourite things to talk about!), the local area, and art and politics in relation to our different cultures. Soon we had arrived at the Krónan supermarket in Reyðarfjörður. But hang on a second- I knew this place…we weren’t in Reyðarfjörður- my local supermarket was in fact in the fictional town of Fortitude! I had enjoyed catching up with the Sky Atlantic television program before Christmas- but I wasn’t sure I wanted to live it! I now knew I would need to have my wits about me whilst doing my weekly shop- I would have to watch out for strange creepy children, and prehistoric parasitic wasps! (*Sadly no one else had seen the show so I had no one to share my geeky excitement with!)
It doesn’t matter where you go- whilst at home a boring chore, a trip to a supermarket in a foreign land is always exciting! Unknown and unexpected treats in every aisle- what an adventure! It was bigger than I’d expected- and had almost everything I had put on my list- I was even able to buy some fruit. Clemantines have never felt like such an exotic indulgence! I had to guess what a few things were (there was lots of mystery meat and tins of unknowable contents to contend with), but managed well. I perhaps wasn’t as adventurous as I could have been- but to be honest I was terribly excited just to know I would have butter and milk of my very own! First shop successfully negotiated, I had fruit, a breeze block of emergency fish fingers(for fish finger sandwich related emergencies!), I wasn’t entirely broke- and I hadn’t met a grisly fate at the hands of the Fortitude locals- I call that a win!
A car full of shopping and we were off back home, rain still bucketing down. Una gave me an Icelandic boiled sweet- one of her favourites she said. If I was playing the game of What a Treat/Not a Treat with my friends Scarlett and Rowan, this would certainly have fallen into the category, most definitely not a treat. (I will try and find out the name so I can ensure all of your tastebuds are safe on any future Icelandic adventures you may find yourselves on!) It was both salty and acidic tasting on the outside, I sucked hard, knowing that perhaps it would be better once I had got through the outside layer, but pulling faces and moaning the whole time- whilst Una laughed maniacally at my obvious disgust. Once that horror was over it was a tangy medicinal liquorice and aniseed shell. It was bearable but not pleasant and at this point I thought the worst was over. IT WAS NOT OVER! As I thought I was finishing the damn thing, the sweet split open to reveal a fresh new horror- an indescribably acrid liquid centre! Yang, simultaneously sampling one of these “delights” was quietly gagging next to me. But I was not giving in. I crunched it up and swallowed, silently vowing that nothing so foul would ever pass my lips again. “It’s an acquired taste.” smirked Una.
We had a very hairy moment on the costal mountain roads heading back to Stöðvarfjörður. The conditions were terrible, and I only realised the seriousness of the situation and what sort of vehicle it was, once the HUGE articulated lorry, right on our tail up on a slope, on a precarious cliff side road, the raging sea below, aggressively using his horn had passed us…on a bend, almost forcing us off the road. Nisa, a relatively new driver under Una’s supervision, handled it amazingly. I would have burst into tears (fairly standard when I’m driving anyway!) and would never have wanted to get back into a car again! Through Una’s anger, she thought fast and took the number plate and knew the lorry company- and so for the rest of the journey begun planning how she was going to rain down firey rage on this guy! I certainly would not want to be in his shoes on Monday!
Safely back, we all headed to Brekkan for a pizza night all together. I had been told before leaving the UK, not to be “alarmed” when all Icelandic pizza was served with jam. So I was almost a little disappointed/alarmed when there was no jam! I had been quite looking forward to being alarmed by jam! Una promised me, next time, she would make sure there was jam. The pizza was tasty (albeit jamless) and it was fun to all be together and sociable. Conversation shot about from the serious to the silly, this made me feel really at home and it was lovely to really be able to laugh again. We continued the wild Friday night antics back at our house with tea and vegan snacks. It was a lovely way to end the week.
We had found out the previous evening that it was Yang’s birthday the next day (04.02.17). He said it wasn’t a big deal because his birthday was so close to Chinese New Year, so he never really felt special. After a lovely lie in and a breakfast of Skyr (my first taste of this national treasure whilst in Iceland) and dried fruit, I set about preparations for the evening. We were going to have a pot luck supper at the other house, Lingholt, which is two doors down. I decided to do some baking, and made some spelt flour, peanut butter and jam cookies, as I knew these were yummy and vegan, so could be enjoyed by everyone! I then went down to the factory and set about making something so that Yang could feel special on his birthday. I made him a Icelandic mountain inspired crown, so that he could be King of the fjord for one night! That’s pretty special right?! At 7pm I headed to the other house. Sara had made Yang a beautiful little Chinese flag that he could stand on his desk, so he could feel at home. And as for my crown?! Just a bit of silliness, but he didn’t take it off all night!
If this is how I am to eat in Iceland- I will be a happy bunny! Such a feast of delicious treats! There was home made guacamole (who’d have thought you could get an avo in the darkest fjords Emma Davidson!) made by Sara, slithers of rosemary potatoes roasted, and a coconut and vegetable stew by Brynja, fried rice the like of which I’d never tasted by Yang (who has said he will teach me!), and Peter’s contribution was a baked gratinated fish dish with root vegetables- oh my gosh, the fish. Smoked cod. It was fresh and incredible, brought in yesterday from the man who leases a space in the Factory for processing. We can buy fish directly from him before he freezes it and sells it on. What a treat! For dessert it was vegan chocoloate date slice courtesy from Brynja, my PB&J cookies, and some surprisingly nice (for someone who doesn’t like liquorice), chocolate covered liquorices with a marzipan centre thanks to Nicole.
We all sang birthday songs from our various countries, my favourite being the two Dane’s singing a very jolly song with a lot of audience participation and pretending to play instruments! Most importantly, I think Yang felt special on his birthday, and it really was a lovely evening.
So here we are- up to date! It is Sunday (05.02.17), I have had a quiet day, looking out over the fjord, and I can’t quite believe I’ve been in this crazy country for a whole week. No sign of the the Northern Lights as yet, though I’m constantly on the look out! I hope to explore the town a little more in the coming days (after the “excitement” of the journey I have chosen to stay a little more contained in the last couple of days) and of course plenty of studio time and a lot more art. It has certainly been an eventful week- terrifically exciting, emotional and at times terrifying, but I am very glad to be settling now. Who know’s what the next week will hold- but I will definitely keep you all posted!