UPDATE: The bistro in this post has been replaced by an upscale restaurant. It is in the same location, but is now simply named Nauthóll.
If one were to be standing on Öskjuhlíðar, the hill in Reykjavík with Perlan at its top, and proceed in a southerly direction you would end up at the beach at Nauthólsvík. In the summer this is a lively place with a geothermally heated lagoon for swimmers, in late winter it can be somewhat desolate. This is where I found myself last April, after having eaten a light dinner at the Kaffi Nauthóll, a delightful turf-covered hideaway situated in this forlorn landscape. I was headed to the beach, to enjoy a vista of city lights across the bay, when I came upon a small boathouse. As I strode past a short fence, I saw three women leaving the building, and as they exited, one was in contortions, possibly adjusting her bra. My appearance must have struck them as somewhat amusing, for as soon as they saw me they burst into laughter.
“Er-excuse me... ” I stammered.
The fact hat this timid stranger on a deserted beach was an American tourist was a situation they found hilarious. Smiling, they fearlessly strode over and I found myself surrounded!
There is something about the initial moments of contact with strangers, when you realize that you will speak and interact with these people you don’t know. I suppose the subconscious “flight or fight” instinct is there, but this was a little different. Lots of eyeing each other, with the women glancing at each other as if saying to each other, “Is this guy OK, or not, or just a waste of time?”
“Hvaðan ertu ?”
“Minnesota,” I couldn’t bring myself to say America or The U.S.A.
“Have you been in Ísland long?”
“Since Monday... ”
“You come with us to the Kaffí, we will talk there.”
“Um, OK, I would like that a lot.”
“You can have a drink with three weird Icelandic women.” They all laughed.
“Yes, I will, with three beautiful Icelandic women.” They redoubled their laughter.
I had passed the first test...
Settling in, the women ordered while I sat and wondered: “What have I gotten myself into?” I had heard that Icelanders were a fiercely independent people, and that the women especially did not tolerate fools. As they chatted with me and amongst themselves in English and Icelandic, I started to feel woefully under-educated. Suddenly, the woman who had done most of the talking, and who I thought was the leader, reached over and grasped my forearm. “What do you think about the situation in Iraq?” see asked, with a piercing stare. I thought for a second, and said, “It makes me ashamed to be an American... ”
Talk turned to Icelandic film (101 Reykjavík, The Seagull's Laughter) and Literature. Being a big fan of Halldór Laxness, I found a topic that we could share. Íslandsklukkan (Iceland's Bell) had recently been translated into English and I had read it just before my trip. It was a heady moment for me, discussing Snæfríður's speech to the Danish authority, making my case that it was a universal plea for human dignity for all oppressed people. I had made contact, and I felt the ice was broken as our awareness of each each other grew along with our smiles...
We talked into the night; about children, grandparents, social customs, even card games! By now it was quite dark, we went outside, the wind had died down, a fine mist filled the air. While we waited for their ride, one of the women, the one who I had earlier caught “adjusting herself”, walked a few feet away and, spreading her jacket wide, did a little dance to the night sky. Salome in all her glory could not surpass the joy she expressed. Their driver pulled up, the spell was broken and, when I returned to my guesthouse, my head was reeling.
Only in a small way, and only for a few minutes, the world became a better place…