Everything in Iceland is in the middle of nowhere. One realizes as soon as one is outside the mild urban hum of Reykjavik that there are just not very many people or very many towns in Iceland. A settlement the size of the small town where I live– a place with a college, a movie theater, a hospital, a hotel, and a few restaurants and bars and not much else– would be the sixth largest population center in Iceland. So when I say that the cabin near Reykholt was remote, it is worth admitting that it was within a couple miles of a gas station where I filled the car with gas and bought ice cream for the family. But it was also very far from so many things that most people think of as essential.
We arrived at the cabin around “dinner time.” It was July in Iceland, so all the markers of the time of day were broken. We had taken a 4pm ferry from Vestmannaeyjar. En route, we ate salami and cheese sandwiches, fresh nectarines, almonds, and muesli in the car. Was it dinner time? Was this food dinner? It was getting hard to say.
If you depend on the rising of the sun to wake you up, you are out of luck in Iceland. The sun is always here in the summer, even in the 2am “dusk.” When do I wake up? When do I eat? When do I take stock of my day? All is light– there is no shadow of the turning of the hours.
The law in Iceland indicates that one needs to leave one’s headlights on while driving. This is useful, I am sure, on the many rainy days here and during the long winter months. But on the eternal sunny days of an Icelandic summer, they are redundant.
The cabin was new and immaculately kept. The walkway from the parking spot to the cabin was made of grey stone river gravel and led to a narrow front porch with a bench, table, chairs, gas grill, and a few small decorations. I spent my “late” hours the first night reading Halldór Laxness on the bench until it got too cold and ate muesli and yogurt there while chatting with an American friend on Facebook at around 8am –morning, according to consensus.
Inside, the cabin was simple. Clockwise, one could see:
- Coat hangers on a coat rack
- A wifi router on a small shelf, with “house rules” framed underneath
- A small round table with three chairs
- A kitchen with a small oven, sink, refrigerator, dish cabinet, pots and pans, silverware holder, and dish soap
- a bathroom with a lovely shower, a toilet, sink, and extra toilet paper; a shelf next to the toilet holds extra supplies
- a sleeping area with a large bed and an overhead bunk perpendicular to the bed and mounted into the wall, with a comforter and pillow but no mattress
- a sofa with removable back cushions
It was not a “tiny house,” but it was close.
We had followed somewhat minimalist principles in packing, so we were traveling with only carry-on luggage. Almost all the bad packing decisions I had made were based on fear– fears that I’d be unhappy without a few actual books, that I’d feel poorly dressed without a second and third pair of pants, that I couldn’t live without a belt or without four pairs of wool socks.
But the cabin was instructive. Smack dab in the middle of nothing, with nary a significant store within sixty miles, there was exactly enough.
Well, except that there was no coffee.
The coffee culture in Iceland really seems to bridge the gap between European and American coffee cultures. One can get American filtered coffee, and everywhere but the gas stations it is served in ceramic cups with free refills from a vacuum pot. But one can get espresso, Cappuccino, and any other kind of Euro coffee drink here, too, all prepared with care using high quality ingredients. All of this becomes moot, of course, when one realizes that no one’s preparing coffee anywhere near us. How do we handle this problem when the clock is telling us that it is morning?
Back when I was reading The Minimalists a lot, I was struck by an article on their web site about how they packed for their long speaking tours. Both guys carried very little luggage but, to my amazement, they carried both coffee and the gear to make it with. Given the ubiquity of coffee in the US, I didn’t really get that. In Iceland, it made sense.
I think the whole world now, for many of us, feels like summer in Iceland. The old rules and wisdom about how humans work feel less solid and true than ever. One needs to make decisions about what one needs and doesn’t need. Fear often leads us to think we need too much. And in the end, so much of life is tied up in the art of choosing well and in the discipline of a well-considered, realistic fearlessness.