Gray. A piece inspired by the Bay of Smoke.
What we lost in crossing time zones, we gained in a graduating sunrise as we entered the city of Reykjavik. Colors stretched across the sky, shifting their hue and stroke as the minutes ticked towards daybreak. Little did I know then, this cascade of color would be just my first lesson in seeing past what’s black and white.
According to the Old Norse calendar, we’d arrived on the first day of summer. The city celebrated its public holiday with quiet fanfare on a sun-filled yet 30-degree day. The arrival of summer, while wearing my heaviest winter jacket, piqued my curiosity as to how else this tiny country further flexed the boundaries of conventional definitions.
I didn’t have to look far. To fulfill its name, Iceland (or Ísland in its native spelling) is a land of ice, complemented by a fever of heat in the form of volcanoes, geysers, and geothermal lagoons. Icelanders use these natural resources to not only sustain their lives, but also their lifestyles. A quick visit to a geothermal pool along the beach presented the opportunity to double dip in the heat of the pool and the cleansing freeze of the ocean over the course of a short sandy amble.
To access power, the country built infrastructure to harness nature's wind, waterfalls, and steam. To quench its thirst, citizens drink from its rivers and streams; thousands of years old ice melt from glaciers like Langjökull. Atop these glaciers, winds whip and snow blinds; adding layers to the ever-sliding ice sheet. A quick peek down a glacial crevasse revealed the result of earth's natural speed bump: a crack so deep and divisive, a polar bear could float to Greenland on the sloughed-off remains.
Naturally powered and powerful, has the mighty country mastered a perfect plan? No, not yet. The country is fortunate for its plentiful water supply, but, like the fate of the world’s other natural resources, it is waning. And the undeniable smell of sulfur when you twist on the tap? You don't quite get used to it.
Of equal befuddlement is the Icelandic language. Even to the most zealous of foreigners, it’s quite puzzling. Using ancient, unique characters and closest in tongue to its remote neighbor, Faroese, Icelandic preserved its integrity thanks to its geography. In other words, an isolated island makes for an ideal place for cultural conservation. That’s not to say Icelanders are inflexible. Au contraire. Given their innovative knack for tapping natural resources and a heritage robust with literary accomplishments, Icelanders are well-versed in creative contributions. A stroll around the popular shopping street Laugavegur revealed copious amounts of public artistic expression, rivaled only by the number of colorful canvas totes from the Iceland Writers Retreat – an annual event that coincided with our trip. (Alas, my knowledge of this event was belated. Perhaps next year.) A city of literature and creativity, indeed.
And a peaceful one, too. We remarked that in seven days, we saw one police officer. It’s a country without a standing army; just a humble coast guard. But don’t let their lack of militia fool you, Icelanders know how to stand up for themselves. Just ask the recently departed Prime Minister…
Politics aside, this tiny island nation is best known for its forces of nature. Icelanders have innovated and created using the cards they’ve been dealt. But what impressed me most was, in a country of contrasts: ice and heat, falls and geysers, isolation and progression, conservation and creativity, Icelanders have found effortless joy living in-between what's black and white. And it seemed all Icelanders, from the street artists to the writers, the farmers to the inn-keepers, the brew masters to the scuba instructors, were in on life’s best-kept secret:
Life isn't about what's black and white. A meaningful existence relies upon a heavy swirling of the color palette of life, leaving only a sliver of white and a quick smear of black left at the edges.
True happiness, you see, is found while you're learning how to navigate the gray.