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11 July 2007 @ 02:58 pm
Iceland: By the waters of Breiðafjörður  
June 15

(Photos here.)

Before leaving the lovely turf hostel at Fljótsdalur, I decided to get in a shower--which wouldn't be of note, except for the fact that the shower in question was an outdoor shower.

Here's how it worked: First, take a bucket and fill it with hot water at the sink inside the hostel. (Getting hot water used to require boiling, but a couple days before we arrived, the hostel installed a hot water heater.) Then, climb the stairs outside the shower, and pour that bucket into another bucket, one that lies directly atop a showerhead. Turn the spigot on, which starts the water flowing through the showerhead.

Then--knowing that you don't have much time, because when the bucket is empty, your shower will be over--run around to the shower door, toss your clothes off onto the grass, and jump into the shower.

Stepping out of the shower afterwards, to dress in the chilly gray air of the glacier valley, was actually quite lovely. There's something exhilirating about standing, just out of the shower, in the open air, staring out at the green grass, at a few sheep grazing on the upper slopes, feeling the wind against your skin.

Not that I would have wanted to do this for more than a few minutes. :-)


Shower accomplished, we packed our backpacks, stuffed our sleeping bags into their sacks, and left the Fljótsdalur [valley] behind. My notes for the day say that we left saga country behind, but looking back, that's not really true.

We drove through flat stretches of yellow and green grasses, with black hills in the distance. A different landscape from home, and yet one that was, in its way, reminiscent of the long stretches of empty interstate one drives through in the desert. We took a tunnel under one fjord; bridges over a couple others; and eventually crossed Snæfellsness [peninsula] and arrived in the pleasant seaside town of Stykkishólmur, which looks out over the waters of Breiðafjörður.

How could I have said we'd left saga country? I'd just finished reading Laxæla Saga, which is all about the men and women who lived along--and drew their livelihood from--Breiðafjörður.

After stopping in at the local tourist office and scoping out camping and hostel options, we backtracked a little to visit Helgafell, location of the farm where Guðrun, one of the main characters of Laxdæla Saga, spent her later years. Guðrun is best known, perhaps, for having had four husbands, and losing them all: one because she divorced him, two because they drowned in the Breiðafjörður; and one, Bolli, because Guðrun pushed him into killing his foster brother, Kjartan, and Kjartan's kinsmen took revenge on Bolli in turn.

Not that Bolli was quite blameless, to my reading--Guðrun and Kjartan had been more or less engaged before Kjartan and Bolli left for Norway. Bolli returned ahead of Kjartan, told Guðrun that Kjartan was enjoying the company of a woman overseas, and then turned around and proposed marriage to Guðrun also immediately after. Making Bolli either clueless (at best) or manipulative (at worst).

At Helgafell, there is a mountain--more of a hill, really--that was, in the years after settlement, considered sacred to Þór. That hill was also later the site of a chapel, perhaps the chapel where Guðrun spent her days praying, late in life, after her fourth husband died.

There's a tradition around Helgafell, and we followed it.

First, we walked to Guðrun's grave, faced east, and made three wishes.

Then, we started up the mountain, not speaking, not looking back. (Only--I forgot about the not looking back part, being focused on the silence, and did turn around, once, when I lost the trail.) I felt--a sort of slow building of power as I walked, broken only during that moment when I turned around, and soon gathered up again.

At the top of the hill, within the stone ruins of the chapel where Guðrun once prayed, I faced east and made my wishes once again, because I wasn't certain whether they were supposed to be made at the top of the hill or the bottom.

Tradition says that if one follows all the rules, and if the wishes are made with a good heart, they will be granted.

My wishes made, I found I still had no wish to speak. I walked around atop that hill in silence, and as I did I had the very strong feeling--as I had throughout my climb--that I was walking on sacred ground. Sacred to pagans or Christians, I did not know. It did not matter.

I walked down the path in silence, too, and I returned to Guðrun's grave, where, still not ready to speak, I mouthed the words of a prayer there--a part of a Jewish prayer for the dead, which is also a prayer for peace. I felt my chest catch on the last few words, though my prayer was neither pagan nor Christian, and perhaps did not belong there.

I looked at Guðrun's grave and thought: Five lovers she lost.

And I thought: I hope you find peace.

And I thought: I am sorry for your loss.

As I walked away, I found I wanted to weep for the woman buried here, for the weight of all that loss, no matter the role she played in same.

I did not take any pictures at Helgafell. I did not need them for my story--and to take them, it seemed, would have been to deny the power of the place, to turn it to nothing more than one more tourist attraction.

And even if I did look back, and perhaps in doing so break the spell--I did not speak my wishes then, and I do not speak them now. Just in case.


We returned to Stykkisholmur, where we visited a couple of museums. First, Vatnasafn, the Library of Water, recommended by both al_zorra and the woman and the tourist information center. Vatnasafn consists entirely of clear columns, filled with water gathered from glaciers throughout the country. As one walks around, the angles and views of the museum and the town through the columns shifts and changes. On the floor, words describing various sorts of weather--in both Icelandic and English--were written.

It was a playful place. A good place to go after Helgafell, and in doing so return to the lighter day to day world.

We also visited the Norwegian House, focused on domestic life in the mid 19th century. The best part of this was the attic, where all the random historical artifacts that didn't fit in the museum were stored, unlabeled. We walked past collections of saddles, spinning wheels, birds, eggs, sewing machines, wooden toy trains--all manner of the artifacts of daily life.

One item in the museum proper I do remember: a box of shells and animal horns and bones, which would have been a child's toys. Earlier, in Reykjavík's National Museum gift shop, I'd run learned that old bones were toys once, and that children would sometimes make toy farms out of the bones of various animals, each bone representing the creature it had come from. Children cheerfully playing with old bones--there's something compelling about that image.

The sky was pretty gray and rainy at museum closing time, so we opted for the hostel instead of the campground. We picked up some groceries, cooked dinner, and then, during a lull in the rain, headed out for a walk to the cliffs and lighthouse at the edge of the town.

I found some ravens, huddled on a cliff just across from where the lighthouse stood, and walked down to a spot where I could sit and watch them. Two ravens flew away at my approach, but three remained huddled against the stone, fluffed up against the cold. One raven had its beak tucked under a wing, for warmth perhaps; the second bent its black beak around to preen or groom.

The third raven stared at me, and I stared back. Its eyes flashed gray as they opened and closed, opened and closed.

We were in a different sort of country now than the one we had left that morning: one defined by sea and fjord, not glacier and river.
sfmarty on July 11th, 2007 10:42 pm (UTC)
nice. Thank you.
Angela L. Foxazang on July 11th, 2007 11:04 pm (UTC)
I'm enjoying this very much, thank you!
afraclose: brushafraclose on July 12th, 2007 04:29 pm (UTC)
It's amazing to think of what a child's mind can turn into toys. Further proof that kids don't need fancy, schmancy things with lots of lights and bells, but just something small to call their own and a little bit of time to work the imagination.
littlebirdblue on July 12th, 2007 07:22 pm (UTC)
Beautiful. Thank you.
alfreda89alfreda89 on September 10th, 2007 02:51 am (UTC)
I was out of town and missed this installment -- thank you!