by Sophie Davis
I remember looking at Reykjavík on Google Maps, taking a virtual tour through the city of my would-be home. It seemed surreal. The day that the pictures had been taken was a typical Icelandic day – gloomy, cloudy. Plenty of wind and no trees. Little did I know at the time that all of this grey would be juxtaposed with breathtaking sunsets and sunrises. The setting sun painting the snow-covered mountains pink, or waking up in the morning to a sky like a volcanic eruption. I looked at the architecture and the urban landscape in the winter – Harpa, Perlan, and the buildings built by my husband’s greatgrandfather. All of this architecture reflected the Icelandic landscape somehow; blue-slate surface of the sea, the quenching of the molten sand into glass, ubiquitous grey and black volcanic rock and gravel. In the Icelandic landscape, I could see it all: the geologic time, the history of rifts and ecological trauma. The colors of a young earth world.
My husband, Erik, and I left for Keflavík from Boston on the 4th of August. We were going to live in Reykjavík while Erik studied at the University of Iceland. Erik is an Icelandic citizen through his mother, who had been helping us prepare for our new life all summer. We had some major life changes ahead of us, but first we’d have to make it through the airport during a pandemic.
During COVID-19, every experience that was familiar before seems to demand a new set of rules that are being drafted on the spot. Erik and I soon learned that this was the case as we tried to secure a flight. We felt like pioneers as we navigated the changing terms and conditions, a cancellation, and an unexpected trek from Virginia to Massachusetts the night before our flight. Finally, fresh with excitement and anxiety, Erik and I showed up to Logan Airport early that day, not knowing what to expect. Though we’d called ahead, we soon learned that the terminal for Icelandair wouldn’t open for another eight hours. There was nowhere else to go. We would have to set up camp in the airport and wait until night.
Erik and I took a couple of deep breaths and looked at each other. Clearly this situation was going to require a little creativity. Luckily, my husband had the entire first season of True Detective downloaded on his laptop. We raided the magazine stand for snacks, found an empty row of seats, and put our feet up on our luggage. For the rest of the day, the lobby of the airport became our living room. A little while before they called our flight, I saw a family posting up opposite us with the same idea. Their little girl began dancing all over the big empty floor. I smiled at her before realizing that with my mask on, it must have just looked like a stare.
The empty airport provided plenty of space to socially distance people. It was bizarre. I’d been on many flights as a kid to visit my family in the UK, and every time, I’d had to mentally prepare myself to be corralled like livestock in a herd. But now, I really felt the size of the airport without people in it. It was almost as if we’d found ourselves locked in a mall overnight. We were like ants carrying our tiny loads on our backs to different corners of the airport. In retrospect, this time passed quickly. After some more socially-distanced waiting in another part of the airport, we were finally on the plane.
Being on the airplane usually means rubbing elbows, the smell of airport upholstery (body odor and coffee), and the spilling of your drink when the person in the row ahead of you abruptly leans back in their seat. Not much different here. I guess the airline companies figured that a row of seats erects a sufficient barrier between passengers. My plastic cup of water still sloshed onto our itinerary as the passenger in front of me reclined for the night.
I was so excited for the plane to lift off of the ground that I couldn’t stop squeezing my husband’s hand. I was grinning so hard that my dimples pushed my mask up into my eyes. I’ll always remember this excitement, and how I couldn’t read, sleep, or watch any of the in-flight movies for the whole journey because I was so nervous. For six hours, I watched our little cartoon plane cross the Atlantic on the flight tracker map.
As soon as the plane touched the ground in Iceland, it really hit me what we had done. We’d left our families and friends behind, and with the future of the pandemic so uncertain, it was unclear when we’d see them again. This was our first time as newlyweds that I’d realized what it meant to be married. We were a unit, a team, and a bastion facing a tide of change and chaos in the world. Of course there would be challenges ahead, but I felt confident in that moment.
One challenge was enduring the Q-tip that came soaring up my nostril the moment we stepped off of the plane. They had cordoned us into makeshift cubicles for testing once we had stepped off. I knew this was coming, but I was still unprepared, and dazed from the lack of sleep. “Woah! Can I just –” I started, but it was already done. I walked out of the cubicle pinching my nose. It felt like they had taken something. Maybe the groggy part of my brain? I was wide awake now!
We got into our rental car and began the drive home from Keflavík. For miles, all I saw were black rocks like rolling hills covered in brilliant green moss. It was true: there were no trees, only here and there a cluster of pines huddled together for warmth. I looked at the clouds, so low to the earth. “We’re at the top of the world!” I told Erik excitedly. He nodded. He knew the landscape well.
When we got to our apartment, we hauled our luggage inside and collapsed on the couch. We looked at each other. “What now?” Erik asked me jokingly. I thought of all of the things that one hopefully does when moving to another country: learning the language, exploring on foot to make a mental map of your surroundings, meeting neighbors, finding jobs. Luckily, my job allowed me to work remotely. Erik’s classes would be online for the foreseeable future. We had two weeks of quarantine ahead of us.
“We stay inside,” I said.
Two weeks after we’d taken our second test and quarantined, we went for a walk in downtown Reykjavík. Erik was suddenly struck by a craving for pylsur.
“Hot dogs?” I said, “But it’s 4 degrees Celsius!”
“No, trust me, you want one too,” he said.
He weaved through the streets in central Reykjavík like a dog on the hunt until we reached “Bæjarins beztu pylsur.” Erik ordered three dogs “með öllu,” and we sat among the pigeon-picked benches to dig in. I was pleasantly surprised by the flavor and texture. The combination of raw and fried onions is ingenious.
“I love the two types of mustard,” I said.
“Haven’t you ever had remoulade?” he asked, laughing at me with his mouth full. He was now on his second.
The last time I’d eaten a hot dog had been as a kid at a Cleveland Indians baseball game. I was sitting in the nosebleed section on a steaming July day, leaning over the rails with an acute sense of vertigo, a fear of my dog slipping out of the bun, landing on the field and disrupting the game below. Now, I was surrounded by Icelanders. They were lined up outside the stand in t-shirts and shorts. I had my winter coat and boots on. This would be the first time I’d ever eat a hot dog in a down jacket, but definitely not the last.