Author Hannah Kent Shares Her Memories of Iceland

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Feb 28, 2017

Between a bleak welcome in Iceland and a sad farewell, the author found warmth in new friends and family and a regular place in their homeland.

No-one was there. After more than 24 hours of travel, most of which was spent crying and thinking I’d made a terrible mistake, I arrived at Keflavík Airport in the middle of the night, a 17-year-old in an appallingly formal Rotary blazer. And no-one had come to pick me up.

After an hour, I found a payphone and called the number I’d been given. There was a stream of incomprehensible babble then the line went dead. I sat down on the carpet and was soon the last person in the Arrivals hall.

“Are you waiting for someone?” It was a security guard, her Icelandic accent thick. “You have to leave. The airport is closing.”

“I was supposed to meet someone here.”She took the piece of paper from me and called the number on her mobile. 

“It has been disconnected.” She pointed to the black expanse outside the airport’s glass doors. “That’s the last bus to Reykjavík,” she said. “Get on it. I’ll try to get hold of someone.”

Nervous and fatigued, I did what she said. I took the bus and got off at the terminal, where a car soon pulled up in the empty lot.“Velkomin!” announced the smiling driver, hair still tousled from sleep. “I forgot you were coming!” 

The first morning I woke up in Sauðárkrókur, my home for the next 12 months, I had to wait four hours for the winter darkness to pale before I could make out the landscape. I was shocked, not realising the town was by a fjord, walled with broad-shouldered mountains, the grey ocean rimmed with black sand. 

At the local high school, I sat through classes in my socks (students don’t wear shoes inside), understanding nothing, speaking to no-one. I walked home in darkness at 3pm, bent forwards against the wind that rattled the wires on the hospital’s flagpoles. My host brother ignored me. I ate hákarl [fermented shark] during Þorrablót [a midwinter festival] and dry-retched into a bin. I cried at night, gutted with homesickness.

Spring arrived. A girl, Mæja, befriended me and we spent the gradually lighter afternoons listening to Pink Floyd. I moved in with a new host family that had four kids, all under 10. They jumped on my bed and hugged me. A three-year-old screaming, “Má ég fá ís?” (“Can I have an ice-cream?”) became my morning alarm. The one-year-old and I slowly learned Icelandic together.

As the months passed, I became a part of the Sauðárkrókur community, picking blueberries with friends on the heath, playing Lína Langsokkur’s (Pippi Longstocking’s) monkey at the theatre, working at a café and taking part in the autumn round-up of sheep from the mountains. I got a taste for the Christmas drink Malt og Appelsín [malt and orange soft drink] and I began to cry at the prospect of going home.

The farewell was difficult. Back in Australia, my tongue ached from speaking English. I felt homesick for the mountains and my host family. So I bought a ticket and returned. Again and again, as the years pass, I return, leaving one home to return to another. Always homesick. Always home. 

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