Buying a House in Iceland: Part 1

After almost three months of midnight sun, I have a strange yearning for nighttime and for stars. I want to sip hot tea out of a giant (American sized) mug and wear thick lopapeysa and read mostly-happy books while lounging under a cozy blanket on the couch. The days are already getting shorter.

I want to putter around the house, getting ready for bed, only to hear M call from beside the window, “Look outside!” and see streaks of green and purple dancing across the sky–the Northern Lights, flaming bright, just for us.

We have been searching for a place to call our own, and wouldn’t you know it–glorious Iceland, a country that just appears to be overflowing with land, land, land–has an eeny meeny housing market. Especially in our neck of the woods.

Any new listings that fit our budget and wishlist are quickly visited. We hold fast to optimism and hope, try to see the new view through rose colored glasses, only to be hit with a semi-truck of a huge dealbreaker.

It’s a bummer.

I wonder if the universe is trying to tell us something. Should we move to the North of Iceland, far away from family and friends (and Thai food)? Should we move to the States, and try to shift our dreams to Tennessee terrain? Should we try to move to France so that M can learn more about his beloved la Bresse chickens?

I know I should be grateful that we have a roof over our heads. But it is difficult to find gratitude when you live in a tiny summerhouse filled with another person’s belongings. Especially when that person’s idea of decoration is a beloved collection of miniature clown/troll/baby dolls.

Sometimes it feels like we will never own a house and will be nomadic renters forever. I crave stability. I crave STUFF. I dream of buying a vase that is Yves Klein blue and filling it with wildflowers. I dream about buying framed art prints and hanging them on white walls. I keep a list on my computer:

  1. the duel russian ilya repin

  2. calder

  3. eugene atget

  4. les coquelicots argenteuil

  5. hellboy

  6. Eugène Galien-Laloue

But one has to stay strong. So I stuff the miniature dolls into the extra wardrobe (Icelandic houses don’t have closets), eat a piece of fresh sourdough bread with creamy Icelandic butter and watch the sunset. The clouds turn purple and the light goes reddish orange and the golden sun drips behind the horizon line.

No one can own a sunset.

Iceland Air

We have had amazing weather this summer–warm, sunny days with blue skies that stay blue. It’s the constancy that is so unexpected. A little summer sun isn’t abnormal in Iceland, but it’s usually followed by brisk wind and clusters of clouds scurrying across the sky. Just like that, the sun is gone again.

Sunbathing in Iceland isn’t the leisurely activity one engages in at the beach. No, Icelandic sunbathing is exercise in and of itself. The sunbathee sees the sun and rushes out to the porch, only to rush back inside minutes later. She wears a swimsuit so she can get a proper tan but keeps a sweater at hand, knowing that the sun’s warmth is merely temporary. After a long, dark winter, she is so desperate for a taste of sunlight on her bare skin that she will hover beside the window, hoping for the clouds to pass.

So yes, I have been loving this “hot” Icelandic summer. On my days off, I sit in the garden in shorts and sip an iced beverage. “Am I really in Iceland?” I wonder, watching the dogs run around on green grass, wildflowers waving lazily in a gentle breeze. Memories of the winter mornings when sunrise didn’t occur until 11:00 are difficult to access–I feel supremely content, lucky even.

But the lack of rain coupled with the constant sunshine has brought an insane amount of dust to the air. It fills the car when I drive down the gravel road that leads to our little cottage and turns the horizon into a haze. The looming shapes of Hekla and Eyjafjallajökull disappear into a murky off-white mist. My throat becomes scratchy and my nose gets clogged. I start to hope for rain and lower temperatures, to be tired of all of this heat and dust. It feels like a betrayal until I tell an Icelandic colleague. “Ha!” she laughs. “You’re becoming one of us.”

Last night, my husband and I were lying in bed, talking about our days. Our bedroom curtains have been pulled low all summer, blocking out the midnight sun. But the sun is setting earlier and earlier now, and the nights are getting colder. I had a hunch and pulled up the curtains to open the window as wide as possible.

A deep draught of cool air filled the room, scented with sweet aspen. We both inhaled deeply. It was the pure, Icelandic air that I missed all summer, sweet and clear–almost able to be tasted. “Do you feel that?” I said. “Finally,” my husband said. “Finally, I can breathe again.”

Icelandic Cultural Differences

My husband’s best friend and his wife recently had twins. A week or two after they returned from the hospital, I suggested that we bring them dinner.

“Why?” said my husband. “What do you mean, bring them dinner?”

And so it was revealed to me that Icelanders do not bring new parents food. And yet! This Is Decidedly A Thing, with a myriad of articles offering recommendations about what to bring, advice on how long to stay once the thing has been brought and tips about foods that can be consumed with only one hand (the other presumably being used to hold an infant). But I guess it’s an American Thing, not an Icelandic one.

I consulted my mother-in-law after considering that perhaps my husband just didn’t know the code. This was his first close friend to have a kid, after all. Alas no, my mother-in-law only said “huh?” and stared at me with a puzzled expression. But hope was not lost.

“You know, I did a lot of Swedish stuff when I moved here,” she said, smiling at the distant memory. “All of the Icelanders thought it was a bit weird, but it’s good to share your traditions.”

So damn it, I decided to share my American tradition. My husband was supportive, but I still sensed a vague awkwardness in his demeanor when he alerted me that he had told his friend about our impending dinner offering.

“What did he say?” I asked, hoping to be told that the friend had smiled warmly or exclaimed with great cheer.

“He said okay,” my husband said.

“Okay?” I repeated.

“Yeah, we were mostly talking about dogs, so it wasn’t a big part of the conversation.”

I furrowed my brow but dug in steadfast and determined. As we are living in a tiny summer house without oven or washing machine (I’m not crying, you’re crying), I decided that pizza would be our contribution.

My husband texted his friend and vaguely arranged for a date upon which the pizza would be delivered, with no mention of time nor toppings. I suggested he ask about time or toppings and he said he had a general idea of what would be acceptable.

I felt sheepish and awkward as I walked into the home of two relative strangers holding a pizza aloft.

“You have to explain what’s going on,” my husband said on the walk from the car to the house. “It’s your tradition.”

And so I did, muttering some phrases about “tradition” and “congratulations” and steeling myself for the potential embarrassment of making some kind of cultural faux pas involving pizza and babies.

My husband’s friend took the box and smiled.

“That’s a wonderful tradition!” exclaimed the new mother, grinning broadly.

We walked into the bedroom and peered at the sweet, small babies. Their little hands were grasping at the air, each finger tiny and perfect. Eventually, we went home.

In the car, I relaxed. The smell of aspen trees was on the wind, and the rare Icelandic sun shone down against the dusty road. I looked at my husband who was smiling.

“It’s a good tradition,” he said.

“Told you so,” I winked.

Only in Iceland

Only in Iceland, do you hear your dogs barking wildly in the garden and say to your husband, “Honey, what’s going on? Is there a cat?” and then look up from the computer to see a horse walking through the bushes

It’s the biggest traveling weekend of the Icelandic summer–Verslunarmannahelgin, or Tradesmen’s Weekend. Everyone in Iceland is camping, partying and enjoying an extra day off work. Well, except for us. We decided to stay in because we are in the process of trying to purchase our first home and need to pinch our pennies. As a semi-homebody who loves outdoor concerts and big parties but dislikes extremely crowded spaces after approximately thirty minutes of standing wedged like sardines in a can, I am not complaining.

Instead, I took the dogs on several long walks, began a new book and spent an extremely satisfying evening scrambling eggs and chopping ginger, garlic, cabbage and carrots for fried rice. We devoured the stuff in mere minutes, and only for a second did I mourn the near-hour of assemblage that had instantly disappeared. The cooking itself was an act of self-care–neatly chopping vegetables is weirdly therapeutic for me. Anyone else?

I also started watching two new French television shows. Yes, two! I consume television in sporadic binge-y bursts when I have more free time than usual, maybe once every two months. Lately, I have felt an overwhelming urge to travel to Europe, and have instead resorted to watching shows set in other countries. I have also been thinking a lot about my first trip abroad in 2008.

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It was a high school graduation gift, a trip with my mom to France, Italy and Switzerland. We went in the height of summer, and something about the heat and the freedom and the transitory time in my life and the mind-blowing art and culture that I experienced for the first time made it an unforgettable experience.  Despite my terrible body image, unfortunate acne and general awkwardness about being eighteen and traveling with my mother, the entire trip was infused with an awakening to the vastness of the world and a hopefulness for the future. That then lead to my enrolling in a French language course my Freshman year of university. I had never been particularly interested in my mandatory high school Spanish course, but those French courses ended up being one of the best scholastic decisions I ever made, current French comprehension, notwithstanding (I blame lack of practice).

So that is why I have been scrolling through French language movies and television shows on Netflix and delighting in hearing the words again. It’s a way to travel without leaving the couch and is inspiring me to plan future trips abroad. I have been watching two shows. The first is Plan Cœur, translated as The Hook Up Plan.

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The premise is simple: main character Elsa still isn’t over her ex after two years, so her best friends arrange for her to get laid by a high-class male prostitute. Elsa is quirky and nerdy and endearing, and the members of her friend circle all have their own challenges and lovable idiosyncrasies. I especially love the character of Elsa’s control freak best friend Émilie (maybe because I relate a little too much). The premise is silly, the show is light and frothy and yet it still manages to tug on my heartstrings. Seeing glimpses of Paris doesn’t hurt one bit.

Image result for plan coeurThe other show I have been watching is Le Chalet. It’s the complete opposite of Plan Cœur, a creepy murder mystery set in a small French village in the Alps. The show begins with a group of friends returning to the remote village of Valmoline after many years to celebrate a wedding. After driving across a bridge that is the only point of access into Valmoline, a huge boulder falls from a nearby mountainside and destroys the structure, cutting off anyone from leaving the area. The phone and internet connection also stop working at the exact same moment.

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The once-bustling village has become almost deserted, and increasingly creepy things begin happening which eventually leads to various characters’ deaths. The plot alternates between two separate timelines twenty years apart, which allows the viewer to gather suspicions about who is killing the villagers. The episodes are a little long, but I am enjoying the slow buildup to eventual revelation. It reminds me of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and has made me want to reread all of her books again.