The first time I visited Iceland, I was nine years old, and I went with my father. It was my first flight anywhere other than Florida, the occasion for my first-ever passport, my first time crossing an ocean. My father and I watched The American President on the flight and landed at Keflavík early in the morning. I remember watching the sun rise over the lava fields outside the bus window. A child of the suburbs, I had never seen a landscape so…bleak. There was no grass anywhere, no trees; there was only one road that I could see, and beyond it the great grey-blue of the Atlantic.
Just like on those trips to Florida, we were there to visit my grandparents, though we were far from their airy Florida condo. Instead, my grandfather was in a nursing home by the sea and my grandmother was in a studio apartment nearby. I wasn’t used to studio apartments, or the slim sizes of Coke cans, or digital clocks flashing 0:00 at midnight, or the strange taste of the Icelandic hot dogs my grandmother boiled for me on her small stovetop. I certainly wasn’t used to my grandfather not being able to talk at all. I hated the nursing home on sight, where the blank faces of the residents and their stale urine smells stood in stark contrast to the aggressively cheery yellow walls. I also had to keep meeting new relatives and family friends. I was used to knowing exactly who was in my small American family – four uncles, two aunts, three baby cousins – so being introduced to a legion of strange adults, all of whom were called “cousin”, was disconcerting.
What sort of an impression did Iceland leave on me? I remember the wind being so strong it blew my hat off. I remember watching ER and 60 Minutes with Icelandic subtitles at another cousin’s house and wondering why all these American shows were on Icelandic television. I remember the surprise of seeing kids my own age travelling without adults on the city buses, chattering away in a language I couldn’t understand. I remember the outdoor swimming pool, where I felt embarrassed at the chicken pox scars all over my belly when I had to shower before putting on my bathing suit. I remember walking to Ikea with my father, who was probably trying to show me something familiar from the Washington suburbs in the midst of all of the strangeness. The hot dogs there didn’t taste the same, either.
I knew that we weren’t there to be tourists, my father and I. We were there to visit Afi, my grandfather, who was sick and didn’t remember how to do things I thought all adults were able to do, like walking down stairs or using the bathroom. I can’t say that we didn’t do touristy things, though. We drove around the Golden Circle with two cousins, who made jokes about the pale green plastic-covered hay bales being after-dinner mints for trolls. I remember the glistening coins in the water at Þingvellir, the enormous, quick spray of the geyser, and visiting Gullfoss. Well, really, I remember eating orange ice cream at the cafeteria at Gullfoss. I also remember eating orange ice cream in the cafeteria at Perlan, looking down at Reykjavík from the hilltop terrace.
Why I fixated on orange ice cream on that trip, I can’t really tell you. I can tell you that two winters before, I had strolled down the sidewalk of a south Florida town with my grandfather, who picked an orange off a tree to share with me. My grandfather, the story goes, grew up only seeing oranges at Christmas; how strange it must have been to be able to simply pick one off a neighbour’s tree to share with his granddaughter. But not strange in the same way that it strange was for me to find myself in his home country, just nine years old and not completely able to realize that I was there to say goodbye.