Isolation in Iceland

Galaxies, Glaciers and a Melted Heart

Janette Ayachi


“Finally, midnight is available”

—Nathalie Handal

Iceland in winter is the closest one can get to living in eternal night. This country is extraterrestrial; a stretch of solar landscape, rock formations, caves, volcanoes, waterfalls, geothermal pools, black sands – and even when the day does break, around 11 am, there is only a line of sky visible between land and clouds, which themselves look like snow-capped mountains. Moonwalkers practice in Iceland before being flown into orbit. I have found Narnia and I didn’t need a magical wardrobe holding a row of fur coats that morph into white trees, just an airline ticket. It’s the end of the year and I am in Iceland not to meet a Snow Queen, several of whom I’ve met already in my time, but to have an adventure in a world alien to the one I know at home in Edinburgh. I thought it would be a good omen for the year about to begin, 2020. 

I arrive in Keflavik six hours before the year ends and midnight spells out the glitch into a New Year. I depart the runways, and the steel doors and the shine on the airport floors and walk into absolute pitch black and decide to just walk miles into it in the direction of the hotel. I feel like I am travelling through a desert made of ice. The air smells different, the first thing I notice whenever I arrive somewhere new, and the country is sparse, nothing grows here except reindeer moss, the world is mostly mineral. 

Now and then, I notice black rocks jutting out of the snow looking like a figure crouching, a warrior waiting in ambush. I sympathise, having played both hunter and prey in my time, running from and towards love. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference, just like when I squint the landscape looks like Scotland. There is something deeply unsettling when you circle it and discover it is stone and not human at all, yet it carries the weight and shape of one. Like whales who carry themes in their song from where they have travelled; distinct sonar assimilation of learning and influence, animal and human kingdom alike; wherever we scatter, we carry. 

Historically, Iceland was settled by Viking chieftains and their extended families, taking with them slaves and servants raided from their homelands, so the settlers were mostly of Norwegian, Irish and Scottish origin; I wonder if the landscape’s familiarity provided those kidnapped with solace, as it does me as I head into the unknown. Iceland’s nearest country is Greenland, mostly ice and one of the last places on earth to be settled by humans just before the tenth century. I am in the area of late habitation. 

I see small village lights, pinpricks in the settled dark and I crunch over gravel until I find the main road to follow. A few cars stop to offer me a lift into the golden honeycomb of light hovering ahead, a shiny city, but I refuse, smiling, wanting only to be left alone. I was still walking when the fireworks began and I cheered up as unseen locals in the distance somewhere tapped glass together, hugged, kissed and celebrated the closing of one year and the prospect of another. I am grateful for the fireworks as I have lost my way, the gunpowder florets exploding nativity stars guiding me in the right direction. ‘In incomplete darkness, only the portions of material thus rendered luminous are visible‘, taken from a description of Loie Fullers’ ‘Radium Dance’ when she, pioneer of modern dance, performed in Paris, veiled in black gauze lit with fluorescent chemical salts. Glad to know I’m going in the right direction, happy and hopeful for the year ahead, I dance too, now, feeling lit with radium myself. 

New Year’s Day, the turn of a decade, and after a good night’s sleep, I am in The Blue Lagoon spa staring into the mesmerising pit of a mineral bath, watching a colony of people in white towels luncheon after a dip and soak. They haul themselves out of the water, their path onto dry land unconsciously repeating the stages of the ‘evolution of man’ poster, rising from all fours post-pool to primitive hunch until standing straight, I have to rub my eyes to believe it. Some swim, though the water is hardly deep enough; and begs to be sat in—a geothermal dream, a swamp river at a theme park resort in glossy America. The blue is so blue you check for hidden optics or special effects. Some kiss like new lovers making the most of the steam. Me? It’s the first day of 2020 and my romantic moment is with a mozzarella ciabatta and a mini Chablis watching the show; a day out at the spa on the planet Venus, and not one single person speaks, not with words, we are just there, present in white fluffy robes. 

After the glamour of The Blue Lagoon, I walk for miles with nothing for company but earth and sky. I head towards the desolate fishing village and hide in a cave whilst a snowstorm passes, I embrace my inner bear, singing as I circle a mountain. I sleep hard for a few hours at my hotel, shutting down completely, with no dreams. I wake with my eyelids more swollen than I’ve ever seen. I drink bathroom sink water and can taste the fillings in my mouth. 

At my hotel, I spoke with a receptionist who I learned works as a bouncer in Reykjavik and as an attendant at the airport. He has two degrees, no family; a funny Libra who laughs loudly at my jokes and works harder than the hard women around him. He drives me to the only restaurant open on New Year’s Day, which can be found after a longish car trip in a remote part of southern Iceland and it feels as if there is something hugely epochal in the air. By the time I arrive, it’s snowing, hail hits me hard, mostly I laugh, although the sleet in my eyes makes me want to cry. I can tell the receptionist is interested but I am not, so after failing to invite him to join me, I find refuge from his oncoming seduction and the storm and eat in a Fish House Restaurant in Grindavik: the music is the perfect level to offset the hum of voices and there are eight tables, each one seating a group from a different country.

Nearest to me is the French family who flies back to Paris at 5 am, dishevelled, windswept, their hair in tufts like the mice I caught in my cupboard before I left Edinburgh, tails curved over falafel, soft grains and rice pressed into the recesses of their fur. The Viking beer is cold and delicious, I order fish and chips, listen to others crunch into lobster and lick the inside of their cheeks, and suck their fingers. Although the clientele comes from around the world, my eye is drawn to the waitresses. Icelandic women are such strong women; big-boned, not afraid of men’s work and hard labour; whether they are hauling the large fish from the harbour, or holding five plates in each hand. I want only women, twenty-somethings, and the only blonde in the room, I found out after some idle chat, has a boyfriend. I eat and then leave; cars move slowly because of the ice; I think too many things. 

Back at the hotel, the receptionist, now on his night shift, grins and somehow follows me to my door. I am cautious but can sense his harmlessness. He has that soppy, ruffled look of a man who likes wild women best, like Socrates, whose wife was foul-tempered; and when asked why he chose her he replied ‘a horse tamer needs to work with the most spirited animal.’ I lean against the frame and he goes in for a kiss, I turn away, but somehow, I let him continue to kiss my neck. I am looking over his shoulder out the hall window at shards of snow scalping the back landscape. I see no reason to make him stop because his hands on me and breath on my neck felt good. I keep the door ajar with my foot until he’s begging for more, which disturbs me and ends the reverie. I fell into watching him kiss my upper body, places except for my mouth, with mosaic precision, in the room’s full-length mirror. I saw that he was strong but short, too eager. I pushed him off in the least dramatic way possible, for I could see his sweetness and, in a way, I admired his audacity. How many times now do I wish I had followed women that little bit further – in my experience, once the switch turns on, it’s almost impossible to shut down the faucet, even if the instant attraction isn’t there, or sometimes, on the most shameless of nights, when there isn’t any attraction there at all. 

We parted giggling, and I ran to wash his scent off me in the shower, using every toiletry I had to hand. During the night he slips a love note under my door, and knocks as I pretend to sleep; the note says he has Googled me and I make him feel things and he wants to take care of me and give me everything and anything I want. After that, I slept with all of the furniture in the room wedged up against the door.

“Dear Janette, I continue to read your poems and all I can say is that I am pleasantly 

surprised at how inspired I am. I want to buy one of your books and I want a personal 

autograph from you. As the adage goes, if you admire someone’s work you are 

amazed by who you think they are. I am lucky to know you and share what I have 

been missing to share with anyone on this earth. I will end by saying may the wings of 

the butterfly kiss the sun and find your shoulder to light on. To bring you luck, 

happiness and a long life. Today, tomorrow and beyond. From a secret admirer. I 

would like to drop you at Reykjavik tomorrow, the weather is very bad.” 

I thought that was very generous from a man I had spent less than an hour with. In the morning I manage to avoid him at the desk, happy to move on, but I am not outside long before I realise this weather is not for humans. Even the lamp posts shake at their cuffs with the cold, so, after a short battle against gale-force winds, I take shelter in a pub with other British people taking cover waiting for the storm to pass; they play cards or chess or talk. Four-wheel-drives are the only vehicles on the road, people are in ski suits. I draw ghosts on the condensation that paints the windows. We wait out the rain, but the rain never stops and it feels like happy hour bleeds into happy centuries as the road outside turns to a river. Icy, slushy, rained out, a nation’s sweat or tears dropping from the sky all at once. 

Eventually, I have to leave, and when I do, I see people have turned into puffins, mimicking the shuffle of survival, I make it as far as another bar. Viking beer thinning Viking blood; 

“I think that feminism in Iceland is predominantly white and we don’t include immigrants.” 

A girl in rainbow socks standing in the corner says, speaking to her friend as she introduces one friend to another, “Iceland is so small,” she continues after licking her lips “that you know everyone so it is just so scary to leave, and then lose everybody, you know.” I eavesdrop because I like her passion. I had been thinking of leaving for another bar, which I’d checked out earlier and knew opens after 9 pm. It’s the same sad case here as it is, everywhere in every country I’ve visited; I am afraid to leave in case I miss something here, afraid not to leave for the gay club in case I miss something there – although tonight I have no choice other than to be snowed in and stuck. 

“I have nothing to compare it to,” said one of her friends, sadly. Then the night surrenders to Jack Daniels, appropriately, on ice. Tight black. Breath sulphuric. Martian landscape at the end of every glass, every street. Somehow, through more storms, I got back to the hotel. 

There is worse in the city in the morning. After I wake and douse myself in spa creams, sip espresso with long pauses, I visit a Viking museum where I am intrigued by the Valkyrie, strong blonde women on winged horses. After visiting, I negotiate with myself over where to have lunch, I find somewhere suitable. Happy hour here lasts three years. And yet it only brings drinks down to what are regular prices in top-notch bars in the UK. The smells in the air are of the dirty, sticky club floors of student unions. 

The woman in the neighbouring booth is over-explaining to an over-jealous boyfriend why another man has been texting her. ‘He is a friend of a friend. A friend!’ She insists too much. ‘He is from my country, he is Hispanic’, ‘and he is a photographer’, ‘he took pictures of my daughter’. Her boyfriend still says nothing. She continues, repeating herself. ‘I’ve known him a long time’ she adds, knowing her only hope at escaping blame is by giving tedious but detailed information. Then his accusations begin. She defends herself. ‘I told him I was going to Iceland with my boyfriend’. ‘But why would you, why would you tell him?’ he asks. ‘Why is it important to tell him that?’. ‘But do you know how many people I have deleted for you!?’ she demands. I stopped listening there. My pizza is getting cold and I don’t have to delete anyone for anyone. Not for the first time, I am happy to travel alone. 

Some couples just like to argue, enjoying the sound of their transference, accusing their partner of what they’re guilty of themselves. The jilted man storms away, and I can’t help but watch her in a mirror angled just so; contemplative, shaken, her cheekbones losing definition as her misery grows. I feel for her, this Spanish woman in the booth next to mine. ‘I’m gonna call him…. you think we are fucking’ she yelps as she stands, so loud that it is impossible for the entire bar to not pay attention. ‘I’m gonna call him, this needs to stop’ and everyone seems to nod without catching her eye. It continues reeling out into the street. They are muffled now, but the sentiment is the same; and the wind only encourages them to shout louder, to love harder. 

Two glasses of wine later, the world is different. I’m smiling again although no one is looking; wine seems to be my blessing. I only need a few sips and a warm corner and suddenly it’s as if I hear the whales at the harbour, their sonic call under ship and iceberg, aurora lighting black like the beacon of angels from the underworld, ice melting at a louder volume than you had previously imagined, music to unite us all. I am immune to the bad smell of Reykjavik, which is mostly Sulphur and fried puffins, immune to the smell of the bar, of the woman’s fear and her boyfriends’ anger which they both leave the scent of behind in the booth, still leering in the matter, but carried by them wherever they go; old traumas into new relationships, patterns and problems repeating over the years. I am not interested anymore. I see only the blonde waitress’s curves as she lights tiny candles across tables like a saint preparing rituals.

It is hard to look sexy in this country when it is so cold and you are forced into bobble hats and big bulky woollen jumpers. Nevertheless, I chat with the waitress and discover it’s her last shift; six years working bars and now she’s going back to school to be an electrician. ‘I salute you, sister’ I say half-mockingly, and she worries about not having employment for a while. She smiles and tells me about an outback smoking area, she points in the direction and I follow the trail in the air, turn my head back in that minute and she is gone, swallowed by the sandpit of snow that seems to have developed the texture of larva. Blinking in the snow, I try to find her but it’s no good. So many people pass that look like other people. Forgive a nomad, we are all just variations of each other, I curse my luck, as I want to enter the pantheon of legendary femme Fatales to chronicle the foundations of my inner life, unhinging the miraculous workings of the psyche. 

It is so cold outside the only visible part of passers-by is their eyes, like owls rotating in damp forests. Thermal socks and thermal boots and still my toes went numb at the harbour, the iron of the ships merging with the salt of the ocean. In blowing billowing snow, earth and sky merge, making it seem that only pure desolation lies ahead. Alone again. It’s a good time for endings – I feel it deeply. Reindeer hooves? Do my eyes, stinging now, deceive me? After more exploring, it is soon time again for food and shelter. 

The couple next to me in the only Spanish Tapas restaurant in Reykjavik that serves food until 3 am, look like part of the Austrian royal family; his side slick hair, her lace blouse and perfect make-up, both in immaculate Van Dyke black; they genuinely do look as if they’ve just stepped out of a registry office, a swanky one. Six heterosexual couples are all eating and talking at once – both the waitresses have long blonde ponytails. One checks my glass intently before serving, and she is not satisfied with its delivery until she locates a smudge; the food is delicious, and life is delicious. A pink-haired girl laughs so hard at her boyfriend’s anecdotes she nearly chokes, laughs into the back of her hand and keeps laughing until her dessert comes, filling every tea light glass with an echo of hysteria, which tickles cutlery, making us all a little uncomfortable. 

The royal bride from Vienna stands up to leave; some roll their eyebrows towards the transparency of her outfit. The laughter becomes stretched tauter than it needs to be to me, it is not that I can’t appreciate that giddy, airborne feeling those newly in love feel, it is just that I contest its actual sincerity. Haven’t I had cause? And as I question myself, my olives turn into stones. My eyeliner blends with my eyelid darkening my sockets, giving me a twilight-bashed edge as the waitress asks if everything is okay and I say delicious, (one of the sexiest words in the English language) but my double thumbs-up gesture makes me lose all credibility of cool. I am as hard on myself as I am on other people, I like to think. The laughing woman in the corner begs her boyfriend to stop so she can breathe and relax her face from all the laughing, perhaps, just maybe, take a turn to try and be funny herself. We all wear mostly black. The laughing woman throws her face into the cup of her hands, finding her face-freezing cackle now unbearable. Maybe I will dye my hair like a Miami sunset and laugh too long too late too far one day. 

An American (the biggest colony of tourists here) asks loudly ‘What are you guys known for, like, what’s good?’ and an Icelandic man with ears the size of matchsticks orders in interruption for his table in one breath. I draw tiny letter ‘C’s’ on the tabletop until my hand hurts; it could stand for ‘curse’ or ‘cure’, but in this instance, it’s the first letter of a woman who has been much in my thoughts of late. The raising of expectations and the let-down; does that have to be the poles of all relationships? Midnight passes and threatens to laugh the loudest – we have all been competing since, louder than the castanets in the music. They serve puffin and kangaroo here, doused and cooked in pilgrim spices. What if my salad leaf brushed its back or its beak or paw? A man next to me, another American, takes a picture of his dish, it arrived as fast as he asked for it, yet the lightning flash suspends us all for a latch of eternity, the meat x-ray, the microscopic crack in the plate shifting platelets beneath our feet. I find myself talking to another waitress who swaps pens with me, her forearms red with the glow of the heat lamp keeping dinner’s temperature to the chef’s wish. I begin to feel a little sick, fear the kitchen gruel against my skin, the smell of people who work over steam and necrotic vegetables; duck eggs, mussels broken at their jaws, and elements changing in the heat. The American meets an older couple, also American, and they all talk about America together. 

I am in a dismal nightclub in Reykjavik now, dancing in front of tiny gingerbread house-like windows that hover above the street. Outside, a storm brews and our heat inside appears to melt the ice, it feels electric. I watch everyone dance for a while, raid the room with my eyes like a behavioural criminologist, guessing tactics through body language and the call of the souls that crept into corners, where two drunk gay men slide down walls over and over and everyone dances in small circles like in a nursery rhyme. A few awkward two-by-twos levelled for the ark when the flood came, wavering towards the centre, shuffling. The biggest queer club in the city and the staircase inside is wooden and unsteady, the dance floor creaks and seems to move tectonically much like how Iceland’s landscape was formed, a massive slab, floating. I attach myself to two losers; the troublemakers of the town I later found out, a tall blonde goat boy in a checkered shirt, and an Asian trans woman who darts their eyes towards anything that moves abruptly in the room. I drink tequila shots with the goat and his friend sips an energy drink – we dance and smoke outside in threes for a bit, so I can scope out girls from a crowded corner without looking so obviously alone.

In the smoking area, we met an Indian writer and his university friend. He is tall, has zirconia black eyes and shiny soft mid-length hair. She has glasses, Doc Martens, dungarees and a smile bigger than her skull. She hangs from his side like a keyring on a school bag. I smoke what they are all smoking and we speak about footsteps in the snow. He’s intent on talking to me more after our initial introduction, shaking hands and rubbing our biceps in the cold, but he’s intense and I want to dance more, so opt for another round of tequila and swirl under the d.j, spellbound by how her lipstick glows in the dark so when it is pitch black only her mouth floats above the decks, suspended in space by sonic waves. I step inside the deep minimal bass, and then I am blind to everything but the light inside of me. 

Everyone has danced better in their bedrooms; I am so glad that I didn’t wear sequins, no attention and all eyes on me, I am incognito in the groove. Everyone is just happy to react, to move, to sway, swing, decipher, even the outcasts finding a home here, dogs and cats, red lips and glitter eyelids. The bass finds its way into my throat, I pretend not to notice. Beyoncé plays and suddenly everyone feels like they are Beyoncé. Girls in the corner, boys take over the show, and everywhere else hair flicks. The tallest man in the room throws me his arm. All the spirit of the night behind me. We need these moments, that keep us all moving, I feel the music leap in my abdomen. It could also be the gold-label tequila wrestling for my attention. 

I start a conversation with a guy at the water dispenser, which is lit up and hypnotic, tiny pieces of swollen cucumber suspended under the optic, and he keeps saying something about conversations being more important than sex, but I don’t agree and the shampoo and candy smell of beautiful women wrapped in light and softness tell me I’m right; but why am I stuck here with the heavy thinker when I just want to dance with them, why am I too nervous to approach these women, hovering instead at the water cooler, befriending boys. These six months have been a period of feminine intimacy exclusively, but I am jaded at the moment, with no one to send love songs to. Yet I keep going, fires burn to keep the year dancing to drive away from the dark. Perhaps this year will be different. Perhaps these journeys will have a destination after all. 

After the club shuts, I go back with the Indian writer to his student accommodation; to walk with a stranger after midnight in the quiet suburbs of Reykjavik’s main square of bars, talking about German Philosophy and measuring each other’s shadow with our eyes and fingers. ‘Where are there more girls like you?’ he said, ‘the ones who wonder who it was that made the footsteps in the snow, not just that they are simply there’ and he tails off laughing a little to himself. 

From inside we watch outside, and he hugs me as we smoke out of the ground-floor balcony window. It wasn’t sexual at all and strangely felt familiar, brotherly perhaps, but the weed was very strong and it had been a while since I had smoked. The philosophers, Sartre and de Beauvoir were our shared favourites, and our love for poetry and something deeper than surface value; he wasn’t interesting at the club, not the energy I needed, but for these a.m. hours after, he is ideal. But what unravels I had not seen coming at all. 

He hands me some of his poems and I read them out loud, truly feeling every word, every texture, at that moment. His sentences were not great but his passion was sincere, he spoke in archaic, classical stanzas, laden with romantic imagery and man’s curse of mortality, a modern-day Rumi, but with far more of his ego in there. And as I performed, he acted as if he had heard his poems for the first time, and I just kept taking hits and reading out loud, and in the intervals, he spoke to me of his childhood illness; snow burns memory.

Then, when it was my turn to share, I told him about C, about the games we played, mostly cat-and-mouse, the roles changing but the outcome never in doubt: she wasn’t coming back to me. I told my new friend that I needed this holiday to recover from the disappointment of the Munich holiday, and as I did, I started to cry, full, fat heavy daffodil bulb tears. ‘It is not even that I want to be with her again, it has been years, I am happy exploring, but I just want something like that again, something so….’ and as I gulped away a few more tears, he finishes the sentence for me with ‘divine’ and I nod the word exactly. The flood of tears is both overwhelming and embarrassing, grief giving no warnings before it knocks you to your knees. Of course, he tried to kiss me, to catch me, I excused myself and left. 

After running from the writer, running down so many stairs and turns I finally find the front door ramp with the alcove of shoes. There were so many windows and each window had its own full moon. I uncover my snow boots from hordes of snow boats all lined up in matching pairs regiment for their owners. What is so uncanny, so unheimlich about rows of empty shoes? I get lost in an amber alert morning; tipsy in a world where there are only four hours of light a day. Later, I Google map my location to discover I am walking across a body of frozen water, so I stand still for some time, in stern defiance of the elements. 

So, it’s 6 am and I am thinking about Heidegger and his letters to Arendt as I buy a bag of delicious bakeries. He was right, responding to her fiery love interest in him: ‘We never know what we can become for others through our Being’ interactions with questioning minds, being allowed to meet, was a gift. We have forgotten to notice that we are alive; why are we not exploring the fascinating mystery of existence? Why here, why there, instead, we are running from ‘das seine’ into ‘das Nichts’, from ‘being’ into ‘nothing’ stuck in a narrow orbit. But to walk in nature, or walk around cemeteries, to ponder our death, to settle in solitude, with our noble spirit in the wild unknown, dissecting existence in the now, it alerts all the senses and makes all the sense. Why do I find myself justifying my need for solitude so much? Whether friends or strangers met on these trips, why am I forever explaining myself? Is it because I’m a woman? Would a man have to give a reason for not having another in tow? I told the writer I came to Iceland at the very end of the year in part to get over a failed romance, which wasn’t untrue, but I’ve been travelling alone for years now. And explaining myself for years now. 

Clouds move from one side of the sky to the other, rolling their nebulous serenades across the sea, the world in January always seems more frivolous and active than the other months, and nowhere more so than in a world that is rife with sleeping volcanoes. I try not to laugh at them, to judge their dereliction when blitz has no chronology, bows its head for no one, is fascinated by its own leap of time, studies itself into the night; but volcanoes, like the best kind of philosophy, never come up with answers; just eruptions in space and time.

It has rained for so long the drops have now made up their language. Life becomes so disarmingly casual. The food in Iceland is so expensive that I treat it like a delicacy, whatever it is, finish every crumb; there is a hunger and fire from being on the road, always in transit, a different bed every night, with tonight my fourth, bags get heavier every day; still, my soul and eyes are alive with unfamiliar views. A long row of shops, then suddenly the harbour, tall ships, snowy mountains, birds I cannot name doing tricks for amateur photographers who balance against tripods like trapeze artists angled for the right-click and catch of gravity. The snow stops, which I’m grateful for as this snow is different to the semi-melted flakes of home: here, the snow is hard and dry, it remains in the air and crystallizes to grit; feet no longer leave their print but slide against ice. The world becomes slippery, sparkly too, in the winter sun’s rays. A woman falls and dark figures run in to lift her like a swoop of birds zoning in on tossed crumbs. It is melancholy inside the Laundromat café I enter. A pop art poster of Obama looks out over teacups, far-from-home cockneys in beige polo necks, mouths agape over menus, orders hot chocolates. 

I’m thinking about rocks, the timelessness of rocks. I’m thinking about the landscape, how if it was a face it would have great bone structure, or so I guess, as so much of the land at this moment is under snow. But the snow, like myself, is just a visitor, and will one day leave again to reveal, you can feel the bone structure of the landscape, its gripping loneliness, winter disguises blossom and everything that waits beneath. I’m thinking – am I enjoying this trip? Travelling is great but people tend to carry this disappointment with them, it-would-have-been-better-if mentality; do we heed such high expectations that can never be met or simply just ideas for improvement? Would, for example, the holiday have been better with C. here with me? I came to get away from her, from thoughts of her, but in some ways, she’s never been more present. I find myself talking to her, her absence no barrier. You don’t want me but can’t seem to leave me, I tell her, so I go. 

I am, I believe, dead to the assaults of love, and I don’t want to have to fight for her anymore; I’m tired of the dynamic of whatever it is we have or had: cast out, reeled back in when it suited C.; my feelings confuse me as I’ve always said, I do not need possession or even certainty. You can’t be a poet if you need certainty. Poets gamble with the breath, the living thing, the singer in the soul. We deal with deviations more often than with norms, look for tensions, translate meaning, get to the heart of truth beyond brute fact and mix all the chemicals in the science of language. I find pleasure in doing it; in seeing the world and writing it. The work of making is key, it is not about power or ego but thinking and rethinking, reading deeply, searching for poets or writers who make you jealous, and then writing your version. Iceland is a wonderful space for wipe-out, a big squeeze of acrylic over a ruined portrait, a second chance. 

I extract from my bag my holiday reading, a collection of verses by William Morris. I feel a kinship. When his wife left him for Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he travelled to Iceland. In 1871 Morris left his house in south London for Granton Harbour in Edinburgh, (a twenty-minute walk from where I live) before sailing to Iceland in a Danish mail boat. Four days later Morris arrived, his impressions captured in his poem ‘Iceland First Seen’: 

Ah! what came we forth for to see that our hearts are so hot with desire? 

Is it enough for our rest, the sight of this desolate strand, 

And the mountain-waste voiceless as death but for winds that may sleep not nor tire? 

Why do we long to wend forth through the length and breadth of a land, 

Dreadful with grinding of ice, and record of scarce hidden fire 

Morris went on to trace peninsulas on Icelandic horseback, the dangerous ruby red rim of Hekla volcano, chew puffin meat over campfires and learn the language. All very admirable and in the tradition of joyless Victorian self-improvement, but I see in its displacement activity, escapism, anything to push the memory of the lost wife back into the shadows. I can relate. I wonder whether I should have brought a biography of Morris with me; I want to know if his self-imposed tasks worked. Should I be doing more than sloping around cafes and fancying the waitresses? Am I setting myself up for disappointment? With lovers, with cities. Affairs like trips only seem to tempt the gods of disappointment, you place in them so much hope. Morris was not the first travelling poet, nor the last, to explore this land of people who had not shut down its psychic ability to converse with magic, who believed in mysteries and greater forces around them. 

To pass through the long Icelandic winters you told, and continue to tell stories; the landscape reveals its past, its resilience. The greatest storyteller is the one who has seen the most. Nature cannot be tamed easily; survival was a learned technique. Here only the important things survive. An island cut off from the rest of the world for centuries, that believed in magic, where rocks stick out of the Atlantic like figures, the possibility of elves and trolls lurking, creatures which are pulled back and forth through dimensions, that hid in caves and were said to be burnt to stone in daylight when caught stealing ships and cargo. So that’s why, the rocks here look like they have animated features, I swear! Hot springs and mud pots dot the horizon, the beautiful land of the sagas, of ice and fire.

At the airport bar, I sit beside a man who looks like Vladimir Putin reading a pastoral novel. He picks up his phone and makes a call. He wants to put money on a horse. Another gambler! All I do is gamble. Writing poetry is a gamble on your talent. Having children is a gamble. Leaving your home for adventures in strange towns with strange men – gamble, gamble, gamble. And how has this latest gamble turned out? I’m not sure. Broke even, maybe, although C. still winds her way around my thoughts, I envy my new friend Vlad. At least with his kind of gamble, you know whether you’ve won or not. You make money or you lose money. Horse racing; the thrill of the gambit, the speed, a dangerous, noisy sport, man and beast kicking in the dirt – a total thrill! And where is he flying to, I wonder, what excitement is he searching for; being in a place that pulls you, stuns you, sends you galloping around the track of dreams passing each hurdle with wide-eyed grace, onwards, upwards, expanding and exploring, there is always, always so much more to hope for – life’s gamble whipping us into action. The success of my gambles is never so clear. What winnings can I take home if I write a good poem? 

Six days, five nights, four beds and nothing grows here. Water tastes like invisibility; the air offers an elixir of life. There is no immorality, no crudeness, instead, everything here feels ceremonially clean; Iceland is otherworldly, a simple purity, prone to a white-out and offering a deep clean of the heart.

The television in the bar is tuned to a news channel. It’s saying something about the Amazon, which is burning. I feel sadness in my stomach. 2019 was a year of fire: California, Australia, Siberia, Indonesia, Lebanon. In a more minor key, my brain is on fire. It’s why I came to this land of ice. I contemplate texting C. again but can’t risk the psychic cost of her not replying again. Are you really ghosting me, C.? After Munich? Well, if you want to remain ice, you shouldn’t stand next to the fire. I saw your face in a photograph in a magazine and thought it unjust I couldn’t kiss you. Would probably never kiss you again, not now you’ve made your choice. I comfort myself that later this year, perhaps, something will come along to take my mind off you.

But I torture myself and look back to one of her messages from when we were in a relationship, although living in the past from her words does not spark a kind nostalgia, instead, a kind of depression for the absence of what was, that is no longer. Even in this frozen world where I reach for its feeling of containment, of keeping something preserved, the love that once lived embalmed to live on and defrost one day perhaps. Though I try to recapture it, real love seems so fleeting no matter how much we try to mummify it, underneath it’s just dust. 

“Janette, you are queen of my heart and i have loved you truly, since the moment we met. with giving this love space to evolve at nature’s pace, i do believe months can turn into years and with years, i’m sure you and i will be more sure of all the words, so sure we transmit in text, in talk, in telepathy, turmoil, tenderness, tranquility, tenacity, it doesn’t matter, i lose the point in silly alliteration and decoration, you can call me out and ask me to evaluate and explain words, catch phrase quotation amplified by emotion, exhaustion and alcohol, and my frustration will quickly spiral into anxiety, unable to articulate or think straight, it’s a sorry sight and the frequency of it probably will test your patience but never mind, the main thing is you are here and so am i with my head in your lap and your hair in my fingers, my orgasm in your mouth and your breasts in my back, your words in my sentences and my pictures in your poems, your smoke in my lungs and my food in your stomach, my hand in yours and your heart in mine.”

On the flight home, I saw the Northern Lights. I shared the sight with a young Glaswegian couple who split my row on the plane. By coincidence, I flew out to Iceland and sat next to the same couple, positioned then as now on the aisle seat. Going home, we share stories of our trips before and after stories of our touristic experience. I fancy the blonde girlfriend, make it pretty obvious with jokes. The boyfriend buys another round from the air hostess, I consider coming right out with it and just inviting them for a threeway after we land when suddenly, everyone is leaping from the right to the left side of the plane, so abruptly the weight shifts must alarm the pilot. 

The Northern Lights are an alien green only the eye can name properly: photographers lie flat and scroll through lenses to shoot the aurora, one couple moaning about going on two Northern Lights Tours and not witnessing a Borealis shade at all, another joining in to say the weather was so bad they had to turn back – it is never guaranteed, even the weather apps threw them false hopes, but there it is, now, like love, when we least expect it and not as planned, as we pull away from Iceland in what felt like, with that unearthly view, a spaceship. 

I lean right into the lap of the blonde girlfriend who is sitting next to me, trying to blame my touching her on the light crowd pushing behind me, as she discreetly touches my thigh while her boyfriend is distracted. Everyone is looking out the window, but she is looking at me. Her pupils, I see, are dilated as she watches me and my heart races with images of the Valkyrie flying on their winged horses, alongside the plane, stretching their hands towards the same bright green glow tinting each window. My inner thighs tingle with desire and the triangular mound between my legs feels as if it is pointing directly at the sun, I think maybe this new year has something to offer after all, but everything is temporary, and still, the oranges of Seville branch out to ask when I will come to taste them. I’ll go there next or Istanbul, or Egypt, or Athens alone or with a lover and yet still alone. My mouth waters. 

There is always a lover plucking petals in the background, she loves me she loves me not, until the simple stem is left by itself. As I brush against the girlfriend again, I offer up another prayer to the gods of travel. Make us Zen in airports, lift us off into dreamlands where we can all accomplish what it is, we think we all so desperately want.

Janette Ayachi

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Janette Ayachi (1982 -) BA (Film Media/ English Lit. Stirling University), MSc (Creative Writing, Edinburgh University), is a Scottish-Algerian poet. She is a regular on BBC arts programmes & she collaborates with artists & performs at festivals internationally. Her first full poetry collection 'Hand Over Mouth Music' (Pavilion, Liverpool University Press) won the Saltire Poetry Book of the Year Literary Award 2019. Her poetry, prose & essays have been translated into several languages in a broad range of newspapers, magazines & anthologies. She is currently working on her debut novel 'Of Sweet Figs and Forget-Me-Nots' & her travel memoir, 'Lonerlust', a nonfiction narrative about desire & travelling alone searching for connections between landscapes, culture & the human condition (from which this chapter is an extract.) Her next poetry book 'QuickFire, Slow Burning' (Pavilion, LUP, 2024) will be released in April 2024.


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