My measure of this difference seemed to fluctuate with the ins and outs of internet connectivity.
For the month of November 2008, I lived in an elegantly designed concrete and glass geothermal heated home, invited to watch the house and a playful Icelandic sheepdog named Skinna. My daily responsibility to pick up the binoculars and count the number of Icelandic horses in the pasture.
If I counted seventeen horses, everything was okay.
The house’s owner / designer and her husband were on holiday in the Bahamas. Born in Germany, Maja studied architecture at Arizona State University. She was friends with Uwe, a friend I knew when we were both graduate students in the ASU Geology program (he was best man at my wedding). It seemed like all newly arrived German students at ASU knew to contact Uwe when they first arrived, many of them living briefly in his Tempe home.
When Maja asked Uwe if he knew anyone who could watch her house, he suggested me. Having left my marriage in January and working online from the tiny town of Strawberry, AZ, in his words, I was “portable”.
After email exchanges with Maja, confirming the house had internet connectivity, how could I refuse an opportunity to house sit in Iceland?
Shortly before I left the US the entire Iceland economy melted down. People advised me to pack cans of food in my luggage. Or not to go.
People… who had never been there before.
I had visited Iceland in 2000 and remembered a place thriving with seafood, livestock, and an ethos of surviving much worse experiences than failed banks. They enjoyed eating dried shark flesh (which is putrid).
I left the cans at home.
My flight landed in Reykjavik after 11:00pm. Following Maja’s instructions, I picked up keys from an airport agent, and found their car in the parking lot— a four-wheel drive Mercedes. Theirs was the first vehicle I operated that was equipped with a GPS. I chose a female voice with an Australian accent.
Later, lacking anyone to converse with, I would go for a drive just to have a voice to speak at me in a language I understood.
On that first night, once leaving the outskirts of the capital city, I traveled in a shroud of darkness some 60km east. Ms. Aussie Voice guided me exactly to Skinnhúffa.
Skinna was an ideal housemate; playful, affectionate, she was also content to spend hours exploring the outdoors, often cavorting with a crew of Russian workers building a barn and art studio for Maja. They never talked to me.
It was not much to figure things out at Skinnhuffa- the hydrothermal heating system (radiant in the floor), a modern kitchen, a freezer in the garage full of seafood, the sound system (I found great CDs to digitize, music I still enjoy such as Ali Farka Touré), how to buy food in town without speaking a word to anyone (a few times returning with products that were not exactly what I guessed they were).
Living even a month in a different culture, is much different than visiting as a tourist or as a parachuting conference presenter. My free time for exploration had to fit with the fact (or my own compulsion) that I have to work as well.
Fortunately, the nature of the organization I worked for at the time was that we all worked where-ever we happen to be — if there is internet. I even was able to coordinate audio/video for a virtual conference we ran in Second Life. And I was able to visit a colleague’s second grade class in Reno through a video Skype call.
But being here called for a schedule time shift. At that time of year, there is not even a hint of daylight until after 9:00am, so unless awakened by Skinna (who had a 7:00am, sometimes 6:00am, and once, damnit 4:30am need to go outside habit), I slept much later than I did at home. After a leisurely breakfast, I did my web hounding for weird stuff, published blog posts, upload my photos to flickr. Most of my contacts were in North America, and thus my internet was quiet until later.
My work day started maybe by 2:00PM. and it wasnot really until 5:00PM that the “work day” started for everyone back in the US. So I end up eating at 9PM, and working until midnight, sometimes 1:00, 2:00am.
Counting the horses was fine for a few days, but I could not resist seeing them up close. Like most of my other Icelandic interactions, the sturdy horses, wider and hairier than ours, expressed the slimmest amount of curiosity about me.
Completely, self sufficient, content in their thick coats to stand outside all night, always sticking together.
The snow that came on the first weekend was a lovely sight, but with howling winds, and being unsure of local road conditions, I dawdled about the house. Even equipped with my magical new Goretex jacket (best investment ever), trying to photograph waterfalls in near gale force winds did not sound like fun.
Then, there was a knock at the door.
Which only happened once more in the month I was in Iceland.
A white haired gent was holding out an item wrapped in plastic. He gestured, pushing it gently my way. It looked like a combo brush / ice scraper, but it was all written in Icelandic.
I said, “Sorry, I don’t understand.”
He spoke a sentence full of consonants, and gestured again at the label.
“I am sorry, I don’t speak the language.” I shrugged.
He got a message, and left. Maybe I met the Icelandic Fuller Brush Salesman. But given that he arrived in a car similar to mine, I knew it was okay to head out.
This area was surrounded by destinations. Hekla, a volcano I studied in Geology, has erupted in historic times. Nearby was the stunning Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir- the original geyser for which we derived the word, and Þingvellir- where a democratic form of government was formed only in the year 930. It was also the manifestation of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a place where new oceanic floor was created as lava, and pushed the Atlantic Ocean wider in an eastern and western push.
A panoramic photo I took there ended up being included in the world’s largest printed atlas.
Giant waterfalls and boiling mudpots that would have been fee collecting National parks in the US were mine to roam, explore. Alone.
I was desperate to see the Northern Lights for the first time. Friends in Alaska and northern Canada sent me web sites to check the conditions. I checked every night, not even quite sure what I should expect.
With irony, I only saw the lights my last night there, a night when my hosts returned from their vacation, and we got to meet in person. Their first night, which was the day of American Thanksgiving, I made a turkey dinner (yes I found a small bird at the groecery store). The next night, my last, they cooked me a traditional meal of reindeer stew. And then the lights came out.
Iceland is utterly solitary. Locals pretty much ignore/leave me alone. Obviously I am an “outlander”. On my first trip to the grocery store, someone finally spoke my way. The lady at the register called out— hey, maybe they are being friendly? No, I did not realize I had to tell her how many plastic sacks I would use (they charge you for them).
Perhaps I could try harder. Selfoss has libraries, bars, likely museums. But I am not here to be clubbing or carousing. I did, in many ways, come for the sheer aspect of being able to say, “I lived a month in Iceland”– how many times might that come your way?
And I came to reflect.
That is the thing about inward reflection, at least for me. There are no big light bulbs, no trumpets, shouts of “Eureka!”, no obvious “ahas!”
Awareness arrives more slowly, like a layer of warm steam gliding over your soul, or emerging as glow from within, so slowly that the changes are beyond your perception.
The reflection seems more to simmer within, emerging at other times, maybe months, years after I leave Iceland. So even if I don’t come to any Profound Revelations or Big Ideas, the time, space, of being here I consider as part of the chaotic, essential, unique mixture that is Me.
To get some external stimulation, I listen to music on my laptop. For voices, I use iTunes to tune into radio, mostly WAMU public radio from American University, where I get a great mix of National Public Radio and BBC stories, plus in the mornings (which is wee hours there), I enjoy some funky world music.
A challenge is that my internet connection here, while extremely fast (at the time, 2008! was > 2 MBs download and even more upload speed), has some external issues where it drops the connection for about 2 minutes several times an hour. As I understand it, the connection is wireless- not the kind we know of now through our mobile networks, but a series of towers that beam data across the countryside. From one farmer to the next.
Sometimes I lose a chunk of a story while listening to internet radio.
A 79-year-old woman, Mary Ann, dies in Los Angeles. She’s lived alone for decades. No one knows her—or her next of kin. There’s a body to be buried, a house full of stuff to get rid of. It so happens there’s a county bureaucracy for just this type of problem. In this show, we follow around the person charged with figuring out what to do with the remains of Mary Ann’s life. This and other stories about what happens when people are left alone.
Many of us are alone, alone surrounded by millions of people, or alone with just a dog and seventeen aloof horses.
And a land that is gorgeous in its wide, un-assuming nakedness. I could count the numer of trees I saw on my digits. My hosts had told me, “If you ever get lost in an Icelandic forest… just stand up!”
So here I sat in Iceland, looking at an expanse of brown grass hills draped with snow, stretching into the oblivion of grey fog — a rather narrow muted histogram of tones. And I felt more than okay being alone… for a while longer. But I would not make this a habit or habitat.
And I am thinking back to an opposite sensation from a few weeks ago, being literally pressed by too many people in the human dense crush of both Hong Kong and Japan. There, I was consoled that when I got home, to my serene place in the mountains of Arizona, I’d have space and quiet.
There is no saying one is better than another, and where-ever we plant ourselves, people adapt (like 2 months form now here that daylight will be a dim memory).
I am so fortunate to be able to sample it all, and am letting all these experiences swirl among my psyche. Alone or lonely, it is a spectrum we live on.