10 August 2015
“Show me your little map.”
I am sitting in a bus that takes me from the airport to an apartment owned by a platinum-blonde woman named Helena. The driver looks at my map and guides me to the exact point where I should be. It is one in the morning and I am attempting to navigate the dark streets. The mountain air is fresh, but biting. I lug two heavy suitcases up a slight incline. My phone has just lost power. I follow Helena’s directions – walk up a driveway, look left, go up one flight of stairs, and hopefully find a little apartment. I nervously tap on a thick wooden door.
“Julia, is that you?”
Helena re-configures a small blue love seat into a bed.
“My current guest leaves early tomorrow,” she whispers in a slight accent, “she goes scuba diving. I tried to make a little bed for you. There’s the bathroom and we can go over everything else in the morning.”
I wake to the smell of cedar. The shower water smells like sulfur. Helena tells me she is an independent filmmaker, working on documentary films with her two sisters, both of whom live in Los Angeles.
“I lived there for many years, working in the hotel industry. Now I am back in Reykjavik. My sisters and I just finished a film that must now be translated into English from Icelandic, then we can submit it to festivals in the US.”
I unpack stockings, wool socks, and my green jacket.
“It’s a pity, you just missed some nice weather.”
Bleach-blonde men with worn skin and austere expressions walk along the water wearing Patagonia and khaki pants. The air is cold and I wrap myself in scarves.
My room has slick wooden floors. In the morning the wind seems to sing. Everything is white, including the walls, sheets, and soft blankets. The design is spare and clean. A black cat with white fur on his neck rests along Helena’s shoulder. Helena has blonde hair, beautiful blue eyes, and an insightful, kind manner. She tells me more about her film, which is about a ship that went missing off the coast of Iceland years ago. Photographs of Helena and her sisters hang in her bedroom.
“This is the ‘Oscar of Iceland,” she indicates an award.
Helena’s father loved adventure. He moved the family, three girls, one boy, and her mother, to what was then called Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, when she, the oldest, was ten years old. Their home customarily came with servants. Segregation dictated society. Thus, they stayed just one year before the conflict forced them to return to Iceland. Helena has clear memories of her childhood, including the magical year in Zimbabwe, and of her rambunctious father and highly ambitious, giving mother who worked as a nurse. Her mother maintained the household stability. Helena moved to LA first to study and then work in hotels. Her sisters then followed, one became successful in film editing. She holds her award and motions to a poster that depicts she and her two sisters, looking up at the camera from below.
A blonde boy whispers to his mother. Spit flies from his lips when he hits the words beginning with shhhhh.
“You are supposed to be here ½ hour early!” A driver in blue barks at me. I am enjoying an early morning cappuccino with a drizzle of chocolate designed like a leaf until I see the bus arrive and leave before I can race over. The neighboring hotel phones the company and the bus turns around. I abashedly walk into the violently cold, rainy street with my bag, packed with bikini and black soap.
A woman at the ticket counter speaks in melodies.
“The water is best experienced in this weather, it’s good to be in the warm bath when it is so cold.” She hands me a grey towel, white robe, and a sample pack of seaweed cream and minerals. Another platinum-blonde girl hops on a chair to announce important instructions to a long line of travelers, hankering to experience on of the twenty-five wonders – a crystal blue mineral pool that has natural healing powers to rejuvenate the skin.
“I am now going to sing you a traditional Icelandic tune,” she quips from atop her fold-out pedestal “No, no, I’m just joking,” she speaks in rapid, robotic sentences, “I am going to share some very useful information before you enter the pools! Be sure to put conditioner in the hair before entering or you’ll have a huge, puffy nest on your head the next two days.” She motions animatedly around her head. You will receive a plastic bracelet like this,” she presents a chunky green watch strap, “ You must wear this the entire time and not lose it or we will have to charge you thousands of dollars for a replacement. No, no, just joking, but do not lose your bracelet.”
I disregard her conditioner instructions and use my faceless watchstrap to buy prosecco, espresso, and a waterproof camera case. The strap is a vehicle for everything – bar snack payment, locker key, and admission to and from baths. Bathers coat their faces in a thick, cool cream and become white creatures, moving between green seaweed forms, battling strong waves, frigid winds, and relentless sleet. The water feels like a warm towel, draped around every part of my body. The rain bangs on my head. The pool is a sea of heads, moving slowly through the bath without bodies.
My hair feels like hay for days, my skin years younger.
Elda moved to Reykjavik over a decade ago. She grew up in Haiti, where she met an Icelandic man. He was working in Haiti, hoping to help in some way. She moved to Reykjavik with him, had a son, and opened a small coffee stand in an open market. Her father, a serious man, worked in the coffee industry. She loves the smell of strong espresso. She started selling sandwiches and eventually the business grew. Café Haiti now occupies a one-story building along the harbor, beside a famous diner that sells kebobs of fresh fish. The small cluster of concrete buildings line a few perpendicular thruways between the city and the sea. The air is bitter and the rain cuts through my bones.
In 2013 Elda’s husband died. Her son is now fifteen and she has a new partner in business, Raggi. He embodies the traditional impression of an Icelandic man, burly, blonde, big-boned. He lived in New York for many years where he ran his own business.
“Elda has been waiting for you! She’s getting all dressed up for your photo-shoot!” Raggi jokes, or so I assume. I approach the café in the rain. Elda is busy coloring her lips a dark shade of red. She wears a beautiful black and white striped dress. Her skin is like dark brown silk, covered in blush and foundation. She smells like roasted perfume.
You look beautiful!” I exclaim, “I’m sorry I’m late, but I brought fish.”
“Oh, Okay! Here,” she sets a plate on the counter of her small kitchen and retrieves a set of silverware for me.
“No, no, it’s for all of us.” I motion to the kebob of grilled halibut.
“Oh, okay, let’s eat!”
Elda speaks with a thick accent, tinged with notes of French.
“What languages do you speak?” I ask slowly, as if she were three.
“Um, Creole, French, English, and Icelandic.”
“Icelandic is quite difficult, no?”
She laughs and rhythmically moves around the café.
“We start with espresso, okay? I always have one espresso in the morning, one in the afternoon, nothing else.”
Her eyes are deep black, her manner deeply genuine. She loves the camera and poses with each activity – making coffee, roasting beans, and heating thick soups of vegetables and sweet potatoes. She shows me the pictures on her phone, most of which depict self-portraits and her son. She pours me a white wine and Raggi returns from his break. Another blonde man wearing a red plaid shirt talks to American tourists.
“This is his fifth drink,” Elda tells me, “he has already had four red wines, now he has beer! People drink very much here.”
The man is steady. He has large, blue eyes. He tells me he is a bartender at a nearby hotel restaurant.
“You have many American customers then?”
“Ja, but it’s okay. I always enjoy.”
Raggi pours Gull beer into a paper cup.
“I think I have a beer now! We are not allowed to while working, it’s against the law, but why not!”
He becomes increasingly animated with each sip, like a wind up toy that can’t stop spinning. The pace of his heavy speech heightens.
Elda shows me articles printed about her café.
“Your son must be the darkest kid in his school.”
“Oh, yes,” she laughs.
A young, Haitian woman works for her. She is quiet and seemingly shy until I ask her to pose with Elda for pictures. They share a charisma, like dancers moving with animated elegance.
Elda makes me a rich vegetable soup.
“Do you like spicy?”
“Okay!” She adds hot peppers and onions that marinate in glass jars.
“Really? More? Okay!”
I taste the hot sweet potato base until it’s extremely spicy. “Okay, done!”
Elda toasts soft whole-wheat baguettes until the crust is deep brown. We sit together and blow on hot sweet potato and broccoli.
They invite me for a drink. I return later in the night, after packing quickly. My flight leaves at 7am and I must meet the shuttle bus at 4 am. Raggi offers me the equivalent of $40, 5,000 Kroner, and I take a cab to the café where he waits for me while Elda prepares herself at home.
“Have whatever you like,” he motions to the liquor bottles on a shelf above the bar and pours me a cognac. Elda arrives and leads us through the now dark streets of Reykjavik. We pass a busy Friday night bar scene. Elda and I drink gin and tonics. Music pours pop tunes from the speakers at a tapas bar. We stay until 2am. She hands me another 5,000 kr for a taxi back to Helena’s silent apartment.
“See you in a few months,” she gives me a strong hug, “I hope!”
Snaps Bistro & Bar | Þórsgata 1, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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