In the absence of sage, we went straight to the Nautholsvik geothermal beach pool for a shower and general purification, but we still had awhile before the pool opened. So we drank our gas station coffee and read more Neapolitan stories and then, finally, were able to relax in the hot pool and watch people frolic on the beach in bathing suits, like 40-degree weather is balmy. (We also watched a very confused Icelandic girl try to have a conversation with another small girl who only understood French.)
The day was mainly souvenir shopping, thrifting, more street art, laughing at the weird, whitest-hip-hop-ever performances that seem to spring up, mid-city, on weekend afternoons, more licorice ice cream and dinner at a Pakistani restaurant.
The highlight of our day was an interactive performance event called Phoenix, part of the Reykjavik Arts Festival, which took place among abandoned warehouses and boats at a harbor on the outskirts of town. It kind of reminded me of Flux Project’s Going Places, Doing Stuff series (I was part of The Quest for Immortality!), except that, rather than actually going “places” in a group, Phoenix was an individual journey, consisting of a series of near-each-other stations that you wandered through in your own time (the whole thing took about 90 minutes), guided by a gps-outfitted iPod that knew where you were when and narrated based on your location.
You wander through woods, coming first to a small fishing boat lined with hay and fur that you curl up inside (it’s so cozy and sweet-smelling), listening to birdsong.
You leave reluctantly and stumble upon a hut. Inside the hut, you hear fire crackling and smell clean sage mixed with woodsmoke, but it’s nearly pitch black. As your eyes adjust, you see a woman swathed in cloth, but for her eyes.
These are large, intense eyes. They stare into yours, unblinking, as she rolls something she’s scooped off the ground, gravel and bits of dried flora, up and down your arms.
The hut is so warm, the smells so comforting, you almost want to sleep. The woman never speaks.
You are pushed into a seated position, your arms rubbed clean, some sort of crumbly, flammable material pressed into your hand. She curls your palm around it, gives you a card that says, “What do you want to burn?”, pulls aside a curtain. You’re free to cast the material in the fire.
Later, inside the back of a seemingly abandoned van, it’s completely dark as you swim through something large and plastic and seaweed-y. Someone comes toward you, grabs you, touches your face, hugs you, puts your hands on their face. You never see this person.
Later still, a man giggles and tries to entice you to play, chasing you around boats and piles of construction material. No matter what you say to him, he’ll never say a word.
There is the small boat docked in harbor, where you descend to the tiny room beneath, and the beautiful woman in white tells you a story.
There is another boat, elevated, with hay and blankets and some sort of electric light and sound installation that, when you lie inside, is only inches from your face.
There is a large enclosed shed where another silent woman tosses gravel at you, invites you to fling gravel yourself, blindfolds and dances with you.
Overhead, harbor birds fly. Down here, wind ruffles yellow grass, and you continue along the trail.
It’s impossible to capture how exquisite and personal this experience was. You touched strangers and let them touch you. You basically had to succumb, shelve your self-consciousness and be led, while either letting it wash over you or dissecting how it made you feel—are you scared, wary, uncomfortable, traumatized when grabbed by someone unseen, when having your face stroked, when coming eye-to-eye with a woman who is all eyes, who is sensually rubbing your arms with odd material, in an enclosed hut that feels ancient and heavy with scent and memory?
So after being consumed by this journey called Phoenix, and after doing all the other stuff, and after the shops and museums closed, we found ourselves back at Stofan, awaiting proper clubbing time again. When we tired of being there, and because it was still lit like high-noon at 11 p.m., we returned to the trash playground, reclined on our nest-po-line and watched people play (mostly teenagers and family with small kids).
We didn’t have as much optimism about clubbing on our final night in town, but we also had nowhere to go (and no idea where we were sleeping), so we clubbed. There was a long line for Kikki, the queer club, which we took that as a good sign. The music was mostly electro-pop dance (Robyn and Sia) and more bad top-40 stuff, and the place was so packed, it was hard to dance.
At one point, Jamie and I separated, with plans to meet at the bench in front of Kikki in an hour. I had no phone or idea of the time but a few songs later, I was tired of dancing and walked down to the ocean. The sun was setting (or rising?) over mirror-still, silver water, against a misty mauve ridge of mountains, and the view was so fantastic, the colors so subdued, shimmery and other-worldly, the visuals so intense and yet so untrustworthy, and I was so exhausted and overwhelmed, that it felt psychedelic, almost like an acid trip. But I also felt emotional and full of love (maybe a similar sunset was the inspiration for Bjork’s “All is Full of Love”?), more like it was an ecstasy trip (I was totally sober btw, hadn’t even had a drink.)
There were ocean swans, and the whole scene felt sacred and painfully beautiful. I was mesmerized. I’d never seen a sunset like it. (I’m used to sunsets being darker, bolder and less ethereal) and for some reason, I felt like crying. I sat on rocks and watched the water for what seemed like a long time. I didn’t have my phone, but I noticed a girl stopping to take pictures on her phone, so I gave her my email and asked her to send me copies.
When it seemed like it had been about an hour (what does that even mean? I felt outside of time and flesh), I headed back to Jamie. As I got closer, I picked up my pace, worried that I was making her wait. Then I heard it. It was OUR SONG.
Drifting down the street, calling me like a siren, softly at first, then louder and louder, it was the song that seemed to be on Icelandic radio, on every channel, every time Jamie and I channel-surfed. Although this song, a remix of a song any female of Lilith Fair age knows intimately, was already a Billboard hit by the time we made it to Iceland, Jamie and I had never heard it before and found it a particularly odd and hilarious choice for a dance remix. It was the first song we heard when we switched on the radio after picking up the rental car. And now, here it was again, ushering us into the end, our last, homeless night in this magical country, a sort of benediction before tomorrow, when we would return to our regular lives.
When I was nearly to the appointed bench, the song was blaring, and I was actually jogging. Jamie was waiting and she stood and started walking toward me, wearing a huge shit-eating grin. The song was our own private joke. It’s terrible, but also catchy. It was perfect for the moment, cleansing me of the too-intense, shamanistic explosion of the sunset and injecting us both with the energy to stumble around till we found our car and a plan.
The reunion felt like a cheesy movie scene. After being together 24/7 for nearly two weeks, we’d missed each other in our hour apart. And now we were reuniting to our song.
Back in the car, we decided to return to the harbor. It seemed like that raised boat full of hay and blankets, the one that was part of the Phoenix exhibit, would be a safe place to sleep. There was gate blocking off a long drive that led to the exhibit area, but it was better to park down there anyhow—less conspicuous.
We grabbed our sleeping bags and marched up the drive in the post-sunset, pre-sunrise, never-gets-dark gray, cutting away into the trail as soon as possible. It took us awhile to find the boat, but when we did, we nestled into the blankets and our sleeping bags and slept soundly.
Goda nott, Iceland!
Till next time…