Greetings and welcome to Dinosaur Bear,
This post has been a long time coming – not only in that I’ve thought of this post for awhile, but also that it’s also chronologically overdue. SB and I’s departure from Iceland occurred less than a week after we’d returned from our epic trip to mainland Europe, and as such we were quite busy during those final days. Still, that didn’t stop us from checking off a few final “to do” items and reflecting (quite a bit) on the past year. It’s always an odd experience saying “goodbye” to a place you’ve called home, as both the good and the bad sort of converge and culminate into a – sometimes confusing – series of parting thoughts. This post is my attempt to put such thoughts to paper, er.. screen. As such, I’d like to start with a box of Cheerios.
It may seem somewhat odd to start off a post about leaving a country behind with a box of cereal, but, in our own special way Cheerios are now something that SB and I will always associate with Iceland. Cheerios, or as referred to in Icelandic preschool, “Ser-ree-ohs” (that’s the closest phonetic approximation I could think of) became a bit of a running joke between SB and I due to the way the Icelandic toddlers reacted to them. These stories revolved around the swarm of young Icelanders, who I came to refer to as “Ice Cubes,” descending upon the hapless bowl of Ser-ree-ohs and the unfortunate soul who happened to be carrying it. Side stories also included Ser-ree-oh theft, Ser-ree-oh hording, and See-ree-oh fueled tantrums. So, when I think of Iceland, I will, oddly enough, always think of Cheerios.
After our return from mainland Europe Iceland was quick to remind us that we were not, in fact, in mainland Europe anymore as the next several days were the usual mixture of clouds and rain.
However, as always, we didn’t let that stop us from enjoying ourselves – as we turned to staples such as oatcakes and taking care of a lot of indoor things that needed to be done in advance of leaving the country.
While a lot of those final days were inundated with loads of boring “wrap up” tasks – be they related to our apartment, our banks, etc. – we did do one last thing that we had been wanting to do the entire time we had lived in Iceland and which was the last major item on our “Icelandic Bucket List” – riding an Icelandic horse!
Now, if you know anything about horses (I do not, at all) then you’ll know that Icelandic horses are special because they’ve been genetically isolated for a long time and are very hardy… and also small, very small, sort of “pony sized” in truth.
Now, on a personal note, this was also my first time riding a horse. Yes, despite having rode a camel (in Palestine, no less) I had never ridden a horse. That’s sort of an odd thing for a Midwesterner. I wasn’t scared of riding a horse, oh no, in fact I had been trying to ride a horse for years and had always been denied for one reason or another. Actually, my failure rate of getting to ride a horse was so bad that it had become an ongoing gag about just how unlucky I was. Yet, finally – in Iceland, of all places – I got to ride a horse!
My horse’s name was Örense (horsie profile photo below), and if there was ever any doubt, I liked him. Now, in complete fairness, this was one of those super newbie horse rides, where you don’t move too fast and you all walk in line on a preset path, BUT I was a-ok with that fact. Also, Iceland – possibly the Norse Gods themselves – took pity on me and gave us a WONDERFULLY sunny day, in truth, the ONLY nearly-cloud free day we got after mainland Europe.
Even the guides were commenting on how lucky we were, as, unsurprisingly, most of those tours just get done in the rain. Now, the ride itself was lovely and I had a lot of fun. The one “uncertain” moment came when SB’s horse bit my horse (Örense). Yes, apparently SB’s horse (which was directly behind me) did not like Örense and vice-versa, so SB’s horse bit Örense on the ass. Örense, understandably, was not pleased and gave a big ole’ kick with little-ole first time rider me on him. It really wasn’t that big of a deal and the guides were quick to check on me, but having a horse do a full-on kick when I still hadn’t even fully come to terms with the fact that I was on a horse was a bit of a fun moment!
After SB’s horse was moved farther back things were smooth. Örense was very well behaved, he listened to my newbie commands quite well, and generally didn’t stop to eat (unless I let him sneak a bite of wild grass). Some of the other riders and their horses didn’t seem to get along so well and the guides ended up having to walk some of them, but me and ole’ Örense got along just fine. Most animals seem to like me, maybe that is because I tend to like animals more than people. 🙂
The only time Örense showed his stubborn side is when we got back to the corral and it was time to tie him up. Örense did NOT want to get tied up, so I had to give him a bit of a lecture (because it’s not like I could move him) before he finally let me tie him up.
He seemed a little pouty, but I also moved him over to the side of the big horse blob where there was some grass he could nom’ – he seemed to appreciate that. After confirming with SB that I wasn’t allowed to steal Örense, we made our way back into Reykjavík and enjoyed the rest of the sunny day.
That one day was the best, last, day we had weather-wise. While our departure day only featured light rain and did get sunny as we drove to the airport, Örense-day was our last fully sunny day. Of course the following grey days might have been for the best, as we had a lot of stuff to get done, starting with selling as much of our stuff as possible and cleaning the entire apartment.
Fortunately the Boys were good helpers, so we accomplished a lot in the short amount of time we had. We followed our usual model of SB taking care of the “in the world” stuff, while I managed in the “in the home” stuff – we’ve always had a non-trad relationship like that as it plays to each of our strengths. Of course, as with any productive period, we also took to finishing off the last of our alcohol stores, and fittingly enough my final two beers in Iceland were Bróðir and Systir from Víking Brewery.
After those final two beers we made our way to bed for the last night, but we had sold our sheets… and it was still fairly chilly despite being late July.. so what did we do? We used our curtains. Yes, our curtains. Now these curtains were a funny story in and of themselves as they had been hacked up, taped, and melded together with a hot pan from the stove (no, I’m not joking). So, to conclude their rather inglorious time with us we used them as a sheet for our final night – and, since the motif of “pictures or it didn’t happen” still rings true, here is a photo.
The next morning we woke to Pigsten hard at work as the construction site foreman (I’d still like to do a post on that at some point) and some rain – in other words, a totally normal day if not for the fact that it was our last day in the country. We went about finishing up our last few chores, such as taking the few things we hadn’t sold down to the basement to be freebies. We then gathered up our things and loaded up the rental car (we had rented a car, Hekla – named after the volcano! – and that was a very good idea for our final days as we had to take my PC to DHL and also we’d found FlyBus to be less reliable lately). As is custom, I was the last to leave the apartment after a final check and I took a picture as we left for the last time.
The one frustrating, if not surprising, point of the morning was that we had been given three separate times for having to have vacated the apartment. We’d planned our flight around what we were originally told (and which was reflected on an information sign inside our closet) only to be told it was a full 2 hours earlier than that. Not a huge deal, but just the final end-note on an entire year of misinformation. However, rather than just go to the airport and sit we decided to have one final date at Perlan – and we even got to see the progress of the “green wall” from when we were there last.
In fact a lot of Perlan had changed. They had been working on it since we had moved to Reykjavík – but this was our first time seeing some of the efforts coming to fruition. For instance they had built an entire (sadly artificial) Puffin sea cliff wall, which was really neat. For our brunch we got some lattes, a pastry, and some “coffee yogurt” – all of which Pigsten and Broli called first dibs on.
One funny thing was that while we were eating someone who had wanted to buy our router called us, but it was a bit too late at that point. They had only gotten in at 4am, so we were just on slightly different life schedules at that point. 🙂 The same person had bought my monitor and was really nice, but alas, our 6 year old router remains with us – though it’s been a great router, knock on wood.
After our final Perlan date we headed south to Keflavík with Hekla. While overcast and rainy at the start of our trip, it did start to clear up a bit as we made our way to the airport – almost as if Iceland was giving us its own form of a goodbye.
It was then that I started to get my first few moments of real melancholy, as the green and blue skies made leaving a bit more difficult than the brown and rain we experienced the other 98% of the time. 🙂
The good news is that the airport experience was very seamless for us – well, other than trying to make a final wire transfer from our Icelandic bank (at their airport location), that ended up being more of an ordeal than anything else that day. Since we were traveling with all our suitcases we had hopped for a smooth airport check-in and thankfully we got one – something which was probably helped by our straight-through flight to Chicago with no layovers. Before too long we were sitting on our plane and getting ready to take-off.
The earlier sunshine had reverted back to clouds, which simultaneously made me look forward to not being someplace so cloudy and rainy, and also sad. As we rose away from the ground and up into the cloud cover I couldn’t help but feel like I was leaving a piece of myself behind, but I guess in some ways we always do that when we move on.
Iceland didn’t come back into my vision, and it may never come back into my vision, but I’d like to think that that last little glimpse was the universe’s way of telling me “I’m still here.” It’s easy to feel a profound sense of loss when you leave behind a “home,” and in some ways that last little moment was something I think I needed to begin the steps into the next stage of my life.
The good news is that the flight was without issue. It was a bit turbulent (and the Americans all clapped when we landed, making me immediately begin to question why we were coming back in the first place, lol) but no real issues. Plus, we got to fly over Greenland again. While I’ve been very fortunate to visit Greenland and fly over it (multiple times) before, this was my first time getting a really good view of the interior in high summer.
The “small” (from that height) pockets of melted ice made the ice-cap much easier to discern from clouds than it was during the winter, but it was still mind-boggling to try to digest the sheer scale of it. As we moved toward the coast we got to see the really neat transition from ice-sheet to mountains and glacial lakes.
Then, as we moved closer to the ocean the weather did something really interesting: it shrouded the ocean in clouds. As you can see in the next picture, the ocean was nearly perfectly covered by clouds while the coast and interior were nearly perfectly clear. Weather has always fascinated me, but not enough to become a meteorologist, though I was once I meteorology student for all of one week. 🙂
While little probably isn’t the best word, as the plane was the same size as ours, it was another Icelandair jet which had left Keflavík right around the same time as us, and which was going to the same place! We weren’t really sure why they had two scheduled flights from the same airline going to the same place (when our flight wasn’t even full – SB and I scored a whole row to ourselves) but they did, and apparently the flight paths were very similar. We stuck together for the majority of the trip – generally in this pattern.
Another thing we did was use some of our Icelandair points (because its doubtful we’ll need them again) to get some beer and snacks. One of the special beers they had was a “737 Transatlantic IPA” which was brewed by Boyne Brewhouse (oddly of Ireland, rather than Iceland) to celebrate Icelandair’s addition of the Boeing 737 MAX to its fleet.
When we landed in Chicago we even got to the gate at almost the exact same time as our other Icelandair buddy!
And then, as we set waiting to deboard, it really hit me. I was no longer a resident of Iceland. Something about the two Icelandair jets completing their voyage made me start to think about the significance of the end of my own Icelandic voyage.
It seems like it really wasn’t so long ago that I was still busy trying to not only apply for the bar exam, but also apply for Icelandic residency. That was a period of oh so much paperwork and uncertainty. Between the people who were trying to convince me that I should stick to the “rails” of the legal profession (and basically do nothing I wanted to do) and those who were supportive of the decision but also had no idea what effect it would have on my career (not to mention the impacts to SB’s own career) there was a lot of hesitation. Yet, in the end, we went for it. I still remember the day we sent off this big ole’ stack of papers to Útlendingastofnun (The Directorate of Immigration) with absolutely no idea what the outcome would be.
Much of that uncertainty came from their (seemingly intentionally) obtuse instructions (if they were in English at all, most weren’t) and confusion over just what level of apostille was needed from the FBI and State Department due to Iceland having just massively overhauled its immigration laws – and said laws of course only being in Icelandic. Of course with my (borderline obsessive) attention to detail and SB’s willingness to humor said obsession, we were approved with no real issues.
Then came the craziness of actually moving and finding an apartment (which was incredibly difficult given our international status and the fact that Reykjavík’s housing market is so bad/expensive that there is a “tent city” of people who are trying to find a place to live). Plus, we had to wrap up all our stateside stuff while also dealing with the “fallout,” for a lack of a better word, of choosing to uproot our lives and careers for what was by most metrics an unusual life choice. But we did it, and soon enough we were in the air and on our way to our new life in Iceland – a country we had never even stepped foot in, mind you.
I still vividly remember coming down out of the clouds and seeing Iceland for the first time, a moment surreptitiously recreated a year later – except in reverse. SB and I simply had no idea what to expect or what we had gotten ourselves into, as internet research can only do some much when it comes to the matter of living. But, there we were, descending towards Iceland – just a couple of crazy fools.
After going through the airport and explaining that we were not, in fact, “illeguhs” (as we in Murka like to call’em) we were on our way in a tiny, bright blue Avis rental car with a big huge dent in the roof (no idea how that happened, but having seen the way tourists drive in Iceland, I’m not surprised). We never named that car, likely due to the craziness of the few days we had it, but it was a good car (if nearly too small) that saved us a lot of time and money and also brought us to the magical world of IKEA for the first time.
Also, much like when we were leaving, when we arrived the rain gave way to a period of sun, which ultimately returned to rain. I still recall driving up toward Reykjavík for the first time and thinking, “Wow, we are here.”
And… in many ways, the “wow, we are here” sentiment never truly left. Yes, much like my time at Harvard the “wow, we are here” slowly moved to the back of my mind – but it was still there, and I was always mindful of it even when it wasn’t at the forefront of our thoughts. We set a goal for ourselves, and despite all of the “I’m not sure that’s a good idea” or “Why in the world would you do that” moments, let alone the “How in the heck am I supposed to follow these Icelandic instructions?” frustrations, we achieved that goal. After having studied abroad (Denmark & Spain) we had “returned” to do more than just study and instead had decided to live. Yes, it wasn’t for any lengthy period, but a year is still a year – and we did it at both a good yet, paradoxically very inconvenient time in our lives.
But, most importantly, we did it. We didn’t quit, and oh boy did we seriously consider doing just that… before we tried to navigate immigration, after it, before moving, and even after moving – we almost quit several times. Yet, in the end, with stuck with all the frustrations and the “wow, this was a bad idea” moments and got more out of the experience than we could have hoped for. Part of that was because we stuck to our goals of not just studying abroad, but of living and exploring abroad.
Not only did we have trips to Ireland, Greenland, and mainland Europe we also explored Iceland itself – quite extensively. As a visual of just how much we explored, I put together this simple map of our trips – and this map doesn’t include side-roads or small side-trips, just the major paths we took.
While there is some overlap, Orange corresponds to the Westfjords, Blue to the Golden Circle, Green to Snæfellsnes, and Red to the Ring Road. While there are most certainly areas we didn’t see, SB and I are also very pleased with how much we did see, especially considering that we didn’t have the luxury of being purebred tourists. 🙂
Yes, in addition to all that wonderful exploration there was – at sometimes pervasive – frustration with an immigration system that clearly didn’t really want us to be there (as non-tourists) and a school system which cared much more about saying it wants international students than it does actually supporting them. But, these were always backdrops to the larger adventure. Sure, I bitched and moaned extensively about them on this blog, but that’s sort of my schtick if you haven’t realized that by now. I complain and am spellbound all in the same post.
I am also quite guilty of not giving myself much credit, really for much of anything. Believe it or not, I am not actually a narcissist (I’ve been tested 🙂 ).
So, as a challenge to that lack of credit, what I am going to do is say how glad I am that SB and I stuck with our year in Iceland. Will it ever pay off financially? Hell no. Did that “irregular year” (as a career advisor once told me while suggesting I instead go work for some firm in NYC) leave a lasting impact on my own potential professional pathways? I think its a safe bet. However, there are indeed many more reasons to challenge yourself and to leave behind your “safe space” than those which are related solely to money or professional pursuits. This is my one life as Taco (perhaps I will be reborn, I do not know, but even if so I do not believe I will ever be this same version of myself), and it is taking the “uncomfortable” path that has led to some of the greatest moments of my life. Heck, to say that I was frequently terrified of the decision to move abroad – with no real goal other than in the moving – was not an understatement. Both SB and I spoke of how scary the path we had chosen was, but I’ve learned that God places the best things in life on the other side of terror. Had I not been willing to look into the face of fear, well, let’s just say that my life would have taken a very different course about 13 years ago.
So, in thinking on that quintessential question of “Was it worth it?” the answer, as always, is yes. We define what “worth” is to us, and for me, the challenge of the unknown, the other side of terror, has always been worth it. Was it all good? Of course not. Was it easy? Of course not. Did it always make sense? Of course not.
But would I change anything? Of course not.
I thank you for following along with me over the past year, and I thank you Iceland for having me, even when the two of us didn’t really want each other. So long my Nordic friend, and thanks for all the Ser-ree-ohs.
For those of you still pondering your own unknowns, your own journeys, and your own terrors, I leave you with this thought which is most certainly not of my own creation but which rings wholly true regardless: