From Iceland — The Discovery of Amsterdam (or Reykjavík)

The Discovery of Amsterdam (or Reykjavík)

Published October 19, 2012

The Discovery of Amsterdam (or Reykjavík)

Since I arrived in Reykjavík nearly a month ago, I’ve penned about 50 to-do lists. This isn’t because I have so much to do; I really don’t. Nor is it because I enjoy list-making, I’m actually quite a listless fellow.
So, why so many lists? Truthfully they tend to be scribbled on the back of old receipts which end up being disposed of before I remember my day planner was living on the back of it. Either that or I’ll retire the list, having decided only two of the tasks are absolutely imperative to complete: usually the two easiest and most pleasurable jobs, something like ‘have lunch’ or ‘check that there’s enough coffee in the tin’ or ‘Skype Smithy.’ These items commonly get circled and then another shit receipt list gets made for tomorrow with yesterday’s incomplete items and some new fun things to do for the day, and so on and so forth my life continues.
Having recently relocated here, most of the listed items are setting-up-in-a-new-city type jobs. Thankfully the most important items—jobs that one’s survival in a place depends on like housing, employment, finding a good video rental outlet—have been accomplished already, leaving me instead to litter these lists with smaller, less vital tasks.
One of the smaller tasks that has regularly found it’s way onto these lists has opened my eyes to the remoteness of the place I’ve just moved to.
The task in question is to hunt down a book I’d borrowed from my local library, but hadn’t had the chance to finish before departing for Iceland. Thirty pages. I was 30 pages from the finish. And of a book—‘Amsterdam’ by Ian McEwan—just 190 pages in length.
I could try to tell myself I didn’t have time. But I did. I had time to attend a corn-picking outing with friends and instead of picking corn with them I spent two hours lobbing pieces of discarded corn-cob at them before stealthily ducking below the corn-stalk-line, giggling, while they ‘pondered’ “who the hell threw that piece of corn at my face, for the 80th time?”
And yet I didn’t have one hour to finish this damn book.
I’ve been ceaselessly speculating over the ending of the book since I arrived. It really troubles me. I want to know what happens. It’s probably nothing special either. It probably has an open ending. Or a non-ending. Which I wouldn’t mind too much, I just want to know. I want to have ended it. Ended the non-ending.
I’ve visited all major bookstores in Reykjavík now. None of them have it in stock. My ‘Discovery of Amsterdam’ as I’ve hilariously and optimistically titled the task (in private) has become something of a ritual. I enter a bookshop, look on the shelf first, under the author’s surname, in each different section in the hope that the Icelandic names of sections allow for different sub-categories of modern fiction, the same way some bookstores have ‘teen vampire literature’ and ‘adult vampire literature’. I’m secretly waiting for a ‘seniors vampire literature’ section to emerge.
My heart would jump with anticipation in seeing other titles by the same author, but then relax on realising once again that ‘Amsterdam’ was not to be found.
This, I wouldn’t usually mind. I’d figure, oh well I can just try another bookstore. Yes, I thought so too. I now realise I’ve been to every bookstore here. They have nothing. One Icelandic bookstore clerk gravely, comically and quite absolutely told me with a thick Icelandic accent “Well, it looks like Amsterdam is not in Iceland.” This was a) Probably true b) Pretty fucking funny and c) Super cruel.
I’d still always approach the desk to double-check with this clerk/part-time comedian that I hadn’t missed it on the shelf, just in case. They’d routinely check their computer catalogue and then also the shelf despite knowing well they wouldn’t find anything there. They play the part well. I get the feeling they’ve had plenty of practice. Then I stand and wait hoping they have a copy lying around out back: something I find bookshop assistants regularly feed false hope with.
In your mind, they go to this mystical place called ‘out back’ where the book you just happen to be looking for is conveniently placed on top of an easily accessible stack of all the books that the other book-shoppers are desperately seeking.
In reality I’m pretty sure ‘out-back’ is an empty dimly-lit closet space that they walk into, stand for 32 seconds exactly, have a bite of an apple, check their phone for messages, pick a piece of apple out of their teeth, ponder what kind of fish they’ll cook for dinner then decide they’ve been gone a convincing amount of time before returning, astonished, they ‘don’t have it in stock’. This will often be footnoted by the twist of the knife follow up: “which is weird because I was sure I saw a copy just the other day.”
Despite all this, I usually wouldn’t mind. I’d then just ask the shop to order the book in. And behold gentle readers, this is where the difference lies.
In Reykjavík, asking a bookstore whether a book can be ordered in is greeted with surprise, bemusement and even sympathy. Surprise, as in, “oh, you still care about the book, you haven’t given up? O-kay.” Bemusement as in “Ahem. Sir, are you aware of just how long it takes to ship to Iceland? The book may be out of print sooner than it arrives.” And sympathy: “Aww you’re new here aren’t you.”
I’ve ordered ‘Amsterdam’ in all three bookstores. I’ve been quoted one week, one month, and even three months (I laughed when he told me this, then disguised my laugh as a cough when I sensed he wasn’t joking).
This has come as something of a ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’ type epiphany to me. That I’ve been taking for granted the simple luxury of ordering a book into my local bookstore, and then receiving it by the end of that financial year.
I habitually check my phone and email to see whether they’ve notified me of my book’s arrival. I even awoke one night from a dream that my book had arrived to the disappointing reality that it hadn’t, then decided I should read until I fell back to sleep, but then remembered I didn’t have my book to read and that reading something else would just remind me that I wasn’t reading what I wanted to be reading and therefore I’d be so distracted that I wouldn’t be able to read at all.
On the upside, I’m delighted to find that nearly every bookstore in Reykjavík comes with an in-built coffee shop, meaning one can browse, devour, or even finish a book over a cuppa.
Or just sit staring out at the North Atlantic Ocean, wondering longingly if somewhere out there is a boat carrying a little 190-page book titled ‘Amsterdam.’
My search for ‘Amsterdam’ continues…

Thomas can be found sitting at coffee shops around Reykjavík speculating upon the location of his book. He has recently been worrying that the book distribution company may have messed up the shipping form and instead of shipping ‘Amsterdam’ to Iceland, they have shipped a book titled ‘Iceland’ to Amsterdam.

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