Exporting Volcanoes - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Exporting Volcanoes

Exporting Volcanoes

Published October 8, 2004

So when I grew up I thought that volcanic eruptions where a commonplace event. I found the 1973 eruption in the Westman Islands wildly exciting, especially as I got to know a few kids who had actually escaped the eruption. I thought that the smell of hydrogen sulphide was only normal and was very surprised when many years later my university professors in environmental chemistry told me hydrogen sulphide was a poisonous gas. “You must be kidding,” I said. “I grew up with that gas. It was in our hot water.” They looked at me disbelievingly as if I was a ghost.

When I came to Chicago at the age of 14 I did not really like it. I found the city both enormous and ugly. Where were the farmhouses, the volcanoes and the white sheep? I looked at the pavement outside John Hancock tower. It was empty, so I took some chalk and drew a picture of a sheep with five legs. One extra leg to spare in case of an volcanic eruption. And then I added an Icelandic sheepdog with a curved tail, because where you find Icelandic sheep you will find an Icelandic sheepdog close by. In the end I added a volcano. And I observed the picture and was happy. I had managed to bring a piece of Iceland to Chicago and the town looked somehow better. Less ugly.

That, in a nutshell, was my reaction to the world. I decided to export Iceland to Chicago, London and Paris. Draw volcanoes on sidewalks and create Icelandic stories for New Yorkers to read in Central Park. Other Icelanders, however, reacted differently. They decided to bring Chicago to Iceland, so they started building mini skyscrapers in Reykjavik and mini highways and interchanges. And they created a mini rush hour with American and Japanese cars in order to make Reykjavik a real metropolis. They also imported the traffic pollution from abroad, because how can you have a real capital city without traffic pollution? Reykjavik became a polluted city like all the great cities of the world and my Icelandic sheepdog barked and complained about the air it was breathing.

Eventually I decided I was experiencing a personal cultural breakdown so I moved out of the center of Reykjavik into the periphery where I now can breathe fresh air from the Blue Mountains and my Icelandic sheepdog is happy chasing real white sheep. I even believe that outside my kitchen window I can see a volcano. In the evening its white snow-covered top melts majestically into the skylight. This volcano is very important to me now because I realise that without it, I will never be able to feel at home in the world. It’s my own center of gravity, the point in the universe to which I’m eternally attached. And I can still hear my grandfather saying solemnly… I remember the day Katla erupted…

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