The other day I was flipping through Hugleikur Dagsson’s “Avoid Us,” the English translation of the one-line Icelandic comics put out by the publishing giant Penguin. I was inspired by a recent conversation with a friend of mine when he asked me to wrangle down and define Icelandic humour. At first I tried to tell him it was like Arrested Development, only meaner. Sarcastic, quick, witty, with lots of references to famous Icelanders who made asses of themselves in the ‘80s. The next day I found the book and we rolled a good-sized joint on the big, acid-trip green lawns of my little American liberal arts college. I showed him a few of the Hugleikur comics. Some he laughed at, others he found so morbid that they nearly made him retch. As even the most hard-stomached Icelanders will tell you, this is a pretty typical response.
Then we came to one comic in which an American astronaut has just landed on the moon; craters are all over the place. The astronaut looks back at the Earth, with the Americas (almost allegorically) in full view, and says “wow… I am so not going back there.” It seemed familiar. It was something that I had said myself, going 120 kilometres per hour on the ring road just outside of Reykjavík, in an area with mossy, lava formations that so closely resembled craters they just had to be lunar. It was raining; ethereal music was blasting so loudly on my friend’s car stereo that the speakers started hot-potatoing the noise. Sure it was sentimental as all get-out, but when the thought of going back to the U.S. chose that moment to haunt me, the response only seemed natural. “I am so not going back there.”
When I first came to Iceland, it had nothing to do with Björk and everything to do with coffee table books sporting standard titles like “Beautiful Earth” and “Strange Places.” Nearly every time I found myself looking at a picture and asking “What the fuck is THAT thing?” it had some name like Ásbyrgi, Jökulsárlón, or Mývatn. “Iceland is a place of natural beauty and splendour.” So I did my reading, talked to friends who had been before. I even bought into the Icelandair elf-people, Bangkok-of-the-north BS.
Of course, within the first hour I decidedly hated the country. This was because after nearly 20 hours of travel my friend and I were immediately issued a thorough search by the customs officers at Keflavík international. The adorable little black lab had wagged his tail at the smell of my friend’s left pocket, a usual pocket for pot storage and we found ourselves countering accusations that we were trying to smuggle amphetamines for nearly an hour, watching the officers go through our stuff and responding to questions that were spoken in the most unclear English I have yet to hear in Iceland. Ironic that it should come from Customs officers.
But, to be fair, I never would have got the opportunity for my internship if it hadn’t been for that irritating event. I hate to say this, but it seemed fated. Because of that hour-long search, we arrived into Reykjavík from the Flybus just in time to catch the Foghorns, whose lead singer, Bart Cameron, was the editor of the Grapevine at the time. After telling some friendly Kaffi Hljómalind vegetarians that I wanted to go into publishing as a career (how strange, I thought, a country where total strangers want to know your life aspirations within minutes of meeting you), I was introduced to Bart, a particularly hard Michigander who seemed to come with an attached gaggle of Icelandic literati. A few minutes later, I picked my balls up off the floor and asked him if he could use an American intern for the summer of 2007. “Sure,” he said, “I won’t be editor then, but send in some writing and we’ll see what we can do.”
Which brought me to the BSI bus terminal at around 7 o’clock AM on May 21, 2007, a gruelling and anticipatory 10 months since my last visit to Iceland. I found a payphone in the terminal, tried three or four times before I could actually figure out how to insert krónur, finally reached the low, grumbling voice of the editor Sveinn Birkir Björnsson.
“Hi. Um. My name is Chandler Fredrick. I’m here for my internship.”
“Chandler. You know, the guy from America. The intern.”
“Please tell me you remembered that you have an intern coming.”
“I know. Can you come pick me up?”
It was an unofficial start to an unofficial internship. “Unofficial” in that sense of spontaneous fun. I just wasn’t prepared for an internship with Random House. For the first two weeks, I camped out on the living room floor of advertising king Adalsteinn Jorundsson, who would not only teach me how to drink and dine Icelandically (that is, too much vodka and too many hot dogs), but would become my misanthropic and Icelandic counterpart.
I was so impressionable in the beginning. I had violent opinions about everything Icelandic. “Iceland is an alcoholic country,” I thought, “The people here are beautiful, but they all look the same – don’t they ever worry about inbreeding?” “What’s the deal with the Sirkus queue?” “Why aren’t they nicer to the Polish?” “10 bucks for a fucking beer?” Eventually, I found that my attitude was alienating me.
I should add that my first assignment was to review a Björk album.
It was as if my friends at the Grapevine were prepared for my immediate distaste for their country. In effect, they set me up on dates with Iceland. They set me up with candlelit dinners at the fancy Vín og Skel, rafting trips on the gorgeous Hvítá, last minute shows with FM Belfast and Motion Boys. Amiina taught me how to shiver a spine using just a saw and a violin bow. I even got to sample a one-day cod fishing trip that made up for nearly 3 months of life without exercise. The Grapevine taught me to love her, mother Iceland. On a drive around the country she posed and she posed and finally I gave up the criticism, the accusations of American consumerism. In the very end we consummated on a sheep far in the East Fjords, and I bought her a 10-dollar beer at a little pub in Höfn, thinking nothing of price.
I came back to the U.S in mid-august to a national heat wave, talk of the rotting U.S. infrastructure (just a week before my return, a primary Minneapolis bridge collapsed and killed several people) and an upcoming election in which an L. Ron Hubbard-embracing Mormon is a strong candidate. It’s funny. They tell you your whole life that you’ll only truly love America after having lived in a foreign country.
Chandler Fredrick hails from Oregon, USA. He spent the summer in Iceland as an editorial intern at the Reykjavík Grapevine.