Published May 19, 2010
There is nothing quite so romantic as the notion of reinvention through relocation. Travelling halfway across the planet to assume a new identity, one is able to shed the skin of previous incarnations, personalities and relationships. “When you’re travelling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road,” once observed writer William Least Heat Moon, sagely tapping into the heart of what drives human beings to escape. Some stay put and simmer in the inevitability—alas, alas—of a torpid suburban destiny. Some run as far as their conscience will take them and begin anew. They studiously reinvent amongst swarthy jungle landscapes and uneven Parisian streets, hidden from view in mountain cottages and hollowed-out caves. They can be whomever they want to be at whatever time they choose. An exhilarating freefall of character renewal, unencumbered by history or responsibility.
Some even throw caution to the wind and begin this process in Iceland.
In early April I arrive in Reykjavík to celebrate the nuptials of a dear expat friend, who has been living here for eighteen months. We visiting Australians are greeted with open arms and raised glasses, enfolded into the wedding party and promised cake and champagne, illicit kisses with local brutes, the keys to the city during our brief visit, anything our hearts desire. We are taken on beautiful, meandering drives and ushered towards places of interest. This, too, is our place to explore and cherish and sing about to the world.
And then suddenly there is a volcanic eruption, and planes being unceremoniously pulled from the sky, and an absurd and very real chance that our stays will extend beyond the foreseeable future. We joke about moving here, of relocating our lives and setting up shop downtown. At which point the welcoming gestures of our friends grow less warm, their enthusiasm for our presence slightly tempered.
“I want to share this place with you,” their eyes tell us, “but I don’t want you to keep it.”
There is a tiny community of Australians currently residing in the country, though to call them a community is being overly generous. They’re a picnic, a long-table lunch. There are barely enough of them to form a worthy tug-of-war tournament. Some of them meet on occasion and swap wry grins about the life they long-ago left behind, but for the most part they choose to blend seamlessly into the new landscape like shadows.
“I know what it is,” a new friend tells me very seriously over a large beer. “It’s because the Australians want to feel special here. They’re used to being the only child, feted as something new. When others from their home country come to join their new sandpit, they’re terribly unhappy.”
There’s something in that. Because there is an inevitable cultural cringe attached to one’s homeland, there is. Outside of the chest-beating patriots best avoided at all costs, for the most part travellers downplay their motherland with shy smiles and disparaging comments about complicated political systems and idiotic local delicacies. They feel disconnected to the place, which is why they leave. They’re searching for a reality far from the known environment, the familiar faces. The last thing any Australian wants to see after escaping to the other side of the earth is some flag-waving twit gesturing at them from across the bar and giving them a matey thumbs up. And with those invaders, those keepers of the past, comes an undoing of a precious and sacred construct. They know your history, and your secrets, and your ex-girlfriends. They know your humiliating old jobs and the fact that your name hasn’t always been Sapphire Tangerine. And they are the ones who remind you—with open, cocky smiles, with overly familiar backslaps and grating, parochial anecdotes—of a place you have tried so desperately hard to leave behind.
And so the protective instinct kicks in. Which is not to be sneered at. “I was here first,” they claim, ramming the flag of ownership into the dirt. They mingle less with those who may at any moment break the equilibrium of their perfect Reykjavík life. And they guard, carefully, their hidden past.
I love them for it, I do. I respect their wishes to keep their space and their art and their new identity away from the prying eyes of their countrymen. They have every right to see a new country with fresh eyes and an unchallenged perspective. So long as they remember those fellow travellers who came before them—and those who will continue to come after them—also seeking solace, seeking comfort in the faces of strangers, seeking a new tomorrow. For no land is yet to be traversed, and no stone yet unturned. If they will share a piece of their Iceland with me, I promise I shall share it with the next man.
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