Yesterday afternoon, I drove the 45-minute journey from Vesturbær in the heart of Reykjavík to the small coastal town of Akranes in West Iceland.
Between Reykjavík and Akranes, Hvalfjörður, or ‘Whale Fjord,’ is carved into the landscape. It is known for rough but gentle terrains on the shores of the North Atlantic Ocean.
Until 1998, the only way to travel from Akranes to Reykjavík was the narrow highway road cluttered between steep cliffs and menacing mountain walls. Drivers were utterly dependent on the mercy of the gods. Harrowing conditions all too often led to accidents resulting in death.
Winter was the time to be cautious and sensible driving stood between life and death in the worst of weathers.
From the autumn days of 1989 to the early days of January 1993, my dad and I drove the 100 km distance from Akranes to Reykjavík and back again three to four times a week so that I could attend gymnastics sessions at the Gerpla athletics club. The drive alone took at least two and a half hours back and forth—and sometimes longer.
I recall one occasion, during which we drove into an invisible pile of snow at the borders of Mosfellsbær and the highway road. The blizzard was blinding and we carefully returned to Reykjavík to spend the night at my aunt and uncle’s place.
That was roughly 20 years ago.
Last night, as I drove to my parents’ place in Akranes for a Sunday roast, I watched the grey clouds creep lower and lower against the Akranes horizon.
Small town living in Iceland has often been described as a romantic dream where the olden days are not utterly forgotten, and where stories are told of previous generations who long ago braved the cold sea water for survival.
In Akranes, an old fishing boat is the symbol of the town’s long lasting relationship with the sea, and behind it is the Akranes Museum Center where visitors can get to know the ways of the past.
A symbolic structure is the Maritime Museum situated opposite the town’s cemetery, where the town’s heritage is honored.
As a child with a vivid imagination, my best friend and I once believed that the Maritime Museum was hunted, and for months we were too scared to go near it on cold autumn and winter nights.
It started out as a joke but the imagination is often unexpectedly vivid on such dark, windy nights.
Standing tall above the museum area is the magnificent Akrafjall sheltering the town from the cold glacial winds.
Autumn and winter were always cold and gloomy as the darkness crept its way into the hours of daylight. In my mind, life was so dull that I fantasized about my eventual escape to Paris, Brazil and the continent of Africa.
The town center was (and is) but one street running from the old post office to the local bank branch. Cafes and bars opened and closed on a regular basis, and as teenagers, we’d walk back and forth and up and down the main street on weekends, having nowhere else to go.
The desired weekend activity was to drive back and forth and pull over at a nearby parking spot to chat once in a while. Precious petrol money burned in this party on wheels.
The local high school was not my cup of tea either. The only students that seemed to matter were the golden calves, that is, the soccer heroes that made the top-of-the-league team, and the soccer girls whose talent always faded in comparison.
As soon as I was old enough I made my escape and never looked back.
Years later, as I re-visit my old hometown in the dusk of autumn and dawn of winter, I am taken back. Still, an air of gloom seems unavoidable.
But then I look around and begin to see all the invisible elements in the near-environment that recently have begun unveiling themselves to me.
The tiny tower-like church building in the cemetery overlooks the tidy but green lawns where my grandparents and many more relatives rest for all eternity. For years and years, I’d go on the morning of Christmas Eve to visit graves of the fallen, before stopping at my late grandma Júlla’s for hot chocolate and cream and jam pancakes.
Across the street from the cemetery is the neighborhood where I grew up, the ‘grundirnar’ and oh, how green and fertile it has become. As a child I dreamt of living on an avenue of trees, and nowadays my old street has become just that.
One hundred and fifty meters away is the beachfront Langisandur, or ‘Long Sand,’ where today, the facilities have been improved a great deal and locals enjoy warm summer days on the beachfront, many even cooling down in the sea.
At the end of this past summer, I even discovered a tiny cove where the water is ice-cold. Its location I will not disclose for selfish reasons but it was a place I never knew of as a child.
Even last night, as the colorless dusk settled across the horizon, the small community center and Akrafjall reflected in the abandoned and transparent bird pond on the outskirts of town.
As I drove into town, I realized the lit-up town was not the town it used to be. It has blossomed and has become a nice place to visit, even as autumn and winter merge.
I will never return to Akranes as a resident in spite of my roots but the reflection in my rear view mirror no longer matches that in the front view.
Júlíana Björnsdóttir – firstname.lastname@example.org