by Melanie Kitzan
I booked a trip to Iceland in the middle of winter with a man I had just met (what could possibly go wrong?) but when he bailed at the last minute, I decided to go solo. We were set to be there over New Year's Eve and if I didn't go, I'd be at home on my couch with my four dogs, watching Netflix and eating coconut gelato.
When my silver glitter boots first touched the frozen Iceland streets, the wind ripped my hat from my head and pelted me with ice swirling up from the sidewalk. I immediately regretted coming. It was the middle of the morning, and yet the blowing snow scape was shrouded in darkness. I asked the airport taxi driver what time the sun rises, and he said-in a rather jolly voice, “Oh, I really don’t pay attention. Maybe around noon?”
Then he added for good measure, “But you know we already had our shortest day, yeah? The days are getting longer.” I smiled to myself as I looked across the barren blowing snow and thought wryly, “Yes, I’m sure that six days ago the world was noticeably darker.”
I dropped off my bag at the hotel, and ventured off on my planned walk around Reykjavik to see the unique churches. First on the list was Hallsgrimkirkja, the tallest church in Iceland. I figured that even in the dark, I should be able to find it. I trudged through the downtown streets and watched as huddled tourists (with their hoods pulled down and their scarves pulled up) wandered like lost college students looking for the next good house keg party.
At one point, walking sideways as I was buffeted by the wind and my wet leggings clinging to me, I began to fight back tears. Why was I here? Who comes to Iceland in December, anyway? I was alone. Achingly, miserably alone. On a dark street. In an unfamiliar city. I shuffled along, staring down at my glitter boots, and feeling sorry for myself. Just as the first tears stung my cheeks, I heard people shouting in the wind. I looked up and there before me was the Hallsgrimkirkja sitting nobly in the swirl of snow. Its heavy walls flowed in steps seemingly reaching down to the ice from the heavens above. I almost fell over in the wind as I tried to look up to see the steeple. It was magnificent. In the violent storm, it stood solid and completely unshaken.
I heard someone shouting at me over my shoulder, in what I assumed was Icelandic. “Are you talking to me?” I shouted back.
The older man, looking gruff in a silver streaked beard and a heavy coat, gave me a look of surprise. “You’re not Icelandic?” he asked. I shook my head, my hands planted firmly on either side of my head to keep my hat from blowing off.
“Canadian, then?!” he asked. I shook my head again.
“I’m American.” I said, stepping closer to him in the snowy glow of the church lights.
“You don’t look American.” He said. Then quickly added, “Come with me!”
He grabbed my shoulders and shoved me toward a slush-filled street. I tiptoed around giant icy puddles and crossed the deserted sidewalk.
“In here,” he pointed, as he opened the heavy wooden door to a coffee shop. If I hadn’t been so bewildered, and so utterly frozen, I would have objected.
The warm rush of golden light swallowed me up as I stepped into the coffee shop. The sounds of hushed conversations were interrupted only by occasional clinking of cups and saucers. The man sunk heavily into a chair at a corner table, his bloated body forcing him to slide the chair back from the table. I sat down across from him, the table so small that I could smell his sour breath when he spoke.
“I’m Asger,” he said, as he held out his hand and heaved a heavy sigh. He was nearly out of breath from the walk across the street. I shook his hand and introduced myself. Before I could even take off my coat, he asked, “You travel alone?”
I nodded, unzipping my coat and looking around, wondering if anyone there might notice if I disappeared at the hands of this crazy old man.
He signaled the waitress, who apparently knew him, and said something to her in Icelandic. She reached for a coffee pot and a pair of mismatched cups and set them on the table, along with a small pitcher of cream and a bowl of individually wrapped sugar cubes. I nodded my thanks, and swallowed the hot liquid hard in my throat.
“You came here looking for a man!” Asger said.
I laughed and shook my head. “Men are nothing but trouble,” I said.
“Do you believe in elves?” came his next question.
I shrugged my shoulders and said, “I don’t really know.”
“Icelandic people believe in elves.” Asger said. “I am a scientist. Yet I know that science cannot always explain everything. Today, I am traveling alone to Greenland and yesterday I had a visit with the elves who told me it was safe to go.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “And the elves said that you should come with me!” Asger coughed a wheezy laugh.
“I shouldn’t be here,” I said forlornly.
Asger shook his head and said (first in German and then in English), “As the saying goes, ‘to travel anywhere, is to travel inward.’ Traveling is never a mistake. You came to Iceland in December! Either you are an adventurer or you are not very smart!”
“Maybe both,” I said.
“The elves are in every beautiful place in Iceland. Let them guide you and you will see beauty all around you,” he said. Then he tapped his chest and said, “And right in here.”
Asger and I ended up talking for over an hour. We talked of history, politics, our families and relationships. When we parted, Asger gave me a bear hug and wished me well on my journey, and I did the same.
A few days later on New Year’s Eve, fireworks were popping all around me and people were cheering in the darkness. I smiled and thought of Asger, and wondered if it had been the elves that led me to the one who took away my loneliness and showed me beauty in a place of darkness.
Melanie K. Kitzan was born in North Dakota, and now makes her home near Seattle in the House of She with her daughters and dogs. She has at times in her life been a scientist, lawyer, mother, and vagabond, not necessarily in that order. Melanie has a passion for hiking, traveling and coconut gelato.