I forgot to ask his name. Didn’t even realize until after I left town that I didn’t get his name. But I got his story, and even without a name, I knew I’d never forget it. How could I, when it was also my own?
We met the first day I came to the little town of Neskaupstaður. I got in around 10 the night before, caught the show I came to see, and stayed up late drinking with strangers. Jet lag woke me at 7 am despite the late night, so I crept out of the apartment, careful not to wake any of my companions who would nurse their hangovers on European time.
Finding the gas station closed, I walked the main street until I discovered the town’s only coffee shop. It was closed. Opið 9:00. Having nothing better to do, I stood staring desperately at the sign as if wishing could produce a cup of coffee until a pickup truck pulled into the parking lot.
“Goðan daginn,” called the man as he got out of the truck.
“Goðan daginn,” I mumbled back.
He switched to English, “She doesn’t come to open up until nine. Are you here for the festival?”
We chatted for a few minutes; we were the only two people out at that hour.
He lived there, worked the night shift at the harbor. He had never been to the festival; like most locals, he had too much work to do that week to stop and hear bands. The festival brought a lot of business to town, but no real disruption so it was good. He didn’t mind missing the bands. He liked to walk – and here he stopped, raised his head and swept his arm towards the mountains that rose almost straight up from the water, still dusted with snow in mid-July – he liked to walk out there. That was what kept him going.
Then he thanked me for the chat and went about his business while I headed back the way I had come.
The next day I was snacking in the coffee shop when he came in. He saw me with my latte and my cake, and greeted me like an old friend. We talked some more and I discovered that his wife owned the coffee shop. He just stopped by in the mornings after work to help out – a little, it was her business, really – but more during the busy festival.
He hadn’t always lived there. He grew up in the south, in the desert where nothing grew. Unlike the desert I grew up in, his desert has ocean beaches littered with tiny icebergs calved off a glacier. But like mine, tourists go there and take pictures and gasp at the awesome, austere beauty.
Like me, he took a trip when he was young. His trip went east, and came to Neskaupstaður. Like me he saw a green landscape of tall mountains covered with snow, glacial waters filled with fish, seasonal rains, and moody skies filled with clouds’ poetry. And he never left. And he never looked back.
“How do you like Iceland?” he asked me.
“Oh, I love it,” I answered sincerely. “It feels a lot like home.”