I never dreamed that I would make it to Akureyri, the “northern capitol” of Iceland. It certainly didn’t seem to fit into the schedule when I went to Eistnaflug, the heavy metal festival in the Eastfjords. But then man-with-the-van Thorsteinn proposed completing the ring road circuit on the way back to Reykjavík from the festival.
The festival is held in Neskaupstaður, which is as far from Reykjavík as it is possible to get in Iceland; the southern and northern routes along the ring road take almost the same amount of time, each around 10 hours of solid driving. So even taking the northern route, I did not expect to be able to stop in Akureyri at all. Thorsteinn had to be at work the next morning, and two others in the van had early morning flights. But I did not count on the World Cup.
The final game of the 2014 World Cup was scheduled for dinner time on the day after the festival. Although we made many stops along the way, everyone else in the van had one eye on the clock. Our stops at Dimmuborgir, hot springs, and the famous Goðafoss were all timed to ensure our arrival in Akureyri near the start of the game.
An Icelander, a Portuguese, a Frenchman, a German, and an American walk in to a dockside bar.
The television is as big as a movie theater screen. The bar is filled with families watching the game.
The American slips out and wanders along the waterfront. A ski mountain looms in forced perspective over the small town, strangely reminiscent of Whistler despite the low elevation and lack of trees (by North American standards; Akureyri sports the closest thing to proper trees Iceland has to offer).
Remembering an earlier conversation in which I claimed I could never live further than walking distance from a Thai restaurant, this American girl crossed the street into downtown, and the first thing I saw was a Thai restaurant. A block further I passed a cafe serving Illy and a movie theater playing independent films. A group of sullen teens sat on the grass of a tiny square and smoked.
Wild graffiti provided a backdrop to a barefoot man playing acoustic guitar on a hillside nearby. The high street was like a miniature Laugavegur, sporting familiar shops from Reykjavík, but devoid of international chains. At the end of the street there was an art museum and a library.
I made a loop around downtown Akureyri, returning to the bar just as our order was ready. I ate, and watched part of the game. Then I spent most of the second half sitting on a bench on the waterfront, watching baby ducks while I talked to my family back home.
I explored most of Akureyri in half an hour, but that was enough to see that it contains almost everything I need to be happy – water and mountains, good coffee, Thai food, and a thriving arts scene. For many travelers the question hovers over every destination, “Could I live here?” Usually it’s an idle question, an extension of traveler fantasy. But I think I could live in Akureyri. I even found the house I want to live in.
I know at the very least I have to go back and see it properly.
I’m not the praying sort, but before I had kids I said a prayer: Please don’t let them get into team sports. Of course as any reader of Greek tragedy could have predicted, my oldest child would come to live for soccer.
Last Saturday, as I delivered my daughter to her 8:30 a.m. soccer game, the wind picked up over the lake and blew a water-scented chill onto the field. I hugged my coffee in cold hands, stared up into the gray sky, and felt like I was in Akureyri.
I am completely familiar with the research in favor of girls’ participation in team sports, and I see it borne out in my daughter’s experience. That should be enough to reconcile me to life as a soccer mom. But what actually makes it easier is the memory of Akureyri.