Copyright © Judith Shaw
Standing at my kitchen counter to write this story, all I hear are clichés, trite sayings telling me to get my shit together. “Well begun is half done,” and “Begin as you mean to go on.” That kind of thing.
It’s too late for admonitions. Why do I always get these announcements after the fact?
It started with the phone ringing at 10:00 on a Saturday morning. . . .
“Judith? Is that you? Where are you?”
“In my kitchen. Where should I be?”
“In the arrivals hall at Reykjavik Airport. With us.”
Oh, no. I couldn’t have. I wrote it all down!
“But the flight’s tonight!”
“Actually . . .” (pregnant pause) “. . . it was last night.”
“But my tickets are for today. . . .”
“You have the address of the farm. We’ll see you there. Or not. Up to you.” Click.
Not a great way to start a holiday.
I was headed to Iceland to experience Icelandic horses face to face. Catherine, who imports them, had set up a trip with the number one breeder in Iceland. My friend Diana had been invited, and I was included to make up the numbers.
Next time Diana better book the tickets.
I gave her a heads-up and confirmed the car to take us to JFK. The car had been organized long ago. Just for the wrong day.
I’d reserved seats on Icelandic Airlines, the airline of choice when I was in high school. In 2015 it was still number one. If you want to go to Reykjavik, Icelandic is the easiest way to fly.
Easiest. Maybe still cheapest. Not most comfortable.
With demon twins kicking the back of my tiny seat the whole way, I endured the endless hours of our overnight flight.
We got to Reykjavik early in the morning.
Armed with the address of the farmhouse Catherine had rented for the week, we dragged our luggage to the Tourist Information Center. The woman at the counter listened to our story and looked at the piece of paper with the address of the farm. She said what I assumed was the name of the farm or the town where a bus would stop. Then she wrote a bus number and a few unreadable words on a slip of paper and waved us towards the ticket counter.
We handed it over and asked to buy tickets to the town whose name was written there.
The man at the counter studied our piece of paper. Put on his glasses and read it again. And again. Then he got out a map of the island and studied that, too.
“Are you sure this is where you want to go?” His English was perfect.
We nodded. We didn’t ask what was wrong, just stood there looking confident and waited him out.
“What kind of place is it?”
“It’s a horse farm.”
He shook his head, produced two bus tickets, and handed back our change and the address. He held on to the tickets and marched across the hall.
We followed him like puppies.
He walked down the line of busses, reading destinations as he went, and stopped to show our paper to several drivers. More conferences, more head-scratching.
Icelandic is completely opaque to outsiders. Although the ancient language is an ancestor of English, the modern version has no obvious handles to help understanding along. We literally had no idea what was going on.
Finally he settled on a bus, conferred with the driver, and left us to it.
We boarded the bus, stowed our cases, and sat down. There were 17 people on the bus. They smiled in greeting and went about their business, reading, or chatting, or sleeping.
After about half an hour, the bus pulled into a lay-by. It didn’t look like a bus stop, but what did we know?
Out came a map. Down went as many heads as could fit. The driver traced one route after another with his finger. Nods and headshakes. Several people left. Did they disagree with the driver? No one commented, so maybe this was their scheduled stop.
The driver pulled us aside. Getting to the address we wanted, he said, would involve at least one transfer. Not easy for visitors, and besides, he didn’t think the address was right.
Gulp. The address was all we had.
All was not lost. The driver had decided—and the passengers agreed—that we should go to the main tourist office and let them figure it out.
Can you imagine passengers on a bus from Port Authority Bus Terminal hearing that their route was being hijacked to help a tourist? Blood would flow in the street.
Instead all we got were more smiles and nods.
An hour later we stopped at an information center much larger than the one at the airport. The bus driver finally explained (in English, thank God!) where the difficulty lay.
According to the address we had, the farm was in the far northwest of the island, a cold, sparsely populated area with its very own glacier. To get there we’d have to change buses twice. No way was the driver going to leave us waiting by the side of the road for a bus to a cold and icy place that might not even exist.
Here was the country’s biggest tourist office. They could deal with it. That, after all, was what they were there for.
We thanked the driver and passengers for their care and kindness to strangers.
“You are visitors to our country,” one old woman told us. “Not strangers. It was our duty to help.” Nods and big smiles from everyone, and even a few scattered claps. I was overwhelmed.
A stylishly dressed young woman welcomed us into her office and listened to the driver’s story. She looked at the bedraggled slip of paper, glanced at the big map of Iceland on the wall, and smiled. “Have a seat while I try to sort this out. A horse farm, is it?”
We explained about the breeder and her farm; about my getting the date wrong and having to navigate the trip on our own. I must have sounded desperate, because her voice switched from neutral to soothing. “I think the best thing to do is get someone to drive you there.” She picked up the phone.
After three calls with no result she dropped a bombshell: If she couldn’t find a driver, she’d take us to the farm herself after work.
Squinting at the address, which by now was falling apart at the folds, she pointed at a blurry number in the bottom left corner. “Isn’t this a phone number?”
We stared where she was pointing. “I’ll just call the farm and ask how to get there.”
She squinted again. “This area code looks familiar.” She consulted the phone book and started to laugh. The farm was only half an hour away.