My first experience of Ísland (as they call it there or ‘Iceland’ as we say) was not propitious. It was eleven o’clock at night and the sun was shining. They are still having white nights there. Curiously we had set out from Heathrow in darkness, whereupon the sunset reversed itself and the further north we went the more cheerful the afternoon became. Anyway, having achieved a point above Reykjavik airport in the sunshine we plunged down through the cloud and landed in impenetrable fog.
I had agreed to meet my colleague Chris at the arrivals gate. I had not seen him before but we both imagined that there would be few people around so late and that it would be easy for me (I was to arrive first) to recognise an American attorney, for such he is, striding through with immaculate and possibly monogrammed hand luggage. In England at the arrivals you can always recognise a flight from the US immediately. They dress differently from us Europeans, in particular as regards the acceptability of shorts for international travel, they are better fed than those who suffer under the bitter German yoke and their t-shirts bear inexplicable rallying cries.
Furthermore his firm’s website has a photograph of him smiling encouragingly, as does mine. I knew we would recognise each other. Finally, we had each other’s mobile numbers.
It was not to be. The arrivals hall was crowded shoulder to shoulder. It was clear that these were adventure tourists. They had their tents, their sleeping bags and their pots and pans and were intent on lighting out for the wilderness where men are men, just as soon as they could fight their way out of the airport building. All of them had enormous packs on their shoulders and wielded fishing rods. Occasionally they would recognise each other, emit guttural cries and hurtle together, their packs swaying dangerously from side to side, so as to exchange big hugs.
They were hideous. Maybe it is from narrowing one’s eyes against a distant horizon, but theirs seemed to be unnaturally close together, and maybe it is from placing one’s entire life-support system in stout Gortex on one’s back but their foot-control seemed to be impaired.
They appeared to be about to break into the sort of song favoured by dwarves imagined by Professor Tolkien.
These were not Icelanders, who are by and large the reverse of hideous to look at. Why visitors to Iceland should be like that I have no idea. Anyway there were so many of them that the chances of discerning an American were nil. To make matters worse, Chris’s American service-provider, taking a principled stand against Abroad, had cut off his telephone signal the moment he departed the hallowed turf of the United States, over Maine.
So I got a cab. The driver explained about the dramatic landscape we were crossing, the famous lava fields, but by now it was as dark as it would get and besides there was still thick fog.
From then it got better. You would not expect me to say anything about my dealings with my clients except that they were charming and we held our meeting sitting outside – the fog had gone – overlooking a most satisfactory lava field, eating rhubarb pancakes with cream.
In Iceland they rate rhubarb highly. They call it rabarbía. We also valued it when I was young, and I cannot think that it is to our advantage that rhubarb has been allowed to fade from our national consciousness. Things appear to be even worse in America, if the attorney Chris is anything to go by. He had never heard of rhubarb.
What is this thing, he said, and (being of an enquiring nature) how does it appear when growing?
I told him of the luxuriant leaves and the thick pink stem and how one would remove the former from the latter and plunge it into a bowl of sugar, which would stick to the broken flesh, fibrous and juicy, where the leaves had been torn off.
Pft, he said, thinking that it was an exuberant fantasy on my part.
Later in the day things got more hard-core, from a culinary point of view. Our clients recommended a restaurant called something in Icelandic that translates as ‘The Three Overcoats’ or ‘The Three Frenchmen’: it is apparently a pun. We went there at a venture and although it was fully booked someone didn’t turn up so we got a table. The food was sensational and the waitress, seeing that we thought it was sensational, brought us samples of other things to try. I recommend it to anyone going to Reykjavik, particularly if you know and love the food at St John in London. They have horse and reindeer, shark and whale, and the smoked breasts of seabirds. Whale is a problem for some, and because eating it is a federal crime in the United States, whose agencies have eyes, ears and tentacles throughout the World, Chris thought that he should decline it. All I will say is that it was not from any of the endangered species of whale, that the whales were not caught primarily for their meat, which was sold to the restaurant so as not to be wasted, and that it is extremely delicious and unlike anything else I have ever eaten.
Shark is eaten fomented. It is buried in sand for two months and then hung in the wind for another three. The taste is explosive. Contestants on Come Dine with Me often say with a self-regarding simper, ‘I never eat fish.’ It is certainly not for them.
At the restaurant we met Thor, a sculptor, and his wife Gudrun and we went on to a bar that he had designed where moss grew on some walls and others were made of the skins of fish.
Back at the airport the trolls had been magically replaced by English gentlemen with weather-beaten faces and pink trousers.