In spite of the weather, we’d managed to make something out of the morning. We’d had that hot spring all to ourselves, and successfully followed our little treasure hunt to that carbonated spring where we stood triumphantly in the freezing wind and rain, laughing and taking turns chugging sweet, sparkling water from its natural source. But the hours since had been a monotonous drive through a bleak tunnel of grey that left the splendour of the Snaefellsnes peninsula—beyond the hundred feet of visible road in front of us—only to our imaginations. Every stroke of our windshield wipers ticked off another precious second of one of our limited days in Iceland. By the time we pulled into Arnarstapi that afternoon the possibility that this day would wind up mostly wasted hung in the air of our rental car as thick and dreary as the clouds that shrouded the scenery beyond its fogged up windows.
We stood above the harbour where the town’s main road dead ends, and looked out to sea. In the distance waterfalls spouted over the coastal cliffs, periodically turning to mist in violent gusts of wind before continuing their plunge into the windswept North Atlantic. Below us, hundreds of birds sought refuge from the tempest in the calm waters within the harbour’s rock barrier. No one had answered the door at the guesthouse. No one had answered the phone at the number posted on the door either. The tourist season was arguably over, and Arnarstapi appeared to be hibernating. The only movement we’d seen was a large RV that crawled through town before parking at the giant stone statue to stay for the night. I looked at the mess of camping gear crammed into our tiny backseat and felt a twinge of jealousy for their comfort and convenience.
It was Nina who noticed the café as we were driving out of town. I guess that’s part of the beauty of having a travel companion; they can catch the things you miss. She suggested we stop and ask if they had any info about the guesthouse.
An Unexpected Evening
Walking into the place I felt a rush of warmth and cosiness in such intoxicating contrast to the world outside that I was sure we’d mistakenly entered someone’s home. Shelves of books and pictures hung on the walls, and in the corner a young lady wrapped in a blanket reclined in a chair, browsing on her laptop. She called out to her mother in the kitchen to announce our entry.
Pots and pans ceased to clang and we heard the water turn off before a short, round woman with glasses on the end of her nose appeared before us, wiping her hands on her apron.
She couldn’t help us regarding the guesthouse, but she did have hot tea and shelter from the cold.
In time, small talk with the two ladies evolved into engaging conversation, and sips of hot tea transitioned into nips of belly-warming Brennivín. The two of them spoke of Iceland as if it were a small village, their Icelandic tongues cooing and purring in near-perfect English as we covered everything from politics and pop culture to education systems and absurdities in our respective countries.
“In Iceland everyone knows who the bad guys are,” Kristrún said when I asked about crime. I imagined these ‘bad guys’ to be a certain segment of society. She went on to mention two people by first name. Her mother nodded in agreement. They weren’t surprised, but fascinated nonetheless to hear about the scale and complexities of such things in the US. “Here if you do some crime, you might not go to jail, but everyone knows what you did and they don’t talk to you anymore,” Kristrún explained. “You are no longer part of society and you live very lonely.” Her tone made it clear it was a punishment worse than prison.
Not a single other soul wandered into the café after we did, and during those hours there seemed to be nothing else in the world beyond our little table. No storm outside, no stress about where we were going to sleep that night, just the four of us: sharing, learning, and connecting. It was dark beyond the windows when the mother told us about her comical misadventure to the US long ago. I followed with the story of how I’d lost my flip-flop in the mud earlier that day and reached in shoulder-deep to retrieve it, only to come up with someone else’s. They rolled with laughter as I acted out the whole thing. “It would be so funny to hang it on the wall here and tell that story,” they said.
The weather had actually cleared a bit, and Nina and I stood outside our tent watching a faint smearing of the northern lights in the sky before crawling in for the night. “If it gets too cold we’ll just sleep in there, right?” Nina whispered with her head on my chest as we were falling asleep. Before they’d gone home the ladies had made a point of showing us where they kept the key to the café. “Of course,” I said. But for the moment we were warm and comfortable, our legs intertwined at the bottom of our sleeping bags, and we both sank into a deep, exhausted sleep.
“Thanks so much! Goodbye.”
The next morning we used the key to pop into the café, where we brushed our teeth and used the bathroom before setting out on a hike to Hellnar. A glorious sun had risen and the grasses of the cliffs shimmered with yesterday’s rain. The sea birds had left the harbour and were now dancing their aerial ballet, diving and plunging into the churning waves below, on the hunt for the morning feed. We’d walked the walls and arches of perfectly geometrical columns of black basalt all the way to Hellnar and back to Arnarstapi when we noticed the people in the RV just starting to stir. My jealousy was completely gone now. Travelling in such comfort would have insulated us from so much more of Iceland than just its harsh weather.
We made one more use of the café’s restroom, locked the door and hung the key on its nail. Before we left I rooted around amongst our exploded backpacks and camping gear in the backseat, once again shoulder-deep and searching for something. But this time when I pulled out the anonymous pink flip-flop it was exactly what I was looking for. I grabbed a pen from the dashboard and wrote a quick message on it. When I hung it on the front door handle of the café Nina appeared at my side and chuckled. “That’s perfect,” she said. I pictured the ladies’ reactions when they’d come in later to open the place and I smiled. The flip-flop shone bright pink in the sunlight. The four words I’d written were almost all the Icelandic I knew, but the message was nothing short of exactly what I wanted to say: Takk fyrir! Bless bless. Nina and Tony.