The following is the first chapter of my new book, Iceland India Interstate, which is available starting today over at Amazon. I’m really happy with how this book turned out, and even happier that I was able to experience the year that it documents. I hope you enjoy it!
The tiles that made up the bathroom walls were blue, but her hair was bluer.
There was also a patch of blue, sparkly something over one of her eyes, while a similarly sparkly pink shape surrounded the other.
I leaned in to try and get a closer look — to figure out what flexible, glittery, colorful type of material she might have painted all the way up from her cheeks to her eyelashes — but she pushed me back and grabbed my arm. Without saying a word, she pulled my wrist toward her and started scrubbing my inner-elbow vigorously.
As Otis Redding crooned melodically from the iPod-and-tiny-portable-speaker combo that was rigged up atop the closed toilet seat, I sat naked in a bathtub with a drunken, azure-haired Icelandic girl, doing my best not to cringe as she callously tore the top three layers of my skin off with a stiff-bristled brush.
I had met Jóna two weeks prior, and though our coupling was a happy one, and our personalities were quite a nice fit from the get-go, it was kind of a marvel that we ended up meeting in the first place.
My arrival in Iceland was unceremonious, and honestly, somewhat subjectively marred by the hangover I had from the previous night’s escapades. My ex and I had gotten together for a bit of fun, and the gal-half of an open couple she had hooked up with months before decided to come be our third the night before I was scheduled to leave for Reykjavík.
We drank and drank and drank, and when we all woke up in the morning, we were still feeling happy and playful, but our headaches were beastial. I stumbled onto Seattle’s light rail, slogged my way through the parking lot to the airport lobby, slimly smiled my red-eyed way through security, and plopped myself into an airplane seat, immediately falling into a state of half-sleep, but still experiencing full-head-pain.
A double-handful of hours and about 3600 miles later, I grabbed my bag from the conveyor belt and hauled all of my worldly possessions through the big glass doors that guarded the airport lobby from the bureaucratic miasma of international air travel. I silently promised myself that my time in Iceland would be for me and my work, not for dating. I would meet no one halfway, would refuse to be drawn into any eye-locked conversations with members of the opposite sex, and nary a flirt would pass my lips.
My meals? Portioned for one. My life? Lonely, but in the way of great artists. My time would be my own. This would inspire great things, I decided. I had shit to do.
And for the first three months in Iceland, I did very well; I really did. I networked and I tended to my businesses. I started a new one a few months before leaving the US, and it had grown to the point where two new co-conspirators were necessary. The infrastructure evolved and so did my list of responsibilities, to which I attended diligently.
When I wasn’t tilling my entrepreneurial field, I was attending metaphorical farm festivals, meeting new and interesting business-savvy locals and imports, always asking them at some point in the discussion whom else I should meet, thereby leaving with stockpile of introductions. I followed up with the new batch of acquaintances, reaching out to the e-voices on the other end of the emails, resulting in an endless cycle of e-relationships-turned-coffee-meetings.
One such coffee-centered caucus was with a man named Halldór.
Among other things, Halldór was a writer of short fiction and movies. He had spent many years hiding from Icelandic society, but for the few years leading up to our meeting, he had emerged and created an impressive body of work that spanned everything from designing the interiors of restaurants (he gestured around the restaurant we were sitting in when mentioning this), to writing the satirical end-of-year movie which covers the cringe-worthy actions of Icelandic celebrities, politicians, and still-detested bankers from the year leading up to it.
I was suitably impressed by his achievements by the end of our caffeine-laced conversation, and I asked Halldór if there was anyone else in town I should meet. He gave me a few names, which I wrote down, and then — almost as an afterthought — mentioned one more that stood out: “This guy Helgi, you should meet him. He’s a crazy motherfucker who says whatever comes through his mind. You’ll like him.”
A few days later, I arranged to meet up with Helgi at a local bar. Like most Icelandic bars, the place was brimming with jovial locals, wearing their high-end, loudly-patterned sweaters and scruffy beards, and — it being the off-season for tourists — only a smattering of visitors, clean-cut and wearing North Face jackets while seeking out local flavor and finding it.
Helgi definitely added to that flavor, with his shoulder-length hair, rock star looks, and a jacket that appeared to have been pulled directly from one of the marching band leaders on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He told me, “I’ve got a band called ‘Helgi Valur and the Shemales.’” He also said, “I hope you like sushi, because my wife is a chef and I want to take you to her restaurant sometime.”
I did like sushi.
I took him up on his offer a little over a week later, as I was looking for things to entertain my older sister who had flown in for a weeklong visit to Reykjavík. I was coming up short on activities, as her idea of visiting another country tends to be ‘seeing some monuments,’ while mine is more about ‘drinking coffee with locals.’
When my sister asked what we should do for dinner the first night she was in town, a lightbulb appeared above my head, cartoon-like, while I snapped my fingers and proclaimed, “A-ha! I know just the thing!
Fast forward a bit: my sister, my then-roommate Tomasz, Helgi, and I were sitting around a small table in the basement of Sushibarinn, a dimly-illuminated little sushi restaurant on Reykjavík’s main drag, filled with what I would call hipsters and punks, but which Iceland would call, ‘normal people.’
Thankfully, any concerns about my sister being embarrassingly un-hip proved to be wasted, as Helgi ended up being quite into her, flirting incessantly and letting up only the tiniest bit when a petite, Scandinavian-faced girl wrapped tightly in a kimono and apron arrived at the table to present a platter laden with all manner of fancy-looking morsels.
Her hair was blue, and the first thing that went through my mind was, Oh shit, she’s totally my type.
The second thing that went through my mind was, But oh shit, I think she’s Helgi’s wife.
The third mind-thing, trailing the second by mere quantum-scale metrics, was, But it’s okay, you’re not dating anyway, remember? And that’s been going great; think of all the time you’ve had to write and network and meet people with sushi-wives! Stay the course, my friend. Eat some sushi. Don’t be weird. Brain out.
I shook my head a little to clear the thoughts I could almost feel seeping from my ears and nose, and, along with everyone else at the table, thanked the girl — who was introduced to us as Helgi’s wife, Jóna — for her delicious-looking offerings.
I turned my attention back to the platter (cautiously identifying a few unknown but carefully-sliced bits as Icelandic pony and maki whale), but Jóna lingered in my mind even after she left. I had a moment where I felt like I was waving to myself from an unclear future — one that somehow involved the blue-haired girl, and one where, through some unforeseen set of circumstances, I would come to know her much, much better.
Keep reading by picking up a copy of Iceland India Interstate, and if you have a spare second, I’d really appreciate a review on Amazon when you’re done! Thanks so much for your support!