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They're about 4.5 miles off the southern coast of Iceland, wrapped in hazy salt air and encircled by flocks puffins, which look like slow-moving white dots from a distance. The Westman Islands (or Vestmannaeyjar, for those wanting to try their luck in Icelandic -- best of luck to them) brood on the horizon. To look at them from the inbound ferry is to feel as though one is suddenly falling into a myth. On seeing the Westman's from a distance of two nautical miles, one wishes that one's life could rise to the drama imposed by the geography of the place, that one's life could deepen somehow to be worthy of these surroundings, or at least that one knew how far a nautical mile was.

Heimaey is the largest island in the rocky Westman archipelago, and the only one with any population (though several websites suggest that the Icelandic singer Björk keeps a hunting lodge on one of the more insanely sheer and sunbathed southerly-facing islands, and it doesn't seem out of the question). It gets quiet in Heimaey on bright summer evenings, once the tourists head back to the mainland on the hulking blue ferry.

The ferry skulks into and out of Heimaey's harbor, the main source of income and employment on the island, which was nearly destroyed in January 1973 -- a near-disaster that certainly would have eventuated the permanent abandonment of the town to the puffins (who pretty much run the rest of the place already). Eldfell, the volcano that formed Heimaey and looms over it, erupted after midnight, eventuating the hasty departure of everyone in the town. A freak storm had kept the boats in harbor the day before, making it even possible to usher folks safely to the mainland. Edlfell erupted for six months. The harbor was saved, as an army of locals literally hosed salt water onto the flow, diverting the fiery rock from their livelihood. Life went on for the fishermen and whoever else makes their life on an island 4.5 miles south of what feels like the northern edge of the world.

Everywhere in Iceland in the summer, once most folks have pulled their blackout curtains and gone to bed, it's hard not to feel a kind of eeriness in the gray-lit streets. Stay out past midnight and the light fills one with a unique sense of unease, as if the air itself hums with tensions not meant for the small hours of night.

Well, moreso on Heimaey, where the puffins fly out over the dim ocean all night, and from the silent residential streets dotted with every manner and color of adorable and humble house (the architecture looks straight out of a New England coastal town, but somehow less prim, less pretentious, less assuming), it's possible to look down to the harbor, flanked by an enormous natural gateway of stone.

At Slippurinn in the center of town, by the harbor, the beer is cheap and happy hour runs until midnight in summer. It's possible to get a local beer "cheaply," which is to say seven dollars. Folks here, used to the weird rhythms of nocturnal light and accustomed also to foreigners not being accustomed to those rhythms, have a calming influence. It's helpful to watch them as they sing and toast, not noticing the sun up above the horizon well after midnight, not noticing the volcano above the town watching silently, not noticing the icy swirl of the Arctic Ocean.