We left Paris and landed in Reykjavik for a three-day layover before our return to the States. As Sujata said shortly after we took off from Charles DeGaulle airport, even though returning to the political and cultural gruel of America is unappetizing, it feels good to be traveling westward again.
Stopping over in Iceland for three days before we headed back to the States was Sujata’s idea and until we arrived in Reykjavik I was lukewarm on the whole thing. The run up to getting home has been starting to feel like the last act of a Eugene O’Neill play (tedious and never ending) and after Paris I was frankly tired of being a tourist. I was just looking forward to a day where I didn’t have to fight for space on the streets, herd children and spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out where and what to eat.
If Paris and Reykjavik were drinks, Paris would be a 1995 Chateau Rayas–rich, complex and very expensive. Reykjavik, on the other hand, would be a fresh, cold lager from a local brew pub.
Paris is incomparable. Paris is Paris. Other cities copy Paris, but Paris copies no one. Paris is its own mold, its own masterpiece. It’s thick with history, culture, haute couture and cuisine and it relishes its rich patina of fine taste.
Paris, in other words, has a nose for things. It lays out its riches, one by one, street by street. It’s like the arch angel of culture and history unfolding itself in front of you, declaring, “I am Paris, admire me. Or else!” Parisians as well as visitors like us are willing to obey. Everywhere you go, the denizens as well as the tourists, seem to be constantly aware of where they are: “We are in Paris!” everyone declares in subtle and not so subtle ways.
All that said, after a week, I was ready to get out of there.
Paris, for all its charms, is a quick and crowded city and after a few days there, you begin to feel visually, culturally and gastronomically overwhelmed. Everything in Paris calls out to you to stop and pay attention to it. “Look at me!” cry the pastries in the patisseries, the gargoyles staring down at you from their medieval perches, the winding romantic streets that take you by quaint cafes, boutiques and specialty shops, the panoramas along the Seine and the ornate, stylized public gardens. I remember walking down some rue in the La Marais on our last day and thinking to myself, “I just can’t see one more beautiful thing!”
It’s no wonder that history means something different in Paris and Iceland. The Parisians have it in spades and the Icelanders, in contrast, are the newcomers of Europe. Humans were wandering along the banks of the Seine as early as 250 BC. Socrates wasn’t even long dead at that time. By the time Reykjavik was founded in 874 AD, the venerable Abbey of Saint-Germain was already 300 years in the making. Paris is proud to be bound by history and why not? It’s history, culture and language that have made Paris what it is and what it will continue to be.
Yet, with so much history that you need to sweep it off the floor every morning, mature, established Paris seems, in some ways, like a city with its best days behind it. The Eiffel Tower (1889) is a wonder, but it doesn’t compare to Notre Dame (1345) and contemporary architectural manifestations like the George Pompidou Centre (1977) with its nod to Postmodernism and British Brutalism, is, for me at least, an eyesore.
That’s not to say, however, that all post-medieval Parisian architecture is a flop. Frank Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris’ Bois de Boulogne park is an artistic and architectural wonder and we spent a delightful afternoon wandering through its galleries and admiring its unencumbered beauty.
Still, Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city, is more my style. Downtown Reykjavik feels to me like a kind of working man’s Aspen, Colorado. Reykjavik is slouchy without being sloppy, funky without being precious and unique without being arrogant.
I didn’t run into Bjork, but as I was walking around the streets of Reykjavik and driving through the subarctic tundra of southern Iceland, Bjork’s music (I’m a casual listener) made more sense to me. Iceland, like Bjork, is austere, stark, uncommonly beautiful and, by turns, harmonious and dissonant. If you get in a car and drive outside of Reykjavik you quickly find yourself winding your way over volcanic mountain passes that drop you down into green valleys of fresh water lakes and streams. Steam from geothermal pools rise close and far away and fields of extrusive igneous rock (hardened molten lava) covered in a fuzzy, lime green moss spread out across the landscape.
Sujata, as usual, was correct: finishing our trip in Iceland made a lot of sense. On a practical level, a three-day stopover on Reykjavik was relaxing and it gave us chances to breath fresh air and get out into big nature. On a more literary level, there’s a nice unity to finishing the first part of our adventure here. Much of our time abroad has been spent on islands–New Zealand was our first stop, we were three weeks in Japan and then we lived in Ireland for five months. And Iceland isn’t even the end of our island hopping. After our five-week stay in the States, we’ll get back on a plane and travel back to New Zealand, where we’ll spend the next year.