all images by Emily Johnston
Iceland– Seeking to explore a culture’s essence via their kitchens (eldhús in Icelandic) New York based photographer Emily Johnston and writer Sara Knox Hunter head to the small country in the North Atlantic to see who will let them in.
“I’m always content,”
Miss Gamelon declares to Miss Goering
in Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies,
“because I know what to take and what to leave,
but you are always at the mercy.”
We too felt Miss Gamelon’s disapproving gaze upon us
our first night in Reykjavík
at that bar, Boston
where we tried too hard
to enjoy conversations
that stopped and started like bumper cars
with strange strangers.
And then inside Harpa
where at each ascending step
we spied yet another happy aftermath
of empty chairs pulled close, wine glasses strewn about
while echoes streaming down from the bar still open high above
bounced off each scene
and we paused too long,
trying to resuscitate
the ghostly crowd.
And then again at the bar at Kex
where we arrived only in time for last call
making fleeting contact as people rose from their chairs
to disappear up to their rooms.
But despite Miss Gamelon
and the skeptic that had become entrenched within
and the rules of decorum that had been followed
religiously, for so long—
we wanted to be let in.
We wanted to invite the opportunity
for something to move us
outside the limits of ourselves*
and it was still worth it
The tiny stings of vulnerable strangeness
from our night of misses
were the first points on a shifting, evolving map
that directed us as we circled Iceland
and found our way inside.
*To paraphrase Chris Kraus in I Love Dick
At the mercy
and without itinerary
we scan the highlights mined from friends’ past visits:
waterfalls, volcanoes, glaciers, geothermal pools, empty vastness—
a prehistoric planetary poem in bullet points.
You have to take a long ferry, but it’s worth it.
Uncommitted to any singular sight
we select from the list instead a metaphor
because finding our way in still requires a journey
even upon arrival, and now
we can at least experience the feeling
of drawing closer.
Entered by the sea
motors slow along the cathedral walls of rock
inside the archipelago of Vestmannaeyjar.
The scene is soaked in dripping greens and browns
and birds dive in and out of dark recesses, some darker.
Above them white specks of sheep appear to dangle
at each precipice, the safer pastures at the peaks veiled in fog.
“What. Is. Going. On.,” Emily exclaims.
And then, with barely an intermission, we are three women
seated around a kitchen table
in Heather’s rented house on Heimaey
sharing a meal of langoustines and fish stew
with pink paper napkins leftover from a recent birthday party.
Over tea and milk
into the early hours of the darkless night
we hungrily consume each other’s stories from
New York: Emily’s walks with Gil through the East Village
Chicago: the apartment building where Emily and I lived as neighbors
the Isle of Skye: Heather’s father a fisherman there, along with her brothers
Richmond: the protesters carrying Confederate flags outside the museum
Uganda: her favorite country
Zimbabwe: where she was mugged
Tangier Island: another small place, another mode of isolation and here: the official list of approved Icelandic names, the migrant workers from Poland who work in the fisheries, the ancient breed of Settlement goats, the way Icelanders are reluctant to plan ahead, and being an outsider no matter how long you stay.
Heather pulls frozen fish from the freezer
for us to examine, and I think of the coins in my pocket
with images of cod and crab and lumpfish
passing through hands, turning back into food
at the end of the day.
In the morning over more tea and milk
she wonders aloud where she will move to next
as we pull out maps and examine routes.
We say goodbye
knowing, for the moment,
the direction we will go.
–Sara Knox Hunter