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

to try.

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 

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