Our first rays of yellow this year came to us at the end of January. They crept cautiously over a mountain top as we wended our way southwards for a journey out of the frozen-ness of winter energy, and into the warmth of friends, time and tales shared and the kaleidoscope of other cultures. Once you leave this snow blanketed island in winter, everywhere seems close and accessible, and when you know you won’t step over its threshold again for a while the tendency is to do a Grand Tour of friends – wherever they may be. It feels like exchanging a pure white down duvet for a crocheted patchwork blanket, with many threads converging in a riot of colour!
This kind of ‘all in one’ travel inevitably involves becoming almost dizzy with all the new sounds, sights and smells. But, as you gather them up in your pouch and head home they provide a necessary pantry to carry you through to the time when the snow finally leaves for good, which in the northwest of Iceland where we live, only happened a few weeks ago. Living on an island in the Arctic, I am always torn between this personal priority of mine to spend good time with loved ones, physically rather than virtually, and the amount of travel necessary to do this. But as we spend most of the year barely leaving this fjord it seems fair to my soul to give it some food in times of want.
After tasting a woodsmoked winterscape in Norway, we landed in Barcelona where we have a good many friends. Some of them were new friends who had paid us a visit last summer in Iceland and we shared such good times we were curious to continue the tale. They summed it up, as we appeared in our Icelandic jumpers: “You are the same, but here!”. They live in a wonderful social project on the outskirts of the city called Can Masdeu – an 17th centrury former nunnery then leper hospital, that sits atop a canya filled forested valley with the barrios just a stone’s throw away. They and many other dedicated folk have occupied and renovated this abandoned building and started a community gardening scheme with the residents of the local barrios, among many other projects. It was quite wondrous to arrive in the dark and wake up to this view, knowing that we were still actually in the city.
Finding myself in a place where several of my close girlfriends lived, it seemed like an ideal location to have my Women’s Gathering (I am loathed to say hen party…I’m not much of a bunny ears kind of girl), though our marriage was still some months away at that point. It was appropriate to begin with a ritual, and so we gathered in a Moroccan hammam and got properly scrubbed down and our pores opened wide. Out from the steamy darkness of the hammam into the sunlit evening streets, we felt like new, and headed off for an evening chasing giant puppets, drinking Cava in the street, eating Catalan food and dancing the night away to Ska in an amazing little Senegalese bar. A highlight of the evening was when a kora player walked in with his instrument, fresh from a rehearsal, and he graciously agreed to my request to play my man to be.
Back in England, on our way back to Lancaster, some more rays of sunshine were to be had in the form of dancing with friends in my heart home, Lancaster, to the fantastic Eastern European folk band The Balkanics, who shall soon be joining us in Iceland to come and play at our wedding! It struck me how important movement is in long, hard winters. Movement to other places, movement of your body. I danced more in that trip than I had in months. It’s either that or sleep like a bear!
After all the fun and frolics, I carried my pouch of colours back to the still white snowscape, thankfully now tinged with yellow and pink, to face the hardest challenge yet: Orri being at sea for six weeks. I knew I wasn’t going to like it but thought I would be sufficiently occupied with life and organising our wedding. It is a strange and complex emotional beast, absence. And I’m aware in my life I’ve usually been the one going off somewhere rather than being left behind. I still cannot fathom the reality that a great proportion of Icelandic families live this way: the wife spending months without her husband, and just getting on with everything, with children. The readjustment upon return is almost harder than the absence: you have each got into your own rhythms in that time and you almost have to start from scratch finding a harmonious one. It is like retuning instruments which sounded alright on their own but when played together again appear to have gone out of key.
This situation, and my perspective on it, was happily interrupted by my getting funding to attend a screening of my last documentary, Earth to Earth…in Tartu, Estonia. I cannot recommend the unique Worldfilm Festival enough. For a start it is in Tartu – the most delightfully wonky, wooden, woodsmoke – filled university ‘city’ I have ever been to. Really it is quite small and has a river snaking through its middle, making it feel open and not far from the countryside. The houses are all painted in my favourite autumnal colours and the streets in the old town ‘Soup Town’, are named after soup ingredients!
The junction of Pea Street and Berry Street.
The festival takes place in a beautiful old cinema – all red velour seats and relief sculptures on the walls. Up in the loft, for those who do not feel like watching films upright, there is a mattress-covered cinema which screened films simultaneously with the main hall. Adequate time is given to the Q&A sessions for meaningful discussion. The whole event feels like a room full of friends you have not met yet, and soon will, rather than the arduous ‘network- fests’ I am so poor at. We were well fed and taken to cosy coffeehouses and bars in the evening.
And best of all, the closing party was like a dream. Imagine an old but modest manor house on the outskirts of the city. Inside its walls was a flint and brick kitchen with a wooden table laden with berry cake, artisanal sausages, and ales. In the pit beside the open fireplace, musicians gathered with bodrans, accordions, spoons and jew’s harps, and best of all…their voices. There is an ancient singing tradition in Estonia called regilaul. When folks, young and old, gather – sometimes to get a bit tipsy, they will start to sing these chants.
Through a little door, in true Estonian tradition, was a sauna where another group of bodies gathered and were transformed by the heat. Coming from this back into the chanting was magical. It took me to a place of suspended time – that evening could have gone on forever. The stretchiness of time was further complicated by the clocks going forward to Summertime in the middle of the party – the wrong way for our mood unfortunately!
I also had to wake early as I had been serendipitously offered a ride back to Talinn, via a visit to a fascinating old man called Tomu Tamm – my host’s old friend. Tomu is someone who has dreams and lives them. He once dreamed to play an organ in the forest. He was not rich, but came up with a plan to save money for the best organ he could buy. One day, he played it in the forest. His dream to combine nature and music has reached new heights over the years, as he has restored some land he bought (almost single-handedly) from bog to its original habitat of lakes and forests. Now, each summer he holds a music festival on one of the lakes, on a floating stage. It is called Leigo and it is now one of my dreams to go. We gathered around his huge fireplace and he served us homemade seabuckthorn juice as he told tales of his creative life. He is living evidence that creativity is not something you do, it is something you are. It seeps into the fibres of everything you touch and think and this way it touches others, so everything in your orbit becomes a creative act.
Leigo music festival by day…
…and by night.
Talking to people at this film festival made me see anew how unusual my life is, and how interesting. So many times I heard, “Oh that would make a great film!” When you are in it so far, sometimes you cannot see it for what it is. It just becomes your day to day. But with some distance I came back full of ideas and inspiration, and with a handful of great films and film makers’ contacts. Back at home, I felt I had had en intensely emotional experience that I needed to digest and cradle. I began painting the walls of our house in strong colours – painting the light into my days. And each day a few more fingers of light crept further and further into our kitchen, illuminating my colours, in a dance with my brushstrokes.
And now all of a sudden, summer is here! The seeds that were planted long ago have woken up and grown some….so much so that everyday has a different view. A myriad of wild flowers scatter the landscape nowadays.The snow has only been gone a month, but Nature catches up so quickly that you cannot afford to sleep! We had some guests recently who were rather amused at how excited we were to see flowers and grass. It might seem strange to those who have had Spring already for a few months and who indeed may not have had any snow, but when your world has been white for so long, it truly is a wonder to see yellow and green, and all the colours in between…even when it rains.
A seed that was planted at the closing party of the Estonian film festival has also come into bloom. One of the fantastic film makers there expressed how much she’d like to come to Iceland, and tomorrow she arrives to make a film about our wedding. I’m not sure what I said to her to make her so sure she wanted to do this, but it was something that felt good between two people that believe that life is a story to tell, and you should tell it colourfully.
We have had almost endless sunny days, and it is fast approaching the day when the sun shall never set…which by chance is our wedding day! Preparations have been in full swing for over a month now, as we are building an off grid wedding from scratch using materials we have been collecting from nature and the town refuse dump for many months. The central pole of our wedding tent is the town’s Christmas tree from last year! We feel in pace with the hyperactivity of the flowers and the bees, and our world is an expanse of colour. We are grateful.
Wedding tent making.
The place we shall be wed.