Errands in Reykjavik

I didn’t sleep well this morning due to jet lag, and I got up and immediately had to start working.  That went on for five hours, and I didn’t make much progress. Then I got out the bike and a minimal set of gear and went riding over to the hostel — the only building in the whole city that has coin-op washing machines.

It was about four miles to get there. I exchanged some money for coins and soap, and threw my clothing into a cold water wash. There was nothing to do but wait for an hour, so I sat next to the machines and did more work on the laptop.

Laundry day!

People kept wandering into the room to see if the machines were free yet. One woman collected her laundry from the dryer and sat down next to me at the table to fold it, and struck up a conversation. She was Australian, about 30 years old, wearing hiking pants and a floral-print blouse. Her hair was brown and shoulder-length, tied behind her head, and it bobbed a little as she gestured with her muscular forearms. Every inch of exposed skin was lightly tanned and covered in freckles. When she wasn’t looking down to fold a piece of clothing, she held my gaze easily with intense blue-gray eyes.

We talked about bike touring and travel, and what it was like being immersed in different cultures. She’d traveled much more extensively than me – gone all over Europe and Asia – and done it entirely alone. For the last five years she’d spent maybe six months total back in Australia. She talked about mountain climbing, and skiing, and a huge dance festival in the Spanish countryside, and an ashram she liked in Northern India, and hopping around the Greek islands. She did technical work with a laptop to support herself but mostly she got around by joining other groups of people and keeping her costs low. She was confident and opinionated and smart and pretty and she knew it, and she casually assumed I knew it too.

She finished folding and lingered for a while. Her stories were amazing, but to be honest, something about her irritated me and I instinctively kept her at arms’ length.

I got up to switch my clothes to the dryer, and as soon as I banged the door shut a group of people barged in and threw their consolidated laundry into the newly vacant machines. The room was cramped, and the Australian woman collected her laundry and wished me luck on my travels, and left. It had been conversation to fill time. I was sure that in a day – or less – she would completely forget about meeting me.

As I sat there fiddling with my laptop, I realized what it was about her that I didn’t like. She presented herself as an open book, and casually assumed I was too dumb to notice that she’d ripped the last few chapters out and locked them in a drawer somewhere.

I pictured her, moving from place to place, meeting new people bound on the same journey and doing a brain-dump into them to fill the time, accumulating and disposing of friends and romantic partners, laying down the next destination in front of herself like a segment of train track because — well, why? Why does she keep moving?

“Hmm. I bet she’s not looking for anything in particular,” I thought. “I bet she’s trying to stay ahead of something. I think I know what it is.”

“I wonder if she realizes that the loneliness she sometimes feels creeping up the back of her spine is something that she needs to develop certain skills to alleviate, and that her current lifestyle doesn’t actually exercise those skills. Emotional intimacy, vulnerability, compromise, trust — these are not things we can step into like a new pair of shoes after walking without them for year after year. If she doesn’t attend to them, that loneliness is going to keep growing, and extend filaments into everything and lock itself in place.”

It was a prediction based on a hunch, and I knew I couldn’t really see who she was in just half an hour of talking. My thoughts said more about me – and what was on my mind – than they said about her. Was I traveling to find something — or stay ahead of something?

I rolled that around in my head as I waited for the dryer to finish, then I dumped everything into a saddlebag without folding it and got back on the road to do more chores. On the way out of the hostel I saw a flyer advertising “singles night” in the dining area. Wow, hostels really are little worlds of their own. Do they all feel like college dorms? I’m glad I’m not staying in one.

I rode across town to an electronics shop, and bought a USB3-B cable so I could use the remote control for my big camera. I also mailed a package to the nephews back home, and while I was at the post office I got a “camping card” that lets me stay at a bunch of different campsites around Iceland for a nice discount.

(I sat down later in a Thai restaurant and looked over the map that comes with the card, and realized that not very many of the campsites I need are covered by it. Hopefully I can still use the entire amount before I leave…)

I rode back to my AirBnB and dumped my laundry on the bed. As I organized it, I looked around and realized I couldn’t find my green shirt — the one with the bicycle and “Infinite MPG” written on it. Dang, I must have left it back at the hostel. I really like that shirt! Now I was gonna have to ride all the way back there to look for it. Ugh. I grabbed my bag and marched outside.

Along the way a driver shoved her way out into the intersection to make a left, putting me in danger.  “Grrr, what an idiot!” I thought to myself.  When I got to the hostel, Alanis Morrisette was singing about irony over the loudspeakers in the common area, and I grimaced and thought “Ugh I hate this song!” I checked all around but didn’t find my shirt, so I decided to ask at the front desk.  The greasy hiker guy in line ahead of me wanted to buy a postcard and then wanted to haggle over the price, and then the woman at the register put in the wrong numbers and undercharged him.  “Ugh; is everybody here stoned?” I thought to myself.

I asked the cashier if she’d seen a green shirt with a bicycle on it, and she said I should ask the cleaning staff, so I tracked them down. They said no, but I should check the Red Cross donation bins. I pawed through those and found nothing. Looks like someone decided to become the new owner of my shirt, and there was nothing I could do about it.

On the way out of the hostel, I got a message from a Facebook acquaintance linking to an editorial in the Paris Review. I unlocked my bike and then stood there reading it. “Oh wait, I’ve seen this,” I said. “Someone sent this to me yesterday. Wow; what are the chances of that?”

It was about some unfortunate woman who’d walked away from her wedding engagement and decided to go on an expedition to look for whooping cranes.  It was rambling, had an incoherent timeline, and amounted mostly to an excoriation of her asshole ex-fiancè — who truly was an asshole, no doubt about it.  It reminded me of a thousand earnest, wounded blog posts I’d seen in my 20’s from similarly-aged people on Livejournal, and I thought to myself, “Ugh I’m supposed to relate to this and give some kind supportive word about it, but I actually just loathe it.”

Then a funny thing happened.

I looked up, and said out loud, “Wow; I hate everything today!!” and laughed insanely for half a minute. The hostel kids eating lunch in the common area stared at me, which made me laugh even harder.

I had four other shirts, and the search had only cost me an hour. “Lighten up, you jackass!” I said to myself. “You’re in Iceland, your life is awesome, this day is awesome, and it’s dinner time!”

Next stop was a thai restaurant.

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