Long Overdue Post Written When I was in Iceland by Diana Khoi Nguyen

Time travel: Vermont > Boston > Reykjavik > Being illiterate in the only grocery store in the small coastal town of Blönduós, Iceland. A day of travel in which the plane fast-forwarded night. The sun didn’t set until nine o’clock, and I could identify only 35% of my groceries with 98% certainty.


• • •

That first week, as if my body was still stuck on fast-forward, a button that hadn’t fully unclicked back into place.


I learned how to use the knitting machine: Like a rowing workout, with interchangeable colors. I’ll make wool leggings!


The grocery store had limited food items, but an impressive supply of yarn in every color, spun and unspun. What is “kitten mohair”?


A local ceramicist invited us for tea. “Do you enjoy the tea? I picked it from fields around this house.” It’s delicious. What kind of jam is this? “We make that jam from berries that grow in the field as well.”


The ceramicist’s son stops by and we all ask him about his university studies. Turns out he speaks better Vietnamese than I do, due to four years of living in Vietnam where many didn’t know what “Iceland” was, or thought he was “Irish.”


Cathy, one of the artists departing the next day showed me her woven piece using ‘ponytails’ from the nearby abattoir.


How can I get some ponyhair?


• • •


There is a rumor that Iceland has almost no trees and that kindergarten classes take field trips to a “forest” in order to see trees for the first time.


This is untrue. But there are not many trees in relation to every other land-object. House, hut, human. Automobile, abattoir, horse. Hay bale, sheep, hot pot.


There are no tall trees, and when the wind blows (and it blows often), it empties the contents of my bag as I walk to the town pool. Upends the pink basket with a blue loofah. Inflates the plastic bag. The white towel flies as fast as, if not faster than the greylag goose.


The body is a kite of bow and string. Sailcloth skin.


I tilt my body at an angle so I can walk straight. Stand straight.


• • •


The nature of any arts residency is freedom. Freedom from clutter, freedom to the steadiest self-sustaining peace I’ve ever experienced. Freedom to trot to the pool every time the low sun bares itself from the low clouds, flooding the town with bright.


Freedom (or captivity) to the geo-thermal pools with no one in them, steam rising from their blue tables.


The repetition of each stroke, each lift of elbow, pull of wrist. The typewriter carriage returning to its starting point. And the light, scattering across the tiles like schools of fish. A leaf there, a hair tie.


Yesterday as I was leaving, the pool employee tells me, “You swim very well. You swim so straight.” His arms demonstrate a flat line.


He shows me the pool security cameras. In addition to the entrance, lobby, and hallways, there are cameras not only overlooking each pool, but inside the pool as well. You can see everything that is happening in the pool. “Yes, if anyone is drowning. This is how I see your body is straight. A straight line across the screen.” From camera to camera.


“Where are you from?” he asks.


• • •


Haylage: hay + silage.


The weather is often rainy year-round, so it is impossible for hay to ever dry fully.


To prepare for winter, grass is gathered into cylindrical bales, wrapped in plastic so that all air is let out. Then the bale is left alone so the grass can ferment.


These fermented bales preserve the nutrients in the grass so that sheep continue to eat well throughout the winter. 


All over Iceland, wrapped bales dot the fields. Sometimes the wrapping is white, and my eye mistakes them from afar for sheep.


• • •


In one of those fortuitous eclipses of luck and good timing, I was invited to participate in an international sheep and wool conference—hosted in Iceland for the first time (in Blönduós, no less). Northern lights (green) the evening the conference bus arrived, filled with sheep farmers, scientists, and wool aficionados from Greenland, Norway, Shetland, and other cold sheep-bearing countries.


“Where are you from?”


The United States. Pennsylvania, a small town with lots of farms, like this one.


“What is your involvement with sheep?”


None, really. I’m one of the artists living at Textilsetur for three months. I am here, now the conference is here, and I work with wool, so here we all are.


• • •


Most of the lambing occurs in the spring and when green earth emerges again, farmers release their sheep into the mountains and valleys, where these sheep and other farmers’ sheep spend the endless summer grazing in the wild highlands. They relish in the bounty of light and grass; they grow feral. In Iceland, sheep outnumber humans 3:1.


Every September, farmers and horse(wo)men trek into the wilds to herd the sheep down from the highlands to large sorting corrals. Each sheep ear bears a tag marking which region, which farm, which farmer.


Réttir is an old cultural tradition and farming practice, whose literal meaning is ‘gathering,’ a sheep round-up that occurs annually. A major event on the sheep farming calendar.


How to sort sheep at the réttir?


  1. Grab the sheep by its horns.
  2. Mount the sheep (optional, I think).
  3. Drag them into the corral corresponding to the sheep’s tag.


Sometimes you recognize your sheep by their faces.


• • •

After the sheep are sorted at réttir, the gates to the appropriate pen are opened and the sheep are shepherded via the architecture of the corral maze to a plank leading into the dark cavity of a truck that transports them to their home farms for the winter.

Two years ago, snow arrived early at the end of August while the sheep were still in highland pastures. Two to three meters fell overnight in this part of North Iceland. Thousands of sheep buried alive in snow. Farmers, rescue workers and volunteers armed themselves with long sticks used for locating people buried in avalanches.

Many sheep were lost, many sheep were found.

The residency director, Jóhanna told me of the sheep she found in the Highlands that summer. One lone lamb survived in an ice-grave of sheep—all the sheep in that hole suffocated but created a wool igloo-like dome over this one lamb and so she survived.

• • •

At the round-up, I followed the outer perimeter of the corrals, studying its maze. I tried to imagine being let loose in the endless grasses of the highlands for a summer longer than any of my American summers. Because summer daylight hours are longer here, grasses grow lusher faster and lambs become sheep sooner. 

The wildlands and its inhabitants fatten quicker.

The sheep circadian: graze, wander, graze, wander, graze, rest, trot, graze.

Do Icelandic sheep sleep?

As I approach each pen in various degrees of fullness with sheep, the sheep all turn to watch my approach. All their horned heads turn in unison, and the “baas” fade out as if by the hand of a theater tech. I did not speak (what could I have said?) but moved slowly to the wood.

They pressed closer to the gate, but when I approached the gate, they all took one step back. We stayed that way for a while, unattended to, undisturbed. Neither of us coming or going.

Unlike some of my closest poet coterie, I don’t often think of Wallace Stevens, or carry poetry around in the monitor of my mind. Not usually. Instead there is this newborn quality of eyes first learning how to focus, and on what (of the possibilities of things to see!) to focus. What is the math of this life, how is it woven? Who makes this? Can I make (something like) this? May I have the right?

But here among the sheep and the treeless, Stevens attends to me: 

“I am what is around me.” 

Arny, a woman from the abattoir, tells me to come on Monday around ten, because they should be finished slaughtering four horses, she says. The first time I met her, she said it was such a shame I hadn’t arrived earlier because they had already thrown out all the horsehair from their day’s work.

From my desk window, I see not only where the river merges with the ocean, but also across the river, where Icelandic horses are grazing or running, manes whipping in the wind. The window behind me overlooks Blönduós, and just a street away are the red roofs of the slaughterhouses for sheep and horse.

When I arrive at the abattoir, Arny gives me a white cleanroom suit and rubber boots. She leads me into a series of rooms where she hands me some plastic blue bags and stainless steel scissors. The men in the room are still processing that morning’s horses, who are hung on hooks as they methodically break down the creature. It’s difficult to watch, not because these are horses, but because I have never witnessed the slaughter of any animal.

“Do you want the head hair?” she asks. Let me see, I reply. And she takes me to a bin of just severed horse heads, their eyes seeing nothing, seeing all of this. No, I don’t think I’ll be needing any head hair.

Wallace Stevens also wrote: “It is never the thing but the version of the thing.”

After the réttir, the conference was taken to Vatnsdalur Valley to see the sheep being driven down from the mountains to the roundup paddock at Undirfellsrétt. We waited for hours in the cold, downing Brennivín and beer.

The horses came first, galloping down the ridge, sheepdogs guarding the line. Then the sheep, thousands of sheep streaming down like milk spilling over the mountain side.

As they came closer to where I stood at the paddock, I heard them calling and some stopped to graze until shepherds spooked them into taking the path to the corral. Some ran, some sauntered—for some, a mere trot. And to our delight, a few leapt (up high!) when they crossed the portal, as if in unfathomable grand feeling.

Swimming in Iceland by Diana Khoi Nguyen

For those who are unaware, I am an amateur swimming fanatic. If JB is a mountain man / outdoors enthusiast, then I am a water nymph. Only food gets me more excited than swimming, pools, oceans, other bodies of water, and I'm not sure food > (bodies of) water.

Part of the pleasure and intimate experience of Iceland is the ability to swim. Every day, any day, anywhere. And nearly all are outdoors (maybe the only indoor one is in Reykjavik--but Reykjavik has several pools). For a place associated with "ice," there are so many swimmable hot springs, "hot pots" all over the country, in addition to places like Blue Lagoon (artificial), Myvatn Nature Baths (curated natural hot spring, but a lot artificial as well). And nearly every town (big or small) has its own village pool!

And of course Blönduós has its own pool. And it's gorgeous. There's a 25m lap swimming beauty (with whom I am most intimate), a shallow kiddie pond with weird mushroom thing that sprays out water--and mostly it's fully-grown humans sitting in the wading pool, sometimes with children, sometimes without. And there's 2 different hot hot tubs (different degrees of hot) AND there are 2 slides. A tubular windy one (the best!) and a steep scary one that looked innocuous, but one I won't go down it again.

And of course there's a steam room. I try to go to the pool as often as possible (exercise, excuse to leave the building, something I rarely do)--and because to shower at the pool is much more comfortable than to shower in the skinny box we have here at the residency.

Earlier this week I learned that not only are there cameras everywhere at the pool/gym facility and around the pools, but there are also cameras underwater! I only know this because one employee, Magnus, told me "You swim very straight." "Thanks," I replied and then he took me to the office where there are two large monitors displaying all the camera screens--several of the lap pool underwater! He pointed out that he can tell I swim straight because my body would shoot past the camera as a straight line. Wow! I wish I could see the camera screen as I'm swimming. Impossible, of course.

Usually, I find the pool to be too warm for my workouts, but since it's been around freezing and very very windy (20+mph winds), the pool has been a lot cooler. Magnus told me that they don't adjust the temperature (all geothermally heated) of the pool--and that the windiness brings the pool temp way down.

Oh! The studio overlooks the ocean (where the river meets the ocean) and aside from being majestic and gorgeous (daily sunsets! birds! whales!)--whenever it's very sunny (and cold), I usually grab my swimming gear and bolt to the pool. It's my way of not only maintaining ideal body weight, but a way to tan as well. I still wear sunscreen (50-70 spf) even though it's 32 degrees out, but it's nice to be a gentle golden color--my native Vietnamese skin.

Today there's been a snowstorm all day--well, sometimes half snow half frozen rain. And mega windy. Of course I went to the pool. The employee (I can never remember exactly how to say her name since I can't visualize it) warned me that the pool was too cold today and to "Be careful!"--but the pool wasn't that cold--cold for Icelanders, but warm still, for the native Californian in me (California doesn't often heat their pools too much--so they are chilly!).

It was an incredible experience to swim with the hail, frozen rain, and snow--to watch the steam rise and get ripped away by the strong gales--and it was harder to swim--I could only feel my pinkies when my hands were underwater. There is something so crisp and precise about a cold swim that I love. As if I can not only see clearer/better, but that my body can perform in some more aqua-dynamic way. As if I become more aquanaimal. It was of course, beautiful to see all the states of water. To feel the heat, the cold, the needles.

After each vigorous swim, I change to a more casual swimsuit (aka less expensive as training/exercise/competitive swimsuits are $$$ and I like to preserve their lifespan) and I sweat it out in the steam room. Today I met two new people from Blönduós, and none of them are Icelandic! One guy works are the only restaurant in town (now he's catering to the workers at the slaughterhouse)--he's from Lithuania. We lamented over pork--the lack of pork in Iceland, and talked about our love of eating pork ears.

The other man is from Germany! He's been living here for 33.5 years and had 4 cows and a farm, but one cow got slaughtered today (he got to keep the heart and something else I didn't quite hear over the steam and his accent). He talked about how there's a lot of fish these days in the lakes--and I started drooling because I'm dying to go fishing with anyone here. Someone take me!

So many things contribute to my Iceland happiness, but swimming is certainly a large part of that happiness-pie. Bring a swimsuit when you come. More than one. And goggles.


Pack Life by Diana Khoi Nguyen

It would be insulting to anyone paying attention for me to apologize for lack of posts/updates--since it's highly likely that I'll keep maintaining long intervals between posts!

Life! So busy! I lazy!

Major news: now have puppy in our tribe, and thus: pack life. Am light years happier, and a lot more tired. But fulfilling in a way I couldn't have imagined. So grateful to have little Beckett in our life. Will miss him immensely when I am away in Iceland.

I promise to document my travels in Iceland. Will temporarily rename blog: A Wild Sheep Chase, out of love for Murakami (obvs.)

For now, am trying to redeem self after pushing back start date of self-inflicted 30/30 from June 1 to June 15. Have been furiously trying to read/write notes of all books read since I moved into the Poets Cottage. Tiring work, but really inspiring material! I am thinking about possibly doing 15/15 then 15/15 in July. We'll see. I'll be doing it (separately, but simul) with dear friends Miriam Bird Greenberg and E.C. Belli (or Martin, depending).

And somehow will manage to be pup guardian/caretaker, freelance writing person, part-time jobber (Slifer House Museum archives, summer camp art teacher, occasional pharmacy worker).

Can't wait until Iceland. But I worry I'll be lonely and that perhaps it won't live up to my expectations. Sheep expectations.