Finding Myself In Iceland

Going through a divorce is not fun. Of course, most people would never think it would be, and they’d be right. But the high-decibel level of utter un-fun, of misery, self-examination, self-loathing, regret — and that’s just actually making the decision to get a divorce — truly cannot be underestimated. I tell people: I don’t recommend it, except when I do.

And so, after almost a year and a half of going through the aching, excruciating process of a divorce, and mothering two children under five, I had become the kind of person to whom people said, after five minutes of conversation, “You need a vacation.” There is nothing that makes you feel more like you need a vacation than having other people prescribe it. It’s right up there with someone telling you, “You look tired,” after you’ve had a great night of sleep: you suddenly feel like you need a nap.

But they were more right than they could possibly know. I needed a vacation desperately, the way lost souls in the desert need water. I had a parching thirst for the sweet, cool taste of peace, or at least silence. I had battle fatigue from the endless skirmish of lawyer e-mails, letters and faxes — words as sharpened swords, waved with great accompanying fanfare and expense. In the immortal words of the advertising slogan, I deserved a break today. However, I would happily settle for a week at the end of August, when the boys would be with their father. I booked the trip.

As the summer went on, I looked to the vacation with the buoyant hope that a week off from my regular life would somehow change it. That’s not entirely accurate — I didn’t want to escape where I was, as much as where I had been. I’d been through a lot, and found its unpleasant residue everywhere, whether in memory or actuality, fiction or fact. To continue the unwieldy chain of metaphors, I hoped that taking a vacation would be the equivalent of placing defibrillator paddles on my chest, and setting my heart straight, back in the right rhythm. Arguably, that’s a pretty hefty burden of responsibility to put on the tiny shoulders of a round-trip airplane ticket, hotel rooms and some expensive drinks. But I’ve always been an optimist.

Why Iceland? People kept asking, which I found interesting in and of itself. After all, no one ever says, “Why Yellowstone?” or “Why Paris?” Well, I’m a well-traveled woman, and I’d always wanted to go to Iceland. I’m a sucker for natural beauty and glaciers. I have no fear of the cold. Plus, I liked that most people I knew hadn’t been there before.

That last part stands to reason, since in many ways, Iceland isn’t a very welcoming place. The country has a population of 300,000, two thirds of whom live in Reykjavik, the capital, the other 70% of the country–with its glaciers, volcanoes, icecaps, fjords and deserts — virtually empty and largely uninhabitable.

It’s a country which, despite the odd cameos by Jews here and there, has never hosted an established Jewish community. Iceland is a place where people are isolated and independent. In a larger sense, its forbidding terrain and landscape render people almost irrelevant, which suited my needs perfectly.

Packing in my bedroom the night before I left, I stepped back to appraise the situation in front of me: a volcano of clothing erupting from a backpack, and it didn’t look good. There was no way that everything I was going to bring was going to fit into my bag. My luggage would have done a Boy Scout proud. Rain pants, fleece, hiking boots, sneakers for when the hiking boots got wet, sweaters, socks, band-aids, cold medicine (Icelanders apparently don’t believe in over-the-counter cold remedies; not being of such hardy stock, I couldn’t disagree more), etc. etc.

This was the first time I was packing only for myself in as long as I could remember, and the first time I’d ever taken this kind of trip — a vacation from myself. The last time I’d traveled alone, I’d been in my twenties — a decade ago — carrying this same backpack. I’d had adventures of the unexpected, where things didn’t have to be planned out more than ten minutes in advance, and I’d carried my belongings on my back with an insouciance I no longer had. Like it or not, now it was time for an emblematic transition to the rolling suitcase.

I went up to the attic, looking for the appropriate size bag. I smiled when I saw the one I’d be taking. It was a brown rolling bag whose tags had never been cut off. It had been a wedding gift from a family member seven years ago, from my carefully selected Fortunoff registry. For all the care that had gone into its selection, it had only been used once — when I’d left the “marital home” as soon as my custody agreement had been signed, packing in more haste than the Jews leaving Egypt. I couldn’t help but take a moment to appreciate the inherent symbolism — which, in and of itself, was a great preparation for the trip.

After all, when you travel alone, the most innocuous events, places and people become saturated with meaning. Perhaps, without a traveling companion, objects speak to you. Weather holds portents that transcend wardrobe choice. Everything has a symbolic message. I choose to interpret it this way: when you’re alone, there is more of an opportunity to really hear and see the things around you, not as the background, but rather as the main event.

So yes, to speak allegorically, I was going on this trip with baggage from the marriage. But, be that as it may, it had been my decision to do so, and I could fill its emptiness — and, correspondingly, my own — with whatever I wanted. Let the journeying begin.

“Table for one?”

“Yes, please.”

“Right this way.”

As I made my way between the tables of one of Reykjavik’s hottest trendy restaurants, I blushed with self-consciousness. I felt the absence of a male dining companion like a phantom limb. Why hadn’t I just ordered room service in my room at the hotel and attempted to decipher an Icelandic broadcast of Lost or something?

My friends who actually had been to Iceland had told me, though, that I had to try this restaurant. So, as I saw it, there were two options. One, befriend a member of the angry-looking Icelandic motorcycle gang outside the restaurant and somehow convey the idea that if he would just pretend to talk to me over dinner, I’d cover the cost of his meal. Two, suck it up and eat alone. After seriously debating option one, I had gone with two. And now, here I was. Table for one.

I saw a few glances in my direction — were they sympathetic, or pitying? I lowered my eyes with embarrassment — as I opened my bag and took out my book. I read the menu, decided on my choice and then sat back and scanned the scene. Rather than looking at my book, I just took in the Icelandic hipster scene –blonde girls decked out in various layers of complicated gray garments, guys with spiked hair on their heads and heavy watches on their wrists. I sipped at my wine and thought, actually, the person who goes out alone is not by definition a loser; worse to be so afraid of being alone that I’d not do what I want to do.

And, it was a genuine surprise to know that, after all these years together, I still enjoyed my own company. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I didn’t mind not being on the awkward-looking date transpiring one table over. I relished that I didn’t have to stumble through small talk. I enjoyed every moment of my delicious meal and my glass of wine.

As I paid the bill, it occurred to me that there are unsung advantages of a solo night out: there’s no unpleasant ambiguity as to who’s paying, whether you’ll end up in the same bed, or whether you’ll regret it in the morning.

The next days were full of wonder. I hiked through volcanic- rock-strewn paths to waterfalls in the middle of the wilderness, passing only sheep along the way. I met Swedes, Australians, Americans and Canadians… and even the odd, laconic Icelander. I had not packed my rain pants for nothing — they are very useful when you decide to climb around the back of a waterfall. I took a boat ride through a glacial lagoon, watching seals dive off chunks of ice with abandon. I looked out my hotel window at ten in the evening, to see the sun only beginning to contemplate setting, over crags of rock that jutted out over the sea.

Most memorable was the sensation of waking up in the morning with true appreciation for the strangeness of everything around me. I felt, whatever I am going through in this divorce mess, it will come to an end, and will only help me to truly be myself once more.

On my last morning in the countryside before heading back to Reykjavik, I looked out of the window onto the mossy green mountains and thought of the words of the morning prayer Modeh Ani: You have returned my soul within me with compassion, I thought. Thank you.

The Blue Lagoon was my last stop before the airport. This is Iceland’s biggest tourist attraction — a huge, geothermally heated pool of seawater which is a natural sauna. I’d packed a bathing suit in my carry-on and was bracing myself. Not for the idea of going into steaming hot water on such a cold, grim and rainy day, but rather the act of changing into my suit in a locker room and then parading in my bathing suit for the world to see.

It almost hurts to talk about being embarrassed by one’s own body. In full disclosure, having had two sons, I had gained weight; having lost one spouse, I had lost weight. Thanks to getting back on a regular fitness schedule, I was now back in the shape I had been in while in college, if not high school. This should have made me happy, except for the fact that even then I had been self-conscious. I mean, I was certainly well within the realm of what most women would call petite — but I was always afraid that I didn’t look good enough.

As a result, public nakedness — hell, even wearing a bathing suit in public (and yes, “public” included family members) — had always been a phobia of mine. I mean, you know it’s screwed up when you remember learning about the Holocaust in Hebrew school and thinking, Wow, that would be really terrible, to be naked in front of other people. Now there’s an adolescent with some issues.

So that was when I was surprised to find myself opening a locker, taking off my clothes and putting on my bathing suit as though it were no big deal at all. And it really wasn’t. I was having what could only be described as, well, an out-of-body experience. What did I care what some girl from Spain thought of my breasts? Or, for that matter, the guy from Spain? What difference did it make, at the end of the day? What mattered was that I was here, this was an opportunity, and I was going to take it.

I skipped from the locker room into the forty-five degree rainy day, the cold coating my skin. I splashed into the Blue Lagoon, which on this gray day looked more green, feeling the heat of the ninety-degree water all over my body. I closed my eyes and angled my face up to the sky, feeling the dissonance between the cold drops on my face and the steaming pool around my body. The contrast was so intense that at moments I couldn’t tell what part of me was hot and what was cold.

After a half hour in the water, I needed some air. As I sat on the rocky “beach” of the lagoon, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a guy, also alone, swim over to sit several feet down from me.

I thought, you know, if my life were a book with a pink cover, at this point I’d look over at that guy and say hello, in a cheeky, yet intimate way. We’d have a quick conversation, fall in love instantly, share passionate kisses. And I would fly home later today ebullient and changed — not by everything I’d seen and done, but rather by this one interaction. The moral of that story would be: so long as you find approval in someone else’s eyes, whatever you see or imagine through your own is of no consequence.

The guy looked at me, caught my eye and smiled a cute grin. “Hi,” he said, with what sounded like an American accent. “I’m Michael.”

“Hi,” I smiled. “I’m Jordana.”

And I swam away.

Jordana Horn is a lawyer and writer at work on her first novel.