Saturday, January 23, 2016

Iceland, day 3: threads of meaning

Just seeing traditional Icelandic sweaters in shops, and worn by tourists and locals alike, I knew I was going to get one. I was determined to allow myself this indulgence. I am not a person who buys many clothes, I live simply, and I have to resist feelings of guilt just for purchasing something for myself. 
I walked a few blocks into the main shopping district and stopped at Te & Kaffi. Perfect. Hot black tea, a toasted bagel with Smjör butter and as is customary in Iceland some cheese or meat or fish (cheese for me). I chatted with Alexandra and Jeremiah behind the counter. Jeremiah, wearing a Harry Potter-inspired medallion on a necklace and what looked to be premature gray hair, spoke in American-inflected English. He related having lived in Minnesota and Tennessee. He did a humorous Minnesota accent in English after I tried my own version. His was better, with an exaggerated American-Scandinavian lilt. I browsed through a local newspaper, not succeeding in parsing the meaning of the front-page story.

“Where’s a good place to shop for a real Icelandic sweater with good prices, not too touristy?”

“The Nordic Store, right across the plaza,” Alexandra and Jeremiah suggested.

I walked the twenty yards there. It’s a splendid display of sweaters, gloves, scarves. I walked to the men’s section and a very helpful sales clerk let me try on a few pullovers. I avoided looking at price tags. I decided I would not get the zippered cardigan. I liked the sweaters she showed me and let me try on, but I am a fussy buyer capable of an impulsive move. I wanted more color, I said. There was a green design I liked but she did not have it in my size. She was not pushy, and I greatly appreciated that. She was so cordial, I had to buy something. I bought a skein (is that what they are?) of hunterish green authentic wool for knitter/quilter Beth, from whom I've been cordially separated for more than two years, for her to knit or to have as a souvenir. The customer can choose from a robust palette of colors, demarcated on a chart reminiscent of a Pantone Matching Scale. This wool is authentic, the double-ply fiber used in the sweaters. (Beth later enthused it was the best gift I’d ever given her.) Locals proudly boast of how warm the sweaters are, wet or dry. And they are right. It’s all in the wool of their sheep, we are told. (Sheep outnumber people on the island. Speaking of “island,” two things: the Icelandic word for Iceland is Ísland, and domain names there end in .is. This invites wordplay and silly conjecture. Well, it is an island, but not the only one in the world that is a nation. More tantalizing, for my little philosophical musings, is the notion that I have found my being, my “is,” in the land whose websites end in “is.” It must’ve been preordained. Or not.)

I had to do more exploring. Up the street, on Laugavegur, the Icewear store had gorgeous selections. I can’t articulate why I did not buy one there. Size? Style? I just was not psychologically ready. The fellow there was also gracious and patient. Both Nordic Store and Icewear were curiously empty of customers around noon. The guy at Icewear told me to try their store down the hill, closer to my apartment. Before that I stopped at 66º North. A decent but limited assortment of blacks, blues, grays. I went to the Icewear store, downstairs to the Vault. A few folks from Maryland were there, a couple. The woman seemed to be on the same sort of mission and knew sweaters. Then the fellow there mentioned The Handknitters Association of Iceland store. That was it. I would have to go there. Trond had mentioned it to us as he dropped off tourists at the end of the day the night before. I had to see what it offered.

I was hungry. Time for lunch. I was arrested by a sign at Prikid, on Bankastraeti, that declared it was the “oldest restaurant / cafe in Iceland.” (What does that even mean and how would one prove it?) It was inviting, giving off a simple 1950s American diner vibe. And looking at the menu sold me on it. I was up for a breakfast meal in the afternoon. I sat at a table by the window, able to view the streams of tourists. I had the Breakfast of Champions, the title of a Kurt Vonnegut work: scrambled eggs, tea, toast, oranges, bacon, and skyr. I had been urged to try skyr. I am glad I did. It is the original “Greek” yogurt that Icelanders have been eating a thousand years. Some crunchy granola or nuts on top was a literal crowning achievement. Prikid had the weird feel of a bar and a diner. It wasn’t rowdy, and was akin to an Irish pub in that it served as a haven for regulars, including an ostensible writer or two (counting myself). Old black and white photos of writers adorned the walls. I thought one was Henry Miller, but Geoffrey, one of the managers, informed me it was not.

While on Bankastraeti, I saw the lady who had waited on me at Nordic Store. We exchanged smiles. I nearly blurted out to her that I had yet to buy a sweater.

Even for one who is not a knitter (owing to clumsy hands and a restive nature), The Handknitting Association of Iceland store was dazzling: shelves lining the walls with cardigans, pullovers in several colors and styles, though not dozens of styles. I suspect they go through cycles as to what varieties of color and design are offered. Just as I love the smells of a hardware store in America, I loved the playful kaleidoscope of colors here (not that I could specify a smell or fragrance; more a woolishness in the air). You would have to work at feeling gloomy. I tried on three sweaters, all pullovers: a white one with gray and black subsidiary designs; a red one with blue and green; a charcoal one with white and gray. I was torn. I’d try one on and then waltz up to the front room and ask the clerk at the desk what she thought, seeking validation per usual in my life. (Is it a writer thing?) On the white one: “Sure, it looks very attractive. It’s good.” Me: “I don’t know. I look washed out.” Then the red one. Again, positive reviews by two clerks, and a Chinese young woman trying on more sweaters than I was. “Get that one. Red is a lucky color in China.” Me: “But I’ll look like a Christmas ornament. It’s too flamboyant.” “All the women in the room will like it. The design pattern stands for the church,” she said referring to the spire of Hallgrímskirkja, which dominates the city’s viewshed. That would be the tiebreaker. The sanctified endorsement would seal the deal. Hold on. Not quite. I eliminated the white one. Down to two. I tried on the red one and the charcoal sweater again. I concluded the red one was too special, as if reserved for Christmas or special occasions. It had too much of “lookie here!” The young clerk at the front desk agreed. I finally went with the charcoal, with a design signifying waves. It picks up my gray hair and gray goatee as well as the remnants of black hair I have (or persist in believing I have). 

I am glad with the choice I made. If my buying process paints me as as a fop or a dandy, so be it. It was an investment coupled with a statement. I knew it would be a remembrance, iconic of a journey. “Waves”? Sure. I’ll take that as a framework for this journey. I’ve even slept in this sweater. It is cozily warm and a work of art. I view it as a wise move, and unabashedly a conversation starter.

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