101 Icelandic: A Thorough Tongue-Twisting Trek Through a Thwarting Language

It is possible that the most garrulous person in all of Iceland is a man who spends most of his day alone on a mountain ridge between two volcanoes. Sigurður Sigurðursson is a seasonal warden of a lonely trekkers hut at a place called Fimmvörðuháls, and if you think you can hike up to his domain for a cozy night underneath the aurora borealis without learning how to pronounce Fimmvörðuháls–and without developing an affinity for the Icelandic language–you are sorely mistaken.

It’s simple when you chop it down to the roots, he says (and given the lunar landscape of his realm he’s certainly not talking about trees). Fimm is five. Vörð (pronounced vordh) is cairn. Háls is neck. The Neck of the Five Cairns. That’s where we are.*

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I, uh, Felt a Jokull (and other Icelandic things)

It had to be high on the list of places to visit in Iceland: Eyjafjallajökull, the ice cap and eponymous volcano that just a year ago erupted with more fury than a stampede of sheep, spewing clouds of ash across Europe and sending air-traffic controllers on a long-sought holiday (by train, of course).

How could one visit the land of jökulls and not deposit a soft, black footprint on the slopes of this tongue twister (“aye, if yet, la yokel”), if only to ensure that, at least at one particular moment, nature has relaxed its cycle of self-correction long enough for us humans to venture out of our caves?

In Iceland the natural world certainly has a way of reminding us not to take it for granted. Maybe it’s the way the sun always seems so distant, at a languid low angle, as though Terrence Malick is in control of the lighting. Maybe it’s in the wind, which blows up, down, warm, cold, east and west, seemingly all at once. Maybe it’s the absence of trees, a taut lesson that what goes down doesn’t always come back up.*

Terrence Malik was here.
Terrence Malik was here.

Or maybe it’s the way those infamous volcanoes keep all but the most brennevín-sodden of Icelanders (and the rest of us) continually on their toes.

Thus, climbing up and setting foot on Eyjafjallajökull is sort of the human way of letting nature know that, hey, point taken.

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