Our plane was being loaded with kerosene, it would not take long before we could board. I sat on a row of chairs reading my book about the philosophy behind running by a Japanese writer. Occasionally I looked up from my book, to look at the people around me from a distance. I thought I recognized Helma from the photo from the travel agency group travel app. She had short dark brown hair and wore the same fleece sweater as in the photo, a gray one with a red and white blocked pattern on it. I avoided her gaze because I did not want to become part of the group process just yet, which would probably take place in the coming week.
It was dusk on the arrival day of the tour through southern Iceland. After I introduced myself to the tour guide in the arrival hall at the airport in Reykjavik, I also shook hands with fellow travelers. I was thirsty and asked a red-haired man with freckles from our group to watch my suitcase while I bought a bottle of Coke. His name was John.
We stood outside next to the green van, where we would fit in with eighteen people. I made sure that I could sit somewhere in front so that I could see the road: I quickly got sick during bus journeys. My phone screen indicated that it was minus two degrees, but without a maillot and with the abrasive wind, it seemed to be at least minus twelve. It was the kind of cold that I had not known since skating on natural ice as a child.
I stared out of the window of the van, all the travelers who were unfamiliar with each other were silent. It snowed, and the snow danced on the road because of the wind. After driving for 45 minutes, we arrived at a hotel with a horse-riding school, where we would stay for two nights. We stood around our tour guide in a circle, who gave us the keys to our rooms. Once I was in my room, I partially unpacked my suitcase and lay down on the double bed for half an hour to rest from the journey before the joint dinner began. I expected that the first days, when I knew nobody, would be uncomfortable. In addition, I was still recovering from the fact that I broke up with my boyfriend three weeks ago. Other friends had already run out of days off around mid-November and one friend only wanted to go on holiday if I switched the trip to a warmer place. I was determined to see the Northern Lights, and I took the cold for granted.
It was seven o’clock in the evening and the group sat at a long table with the tour guide. There was no table layout, I just took a seat somewhere along the table. John was sitting next to me, and two friends who had traveled together were sitting in front of us. One of the two friends was very small, and she said after an hour that she had been diagnosed with a certain condition a year ago. The other friend had blond hair and a face with characteristics of a horse; a little elongated, with large nostrils and characteristic teeth.
‘Does it taste good?’ she asked her friend. The friend shook violently with her short-cut red hair and said: ‘Yes-ha for sure, it’s great.’ She shook her head so convincingly nodding ‘yes’ that she could almost tap the soup bowl with her nose. ‘They do not have that in Germany right, chicken soup?’ The other friend asked again, supposedly being funny. ‘No-ha, certainly not’ shook the condition again, now from left to right. This time, the soup bowl was safe. ‘I live in Germany because the houses are cheaper,’ she added. ‘Do not you miss your friends?’ I asked her. ‘Yes-ha, but if I drive forty-five minutes, I’ll see them,’ she replied. She stared into her soup bowl for a while. I looked from one friend to the other and then to John. The guide was the only one with whom I could have had a reasonable conversation about Iceland, but she was sitting completely at the other end of the table. ‘What do you do in daily life?’ I asked my companions, in an attempt to break the silence. I secretly hoped that one of the two friends would say she was a mime artist. The woman with the elongated face was an administrative assistant, which could be interpreted very broadly, since everyone everywhere has to do some administration somewhere. The redhead was a nurse, but she now worked part-time to recover from her condition. Further questioning would only cause painful moments, so I nodded encouragingly. John said he worked for the police and did not want to say anything else about it, as if he would lose his cover. We also could not talk about the choices on the menu because there was no choice. Since we were in the hotel restaurant as a group, we had a set menu for us, which only partly took into account that I was a vegetarian. ‘Do you do a lot of sports?’ I asked the two friends, but their chubby appearances betrayed that they watched more sports on television than that they would exercise themselves. John became enthusiastic and told us that he was in a triathlon club. ‘What sports are involved in doing a triathlon again?’ the horse asked. ‘Swimming, cycling and running, and in that order,’ John said. I told them that I was also running, to which John added that he also coached the youth team at his local running club. The two friends withdrew from the conversation at this point, and to get them back into it, I asked my table companions why they had come to Iceland in the freezing cold. All three said: ‘Northern Lights.’ Nobody took the trouble to keep the conversation going by asking a counter-question. I peered uncomfortably into the room while we waited in silence for the main course. The tour guide asked if everyone wanted to be on the wake-up list. I asked John what a wake-up list was. He laughed and explained that everyone could put their name down to be woken up at three o’clock at night to see the Northern Lights. I was on vacation and did not want to wake up in the night, but I did not want to look like an old lady either. John offered to knock on my door if he would see the Northern Lights before twelve o’clock at night. I thought that was a good idea, in this way I did not need a wake-up call.
After dinner I was alone in my hotel room. The Icelanders compensated for the cold outside by excessively heating the rooms to 23 degrees. I took my heavy mountain boots off, pulled off my sweater that was too warm and sent some messages to a few friends. I wanted to sleep early because the collective had agreed to meet up at half past seven for breakfast at the buffet. It was half past ten when I was in the shower to rinse off the tiring journey. I was singing to myself when I was startled by a knock on my door.
‘Light! Northern Lights! Northern Lights!’ I heard coming from behind the door. I did not know if I had to say anything back, since I then would have to open the door in my towel. If I did not say anything, John would think I was ignoring him, so I just screamed:
‘Yes!’ Once again, there was a knock on my door, and this time I screamed louder:
‘Go ahead!’ Now I felt obliged to go outside into the cold. I put on my clothes over my pink-white striped pajamas and wriggled myself into my big mountain shoes. I hid my wet hair under the big hood of my dark blue fleece jacket. I joined the rest of the group a little bit away from the hotel, where they were all watching the grey sky.
‘Too bad, I think you’re just too late’ said the condition.
‘Yes, very unfortunate’ the horse’s teeth confirmed.
‘Tomorrow is another day!’ said the condition again, shaking her head encouragingly, as only the condition could do.
The next night the nerves of the group were tangible, everyone was so excited to see the Northern Lights, but also a little bit anxious that they might not see them at all during the trip. The friends consulted a Northern Lights app during dinner, and after the dessert of chocolate mousse they quickly put on their large fleece jackets, hat and gloves.
‘Do you want a piece of candy too?’ John asked. There was a dark gray ball in his hand.
‘What does that taste like?’ I asked him.
‘It’s a Djupur, an Icelandic licorice with a layer of salt around it.’ I asked if I could get a candy out of the bag, because I was obsessed with germs.
‘How can you think I am dirty?’ he laughed, and handed me the bag.
‘Very special’ I said about the candy, and so I avoided his question. We stood staring at the stars together. For the moment, John had no ideas on how to start a conversation, and I was quite happy that I could continue our silence. The others were about ten meters away, closer to the hotel where they were more affected by light pollution. It was something after midnight and it had snowed all day. The snowing had stopped after dinner, but a new snow storm had been announced already.
Looking at the sky, I realized that in the travel brochures, they never mentioned that there was a scorching wind in Iceland. In addition, I was previously not aware of the phenomenon of ‘shutter speed’, which meant that I stood in the freezing cold with bare hands for a long time to take a picture on my IPhone. John tried to start a conversation again, announcing from out of nowhere that he liked motorcycle riding a lot. He said that he had a breakdown in Berlin. He showed me a picture of himself, sitting in a tram with rolled up sweatpants, so that a swollen ankle became visible. The ankle was dark purple with some spots of light purple and yellow.
‘Gee nice tram’ I told him. Nobody was waiting to see a disgusting ankle while I could also look at the Northern Lights.
The bus ride from Reykjavik to the Blue Lagoon – a relaxing spa – lasted longer than we were told in advance, so I had less time in the spa than I had anticipated. Once we arrived, the female travelers had to switch to bathing costumes in a dressing room that was too small, filled with many other visitors. In addition, changing clothes was difficult because I had to remove snow boots and three layers of top and underclothes before I was in a bikini. I had agreed with the two friends to take the bus back together. The group decided that they wanted to go back to the spa after an hour so they could eat at six o’clock. Since I disagreed with the collective on this point, I was glad that I had found supporters. I only had to stay near them to know when I had to leave the spa, as I wasn’t wearing a watch.
I could stand in the spa, there was water up to my waist and above the water it was freezing cold. Salt hot water bubbled up from the bottom of the spa. It was minus six outside. The combination of the freezing cold and the heat released by the water created a dense fog, which made it difficult to overlook the spa. There were at least a hundred people in the bath. There were Indian, Spanish and English voices, but those were the only languages that I could clearly place. I swam behind the two friends to the bar of the spa where we ordered a smoothie. I liked nature better when I could experience it in its tranquility. That is why I swam at a distance from the horse and the condition to the edge of the spa to have a view of the mountains with snow in the distance. It was colder in this corner, and I came close to the natural edge where a fence stood with the sign ‘danger’. I wondered what would happen if I were to swim a bit closer to the danger zone.
‘Hey, watch out’, I heard in the distance. I turned around and I saw John swimming towards me.
‘We don’t want to lose you to this abyss?’ he told me. I shook no, but half of my mind was still with the snowy mountain.
‘Are you going to a spa often?” John asked. I replied that I went sometimes.
‘Are you going alone?’ John asked again.
‘No, I always go with someone’, I said to John.
‘Oh, okay, with your boyfriend’, John said, but I did not respond to his remark.
‘I googled your running times’, he said. When he saw my somewhat startled look, he added:
‘Do not worry about it, I didn’t do it in a creepy way.’ Our age difference was fifteen years, which made me wonder which adult man of 46 would be interested in my running times.
‘You were not fast at all, on the Gooische run in September?’ he joked. He added:
‘Well, one hour and ten minutes is not something to write home about.’ I said I ran for my own pleasure and to stay fit.
‘Yes, you’re looking fit, I can see that’, John said, looking at me. The water was too white from the salt to see me from head to toe, but I felt I was being ogled.
I changed in the dressing room with the two friends and we waited outside at the bus stop. All of a sudden, I saw John waving at the condition, and she waved back. ‘Luckily you made it in time John!’ she said. ‘I don’t have to put on as many layers as you do’, he replied, and he looked at me laughingly. It was busy on the bus with a very diverse international travel group. In the crowd, I lost sight of the two friends and sat down in one of the empty places. John quickly occupied the seat next to me. He started talking about the spa. I did not want to talk because I was too relaxed from the spa and stared out of the window. He poked a finger on my arm, and complained about having had ‘intimate contacts’ with fellow travelers on previous group trips. He told me about a trip to Latin America where he had assisted a 25-year-old girl who had quarreled with her boyfriend by spending a lot of time with her during their trip.
‘It is important to be there for others at difficult times, even if they are strangers’, he said. After I asked why he had sacrificed himself in this way, a grin came to his face:
‘At the end of the trip they had broken up and I had a date. It eventually came to nothing because she was not over him yet. But I was still a good rebound.’ Perplexed, I looked around me, but I did not see the hoofed animal and the redhead, and the rest of the bus did not speak Dutch. I forced a polite smile.
I had seized the opportunity to run when it transpired that the tour had temporarily been stopped due to an upcoming blizzard. After we had visited the Golden Circle and saw many lava fields, geysers and waterfalls, we were now stranded on the way towards the iceberg lake of Jökulsárlón.
I ran on the roads around the hotel, through a piece of no man’s land on a small road. There was snow on the verges and on the mountains, but there was still no sign of a storm. If it had been so cold in the Netherlands I wouldn’t have gone outside to run, but because I had signed myself up for the half marathon, I felt the pressure to do so anyway. After more than fifteen minutes, the first snowflakes fell down, but fortunately I saw a piece of forest where I could temporarily hide. The forests in Iceland were small, there were about twenty trees, but it was still dark. The road was deserted, there was no house to be seen, and I had left the hotel far behind me as well.
I stood leaning against a tree in the forest when I suddenly felt two pressing hands in front of my eyes. It seemed like I heard light breathing. I let out a shriek, but I could not easily wrench myself from this grip. After a while I heard a man’s voice in Dutch:
‘Guess who it is?’ I resisted with all my strength, sprinted a few yards and turned around. It was John, he laughed strangely.
‘Be careful in the forest, you never know if there is a scary Icelandic troll in it, if you want to believe the stories of the tour guide.’ I nodded, a little bewildered. I did not understand the situation properly. It was true what John said, indeed we had heard many sagas from the guide. He also probably just meant it to tease me. And indeed, I maybe shouldn’t have been running in this forest so thoughtlessly by myself. Yet the main question was, what was he doing here?
‘I had to save you from the blizzard’, he replied. I said that I didn’t have to be saved, that I could very well run through this snowy landscape by myself.
‘Okay, you’ve figured me out’, he said, and continued:
‘I saw you going out on your running shoes, and I didn’t want to be a wimp, so I put on my sneakers.’
I was pissed off that I could not be left alone on this group trip.
‘You were easy to catch up with, you didn’t run very fast, not even for a girl,’ he said.
‘Shall we do a contest, who will be the first one back at the hotel?’ I asked him, hoping that he would run ahead like a small child. Instead, he replied:
‘I award you the victory’ and then he continued to run closely behind me on the way back to the hotel. Back in the lobby, he wanted to keep talking, but I said I was going to take a shower to warm up.
‘Cannot I join you?’ he laughed again. I said:
‘No thanks’, turned 180 degrees, and walked to my hotel room. When I closed the door of my room, I collapsed to the floor.
I would have preferred to have spent the last evening in Reykjavik alone, but John reminded me that I could not be ‘anti-social’. ‘I saw that you didn’t join the group for dinner yesterday. Do you do that often, just eat by yourself? It seems so uncomfortable to me.’ I replied that I enjoyed myself very well and that this was an excellent way of getting in touch with the locals. ‘We’re going to have dinner together on our last evening, right?’ John said. We stood in the lobby of the hotel after returning home from a day trip and I looked at the two friends, and said: ‘They probably want to join, the more, the merrier’, and so I had sportingly committed myself to an undesirable social evening in a sportive way.
In this foursome we ate together in a food hall where you could get your own food at different food trucks. John got two wines and two colas and ordered a bowl of fried meat slices. I thought it was horrible to see and I said I was going to look at the stalls for vegetarian food. The two friends also stood up to join me, and left John with the coats and bags. John said:
‘Look for something nice for me.’ I had found a vegan lentil stew for myself, and the friends were queueing somewhere else. I came back to the table where John was sitting, and he said,
‘So, is this especially for me?” I answered that the two friends were still working hard to find something for him, and he seemed disappointed. The friends finally came up with a plate of spareribs, which John devoured. After he had eaten everything, he licked the barbecue sauce from his fingers. I went to get something to drink for everyone, and the table was satisfied with that. After finishing their drinks, the friends went to get cups with one scoop of ice cream in them. We were talking about our plans after Iceland. I told them about my running goal again and in an unguarded moment I said:
‘Gee you should also try it at some point, a half marathon. Anyone can do it, if I can.’ The condition shook violently with her head:
‘No-hey, are you crazy, we do not even want to come near running shoes.’ John, on the other hand, said;
‘Okay, I will join you, I’m going to run the same half marathon as you.’ In fact, I had not invited him, but had just made a suggestion. Now I couldn’t back out and I would have to see John again in March.
‘I want to put together a training schedule for you. Or even better, we can also train together!’ John said enthusiastically.
‘Oh well, thank you, but you live in Rotterdam anyway, so you have to come all the way to Amsterdam for that, that is a waste of your time.’
‘It’s a small effort really, and it would be really nice’, said John. I said nothing but cursed myself inside my mind that I couldn’t have just sold a white lie, for example, by making up that I already had a running club. I finished eating my ice cream. To my horror the horse pulled out her diary and pulled out a blank piece of paper.
‘Okay, who had spent what amount again?’ she asked, and she started writing.
The night flight had taken its toll. I had gotten up at four o’clock at night to fly at around seven in the morning. After I arrived at the airport in Amsterdam, I went straight to bed, and woke up at about four o’clock on Sunday afternoon. I looked at my phone, which contained six message notifications, all from John. He wrote that he regretted that I had not said goodbye to him. I replied that it was all very chaotic at the airport, although I had actually avoided it.
During the lunch break at the office, I spoke with my friendly colleague. I told her about John, because he had already sent me all kinds of messages on Monday afternoon at half past one. Messages with photos of himself on the couch with a red-and-white cat on his stomach, a photo of a Christmas present he had made for his niece, and a photograph of his collection with jars of sand from distant beaches. The jar with black sand from Iceland was also there. I told her that he had asked me if I liked it too, our contact.
‘Oh yes creepy’ my colleague said and continued: ‘It’s a pity that you do not have a sister or brother to warn you of these types of people. Why did you actually give him your phone number?’
‘Because I wanted to have his pictures of the Northern Lights. He sent them to me, but now I get this bonus’, I sighed.
‘Oh undesirable! Very undesirable!’ she said.
‘What am I supposed to do now?” I asked her
‘Just ignore him. Closing things off is what you do by yourself’, she said firmly. I admired her for her ability to be resolute, but I felt guilty about just blocking him. After consulting with my colleague, I nervously sent him the message:
‘I do not feel the need for contact.’ It took about an hour before I received a series of messages:
‘Why do you want to stop having contact? Sorry if I ‘bother’ you. Then I’ll leave you alone.’ The message that appeared five minutes later on my phone asked the question:
‘But we are still going to run the half marathon together right?’