*You can listen to this playlist I put together with Icelandic songs, some of which are mentioned in this post. In any case, you should definitely check out the Icelandic music scene, I’m sure you’ll find something to your taste.*

We were told not to leave after 1 pm because we would meet a “crazy wind,” air quotes and wink included. It was 10 am and the wink kind of played down the warning (Lesson 1: Icelanders don’t loose their sense of humor even when facing certain death). So we left the cozy cabins of Geysir and drove into the mountain pass, our destination: the Blue Lagoon.

We had already been in Iceland for several days, enjoying the snow and some sun from March. We were familiar with Icelandic music from before our arrival. We knew our Björk and Sigur Rós, Mammút and Jóhann Jóhannsson. (Lesson 2: for such a small country, the music scene is comparatively huge.)

But we were still at the beginning of our Icelandic journey and we only had two CDs to play on the car’s radio: Ólafur Arnalds’ “Another Happy Day” soundtrack and Ásgeir’s “In the Silence”. We found them on the basement of 12 Tónar, one of Reykjavík’s most famous record stores.

I still remember the feeling of listening to “Higher” (the first track on Ásgeir’s album), the deep, reverberating first notes and then the refreshing and otherworldly vocals. I remember feeling moved by Ólafur’s music and how it made my ears tingle, particularly during “Everything Must Change”.

So with a trip ahead of us that would last a little under an hour and a half (according to our GPS), we took off, blasting our only two CDs. We figured they would be enough for our short and sweet journey. Those albums would be the perfect soundtrack to a smooth road trip through the snowy roads of Iceland. (Lesson 3: I doubt there is such a thing as a smooth drive across Iceland.)

Except it wasn’t calm or smooth or sweet.

We had done some previous research on which car to rent if we wanted to move around Iceland. So we felt pretty confident about our 4x4 getting through the Icelandic roads without much trouble. Our confidence on our choice only increased after driving for about 10 minutes and finding a Mini Cooper that had gone off the road. “Pfff, these tourists…” There were already a couple of other cars helping the Mini Cooper get out of the roadside ditch (Lesson 4: solidarity), so we drove on. Ólafur’s music keeping the worries at bay.

As we got deeper into the mountain pass (this sounds very Lord of the Rings and maybe it’s the wrong word, but there was a pass and there were mountains surrounding it, so…), the crazy wind got crazier. It was like driving through milk. Everything was white and the only sound was that of the wind blowing. The road disappeared and we had to navigate using the GPS, guessing when the next curve on the highway started. It felt like moving in a sensory deprivation tank. We even stopped talking, not wanting to break the tense silence, trying to focus our whole attention on not going off the road. Where there other cars behind us? Who knew. We couldn’t see anything.

We came to a stop halfway to our journey because there was a snow mound, and we realized we had to make a decision: should we go forward into the unknown? Or should we go back and fight our way through the road we just traveled? (Lesson 5: Icelanders must be experts in this kind of decisions, every time I’ve gone there I’ve had to face a situation like this.)

While we were pondering our next move, a Monster Truck stopped beside us. Its window rolled down, and a guy’s head poked from it to check out if we were ok. Of course, we felt like the stupid tourists that rented the wrong car because they don’t know what they’re doing.

– Are you guys ok? *said in a thick Russian-like accent*
– Yes, we were just checking the GPS. Do you think we should go on? *said in a thick almost-shitting-our-pants accent*
– Well, it would be ok if you’ve done this before. But you haven’t…
– Um, no. But do you think the road will be better going forward or…?
– Well, we don’t know. But we’re gonna find out.

And off they went into the milky mountain pass.

So we knew we had to go on. At least for the sake of our wounded pride.

As the milk got thicker, we realized that we were leading a caravan of cars. If someone got stuck, the caravan stopped and helped each other. Even if that meant leaving the warmth of the car for the coldness and iciness of the outside. It was a new feeling to me: a sort of sociable isolation. It was like the weather wanted to force you into yourself, but still you went out and happily helped others while still remaining covered (literally, with all your clothes, and mentally, the ominous silence of the snowstorm preventing any real conversation or interaction). Even inside the car, I remember riding with other people, but most of my memories are of me as if I were alone.

And that’s when I felt that I understood Icelandic music. 

Whenever I listen to it, it feels like a chance to reflect on yourself, who you are, where you’re standing, where you want to go. Even more so when I’m listening to it in a busy, warm place like Mexico, riding the Metrobus at peak hour. The contrast between the apparent coldness and subtlety of the music and the overwhelming heat and boisterousness of the Mexican public transport usually results in a pleasing but puzzling awareness of the self. An existential crisis with a killing soundtrack.

This is the “isolating component” of Icelandic music. But there’s also this very social component to it, not only in the music itself (all the different instruments and melodies, genres, languages…) but also in the scene. It is full of collaborations and interesting projects and experiments, and a palpable feeling of pride for their country. Just check out Ólafur’s “Island Songs” or Sigur Rós’ “Route One”. This element of their music gives a warm feeling to it, like when snowdrops finally start showing through the snow.

Of course, this understanding of Icelandic music was only a feeling. I’m no musician.

We still had to go through the mountain pass. Sometimes the music felt overwhelming, like it was distracting us from the unseen road ahead. Sometimes it helped in cutting the tension inside the car. By the end of our drive, I felt like I’ve listened to those CDs for a whole lifetime. Still to this day, when I play those albums, I have this feeling of also hearing the silence of the crazy wind.

That was probably my biggest take away from Icelandic culture: no matter how crazy or terrible the road feels, there’s beauty and music in it.

Which Icelandic artists are your favorites? Do you have survival stories from Iceland?

*Goes to sit under the air conditioner to imagine she’s back at Iceland.*

[This text was originally published in January 2019.]