Sixty-six degrees north

The word “express” used to mean that it was “quicker” than something that was “not express”.

In the world of travel it implied a more direct route with fewer stops, meaning a shorter journey time.

Unfortunately for fans of the word “express”, marketing people got hold of it and used it to try to put lipstick on “worse things” by making a virtue of the speed-advantage of having “less choice”. A Tesco Express is smaller than a normal Tesco, so you spend less time there, ergo it was an “express” experience, as was choosing a DVD in my local Blockbusters Express because there was hardly anything to choose from.

Iberia Express have taken this definition-drift one step further by retaining the concept of “worse” but losing the bit about “quicker”.

This means that the Express brand of the Spanish flag-carrier is the same as the normal Iberia, but worse. It is not quicker, it does not have fewer stops on its way to its destination, and nor is it smaller with less choice like a Tesco Express; it’s the same but with less legroom.

It is the “low cost” arm of the Iberia group, but like all “low cost” airlines, it isn’t necessarily “low price” for the passenger.

I was flying to Reykjavik, a fairly lengthy four-hour flight to a pricey destination that seems to jar with the “same-but-worse” Express brand. This wasn’t a highly competitive route where a low-cost alternative might garner some untapped market share, nor is it much of a tourist destination, at least not the sort for people looking for a bargain getaway, but there you go, that’s Iberia Express for you.

I limped off the plane, legs frozen from being shoved in the tiny gap between my seat and the one in front, happy to have avoided a thrombosis. I marched through the airport as quickly as I could, trying to get my circulation going; it was 2am, and I was desperate to get to my hotel. I am not a late-night person any more, those days have gone … I used to adore boozy nights in clubs or sitting around with friends chatting into the small hours, but not any more. I have stumbled through my midlife crisis and come out the other side, accepting the non-negotiable fact that I’m fifty … accepting it and embracing it because you don’t mess with people who are fifty, we’re too grizzled with experience, we’re too fucking hard. I no longer mourn my lost youth, there’s a lot I regret and things I would love to do over, but I’ve got better at living in the present and looking to the future and spend much less time redesigning my past. I don’t want to pretend my age isn’t true – it isn’t “just a number,” as so many people say – it’s a number that means I don’t want to stand in crowded bars at 3am drinking gin just to show I’ve still got what it takes. If that’s what it takes to show you’ve still got what it takes, then I haven’t got what it takes. If I’m not tucked up in bed by eleven with a good book I’m not happy … and so, marching through a chilly airport at 2am after a four-hour flight, I feel no sense of adventure at being in a new country, I just want to rush to a cosy hotel room and jump into bed.

A disadvantage of being middle-aged is failing to remember the age-perspective rule. This means that from the perspective of someone younger, age difference is magnified by a factor of ten. For example, to the very attractive and charming immigration officer who checked my passport and Covid documentation, I probably looked to be about a hundred years old. She was young enough to have never seen an iPhone 5 when I showed her my digital vaccination certificate – she called it “cool” – and yet from my perspective, the age difference is diminished by a factor of ten, and so although she was obviously younger, to my eyes we were all adults and roughly-speaking were all pretty much in or around the same age bracket.

I have learnt that the best assumption to make when women are friendly and nice, is that they are a spy hoping to lure me into some poor decision-making that will be used against me later. This may not always be true, but even if not, I have worked out that friendly-and-nice women are not being friendly and nice in the hope that the aged stranger in front of them will try to get off with them; better outcomes await the man who responds to friendliness and niceness with a respectful friendliness and niceness in return.

This is just as effective even if they are a spy.

I smiled, “Cool? Not sure about that! Just old!”

I hope she realised I was talking about the phone …

***

A decent hotel in any city tells us a lot about that culture’s approach to luxury and customer service, and in a wider sense, its approach to society in general.

Asian hotels are practically built from ingots of solid gold, with guests made to feel like royalty by subservient eager-to-please staff. I would have happily lived the rest of my life in the hotel room I once had in Bangkok, and had to be dragged from the decadent luxury of my hotel in New Delhi … but I couldn’t say the same about my Reykjavik experience … at 3am (by the time I got there), I was mainly concerned with getting to bed, but even through my fog of tiredness I took a moment to register surprise at the underwhelming service-with-a-shrug, a kind of gruff efficiency that was polite but made clear that there would be none of this subservient business going on. I might be the paying customer in this equation, but we were 66 degrees north – on the edge of the Arctic Circle – where everyone’s equal and we’re all expected to be self-sufficient and capable.

Fair enough, I thought, Icelandic people must be tough cookies, this was an inhospitable climate and no place for softies, and as someone who finds subservience excruciatingly uncomfortable, this should be right up my street.

Except the meager welcome was reflected in everything … it was all a bit tired and tatty; the room was small, dark and freezing (although the old-fashioned radiator was remarkably efficient), the bathroom old and small, and the pillows were like someone had slipped a pillowcase on a bag of gravel … but it was OK, I suppose … but then there was breakfast that was all a bit shit: cold baked beans and transparent orange juice do not make for a great start to the day, so I stuck to some thin porridge, a mediocre coffee and a couple of slices of toast … and yes, I had some flapjack that was actually pretty good, but that’s not technically a breakfast food so doesn’t count.

I had got up earlier than planned meaning I had time before my first meeting, and so I decided to venture outside to see if Iceland in general was as disappointing as my Icelandic hotel.

I stepped outside, then immediately stepped back in, rushing up to my rooms to grab my woolly hat, scarf and gloves. I knew cold, but I live in Madrid, which is not on the edge of the Arctic, and so my cold and Icelandic cold were as different from each other as red and white wine are from each other, and – like red and white wine – should not be called the same thing.

I walked down the main street, looking for bookshops and record shops, hoping I might even find news of some live music during my few days here. Iceland has a strong record of bleak fiction and interesting electronic music, so I was hopeful. In the end I got an album by Vök (Figure) and a book by Halldór Laxless (The Fish Can Sing), apparently Iceland’s John Steinbeck; and there’s no higher praise than that (except being compared to Lucas Radebe).

After working the rest of that day, I had a beer in Bastard Brewery, shamelessly drawn by the amusing name:

I liked Reykjavik.

It had – typical of an outpost on the edge of human life – the open-minded vibe of a place where people did their own thing and didn’t much care if you approved or not. It was like a freezing Key West, but with burly Vikings and four-wheel drive vehicles.

As much as I liked the cool vibe, I felt frail and exposed. I was acutely aware that I could not survive here outside of the houses and heating, I was too used to a gentler climate. This one made me humble, the bleakness of the snow-capped hills across the bay, the looming winter, the chilly wind bowing up the main street, all made me realise how small and helpless I would be if I weren’t protected.

I would like to try living here. It would be fascinating to spend a full year clinging to this isolated northern island, but I only had a couple of days so I went to have fish and chips at Reykjavik Fish (more service-with-a-shrug, but the food was good) …

… and climbed to the top of a pointy church …

To see the views …

Due to awkward flights time and multi-leg journeys back home, I had one last night in Iceland on my own. At first I was thrilled by the freedom of walking down a busy Bankastræti, the evening breeze surprisingly gentle and warm. The locals wore t-shirts, some even wore shorts, taking advantage of the mild temperatures. I walked around and eventually found some live music: a bookshop by day that became a jazz bar at night, but in typical Icelandic fashion it was expensive to even get anywhere near the stage, never mind buy a drink. I was on my own, so paying big bucks to squash on the end of a crowded table didn’t feel like a sensible thing to do.

I hung around on the edge for a while and then wandered back outside, unsure what to do with myself. There was a street with a few busy gay bars, but as a married heterosexual, that didn’t seem like the right move. There was a rock band playing somewhere but I couldn’t work out how to get in.

I decided to go back to my hotel.

My taxi was waiting at 6am and we drove through the dark morning to the international airport at Keflavik. I was nervous that I had all my Covid stuff done properly, but I’d done a PCR test a couple of days before and completed all the forms for the UK (where I was passing through) and Spain (my final destination), and had uploaded my vaccination information. I’m not a big fan of sharing medical data with strangers, but I’m also a pragmatic chap, and just wanted to have breakfast, get on the plane and go home.

There was nowhere open for breakfast.

Eventually I had a small tepid coffee and a chilled muffin. I felt a bit sick, and cold, the wide open spaces of the airport terminal didn’t lend themselves well to heating. I went to sit near the gate and read my book, but my eyes closed and I snoozed. I tend to arrive early for flights, reasoning that I might as well be kicking my heels in an airport as kicking my heels anywhere else, at least I wouldn’t miss the flight. Others take a different view, and believe in minimising time in airports, absorbing the risk of missing the occasional flight. Sometimes this is dressed up as being so dedicated to work that you stay as long as possible in a productive environment (the office) and spend as little time as possible in an unproductive environment (the airport).

I can try to justify my approach through logical reasoning, but really it’s a personality preference: I’d rather be early and keep things under my control than be at the whim of traffic or queues or whatever other external factor that might get in my way and impede my progress. If I stayed in the office until the last minute, I’d only be distractedly worrying about missing my flight so I’d be unproductive anyway.

And anyway, I’ve never minded airports. I like the buzz of travel and the space to chill and watch the world go by without the pressure of normal work and home life. Sometimes we all need a break.

My flight was called and I stretched and got up, ready for another queue … Iceland had been fascinating, and I desperately wanted to go back, but at that moment, I just wanted to go home.

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