Standing at the top of the world, bracing against the roaring gale, witnessing the whole sky dance and unable to take it all in at once, I had never felt so tiny and so human. And it all began with a cup of tea.
Reykjavik is the capital city of Iceland, the most northern capital city in the world. But for a country with ‘ice’ in its name, it is surprisingly warm, even in the depths of winter. The Gulf Stream from Mexico empties out right above Iceland, so winter temperatures are reasonably stable within a few degrees of zero. Sure, that’s cold, but it’s not deathly cold just to walk outside. And it is winter after all.
Iceland is a magical country. It’s so untouched by the rest of the world, but also familiarly European enough not be alien. The snow clings to the ground like a dusting of wonder, and the long winter nights lend themselves to cozy fires, warm drinks, and reading. Storytelling is in the fabric of the culture. Arriving just after Christmas gave me an insight into some of the holiday traditions. The Yule Lads complement Santa. One of 14 troll-like creatures come in the windows of children’s bedrooms each night in the lead up to Christmas. Children leave out a shoe where the trolls deposit a chocolate for well behaved children, and a potato for the naughty ones. Reading that the majority of Icelanders still believe in the elves (Huldufólk) of their ancient folklore sounded absurd to me, until I arrived. I’d believe in elves too if I’d grown up in that country. It has an indescribable mystical quality in the atmosphere and the dark winter is friend to the imagination.
My main ambition while in Iceland was to witness the Aurora Borealis. I’d read and heard about this phenomenon for many years, and could hardly believe I would be in the right part of the world at the right time of year to behold the Lights for myself. I booked a tour with remarkable optimism. The evening came, the tour bus arrived, we eagerly hopped on board. The conditions were perfect. Clear sky, high solar wind activity. We waited, we watched, and we waited some more. Alas, there was no sighting that night. The tour company offered a complimentary tour due to the lack of sighting.
The next night, the tour was cancelled. It was overcast and the atmospheric conditions were not ideal. We would have to wait one more night. As the evening wore on, the sky cleared and a strong wind picked up from the harbour. Deciding to brave the wind, we went in search of a hot drink, and found ourselves at a basement tea bar on the main street. The room was heaving with people and hot drink orders were about to close (the booze was only just starting to flow though). I jostled for a table and my Main Man was left to make drink orders. He returned with an Orange Pekoe for me. The warm tea was heavenly on the cold night. Patrons playing the piano in the corner provided a lively atmosphere amongst the cozy candlelight. We toasted our decision to travel to the other side of the world once again. Aurora or not, this was a trip worth taking and a country worth visiting. When we were walking home, hearts and stomachs warmed, for no reason, MM looked up at the sky.
“What colour do you think that is?” he asked.
We stared for a minute.
“Wait! That’s Aurora!”
We dashed up the hill, the wind fighting us the entire way, until we were standing in the square outside the cathedral. We could see the entire sky from our vantage point, but could scarcely take it all in. Band after band of colour rippled across the sky, twisting, turning, teasing us. It didn’t need our existence, nor did it dance for our benefit, it simply glowed because it was supposed to. The sky becomes so much larger when you try to survey the whole thing at once. It highlights how small you are, how incapable you are of conjuring something this spectacular because you’re just a human. It made think just how much easier it is to believe something else, something bigger or more magical, exists in moments just like these.
In the middle of the city, where we were told the light pollution would destroy all chance of seeing the Lights, on a night when we were told there was no chance of a sighting, we stood, open-mouthed and marvelling. And all because a little earlier in the evening we’d gone in search of a cup of tea.
In a necessary twist of irony, one of the most remarkable events in my life was preceded by one of the most unremarkable teas. Every Orange Pekoe I’ve tried is an unremarkable black, and T2’s offering is no different. It’s a straight black tea, without much depth, and a bit temperamental to brew. It’s not difficult to get a cardboard flavour out of this tea, and milk doesn’t do much for the flavour. My personal recommendation is a squeeze of lemon to lift the cup somewhat. My other recommendation is to see the Northern Lights to lift the experience immensely.
Orange Pekoe: 3/5
Enjoy with: a squeeze of lemon and a celestial marvel.