Words by Stefan Michel, operational manager and co-owner.
It’s November and usually at this time of the year, Midgard Base Camp would be buzzing with life. People would be checking-in, excited, hoping to see the Northern Lights, we would be hosting concerts, and on the weekends we would be organizing staff trips for companies from Reykjavík. This year is different, and I cannot sugar-coat it, honestly, this year just sucks.
We have been posting fun and positive things recently on our pages about our summer adventures with lots of domestic travellers, amazing hikes, unbelievable scenery, and it’s true, we did have an amazing summer and it is great to have those memories. But as we head into winter, I’m struggling, knowing that these memories will need to keep me going through the quiet months to come. I’m writing this blog to share from behind the scenes, behind the social media posts, about what I – Stefan- am feeling as a Swiss national living in Iceland, a business owner, and someone working in tourism at a time when no one is travelling.
To start with Covid led to a lot of free time this summer, something that has been very rare in the 5 years I have spent here. One of my main reasons for moving to Iceland was to explore, to get to know more of the country, go off the beaten path, find my own secret spots, to learn Icelandic, and to really dive into Icelandic culture. Thanks to Covid, suddenly I had all the time in the world to do just that. I got to run Laugavegur, explore the Westfjords, improve my Icelandic, hike around Mælifell, hike Fimmvörðuháls multiple times, discover beautiful new routes in Landmannalaugar, ski on new slopes, finish my house, catch my first fish, kayak around icebergs and through all that get into the best shape (or at least stamina) of my life! Though I am far from being done exploring, as seeing “everything” will never be possible, the more you see of this country, the longer the list of the things you want to do grows – behind each mountain opens up a new mountain, glacier or waterfall.
These trips to nature help free your mind; your thoughts are far away from wearing masks, keeping 2m distance, financial problems, health worries. But these trips always come to an end. I arrive back home to an empty parking lot at Midgard Base Camp and that’s when it always hits me that there is something seriously bad happening right now. Entering Midgard through the side entrance, no music playing, the lights turned off and absolutely no one around, feels wrong. Base Camp has always been an amazing, vibrant place; friendships were built, travel stories shared, thousands of beers drunk, weddings and birthdays celebrated, good (ok so mostly bad) karaoke songs sung, incredible concerts held, and guests arriving super happy after a day exploring their dream destination. Now, there is no one arriving telling you how amazing their day was, how beautiful their road trip was and there are no guests to help by adding “secret” spots to their next day’s itinerary. I miss this and honestly it hurts to see Base Camp empty – like a house that needs people to make it a home, our old concrete factory needs guests to make it a hotel. It might sound strange, but for me hearing from guests how beautiful my backyard is, helps me appreciate things that my eyes have become too spoiled to see.
I don’t only miss our guests, but also our staff, who over the years have become like family. Unfortunately, like a lot of businesses around the world, we have had to lay off most of our staff. Luckily most of them have found a solution to pass their time. Jónina is working in the kitchen team at the old people’s home here in Hvolsvöllur, Björg is working at the Covid tracing team, Hildur, Harpa and Bjarni went back to university, Tomas is enjoying quality time with his family in Spain and so on. Some are able to do things they had planned to do for a long time but always postponed year after year – and Covid finally gave them the kick, or the free time (or unemployment) to go for their dream. Hildur had been talking about extending her studies by adding a master’s degree in environmental studies for quite some time and this year she finally went for it. I’ve been really impressed by how she flipped the switch and went from being an awesome guide and super friendly Base Camp host into a nerdy, very dedicated student within the first day of school. She’s also started to learn the accordion, which I’m sure will be a “great” addition to future Base Camp evenings! And though I’m happy that our closed doors have opened up new doors for all of them, at the same time, I’m worried about reopening Base Camp, not knowing who will be able to come back to our “working family” once we can welcome guests again.
For a foreigner, living abroad things are of course a little more complex. Families in Iceland are big, not only because back in the day they had many children, but also because even a 4th degree cousin is seen as a close relative and therefore “family”. Family reunions with 200 participants are not a rare thing here. It is a beautiful tradition and great to see how close-knit families here are, though at times it can be a little tricky when you don’t have any Icelandic blood in you. I am blessed and was “adopted” by Addi and Björg’s family and with them I have a second family here in Iceland. My Swiss family usually comes for several visits a year and my mother is even taking Icelandic lessons. This year visits are trickier and therefore not happening. Until this year, I didn’t realise how much of a luxury it was having Switzerland just a plane ride away. Currently flying home is almost impossible; if your flight isn’t cancelled, it will be 14 hours (with two stops) and you would need to go into several days of quarantine. Of course, with a pandemic going on, I am worried about family and friends back in Switzerland, which is not a good feeling, knowing how long it takes to get there if “something happens”. Switzerland that was just a short flight away, suddenly seems very, very far. I’m sure that most people living in another country, far from their families, experience this too. I’ve been incredibly lucky so far, all my family and friends have stayed healthy and I know lots of people cannot say the same. Life as an expat is always a little complicated but Covid has increased that complexity endlessly.
At times I’ve felt lost, like I’m in limbo just waiting for this year to be over. I’ve not taken up a new hobby, I’m not perfecting my banana bread recipe, I won’t be coming out of Covid with a new business or new language skill, like a lot of social media seems to be telling us we should. I’m just existing, getting through these days and months as best I can. And actually, that’s completely fine. That’s why I wanted to write this blog, as I’m sure there are a lot of people feeling the same, also just getting through this as best they can. I try to keep the Icelandic saying Þetta reddast in mind, it loosely translates as “it will all work out in the end” and with the recent good news about vaccine trials I’m starting to feel hopeful that it might. And so Þetta reddast. Þetta reddast has always proven to be true before, and so it will this time!