More than a travel book: This compelling read is a voyage of self-discovery and healing in Iceland
By Gwyneth Rees, independent book reviewer
There is a section in the wonderfully titled Where the f**k is Blönduós? where the intrepid travel writer Emma Strandberg contemplates just how many ways there are to die in Iceland.
She writes, “I added ‘murder’ to the mental list I had been compiling, which already included by car crash, hypothermia, buried under an avalanche, boiled in a hot spring, blown off a mountain or even choking on a Kropp drop.” (That, for readers, is an Icelandic sweet).
In her fascinating account of taking on the brute force of Iceland’s stunning yet unforgiving landscape and climate, in the bleak, mercury-freezing midwinter no less, she almost manages to cover them all, including a terrifying and grossly ill-judged cliff climb which leaves her shaken and bloody, driving on perilously icy roads in gale-force conditions, and wading into a turbulent sea.
Yet she managed to walk – or in the case of the cliff incident, hobble – away from each of these, and in doing so became stronger and more self-confident.
And this was exactly why she decided to head to the far north of Iceland, staying in an artists’ retreat in the obscure town of Blönduós, in the first place.
As she explains, Emma had been knocked sideways by a number of traumatic experiences in quick succession, including the long-expected breakdown of her marriage to an often-absent security contractor, the associated prospect of becoming homeless and incomeless, and – the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back – a nightmarish night-time robbery.
“The burglary had left me feeling violated; staying in the house where it took place was unimaginable. I learnt from that experience it wasn't always what people took from you, it was what they left you with that caused the most distress and trauma.
“Through my own fog, I knew I had to find the strength to make changes, to leave behind the toxic relationship I was in and to recover from the psychological wounds the series of events had inflicted upon me. I reassured myself over and over that by journeying alone, I would eventually find a path to good health, renewed optimism and, with that, opportunities. I wasn't sure I believed it, but I knew I had to try.”
So she sat down, fired up Google and began searching for locations. She wasn’t sure where she would head to but one thing was certain, it would have to be in Iceland.
Remarkably for a keen traveller who had visited more than 100 countries, Emma had never been to the Nordic nation, though the reason was personal, not practical.
As revealed in the early chapters of Where the f**k is Blönduós?, her late mother had visited in the 1960s with her husband to consider starting a new and exciting life there.
The reality, however, had been very different, with her being domestically abused by her husband, Emma’s estranged father, and that bitter experience had, sadly, stayed with her, blighting her relationship with her children and, in turn, their perceptions of the country.
So choosing Iceland, then, had a twin purpose for Emma: to overcome her trauma and find new purpose by testing herself to the limit, and to heal the deeper intergenerational wounds of a tainted childhood.
While it takes real courage to be so candid about the past, it takes even more to throw yourself into the savage wilderness with little more than a car, a tent, a swimming costume "that had seen better days", and a woolly hat.
But that’s what Emma did, and she set her compass for Blönduós, just half a degree from the Arctic Circle and which regularly falls to minus 15 degrees °C (though it feels much colder because of the extreme wind chill), primarily because it was an unknown entity and the perfect proving ground.
Leaving her home in Sweden, where she had relocated from the UK many years before, she caught a ferry from Denmark to Iceland, driving the rest of the way to the sleepy, snow-covered town.
En-route she’d been particularly excited by the prospect of taking knitting lessons at the artists’ residence in Blönduós, but she soon came to wonder if she’d made the right choice when she arrived.
A dreary place with more rusting shipping containers than tourists and an abattoir, with a putrid stench of blood, being the main attraction, it was not the most awe-inspiring of sights.
Thankfully, Emma quickly found an (aptly) close-knit and supportive community to buoy her up as she began the difficult process of unpacking emotionally, poring over her mother’s Icelandic journals as well as the events of her own life.
At first, and as she readily admits, she was fearful of going camping solo as planned, what with the frequent frostbite-inducing storms, and it perhaps would have remained that way unless a further upset, the loss of her close friend Mats, hadn’t shaken her into action.
He had been a constant source of encouragement in heading to Iceland and Emma felt she, at the least, owed it to him to follow through.
As mentioned above, her adventure was not without its close calls but the counterpoint, so vividly described, of watching humpback whales with their calves close-up, gazing up at the northern lights, bathing in hot pots, and flying over the awe-inspiring volcanic vista towards Surtsey, among many other incredible experiences, made it worth the risk.
And Emma writes so beautifully of the Icelandic landscape – the icy seas, the soaring birds, the bubbling hot springs – that you will likely feel the wanderlust rising within.
If this were a simple travel guide then given how the author deliberately veered clear of the beaten track to find the ‘undiscovered’ Iceland, successfully getting under its skin, I would wholeheartedly recommend it on its own merits.
This foreign and quirky culture springs out of the pages, from trying delicious local cuisine to a fateful visit to a witchcraft museum.
But the circumstances of the journeys, for Emma made more than one trip to Iceland, immensely enhances the satisfaction gleaned from reading Where the f**k is Blönduós?
The added dimension of a spiritual quest for answers and resolutions is relatable and speaks volumes of the human condition. While most travel guides are content to stir your curiosity, this one stirs your soul.
It’s an emotive journey and made me feel for the author and her mother, whose short moment of happiness was tragically replaced by a lifetime of dissatisfaction.
While clearly a painful trek, in many senses of the word, it’s wonderful to know that Emma was able to find peace with her past. As she writes, “I now understood how our mother could have fallen in love with Iceland. I thought how strong she must have been, to be alone, pregnant, and physically abused, yet determined to survive and even thrive. I drank a glass of expensive, though not very good, wine and silently toasted her.”
And, furthermore, she returned a new woman, free from the burdens and physical symptoms of chronic stress that had plagued her before booking her tickets.
In the book she makes the pithy observation that we never really know ourselves until we are alone, cold, and hungry.
Curled up in my favourite armchair, glued to Where the f**k is Blönduós? from start to end, I couldn’t exactly say that I’ve walked that walk.
But from her story I can see the sense of her words, and came away with a resolve to be more like Emma – appreciating life by truly living it.
My main takeaway is that we owe it to ourselves to take time out to discover who we are and what we need, and that it’s never too late to do this.
Where the f**k is Blönduós? is Emma’s second book, her first being 2016’s Fully Booked –which recounts her relocation to Sweden, renovating an old property and opening a bed and breakfast in Sweden.
It will be reissued later this year in an expanded edition and I’ll be first in the queue to buy a copy, while keeping an eye out for her next book, which is set for release in 2024 and will discuss self-healing in the forests of Sweden.
For it is rare to find an author who can combine travel writing and memoir into something that is far more rewarding than the sum of its parts.
Whether you decide to follow in her footsteps is entirely your choice but I wholeheartedly suggest making Emma’s Amazon page your next destination.