In the summer of 2006, I moved to Iceland from the United States. This trip was my first time away from home; I was 19.
I lived with an Icelandic family on the border of Kópavogur and Reykjavík where I helped around the house, babysitting the two youngest children, and my Icelandic family, in turn, introduced me to Icelandic culture. The first of our many trips together was to the local swimming pool.
Walking through the turn stales, I found myself alone in a large, white room, filled with lockers and pale white butt cheeks. It felt like a nudist colony had harpooned me in the face. People were getting naked—very naked. Right next to me, even. I could see their butt pimples. One, two, three, four…
I would like to explain that it is mandatory procedure in all Icelandic swimming pools to wash one's private bits before entering the water. As explained in the naked androgynous diagram posted on the walls, fully equipped with color coded private areas and written directions translated in four different languages. This process is done without a bathing suit. A rule sternly enforced by the locker room attendant, when she caught me trying sneak by her.
I came to Iceland believing in my heart that I was an open-minded objective thinker. It was hard to feel objective or open minded wearing nothing but my birthday suit. I was terribly uncomfortable.
I acted nervously. I found my arms migrating to the front my body in an attempt to skew my full frontal. I lost my power to walk. Instead, I had to run. Back from the showers, I dove for my towel. It was my life preserver. I was safe, firmly afloat in a sea full of flabby asses and their butt pimples. An obese woman approached me. She was also naked. She pointed at the slippery trail I had left behind when I sprinted from the showers. Then she pointed to the group of girls standing, drying themselves in the hallway that connected the locker room to the showers.
In a harsh voice, “You dry yourself over there,” she told me in English. Again, reaffirming that I didn’t belong. I could feel the letters F-A-I-L burning on my forehead. Feeling thoroughly stressed, I made it a point that next time, I would complete this process more gracefully.
It is now 2008. Almost two years later, I got my chance to reset my Kópavogur screw up. I’m staying in Reykjavík this summer for an art residency program with SÍM, the association of visual artists in Iceland.
Before arriving in Reykjavík, I made a stop at the Blue Lagoon. I was giving myself an internal prep talk during the bus ride there. Running the shower routine through my head, over and over. It had to be perfect. Seamless.
When our bus arrived, I stowed my luggage, picked out a nice locker and I marched right up to that shower, baring all. I just ignored any impulse to run for the hills. Yes, yes. I was very proud of my unabashed, naked self. Proof that I had graduated out my cultural bubble.
I looked to my fellow naked comrades for a “well done,” or a “bravo!” Alas, there were no naked Europeans looking back at me with congratulatory smiles. I was, in fact, the only naked person in a room.
Instead, the shower room was full of bathing-suited tourists, who were trying very hard to ignore my naked presence. I could hear my inner gymnaphobe having an epileptic fit. Where the hell were those stern shower attendants?
The truth is, Icelanders hardly ever go to the Blue Lagoon. It’s expensive and too far out of the way from Reykjavík. I walked to my locker – a naked, well hidden, gymnophobic, American tourist.
Sarah Green is participating in the artist residency program organized by SÍM, The Association of Icelandic Visual Artists. For the month of July, she will be presenting several public installations pieces around the harbor and downtown Reykjavík area. Jovanna is filling in for Tobias who is away on holiday.