Finding Home: Unpacking My Library in Iceland

4 years ago

Last fall, Mark and I left New York City and moved to Iceland. We left a city with population of over eight million for a whole country with a population of 319,000. We made the move because, nearing 30 - when many of our peers are transitioning into their lifetime careers, settling in relationships, and starting families - I discovered that I was passionate enough about this tiny’s country’s amazing literature that I wanted to learn Icelandic myself. (One day, I’ll translate Icelandic literature into English.)


I did my research, some language preparation, and applied for a grant to start studying Icelandic at the University of Iceland. Roughly two years after I began this ‘What If’ game with Mark over beers in Brooklyn, we arrived at the Keflavík International Airport, precariously balancing five super-size suitcases, a crumpled cardboard box, two canvas totes, two backpacks, and a duffle bag on one rickety luggage cart.

Collecting all our worldly goods from the otherwise unfettered baggage carousel, I wondered to myself: when you’ve just moved to one country (Iceland, for example), are storing all your belongings in one state (New York), and your mail is sent to another state (Arizona, where my parents live)—where exactly is home?

I’ve moved over a dozen times in my life, so I am an exceptional packer, but I am also a congenital nester. I need to put down roots immediately. I want to be surrounded by my own photos and knick-knacks; everything in its right place.  

This is obviously not a practical approach to getting settled in a new country, especially when you don’t know how long you’ll live there. Due to variables with funding, degree programs, jobs, visas and a whole mess of prosaic, yet life-determining details, we knew when packing that we’d be gone between nine months and three years, or between three years and forever.

What do you bring on a trip that might be the start of a new life?

Prior to the move, Mark and I packed and packed. We boxed up our summer clothes, our esoteric kitchen utensils, our extra bedding, and photo albums. You don’t know how much crap you’ve collected in life until you are getting ready to put all of it into storage. Suddenly, you have to know the exact dimensions and weight of our physical existence as it were. And frankly, ours was rather obese.

So we had a stoop sale and cleaned out all the DVDs we’d never watch, the mason jars I hadn’t gotten around to using, and the clothes that had just grown too snug. Anything we couldn’t sell was shifted to the curb, sent back into the great cycle of disposal and reclamation that the New York thrives on. (New Yorkers, myself included, could make “dumpster diving” an Olympic sport.)

The only thing that gave us any pause during this Great Packing Purge was the immense collection of used paperbacks which we had spent the first several months of our cohabitation entering, one by one, into our own personal library catalog. Practicality had suddenly made me a much less sentimental, space-saving, stuff-discarding machine. But neither I nor Mark wanted to commit to putting all of our books in storage for the next nine months to three years to forever.

I knew there were plenty of books in Iceland. (They have great libraries and bookstores, too, even if new books are an investment.) I chided myself for my pack-rat tendencies and tried to channel a friend who had spent months touring East Asia with naught but a camera and a swimsuit. I hemmed and hawed. I gave in.

We picked out 100 books that we couldn’t leave behind--25 for him, 25 for me, 50 shared. Were 100 books really necessary to our move to Iceland? No. Was this a huge extravagance, particularly at a time when we were saving all our last pennies? Absolutely. Wasn’t I just perpetuating my dependence on things? Probably.

In his famous essay “Unpacking My Library,” Walter Benjamin happily wades through his own literary horde, “piles of volumes that are seeing daylight after two years of darkness.” A “genuine collector,” for whom books—his own books—beget great excitement, Benjamin imbues these objects with emotional meaning. “Every passion borders on the chaotic,” he admits, “but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.”

Each book in his library has its own origin story, recalling, among other things, “memories of the rooms where these books had been housed.” His books are both tangible and metaphorical mementos of where he’s been in life, and—in their unpacking—where he is now.

I’m not an erudite German philosopher, but our books also carry their own sense memories. Wherever “home” may be, now or in the future, Mark and I brought a bit of it with us to Iceland.  

Of course, we didn’t take all 100 books at once. We stuffed as many as didn’t exceed the per-bag weight limit in our luggage, then packed six flat-rate shipping boxes with the rest for obliging friends to send once we had a mailing address.When we did finally get settled, in a wonderful quirky apartment near the sea furnished in the orange and olive brocade popular with Icelandic grannies circa 1969, the slow trickle of book boxes was simply magical.

Where is home? Maybe there doesn’t have to be just one answer. I’ll always feel connected to the Sonoran desert of my childhood, and after ten years in my adopted city, I’m a Brooklynite at heart.

But for now, here this country I’ve so loved from afar, with the person I like best in this world, I feel at home when I look around and see my own worn paperbacks, my own chaos of places been and places yet to be.


Larissa blogs about expat life and language-learning at Eth & Thorn.

Image Credits: Larissa Kyzer

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