by Mána Taylor Hjörleifsdóttir
Last summer, I spent three months working at a hotel, tucked away in the North-West peninsula of Iceland, the land where my Father was born. I was told on the drive, by my aunt and grandmother, that the hotel had once been a boarding school. Upon my arrival, however, I found out that I was one of the last people to work there; it was set to close for good at the end of August and I arrived in early July. So, the hotel that once was a boarding school, would soon be known as once having been a hotel. I tried not to think too much of its end during my beginning. It was the perfect opportunity to record as much as I could, to capture its final days.
I worked at the front desk. I greeted families, solo travelers, couples who mostly spent their night at the hotel on their way to the West Fjords or further North. The valley had nothing spectacular about it, it was not a place see waterfalls, glacier lagoons, or geysers. “Is there anything to do around here?” guests would sometimes ask me after their breakfast as they stared, confused by maps displayed on the desk separating us, expecting me to have all the answers. “There is a small town 20 minutes South, and another 40 minutes North,” I explained forgivingly. “There is also a natural hot spring just up this sidewalk!” I was also often asked how high the mountains were, their names, and many questions I felt embarrassed not knowing the answers to.
I started taking notes in a small notebook of visuals and people, to capture the fleeting days. I thought of myself as an archivist of Summer 2019 at Hótel Edda, Laugar í Sælingsdal. I then remembered Sophie Calle, who began her artistic career photographing strangers’ belongings, when she was working as a maid in a hotel in Venice. My 12 hour shifts consisted of making and unmaking beds, then working at the reception desk and the bar until the doors closed. I wrote down my daily tasks and observations as a list, imagining them as photographs.
The “dal” in Sælingsdal comes from dalur, meaning valley, and Dalir being this particular region of West Iceland. The hotel is tucked in a valley of mountains, which I have found to feel kind and comforting and full of stories. The hotel holds marks of its past. I grow both fond of and frustrated by the building. It was once a boarding school, but when it became a hotel they reconstructed and added a new entrance that makes rooms far away from the reception, and a long hallway became the only way to get to the restaurant. There are photos of those who went to the boarding school that are hung in this hallway. Some doors still say “library,” “principal’s office,” etc. Its zigzag shape makes it impossible to explain to visitors where exactly their room or the restaurant or the swimming pool is. I make shapes with my hands, pointing behind my head and outwards. Curving my arm to indicate the turn you take behind the building. Too many times a day I know the question is about to be asked and I still haven’t found a straightforward clear answer. “Down the stairs, to the right.” “All the way behind us, then turn left.” “You’ll see it,” I promise.
On my days off, I go on small hikes up the mountain behind the hotel. I noticed that on the other side of the valley, the mountain facing ours, there is a little rectangle of forest and a house tucked inside. I imagine it to be a neighbor who wanted both to hide and be seen, to show off his neatly trimmed trees, built an environment for his home, an artificially structured shape to surround himself with, to mark property. From up the mountain, I see the structures of a little red house and I wonder who this person is. The sounds of the cars on the highway echo immensely in a strange distorted woosh. I don’t dare cross the highway to visit this house, even though I probably think of it every day.
Many tourists come to ask about the natural hot pool. I have to point and explain, sometimes narrating the small folktale attached to it about the woman Guðrún and her four lovers. People come in just to say “Is there, like, a hot spring around?” “Umm hot pool?” My boss only sometimes reveals how disgusting the water is. One Icelander whispered to me once that it’s so dirty, she thinks that she could get pregnant just by sitting in it.
Every so often, a solo motorcyclist comes in to buy a beer, or pay for the campsite, or charge their phone. I daydream about the possibility of such an escape. The rush of the ride, the wind blowing through my body, the growl of the engine speeding through the curved road. My step-dad used to have a small motorbike and would drive me to my violin lessons when I was 10. I still remember the feeling – the heat under my feet, the wind in my eyes. There were two days of extremely windy weather. 80 km/h winds, a Polish motorcyclist told me, when he asked me what route was better to take and to check the weather on the computer. He was waiting for the wind to calm, asked me to boil hot water for his tea, and waited another night before motorcycling away into the long F roads through the center of the island. I walked outside after my shift and the wind was like a fast car blowing right through me.
Days passed. I pushed flies out of windows, folded napkins, made beds, served beers. I often wrote down thoughts on traveling as I was checking strangers in and out of their rooms, gifting keys and pointing the way. On my hikes, I would often see sheep’s wool caught on flowers and grass, and this reminded me of the lingering smells of perfumes in rooms I cleaned. I thought of these visitors and wondered what they were searching for. I wondered what they would leave behind in their hotel room, and what they would discover in the mountains.
Near the end of the hotel days, I was cleaning a room and found a crumpled note underneath a bed. It was in Italian. I put it in my pocket and only had the time for it around midnight when my 12 hour shift had ended. I took the time to translate it on my computer. The translation was a bit off but it made sense to me.
The eager little ants
longing to migrate to curious and attractive places
challenge the bad weather of any sort
hungry in desire for knowledge
guided by a steerer of the ambitious
task of cementing the comradeship as well as in
search of new knowledge
learning from the mind
It seemed to be the most fitting description of a tourist visiting Iceland, the “eager little ants” who want the most picture-perfect glacier, waterfall, or mountain to document and take with them back home. As I watched visitors come and go for two months, I reflected on this idea of being a tourist. I myself am both a visitor and of the place.
The hotel was not a perfect destination trip. It was an old school building from the 70’s and there wasn’t anything specifically picturesque aspect about the valley. Occasionally, I would scroll through reviews online of the hotel. One guest had complained that it was “old fashioned and uninviting.” I found that to be the beauty of the place – the traces and marks, left from the past now history.
In a few months we’ll say this once was a hotel which will leave, again, traces of a past existence. In Iceland, almost everything is in a book and everything has a name: old ships, mountains, farms, houses. Too many to fit on every map. Too many to remember. I hope the stories at Laugar í Sælingsdal will be remembered.
Mána Taylor Hjörleifsdóttir is a writer, researcher, and musician based in Chicago. She is also the co-founder and editor of The Documentarian.