After 24 hours of travel from our home in Brooklyn, we landed exhausted and disoriented in Iceland on a Saturday night just two weeks ago, the midnight sun shining through the airplane windows. The otherworldly feeling I always get landing on this volcanic island in the middle of the North Atlantic was more intense than usual, because we had left one reality—the crisis-induced confinement of our small apartment—and were entering another—a country that has by and large stopped the spread of the coronavirus. We gathered our sanitized belongings, roused our young children, and exited the plane for the empty airport and our COVID-19 test, which we needed to get through customs. With the national contact-tracing app installed on our phones, we felt free for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.
We had been planning our annual trip to Iceland to visit my wife’s family for a long time, but getting there took on increased urgency during the outbreak in New York City. First there were near-constant ambulance sirens and an ominous feeling that people were suffering and dying all around us. During the Black Lives Matter protests, the sirens transformed into police sirens—a new kind of ominous. Low-flying police helicopters and fireworks kept the children up at night. New rituals—limiting our outings to only the most essential trips, sanitizing our groceries, constantly washing our hands—helped us manage our persistent trepidation, but they were unnerving in their own right. I learned to master the mute button on conference calls when my children would fight or scream for whatever reason children fight or scream.
The kids needed family, friends, other people. They needed playgrounds. Our downstairs neighbors also needed our children to have playgrounds, and we constantly felt guilty about that. We all needed a break, and a summer in Iceland was our opportunity for one. The country had done what it needed to do. People had listened to the scientists, trusted its leaders, tested widely. If you needed to quarantine, the government would put you up in a hotel and you would continue to receive your pay. The country responded in a rational and robust way and did everything it could to ensure that schools remained safely open. Iceland was still managing the pandemic, but it had thus far been successful, and life was continuing mostly as normal.
After three canceled flights on two airlines and lots of time spent on hold, we were finally able to book a confirmed flight through Boston. Despite a ban on Americans entering the country, we managed to secure a letter from Iceland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that would allow us to return to my wife’s home country together.
We completed our COVID-19 tests at the airport and collected our checked bags, but no family was there to greet us. We did not yet have our test results and did not want to endanger others. Without a ride, and to avoid taking the airport shuttle, we rented a car to get to the apartment where we’d be staying. As we drove into downtown Reykjavík, now past midnight, I felt like we were driving into the twilight zone. The streets were alive and joyous—and maskless. It was all so jarring. Normal had become bizarre. We arrived at our destination and secured our masks before exiting the car. We did not want to be the people to bring the virus back to this country.
We received our negative results in the morning—relieved, but not surprised. We had been hypervigilant in New York. We were most afraid of what we might have contracted while traveling. There was the man behind us on the flight to Boston who refused to wear his mask properly. There were the taxis and the hotel in Boston. There was everything that our 1-year-old daughter might have put in her mouth when we were not looking.
Feeling cavalier, the first thing we did on Sunday in Reykjavík was go to the playground. It felt like the first playground we had been to in forever. Our kids were overjoyed.
On the walk back from the playground with my son on my shoulders, I felt a hand touch my back. It was our Danish friend Peter, happy to run into us. This was the first physical contact I had had with someone other than my immediate family in more than three months. We asked him to give us some distance. We told him that we had tested negative but wanted to be extra cautious because of our travel. He was surprised and questioned the need for our masks. COVID-19 was over in Iceland, he said.
We told him about New York, the fear of getting sick, the overloaded hospitals, the long-term closure of schools and playgrounds, the economic devastation there and throughout the country, the lackluster federal-government response. We told him how grateful we were to be here in Iceland. Our masks weren’t for our safety, we said, but for his.
Peter knew much of this. He had been watching the news and had seen the disaster of the United States’ COVID-19 response. But if it was that bad to live through, he wanted to know, why didn’t the country respond to the virus in a serious way, so that it could move on safely? I didn’t know what to say. I don’t understand it either.
I have always seen Iceland as a laboratory for the future, particularly for the United States. Its leadership in climate change, renewable energy, gender equity, and so much more show what could someday be possible with real innovation and effort. Today, Iceland also shows us a vision of a missed present.
A few days into our trip, with normal life beginning to feel more and more normal, I sat in a café on the ocean edge of the city and called into an urgent parents’ meeting for our children’s preschool. Our tuition was due imminently and so many questions were still unanswered. Preschoolers don’t do well in virtual classrooms, we all agreed, and what about child-care needs for those of us who are working, not to mention those of us who might have to go back to the office? How do we keep our beloved school solvent and teachers employed? It felt like I was calling into another planet. There was so little governmental guidance or support. There was still the virus.
We love New York City. We are going to return. But we don’t know what New York will be when we do. After only a few days in Iceland and a taste of normal life, the city and the coronavirus already felt so far away. As we settle in for our summer here, we hope this is an early return to normalcy. What we fear, though—and what I think we know but struggle to accept—is that this is just a temporary reprieve. Soon we’ll be back in New York City, ready with our masks and rituals, steeling ourselves for the months ahead.