The sun takes a long time to rise in Iceland.
I arrived early Sunday morning off an overnight flight from Boston. The airport bus dropped me off downtown around 8. Everything was dark and quiet, the temperature was just below freezing, and there was a quarter inch of snow on the ground. I wanted to get something to drink, but no-one was around and nothing was open; even the main streets only had a few cars on them. It was hard to remind myself that it was not actually the middle of the night; it certainly felt like it, and by Boston time it was. Here, it was just Sunday.
The first thing, it seems, that opens in Reykjavík on a winter Sunday morning is Sundhöllin, the public bath. A column of steam was rising from its upper deck; up there were outdoor hot tubs, and for about $4 I dumped my backpack in a locker, dug out my swimsuit, and watched the sky start to lighten. By 8:30 it had reached cobalt blue overhead and lemon cream on the eastern horizon.
By 9:30, stores were opening. I found a little grocery and got orange juice and yogourt (This seems to be a popular thing in Iceland. Even small groceries will have a whole cooler full of dozens of flavours and variations.) The sky was mostly light overhead and golden to the southeast, so I walked up the hill to Hallgrímmskirkja to see if the sun was actually up. At 10 am, no, not yet. I spent fifteen minutes of eating breakfast on the snowy steps and the only perceptible change was perhaps it got a bit brighter.
Psychologically, this is strange. I have watched many sunrises and more sunsets in my life. In my head there is a model of how they're supposed to go. I did know that actual sunrise here wasn't supposed to be until 11, but ... it was clearly on the brink. I could see it ready to happen. At a deep level, this is disorienting, waiting for a sunrise that seems to hang in time. By its oldest conception, time is defined by the movement of the sun; when the sun fails to show up, you are in a time outside of time. The world is on pause. What happens in Golden Hour, stays in Golden Hour.
Official sunrise is at 11, but that doesn't mean you can see the sun yet -- there are hills on the southern horizon. By noon, I can finally see sunlight on the upper floors of buildings on the northern side of Austurvöllur, the square in front of the Alţing (Althing), the Icelandic Parliament. But even thought the open space is about a hundred metres square and the buildings around it are only three stories high, the sun is still so low on the horizon that its rays had yet to touch the ground.
Solar noon, its highest point, happens at 1:30. At this this time, it reaches a whole 3.3 degrees above the horizon. In practice, this is about a thumbwidth above the southern hills, sighted at the end of an outstretched arm. The sun continues to skim the hills rotating westward and the clock accelerates to make up the lost time and more. By 4 it is twilight again.
Yes, I'm in Iceland right now. I had a week of vacation time I had to take before New Years', and I guess I'm crazy enough to think that pre-Christmas festivities in Reykjavík would be cool. (And they are.) More later.