May 18, 2010 | Siglufjörður, Iceland
May 18, 2010

The house where I am living is called Herhúsið, or "Army House", because it used to hold the Siglufjörður Salvation Army until the house became too ramshackle even to hold the ragged clothes they used to sell in it. It was left alone in the center of town and everyone talked about knocking it down, but a few people talked about building it up, and the builders beat the knockers, as builders often do. So they made Herhúsið beautiful again, and now it is filled with temporary foreigners who swivel heads and slow down cars every time they walk through town, leaving a trail of staring Siglufjörðurians like a boat leaves a wake.

In America, we are brought up to believe it is impolite to stare and to point and to gawk, so we do not do these things, or if we do them, we do them secretly. Apparently this lesson did not make it to Iceland. I have never felt so ogled, inspected, looked at, or examined as I feel here in Siglufjörður. Every time I leave my little house, it is like Lady Gaga has suddenly come to the fjord, except they stare at me not because they know me and I am famous, but because they don't know me and I am not. If you want to feel like a celebrity for doing nothing except going to buy milk, then come to live in northern Iceland.

It is most pronounced when I go swimming at the local pool, which is like a Soviet Bloc public recreation facility, with showers on 20-second timers, alarmingly graphic public health posters, and the ever-present smell of mildew. In America, most public pools have cheery wall murals of minnows and dolphins, and teenage lifeguards twirling whistles and sitting on stands. Not so in Siglufjörður, where the pool walls are tall and blank and made of concrete, decorated only by a huge single set of red capital letters announcing the presence of "HEITUR POTTUR" (Hot Pot), outside in the courtyard. The pool is usually empty except for me, but when it is not and I arrive, you would think a grown moose had suddenly entered the building and begun to swim laps. The moment I emerge on the landing, everyone freezes and looks up at me. Kids drop their floaty toys and let them float away. Parents stop their smiling. Old men stop their talking. The water settles.

You have to go down a steep flight of stairs to get onto the deck, and as I am doing this carefully, wearing only my speedo, everyone is watching me silently. When I get to the deck I go to get a kickboard, put on my goggles, stretch out my cap, and step into the water, and all of the time they are still staring at me without saying anything. When I finally go under, the warm water feels like a hiding place, and it moves all around me. At the end of the lane a group of kids gather in the water, and they go under and look at me and wave madly every time I do a flip turn. I keep thinking they'll get bored of this, but they do it for 20 minutes until their parents say it's time to go. So they go, and again I am alone, which here is how I like to be.

Then I go home and make dinner, and I close the window because it's getting cold. When it gets dark I'll go for a walk, and I know I'll be able to see inside the other windows, hung with lace curtains that turn kitchens and bedrooms into swiss cheese worlds. But I also know that what I see won't last long and won't be all of it, because I'll never stop moving, at least not long enough for the others to stop and to see and to stare back at me.