How To Meet A President
photos by Roman Gerasymenko
You arrive in Iceland behind schedule. You have missed the first reception and are very late for the second one: Welcome drinks at Bessastaðir. You don’t know how to pronounce it so say:
"If we can make it before 6, to the President's house, please!" as you hop into a taxi outside the airport. Change from airplane clothes into meeting president clothes in the front seat. Satin pants, earrings, pull your hair down, lipstick.
“Are you with the writer's conference?” Your driver asks.
“What do you write?”
“I travel, have big adventures, connect with people, and write essays about the trips that weave memoir into them, centralizing myself as a disabled woman winning in a world we don't otherwise appear to exist in. I publish it all in my own magazine where I do all the modeling and take all the photos and do all the layout design.”
“You're an overachiever, then?”
“I am. Three days ago I won the first ever parapole national championships in Spain.”
“So, I will try to not to feel small for the rest of the trip!” the giant Viking will say to the tiny, but very self-satisfied #sexicon.
Your driver tour guides you without a shred of enthusiasm:
“This is the newest lava. Only 800 years old. I used to tell tourists it was a great place to hide a body, no one would find it. I don’t say that anymore.”
“Did they find a body.”
“Several. That's a water pipe.”
“Is water scarce?” You think of piped in water as not readily available water. He gives you side-eye and gestures at the rain making rivulets on the windshield.
“No, the opposite. It's cheap, you could let it run for hours... it's the reason we all come back. We hate it here. Nothing cool ever happens in Iceland. But we all come back because water is cheap.”
“Bjork happened here.”
“I went to highschool with her. It wasn’t that cool.”
“What does happen, then?”
“We tried banking. That didn't go well for us. Now we're all into golf.”
“Golf is boring.”
“Nothing cool ever happens here.” You have been ‘here’ for 20 minutes and you already don’t agree, but you would never let an inside joke hang between you and a new friend.
“You're getting it. What's your name?”
“…That's the version of your name I can pronounce?”
“Exactly. So, do you know how you will get into the President's house? Do they know you're coming? There are stairs.” He seems pleased at the opportunity to be disappointed in the official residence of the President of Iceland.
“I assume there will be Vikings.”
And there is. A barrel-chested, suited-up, bodyguard-Viking who the First Lady refers to as Peacebear, the English translation of his Icelandic name. You call him Peacebear now, too.
Peacebear opens your door. He and Peter confer. Peter is concerned that they are not prepared for your luggage and your chair and, in particular, you. As it is raining. And this is somehow complex. Peacebear is pretty sure there is no problem, but they're talking over you in Icelandic. You agree there is no problem. There are a mere five, broad stairs and a large, open door. And two massive vikings. When you understand the part where Peacebear suggests he get your chair and stuff inside first and then come back for you, you interrupt.
“Yes. Take my things inside, I can put my chair together here and you can take it inside, too. Then come for me, please.” Peter looks at you startled. “I didn’t actually understand Icelandic, I just.. this conversation happens to me a lot. It’s the same body language in nearly every country.” An international #sexicon must be fluent in international body language.
“Here,” Peter says, handing you his card before Peacebear scoops you out of the van. “If you get stuck, and no one understands you and you feel the world is against you…”
“I’ll say fuck ya'll, I’m calling Peter.”
While holding you, Peacebear tells you the President just announced his plan to make the residence wheelchair accessible during his term.
“Wonderful!” You say, settling into your wheelchair in the foyer and looking around at all the thickly banister-ed staircases. “Currently no one in a wheelchair can be president!” You joke.
Peacebear cracks a smile. “Not yet.”
You have missed the President’s welcome speech, and the formal procession of handshaking next to picturesque windows. Other conference attendees are milling. You scope. Easiest way into the hall with all the people. There’s a one step, narrow passage through a cool bookcase. Tempting. But you go for the wider entrance, two steps. Bounce down. Your wheels echo off the stone sunroom floor as you land right in front of Jente. The first of a bunch of times your eyes and his eyes connect and stick, his a little shock-delighted, yours a little wink-pleased with yourself. You toss him a grin, someone hands you champagne, you head for the nearest president.
“I just heard that you plan to make the residence wheelchair accessible.” You say, rolling forward, hand held out for a shake. Guðni bends at the knees and gives you context.
“I said, If it’s the only thing I accomplish during my presidency, I will be satisfied.” It was during a television broadcast precisely a day before your arrival. Good omen for my international relationship with Iceland, you think and discuss bureaucratic complexities with the President while he holds a sturdy, eye-level crouch. In exchange, make sure to assert your approval that there is a world leader who considers accessibility so highly by doing an interpretive dance expressing the freedom of movement you feel in your little Catalonian town with it’s smooth, wide streets and no sidewalks.
“Those are the places I want to go. Accessible places - and total wilderness.” you say. He tells you he hopes you will enjoy both while in Iceland. Then the buses are leaving for the third welcome event - dinner - and Peacebear is carrying you from the President’s house to the bus.
On the last night of the conference you are at a pub with all the authors and writers, a live band, the founders of IWR and Roman - the retreat's official photographer. You have since learned that the First Lady and the Co-Founder of the Iceland Writers Retreat are the same person - and a Canadian home girl. It is after midnight, you are half a bottle of wine or so in, when the President joins his wife after being at a viking death metal concert.
“There will definitely be something in the press about it tomorrow. And about a hundred selfies." He says when you comment on him so freely going to a concert. After the President sits down a waitress brings plates and plates of food no one ordered but everyone digs into. You dig into an impromptu brief on the structure of Icelandic government from the head of state. You find it poetic when he tells you that his area of expertise as a history lecturer was on the Icelandic Presidency, though he didn't plan on being President himself. That just happened.
Before heading out to bar hop with a pack of other writers, bring up the accessibility thing again to press home that it will stay with you that the President has made it an important issue. First Lady Eliza, Champion of writers and co-hostess of your mostly accessible experience of Iceland, leans across her husband to say to you, “It wasn’t even just the comfort of visitors that made it important. I thought, what if an 8 year old kid with a disability comes to the residence and, when he isn’t able to get around in it, thinks to himself: that means I can’t be president.”
Everything you do is about rendering possibilities in the midst of structural, social and internal barriers, for the sake of your empire. You do it with words and images. Other leaders, with policy and renovation. It’s the same goal. You, the First Lady, and the President of Iceland, working for a world where disabled children can look around them and casually assume, “I could totally be president when I grow up.”