American Eyes

Every day as a child I looked at a yellow box of American cereal while I enjoyed my breakfast at an American kitchen table at my home, in a house in Hafnarfjörður; a small town eight miles from Reykjavík, Iceland. The neighborhood my family and I lived in looked like an American suburb I had seen in the movies. Punctually at the same moment every morning the husbands and fathers walked out of the door of their homes, dressed like American fathers from the fifties, early sixties. And they had haircuts similar to a Yankee soldier or a rock and roll guy.

But the cars they drove to work were not made by General Motors. They stepped into Moskvitchs, Trabants, Wartburgs, Saabs, Skodas, Volgas and Volkswagens; Russian, Swedish and East- and West-German automobiles.

After the men left, the housewives took off their aprons and sat down at the kitchen table to light a Kent or a Camel, delighting in the solitude for a moment or two. Their clothes, hair styles and make-up, resembled those of the American housewives in the TV series Lassie. And they behaved like them as well. They taught good manners and guarded against unhealthy lifestyles. Surrounded by Amercan curtains, furniture and kitchens. Outside the houses were adorned with organized gardens, a fence and a gate, all of which had the look of TV-America.

Shortly afterwards the mothers would abandon the houses for other work outside the home. As the fathers did during the industrial revolution. And what will be left at home when the children have abandoned the place as well and for good? The pets? The spiders? The birds will move in and sing like violins, on the living room shelves. Families of mice will sleep under the blankets of the king and queen size beds.

Many times since then, long after I left my childhood, I contemplated the scenography of my life’s first decade.

Why did everyone look like married couples in American suburbs? How did it happen in the smallest of small neighborhoods, in one of the smallest countries on earth, which is located near the end of the world? On an island so far away from other places? Was it possible with a little help from MGM, Universal Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox?

Did the barbers, hairdressers, clothes designers, architects and furniture makers put their talent, strength and effort, together to make this cultural picture come true? Was it perhaps a mutual dream of everybody in my neighborhood? Wide awake, dreaming their lives together in an American way? Were all my neighbors movie stars?

One day a young American couple, who worked for the Naval Air Station in Keflavík, moved into the house no one owned; it was for rent. Unpainted, with no garden or fence. They looked so different from the other adults. They were more un-American than all the other couples of the street. And the woman, who didn’t dress like the other housewives, did strange things. She went out walking in the wild fields carrying an easel. The housewives never walked in the open landscape. They just walked to the shop and back home. They would never have gone for a walk in a random direction – or carried an easel on their back!

The couple was friendly and they spoke to children in a different and more relaxed manner than the Icelandic grown-ups. They were some settlers in a new kind of lifestyle. ´68, hippies, &c. Perhaps America was not like America?

As I write this piece I sit in an American library surrounded by books from many parts of the world, although the library is small and the room even smaller. Here I come across one book in English about an Icelandic author. The treasure chest stretches its branches even to a place at the world’s end. And the years pass by in my head equally fast as I turn the pages of a book and I think about the children today – in my homeland – who attack a seven-year-old boy for his “looks.” Why do seven-year-old school kids destroy the peace of their classmate who has an Arabian father? Where did the message come from?

For a while I contemplate this, wearing my American jeans, sweater, and boots; some clothes the Gulf Stream brought to the shores of Iceland. A ship load of American remains that floated in the Atlantic Ocean for years, stranded in my country. And who am I to call any country “my country?” Oh, perhaps Odin gave it to me!

Then I turn back the pages of the book.

In the small orange and white painted room I sat at the American kitchen table eating the breakfast cereal looking at the pictures of the kids on the cereal box.

Oh, these kids have eyes just like mine!

For a long time I had wondered why my eyes were so different from others; different from my family’s, from my friends’, different from my neighbors’. I looked at my eyes in the bathroom mirror, wondering: Where do these strange eyes of mine come from? And not until I saw the kids’ eyes on the cereal box did I see eyes that looked like mine – The Cheerios kids have my kind of eyes! American eyes.