After you have resided for some time by the sea, one of the first things you cannot help noticing when you move away is the different smell of the air. Anywhere else, the air feels insipid and dull. When deprived of a familiar element, senses are at loss and adapting is not always easy. Since the whole being is influenced by individual senses, the entire body seems to suffer somehow from a sudden deprivation.
What I am talking about is not necessarily a nostalgic feeling. More generally speaking, it’s like the understanding that there is something missing somewhere along the lines of routine, after years and years of taking everything for granted. Most of the times, the missing pieces are the most unexpected: a certain scent at a special time of the year, a clock tick-tick-ticking in the living room, the constant aftertaste of air pollution, the way the sole of your shoe grips a well-known sidewalk, and so on and so forth. Unexpected and not even poetic fragments: why must it be so? Perhaps because one tends to be always distracted and the only hints to ponder the extents of one’s distraction are the smallest details, the ones embedded in a vast scenery of lifelong automatism.
So I precisely reflected, just a few days ago, that one of these missing pieces I hadn’t noticed before is the evening shriek of swallows. A bizarre consideration, especially knowing in Iceland there are at least three species of swallow and all of them count quite a few individuals. To go even further into the matter at hand, I must add that in Iceland, especially during the summertime, several birds sing all day long. In summer, even at night time, you can hear multitudes of birds, now murmuring now yo-hooing, delivering their secret messages from branch to branch, while cats, hidden among foliage, follow the direction of these melodies to hunt and kill. Now and then gulls and ravens erupt with a louder cry, like a human lament, only shriller and wilder. I’ve been straining my ears to distinguish, among this babel, the shriek of the swallow. Here though, for some reason, these birds so characteristically vocal are not to be heard easily — with here I am referring to Reykjavík. Maybe this has something to do with the fact daylight is so persistent, maybe not; anyhow, it’s not because of the traffic or other noises, I am quite sure, since Reykjavík is, indeed, a very quiet city. In our neighborhood, for example, it’s very rare to hear clamor of any kind, especially after eight in the evening — the city center, however, is not as peaceful, especially during the long week-ends.
In the home country, when the good season comes, just before dusk deepens and turns into night, the swallow gives a long cry. One cry, then another, and another… Till the air becomes still and cool and the sky becomes blind, the pirouetting swallow calls out, over and over. The succession of these signals is like an intangible hail of arrows, tearing apart the daylight to slowly let the darkness in. Missing this distant echo, bringing a moment of harmony and respite after the hellish day, is like missing the salty quality of the air away from the familiarity of a weather-beaten seaside town forever buried into memory.
As I said, this has nothing to do with nostalgia, but it is rather a realization pertaining senses, something vaguely similar to the feeling, I assume, of a phantom limb. Perhaps, given my abysmal ignorance in ornithology, it may as well be that swallows are not silent at all and I am simply too overcome by the magnitude and profusion of local bird chatter to be able to distinguish their verse as clearly as I used to.
PS: just for the record, this is a list — I’m not sure it’s comprehensive either — of the birds of Iceland. There is enough material to keep everybody busy for some time… At any rate, there is enough to keep myself busy for the next century or so.