“Liberté” is how Josef described his life to me, distilling it down to a single word. As he said it a second time, he lifted his hands, palms up, toward the sky and faced the sun, smiling, “Liberté.”
We made the conversation work. He is from Algeria and speaks French and some English and I’m from the United States and I pretty much just speak English. But I can absorb, and he spoke enough English that I got the high points. We waved our hands around and found words we could both understand. I enjoyed hanging out with him that morning in June for a couple of hours, on the coast of Iceland, just outside of Reykjavík.
His freedom, as he explained it to me, comes from being homeless and not owning anything beyond what fits into the trash bag on the back of his bike, his backpack, and the locker he has at the local gym.
“They give me a free membership to the gym,” he told me. “I can shower there, swim, and keep a few extra clothes in a locker.”
Josef is self-employed, so to speak, spending a few hours each day digging through the trash bins about town for anything of value.
“I only work about four hours a day,” he told me. “I pick up plastic and aluminum. I take it to the place, they give me a ticket, I take it to the man and he gives me money.”
“I have all I need,” he said with a smile, pointing to his bike and offering me a cookie.
So here I was on day two of my layover with a desire to see more of Reykjavik. I had covered a lot of the downtown area the day before with a Minolta CLE, a Leica M3, and a Holga toy camera and wanted to branch out a bit. Wearing my “This Is Exactly Where I Am Supposed To Be Right Now” t-shirt, I grabbed my Rolleiflex 2.8, stuffed a few rolls of film in my pocket, and headed downstairs.
I stopped at the front desk on my way out and asked where I should go.
“I don’t like touristy things,” I told the girl at reception. “I’ll take a deserted building over a museum and junk yard over a shopping mall.” I showed her my camera and explained that what I wanted to photograph WASN’T in the travel brochures.
She conferred with her colleague for a minute and they agreed I needed to go the sculpture garden, which I later learned is known as the Recycle House.
“You go down to the water and turn right,” she said, motioning to the right in case I didn’t know what “right” was. “You keep walking out of town and the coast will curve to the left.”
Her colleague cut in, saying “you will think you’ve walked into a really strange junk yard, but it’s not. After a bit you will realize the place is just really weird statues made from junk.”
That sounded like EXACTLY where I needed to be.
Apparently, it’s just some eccentric artist’s yard, and he has filled it with his sculptures. He also claims to have directed some movies I’ve never heard of. According to Google, the owner’s name is Hrafn Gunnlaugsson.
As I walked along the shore, I pictured the artist coming out and talking to me. I imagined he looked like Doc from “Back to the Future” and I was going to get some GREAT shots of him working on some masterpiece with a welder. I dream a lot.
Just as described by the hotel staff, I could see the rusted hulks of metal up ahead, around the bend, and started walking faster. I followed the path up to the side of the yard and tried to take it all in.
Gunnlaugsson’s house is probably 50 meters from the water, up the bank. His back deck faces the ocean and is large and full of furniture and sculptures. There’s an old boat, an anchor, other odds and ends laying around. There is a cross full of nails and some old tanks of some sort, perhaps for oil. And on top of his house are more sculptures. There are more sculptures than I can describe. One must see this for themselves, and not when in a hurry. Turn around and there’s something else to see, even around the front and to the sides.
I walked around the place, taking shots with my Rollei. I changed film several times.
One of my favorite things was a metal table and a bench, rusted out from the sea, facing the water. If you look at what has washed up during high tide, you can picture people sitting at that table, having drinks, snacks, and conversation as the water rises around their feet. I think I would LOVE that.
As I was going back to the shrine of FREYR, I saw a man come down the path and enter it like he owned the place. He had a bag of groceries, and a big bottle of juice.
“Is this place yours,” I asked.
“No,” he replied and sat down to start his lunch, pulling items from the sack.
I walked around some more, checking out other areas of the yard. I kept coming back, trying to strike up a conversation with the guy, hoping to learn more about this place. I soon realized his accent was heavy and there might be a language barrier.
As he sat by the entrance to the boat house, I entered and asked if I could join him. “Please” he said, pointing across the way to a chair for me. I introduced myself. He told me his name is Joseph, pronounced Yosif.
He offered me some juice.
“No thank you,” I replied.
There were long bits of silence. He rolled a cigarette and stepped out into the sun to have a smoke. Between puffs he took off his shoes and rubbed his feet.
We continued to try to converse, and we got better at it.
A little while after he finished his cigarette, I offered him a cigar from my shirt pocket. His eyes lit up and he was excited to have a smoke with me.
“Move to the sun,” he said, as it was getting cold in the wind that whipped up off the water. As we walked up the trail, past his bike, to the side of the shrine, he pointed out the plants and flowers he likes to nestle in as his bed. He took a seat and turned his face to the sun, closed his eyes, and just soaked it in for a bit.
“You live here all the time?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered. “Sometimes the police come and I must leave. One time they came and I was smoking a joint. They threw me in jail. I slept great! The bed was comfortable and I got good food.”
Any stereotypes I had of “homeless” people were thrown out the window after only a short while. This was a lifestyle choice.
He was well dressed, clean with expensive shoes, and had a nice bike. Imagine a homeless person offering you juice. He went back to where he was below and got his bag of groceries. He offered me a yogurt.
“I love yogurt,” he said as he ate it. “Natural. Food here is plastic. In Algeria it is natural. In Morocco it is natural.”
During our few hours together, I learned a lot about living a homeless life by choice, being a Muslim, and life in north Africa.
Josef doesn’t get home as often as he’d like and he speaks fondly of his origins. “If you go there, people invite you into their homes to eat and sleep,” he explained. “Poor people, very poor people, invite you over. I can be out of money in Algeria or Morocco and live for a couple of months, no problem, because people take care of people.”
Ramadan just ended, he told me, so now he can have beer. “It’s still forbidden but….” he scoffed and waved his hand in a way to say “it’s a little sin.”
As I left him napping by the sacred shrine of the Norse God FREYR HQRGR, back into Reykjavik, I couldn’t stop thinking how nice it must be to know what you want and just do it. He doesn’t want stuff. He just enjoys the moments he’s in and does what’s needed. Not a bad way to live. Joseph has no boss. No lawn to mow. He has no time clock. No expectations beyond his simple needs. He is a free man.
Are we prisoners of our alarm clocks and our drives to work and our late nights in the office and our weekends catching up on paperwork and our big houses and our car payments and our dreams of how we’ll spend our two weeks of vacation…or should we cash them in this year for that new deck?
One of my hopes for humanity through the recent lockdown due to Covid-19 was that the down time would give people a chance to realign priorities. That we would all begin to realize how much of our lives is lost on our drive time to and from work, time that could be spent drawing pictures with sidewalk chalk with our children, or basketball in the driveway. I had hoped that mornings working from home would bring a new calm we’ve not experienced before, not having to rush to shower, dress, eat, feed the kids, drive them to wherever, and all the rest we pack into our mornings between the alarm going off and walking into work. My wish was that the down time would remind us that board games and cooking together and reading books and listening to records and walks and bike rides and throwing a frisbee are worth more than ANYTHING.
Maybe once things get back to “normal,” the next time your boss says “Hey, I’m going to need you to work late tonight to get that project out” you’ll reply “I’m sorry, I can’t. My kids are waiting on me for some slip n slide.”
Photos shot with Rolleflex 2.8 and iPhone.
For further reading on the Recycle House: https://www.vice.com/…/man-builds-palace-of-recycled-things…