My dearest Reykjavíkians,
This past weekend was, as many of you don’t remember all too well, the annual celebration of Culture Night. I’d asked around for a few days before the festivities, inquiring as to what Culture Night was all about. No one seemed to have an answer for me that went any deeper than “It’s a celebration of teenagers getting drunk.”
Now, in my naiveté, I chalked this answer up to some sort of ironically detached attitude toward cultural practices (from native Icelanders) or based on cultural fatigue (from the expat crowd). I’d been in the Reykjavík party scene for a bit by then; I’d seen what nightlife looked like. It couldn’t be any more debauched-but-still-charming-because-Iceland than that, right?
VERY MUCH NOT
By the time the fireworks rolled around, things in the streets were well on their way past a 3am Saturday level. There was plenty of stumbling about, shrieking, breaking of bottles on building façades and sidewalks for no reason, gaggles of clearly freezing-cold women in giant coats and tiny skirts, men with chests puffed out and dressed in their finest corporate-slash-yachting casual.
Oh, and speaking of the fireworks— rather than being a choreographed, controlled display, the show was two money-shots with a brief interlude to recharge. But I thought to myself, “Hey, kween—Who are you of all people to comment on how they do things here? And anyway, why have all the buildup when you can just get right to the finale? It’s pretty clever, really.”
Aggressively heterosexual mating displays and ham-fisted fireworks aside, things still seemed a bit more out of control than usual. Maybe it was the day’s worth of accumulated trash strewn about the streets that had seemingly started to float in the wind—plastic bag ghosts, styrofoam container spirits. Maybe it was the sheer size of the crowd, the discrete orbitals of drunken absurdity moving about autonomously within a larger chaotic system.
I think it was around 1am that I saw three grown-ass men in business suits fighting over an umbrella in the middle of Pósthússtræti. I realised things were going to get truly, unconditionally fucked.
Now, before you say anything, Reykjavík, you should know that I’m not some nerd loser lame-guy dweeb who doesn’t know how to have any fun. I’m hip. I’m with it. I’m cool. But there’s just something unsettling about turning a corner and seeing entire city blocks plugged up with what looks like cinematically staged anarchy of emotional turmoil and highly dysfunctional motor coordination.
Everyone either wept, cackled, shrieked, fought, or grabbed desperately at one another as if it were their first time feeling. Police marched up and down in what looked like defensive formations, so I thought it would be a good time to go dance somewhere on Naustin, away from what appeared to be a burgeoning riot scenario.
On the way I saw three men encircling a fourth, chanting what sounded like a sacrificial rite. There was a smell of something caustic in the air. I saw someone shoving a sandwich into his face with such reckless abandon that it was inspiring. Every successive street corner presented a new opportunity to see one or more people vomiting onto objects that didn’t normally have vomit on them.
The queues on Naustin weren’t much better than the turmoil of the main streets. But crammed within a buffer of others, I felt a bit safer. And then there it was: a half-eaten hotdog in the proverbial gutter outside Paloma, bun softening in a puddle of rainwater, beer, and saliva. That’s what Culture Night was about.
I gave up waiting and went home soon after that. I’d seen enough. For the most part I was entertained by everything, but still—I just wanted to ask, Reykjavík, in the wake of this most recent Culture Night: Are you feeling alright? Is there anything you want to talk about? You’ve been great to me so far, so I’m just checking in.
Keep in mind: Reykjavík Culture Night officially closed its programme with the 23:30 fireworks display. Responsibility for the chaos described in the below article should thus rather be attributed to “Reykjavík Drinking Culture Night,” which has been ongoing every night since the late 1800s.