Reykjavík is experiencing one of those rare moments of calm between storms when I meet Icelandic comedian Bylgja Babýlons in a downtown café for a quick chat. As I arrive—five minutes late, as it’s customary in Iceland—she is looking pensively outside the window, her fiery red hair falling gently on her shoulders.
Fighting the winter misery
Bylgja is known in the Reykjavík scene for her audacious comedy shows and her ability to engage wittily with complicated issues—even though she doesn’t necessarily self-identifies as political.
“I think it‘s more about the fact that if you are a female comedian and you say ‘vagina’ you are automatically being political and making a feminist statement, even though men talk about their penis as they want,” she explains. “We are still at that point. It‘s still too much of a taboo to be considered just a normal thing to talk about.”
Bylgia is one of the comedians participating in the upcoming Scotch on Ice Festival—a comedy show extravaganza organised by Icelandic performer Helgi Steinar Gunnlaugsson that sees Scots and Icelanders as comrades in the seasonal fight against the winter misery. The festival promises to defeat the bleakness of winter with a good laugh by rounding up some of the best Scottish and Icelandic comedians of our generation, including Liam Withnail, Jojo Sutherland, Tom Stade and our own Jonathan Duffy.
A dynamite festival
“For being the first festival of its kind, the line-up is dynamite,” Tom Stade confirms.
Stade, who is actually Canadian but lives in Scotland, has travelled all over the world with his shows, from Australia and Hong Kong, to the neighbouring Norway.
If there is a challenge in making non-native English speakers laugh, he faces it with enthusiasm. “Sometimes people don’t get sarcasm, sometimes they don’t understand what you’re saying. But that in itself can be funny, if we’re talking comedy judo,” Stade explains with a earthy laugh. “People just speak English in different ways, but with comedy you’re willing to break that barrier and meet everybody halfway.”
Collaborating with Hugarafl
And break barriers they shall. Besides planning on alleviating our collective winter blues, in fact, the Scotch On Ice festival is collaborating with Hugarafl, an association that helps and supports individuals with mental health problems, including anxiety and depression—a common angst of Nordic countries.
Bylgja, who has publicly acknowledged her issues with anxiety and panic attacks in the past, takes an active stand in the matter. “It was an extra bonus in this case when they told me they were organising the event in collaboration with Hugarafl,” Bylgja says.
“I talk a lot about anxiety in my comedy shows, and this subject is always well received. I remember the first time I talked about anxiety on stage and I was describing what happens when you get a panic attack. After the show a girl came up to me who had just gotten her first panic attack and hadn‘t recognised it. She hadn‘t realised what it was until she heard my story. ”
A different system of support
Despite recognising that the conversation about mental health is certainly more open now than it used to, Bylgja claims that a lack of information and of a better system of support are the main issues when it comes to dealing with this issue in Iceland.
“It‘s still really expensive to have a mental illness here, and not a lot of people can afford putting aside 50 thousand ISK a month to go to a psychologist,” Bylgja explains. “Then they call their family doctor, who prescribes something that sometimes the patient doesn‘t even need, while this could be avoided if patients were assisted in a different way.”
In the past few months advocates of different social groups, from the #metoo revolution and child protection groups to mental health specialists, have spoken against a “broken system”—cultural, logistical, juridical and medical structures that discourage transparency and prevent progress. Systematic changes within institutions that are supposed to provide social support or health care are hard to come by. As of now, what we can do is keep the conversation going and make sure we keep personally building a net of support that can help individuals in a collective way.
The Scotch on Ice Festival will be held in Reykjavík between the 8th and 10th of February. Tickets are available on tix.is.