From Iceland — A Tale Of Two New Year’s

A Tale Of Two New Year’s

Published January 12, 2007

A Tale Of Two New Year’s
Haukur S. Magnússon
Photo by

In which a Grapevine staff journalist swaps apartments with a NY couple in time for 2006’s passing. Both parties end up enjoying themselves and learning some new things, despite the alien surroundings…

New York City famously outlawed smoking in bars a few years back, a trend that seems very in vogue these days. Indeed, enjoying a cigarette with your beer in any of Iceland’s bars or restaurants will be illegal come June.

So no one smokes in New York bars or clubs, and there are no ashtrays visible. A little over two hours into 2007, standing on the edge of a crowded dance floor in the Royal Oak bar of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, this is evident, although some rebellious nicotine addicts seem to be sneaking drags here and there. They do an OK job of hiding it, but what’s interesting in all of this to touristy-Icelander me is the fact that a lot of people – and I mean a lot – don’t seem at all concerned with hiding the act of shovelling what I can only assume is cocaine, an illegal drug,

up their noses. Colour me shocked!

A case in point is a 28-year-old sculptor whose name I can’t remember. Midway through our conversation, he drags out an insanely large bottle of the white stuff and forms a little hole between his thumb and the back of his hand, pours some of the white stuff in and snorts it up, old Icelandic sailor style. He then pauses for a second before telling me more of how he’d like to visit Reykjavík. And that he thinks the music sucks. And that Björk hasn’t done a single worthwhile thing since The Sugarcubes. A couple sitting a few feet away from us proceed to do some bumps.

Royal Oak is by no means a seedy bar. It is described by the Brooklyn Bar Guide as “classic and intimate […] a great place to unwind”. And it was, although the trendy DJ spinning hipster tracks made it kind of hard to unwind should one want to do so on New Year’s Eve. I briefly wonder if Iceland’s imminent ban on smoking will bring further drug indulgence to Reykjavík’s bars before I move on to some dancing.

5 Hours Later, 4205 km Away
While this was transpiring, Reykjavík’s New Year’s parties had for the most part wound down to a halt given the five-hour time difference. Noah and Kim, a lovely Brooklyn couple in their mid- to late twenties who I had traded apartments with for New Year’s, were polishing off their last drinks at a house party they unexpectedly got invited to while on the way home at their 2 AM. “We stopped a group of people on Laugavegur to see if they would take our picture and they invited us to go along with them, which of course we accepted. We wound up going to a couple of house parties, one was at the apartment of some artist guy who’s name translates as “assfart”, I’m told” says Noah.

They enjoyed celebrating the New Year in Reykjavík, to the extent of professing a desire to keep coming back, if not moving to Iceland entirely.

My own New Year’s celebration started with me inviting a group of friends (and their friends) over to Noah and Kim’s apartment, next to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, for champagne and take-out Italian food. The party was fun and enlightening; the sincere way the Americans proclaimed their belief that 2007 would be a great year after a toast struck me as something I would never catch an Icelander doing. We then headed to a club party, described by New York magazine as “the ultimate year-end destination for indie-rock scenesters” (!). Noah and Kim, however, opted for dinner at 101 restaurant Café Opera followed by a sojourn to Perlan, from whence they observed Reykjavík’s attempts at blowing up the ozone layer with fireworks.

“It was the craziest thing we’ve seen, like a war zone” offers Kim, opting for an oft used analogy. “There were explosions everywhere,” continues Noah, “the quality of the fireworks was actually a lot higher than we had expected. Except for this one little kid who had a crappy firework, a little thing you light up.” Not surprisingly, the couple found it weird that little kids were setting off explosives all around town, “three year-olds running around with sparklers”. Probably, the custom of exposing little kids to fireworks isn’t the healthiest, although public numbers indicate that no more than three or four dozen suffer firework related injuries each year.

Walking back to town from Perlan exposed them to even more little kids with fireworks, they tell me, and they were happy to observe the local families enjoying themselves. “We went to Kaffibarinn, which disappointingly wasn’t open at all. Sirkús’ 30$ admission fee seemed like a ploy to get money from tourists. So we walked around for a while before ending up at this place called Celtic Cross. They were playing some really shitty Beatles covers, which we enjoyed making fun of. After a while we decided to go home and get some rest, and that was actually when the fun started, as we got invited to parties on the way.”

Business card fervour!
Back in Brooklyn, New York, a group, containing myself, stepped out of a taxi in front of the Williamsburg White Room, where a little indie-rock scenester celebration called “Return of the 12 hour party people” was supposedly filling up with indie-rock scenesters. The cab ride there was an interesting one. Our driver, an Iranian immigrant in his mid-forties, told us in detail how he was enjoying his life in the U.S., and why he had come there. He also told us that “it’s gotten a lot harder since 9/11”.

A group of people enjoying their cigarettes (no coke) outside of the party greeted us. Sarah, a 22-year-old philosophy student at New York University, told us that things were off to a slow start inside, but they were looking better by the minute. Her friend told me that my jacket was cool. I was amused, as people normally don’t say such things to strangers where I come from.

Williamsburg White Room seemed ill fit for a party. As we entered what amounted to a sort of empty cavern, an old Smiths tune bounced between the few who had made it there by 10 PM. Drinks were cheap, the music was fine but somehow things never got off the ground. And people kept exchanging business cards in the drink line. After performing, female rap-group Northern State counted down to midnight and the following orgy of French kissing (“So THIS is how Americans celebrate New Year’s!”), we decided to venture to the Royal Oak bar. On the way there it started raining heavily. And we got in, and drank some, danced some and smoked none.

Noah tells me the couple now prefers Reykjavík New Year’s celebrations. It struck them as more fun. “Like, people having fun and just enjoying each other’s company. In the States, New Year’s is more of an excuse to make out more than anything, while over there it seemed everybody was having a good time. Also, no one did a countdown, which is huge back home.”

My New York New Year’s was a fine one, I met some great people, saw some strange things and, refreshingly enough, the alcohol was cheap. And although I did miss the fireworks and annual comedic round-up, Áramótaskaupið, I might even conclude that I prefer it to the Reykjavík manner of ringing in a new year.

But it had nothing on the Ísafjörður-style I’ve experienced.

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