From Iceland — Scenes From Menningarnótt

Scenes From Menningarnótt

Published September 4, 2009

Scenes From Menningarnótt

At the Grapevine, we love us some culture and arts and music and poetry and literature and waffles and intoxication and vomiting and drunken stumbling. So naturally, we are quite fond of Menningarnótt. It has all of the above, and more.
Recounting the whole experience isn’t an easy task. There is a LOT going on, as you may have noticed if you were there (and if you were not, check out our last issue for an overview of the huuuuuuge programme on offer). We can’t do that. But you can still get a glimpse of what the whole thing was about by reading the following: two different accounts of how two different redheads in their early twenties experienced Menningarnótt. You should also look at the pictures. Enjoy.
Valgerður Þóroddsdóttir:
In the morning it was very quiet and I was very hung over. The apartment was unusually still and so, it seemed, was the downtown street outside its windows. It could have been any other day, really, a thankfully tranquil, restful, Saturday morning, and to my drowsy eyes it almost was. But outside the shaded window something was already brewing; close to 1/3 of the country’s population would be flooding these streets by the day’s peak, providing the biggest crowds, the most noise and eventually the most vomit the streets of Reykjavik would see all year.
The muted serenity of these surroundings betrayed the reality of what lay ahead, and it was clear that the day would be a long one; according to the Culture “Night” program, the agenda began at 10:00 in the morning and stretched on for over thirteen hours. What wasn’t clear, conversely, was what on said schedule could possibly entice me out of bed on this particularly wretched weekend morning.
What it was, it turns out, was waffles. Free waffles, and coffee, to be precise. At four different venues even, in case I was so inclined and appropriately ambitious. Right through the darkly blotted newsprint of the Culture Night schedule God seemed to be winking at me, promising that the indiscretions of the past could be forgiven and forgotten with a sweet patterned cake and plenty of jam and whipped cream. And so it was that I set out more determinedly than I would have thought possible of my ailing state, towards waffles, emphatic and resolute.
As I made my way through Þingholtin down towards the pond the day proved to be way ahead of me. Various promotional vendors had set up on a small square a block down from my street and traffic had been closed off in all directions. A few people had gathered on what was usually a minor four-way crossing and on a fairly large stage someone sat and was playing a flute.
The waffles promised in the day’s program were mysteriously, though perhaps not unexpectedly considering who was promising, missing from Landsbankinn in Austurstræti, replaced instead by bowls full of stale kleinur standing sadly near a wall in a corner of the building.
But there was no turning bank. No bank’s deception was going to keep me from having my waffle and eating it too. At the local Amnesty International headquarters on Þingholtsstræti the waffles were bountiful and the kleinur fresh and voluptuous. The main room was clean and well-lit, and around every table sat people chatting and signing human rights petitions and postcards. Feasting on eager generosity, drinking kókó mjólk and coffee, I shamed myself for having ever thought that Landsbankinn would have been the right place to start.
It was now 3 P.M. and the crowds had grown significantly, the thickening mass not yet oppressive but existing nonetheless as a dark foreshadow, a reminder of how packed and impossible the day had been at its peak last year. On Lækjartorg Square a group of middle-aged women were wearing cowboy hats and line dancing to the song Somethin’ Stupid, joined by what must have been their teacher, Óli Geir. The beat of the song was unhurried and steady and the dancers, cool and composed, glided in various arrangements across the low stage while the surrounding crowd watched attentively, smiling, delighted.
On Ingólfsstræti it began to mist through the sunlight as Orri and, according to the program, “his friends” displayed the Art of Graffiti on a wall behind Prikið while a group of people sat on the pavement and looked on. Further down the street, on its opposite end, a Garden Concert was in full swing. After a perfectly pleasant couple of songs from a young band whose name I did not catch, Retro Stefson played four songs very quickly, apparently their second set during the concert and apparently as consolation for the absence of FM Belfast who were scheduled to play last but who had not come. As per usual, the kids were full of energy and their songs full of cowbell, a combination that has done a world of good for them as well as their big-brother-band Belfast.
It is either a testament to or a condemnation of Culture Night that I had to fight my way through crowds around the Michael Jackson tribute band in order to get to my neighbourhood store and procure a litre of Coke to nurse my hangover. The band was on the stage below Hallgrímskirkja Church on Skólavörðustígur and I could hear them through an open window when I got home. I remember thinking that the singer actually sounded a lot like Michael Jackson, right before I shut the window and closed the blinds.
Back at square one. Evening had finally fallen by the time I left the house again and there was a sort of winter holiday feeling in the air, conjured by a range of people coming together to stroll in the evening glow.
At a backyard FM Belfast concert on the corner of Bergþórugata and Frakkastígur this mood prevailed and was only enhanced by a youthful charge. A large crowd jumped and pulsated and sang along and Retro Stefson, literally dancing on the rooftops, drummed joyously along with various percussions.
After the concert ended I began to notice flocks of inebriated kids milling about dubiously in the streets. The first time I enjoyed Menningarnótt in earnest I was sixteen and was on Ingólfsstorg for the fireworks display. It was right around the time of night when the ground seemed to become covered in shattered glass and everyone around me was throwing up. It was a little bit exciting in a gross and pathetic kind of way, to be derelict and part of a faceless crowd. But after a while, I remember, the aggression and chaos started to actually scare me.
When I eventually ended up downtown long after the fireworks display had ended this time, I didn’t see even a hint of what I had experienced back then, although I made sure to stay far away from Ingólfsstorg. It is comforting to think that my habits may have matured beyond all that, and I really did think this to myself as I was downtown, awake and inebriated at an unreasonable hour, barely recovered from a day-long hangover, dishevelled and dancing at a bar amongst a faceless crowd. Creator of my own chaos.
Catharine Fulton:
It’s bright outside. Lækjargata is flanked by imposing chain link barriers, marking the route of the marathon running simultaneously to Menningarnótt, and ensuring a drunkard-free space in which the runners can execute their task. Loud cheers emanate from a crowd too small in appearance to be making them as two glistening bodies hurl themselves over the finish line. Pedestrians have been relegated to a 30-cm wide strip of pavement between the metal fencing and the raised planters in front of Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík and those not interested in watching the final marathoners trickle in are instead traversing the school’s lawn. Point A to Point B.
Save for the excess of paper plates and pylsa wrappers littering the interlocking pavement, Lækjartorg looks similar to any other day this summer, perhaps in the height of the tourist season. On the most popular festival day where, pray tell, is everybody? A walk up Laugavegur is busier than the everyday but depressingly sparse in the wake of the festivals that came before. Jazz ensemble overlaps convincing Silversun Pickups covers overlaps happy pre-teen electronica overlaps hardcore pönk. Backing melodies for the dance of an ocean of discarded blue Síminn popsicle wrappers.
A sign advertising “FREE WAFFLES!” lures a crowd to the park adjacent to Hemmi og Valdi, but the sign has been erected prematurely and there are, in fact, no waffles to be had. Still, a man in his mid-thirties, noticeably lubricated, demands a full waffle, not just a quarter or half. He’s willing to make a donation if his demands are met. Jars of strawberry, apricot, cherry, and raspberry jam and a plastic tub of marmalade wait to seep into hot craters, fresh off the press. Cherry looks promising.
Across the park, far removed from the prominent Domino’s kiosk and nothing else, colourful attire shrouds the form of a mysterious man. Turbaned head, painted on eyebrow, painted on moustache, authentic Scottish accent. The mystic is reading palms for 500 ISK. I’m unlucky in love. I think more than is good for me. I will be working two jobs simultaneously at some point. I may die soon but mysteriously come back to life. I’ve loved three people, none of them as deeply as I should.
The jaunt back down Laugavegur smells. The sun has been out long enough to heat the detritus that is carelessly strewn about the streets, releasing the stenches once contained therein. It reeks of trash. Pizza, pylsa, cigarettes, alcohol, rot. The hours wear on and the crowd grows in size and inebriation. The increased number of people in varying states of chemical enhancement, save for the children one hopes, increases the depth of the layer of garbage being churned together by stomping feet. Broken glass shines like diamonds, pops like explosives, cuts into treads, is everywhere.
A brief escape from chaos is found for many in the photography museum on Tryggvagata, where a more family-oriented crowd browses through black and white photographs of Reykjavík in the years of World War II and large foam-core mounted images of 1960’s glamour. Children and light-hearted adults alike take their turn at dressing up in the attire of antiquity and posing for souvenir photographs in front of a painted backdrop depicting a valley and lake bordered by a lush forest. Red velvet and woven gold accents gives everyone instant class.
Ingólfstorg is boiling over at 9 pm, a welcome change to the patchy crowd taking in Retro Stefson and Sprengjuhöllin earlier in the afternoon. An awkward and odd couple motionless bodies and clapping, dancing, smiling performers do make. The masses slap their hands together repeatedly for Hjaltalín and scream with high-pitched joy. Adidas tracksuits generously adorned with metallic reliefs of the brand’s corporate logo seem to be a popular fashion statement among the <20 crowd, as does holding hands, forming a chain and running through the other patrons without regard for the persons being violently shoved by their actions. Oh, to be young and inconsiderate. The pungent odour of cigar smoke hangs low in my general vicinity, mingling toxically with the sharp spice of Ali Baba and the too-much-cologne of the man in front of me.
Inside Edition aired an exposé in the early nineties in which a finger-wagging mom-jeans clad reporter examined the evils of pre-teen and public drunkenness thriving on the late night and early morning streets of downtown Reykjavík. On Saturday, once the fireworks had detonated, accompanied by screams and ohh’s and ahh’s, and the crowd vacated the harbour and migrated to a watering hole of their choosing, the overflow transported 101 to 1992. Too-young girls slouching in corners with too-drunk friends at a loss for what to do. Too-liquidly-confident men clashing violently with too-liquidly-confident men on every corner. Too-emotional girlfriends holding back too-liquidly-confident men on every corner. Too many people everywhere. A field day for an American reporter in mom-jeans. A piece of nostalgia for Icelanders who recall nights when bars would close early and streets picked up the slack in the good old days of reckless youth. Those were the days and this is their rebirth. Beer, white wine, gin, Red Bull, gin, tonic, gin, gin, gin. Garbage still litters the ground but the smell fails to permeate drink-numbed nostrils. People are still too rowdy and too much in one another’s personal space but, goddamnit, everybody’s a friend in the liquid haze of morning.
The party could be heard long after the density of the streets lessened. The din of the crowd surges on as revellers wait their turn and don’t wait their turn at the taxi stand. In the hours that would on any other day be punctuated by an alarm clock the city is finally drifting off to sleep. Another successful Menningarnótt.

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!


Show Me More!