Goose parties take flight in Reykjavík
Helga Bjargardóttir was dressed like the morning after a slumber party: a polka dot dress, a blue cape, plastic necklaces, a pair of pink butterfly ears, and a matching wand. She looked exactly like so many other women I had seen downtown running around Laugavegur looking months late to a Halloween party. As a newcomer to the city, I would laugh, thinking I’d spotted something rare and weird. But the next day I saw a “princess” atop a balcony addressing the “peasants” while her friends showered the street with streamers and confetti. And then, I noticed how those strange events kept happening. Eventually someone filled me in; they were “goose parties” (bachelorette parties), but they weren’t like any I had heard about before. It was confusing.
Luckily, Helga Bjargardóttir was kind enough to let me tag along with hers to find out what exactly these goose parties are.
Hitting the town
“A big thing is going downtown—everyone wants to do that,” said Helga’s friend. On our way down to Laugavegur we passed four other goose parties wandering about, the lucky women dressed equally as whimsical as Helga: one as a black cat, another a ballerina. “There are always so many going on, especially when the weather is nice. A few years ago there weren’t as many, but now I see so many every day.”
Some of Helga’s friends had their own goose parties before their big day, but others don’t have formal marriage in mind. The latter is normal for Iceland: only 34% of the population is married. There was an increase in marriages during the booming years of the banking bubble, but since the economic crash of 2008, marriage rates have gone down to their lowest since the beginning of the new millennium; there were 1,777 marriages in 2000, then it peaked in 2007 with 1,797 before dipping down to 1,458 in 2011.
Yet, what is strange is that during the aftershock of economic collapse, goose parties started becoming more popular. Perhaps as weddings become rarer, people feel a need to celebrate an upcoming one, perhaps as a way to preserve their Christian traditions. But as formal weddings are quite expensive to stage, celebrating them needed to be cheaper. Hence, why goose parties are often simpler affairs.
For her party, Helga was tasked with hunting down hot pink boxes marked conspicuously with balloons downtown, each containing clues to the next one. As she searched high and low, she also had a list of tasks to do, most involving interacting with people on the streets. For each one done she would get a point. If she did everything on the list and earned 100 points, she would get a prize. If she didn’t, there would be a punishment (when asked what it was, her friends only winked).
Locals seemed to know what was going on when she approached them; most shyly declined or ignored her. Tourists were more inclined to join in on the fun, curious about what was going on and surprised when asked to be a part of the proceedings. Though they were the most eager, foreigners were often wary and judgmental, just like I was during my first few run-ins with these parties; a fair share of curmudgeons stared, did double takes and shook their heads at what they clearly considered a public nuisance.
One man sat on a bench bewildered as Helga and company tried to coax him into singing. His fiancé, Kalyn Simer, who had just walked out of a shop, laughed at the sight of it because it reminded her of bachelorette parties in Anchorage, Alaska. “We do crazy things too, but only at night, never during the day! We get in costumes, hit up all the bars, and do things like ask people for condoms and have them call our fiancés to tell them how lucky they are.” Strangest of all to Kalyn was not what the party was up to, but that they were up to it in public, in broad daylight; it’s a public display of affection that she says would embarrass her.
Public displays of affection are often considered unsightly in the United States, but in a city whose population is half of Anchorage’s, everyone knows everything about everyone else, so there’s no shame in publicly declaring your love for someone. That’s exactly what Helga is doing: declaring her happiness and love for her fiancé in a public. Only, instead of keeping it confined to her circle of friends, she’s celebrating that happiness with anyone on the streets.
The American influence
When Helga finally found the last pink box and checked off the last task from the list, everyone moved on to a Beyoncé dance class where they learned how to shake it like Queen B herself. The instructor, Anna Margrét Gunnarsdóttir, taught them the proper shimmies, hip movements, and undulations to songs like “Crazy In Love” and “Sweet Dreams.” They swaggered down the middle of the dance floor, two-by-two, dancing as best as one who is not Beyoncé can.
When Anna called for a break, I asked her if she thought goose parties were becoming more popular. “Oh yes,” she said. “I think it’s because of pop culture. There are lots of movies that show these sorts of parties. People liked them so much that they do it too.”
Anna’s words echoed in my head when as we later played Pictionary at her friend Telma’s house, all of us exhausted from the dance session. The subject of the game was romantic films—all of them American. They drew stick figures surrounded by dresses, posing, mourning at a burial, and drunken stick figures dancing. I consider myself a movie buff, yet I could not compete; the women spit out the titles of movies (“27 Dresses! Bridesmaids! Four Weddings and a Funeral! Wedding Crashers!”) faster than I could process what the doodles were supposed to be. These films, depicting bachelorette parties and marriage, have become so ingrained in these women that they can recognize them with minimal effort.
These films depict bachelorette parties as incredibly fun, one last night of being single, of having fun before a life of being committed to one man. Of course, in real life the parties aren’t as extreme, but what remains the same is the bonding. As we sat around drinking, they laughed as they recounted the antics of the day, which then gave way to memories of Helga: a night singing slurred Spanish at a bar, watching a movie together, and other memories rose to the surface, like the fizz of the champagne we guzzled.
Her goose party, too, will be remembered fondly years after the vows are exchanged. Days like those, doing outrageous things and reminiscing, are about celebrating their friendship and helping usher Helga into her marriage.
“Today was perfect, from beginning to end,” Helga said, a nugget of a memory already beginning to take shape.