I’ve always wanted to open one of these pieces with the words: “I had a strange encounter with a clown the other day…” – and now I’ve blown my only chance. The truth is, that clown gave quite a lot to think about, particularly regarding Iceland and the people who inhabit it. One story he told me was about the only time he was ever shown overt aggression here. He was having drinks in an unnamed ‘hnakki’ hangout when a large and buffcustomer got in his face, apparently for being a foreigner or some such heinous crime. As the massive gentleman backed him into a corner, the clown (being of the profession that he is) stuck out his tongue so it was about an inch from touching the face of his would-be assailant. Just as a titanic fist rose and the clown’s life passed before his eyes two bouncers emerge from nowhere, grabbed the offending patron and promptly and firmly removed him from the premises. He didn’t go quietly.
Flash forward a couple of days and the jester in question is performing his antics at Lækjartorg to a good reception. Suddenly he spots his nemesis in the crowd, points him out, and goes: “Hey, there’s a guy who wanted to kill me the other day!” The man’s response caught the well-travelled clown completely off guard; the guy just laughed heartily and admitted: “Haha, yeah, I sure did!”
The understandably confused clown asked me to account for this behaviour, and I found that I simply couldn’t – yet I recognized it as very Icelandic. This man has travelled to 99 different countries and yet encountering someone who could go from seriously trying to break every bone in his body to laughing at his jokes – all depending on the setting – still caught him off guard. Usually we Nordics are stereotyped as a melancholy and generally unemotional people who only occasionally let out all their pent up anger in a torrent of rage. Mediterranean types, on the other hand, are expected to raise all hell over the tiniest issues and threaten to kill themselves so they can escape the humiliation of being overcharged for an artichoke. Five minutes later everything is back to normal and no one cares – immediate release of rage rather than slowly bottling it away.
Of course, these are extremely broad generalizations and only true in the broadest possible sense – but anyone who has travelled to both Sweden and Spain should be able to tell you there is a distinct difference between the way people interact in the North and the South of Europe. Why, then, do Icelanders seemingly turn into the Hulk for no reason on certain occasions and still remain as meek as lambs on others? My theory, and it’s actually more of an educated guess than a theory, is that it has something to do with alcohol. I know you are thinking “duh”, but bear with me for a second.
Alcohol is consumed all over Europe and by most accounts many Southern Europeans drink quite a bit of wine, usually with meals and seldom with the expressed purpose of getting wasted. Contrast this with Icelandic society, where drinking has long been an expensive luxury due to high taxation and general government interference in the matter. Until recently, you could be decried an alcoholic if someone saw you drinking beer during your lunch hour, or if you dared polish off a bottle of wine over a long meal during the work week. The reward for staying off the tipple all week, as it was and in some ways still is seen: a license to get completely trashed over the weekend. In Iceland there is nothing wrong with being seen passed out in a puddle of your own vomit, just make sure it’s between 23:00 on a Friday and 09:00 on a Sunday. Did you get in a fight and smash your cousin’s front teeth, nose and ribs? Well, that’s too bad, but hey, you were drunk. It happens, she’ll just get you back next time.
The willingness to completely let yourself go under the influence of alcohol, and to accept that behaviour in others, may be key to the question of what makes the Icelandic temperament so unique. The drinking culture here is truly sick, in the worst possible sense of the word, and I blame idiotic legislation and the social pressures that lead to their implementation. Admittedly, things have improved some, with beer and wine being freely drunk (in small amounts) at occasions that would previously have been unthinkable. The liquor stores look a little less like gulags than they once did, and now offer advice on fine wines rather than simply being a place where you buy your brennivin and vodka. There’s just one problem: everyone still gets absolutely plastered once the weekend comes around. And that’s when ribs get broken and clowns get hurt.