The town of Akureyri, considered to be the northern capital of Iceland, is known for its charm and calm beauty. It has even been said that while Reykjavík looks like an excited teenage girl, Akureyri resembles a mature woman. The town has acquired the reputation of a family-friendly place; however, the presence of a college and a University brings certain energy into the town’s nightlife. The motto of the town has been chosen Öll lifsins gæði – All good things in life, obviously emphasising the friendliness, peace and good spirit of a charming northern Icelandic town.
Still, once every year, Akureyri changes completely, and for one single weekend it makes even the capital burst with envy. This is the first weekend of August is known in Iceland as Verslunarmannahelgi, or Versló for short – the Merchants’ Weekend. Its boisterous reputation brings to Akureyri thousands of people annually and fills it with wild fun for three days. The green light for endless entertainment seems to be turned on for representatives of all professions and ages; still, it is the matter of age that our today’s saga is about.
The news that anyone aged 18–23 would not be allowed to place their tent on the designated camping sites, unless they are accompanied by families, came as a shock only three or four days before the celebrations. People must had made their plans and made certain arrangements by then; what was even worse was that the town has far less guesthouses at its disposal than the greater Reykjavík area, and it’s natural to have them fully booked long before such a popular event starts. Besides, even if though there were any spots left, biting prices would leave no chance to young people of this very age group – camping places are intended for them first and foremost. Indeed, now it’s hard to say whether the town authorities were concerned about young people’s degree of soberness during the weekend, or did their best to guard the good night’s sleep of those locals who they most frequently interact with for the rest of the year, but one thing is obvious: the holiday was disrupted for exactly those who are meant to enjoy it to the full. Destiny has successfully exercised its malicious powers over Versló 2007.
In an official statement available in Icelandic at the Town of Akureyri website, the Mayor Sigrún Björk Jakobsdóttir claimed that “in the recent decades… the family fun has gone over the limits and many people were concerned about it.” She obviously tries to say that Akureyri has maintained its reputation of a family town, and that a holiday which, to put it mildly, is quite opposite to the goal the town authorities are trying to reach, can hardly be tolerated. She claims to have received a positive feedback from the town dwellers, and that ‘for the first time in a long period of time the holiday could be called a family one’. Those banned away from the camping sites are referred to as ‘unglingar’ – this word is usually used to refer to adolescents in Icelandic. It’s an indeed interesting reference to the people of full age, those who are officially allowed by Icelandic law to purchase alcohol and smoke.
It has to be noted though that the main festivities have always been held in the downtown area, around Glerátorg the shopping mall and KA and Þór sports centres in the middle of town, so that peace of quiet family neighbourhoods placed further to the mountains has never really been affected. Be that as it may, the authorities seem to have decided not to trust their own citizens. A similar decision could possibly be justified in a state that embraces communism, but in Iceland, such an open and free society with a truly sky-high level of trust, it looks ridiculous and somewhat hasty, as if the authorities were afraid not to be able to provide due order in the run of celebrations.
Verslunarmannahelgi is also widely celebrated in the Westman Islands, but there all the camping sites are placed outside the urban area. Such a solution could perhaps do for Akureyri, if the City Council’s wish to provide the locals with their deserved good night’s sleep was so acute. But banning a particular group of people away from a camping site obviously lacks common sense. Later on, when the holiday was over, someone posted his comment to a blog entry dedicated to the ban issue that only one case of drug consumption was registered during the weekend and referred to a person in his forties. Clearly, peace and quiet require banning everyone and prohibiting the very holiday as the most radical means. By the way, the method of how the age limit was determined remains mysterious – no one has really explained why the upper limit was set to 23 years of age, but not 24 or 25 or else.
Akureyri is indeed a sweet and peaceful place for family, where people don’t lock the doors at night or worry about their kids playing outside. But exceptions are always here, whether the authorities like it or not. They thought that banning some fun could be a useful means to secure peace and quiet, but what they got was a storm of criticism. They say they will see what’s going to happen next year, and whether banning fullaged “adolescents” from their legal right to rest was effective. Until then, we have to admit that we live in a society where true democracy is somewhat out of reach. This case brightly illustrates why.