I had never seen anything like it in my life. There was so much smoke everywhere it was hard to breathe and my eyes were watery. My hair was a little burnt from ash that had fallen on it and lights were bursting and flashing everywhere I looked. It may sound like I was in the middle of some chaotic disorder and I was. New Year’s Eve in Reykjavík was upon me and the pyrotechnics war had started. I walked like a drunk, zigzagging and swerving in attempts to avoid children aiming firecrackers straight at me, straight at everybody. I am used to fireworks being at the hands of the city council and not at the will of the population. Seeing all those tykes and champagne-wielding adults firing off made me nervous, although I have to say it was nice to see that everybody got to participate in lighting up the midnight sky and that it wasn’t just an officially organised affair.
The type of New Year’s celebration I am used to has quite a pathetic showing of fireworks that is aimed at tourists rather than locals. I come from a small, immensely beautiful island in the Caribbean: Puerto Rico. Our tradition there is to spend the hours up until midnight with the family, so people tend to be inside when the clock strikes twelve. The explosives display (I can’t even remember the last time I saw it) is conducted from Old San Juan: a relic of the past with faded blue cobblestones and Spanish architecture adorned with bold colours. However, very few Puerto Ricans will be walking around the old city to enjoy the few sparks visible in the sky. It is mainly a display to satisfy the sun burnt, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing tourists.
Sadly for the people back home, it is illegal for individuals to buy or use fireworks, so people miss out on all the fun that Icelanders are entitled to. To make matters worse, with sparklers prohibited, an odd tradition has developed since some intellectually challenged individuals decided that firing bullets into the sky would be a great replacement for firecrackers, ignoring Newton’s law of gravity that what goes up must eventually come down. This year, the government had to spend money running campaigns titled: “Not one more bullet into the air!” in order to curtail this crazy twenty-first-century ritual.
The morning after my first Icelandic New Year’s Eve, I inspect my coat for burns and wonder how the hell nobody gets injured in all this mayhem. Then I think of last New Year’s Eve and I am reminded that I prefer a four-year-old with a firecracker to bullets flying across the sky. I come to the conclusion that people just want to feel in control of their lives and the actions they take. People on my island want to experience the start of the New Year literally and figuratively in their own hands. When simple freedoms such as this are constrained, people revolt and find other ways to express themselves.
There was a comparable situation in Reykjavik before 1999 when bars were required to close at three in the morning. Partygoers were forced to leave the bars amidst their merriment. However, the bartender’s last call did not stop people from spilling onto the streets where rowdy crowds of thousands would gather to continue their partying. This became too bothersome a burden for the police to handle and the drinking laws were relaxed allowing for later closing times. Similarly, before 1989 the beer prohibition did not prevent people from getting intoxicated. Instead Icelanders drank Bjórliki, a non-alcoholic beer named from the Icelandic word bjór meaning beer and liki meaning imitation, laced with large shots of whiskey or vodka. If the government decides to behave like an overzealous parent and tell its citizens not to behave in a certain way that endangers no one, the independent and proud child will do exactly what they are told not to do, or worse. As a matter of principle people should be responsible for themselves and behave the way they wish as long as it does not interfere with the safety of others. The extravagant 360-degree fireworks display I experienced here and the whimsical smiles of those taking part in the grand spectacle inspired me. Now that I know what to expect, I will be prepared for next year with my own arsenal of fireworks so that I can contribute to the carnival atmosphere instead of just being a spectator. So if you happen to find yourself annoyed at the fireworks damage suffered by your newly acquired vintage dress, simply laugh about it and remember that at least you have the freedom to enjoy 2008 behaving as wildly or primly as you please.
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