A friend of mine swears there are rats in Reykjavík, but in my ten years in this town I have never seen one. There is, however, another type of rat that you should become familiar with. It’s the so-called “Miðbæjarrottur”, which literally translates to “Downtown Rats”. They are a common sight on the streets of Reykjavík. They prefer to spend the vast majority of their time in the zip code of 101 Reykjavík; that is they like to work, live, shop, eat, and party within a five kilometre radius.
The best-known rat species are the Hipster Rat (Rattus-Bakkus) and the Party Rat (Rattus-djammicus). Hipster rats are often involved in music, fashion, art, theatre and various other creative enterprises. They can be identified by their glasses, and their distinctive odour of Kolaportið, the local flea market. And they are all cooler than you. Party rats are a less common sight during daytime hours. They are nocturnal and can be spotted out on weekend nights at any bar, livers and blizzards be damned. Student Rats (Rattus-háskólis) exhibit the same behaviour, yet they manage to attend classes during the week by consuming extraordinary amounts of caffeine. Family rats (Rattus-familius) make up a large part of the population, although little is known about how they sleep on weekends.
Hard-core downtown rats pride themselves on being able to get everything they need in 101 and love nothing more than walking or biking home from work, stopping at the bakery for bread, and nodding to the people they know along the way. Most do not own cars and prefer to spend their gas money on delicious lattes or weekday pub visits, which their suburban cousins almost never enjoy. Extreme cases can result in a feeling of slight unease when venturing out of 101.
However, a combination of factors including sky-high rent, increased competition from shopping malls, and rising tourism threaten the downtown rats’ way of life. While it was once possible to go to a toy store or buy a pair of running shoes on Laugavegur, many of these shops have closed down. Quaint shops run by real people have been replaced by guesthouses and shops full of cheesy souvenirs. Downtown rats call them “puffin shops.
A few strongholds still exist; thank Thor for Brynja, an old-fashioned hardware store where not unlike like Santa’s magic bag, everything you’ll ever need magically fits into a small two-room shop. There are also welcome newcomers like Litli Bóndabærinn, where coffee and pastries are made with love and local ingredients.
The Society for the Preservation of the Endangered Downtown Rat suggests that tourists interested in the preservation of this majestic creature spend their hard earned dollars or euros on a real souvenir.
One beautifully designed garment, piece of art, or pair of real grandma-knitted mittens is worth all the gold plated lava rock necklaces in the world. Take your picture at an Icelandic rock show with real Icelandic Viking man-sweat on you instead of in front of a fake Viking village. Return home with a suitcase full of amazing Icelandic albums that will have you smugly saying “I listened to them before they were big,” for years to come.
So let us consider the beauty of this symbiotic relationship and do our part to keep it real in Reykjavík