From Iceland — Reykjavík!


Published July 14, 2006


Typically they start with the weather. If you’re writing about the northernmost capital in the world, the windiest country on the planet, a country with “Ice” in its name, yeah, it’s understandable you’d start with weather. But it’s a non-story: Reykjavík is often rainy, and windy, but there is nothing fantastic or extraordinary about being damp. Locals, in fact, lump all disagreeable meteorological phenomena into the group category: you simply say, “We’re having weather.”

So if weather shapes the lives of the people of Iceland, nobody here wants to talk about it. And if weather shapes the tourist experience, you probably didn’t do it right.

The next obvious starting point: latitude. At this height, the sun doesn’t work the same way as it does where most people live. In the summer, the sun, or the light from it, bathes the island for 24 glorious hours. In the winter, Reykjavík gets three hours of light a day, the sun never making it much above the horizon.

Now that is a story, right? Seasonal affective disorder. Insomnia. Manic behaviour. Not having mother sun and then suddenly getting it… imagine!
Except that, other than a few weeks in September and February, nobody in Reykjavík gives a crap about the sun. So you don’t find UV lamps, therapy sessions, or even much celebration of Solstice, unless a gaggle of visiting Finns put together a decent party.

Next, geology. Iceland is volcanic. It lies on two tectonic plates, Europe and America, as it so happens. Earthquakes are a somewhat regular occasion, volcanic eruptions less frequent but more spectacular. In the 18th century, the country was almost wiped out from a series of massive eruptions that, as a point of local pride, emitted so much ash that they may have even damaged crop production in France.

Absolutely understandable, then, that writers would focus on the geology of Iceland in attempting to describe what’s going on. Yes, that is a story.
Except, again, almost nobody in Reykjavík cares. They’ll gladly provide a quote or two to visiting reporters, then adjourn to the local coffee shop or swimming pool and talk not about the volcano, but about who is covering the volcano. And, maybe, about who was flying over the volcano to cover the story – aviation, especially as it relates to journalism, is a local obsession.

When all else fails, visiting reporters go to the lowest of the low: elves and Vikings. On this, locals can hold forth at length. Bullshitting on elves and Vikings has been a steady source of income for decades and it is extremely low risk subject matter. The word “elf” is used only when selling something, or when calling someone a sell-out. The word Viking comes out a little more frequently, though to most Icelanders under 60, or with those holding political views left of Attila the Hun, a reference to these original settlers of the island is used only in the most dismissive of insults.

The Viking references are truly viewed as oppressive, especially to the young on the island. This year, on the nation’s Independence Day, June 17th, we casually came upon a dozen teenagers hanging off of the enormous Viking statue of Ingólfur Arnarson, the man credited with initially settling Iceland in 874. It is a beautiful statue, especially for an observer who appreciates superheroes and square jaws. The teenagers, who were slightly under the influence, as is the tendency on the national day, laughed at us and asked “Do you even know who this is?”

Realising we had made a slight social faux pas, our reporter remedied the situation immediately.

“Sure, he’s a tax cheat and a murderer who had to flee Norway.”

He got a quick ovation and an “Exactly right,” from the crowd.

Viking history is appreciated and studied, but discussing Vikings on a visit, and describing locals and Vikings, and hence ignoring the difficult 1,000-plus years that came between initial settlement and today, is irksome.

As Vikings and elves are the most offensive topics to locals, they are, of course, the most common topics discussed when Iceland comes up in the foreign media.

Running the popular local independent English-language cultural paper, the Reykjavík Grapevine, we have met most of the foreign reporters that we often mock. In fact, we’ve introduced a good number of them to their sources. While most Icelanders know English, there are few English-language references for media, and so we get foreigners to buy us our lunches and dinners as we hold forth on whatever we’re asked about: elves, sure, there’s one behind you; Björk, nicest person in the world, hangs out at the local swimming pool, etc.

The reporters get a full notebook, a half-full belly, and then they go and nap. And then, that night, we see them out experiencing the nightlife that will never make it into print. Offers to take the reporters out to see Reykjavík by day are universally turned down in favour of sleeping off hangovers or hiding from the many people they might have offended after that third Víking lager.

The vast majority of the time, foreign reporters come to Reykjavík and put together the worst article they’ve ever written, but have the best time of their lives. Hence we have a stack six inches high of business cards from reporters offering to return and write for us in exchange for a flight. Once a year, in fact, we take our favourite reporters up on the deal and use an all foreign staff.

What is it, then, about Reykjavík that so eludes casual guidebook prose, but that so attracts tourists, writers, musicians, and over-the-hill Hollywood actors? Why is Reykjavík turning into the Arctic Riviera?

In the chapters that follow, we will point out the tangibles: the relaxed communal activities that are most loved by locals and visitors, things like the daily visits to swimming pools, the coffee shop conversations taken to a high art, and the burgeoning restaurant and bistro culture. We will give a full, comprehensive account of the nightlife of Reykjavík, a scene so intense that it could burn out Keith Richards in a weekend. We will introduce you to the weekend downtime activities, the march down the city’s main shopping street, the gallery parades, and a visit to the downtown flea market, arguably one of the most influential cultural spots in the country. And, finally, we will give accounts of some of the many day trips that connect locals to the country as a whole, the sites that make you understand why your camera needs that many megapixels.

And at the end, you still may not understand why Reykjavík is the spot that it is. The energy that fills the city right now, as we write, is entirely unique and entirely intangible. The reason so many writers fail is that travel reporting is based on allowing outsiders to have a glimpse in, to get a feel for the attraction of the experience. The feel of Reykjavík for the last few years isn’t something writers are used to putting down well. It is the coming of age of a city that was, for 1,000 years, Europe’s ugly duckling. Imagine the week Julia Roberts looked down and discovered she had long legs, the day Sean Connery grew his first chest hair and the day a Parisian cook first hosted an Englishman and was informed of his cuisine’s life affirming qualities. This is part of the experience Reykjavík is undergoing.

For those readers who love cities and travel, what we’re trying to point out is that Reykjavík became its own revered city in these past few decades. When you’re here, you believe you’ve arrived just ahead of the centre of the universe. Overstatement aside, a visitor to Reykjavík can visit a nation’s capital at the same time that some portion of the world is just discovering it, reading about it, or fantasising about it – be that because the city bus is in world news for using locally produced, green hydrogen, or because hip-hop wunderkind is in town producing a local band, or because a world-famous director is filming a scene for a blockbuster movie in the pristine glacial surroundings a few hours from the city.

If writers have a difficult time capturing the charms of the city, the same can be said of casual tourists. While all of us at the Reykjavík Grapevine acknowledge our own brilliance, the fact that we are doing a commendable and historical sociological service in documenting the phenomenon that is Reykjavík today, we make our living off of one simple fact: the real Reykjavík ain’t easy to find. The most useful service we provide is a two-page map with 40 descriptions of shops, bars and restaurants that are being talked about at the time of publication.

Reykjavík deserves the hype, it deserves to be on a world stage. But the interactions of everyday people with a small town that is becoming a behemoth, even the frustrations of people who can’t find their way, should also be documented.

Perhaps the best case study has to do with one of the Reykjavík Grapevine’s favourite bands, a rip-roaring rock band made up of philosophy majors who tend to fall onto their own, and other people’s, guitars. Knowing full well why people come to see them, they have given themselves a name that summarises all the crazy enthusiasm and disregard that a special breed of rock, the kind of music you see in a bar and have to either help protect them from the crowd or protect yourself from an over-fragrant, frenzied audience who all feel they are involved in the experience. They call themselves Reykjavík!. (The exclamation comes with the name.) And they are from Ísafjörður.

Their experiences in the music and cultural industry in town sum up what is happening here. We met Reykjavík! guitarist Haukur and singer Bóas to talk about what the word Reykjavík signifies today.

/// Why did you name the band Reykjavik!? What is the appeal? What does Reykjavík mean to Icelanders? None of you are from Reykjavík, of course.
Bóas: I spent every summer in Reyðarfjörður. And as a teenager I spent a year there because I screwed up in Mosfellsbær. That was 1994, the year they had Musíktilraunir (Battle of the Bands), and I so eagerly wanted to be in Reykjavík.

I was 14, and I had started a band with friends from school. I wanted to go to compete in Músíktilraunir and be a part of Reykjavík and music making and what teenage nightlife was all about. That was what I wanted to be a part of.

Haukur: Ísafjörður is kind of like a suburb of Reykjavík.

/// That’s an odd comment. Ísafjörður is the furthest point from Reykjavík you can get, located in the northeast section of the West Fjords. You even speak Icelandic differently. It’s a nine-hour drive, how can Ísafjörður be a suburb?
Haukur: Ísafjörður and Reykjavík keep in very good communication. And I came to visit in the summer. When things started to get exciting in Reykjavík, a lot of it had to do with Kiddi from Hljómalind. He started his do-it-yourself record store in Kolaportið, then moved to Austurstræti, then down to Laugavegur. And he kind of introduced a whole indie mentality to Reykjavík and from there to Iceland. The first stop when you came to Reykjavík would be his store. There was no Internet or anything.

Mostly, we just read about Reykjavík. We knew about what was going on, but we didn’t experience the scene. Cause it’s really closed to outsiders, to people not really from here. Of course, I’m excepting foreigners and foreign reporters – because everybody’s really into self-promotion. Still, as an example, me and my friend Jói, back in 1998, or 1999, we released a record, founded a label, and we tried having a concert in Reykjavík. From the things we’d been reading, we thought electronic music might go over well. No one came. On two separate occasions. Not a single person. Because we weren’t friends with anyone.

It’s very cliquish, in a sense. I think you’d expect a scene like this to have an adventurousness, but I don’t think it works that way. You have to meet small groups to generate a certain amount of buzz.

Bóas: But then again it’s not that hard to get to know people here. You can infiltrate groups. That year that I’m talking about, I had vivid dreams about meeting with the guys from Botnleðja and Maus, and I just went on and did it, met them, no problem.

/// This is something people should learn about Iceland. If you want to know a person, just introduce yourself. I mean, they’re not going to introduce themselves, and if they want to talk to you, they will. If they don’t, they’re not going to call a bodyguard or something.
Haukur: That’s true. They will not approach you, but they’re very approachable.

/// And you have to look for the specific person. With the exception of Airwaves, you don’t look for a crowd or scene. You don’t say “I like hard rock, Mínus is a good hard rock band, they’re from Iceland, I’ll go there and find a bunch of bands like Mínus.” If there’s a band you’ll like, they’ll probably be unique. That person IS the scene.
Haukur: Airwaves is the exception. That is very big, and that was, in a way, started by Kiddi of Hljómalind as well. Kiddi had so much of an impact – he introduced Sigur Rós to Iceland. Their first record sold very little, then he got on board for their second album.

/// And Sigur Rós brings up the other key thing about the Reykjavík scene. Most of the bands here and scenesters here are from somewhere else.
Bóas: Yeah, Jónsi of Sigur Rós is from Mosfellsbær. I used to hitchhike in from Mosfellsbær, and he would give me a ride. He drove barefoot. He believed it gave him a better contact with the road. He’s always been the way he is.

/// So in just a word or two, what does Reykjavík mean?
Haukur: Awe. A-w-e. Look at all the cool stuff they’re doing in Reykjavík.

Bóas: From an outsider’s point of view, definitely.

Haukur: Iceland revolves around Reykjavík. It’s our backbone. All the newspapers are published here. If you read Morgunblaðið, in the what’s going on this weekend, you won’t have anything in Akureyri, even. So if you’re from outside, you’re bombarded with all this great stuff that’s going on in Reykjavík.

Bóas: In one word, Reykjavík to me would represent attitude, and not in the negative sense. But everybody in Reykjavík has it.

/// An attitude you can’t have in a smaller town. You might get beaten up.
Bóas: Or made fun of, at least. It’s all about building your self-image here. Everybody does it. Even the guy that works behind the counter at the 10-11 convenience store has some kind of image-based attitude.

Haukur: Yeah, you know Eiríkur Norðdahl, the big Nýhil poet, he’s the clearest example of what happens. He’s from Ísafjörður, he’s a friend of ours. He decided when he was about 16 years old that he was going to be a poet and a novelist and a communist. So he took to wearing a hat and drinking coffee. And people just came on to him really hard. There’s no room for self-creation when you’re in a small town like that. ‘Cause everyone remembers you from when you were 12 or 15 or something like that. So what he had to do in the end was move away to Reykjavík. This is similar to the reason you see a lot of people here.

/// And now, Eiríkur Norðdahl is famous for driving the culture in Ísafjörður, partly for his work in Nýhil, partly for the work he does with his best friend, Mugison.
Haukur: He lives there now. This is something he did when he was 20.

Bóas: But he came back to Ísafjorður with that reputation from Reykjavík, and then people started paying attention to him. Looking past his former self.
There is just an attitude here. Even people who don’t have an attitude, that’s their attitude, like the krútt kids. [(Cute generation, a label for Sigur Rós, múm and their contemporaries.)]

Haukur: That’s a very closed group. That’s the thing that surprised me most on moving to Reykjajvík, because I had been following them closely, listening to múm albums and reading their poetry books. And I could never imagine they had a hierarchy. You would think it would be like in Ísafjörður: sailors drinking with mechanics drinking with musicians drinking with college professors, but my third weekend living in Reykjavík I learned that was not the case.

/// Egalitarianism is a point of pride, but it doesn’t quite happen in Reykjavík. Each to their own bar: Sirkus for krútt. Kaffibarinn for young filmmakers. Bar 11 and Dillon for hard rock.
Bóas: We’ve started going out on Lækjargata to avoid seeing the same crowd, when we want to hide out.

/// The joke we make in New York is that you know you’re in New York when you’re hearing Midwestern music. And you’re proof of the same being true here. Of the major Reykjavík bands, I can’t think of one that is actually from here.
Bóas: A lot of the bands you see here are from Hafnarfjörður. Like Botnleðja, Jakobínarína, lots of them.

Haukur: Hafnarfjörður has had a Social Democratic government, so they take culture into account. Bands get practise spaces and that kind of thing.

Bóas: Which they would never do here.

/// Reykjavík has a coalition government, R-Listinn. And when this book comes out, it will likely be Independence Party, which is extremely conservative. The politics are pretty conservative, but not as bad as some villages up north. But are you telling me that you moved to Reykjavík, named your band Reykjavík!, because of the attitude of Hafnarfjörður?
Haukur: I moved to Reykjavík to study philosophy.

/// But we don’t want people to think this is a campus town. It certainly isn’t that. First off, there’s a highway keeping students away from town.
Bóas: And there’s never been a campus feel. We always wanted one. It seems to be changing, though. There is an upcoming campus musical festival, and they’re really making an effort now.

/// When you thought of Reykjavík and read about it, were you assuming that the nights out you had in Ísafjörður would just be expanded by one-hundred times, bigger population, multiply the energy?
Bóas: That would be the idea. But then the smaller groups really split it up.

Haukur: That’s where they got the idea for things like Reykjavík Nightlife Friend, where you can get a Reykjavík insider to take you around and show you the other side.

/// Oh dear god, you had to bring that up. I suppose it’s a key service and an indication as to how things work here. You hire a friend to get you into bars.
Bóas: I used to live with two guys who did that.
Haukur: It’s expensive. They say they can get you in front of all the lines, and they’ll teach you to party like a native.

/// What does that mean, to party like a native?
Haukur: I don’t know, drinking a lot. You get a lot of dirty weekend guys visiting. Wearing suits. Walking around telling people “I’m from America,” or stuff like that.

/// Dirty weekend being an advertising campaign that has become a mark of shame in Iceland. Years ago, the tourist board showed photos of blond girls in hot tubs promising a dirty weekend in Iceland.
Bóas: I actually worked for the only Reykjavík nightclub, Thomsen, a few years ago. And there were a bunch of really big guys. And I ended up talking to them, and they were from the Boston Fire Brigade. They were invited by Boston to go out on a dirty weekend in Reykjavík. And they were so bummed out that they couldn’t find any loose girls.

/// It is a part of this town – something to warn people about, maybe. Icelanders turn out to be human beings. Their sex lives really shouldn’t be tourist attractions, and having their private lives used as advertisements may have really, ahem, turned them off foreigners.
Haukur: I think it’s okay. They can come and do whatever they want – it’s not going to make the women find them attractive… just a lot of disappointed foreigners.

/// If you’re coming here for culture and want to hear music or see art, you may not be disappointed.
Haukur: No, if people came for culture, they wouldn’t be disappointed. Do they come for that?

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