How To Make a Small Town Sweat
Downtown Akureyri, just past midnight – I found the fast food stand Nætursalan already packed. In a single huddle, leaning against the glass of the counter, about 100 kids cluttered the shop in a queue that stretched out the door. The floor was black with dirt and littered with empty plastic bottles, wrappers and napkins. Running after orders for hamburgers and cigarettes, back and forth between the counter and the grill behind the soda cooler, were three employees in their late 20s.
They looked stern and bore the kind of blank look of concentration that comes with losing oneself in busywork, falling into a quick, machine-like rhythm. No one was shouting, but the people in the queue were stiff and pensive, pushing forward in an intoxicated mass, focused only on reaching the delicious greasy prize at the end of the line.
The size of the crowd made the staff anxious, sweating profusely in their terse movements. The only girl behind the counter was wearing a black tank top with her hair drawn back from her face. She swiped a debit card, taking a deep breath as she did, her neck and chest red from heat and anxiety. She placed the receipt on the counter in front of a heavily intoxicated patron. Without a pen in sight, he stared blankly down at the receipt and then up at her, she looked back with eyes wide as if she were about to cry.
During this year’s Verslunarmannahelgi, the annual Merchant’s Holiday, Akureyri’s Ein með Öllu festival played host to approximately 18,000 people, not counting the locals – the highest attendance number for any festival in the country. Akureyri’s population, the second largest outside the capital area, reaches just over 16,000. The northern town sits in a deep fjord in the north of Iceland by a peninsula of water the locals call “the puddle”. It is ostensibly a small town, with only 125 people per square kilometre as compared to Reykjavík’s 418. Still, according to the locals, it is a town with cosmopolitan potential.
Akureyri is caught between the circumstance of its isolation and the hip culture resulting from its recently modernised market. It was only in the last 15-20 years that the town attained its modern economy by de-industrialising: the fishing and tourism industries as well as its 19-year-old university replaced the agricultural production on which the town was founded. Akureyri holds strong to its rural traditions and comforts while promoting itself on its modern accomplishments. The town, still ignorant of its own obscurity, has developed quite the confused sense of identity.
Climbing up the gradual slope of the mountain backing away from the fjord, the streets of her residential area perhaps best capture Akureyri’s atmosphere. The sidewalk is a bit cracked but it is clean, and while the paint has started to fade or chip around the steps of some of the two-storey houses sloping up the road, they all look quaint and comfortable, just nice enough. When a garden has a fence, it is low and doesn’t hide the weeds.
As a result of the intense criticism the town has received concerning teen drinking during the Halló Akureyri festivities over the decades since the festival began, local authorities in Akureyri cancelled all Verslunarmannahelgi festivities in the summer of 2000. The celebration returned the following year with a repackaged “family-oriented” festival called Ein með Öllu, eager to leave the binge-drinking traditions behind along with the apparently suggestive name. When a crowd of 18,000 visited Akureyri for the weekend this August, the town decided to show the rest of the country just how much of a little city it could be.
After a reported 66 separate drug busts in and around the town (out of 100 reported total throughout the country) festival spokesman Bragi Bergmann described the influx in policing throughout the weekend as the town’s attempt to “send a clear message to drug-fiends: ‘Stay out of Akureyri!’” In response to complaints from many local townspeople concerning several acts of petty vandalism and violence over the weekend, (approximately 30 automobiles were damaged), Bergmann responded that Icelanders are “used to partying hard”, that it was in their blood, citing Egill Skallagrímsson as the nation’s first reported drunken teenager.
The day after the holiday, Bergmann told Morgunblaðið that “[The city of Akureyri] is very proud to have strict supervision on its teens. In this town we have raised a generation that has never gone out into the unknown at an outdoor festival or slept outside for many nights. Our kids and teens come home at night and sleep in their own beds. Surveillance in the campsite was very strict but unfortunately there were a few guests who put a black spot on the festivities with vandalism. Otherwise, we are very happy with the festivities and it went very well.”
A Friendly, Leathery Thrust in the Right Direction
The weekend’s first organised event designated for teens (16+) was a “teen-dance” with Páll Óskar at the KA soccer club on Saturday night. Starting at 23:00, the country’s gay-icon took the stage inside the enormous gymnasium, seven kilometres from downtown, and DJed for four hours for the some three- to four-thousand kids who had managed to navigate their way up the hill. Arriving at around 01:30 I found a mob of over 200 attempting to buy tickets, obviously preferring the drunken spontaneity of fighting their way towards the ticket counter in the rain to buying their tickets on presale at a 500 ISK discount.
Obviously I did too, and by utilising the combined cunning and manoeuvring skills of two of my local Akureyri friends, I managed to secure a ticket in just 30 minutes. Inside the gate around the entrance, hidden from the road by giant Eimskip containers, was an enormous horde crowding the even more enormous ramp and entrance to the centre. The scene outside was standard: everyone was drunk and loud, engaging in your basic inebriated debauchery. Inside it was the same; people were making out, dancing or passing out on the benches opposite the stage. Compared to the previous year, the turn-out was massive, and the enthusiasm was astonishing; the “teen-dance” was more happening than Akureyri’s downtown.
After heading directly for the bathroom, I spent a good 20 minutes standing in the same spot before realising the feat was hopeless. The temporary visit to the well-lit area only confirmed for me that, despite the ban on alcohol inside the gym, everyone was completely wasted. I do not exaggerate, you may quote me: everyone.
Páll Óskar, now three-and-a-half hours into his set, was still thoroughly engaging the audience by strutting around the stage in his black leather pants. While his mixing skills were somewhat lacking, he more than made up for them with an excellent choice of music, and he was perhaps best in his ability to properly gauge the mood of the enormous room at any given moment, capricious as the audience was.
On each side of Páll Óskar stood “bouncers”, average looking local guys in their early 20s wearing a bright orange glow-in-the-dark vest, whose job was essentially to keep people from jumping onto the stage and throwing themselves at the singer. It was at the crowd’s low point that a pair of local guys, recognising that these bouncers’ main power was intimidation, decided to reclaim their power and mess with them a bit. As one of the bouncers took a break from the stage, a kid from the audience sat up on the edge of the stage and waited for the bouncer to ask him to move. When he didn’t, the poor scraggly guy tried his best to push him off, but the attendee kept contorting his body so that he couldn’t get a proper grip until Páll Óskar himself came over and helped carry him offstage to the extreme pleasure of the young man as well as the crowd.
Heading back to his mixing table, Páll Óskar seemed to be absorbing the drunken enthusiasm of the crowd. “Someone asked me whether I wouldn’t play a few of my songs,” he said enthusiastically. “But since I’m up here why don’t I just sing them for you myself?” Páll then launched into a passionate rendition of Ég er eins og ég er, last year’s gay pride anthem, and the crowd shouted along. He threw his arms out behind him, looking up towards the ceiling as if the appreciation from the crowd was raining down from above, and thrust his pelvis three enthusiastic times towards the crowd. By this point people were literally mobbing the stage, pushing each other against the edge as they tried desperately to reach towards Páll Óskar’s lunging pelvis.
He looked over the crowd, the alcohol literally steaming off the sweaty bevy of hot bodies, and yelled as loud as he could, “Halló Akureyri!”
Starting to Like This Place
Around the plaza and outside Café Amor after the dance, people were slowly spilling back into the downtown circle. This was the quintessential example of the late-night festivities. People stood and sat around in groups, slowly condensing and separating, mingling. Most people just wandered. Here everyone seemingly had, and needed, no purpose. There was no hostility, no awkwardness. Everyone was at this point in the same situation, the same mellow inebriated state. A sense of unspoken understanding permeated the evening air.
On one of the benches facing Amor, a boy ushered his drunk and obnoxiously loud girlfriend to a seat. Beside them only a few seconds later, a drunken man sat down, not paying the couple any attention, yet. Noticing him, the boy started to inch slowly away. As the boy turned his back on the man, the girl glared directly at him and in her booming voice yelled out an enthusiastic “Hi!” The drunk turned towards her, introduced himself, and offered her a sip from his flask, which he had decorated, or rather dressed up, to look like a dog. The girl heartily accepted, took a large swig, smiled and then continued on her loud discussion with her boyfriend. The drunk took a swig himself, got up and staggered away.
I sat on the benches with my comrades watching people pass, some too tired or confused to greet us, others stopping merrily and chatting for a moment before going on their way. A group, including a cheerful looking kid of 17, wearing a knit wool hat and nursing an alcohol-infused Sprite bottle, sat down nearby. He took out his cell phone and, glancing down at it, said he was worried because his mom hadn’t called yet. “My curfew for this weekend is four and she usually calls to remind me. I don’t get it, it’s already 4:30.” Then he shrugged, smiled, put his phone away and added, “Not that it matters, Versló is basically over so she can’t really punish me… If she says I can’t go out tomorrow then, like, whatever, it’s Sunday.”
The kids sitting around us, Akureyri locals all between the ages of 17-19, were discussing the merit of Led Zeppelin. A girl with her hair dyed black, wearing a zip-up hoodie from the Dogma store in Reykjavík, was sharing how fantastic she thought the weekend had been. “It’s amazing though, I finished all my vodka after just yesterday. It was insane, I had enough to fill almost four mix bottles.”
The conversation then shifted towards Jimi Hendrix, his drug use, death, and then finally their own drug use and how “prime” it had been during the weekend. My new local friend turned towards me and asked whether I liked living in Reykjavík. I told him I did and he nodded in agreement and then half-turning to his friend, he said, “Yeah I can see that, it’s like how in Akureyri a gram costs between 3,000-3,500 ISK… but I hear that in Reykjavík you can get it for like 1,000-1,500 ISK. I bet in America it’s even better. It’s these small isolated places, you know?” His friend was nodding in agreement.
“But I’ll tell you what,” he continued, “it’s a lot easier in Akureyri. Here everyone already knows each other. I can get hooked up like that,” here, he snapped his fingers. After thinking a moment he added, “I guess that’s what I like about this place.”
The Musky Scent of Legal Partying
It was only after every tired visitor had packed away his tent and rolled out of town the following Monday that Akureyri started to feel small again. The town seemed to have nursed its hangover pretty quickly, but even as the local adults started spilling outside for their normal downtown routines, and as I sat in the sunshine drinking coffee at the Bláa Kannan, things felt unnaturally empty. The streets were littered only with well-dressed tourists, stopping with the cruise ships for a few hours each day. As far as nighttime entertainment goes, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
In a white and conservative-looking, windowless house, Sjallinn sits a little bit apart from the main downtown circle, on the corner across from the ÁTVR (State Liquor Store). Originally built by the Independence Party (Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn) in the 1960s – in 1968 my grandparents met there and in 1981 it burned down only to be rebuilt a year later – the lower floor has been turned into a concert space. It is one of the biggest in town, apart from the KA soccer-club, and houses a small discothèque on the top floor.
Café Amor is perhaps the most popular and, really, the only other, club in town besides Sjallinn. But Sjallinn is nearly impossible to get into or, rather, stay in, when you’re underage. When Verslunarmannahelgi was behind us, Sjallinn represented the freshest alternative to the now dismal downtown scene.
Since the lower floor opens up only when “big” bands come through town, we climbed up the three flights of stairs to the tiny disco, passing the bouncers standing awkwardly on the first landing and a pair of slot machines on the second. On one end of the small dance floor sat four dishevelled leather couches – most of the cushions were either missing, ripped or strangely mangled. On the other side of the room were tables and chairs, pushed up against a wall of mirrors. The DJ stood in a small booth inside the bordering longer wall, sedately bopping with the music while apparently avoiding looking out over the empty dance floor, motionless under a single twirling disco ball.
The three of us did the only thing that seemed natural in this very, very unnatural place. We started dancing. While the kids sitting in the shadows on each end of the floor sat and stared, the DJ immediately picked up and started dancing in his booth. Approaching him, we asked if he could play a certain song, and he nodded in recognition, but then shook his head and pointed to the pile of records in the corner. As if trying to make it up to us, he smiled and turned on the fog machines.
Immediately following this interaction, three heavily intoxicated guys in their early 20s shot from the bar and threw themselves around in the smoke, frequently shouting out “whoo” and “ow-ow” before pulling us into a dance circle. In the centre, with his buddies clapping around him, one of them launched into the robot while trying to demonstrate his pop-and-lock skills, as his friends cheered and hooted enthusiastically.
By this point, the bouncers had moved up the last flight of stairs to stand in the doorway to the disco. Behind the empty bar the bartenders were now watching the dancers, too. A few kids stood up from the tables and started throwing their heads from side to side. Soon the DJ appeared on the floor and began gyrating with everything in sight, only returning to his booth after he had danced with every guy and girl on the floor.
The girls on the floor, moving only in controlled sways and constantly looking around them, quickly tired of dancing and sat out while their male counterparts seemed surprisingly able and willing to let go of all inhibition. Still, we just wanted to dance, and while the DJ had understood that, our dancing companions, maximum eight at a time, hadn’t, and eventually we were practically forced out of the club by their eagerness.
Finally breathing some fresh air, we realised what a heavy weight the reeking desperation had put in the air inside. Then again, it could just have been the smoke machine. I doubt it.
Seeing Things through a Different Pane
The night after our adventure at the discothèque, my local friend called to say that going on the “rúntur” was to be my true initiation back into town. Her cousin had a rare opening in his car and so, naturally, I would “rúnta” with them.
The designation “downtown” is, at night, restricted to half the city’s commercial centre, awkwardly segmented by a circular forum-type plaza. Most of the town’s restaurants and cafés are located here. On this summer Friday, while the practical half, with tourist shops, banks, clothing stores and hotels, sat quietly in the dark, the stretch around Café Amor, Kaffi Akureyri and the late-night food joints was in full-swing. By Akureyri standards, but certainly not by last weekend’s standards, downtown was packed. Most of the people “seeing and being seen” downtown were crammed into cars.
We drove in circles for two hours: Café Amor, Nætursalan, the parking lot of Sparisjóðurinn bank, and again past Amor. Every now and again we’d vary the tour, take a left at Kaffi Akureyri instead of a right, drive past the cheesy nightclub Sjallinn, and then either take the ocean route or head up the hill into the residential area, where the driver could vent his pent-up speed frustration. The purposes of our stops were limited to the acquisition of cigarettes and gasoline. Mostly, we stayed focused and en route, crawling with the long line stretching in front and in back of us on the main stretch.
As we drove around, I was baffled by the simplicity of this pastime. Driving on the rúntur was essentially like taking part in a very minimally animated game. As the cars in the opposite lane passed, we shamelessly stared, taking note of every passenger and gossipy detail suggested by their placement in the car. We were first and foremost collecting information. We were out in the world, but without really having to take part in it. For those acquainted with the base appeal of MySpace, this is its small-town, real-life version. Face-to-face interaction, the kind not involving a window acting as barrier, was extremely rare, even, it seemed, within individual cars. The main attraction was so all-consuming that, within their respective groups, the kids seemed unable to focus on much else. On the rúntur, people talked about the rúntur.
Hence, it was climactic when a pair of guys made the brash decision to stop their cars, and along with them the traffic flow from both directions, ditch their cell phones and indulge in brief face-to-face dialogue. While at first everyone slammed their horns in near unison, it was striking how calm the overall response was. For the full five minutes that this blockade lasted, some 30 cars trapped, not a single person yelled or got out of their vehicle. Everyone had immediately resigned themselves to the circumstances, patiently waiting for the moment to pass, enjoying it in their strange way while they could – or had to.
This exchange was, after all, a golden moment in the game. For those watching a rumour was born, for others it was confirmed and, for those directly involved, a red-carpet moment was achieved. Literally, these boys were enjoying their five minutes of fame and had temporarily become Akureyri’s main topic of discussion.
The rúntur was comforting in its repetition, and somehow continually engaging despite the brevity of its high points. It was big enough so that new developments could occur, but small enough for these developments to remain largely trivial. So, really, it was a lot like Akureyri. Here, kids are kings of their own playground.
It was only around midnight when the cars slowly began to fall out of the line. Finally, making a last circuit, we drove away from the lights of downtown, up the hill past the church, and then north towards the neighbourhood on the fringe of town. Here we rolled down our windows and turned off the music. Finally we haphazardly drifted from one empty street to the next. The darkness seemed to spill into the car through the open windows as we stared out at the sleeping town, as content in its solitude as we were.