Reykjavík was once a quiet city.
In 2008—the year I first visited, during the economic collapse—the tourism boom was just beginning. You could walking the length of Laugavegur and pass maybe five people the entire way. On weeknights, bars were quiet, and foreigners—known locally as “útlendingar,” or “outlanders” in English—were the object of much interest. It wasn’t unusual to find yourself penned into a corner as people threw curious questions your way: “What are you doing here? Where are you from? What do you do?”
Today, those days are long gone. Reykvíkingar shun tourists as much as possible, more concerned with bypassing the slow-walking, raincoat-clad, “oh my gahhhhhd would you LOOK at that cute sweater”-exclaiming masses on their way to work. Understandably so: tourism has impacted local life on many levels. The bars are packed, restaurants are full, supermarket and post office queues are swollen, and drivers have to constantly be on the lookout for lemming-like leaps into the road from Gore-texed amateur photographers.
In terms of that curiosity I experienced in 2008, the tables have turned completely. Now, it’s the searching, curious eyes of the tourists that rake across the faces of local residents, trying to soak up every detail with the heightened, hungry attention of someone in a state of bedazzled holiday wonderment.
And as a result, locals—lesser-spotted Icelanders, especially—have become de-facto actors in an ongoing production called Reykjavík Streetlife. Locals are now exotic creatures in a never-ending downtown tourist safari. And if you live in the tourism crucible of Miðbærinn, you might start to feel ground down by the staring; worn thin by the mental effort of keeping your head down to avoid being in ten photographs before you’ve even had morning coffee.
It’s enough to make you wonder about the wear and tear of this heavy attention on the psychological environment of the city—if, along with eroding peace and privacy, it might start to wear away the corners of the buildings themselves.