High time is the folk etymology translation of what seems to be Icelandic key word in summer – hátíð. Hátíð means a festival, festivities, holiday, and there appears to be quite a choice of those all over Iceland as soon as the weather gets a bit friendlier. The majority of these events are children-oriented, but some offer fun for fully grown humans, too.
The second weekend of July you could have, for example, entered the Most Flaming Red-Head contest at the Irish days at Akranes, or, alternatively, travelled up north to watch the traditional Greenlandic drum dance or learn how to skin and carve a seal. The latter took place at Flateyri, a little village in the West Fjords where a four-day festival of Greenlandic culture was organized by Kalak, a Greenland – Iceland friendship association. The chairman of the association, the Greenlander Benedikta Thorsteinsson is, among others things, a former member of the Greenland government living in Iceland.
Flateyri was not chosen because of its location, the organizers hoping the guests might actually catch glimpses of Greenland proper from the fjord shore, but because of the special ties that have been binding the two places for the past seven years. In 1996 a disastrous snow avalanche hit the village, damaging 29 houses and killing 20 people, and Benedikta Thorsteinsson organized fund raising in Greenland to help Flateyri recover from the shock. The festival was to be an opportunity for Greenlanders to see the beautiful and sometimes dangerous landscape and for Icelanders to get acquainted with the culture of their Atlantic neighbours.
Unfortunately, the malicious gods of sea cargo played yet another of their cheeky tricks and the container, carrying genuine Inuit tents, clothes and other equipment, ended up making a grand tour of European ports instead of sitting nicely in front of Vagninn, Flateyri´s number one pub and the ultimate meeting point. It did not seem to have done any major damage to the festival, and the lack of seal skin tents was made up for by the atmosphere. For four days Flateyri became a little melting pot, where Greenlandic, Icelandic and Faeroese elements were mixing with the local Polish population, spiced up by three Americans who are at the moment kayaking around Iceland and stopped by to take part in the kayak competition. Communication was as smooth as ever and whatever feelings may be against the mainland oppressor, the fact of the matter is that the official language of the festival beside Icelandic was Danish, even to such an extent that when one of the music bands addressed the audience in English, there were protesting voices. The look of the village occasionally proved more than my poor confused mind could cope with, and whenever the concentration of Greenlandic flags and people running to and fro in seal skin clothes reached a critical level, I had to give my brain a silent ‚Flateyri, Iceland chant.
The four days offered a variety of events in both kind and provenience, proving there is more to Greenlandic culture than shamans’ humming. The east coast supplied a world-famous traditional drum dancer as well as a rock band on one hand and a choir on the other. The choir among others sang at the Sunday mass, read by the former prime minister of the Greenland government and attended by an incredible number of people, given the wild partying of the night before. From the south of Greenland came a choir that presented traditional Greenlandic group dance, while a music group from Nuuk played traditional Greenlandic as well as African drums plus whatever else they could get their hands on and soon had the reserved Europeans stamping their feet and clapping their hands. The frontman of the group is also a graphic artist with international artistic training background and an exhibition of his works showed Greenlandic art is not necessarily bone carvings over and over.
The Icelandic part of the festival was a powerful argument against the belief that culture in places smaller than Reykjavik is non existent. The village had obviously produced at least two competent song-writers, who have both come to the festival to contribute to the fun. Furthermore, the local doctor not only played the role of a tireless presenter, but turned out to be the director of a prize-winning film and a singer and musician. Two VIP’s native to the area came to give speeches, the minister of agriculture had the audience roaring with laughter at some dirty jokes as well as jokes on local politics (ed. note: who’d have thought he had a sense of humour? Apparently, this is never shown to us city dwellers), while a member of the parliament held a lecture on a hobby horse of his, Iceland – Greenland historical relationships. The visual arts Icelandic counterparts were landscape paintings by a fisherman from Ísafjörður by trade, who first started dabbing in painting in his leisure time on boat.
Flateyri has, of course, as any other decent Icelandic settlement with population in the plurals, a swimming pool, where you could learn Eskimo turns and which the Greenlandic guests took by storm, as pools and swimming are a rare pastime in Greenland and, surprisingly, many Greenlanders actually cannot swim at all. During an afternoon kayak presentation at the harbour, the kayak instructor showed what our poor attempts should really look like, performing Eskimo turns while holding the paddle in ways that simply seemed to contradict human anatomy, or even holding a lit cigarette that did not go off. That it was not just another lame show for dumb tourists was proved by the oohs and aahs the onlooking fellow kayakers uttered.
Having been given mental nutrition, festival guests were not to go physically hungry either. The fact that the monstrous barbecue devices were set up next to a tub with a cute baby seal got me quite worried, but soon a motorboat arrived with a somewhat bigger seal caught in the sea. The seal was dragged to land, and immediately skinned, carved and dissected by the skilled hands of Greenlandic women. The baby seal was left in peace for children to pet; still I think we were quite lucky Madame Bardot was elsewhere.
We were also lucky the rainy weather changed its mind in the end, and last night’s bonfire and open-air concert took place without any emergency relocating. By that time locals, participants and guests had mixed into a homogenous mass, and when the presenter introduced the last song of the night, a piece written by a local songwriter and sort of Flateyri’s national anthem, as “a song everybody knows and can therefore sing along, if there is anybody who does not know it, will they please leave the premises immediately”, even strangers such as me were able to join in the refrain at least.
Greenlandic nights was a festival of bright summer nights, when the sun would only symbolically pop down below the horizon so that there was plenty of time and light for entertainment. There were organized events for sure, but what charmed me most was how people who until then had known little about each other, enjoyed time together. Now and again, I get surprised at the enthusiasm and energy that Icelanders put into organizing fun for themselves. The roads to the West Fjords were teeming with cars that were transporting whole families to places of obscure names and population counts in the tens, because some family holiday or another was held there. So next time you drive in the country, watch out for flags flapping in the summer breeze, the unmistakable sign of such an event – you may end up experiencing a genuine Icelandic hátíð first-hand.