The common story I heard was that hospitable Iceland was named as such to deter further settlers, while merciless Greenland was named to attract settlers. With just under 300,000 people, concentrated largely in the capital city, Reykjavík, Iceland is a country unlike any other in Europe. It has one of the largest remaining wilderness areas, the largest glacier, and rests right atop the mid-Atlantic volcanic ridge, giving Iceland huge possibilities for green energy as well as volcanic apocalypse. This island has almost untold opportunities for the outdoors enthusiast- you name it, they do it. Between that, what promises to be a few nights of liver-punishing partying and all the amenities of a modern city housing a dynamic and progressive society, I think we’ve covered all the bases. Oh yeah, and they all speak impeccable American English. With that, myself and three friends booked a flight out of New York, en route to the Land of Fire and Ice.
Landing at Leifur Eiríksson airport is a rocky and staggeringly vertical affair- no sense of up or down until we are a few meters above the landing lights. By the time we pass through customs and the duty-free liquor store, it is a little past 8AM, and still pitch-dark. I inferred from our landing that the weather is a little rough this morning, but when the last door slides open, I am fully unprepared for the arctic gale that nearly tears the bus ticket from my hands. The howling wind screams one thing into my ears, and no doubt through my companions as well- “Iceland in October?! This is winter!” The roiling gray clouds overhead shoot staccato bursts of rain, raking the land, and as I sit on the bus, all I could think was, Did I possibly pick the worst place on earth for an October trip?
Screw it. I’m here to have fun. We will adapt. As we pull away from the airport, I catch a glimpse at the coast north of Keflavik; the storm is kicking up whitecaps in the harbor, huge gray waves swelling menacingly against jetties and shoreline. A freighter, brightly lit against the ashen skies, is bucking wildly against the sea not far offshore, battling its way eastward. I can feel the cold through the windows, and the trepidation of possibly being wholly unprepared for this country.
From here, we drive into another world. The natural desolation of the 45 minute drive from Keflavik is so complete, so surreal, it defies my earthbound experiences. I feel like a space traveller. Abrupt gray ridges stagger the limited horizon, streaked with snow, while churned-up, volcanic boulders covered in moss fill in these seemingly indefinite spaces. With the gray clouds racing overhead, I immediately get the sense of traveling through another planet. To my left, the seas continue raging; to my right, the hills become mountains, the snow becomes thicker, and the clouds began to thin out, ever so slightly. Yeah, it looks cold, brutal and intense. We’ll make it work, if I get to see land like this up close.
Eventually we arrive in Reykjavík, the only major city in the country, and even that requires an examination of scale- while it contains 200,000 people in the city and its suburbs, this is actually two-thirds of the entire population of Iceland. We arrive at our hostel, fully ready to crash out for a few hours, emerge recharged, rested, ready for battle. I can almost feel that soft bed- after five hours in an unmoving exit-row seat, anything horizontal will put me under within minutes.
“I’m sorry, your rooms won’t be ready until around noon. You can wait down here if you like.”
I stare at the girl working the desk with dead eyes. Not her fault, but she is the messenger nonetheless. Well, what’s one more challenge? We stow our bags and begin exploring. Walking around the city, in quick succession we almost get blown into the harbor, knocked into traffic, and blinded by gravel- all by the wind, which was apparently the worst in recent memory, we later learned. We arrive at the home of parliament, the Alþingi, an older stone building fronted by an open square. Only ten months prior, Icelandic riot police were forced to deploy tear gas and truncheons for the first time since 1949. Not since riots against Iceland joining NATO have the Icelanders expressed political dissatisfaction in such an emphatic way. The kreppa, or financial crisis, brought the masses onto the streets in vast numbers to vent their fury and disgust at their financial situation.
Thousands of protestors banged pots and pans together while barricading the front of the Alþingi (Althingi), forbidding Parliament members from entering. These normally reserved, quiet, well-dressed people, reared up in a full-throated roar against the financial mismanagement that had ruined their national banks, and untold personal accounts as well. It was an unprecedented outpouring of rage by the Icelandic body politic. Even I had noticed the precipitous slide of the krona, losing a huge percentage of its value over the previous year. I can only speculate what the financial fallout is on the day-to-day life of the Icelanders. So far, there’s no boarded-up shops, no panhandlers, no revolutionary graffiti or other signs of widespread dissent. But what goes on under the surface, I cannot know. For now, the square is quiet, peaceful, in marked contrast to the gray clouds bearing overhead on fearsome winds. It looked much the same last January.
When I try to look at the financial meltdown that rocked this society, I find it difficult to unravel. The depth of mismanagement and duplicity boggles the mind- basically, what was hailed as the Icelandic Economic Miracle was nothing but a cruel facade, perpetrated by those who had the most to gain. And while the going was good, everyone bought into it, few questions emerged, the hype was real, only to crumble seemingly all at once. At the moment, Icesave dominates the discussion. This venture of online savings accounts became a major symbol of the kreppa. Offered to Icelanders, Brits and the Dutch, the accounts were guaranteed only for Icelandic savers. When the banks behind them went bust, so did millions of pounds and euros that were not guaranteed for overseas customers. The British and Dutch governments stepped in to repay the money, and now they are pounding at the gates for compensation from Reykjavík, who have balked at the terms of all proposed deals. These deals could overnight saddle every Icelandic man, woman and child, with debts of hundreds of thousands of krona. Concurrently, Iceland is banging on the doors of the International Monetary Fund for loans to see them through the crisis- but they will not loan until Icesave is resolved. Round and round we go.
Considering the placid and peaceable nature of Icelandic politics and people, the ‘revolution’ was seen as a shock to most commentators. Perhaps it was seen as a portent of things to come- a highly educated, upwardly-mobile polity that had its dreams thoroughly dismantled in one fell swoop, and was shocked awake all at once. Will this era of engagement last? With the ‘pots and pans revolution‘ only a year in the books, I read that the National Museum has created an in-depth exhibit of those tense days. It will center on donated and rescued items from the protests- signs, placards, leaflets, and obviously some cookware. But when you consider that not even a year on, the detritus of this movement is already consigned to a museum… can there be a more potent symbol that the movement has become ossified, static, irrelevant? Is the most base demand of any revolution- holding the perpetrators of such popularly offending crimes accountable– even possible in such a situation? Many of these business and banking leaders have taken their wealth and fled the country, or moved into parallel positions of other industries. Sounds rather familiar; I guess that iron triangle of business-lobbying-government has been successful worldwide.
We stagger through the mid-morning streets, eat a burger, try some of our limited Icelandic. Eventually, our rooms open. Sleep takes us without a fight. I curl up on the bottom bunk and fade off, the gray clouds still racing over the Reykjanes peninsula, wind howling through streets, rain spattering the windows.
GOOD EVENING WORLD
“Then Útgarð-Loki asked Thór which of his accomplishments he would display before them. Thór replied he would most willingly engage in a drinking contest with someone. The horn was brought to Thor and Útgarð-Loki said the horn is considered to be well drunk if it can be emptied in a single draught, but some people drain it in two though no one is such a wretched drinker that he can not empty it in three.”
-The Deluding of Gylfi, Prose Edda
By the time we awaken, four more Americans have taken up residence in our ten-bed shared room- two engineering students from New Hampshire, and two Air Force servicemen in town from Ramstein. They all seem normal, so we invite them to eat with us, braving the storm en route to the famous Icelandic weekend party- the runtúr, an insane pub crawl that lasts from midnight until sunrise. We proceed to a restaurant that, while following a Spanish tapas format, uses strictly Icelandic ingredients. While my significantly more predatory friends tuck into minke whale (possibly endangered) and puffin (definitely adorable), I stay a little more within the realms of familiarity, and was rewarded with some of the richest, freshest seafood I have ever tasted- sea trout, baby shrimp, scallops, all likely pulled right off the boat. Thick, rich chocolate cake with cloudberry for desert. Viking ale throughout, with good company, anticipation and a world of possibilities.
Completely satisfied, we lean headlong into the vicious wind two blocks back to the hostel, settling into the loft of the kitchen to begin the festivities. Dave had purchased a small bottle of brennivín, the ‘Black Death,’ at the Keflavik duty free shop. With the legalization of alcohol in Iceland, the state had placed an intimidating black label on the bottle in order to deter its purchase. Lesson one in economics: if you don’t want people to buy it, tax the hell out of it. Iceland did not do this. So, with it’s cheap price and potency, brennivín became associated with alcoholics in the common parlance. That and dumbassed tourists, obviously; it’s reputation preceded itself, and we had to have some. Pouring a small amount into glasses, myself, Ken and Dave take the shot… and discover that either a.) the hype did not live up to the reality, or b.) I am way more badass than I thought. We all found it rather delicious and thankfully potent. We down a few shots, top it off with some tallboys of Gull and Polar Beer, getting the motor started, the guts warmed, and the nerves steeled for weather and runtúr.
The wind and rain taper off as the night goes on, but it still chills our exposed skin out on the town. People are beginning to mill about the streets, wandering from one bar to the next. Meanwhile, we don’t know where to go. We stand around in the bitter cold, each gust removing a little bit more of the Brennivín buzz, deciding where to go in a city we don’t know. After a brief stop in a bar playing a hockey game (do I really have to go to Iceland to see NHL hockey in a bar?), the streets are full-on thronging with drunk people; the peak of the rúntur is near. We stroll up Laugevegur, heading east up the hill, scoping out various locations to stop in.
We turn back and go to a full-on dance club. I do not like dance clubs. I do not dance. But I learned something that night- let me pay for my beers in coins, hand over fist, rapidly and easily, and I just might end up dancing my ass off all night. It was easy; I mean, I hear all the songs back in the States anyway.
I learned something else. Icelanders have very differing notions of personal space. Namely, if you are standing in the way of someone’s direct line to the bathroom, they will shove you the fuck out of the way. More than once, girls no more than five and a half feet tall, these little elven Icelandic girls, would throw a vicious elbow to my side that would make Claude Lemieux cringe. Back home, that’s the easiest way to start a fight when you’re out on the town- you keep your space, and give people theirs. But here it is a constant shoulder-butting Viking battle for dominance, like mountain goats. Seeing as I’m still the tallest person in the room, I start pushing people out of my way en route to the can. No reactions. Social experiment concluded: I can get away with this. No one cares or notices.
The haze has descended upon my skull. Gull and Tuborg bottles, brennivín shots, pints of Viking… it’s all sloshing around my head by now. This is the peak of the rúntur by now. Hundreds of young men and women weave throughout the streets and sidewalks, between the cars, shouting at each other in a cacophany of various Germanic derivations; you can almost smell the alcohol and hormones flowing through the streets. I have never seen a bacchanalian anarchy like this in my life. There are no cops to be seen. There are no fights. Everyone is here to have fun, and it is a beautiful thing.
Considering the fact that we aim to do it again tomorrow, it is time to go home. But not until we hit Bæjarins Beztu hot dog stand, the aptly named City’s Best, where the hotdogs are prepared in no less than 10 seconds by the twenty-four hour attendants. The Icelandic hot dog is quite unique. It has a very satisfying snap to the casing. It’s covered with sweet mustard, remoulade, both fresh and crunchy onions. Like any place the world over that serves quick, tasty food along heavy foot traffic and open all night, it is a magnet for drunken revelers. As I pick up my hot dogs, I notice Don in conversation with a local.
“Hell, he’s Swedish!” he says, pointing to me.
The Icelander opens his eyes wide, but fixes them somewhere around my knees. “Swedish!”
“No, no. American.” I reply quickly, not wanting to stumble into some unknown Icelandic-Swedish beef.
Don takes control of the conversation. “OK, where do we go to find some sluts?” I choke on my hot dog a bit, laughing at his forwardness.
“This is where you go,” he replies, leaning back on the wooden bench, stretching. “Up there,” he points up Laugevegur, “there is a place called Oliver. You must go there. Just go on dance floor and speak English, the girls will open their pussies for you!” I choke a little bit more.
“Just right up there?”
“Yes,” he replies, and still has made no eye contact with anyone. “Just go there and you will see.”
Is this reliable information? Who cares- should be good for some hilarity either way. Don replies, “Thank you good sir. Have a good night.” As we walk away, the drunken local calls out after us.
“If you can’t get laid in Iceland, you are retarded!”
I only heard that part in the retelling; by now, I’m on my way to another world of alcoholic spins and digestive turmoil. Cue the blackout. Next thing I know, I’m staggering from my bed to the toilet, and the water smells like sulfurous shit as I stick my face in it. Blackout resume.