Duty-free attendant: Can I help you gentlemen find anything?
Me: No, I think I’m OK, unless…
Dave: Yes, what do you think of brennivin? How is it?
Duty-free attendant: It is awful. Very, very bad. But since Quentin Tarantino made it famous, everyone has to have it.
Eyes open. Skies are clear. Beautiful morning. Try and move.
Good God I am in bad shape.
Lord knows what time it is, but I have to spend a few hours trying to get out of bed, wrangling with nausea and fatigue. Hopefully I didn’t wake anyone up with the vomiting. There is a (thankfully) empty plastic bag next to my bed, and I’m glad I had the foresight to bring that to bed with me, and didn’t end up suffocating myself on it. Eventually I pull my shit together- what, am I going to lay in bed all day in a foreign country? I already slept through a whale watch I wanted to see. Time to get right.
Much as I expected, the wind has calmed down and we are treated to a beautiful afternoon. First things first, I need food; second, I need a new hat. My Capitals stocking cap might be able to handle the mid-Atlantic winter, but the Icelandic winter defeated it soundly. I need one that will not blow over my eyes and almost get me run over in the street. In the meantime, I need grease. Hangover food.
Following the street sign reading simply ‘Burgerjoint,’ we arrive at Hamborgara Búllan, also right near the harbor, wedged between two streets into a tiny triangle. It is full of Americana-by-way-of-Iceland; makes sense, considering the impact of fifty years of close-quarters interaction. The Air Force operated a major link in the cold war defense out of Keflavík air station, employing thousands of Icelanders over the decades. With the battle lines being drawn for the Cold War, it became readily apparent that Iceland was uniquely situated at a highly strategic point in the north Atlantic, with eyes and ears placed to watch the Soviet military. Sure enough, America and our allies were quick and efficient in roping the newly-independent Iceland into the NATO treaty, despite a conspicuous lack of home-grown armed forces.
There was scarcely time to celebrate the end of the Second World War, to say nothing of Icelandic independence, before the Americans came knocking to warm up for the next one, and I have no doubt that the Soviets made similar entreaties. At one point, the US military sought to open several more bases, including a submarine slip and further atomic bomber bases throughout the Icelandic countryside. Would this have moved the Icelanders even closer to America culturally? Could massive American military presence have become a crutch for the Icelandic economy? As explained in detail by Andri Snær Magnason in his thorough work Dreamland, the presence of higher numbers of American soldiers, and the increased opportunity afforded by easy-to-find jobs supporting them, would likely have served as an economic crutch to the Icelanders, in time becoming a crippling liability. Why make investments in capital and human potential to create more, when high-paying jobs can be had by the hundreds at military facilities? Why innovate, why invest? When the tension eased, as it inevitably would, peace itself would have been a threat to the Icelandic economy. Luckily, this did not come to pass. Look at any place in America, now. What do you find near the military bases? Check-cashing businesses, bars, strip clubs, more of the like. Iceland should be grateful that some of their leaders restricted this involvement.
While some politicians sought to create a sort of ‘Battleship Iceland,’ the prime minister at the time, Ólafur Thors, held firm to the Danish-Icelandic Treaty of Union- the document that granted full autonomy over internal affairs from the Danish crown, signed in 1918. This document explicitly states that Iceland “will have no flag of war,” and hosting a handful of massive military complexes might have contradicted that slightly, more so considering it’s strategic location in the north Atlantic. As it is, American cultural colonialism is prevalent already. Elvis, Madonna, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson all gaze down at us from the walls, contrasting with the period-inspecific classic rock on the stereo. But the burgers were fantastic- fresh, juicy, and greasy as all hell. I had enough left over to mop it up with my fries afterward. Just what the hangover doctor ordered; likely not signed off on by the heart doctor.
We spend a few hours walking up and down Laugevegur, getting acquainted with the place by daylight for when we run it at nighttime. Yes, I’m already feeling re-energized for round two. I finally manage to get a knit wool hat to replace my inadequate stocking cap; this thing was made for the Icelandic winter. The streets bustle until about 5, while the sun continues its long arch behind the horizon out over the ocean, and the sidewalks surreptitiously emptied. On our way back to the hostel, we stop at Vinbuðin, the national liquor chain. The selection is miniscule, at least in comparison to the massive beer stocks back home. I guess I can’t expect a plethora of beers from a tiny island nation with high expense to import, but I’m optimistic that the local brewers know what they’re doing. After stocking up on what beer caught our eyes, and a few more bottles of brennivín, we head back to the hostel. During the down time prior to dinner, we met Stéphanie, a French woman also staying at the hostel. She seems cool enough, unlike the strange American girl we met the other night who abandoned her rental car on a glacier. She accompanies us to a bar called, confusingly, The Icelandic Bar. How anticlimactic.
More culinary slaughter ensues, and I am treated to more whale steaks before me. Only copious amounts of Viking and Thule and Polar beer can salve the pain of moral anguish, and they do. By ten o’clock, we are asked to move to make room for a musician, and the bar slowly adds patrons as we move closer to eleven. Where the hell is everybody? It’s a Saturday night. I had heard that the Icelanders start out late, and drink at home until the later hours. We do that in America, too. But by ten, we’re usually on our way to the bar. Maybe the start time is a function of the closing time, and if last night was any indication, we’re in for another long haul. Maybe the financial meltdown pushed back the starting time from 10PM until midnight. Who can tell?
It’s almost midnight by the time we leave the Bar, and we stroll eastward, headed for the bar that our drunken hot dog-eating friend recommended us. I could care less where we go; I want the full 360-degree Reykjavik nightlife experience. We walk east on Austurstræti, which becomes Bankastræti on the way to Laugevegur. Finally, we find the bar that the drunken hot dog man recommended- Cafe Oliver. In hindsight, I looked it up online:
“If you want to see the beautiful people and soak it all up with cool tunes, this is your place. Be warned, while their mojito is quite tasty, it is not cheap. But plenty of fun and friendly locals. Club trendy semi dress.”
Whatever “club trendy semi dress” is, it’s not me. Nor anyone but Don. He did pack a massive suitcase, so I guess this is not surprising. Severe-looking young men are checking IDs, but gratefully they do not refuse us entry due to wardrobe. We make our way upstairs to the wood-paneled bar, ringed with many low sofas and loose chairs. Big pictures of a winged, blonde angel in a bikini bashing open a champagne bottle ring the entire upstairs, and small groups of Icelanders slowly fill in the gaps in the seating. I order myself another pint and settle in comfortably. I feel devoid of all pretense and pressure to impress, and I like that.
As the night grows longer and louder, and my perspective hazier, our perch grows increasingly crowded. I hear that unmistakable sound behind me- low, raised voices, fast talking- the sounds of trouble. Two Nordic men, one tattooed up his neck, one not, are nose-to-nose and staring deep and menacing into each others’ eyes. Friends try to pull them apart, futilely. Bouncers wade through the crowd, and… nothing happens. They keep staring and talking low. The bouncers stare at them. I keep waiting for the violence to erupt, I mean they are already doing the peacock dance/mountain goat routine, but no, nothing. I figured a place where walking to the bathroom becomes a shoulder-butting show of dominance would get into a fight here and there. But here, maybe they just don’t throw down for stupid bullshit like we do back home. The situation defuses. I turn back after a moment, and they are hugging. Later at the bar, the tattooed one is licking the ear of the non-tattooed one, both laughing uproariously.
With no small amount of satisfaction, I am once again the tallest man in the location. Posting up at the bar in wait of another pint, I squeeze in between the locals, with a few bills in hand. The bartender is another tiny, elven Icelandic girl. There must be two families in this country- one with platinum blonde hair and silver-blue eyes, and another with black hair, and green or blue eyes. For an isolated gene pool of a thousand years, it seems that any and all other physical traits have been weeded out. One such young man, I swear he cannot be out of high school, orders something incomprehensible, and hands the bartender a kind of ID card with a magnetic stripe. She looks at it carefully, and back at him. She shakes her head, and makes a motion with her hand. From out of the thronging crowd, a black-fleeced arm and gloved hand clamps down hard on his shoulder. Another severe face, chiseled out of ice, emerges as its owner. Within seconds, the boy is gone, carted off to parts unknown by this mafiosi/Gestapo bouncer. No one bats an eye.
I guess where violence does not raise their hackles, fake IDs do. Don and Dave later find out that this bar is a popular place with the Reykjavík youth, and they come carrying such fakes in search of party drugs. From the spastic and erratic behavior I see, they must be finding what they came for.
This is about when I lost all concept of time and space.
At some point, Stéphanie retreats back to the hostel, while our corner of the upstairs has become the American corner, packed with students from MIT that we met. For some reason, Americans tend to notice and gravitate toward each other, even subconsciously. Ken, who has been learning about the mechanics and practice of international negotiation, explains that this phenomenon is well documented, and steps must be actively taken against it in multilateral negotiations. Then he turns around and announces to the group that Don is the songwriter for the Black Eyed Peas. Oddly enough, that was found a more believable claim than the truth that he managed a mixed martial arts gym.
I’m starting to take in the scene in snapshots replete with sound and smell and taste, but with no linkages to prior or subsequent events. Battering my way downstairs to use the only bathroom, pushing aside boys with those stupid shutter sunglasses talking excitedly in the corner of the bathroom. Standing in the main dance floor, surrounded and crushed, bouncing up and down to a highly repetitive and catchy pop song. Two girls dancing on what I swore was the DJ table not a few minutes earlier. Back and forth from the bar, losing friends, finding them, losing them again. More frightening bouncers, more coked out behavior, another beer for me, thank you much, I mean takk fyrir.
Walking up the stairs to the American corner, I see Don before me, and clap a friendly hand on his shoulder. He spins around, eyes blazing, fists ready to fire.
“Whoa! What the hell!” I throw my hands up and laugh.
“Goddammit Pete,” he replies, dropping his arms.
We find Ken in the American corner, with much the same countenance and obvious tension as Don. I size him up for a minute. “You look pissed.”
“I swear to God,” he begins, “if I get pushed or shoved one more time…”
I nod my head. “You all want to go?”
“Yes. Fuck yes. I need to get out of here. Fuck this place.” Him and Don are in agreement. Perhaps I should have been looking at this shoulder-butting standard through the perspective of my friends that are not blessed as I am with Viking size. After everyone had paid out and reassembled, I squared my shoulders and bashed my way through the thronging masses outside Oliver. People were still in line to get in at three in the morning.
This was probably going to be our last late night in Iceland; the next morning, our rental car arrives for the second half of our journey. A smarter man than me would be asleep, in order to not sleep through the rental agency bringing the vehicle. Not me. I stand on the sidewalk in Laugevegur, sucking in the early winter air, absorbing the lights, the sounds, and the smell of the chill, salty breeze blowing in from Faxaflói, a few blocks to the north.
I look around for my friends, and I notice they are a few meters down the street from me, running. My first instinct is something along the lines of: shit. What’s gone wrong? Then I see Ken dart between two groups of tall, well-dressed Icelanders, dribbling a soccer ball at his feet. Where he found this soccer ball, I have no clue, but he is handling this ball with surprising skill through the crowds of people. Every few steps, someone comes up to try and take it from him- but somehow, every single time, Ken works some kind of footballing magic and escapes his defender, moving further down the street. I hear people shout, glass break, cars honk… and Ken keeps on going. He crosses Laugevegur in between some cars, and boots the ball right back to Dave. He loses it for a second, passes it back across the cobblestone, in front of another car, back to Ken. At this point, a short girl in a tiny skirt and high heels makes a run at the ball, somehow not losing her feet in the cobblestone. Ken stops, turns a 180, and passes backwards to himself around the girl, who gives up and resumes her evening. Ken, Don, Dave and I carry the ball all the way from Oliver to the Bæjarins Beztu stand. They weaved that ball through several blocks of utter drunken revelry and came out unscathed and victorious. The odds should have been against that.
The guys head back to the room, and I take a walk down to the harbor, as is my wont when I am a bit too drunk to sleep. I know it’s late, but I feel completely safe walking around alone at all hours of the night in this city. In the harbor, the water is as still as glass in the calm night air. Few things give me pause and peace like being by the ocean. I can feel that cold north Atlantic air, possibly fresh from Greenland and the Arctic Circle, fill my lungs as I breathe deep. There are a few lights across the harbor on the spit of land facing south toward Reykjavik, but without that, I get the sensation of staring out into total black infinity. The edge of the world. A few miles farther north, and I’d fall into the deep northern interior, the infinite Arctic expanse, vanishing into wintry nothingness. It was a strange feeling, being face to face with that yawning gap in my senses. The openness frees up your mind to consider other things, unencumbered by the usual limits of time and space. You can consider the infinite and the unrecognizable. You can scratch at the surface of full meaning and reason. Or maybe I’m just drunk again.
I turn back to the hostel, knowing full well that the infinite will be where I left it, and if nothing else, that tiny moment of emptiness and peace is frozen deep into the core of my brain. It makes me smile even today.
Continue: The Gates of Hell