My first impressions of Iceland were not exactly what I anticipated they would be. Before arriving, I had heard about the awe-inspiring natural beauty of this land, and of the exciting atmosphere of its capital city, Reykjavik. However, on the bus ride from the airport to Reykjavik, I was not so much awe-struck as I was curiously mesmerized by the harsh and unfamiliar landscape that whizzed by outside of our windows. It was captivating, but in a strange and barren sort of way. Nowhere were there the waterfalls or jagged cliffs that I had heard so much about. Instead, there was a vast expanse of what appeared to be hardened lava floes, cracked and bubbled up here and there like a poorly installed carpet of dark, undulating rock. The Atlantic Ocean lapped at the edges of this landscape, pooling in ragged bays alongside the shoreline. There were small collections of dreary looking houses, gathered together in what I imagined were tiny fishing villages, and there was an incongruously situated golf course nestled in between the otherwise stark lava rocks. It looked like the surface of the moon, but with water, people and golf.
When the bus rolled into Reykjavik, we were greeted by block after block of grey concrete buildings that lined wide, nondescript roadways. It looked like a warehouse district except for the fact that there were major luxury hotels along the route. There were also old, decrepid tenement buildings of the sort common in the UK. Construction cranes hovered over these neighborhoods indicating that there was a great deal of new development going on. My first thought was, “What an ugly city.”
After checking into our hotel – The Grand Hotel, Reykjavik – we walked toward the downtown area. The walk took us along streets that were almost abandoned. There were very few people, very little traffic, and no visible businesses. There was a great deal of graffiti, but hardly any litter on the streets. I was beginning to wonder what all the hub-bub about Iceland was about until we hit Laugavegur street and entered the city center. Suddenly the place was bustling. There were bookstores, bars, restaurants and cafes. It was starting to feel like the vibrant place that I had heard people talking about. And indeed, over the course of the next eight days, I would come to really appreciate the charm and excitement of Reykjavik.
The occasion for our visit was to attend the 2015 international meeting of the Popular Culture Association. My wife and I were both making presentations on the results of our separate research projects from a previous PCA writer’s workshop that we had attended in New York City in 2013. The conference itself was to last only three days, but we were staying in Iceland for a week, intending to explore this exotic country famous for its waterfalls, puffins, volcanoes and viking heritage.
Iceland turns out to be different from any other place that I have visited, and this explains my initial feelings of disenchantment. There are no descriptions that can adequately prepare you to appreciated the country’s unique mix of the spectacular and the mundane; the high-minded and the weird. The total population of the country is somewhere around 300,000 people with a bit more than a third of them living in Reykjavik. Seven Reykjaviks could fit inside of one San Francisco, and so it is no wonder that the city feels sparsely populated and far from hectic. It took me a while to get used to the laid back pace. Coupled with almost 24 hour sunlight, I felt as if we had forever to wander around and not worry too much about time. I hardly slept while we were there; not because we were rushing from place to place, but because night never forced us indoors. Instead we spent hours wandering about, looking at museums, eating, drinking, listening to bands and relaxing in geothermal hot springs. Despite my initial perplexed impressions, when we were getting ready to leave for home, I felt as if I was turning my back on paradise.
The food we ate in Iceland was, for the most part, really good. We had a couple of early morning meals at a place called Prikid, which is supposed to be one of the oldest restaurants in Iceland. The atmosphere was very comfortable and laid back. Downstairs is a small, dark bar crowded with friendly hipsters, while up the steep and narrow staircase you enter into a dining area with windows overlooking the main street. Rap and rock music played in the background, and the wait staff were all very attentive and good humored. The first day we ate there, both my wife and I had “Truck,” which is a plate of eggs, pancakes, potatoes, bread and bacon. During our second visit I had “The Breakfast of Champions,” which consisted of eggs, bacon, camabert cheese, bread and a cup of skyr, the delicious Icelandic form of yogurt. While it was fairly sedate during the day, when we passed this same place later in the evening, loud rap music blared from the interior and a line of muscle-bound security guards monitored the entryway. These are the two faces of Reykjavik: calm and laid back by day, but loud and full of energy at night.
Seafood was the main fare that we had for our dinners, including Icelandic cod at the Scandinavian Restaurant and Bar, Langostino at Mar, lobster sandwiches from a food truck called The Lobster Hut, and a delicious piece of salmon at Idno. This last dinner was hosted by the conference organizers, bringing together all attendees to socialize and to hear a hilarious talk by Einar Már Gudmundsson, the Icelandic novelist and essayist who wrote Angels of the Universe. All in all, I had no complaints about Icelandic food, though I did not try the boiled puffin or the mink whale, two controversial dishes that apparently are more popular among tourists than locals.
The night life in Reykjavik is very energetic, with the streets, bars and clubs becoming packed with revelers by around 10 or 11 pm. Beer, which was banned until 1989, is very expensive, costing about 9 or 10 dollars a bottle, so it is apparently the Icelandic custom for people to do most of their drinking at home before going out on the town. When they do hit the streets, they are well lubricated and ready for a good time.
Thinking that there was going to be an experimental music performance on the Thursday after our arrival, my wife and I wandered over to Bar 11, a place that would feel familiar to anyone who frequents punk rock or biker bars like the Zeitgeist in San Francisco. The interior walls are all painted black and adorned with pictures of skulls and coffins. The bartenders are all bald men with plenty of tattoos, who nevertheless are friendly and welcoming. When we arrived and asked about the night’s performance, we were informed that it was not experimental music that was on the schedule, but experimental stand-up comedy! I’m not sure how I got those two things mixed up. Maybe because I had (and still have) no idea what constitutes experimental stand-up comedy. As it turns out, the show was in Icelandic, and so neither my wife or I could understand what everyone else was laughing about. Retreating upstairs to a dark corner of the bar and sitting beneath a poster adorned with skulls, we passed the evening talking and listening to a looping tape of songs by X-ray Specs, The Adverts, and other classic punk rock bands. At around 1am in the morning, we wandered out of the bar and made our way along the waterfront back to our hotel. At that time in the morning, it looked like dawn was about to break, and once I fell asleep, it did.
The following Saturday we spent the evening at a bar called Dillon, where we watched three tremendous synth/goth/punk bands perform. The advertised name of the show was Goth Girls Don’t Give a Fuck and it was held in conjunction with Slutwalk, a global event held to protest the idiotic comments of Toronto’s police chief who made a public statement saying that if women didn’t want to be raped, then they shouldn’t dress like sluts. The bands on the bill this night were Antimony, Kælan Mikla, and Börn. Crowded into a tiny, upstairs performance space, the audience gathered around, many of us standing on chairs and grasping onto the rafters in an attempt to catch glimpses of the performers. The onlookers were young and old; there were plenty of tattooed 20 somethings in spiked leather jackets as well as aging, middle-aged punks, some still sporting mohawks and dressed in ripped up clothes. There were also men and women who looked like jocks and business people. It was an interesting mix with no “sluts” in visible attendance! Neither was there any thrashing or slam dancing, although a young woman did fall face first onto the floor after losing her grip on an overhead beam. While all of the music was great, it was Börn that really stole the show. Their energy and emotion were invigorating, even if I couldn’t understand the lyrics. They reminded me of early Siouxie and the Banshees, with the lead singer’s lilting screams and shrieks evoking a feeling of spooky mournfulness and angry outrage. They are now my favorite Icelandic band!
In addition to the nightlife, Reykjavik has a tremendous number of museums and art galleries. We attended a wine and cheese conference reception at the Asmundar Sveinssonar Sculpture Museum, we visited the silly, but educational and fun, Icelandic Saga Museum, and we spent almost an entire morning at the National Museum and the National Art Gallery.
But by far the most memorable – because the most bizzare – museum that we visited was The Icelandic Phallological Museum, which boasts the largest collection of animal penises in the world! We chanced upon this oddity while walking down Laugavegur street and were especially amused by the fact that it is situated next to a store selling bacon wrapped hot dogs. Now that’s cross marketing! The museum is filled with preserved specimens of enormous whale dicks as well as tiny hamster and mouse dicks. There are jars of bear cocks, seal pricks, dolphin dongs, and horse wieners. There is even an elephant shlong that puts most of the other stuff to shame! And while there are partial specimens of human genitalia, the museum is still awaiting the donation of complete human penises from a number of donors, some of whom have promised to hand over the goods before they actually die! What some people won’t do for attention. There is even a movie that has been made, titled The Final Member, that focuses on the strange case of these over-eager donors. I have to admit that my amusement turned to nausea when I began to really think about the reality of someone having his ding-a-ling removed just so that it could forever be displayed in a plexiglass jar in Reykjavik.
There are few existing high-rise buildings in Reykjavik, although it appears that there will soon be a proliferation of them. Along the same stretch of road as the ultramodern Harpa Music Hall there are a number of tall buildings in the process of construction on the waterfront. The rest of the city is low slung, with a great number of brightly painted corrugated metal houses lining the streets. Commanding the city from atop a hill is Hallgrímskirkja, a 73 meter tall concrete Lutheran church, consecrated in 1986, that resembles a space shuttle poised for launch. Taking the elevator to the top of the steeple you get panoramic views of the city, along with a sense of just how small and quaint Reykjavik really is. Out in front is a majestic statue of Lief Erikson given to Iceland by the US in 1930 to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of Iceland’s “Althing,” the world’s oldest parliament. While Protestant Christianity is the most common faith in Iceland, apparently the second largest faith is comprised of Odinists, who worship the old Nordic gods. Wouldn’t it be appropriate, then, to also have statues of Odin, Thor and Loki squaring off with Lief Erikson for an epic battle? That would be cool.
The last place that we spent an extended period of time wandering about in Reykjavik was the Hólavallagr∂r Cemetery. This is a beautiful, well-groomed old place with monuments dating back to the 1800’s. It was an appropriate final destination for our time in the city; a reminder of human finitude amongst the distracting excitement of Reykjavik. What I found especially inviting, but unusual, about the place is how it sits nestled in a grove of birch trees, which offer complete shade as you browse and walk through the rows of graves. Ironically, the rest of the island has been deforested of precisely this variety of tree, and the ones growing here were planted long after the founding of the cemetery. Trees, it turns out, have prospered in a place of dead humans while they have perished where humans live. There is a message there.
The stunning sights and natural scenery outside of Reykjavik still awaited us. But I’ll leave discussion of that for another posting.