sunnudagur, ágúst 21, 2005


Yesterday was menningarnótt, Culture Night, in Reykjavík. It's an all-day event that draws crowds in the tens of thousands, completely shutting down the center of the city to car traffic. The closest American equivalent I can think of is First Night in Boston, with family-oriented events going on all day long. But menningarnótt is in some ways the last holiday of the Icelandic summer, and so is celebrated with commensurate reckless abandon by one and all.

I headed downtown from my place at 3 pm or so, not in time to see the start of the Reykjavík Maraþon, but in time to see some last stragglers finishing the race. However, I did get to see the start of the Waiters' Marathon, with men and women running with trays and balanced glasses of wine, glasses smashing onto the pavement as soon as the starting gun sounded. The number-wearing waiters ran off into the crowd to an unknown destination. Across the square the entire 7-story facade of the Tryggingamiðstöðin insurance building had been covered with a banner making it look like a haunted house. The bottom floor had been completely and ingeniously done to look like the first floor entry to the house. Smaller kids standing across from it eyed the scary structure warily. Bigger kids and their parents waited for admission in a long line that snaked around the block.

Downtown was chock-full of people, and as always in Iceland, kids were everywhere. Many had their faces painted up like tigers or cats or the Icelandic flag. There were food stalls lining the major streets, selling hot dogs and waffles and hot coffee. There were bandstands set up every few blocks of downtown, and concerts going on all day long. I watched a 5-piece Caribbean jazz band perform right outside of the health food store, chips of wood flying off of one drummer's fish scraper like scales.

Nearby, what may be the most carefully tended record store in the world, 12 Tónar, was doing a blazing business. They had slashed the prices on everything in the store by 50% (making most CDs about $19 instead of $38), and it was an orgiastic frenzy of Icelandic music-buying. I picked up some Icelandic riff- & math-rock (Kimono) that'll probably get redirected to my brother and the clinically depressing new album by Icelandic favorites Slowblow.

It was at this point that I met up with one of me Icelandic droogs, fresh from the golf course (and looking it, in some kinda bright red Gavin Green polo shirt number). We ambled around the town together, looking at concerts, talking to his friends at the pottery shop, looking at people. I call this guy "Borgarstjórinn" (the Mayor) because just like my little bro in his college town, this guy knows every third person he sees. And not only does he know them but they all seem to love him in return. So it's impossible to walk more than a few feet without some gladhanding and smiles all around.

We got some food together at Hornið (the Corner restaurant) and he listened patiently while I schooled him on my horrendous week just past. (It's not all fun times in The Land for me, despite the generally upbeat tone of Icelandreport.) But the good pizza and good conversation went a long way to fixin' me up.

Then it was more walking. It seems that most of the attraction of menningarnótt/day is wandering around the downtown, checking out and being checked out, saying "Nei, hæ!" when you see people you know, smiling and waving and putting your sister's kid on your shoulders so he can see the Edith Piaf singer. (But really so he can punch your head, cover your eyes, and generally be rambunctious.)

My friend and I had been talking about Sigur Rós, rehashing concerts we had been to, talking about the band's personalities (he knows some of them from school) and in general crooning about their greatness, and then who should walk by us as we headed back downtown for fireworks but Kjartan and María, who the more diligent readership may remember from the Copenhagen episode. My friend handed Kjartan a beer out of his shopping bag and we all said hello. Being with a native made everything much smoother than my last awkward run-in with musical giants.

At 11 pm the menningarnótt fireworks form the dividing line between the family part of the day and the requisite youth-gone-wild all-night partying, the cap to any good Icelandic celebration. We were back in the potter's shop with the pottery crowd drinking wine when 11 pm snuck up, so we had to run down to the harbor for the show. The entire harbor area was mobbed with people and strollers, a sea of Icelanders. The fireworks started and people cheered and then about halfway through the show the rain started pouring down. And really pouring, something not normal here, drenching people and sending them scurrying into the fluorescent light and damp of downtown fast food joints, packing them into soggy bus shelters and doorways.

Luckily my friend had a party waiting for us, right downtown. We herded up the street in a damp throng of parents and kids and soaking strollers. The host greeted us at the door, threw big towels at us, and poured us wine and steaming mugs of hot cocoa. We sat around in a big circle on the couches and talked. Even though I struggled to follow the conversation, the atmosphere was warm, and when I left I went home glad to know so many good people.


Blogger JB said...

The headline on today's Morgunblaðið newspaper read "One third of Nation downtown". About 90,000 people for the fireworks, it turns out.

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

Yeah I bet it did, there, nutty Jim Withers. Math rock? Redirected? Sounds like something I can handle...and now I am one of the faithful readership, as I get the Copenhagen reference and have read every post now, Emily Post.

-James Withers


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