Tuesday, 6 January 2009

So yuh, I went to Iceland

Because I am single, unemployed and living at home with my parents, I've probably squandered more time than is really useful on the retrospective ponderance of Iceland's exact appeal. Not that our short-notice conceived tie-in with the collapse of their economy trip was anything less than marvellous; it's just thinking about it (and having been politely asked by a bunch of Icelanders) I wonder what it is that makes the country - or Reykjavik - a place that people/middle class Brits of my sort of age unquestioningly see as a good thing... I found it quite hard to formulate an answer: yeah I like the bands, and yeah, I like fruity natural phenomena, but there's no way I'd say my principle reasons for wanting to go were the off chance I might be in the same pub as the guy with one eye from Sigur Rós with the prospect of a top notch geyser the next morning.

Nah, all that counts for something, but I'm sure it must for a large part be an issue of exclusivity - it's an isolated place with cool bars, it's pretty pricey, there's possibly the thought that maybe there's something they're not letting on to us about the reasons why there it keeps throwing up so many awesome musicians... and I guess Reykjavik is that weirdest of things, that is to say European new world; it's a hi tech, sophisticated town that's part of the West, but it simply wasn't there in any meaningful form 100 years ago, and neither was the lifestyle that goes on with it - it's the otherness of Europe combined with the otherness of the New World combined with the general mystery of Scandinavia. Or maybe I'm talking shit and people just really do dig those geysers. Anyway, here are some observations. Cherish them. Cherish them close and never let go.

1. Their New Year's Eve is better than our New Year's Eve
Basically, every household in Reykjavik (and I'm fairly sure the country) fires massive fireworks into the sky from about 11.40pm to 12.10am. It's impossible to really capture the sensation in photograph or film, but it's kind of like being trapped in the world's awesomest natural disaster. All of us tried to dazedly explain the crapness of British firework demonstrations to our hosts, who were under the impression we must never have seen fireworks before. While it's a shame ours aren't like that, I suspect if they were we'd either be exterminated by chavs, poisoned by the volume of fumes, or be at the mercy of obscenely wealthy firework cartels. But yeah, go along, there is literally zero way you will be disappointed. Unless you dislike fireworks. That might be a problem.

2. These are not your Tom Dick or Harry fireworks

Oh no. They are only put on sale for four days a year in government-controlled buildings with their own bouncers (they have a uniform, it's a bit Crystal Maze). The reason being they don't want shipping to get confused. The reason shipping might get confused is that for some delightfully insane reason, you can just buy actual ship flares and let them off. They are fucking cool, though after breathing in just a dab of the fumes I was concerned I might have lost the use of a lung.

3. A baby puffin is called a puffling

Which is adorable. And is also the name I will bestow on my firstborn daughter. We were hoping to hang out with some actual puffins, but they're not around at the moment, sadly. When asked where they were, the lady we were quizzing said words to the effect of 'just hanging out in the sea, not doing much'. One evening we contented ourselves by drunkenly persuading a restaurant to let us play with their stuffed puffin. You can see KT flirting with it here. Furthermore a puffin watching expedition to ANGLESEA has been planned.

4. Icelanders are good people. Probably better than you.

Well not YOU, obviously. But, y'know... Er, basically this is what would have happened if we hadn't tapped up some random Icelanders by way of mutual friends. 1. We would not have seen Iceland's number one reggae band (they have to import their singer from Sweden). 2. We would not have seen the most unlikely bill of bands EVER (more of which later). 3. Our New Year's Eve would have consisted of us wandering around the deserted streets of Reykjavik in a very cold fashion, with no alcohol, and no prospect of alcohol until the bars opened at 2am, watching the fireworks go off in the residential part of town, i.e. a great distance away. As it was, Icelandic neo-classical wunderkind Ólafur Arnalds gave us the lowdown on the town's giggery (thrill to an except of his music below, complete with authentic Icelandic TV show), while Andy's acquaintance, the delightful Kristrún Mjöll Frostadóttir (left), invited us to her aunt's house for New Years awesomeness.

5. It is hard to gauge how serious this whole 'economic meltdown' malarkey is

At the insistence of the lovely Ms McDermott, we decided to indulge in some misery tourism and toddle along to a demonstration against, um, I dunno, money or lack thereof. It had a sort of village fete air, only without the nice cakes. We clapped and booed at the appropriate junctures, but it didn't really offer the vicarious adrenaline rush we'd been desperately craving, and as you can see from the picture to the right, it was hideously under attended. Apparently initial demonstrations had attracted as much as 7,000 people (which is a lot for Reykjavik), but I suppose they'd got bored when they realised staging a protest against your own highly relative poverty is probably not really going to achieve much. Kristum said she thought the whole thing had rather peaked with the initial waves of redundancies in the finance sector, and that now most grumbling was from a mix of idiots who'd taken out too much credit and patriots outraged that it no longer cost stinking Brits half their life savings to look at a pint.

6. It is still quite expensive
Like, £3.50 to £4 for a pint, £30 for a litre of schnapps (here modelled by the lovely Laura McDermott, later to be dropped by Andrew '83rd most influential person at Edinburgh' Field), while major tourist things like the Blue Lagoon have their price set against the Euro, so are actually probably more expensive than they would have been six months ago. But I suppose it's basically the price of London now; the fact is we drank an utterly obscene amount, especially young Andy, who claims to have attained "the worst hangover of my life" as a result of NYE, and also claimed he'd never previously vomited the morning after a night out, something not necessarily born out by the three times he did so on the trip. It will be interesting to see how ATP treats him. But the reduced prices did make it survivable - at the weekend Icelanders genuinely don't go clubbing 'til 3am, then boogie their ethereal tits off in cool little cafes that arbitrarily declare themselves clubs at whatever point they so choose. We hung out a moderate amount in the Damon Albarn part-owned Kaffibarinn, almost purely because of said part-ownership, but they did play good music, and we were led to believe it's very exclusive and hard to get into so like, go us. Here is a tip for how to get into a club that gets so busy it generally only lets in celebrities and the beautiful people: go along at about 2.30am. Completely fools them all.

7. There is more to Iceland than Reykjavik and its surrounds

We went to the Westmann Islands and were - at least for the second of our nights there - the only tourists present. They're a little chain most notable for the fact the main island got twatted by a volcano in 1973, burying most of it under ash and lava. This didn't really put the inhabitants off, and the town is pretty much back to normal, aside from the excavation site where they're digging to find out what a 1973 homestead looked like (a measure of their enthusiasm for this project is that they've thus far unearthed the corner of one house). Oh yeah, and the new volcano. Which is awesome: aside from the fact climbing it was probably as close to yomping about a lunar landscape as any of us are going to get (actually I could see Andy somehow wangling it - 'dammit, this shuttle mission needs ARTISTS!'), it also has vents that blast up hot air courtesy of the raging force of nature that will one day probably kill all those suckaz on the island. Adorable. Also the Volcano Cafe in the town does a mean-bordering-on-sadistic White Russian.

8. There is not that much more to Iceland than Reykjavik and its surrounds

Well not in winter. Our hostel roommates on the first night were a trio of enterprising young Germans who informed us they were off for a 200km hike through the middle of the country. Initially we were genuinely humbled at the puniness of our ambitions. At the same time I was a bit curious as to how they were going to do this hike, as I'd read the inland was basically inaccessible at this time of year, plus hiking when there are only 3-4 hours of murky light to go by seems kind of dicey. The Germans informed us it was okay: they had seen the route on Google Earth. Were they regulars at this type of thing? No. But they had - they solemnly informed us - all been in the Scouts. Now, I'm fairly sure the German Scouts is probably at least comparable to the SBS, but I was still a little skeptical. The next day we saw them and asked what had happened to the hike. They answered in puzzled irritation that nobody would drive them to the start of the trail "because they said it was too dangerous and that the only way we could come back was by rescue helicopter". It wasn't clear whether they didn't believe the grizzled Icelandic veterans who'd turned them down for a lift, or if they were simply happy to take their chances. The next day we saw them again. Even their revised trip had been deemed too dangerous. They were looking a bit crestfallen truth be told. We never saw them again... a little part of me hopes they found the icy death they clearly craved.

9. Electric light up tombstones are PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE

We saw a couple of light-up cemetaries... from a distance they look about the most genuinely vulgar thing ever, but up close they're a lot less gaudy for some reason or other, think it's to do with the unicolour and the fact they don't, y'know, flash or play songs. I want one. And I don't mind if it flashes or plays songs.

10. It really shouldn't work
It is genuinely baffling to me how a society so small manages to be entirely functional. There's only 118,000 people in Reykjavik, but the fact they have a full compliment of doctors, TV people, barstaff, people in grocery stores, politicians, a large number of unemployed bankers, not to mention TRANSLATORS, which must occupy shitloads of people... it just seems profoundly unlikely, like something completely fundamental has been missed out, like, I assume there's no military, but there must be something else missing, surely? Hmm. And yet not only does it function in very civilised fashion, but it also throws up this inordinate number of bands. I find it hard to explain, but I will conclude by highlighting one of said bands, who we saw at a dementedly eclectic concert that ran the gamut from good (Mr Arnalds) to 'oh god, how could this happen in this country?' (Iceland's premier rap outfit. I can't remember their name. I don't want to). However, the real discovery was Ultra Mega Techno Bandið Stefan. I believe I shall let their beautiful music speak for itself.

PS. Oh yeah, so we're thinking of going back this summer or next, it sounds like such an entirely different place - puffins! horses! midnight sun! accessible glaciers! - that we'd be FOOLS not to. FOOLS, I say. Join us, if you dare.


Andrew Field said...

To anyone who might have actually read this far, several things:

1) That grainy youtube footage does NO JUSTICE to the 14-year old Ketamin-fuelled disco moomin that spazzed his way through a whole set on the Opera house stage in front of us. It's an overused phrase but put simply THE CHILD MUST BE SEEN TO BE BELIEVED. And even then we weren't sure if he was a collective hallucination brought on by overpriced Schnapps and Methane gas.

2) Is the word he is struggling over throughout that song really Cockpitter? Cockpitter?

3) Enough of your giddy scorn Lukowski. Just you wait for ATP.

Eva said...

Ólafur Arnalds? Get you!