I once heard of a woman who every Tuesday brought her husband breakfast in bed, just for the hell of it, just because they’d brushed their teeth at the same sink for so many years. Then one day there was nowhere to bring breakfast. Turned out her husband had a secret poker problem, and he had gambled the house away.
This happens to have been Iceland’s fate, too, three years ago. Things had been humming along in the country of 300,000 or so—remarkable wealth, plentiful green energy, that Zeppelin song in 1970. Then the global financial crisis jammed the credit-heavy nation’s economy with dynamite. There were riots and reports of suicides. When I roll into Reykjavik, it is just a few days after a multinational insurance company has declared Iceland the riskiest investment of any Western nation. Courageously, I invest in a room at the Downtown Hostel.
I should nap after my red-eye flight, but I’m too curious. What does it look like, a place that has lost everything? I roam the narrow streets, then the gray waterfront. I jump a cemetery wall to roam among the Sigurðardóttirs and Bryndísarsons. The city, muted in pale September light, has a hunkering-down-for-the-winter vibe; the corrugated homes look somehow provisional. I’m trying to put a picture to all that happened here, but collapse is always abstract when you’re outside the rubble. That’s when the idea hits. Icelanders trusted their futures to institutions beyond their control and got screwed. What if I trust my future to Icelanders? Instead of making my own decisions, I’ll defer entirely to locals for the length of my stay, a six-day trust fall.
When you haven’t slept in 24 hours, hokey ideas feel sturdy. Anyway, I’ve already locked in on some young creatures entering an unmarked door. Hoping for a bar and not a memorial service or cult meeting, I follow them in.
Bar! I’m surrounded at once by architectural hair and incomprehensible chatter. Icelandic sounds like Swedish with a sprinkling of gibberish. But within an hour I’ve cozied up to some musician types, who gamely switch to English. We discuss Icelandic music. Valiantly, I refrain from mentioning Björk, whose name presumably rings in the ears of every Icelander dawn till dusk. Indeed I would not drop the B-word all week. My reward, two beers later, is the kind of big-picture conversation travelers hope for.
“It’s … it’s impossible to say what the fuck is happening here,” a psychology student says.
“Nobody knows what next year will be like, not to mention 10 years from now,” his designer friend adds, then smiles darkly. “We know what to do on Friday night, though.”
This is the first of 4,000 allusions to Reykjavik’s legendary weekend party scene I’ll hear during my visit: the Europeans swooping in to partake, the hordes carousing till breakfast, the broken glass coating the streets. Lest I think the designer is being rhetorical, he proceeds to list three bars, two clubs, and a beach party worthy of my Friday, plus a concert tonight I shouldn’t miss. (I don’t. The band is Borko. I would marry the trombonist dude.)
So it goes. The next day a bus driver directs me to eat a certain lobster soup for lunch. The soup cook convinces me to backstroke in a steamy thermal pool that afternoon. A grandmother at the pool dispatches me for a wander outside the capital the next morning, where I behold the ghostly, mossy, lunar landscape. (There aren’t many real woods in this country. If you’re ever lost in an Iceland forest, the joke goes, stand up.) Soon after I’ve received another tip, a small horse is beneath me. The beasts shrank seven centuries ago to survive a cold snap. Their hair hangs in their eyes in the manner of teen idols.
Like a baleen whale trawling for krill, I drift through this Kentucky-size island inhaling all the information I can. A hundred years ago the country had the population of a Rolling Stones concert, I learn. It’s home to more writers and artists per capita than anywhere else on the planet. There’s no army here, but sportingly, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Iceland joined George W. Bush’s Coalition of the Willing—by sending a single press aide. (Inevitable rallying cry: “Bring home the troop!”)
I also learn you can become so enthralled by the island that you stop sleeping. But bleariness scarcely registers in a nation that is naturally trippy. If the U.S. landscape is a Budweiser, Iceland is a fistful of acid, administered by an ancient farmer atop a glacier atop a volcano populated by elves. The freakiest Björk album sounds ordinary here.
Meanwhile a more pedestrian theme keeps cropping up.
“Be sure to stay for Friday night,” my waiter advises me in a fit of Icelandic pride, having watched me polish off the minke whale a schoolteacher ordered me to eat. (Not a total trust fall there. I googled furiously until I was convinced that minke numbers are safe. Tastes like steak, turns out. I would marry it.)
What’s with the Friday thing? Maybe it’s the telephone pole Icelanders cling to in their storm. Or maybe it’s just really freaking fun. It is hard to make sense of anything in a realm forged by insane Vikings, who, rather than cough up a bit more in taxes, opted to sail into dark nothingness and founded a civilization in the frigid shadows of massive volcanoes.
I suppose they also wanted something bigger—to choose their destiny. It’s an impulse I appreciate when, at last, Friday night rolls around. Delirious from sleeplessness, I start the evening by hitching a ride to an empty beach, only to discover I had my coordinates wrong. I walk miles in the cold to find civilization again and run into some young people I met earlier in the week. They produce minke-size vodka bottles. By 11 p.m. we are dancing at the cheesiest gay club in the North Atlantic. More vodka.
I’d already spent a few nights at Bakkus, a cozily grimy dive bar set off from the main drag. I haul our crew back there. Drinking and dancing, drinking and dancing. Later we debate what time it is—three? four?—when at last we notice. She’s sitting at a small table in the middle of the room, in a clearing of sorts, as a unicorn might. It is, simply, Björk.
A person could say a great deal about Iceland’s most famous pop star, but I’ll restrict myself to the answers I later provide my wife: 1. Nope, left her alone. 2. Afraid so, in a heartbeat.
The former Sugarcube is but an interlude. We’re on the street again, and time starts jerking around irresponsibly: I’m yanked into Kaffibarinn, a crowded bar apparently co-owned by the singer from Blur. Next I’m in a cramped patio area talking with a tall fellow with wavy hair. He is telling me about … Hegel? I lose the thread. That’s when he calls a friend over and pulls an object from his jacket pocket.
He pours something brown and dirtlike onto the backs of our hands. I demur, but he smells weakness and we snort the snuff.
An icy wind whips through the patio, then through my spinning brain. I touch my nose and my fingers are bloody. The friend wraps more of the stuff in toilet paper. He’s laughing, pulling my upper lip out, tucking this bundle against my gums. Put my future in their hands. My pledge has gone blurry. More pressingly, my future and also my mouth—and likely my brain—are in the hands of a stranger who carries around Charmin.
“When you have ___ you must drink ___!” wavy hair bellows. I do not understand the words, but surely they’re evil. His friend claps me on the shoulder and we stagger back inside.
Drink this. Something syrupy. Drink this. Clear and bracing. The dirtlike stuff swims around the Superfund site that is my mouth. I spit. No more, I’m done. More! No more. Wavy hair is shoving us toward the door, which keeps jumping around the room, and he’s shouting at someone else, and then it just happens—I’m running. I’m a Viking fleeing oppression, sailing toward uncertain freedom, peril all around but also liberation. I’m on the street, passing bars, bookshops, minke plates stacked for tomorrow. I’m a grown-up and I’m running away. There is shame in flight, of course, but gloriousness, too. I’m laughing.
Bits of dawn poke through the night sky. The next day I won’t wake till 2 p.m., somehow having found my bed, somehow having finally slept. I’ll watch short films on a stranger’s couch later—more trust falling. But for now I’m simply flying down the streets, and a voice from within, an internal trust fall, says close your eyes. Surely they’re shut no more than a few seconds at a time, but in these bursts, what lies ahead is mystery. I do not regard this as a metaphor for Iceland pushing uncertainly ahead, future unknown. It’s just me, here turning left up an alley, and then maybe left again. A
This appeared in the May/June 2012 issue. Photo by Justin Fantl. Watch a video of Iceland from atop a pony.
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