Saturday, April 07, 2007

Reykjavik Part 3 of N: Before the Memory Fades

The day after the encounter with the drunk Swedes and the drunk Icelanders we planned to make a serious effort to see the Northern Lights, but that wasn't going to happen until nighttime. We were there at the tail-end of winter, and it got dark between 7-8, so it was definitely not round-the-clock darkness time.

We started off at Siggi Hall, where breakfast was free and consisted of an assortment of breads and cheeses, boiled eggs, fruit, smoked salmon, and more skyr. We sat near a window and watched people stumble home from the night of drunken revelry.

We marvelled at this as while food in Iceland is expensive, liquor is even more so. Icelanders explained to us a lot of pre-loading happens before people head out for the evening. We also heard some grumbling as to the price of a dinner in Reykjavik from natives. A little digging around on the intarnets (especially this site, 'Statistics Iceland') shows the average income in Iceland for 2005 was ~3.1 million ISK, somewhere in the neighborhood of $45,000 (also we find women's average income is 63.7% of men's - this is up from 57% in 1998 though). So things are expensive in Iceland. On the flip side, unemployment is 3%. Also, and though this is less easy to quantify, Iceland is said to be one of the happiest nations around. Journalist Eric Weiner attributes this in part to a culture that embraces risk taking and doesn't stigmatize failure. Maybe it's the sense of independence that comes from being self-reliant combined with the benefit of having the North Atlantic to separate you from pesky neighbors.

By the way, here's a blog (Iceland Report) by a guy who moved from Boston to Iceland, and must be one of the happiest people on Earth. He notes that often American tourists will ask him why Icelanders are so happy, but then will try to refute any answer he offers:

I have had now had variations of this conversation (about why Icelanders are happy) so many times with American visitors that I try to ensure the topic never comes up.

So, when in Iceland, resist the urge to debunk their happiness (other topics to avoid, I am told: elves/hidden folk and Vikings.)

Anyhow, much exploration of Reykjavik happened. We saw the famous babies left in strollers parked outside stores. They were cute and content. We saw a couple young graffiti artists headed out to do some work, pens in hands. We saw some other graffiti artists who'd been busted washing a storefront under the supervision of an older guy. We checked out the Viking Ship sculpture near the harbor, which begs to be climbed up on. We had hummus and coffee at a cafe that doubles as an anarchist bookstore and library. The shelves were full of back issues of Anarchy magazine and various publications by Noam Chomsky. A flyer for a punk rock show featured Condoleeza Rice shouting something in Icelandic in a talk balloon. I picked up a pamphlet in Icelandic featuring a cute cartoon bunny holding a monkey wrench on the cover.

We went to the semi-famous KaffeeBarinn. This is the bar partially owned by the Gorilla's (ex-Blur guy) Damon Albarn, but that's a bit of a joke. Being a Bloomington resident, I've probably eaten at an Arby's partially owned by John Mellencamp, and it wasn't a big deal. I got served a Big Beef 'n' Cheddar by Henry Lee 'Wish I had A Girl that walked like that, oh yeah' Summer, and that also was not a big deal. But, being a fan of some Icelandic musicians (Bjork, Sigur Ros, GusGus, probably others) I had to check the place out. Outside, the American photographer from the bus ride from Keflavik was taking pictures of some guy who looked like Cold Play's Dad. I have no idea who he was, but judging by the number of pictures taken, he must have been somewhat famous or wealthy. Perhaps he bought out Damon Albarn's share. The woman from the bus was there too. It was underwhelming, but of course it was still daytime. It's quite small inside, and people were hanging out doing the lap top thing. We had coffees and went on to the next thing.

We found a used-record store. I had to check that out, and found a bewildering assortment of CDs by regional bands I'd never heard of. They also had American stuff, including DVDs of the forgotten 2000 Eminem movie 'Da Hip Hop Witch' and the movie version of the video game Doom (a local laughed and told us 'It sucks.' when I picked it up out of curiosity). I pondered but did not purchase a book on Meteorology written in Icelandic. My wife ended up picking up a Eurythmics CD we'd never heard of (In The Garden) for 500 ISK ($7.50). The shop owner had a turntable near the register and was playing 'Abbey Road' on vinyl. In the back was a room behind a curtain, where they had all the porn, which possibly kept the place in business, God bless it.

Following dinner at Tivoli (featuring inattentive wait staff, but good food - a scallops/mussells/fish and pasta dish in my case with a Pinotage and some Creme Brulee), it was time for our Northern Lights Excursion, but first we were to check out the ghost story tour in a building which used to be a warehouse where frozen fish was stored. Our tour guide, Brahin or Ibrahim (I wasn't sure) picked us up at the hotel and we left Reykjavik. More in the next installment.

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