Across Northern Europe: Iceland Gone Wild

On the Icelandic calendar, the first weekend in August is marked with a red pen of hype and expectation. “Its when Iceland stops being Iceland,” one Icelander said. “I like to think its when Iceland is most like Iceland,” said another.

Whatever Iceland is like, this weekend is when Iceland goes camping. The tradition has waned in recent years as the country has become more concentrated in and around Reykjavik and some have grown distasteful of what the weekend has become. What it has become is a dancing, drinking, snogging carnival where the music is repetitive and mediocre and the weather is invariably awful. At least that’s the rap on the Westman Islands, the largest of the country’s meeting places.

“Do you have your condoms?” Jon asked on the ferry Thursday evening as he showed me his. “When the music stops everyone just…”

In point of fact Jon did not utilize the ellipses but instead said the four letter word everyone was saying, many were doing, and everyone was talking about doing all weekend. You can ignore or sensationalize the sex on Westman in August but it will be there anyway. Let’s ignore it for a minute.

Early this morning, with the sun coming up and the festival over I sat in a circle between the assembled tents. To my right was a 21 year old guy who has lived in the U.S. and elsewhere but always come back home. “What is different about Iceland?” he asked me. “Because I always come back and try to figure out what it is but I can’t explain it exactly.” On the strength of five days in the country I couldn’t either.

But I see two forces defining the Icelanders I’ve met: A very strong sense of personal freedom (maybe bordering on entitlement) and a communal sense of closeness seemingly borne of their small population and isolated home.

The ferry docked Thursday evening as the sky lit up in dusky pink. Police were there with drug dogs (and though I heard rumors of ecstasy I never saw anything but alcohol on Westman). The weather was bad so we were barred from the campsite and herded to a gymnasium where we slept on the floor. Across from the gym there was the “Hooker Party,” a reference not to prostitutes but fishermen who hook both fish and women. That’s the joke. Hooker Party. Get it?

Women seem more socially equal to men in Iceland than anywhere I’ve been and the Icelandic men rightly worship their gorgeous partners. But at the same time there’s a certain disrespect or what seems like disrespect. “Icelandic women are the easiest in the world,” Jon mentioned later. I was thankful to him for phrasing it with all quotable words.

“Let’s go find some guys to…” one of the girls I met on the ferry said as we went into the Hooker Party. “Well, if we find some good ones.”

Inside it was wonderful riot. Everyone was drunk and dancing and I thought of Hemingway’s quote that anyone who lives in Paris as a young man can take it with him for the rest of his life. When you’re young and living in Paris you should take a trip to Iceland one August, I thought as I stood there.

The music was unapologetic pop with a bent towards anything that sounds like Bon Jovi’s “Its My Life.” The good thing about recycling the same 20 songs for four days is you get to know the words, or at least the sounds, and belt them out as if you understand any of it.

The dance floor was quite a place for sociological research and you could hear yourself think because the music was actually not that loud. Icelanders get drunk and start pushing each other but they never throw a punch. They push so much because they know no one will punch them back.

I was getting pushed pretty good up near the stage when a kissing couple fell to the floor mid-snog. They regained their feet and continued some of the most ferocious kissing I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing. They were close enough to me that I think our eyelashes may have touched and the girl looked over to me and said with her metal-filled mouth something that I knew meant either, “get the blank away” or “kiss me too.” You can sensationalize it or ignore it but it will be there anyway and soon we were kissing a sloppy, absurd kiss as her boyfriend staggered.

If there was a candy with a very hard, brittle shell and a gooey, melting center it would be the candy that represents what its like to meet an Icelander. People like to cut them slack and say they aren’t standoffish but I say they are. But then that disappears with freakish speed on a ferry or dance floor or campground. Everyone knows everyone on Westman Island and after a couple days it seemed I knew everyone too.

Ten-thousand people gather in this volcanic valley. It’s Iceland’s biggest festival and if the same proportion of Americans showed up in one place there’d be 10 million of them there. But the truth is the festival isn’t that big. Its a field of tents, a couple small stages and more overpriced alcohol than you can shake a condom at.

Icelanders work hard. They don’t go out during the week because they’re too busy working and that must be why they managed to make this crazy piece of land work as a country. It must be why it’s a rich country.

Then on the weekend they party like its a second job and all that somehow fits into who Icelanders are and what that guy wanted to know this morning about what is different about them.

“Got a light?” they would ask me in Icelandic and when I looked back blankly they would translate into English and then continue with, “Do you like Iceland?” The question is so common it’s something of a joke. It’s more common here than anywhere else I’ve been.

“This is the greatest festival in the world,” they would all say when I asked why they were there. And they meant it sincerely and it meant something to them to have it.

In Reykjavik when I told people I was going to Westman they looked at me as if I had bought a ticket to a dirty movie. And it was a kind of dirty movie, where they didn’t put ellipses when they meant a word that starts with “f” and they didn’t pretend they didn’t want to enact that word into a verb (possibly in your tent while you were gone).

It was more than that, too. But not more in a high-minded, important way. Iceland is a place where they work too much and party too hard and have lots of safe sex. That doesn’t make it sound so different than a lot of other places, but it’s the explaining that’s the hard part you know. That’s what you can tell them when you book your ferry next August. You can drop Hemingway’s name too, that always makes it sounds legit. Just doing research, you’ll say, I want to know if I like Iceland.

Previously on Across Northern Europe:

  1. Shining a Light on Iceland
  2. Lonely Love on Iceland

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.

Across Northern Europe: Lonely Love in Iceland

I checked my e-mail yesterday and got that feeling you get when you have a giant crush on someone and they show up in your IN box. Your eyes go to their name and everything else becomes spam and you click on the message like unwrapping a package. You are in a kind of love.

I’m in a kind of love with Marie. She’s the Brit who posted a message on the hostel message board saying she wanted to go to the Westmann Islands with someone. I was very happy to see that message because I wanted that too. So I e-mailed and waited, like a kid passing a note to the cute girl in class. Iceland’s biggest festival crams 10,000 youngsters into a campsite each August and I didn’t want to be there alone

When you’re traveling alone the desire to meet someone is like a hunger. Explaining it to someone who has never traveled alone would be like explaining hunger to someone who has never had an empty belly. Like real hunger, it can make you a little loopy in the head and make everything around you sharper and more real. Then when you no longer feel it, you can’t even really understand what you felt or why you wanted to eat so terribly badly.

When I got home from my long trip I gobbled up people like a castaway survivor. I think there’s a Jack London story where the protagonist makes it through a terribly hungry ordeal and then can’t stop eating once he’s rescued. I was like that for a while too, until finally I realized I couldn’t eat anymore and realized some other things that don’t extend so neatly in this far-extended metaphor.

The thing I like most about traveling is how you have to work just to get through the day. You don’t know where to shop or how to get to town or which bus leaves when. You don’t speak the right language or know the customs or have a favorite restaurant you visit too often. You are engaged in a way you just can’t be at home.

I can’t say I like that feeling of stomach-empty loneliness but I like that I feel something and I love the rush you always get when the cute girl in class passes a note back.

So it was last night and Marie wrote back. We met up on the porch outside the hostel with a little light left in the 11pm sky. It was cold. I sat at the same table where earlier in the night the British couple celebrating their 20th anniversary asked me to snap a picture as they sipped champagne. They were in a different kind of love.

But I’ll settle for Marie and I’s kind right now. We’re going to take the 5.40pm bus to the 2am ferry. We’re going to share some booze and food. We’re in love, Marie and I. We’re never going to speak after Monday, we’re never going to kiss. But I checked my e-mail today and no one made me feel like she did.

Previously on Across Northern Europe: Shining a Light On Iceland

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.

Across Northern Europe: Shining a Light On Iceland

There’s something nice about traveling in Iceland. There are a number of nice things, I’m sure, but one came to mind specifically as soon as I landed. This nice thing is nice if you’re a certain kind of traveler. Namely, the kind who maybe sometimes pretends to be a little poorer than you really are. We’re all that kind of traveler by month two in South Asia. That’s the traveler I was when I chose the 250 baht guesthouse in Bangkok and scoffed at the 500 baht room with aircon. I was pretending to be poor.

But there’s no need to strike a pose in Iceland because, friends, I am poor. On my yearlong trip I didn’t carry a tent and rarely camped but I’m glad I have one now. Even my slab of campsite grass is 520 baht (that’s US$13 if you’re not Thai) and a real roof would have run me about $100. Iceland is expensive, that’s what I’m trying to say. Iceland is small and homogeneous and cold. Those are cliches too. That last list hasn’t proven that true to me so far but the expensive thing is as true as an $80 entree.

Today I went to Gunar Haraldsson, the director of the Institute of Economic Studies at the University of Iceland, and asked him why everything was so expensive. “Because we’re rich,” he informed me.

So that settles that.

You don´t need me to come to Iceland to tell you it’s expensive and you don’t need me here to tell you it’s light all the time, but I guess I just did that too. There are about 20 hours of light each day and it has the effect of making the day very slooooow. It feels like you have time to do so many things, even though everything closes by 6pm and the main things you have to do then are walk around or type in the basement of a coffee shop.

Lonely Planet told me Icelanders are all in bands and believe in fairies.

“That’s Bjork’s fault,” Sevinn Bjornsson told me, blasphemously, today. He’s the editor of Iceland’s English language newspaper, The Grapevine, and he had a bone to pick with the woman who would have put Iceland on the map if it hadn’t already been there all distorted and lonely in the middle of the north Atlantic. He’s sick of tourists asking if Icelanders believe in fairies and assuming they are all in bands. She started that, he said. For the record he has fifteen friends in bands, and one who believes in fairies.

I will now segue from fairies to ferries. They run from the main island to the Westmann Islands and I want to be on one this weekend. On the first weekend in August “all the rules in Iceland change” and “Iceland is not Iceland” according to the girl at the tourist information office. That’s because the whole country goes camping for a long holiday weekend and the most out of control incarnation of the party is out on the Westmann Islands. Ten thousand revelers are expected and most thought to buy a ferry ticket more than two days in advance and won’t — like me — be compelled to make the three hour crossing at 2am.

Except no one goes camping the first weekend in August as it turns out. Not the economics professor, or the editor of the paper, or the girl at the tourist office, or even the girl at reception at my campsite. They all told me the whole thing was just too drunk and out of control these days. “And it usually rains,” Sveinn added.

So to recap: Icelanders don’t believe in fairies or go camping when they’re supposed to. They don’t all belong to bands or look the same. But they charge $8 for a local bus when you don’t have exact change. They charge $11 for a beer. They charge $40 for a ferry in the middle of the night to a campsite where the entire country (or no one at all) may be camping in the rain.

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.