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Raiding the Icebox a visit to countries in which I've often thought about living

a pre-mature verdict can't be helped

ICELAND | Wednesday, 14 May 2008 | Views [1083] | Comments [4]

City of Reykjavik

City of Reykjavik

Today is my 5th day in Reykjavik, here's the narrative so far:

I arrived Friday morning and since then have spent my time doing a lot of walking, some sight-seeing, and some cafe-sitting. I've been trying to get over a cold I received courtesy a friend in New York, so I haven't been staying up late. Maybe that's when this town comes to life...

I've been very surprised at how few people I've seen in the streets. On Friday and today one could chalk it up to it being the work week, but Sat-Mon (a religious holiday) didn't bring a visible bustle to the city either. Maybe because it's been cold and partly rainy (a slow drizzle)? Maybe I'm just on the wrong streets? (really, there have been many times when I have literally been the only person in sight) Maybe nobody lives in the city itself, so it's only ever full weekend-night, or in the full swing of tourist season... ah, I could be on to something.

I'm a bit early as tourist season goes, and Reykjavik has been in a development boom for the past two decades. My first morning here I walked out to a path that runs along the bay/harbor (did you know Reykjavik was on the water?) and into the city center and I counted 15 construction cranes. I'm writing this in the city library and across the street a new building is going up. On my bus in from the airport (40 mins southwest of the city) I, at one time, counted a dozen cranes. I picked up the English language pop-culture/what's-happening newspaper, Grapevine, and read an editorial which charged the city with reckless development, and called for a dialogue between city officials, concerned citizens, and artists about self-conscious, sustainable building practices. A lot of sprawl has, well, sprawled out in the past 10-20 years, and with it has gone a lot of the residential population.

I've only been here a few days, but I'd agree that the city planners do need a vision for future development. The area around Reykjavik is extremely raw and beautiful. From the path I mentioned, you can see to the north, across the bay, spiking, snow-stained mountains. The contrast between that view and the cityscape to the south is pretty striking. It's what gives the city its certain mystique. But maintaining that means precisely not overdeveloping, or thoughtlessly developing.

There's a very visible tension in the city between the past and the future - between the tradition of being a fishing city, and the possible future of being a Modern city (the day I got here there was the 2nd part of a conference titled 'What Does It Mean to be a Modern Harbor City'). The Viking museum is pretty far out of town. Traditional architecture (thin strips of wood for the walls, tin for the roof) has been spurned in favor of basalt and lots of glass (the recently built City Hall is the perfect example). There's a very strong feeling of pushing for modernization, without a lot of thought regarding tradition, roots, history. I guess this isn't that unusual, just unusually evident.

This is the first time I've been in a foreign city by myself for more than one day. I've already learned a few things about myself.

I don't like speaking English in countries where it isn't the primary language. This is absurd in Iceland, however, because almost everyone here speaks English (and usually a couple more languages as well). My days have all begun with a trip to the grocery store to buy breakfast-stuffs. If I can help it, I do not say a word other than 'Hi.' The first day I learned the process: the cashier says hi (hi); he asks if you'd like a bag (head nod or shake); he tells you the total (hand him the credit card); he asks if you want your receipt (again, head nod or shake); that's that. It's bizarre of me, I know. I'm embarrassed to admit it.

The other thing I've learned is what type of traveller I am. There are many types: the sight-seer, the adventurer, the hiker/cyclist, the nature-enthusiast, the high-end tourist, the wine-and-diner. I myself am an imposter-citizen type. I like to establish a rhythm and routine. I like to walk the city, not so much to see the sights: monuments, famous buildings, etc., but to get a feel for the city as a whole, and to get, as quickly as a I, away from looking at maps. I like establishing a path. I like finding a few things that I really like, and do them each day. (Maybe this is why I don't like speaking English - it ruins my guise)

My routine has been: wake; walk to the grocery store for breakfast; walk to the path I mentioned and sit on a bench and eat breakfast; walk into town, usually with a destination in mind: a museum, the giant cathedral, a cafe, a park; I sit and read, write, or look at people - I do this for quite a while; walk more; eat; walk more. That's mostly it. Not terribly exciting, but it feels good to do it.

That routine ends tomorrow when I fly to Eglisstadir (on the east side of Iceland), where I'll be for the next two weeks. It's a WWOOF farm. I'm looking forward to it. Like many urban places, I find the people a little chilly: a lot less likely to look you in the eye, say hello, smile, or generally recognize your existence.

Two other quick things that surprised me:

1) Reykjavik is covered in graffiti. COVERED. Some of it is very cool and amazingly done, but the majority of it is just stupid tags. It's really on everything.

2) The streets are strewn with so much trash. So much! Today I saw a group of kids outside the grocery store, and as they were all leaving, two of them threw their milk cartons on the ground. I don't understand. What's ironic is that at the hostel, there is a group of about 20 international students/young adults (18-24 I'd say) that is here for 6 months learning about environmentalism.

Oh, and I've got many pictures, but have had no means of uploading them yet. There will be a ton of graffiti pics, and some pictures of the things I mentioned above: city hall, big cathedral, construction cranes, etc. Hopefully soon they'll be up.

Tags: arrivial, reykjavik



Iceland... I knew you'd get there one day, I hope its as awesome as wikipedia makes it out to be. Anyways, sounds like you're enjoying yourself. Is it hard finding the essential 24 items there. Do they have one store for them, or do you have to go around to different store to get all 24 of them? Look forward to reading the PUOJ more. Call me when you're back in the states.

Hope all is well,

  Matt Careskey May 16, 2008 7:08 AM


wow Matt how exciting for you and we are enjoying hearing all about your great adventures. i know i would have a problem speaking their language, yet alone "spelling" the places your visiting...thank you for putting me on your list of " mail updates" ..(i didn't say blog.) I LOVE YOU AND LOOK FORWARD TO READING MORE..LOVE TO YOU COWPOKE From the BURG. GO PENGUINS GO!!!! we think of you throughout our days...

  aunt anna, and uncle john May 16, 2008 12:50 PM


Woohoo! Blogging!

  Eli May 21, 2008 12:00 PM


i just managed to get my hands on an english language march edition of national geographic, and 4 of the 5 main articles have direct relevance to my life and thoughts:

1) bhutan and gross nationl happiness, this country has long been on my top 2 list of countries to visit (the other one is slovenia)

2) hugetime particle accelerators, science and machines that span multiple countries rule

3) hawaii and epic pacific navigation using the stars, my parents had this as number one fascination point when they said we're going to hawaii as a family two summers ago

4) *where this message becomes relevant: iceland and development. boom. would not be relevant if i hadnt passionately followed your puoj.

  sstolper May 25, 2008 11:27 PM

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