Pale As Hail Gets Festive

What’s fun is to move to a new country during a national holiday. We landed, slept in too late, and found out we were supposed to be celebrating. Last Saturday was Menningarnótt, Culture Night. It’s a holiday meant to combine modern culture and past heritage. We were told by our Icelandic friends that people would open up their houses on this day to show off their lifestyle and give you food. Intrigued by the discovery of new cultural traditions, and swayed by the promise of free food, my husband and I trekked downtown for our first Culture Night. 

Over 100,000 people, about 1/3 the population of Iceland, fills the streets of Reykjavik on Culture Night. There are concerts, art exhibits, and activities throughout the city. That all seemed great. But Christian and I found a listed event that was SO us: a music playing shed.  And that’s all there is to it. We had read about this shed in some backyard that was going to be playing music. And we had to go. The event page described a useful toolshed who did not seem to be spreading enough joy to the public during the rest of the year. And it was definitely not getting the recognition it deserved. It was literally a registered event, Music Playing Shed. We walked up and down main streets and through back alleys attempting to read our google maps correctly and find our music shed. We passed a DJ and dance space outside, complete with a disco ball hanging from a crane that was being used for nearby construction. We counted dozens of sweet smelling cotton candy stands, only choosing not to get one because the pouring rain seemed to be disintegrating the candy before it had a chance to enter your mouth. The weather did not deter us from our course. We closed our eyes to distractions like free coffee/cake stands, “real” American hamburger booths, and (for me personally) the sales at every vintage thrift shop, until we climbed a hill of colorful houses and guided by a skunk-like smell and reggie music, found our shed. We ducked under a small alcove and walked into a friendly neighbor’s backyard to find the event. A small 6’x6’ green shed with a boom box on top. The instructions said to go inside the shed. But there was a lot of smoke pouring out of the shed. We walked away.  

By 11pm all the concerts were winding down and the massive and overly-polite if not overly-drunk crowd moved to the harbor for the firework show. If I had chosen to move to Iceland just for that show, it would have been enough. It was “totally forget about the fact that your not-yet-paid-off iPhone 6 died in the rain that day” good. I am not a fireworks fan. I’m impressed by them, but typically from afar. I don’t need fireworks to feel like I’ve had a good New Years or 4th of July. But that’s because America has not yet figured out how to properly entertain fans with fireworks. Sure, holidays in the States have fantastic shows. They pour lots of money into an entertaining and large performance. What America is missing is something that Icelandic fireworks have mastered, the element of surprise. While we faced the harbor waiting for the sparks to fly over the ocean, the Art Museum behind us burst into flames. “Who would want to attack Iceland??” I think as my life flashes before my eyes and the building behind me goes up in flames. That is, until I see the flames shoot into the sky right over my head. That’s right. They were fireworks. And they go RIGHT over your head. They shot from the harbor, buildings, the under-construction parking lot, all to land so close to your head you think you’re going to lose it. That’s the other thing Icelanders have figured out in firework entertainment; safety is not priority. Fireworks are priority. 

Reykjavik Fireworks
Menningarnott Fireworks

Culture Night was the kick-off of Icelandic introductions. Since then we have found a magic in driving around and stumbling across small city fairs. Exactly a week after Menningarnótt we drove into Mosfellsbær and made a quick exit the wrong way out of a round about because we saw balloons. Because we are six year olds with a drivers license. Everywhere there were streamers and pink balloons. After following the decorations we saw the smallest main street with an old swimming pool. For those of you who know the band Sigur Ros, this is where their old studio was, in the swimming pool. We parked our car beside a nearby waterfall (you think I’m kidding) and walked to the town. Huge events like Culture Night remind me that I am now living in the capitol city of a country. But walking through the two dozen booths in Mosfellsbær filled with home made knitting, nature-made candles, and enough dried fish to feed a viking for a year, reminded me that I am in Iceland. A culture uniquely close. Small enough we are already starting to recognize people at events. With landscapes large enough to remind us how vastly unique this land is. And a people who are brave, because I saw a young kid eat a lamb’s face for lunch and he didn’t even hesitate.