Reykjavík on Display
As if in a dream, I'm being pulled into a graffiti-clad alleyway, lured by the sound of electronic music and someone singing...
Curious, I wonder – could the voice belong to Iceland's most famous musician?
It's my first day in Reykjavík and I'm walking off the jetlag, checking out the street scene and taking photographs. For the past ten minutes, however, I've been distracted by this Björk-like siren, listening to her voice reverberate off the walls of the houses and small shops in Iceland's capital city.
The music gets louder as the colorfully tagged alley yields to a large courtyard where every surface but the scraggly grass has been covered by an explosion of exuberant sprays, flourishes, and cartoons. It is as if the buildings had all offered up their backsides for a frenzy of tattooing, and the resulting urban wallpapering is a feast of artistic expression and eye candy.
I follow the gaze of the people in the crowd, sitting in small clusters, shielding their eyes from the sun, as they stare up at a young man and two women – one of whom is wearing a simple wedding gown – on the roof of a one-story building.
It's not Björk and no one's getting married, but they are the source of the music that has drawn me here – a keyboardist, a clarinet player, and a slim wisp of a blonde who, in her white dress, appears to be levitating as she sings – a phenomenon not entirely surprising in a country often described as 'surreal.'
The mood here is one of happy community.
On the grass in front of me, a gaggle of fashionistas sits in a semi-circle, chatting, laughing, making beaded bracelets and enjoying the sun, half empty beer bottles beside them.
A wide concrete swath cuts through the middle of the area, going nowhere, an unfinished thought.
And then half a dozen teenage girls, dressed in cut-offs, black tights, and red t-shirts with the words "Boogie Down Reykjavík" take over the space, gyrating provocatively to the music...
... while young guys with buzzcuts and backpacks watch from a distance.
Elsewhere in the crowd, small tykes on small bikes tug at their parent's clothes, impatient to move on.
Over in the corner – as if I needed any reminder of what country I'm in – a slim brunette wearing, yes, an Icelandic sweater and tight jeans chats on her mobile phone while studying a wall of graffiti.
And wafting around us all, like a come-hither lover, the irresistible scent of warm waffles from a nearby street wagon.
They love to say in Iceland, if you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes and it will change.
But today the sun is shining brilliantly in a startlingly blue sky and no one is waiting for it to change. On a sunny day in Reykjavík, the streets are where the action is.
A block away from the singing bride, a young woman wearing a skin-tight black dress sits at a table on the sidewalk along Laugavegur, Reykjavík's pedestrian shopping street.
Her shoes are gold, her expression behind large, dark sunglasses, is one of boredom. She gives a slight touch to her blond bouffant as she dips a wand into a small bottle and blows bubbles into the air.
Across the street, a young man wearing a black suit and gold gloves, sits and stares at another woman...
... also in black and gold, as she tries to sling a pair of spray painted athletic shoes around a light pole.
Passersby love the street theater, stopping to stare and take photographs – an advertisement, it turns out, for a nearby eatery.
Everywhere I look, Icelandic individualism and attitude is on display.
Further along the sidewalk, I pass a couple of guys having an animated conversation over a lunchtime beer. At least one of them is, according to his t-shirt, an "Antichristian Icelandic Heather Bastard."
Another's leg tattoo reads, "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth," an acrostic in elegant script.
Colorful storefronts are emblazoned with names like Dogma, Dead, and Mania...
... and signs in the irrepressibly cheerful Café Laundromat – a popular place to eat, read, and do laundry –encourage mothers to: "Go ahead and breastfeed, we like both babies and boobs!"
I pop into a small eatery and a male barista with long blond dreads and a t-shirt with the words, I shoot people! over a screened image of a camera hands me a cup of coffee. Smiling, I shoot back.
Reykjavík may project an image of being the in-your-face, energetic and rebellious teenager of Europe –
(yes, they recently elected Jón Gnarr, a former punk rocker and stand-up comic to be their mayor)
– but there are also many pockets of peaceful moments, glimpses of the more mature beauty Reykjavík is in the process of becoming.
In a music shop on a side street, a sixties couple shares a green couch in the store's blue alcove, listening to music on his & hers headphones while the owner serves them espresso.
There is a plethora of art museums to chose from, including Listasafn Reykjavíkur...
... and interesting architecture.
Icelandic design detail, from quirky to sleek, crops up everywhere ... even in bathrooms.
So much to take in just a day.
Before I know it, it's nearly eleven o'clock and the evening sun is transforming Reykjavík 's little streets and houses into a jewel box of lavenders, apricots and golds.
And as people begin to leave the streets for the comfort of home or bar...
... I head over for a quiet walk along the waterfront passing by Harpa, Iceland's new and architecturally stunning concert hall.
A luminous symphony composed of hexagons of glass, perched like a rare crystal at the city's edge, Harpa's facades kaleidoscope the now muted colors of the harbor and the city as I walk by, becoming a slightly different building with each step.
Not far away, the stainless steel abbreviation of a Viking ship – Sólfar, the Sun Voyager – faces out to sea.
Designed by Jón Gunnar Árnason, another example of Icelandic design, its beauty is in its shining skeletal simplicity.
A small crowd gathers along the bulkhead of rocks, their dark silhouettes like paper cut-outs against the lavender mountains across the water as they watch the final moments of the sunset.
Two small boys laugh at one another's antics as they climb over this sleek sculpture of dreams that points across the water toward the rest of Iceland and, in the words of its creator, the promise of new, undiscovered territory.
An open invitation to explore the rest of the country – should you ever happen to get your fill of this beguiling and bedazzling city.
© Kristin Fellows 2011