Last fall, on a cheerily balmy Friday afternoon, the multinational corporation for which I then worked announced it was shuttering my division. They did it on a conference call, one mysteriously announced and hastily arranged earlier that morning. The messenger of the kill shot was the anodyne functionary that had been brought in to replace the recently felled boss for whom we’d been happily working for four good years.
In a slight daze, I decided to keep my afternoon’s appointment. As it happened, it was a professional one: an interview with a grizzled French director with a checkered reputation. Taking advantage of the weather, I rode my bike to our meeting place, a barbecue restaurant. First, I confessed to him that I was freshly unemployed—that I did not at that moment have professional outlet to publish the words he was about to say. Then I listened to him explain why he’d decided to shoot his latest movie’s cum shots in 3D. He slopped down a bowl of chili. I drank two beers.
Three days later I was in Iceland.
The timing of the trip was fortuitous, or perhaps the exact opposite of that; either way, it was arbitrary. I’d made the plan to go to Reykjavik—for an obscure, beloved little music festival called Iceland Airwaves—months before. The idea then was to go as a reporter: I hadn’t planned on running away from my problems, because I hadn’t planned on having any problems. But things change quickly. For the first time in nearly a decade of writing for money, I was a man without a land.
In 874, it is said, a Viking named Ingólfur Arnarson left Norway under inauspicious circumstances; some accounts say he had his landed property stripped from him after killing the son of a local earl. He was homicidal in general: avenging the death of his step-brother, he chased down the Irish slaves that committed the crime until they plummeted to their deaths off the cliffs of Vestmannaeyjar Island. And this is the man celebrated as the founder of the country. Underneath its latter-day civility, clearly, tiny little Reykjavik was a place borne of scorched-earth destroyers. Which made it a fine place to brood.
What’s more: from the moment I arrived, the fog and gusting winds and pelting, sideways rain swarmed me completely. Days later, with conditions the same, I had no reason to believe it’d ever end.
I thought regularly of “All Summer in a Day,” by Ray Bradbury, a short story I saw a low-budget TV adaptation of as a kid and whose premise has haunted me ever since: in a world where the sun comes out only once every seven years, the pure-of-heart little girl who pines for it the most is locked in a closet by her cruel friends for the entirety of its reappearance. In a convoluted unfunny joke I wisely made only to myself, I wished for a different, better known Ray Bradbury story to come to life: Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian tale in which firemen’s jobs are not to put out fires but to burn all books. Because, you know, warmth.
I ate whale steak, which was extremely bad, and I ate shark, which was worse than whale steak. At the market stall, the shark purveyor played down its ignominious reputation: it’s prepared by being left to rot and baste, in its own ammonia, for months. Which means it smells, and vaguely tastes, like piss. Don’t be afraid of it, he said. It’s got the complex and strong flavors of an aged cheese, he said. I nodded, swallowing hard to keep it down while considering this man’s clearly precarious understanding of the taste of cheese.
Meanwhile, the Airwaves festival tried its best to offer solace. It was all around, giving up more shows a night that I could possibly catch, hosting more bands a night than I could possibly pronounce: Arnljótur and Hjaltalín and Stafrænn Hákon. Also: Vaginaboys.
I saw the international DJ collective Future Brown play in an art museum that looked like a converted prison. I saw the acerbically funny songwriter John Grant play with the magnificent Iceland Symphony Orchestra as support; he seemed so genuinely moved, and it affected everyone in the building. I saw a local punk band called Æla—it means “Puke”—play a hostel’s incongruously swanky gastropub. Their songs were good, I thought, but as a spectacle they were bested by their dancer: he wore nothing at all other than a horse mask, leaving his prodigious penis to hang freely under his slight potbelly.
Lines of people whose happiness I respectfully resented snaked out of bars and venues and at least one utterly gorgeous concert hall. It was called Harpa and it stood, tall and glittering, on the tip of Reykjavik's old harbor. Later I’d be told that construction on the venue was halted in 2008, as the international financial crisis hit Iceland and wiped out Harpa’s private investors. It could have just sat there, an unfinished tribute to a nation’s follies. I imagined it like the under-construction second Death Star in Return of the Jedi, hanging, secretly ominous, in nothing.
Eventually the city decided that was too depressing a fate, said “fuck it,” and took over finishing Harpa and its intricately shimmering window-pane pattern interiors and exteriors themselves. And I’m glad they did. It really is a lovely building.
Another small nice thing was the ne-plus-ultra loucheness of Father John Misty. Playing the Harpa stage, he was the human embodiment of the eye-roll closed-fist jerk-off motion. “I will say,” he let us know quickly, “I miss the whale meat back home.” On “Bored In the USA,” he confiscated a front-row audience member’s phone mid-photograph and strutted through the rest of the song with it in his hands. “You’ll thank me later,” he explained, handing it back, “when you actually have memories of this.” He pauses. ”Just kidding, you’re obviously too drunk to remember anything.” Then, drolly: “Smooches.”
The next morning there was the Blue Lagoon. A spa and hotel that commercializes Iceland’s long proud tradition of hot spring bathing, it’s quite likely considered an abomination by the locals. But the hour drive took me past jagged landscape nearly identical, in my mind, to that of Justin Bieber’s then-recently released Icelandic-shot “I’ll Show You” video, which delighted me. And the lagoon itself rose, white steam announcing it, out of volcanic rock in the middle of nowhere.
The perfectly bathtub-warm water really was blue. To my side a crew of construction workers toiled away on an expansion of the hotel. Their work coveralls looked like hazmat suits. As they went about their business on the jutting rocks in the white mist, it seemed like they were tending to some untenable natural disaster on a planet that was not Earth. I floated on, trying to think about nothing.
When I got back to town, I was actually beginning to enjoy myself. The fog and the rain hadn’t lifted. But the strangeness of the next few days were enough to make me forget.
There was a party at the Norwegian embassy. Some musicians playing the festival were invited, as were some press. I didn’t really get the logic of it, but I appreciated the hospitality: before I could even think of it myself, my beer was being refilled.
So I found myself, unexpectedly a bit drunk, explaining—to a young woman who I understood to be a fast-rising Oslo pop star—about how I was currently out of a job, and about how great the place I used to work was. She winced with sympathy. She may have even patted my arm. Then I wandered over to a bookcase and admired the portraits of the Norwegian ambassador and various dignitaries: Madame Ambassador smiling with Benazir Bhutto; Madame Ambassador shaking hands with a cartoon penguin.
Moving to leave, I got caught in conversation in the refreshing chill outside the front door with a couple of fiftysomething rock lifers. One was tall and broad, with accordingly thick Scandinavian hair, and said nothing. The other was short and scruffy and laughed and said a lot. I told him I was from New York. He told me that he used to live in the U.S., and that he spoke English quite well, even relative to the high Icelandic standard. What's more: he said that, in 1999, Björk stole her distinctive English-language accent from him.
From inside, a bell rang. Apparently, a speech was about to be given.
“I was gonna say something really bad, but…” he said, trailing off, stubbing out his cigarette, nudging his silent sidekick along.
I prodded. What?
He continued back inside, answering over his shoulder: “If you wanna hang yourself, you do it in New York.”
Stumbling back towards the center of town, I came across the U.S. Embassy, a welcome sight no matter where you are in the world. I tried to make a mental note: if shit gets really hairy, you sprint back here. I took out my phone for a photo right as a chubby security guard with a moustache walked out. Afraid that I was acting suspicious, I shouted out, “Sorry! American! Souvenir! American!,” then instinctively reached for my passport. He grunted at me in Icelandic and walked away, blissfully uninterested in me or a word I was saying.
The next day, I actually met the U.S. ambassador to Iceland. We were at another odd semi-Airwaves-related quasi-party, this one at the whale museum, where there were no actual whales but there were massive paper-mache recreations of whales. With some of the bigger models you could get close enough to put your head inside their mouths.
The Canadian and the British ambassadors were there, too. They chatted with banter smoothed into perfection from a thousand cocktail-party small-talk circles. At one point the U.S. ambassador unveiled a little Star Spangled Banner/Icelandic flag pin, identical to the one he was wearing. He pinned it on me, and we took photos while grinning crazily and pointing index fingers at each other’s lapels.
I don’t know much about Reykjavik, but apparently it’s filthy with ambassadors.
The rest of the night, my last in town, was kind of a blur. I’d made some tenuous pals over the last few days, mostly other reporters. We didn’t say as much, but it was clear: collectively, we were intent on having a solid old finale.
We went to a public pool with three excellently blistering hot tub options. These kind of pools are everywhere; a dip and a schvitz is a morning tradition for Reykvakians. This pool, though, had an Airwaves-sponsored experimental electro-pop duo playing off the side. As they hit their bleep-blooop crescendoes, we bobbed up and down in place.
We went to the ramshackle offices of the Reykjavik Grapevine, the town’s English alt-weekly, where Haukur, the Grapevine’s magnanimous editor-in-chief, was holding court. He was with a few pals drinking and smoking, and wearing a threadbare Friends T-shirt, which I complimented. He said he had a theory that all of American culture can be explained by Friends. I told him I’d love to hear it. Politely, he demurred, which only made the theory that much more desirable.
Later in the night—after a few more shows and a ton more beers—we ended up in an apartment with a group of young men who proudly identified themselves as junior members of a local Icelandic political party. They wanted us to admit American culpability in any number of international disasters; they wanted us to share their booze and drugs and cigarettes.
“Hello,” the Adele song, had come out a few days before. They played it over and over, singing along in full-throated agony. Arrayed all around their elegant dining room table, they really went for it, too: eyes screwed tight, fists scrunched, arms outstretched. I wanted something hard, something American. I put on “New York State of Mind Pt. II.” It lasted 15 seconds. They switched it out for something they could sing along to; they said they wanted “real music.” It was on to Miley Cyrus and “Tiny Dancer” and, finally, their most beloved: Aerosmith's “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing.”
Addled and fried, me and my new festival friends joined in. “I don’t wanna cloooose my eyes,” we screamed. “I don’t wanna fall asleeeeep cause I’ll miss you babe, and I don’t wanna miss a thiiiiiing.” One of the young future parliamentarians, his suit rapidly becoming more disheveled and ash-ridden, started patting my cheek.
“American man,” he said, waiting for the next chorus so he could scream again about not ever, ever closing his eyes. “American man.”
He was right. I’d had enough. The multinational corporation had made its decision. And so now there were things back in the USA that needed tending. It was time to go home.