Reykjavík state of mind

I like Reykjavík. I’ve been telling everyone that it just feels good here, and I don’t know why. It’s tidy, it’s pretty, the air feels very clean, I’m enjoying the weather (around 50F this week but not too windy or rainy), the fish is fresh and there’s cake… but does that really tell you what the city feels like? Probably not.

Green bicycle-shaped barricade on a pedestrian street

{as always, click on photos to enlarge, or mouse over for description}

Dark building with bright orange-red roof

I have a hard time writing about Reykjavík, even though we’ve been here for 18 days now, because it is so multi-faceted. For the past few nights there has been a marching band around our street at midnight; I’ll be up late online-chatting with friends, and suddenly we’ll hear a tuba blare (on Friday night, the tuba had a conversation with someone’s car horn). There are tourists everywhere, speaking Spanish and French and German and English in all accents — yet this afternoon the streets were so empty I wondered if the peak tourist season could possibly be over already. 

Two young people taping some lettering onto the ground

Over the weekend there was a bacon festival with samples of American and Icelandic bacon (we looked at the long line and decided to just go to a restaurant instead), and a pay-what-you-can acoustic festival where we sat outside, next to a skate park, and heard singers from Iceland and Sweden (more on that in a later post).

Bright and graffitied skate park

Bright colorful graffiti saying "life is killing my graffiti"

Mural of a mountain with a quote

White wall with a pink "vending machine" painted onto it

I’ve read people’s impressions of Reykjavík as an especially creative city, which is obviously true — but then I’ve never met a major city without a tangible creative spirit. What sets Reykjavík apart, in my mind, is the distinctive Icelandic aesthetic, which must come from the uniqueness of Iceland itself — a volcanic island, a sparsely peopled place in the far north, a nation of order and peace and equality, a vibrant city surrounded by countryside, a mostly homogeneous population of Nordic and Gaelic ancestry — and a sense of freedom of expression made manifest.

Multi-story building with a shimmering "drip" artwork on the wall

White wall decorated with a large painting of a stylized red phoenix

Shop with dozens of paper airplanes suspended in the windows

Tree encased in crocheted "sweater"

Miniature houses in someone's grassy front yard

If I had to describe the feel of the city, I might call it a mashup of urban graffiti, Scandinavian style, and Anthropologie — but that’s not really it, either. It is quite itself and it’s not shy about it. Everywhere I go there seems to be some kind of street art or intriguing décor: Icelanders making a mark on their city, or a statement.

Street art/graffiti on a wall

Copper "paper boat" sculpture in a yard

Wall decorated with stylized postage stamps

Wall decorated with visual instructions for three ways to tie a man's tie

Graffiti reading "Life is baeutiful"

I think mostly it just feels free here, and that’s what I like so much about it. (Sure, mostly everything is expensive, but that’s not what I mean by free.) People wear funny clothes. They draw on their buildings. Every neighborhood has a public pool and hot tubs. The city library offers an artwork-rental program. The tap water tastes like purity itself, and it bubbles freely from the public drinking fountains — no on/off button. Because there are mostly patronymics instead of surnames, everyone goes by first names, even the Prime Minister. I also read that there’s no stigma attached to unmarried mothers, which blows my mind.

It’s not a perfect society; I don’t want to idealize (which is sometimes easy to do while traveling). There’s still factory farming and a gender wage gap, and the contents of recycling bins are sent to Sweden, somewhat mitigating the eco-friendliness of the program. But still. To me, Reykjavík feels good.

Cozy cafe with colorful midcentury furniture

And, as I said, there is cake.

Meringue cake with chocolate and caramel syrup and raspberries