Sketching my way through Reykjavík’s cafés

When I first got to Reykjavík I thought the cafés weren’t as nice as the ones in Scotland. I don’t know what I was thinking, because for the past couple of weeks I have been going to a new café every other day or so, and they’ve almost all been wonderful. (However, I remember when I first got to Scotland, I thought the cafés weren’t as nice as the ones in Toronto!)

Te og Kaffi on Laugavegur

I ducked inside this one, Te og Kaffi (Tea and Coffee), on a rainy afternoon when thunderstorms were predicted. Te og Kaffi is a local chain and their Laugavegur location is always packed. On this day there was almost no one inside, so I was thrilled — at least I was for about five minutes, until a new stream of customers began and didn’t stop until I left an hour or two later. First an Asian family sat down next to me: two women about my age, and an older lady who might have been their mother. I was trying to hear what language they were speaking, but I couldn’t make it out. Then they left, and a German family took the table: a tall young couple, their baby, and the baby’s grandparents. (His parents? Hers? I couldn’t tell.) They all took turns holding and feeding baby; when it was Grandma’s turn she cooed continually (I heard a lot of “schatz“). After they left, five young Americans sat down. I think they were from New York, based on places they mentioned. They seemed nice enough, but sounded rather loud and self-absorbed, so I didn’t make conversation.

When I was getting my hair cut in Edinburgh, the hairdresser remarked that traveling Scots always talk to one another: “We start naming people we know, to see if we know each other!” I love that, but I don’t do it. So many traveling Americans are young, rowdy party types; the ones who aren’t, are like me: quiet, unobtrusive, and often indistinguishable from other non-American travelers. I spoke to one thirtyish American couple outside Stofan Café a couple of weeks ago and they looked like people I could hang out with, but I didn’t want to intrude on their afternoon, so I left. One night in Toronto I met a Texan woman who was visiting her daughter; we chatted while waiting for the bus after a drawing session. It is both commendable and sometimes frustrating that the politer and more respectful travelers tend to leave each other alone… sometimes I think we’re all so annoyed by the stereotypical loud, oblivious American tourists that we go out of our way to keep to ourselves. 

The other night I was in another Te og Kaffi (this one on Austurstraeti, above the Eymundssons bookstore) and there was an American girl with purple hair who could not contain her delight about Iceland’s awesomeness. She raved to me about it, and she engaged the barista multiple times, telling him how much cooler Reykjavík cafés are than the ones in the States (Starbucks was mentioned). I had a little of that knee-jerk “oh god, another loud American” recoil, but I also envied her openness, because there she was talking to an Icelander, while I sat silent with my journal. It’s funny because at home I make conversation with everyone, but put me in a foreign place (even Montréal versus Toronto) and I clam up right away.

On the other hand… pleasant encounters are everywhere. A salesgirl in an outdoor-clothing shop practically ran to tell me how much she loved my cat hat: “it’s boiled wool, right?” (she pronounced it with two syllables: “boil-ed”). Yesterday a white-haired gentleman stopped his car at the crosswalk to motion me across with an elaborate, chivalrous gesture — the hand-movement equivalent of “no my dear madame, I insist, after you!” And last night, at a second-floor café above a bookstore, the very cute barista came over to my table to ask how my tea was, and say, “I noticed you were drawing.” I showed him my sketchbook with the brand-new picture I’d just made of the view from the window. 

Laekjargata as seen from an upstairs window

My mother tells me that when I was little, I never liked to approach kids I didn’t know. But I always brought a big bag of stuff with me, everywhere I went (it was a pale-purple Capezio nylon dance bag someone gave me); I’d sit down and take out my notepad and markers or sewing kit or scissors or stickers, and pretty soon someone would come over and ask what I was doing, and that way I’d make friends. Some things don’t change, eh?!

Holding up my sketch inside the cafe