Summer in Iceland

September creeps up on you like the chill of sunset sneaks under your skin after a sunny day in Iceland. All of a sudden its getting dark at 8:30 when you’ve grown accustomed to never fearing nightfall, and you start to realise how much you appreciate the warmth of the sunrays in this sub-arctic island.

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a glorious summer day in the countryside

Reykjavik awakens for the summer months, with a noticeable population boom from all the tourists walking downtown decked out in outdoor gear and big-lens cameras. People are out and about, drinking coffee and beers on patios, mothers walking their babies in killer heels, and the city folk flock to the countryside for hiking, bathing and summerhouse time.  There’s also a surge of concerts and festivals, the biggest two days this year being Gay Pride day and Menningarnótt (Culture Night).

the view of Reykjavik from the top of Esjan

Gay Pride in Iceland is probably the only place in the world where its more of a family event than a sexy, nudist, liberal movement. Last year’s gay pride saw Reykjavik’s current city Mayor dress up as a drag queen in the parade, and this year the parade, open-air concerts and sunny weather forced all road-traffic to be replaced by hundreds of thousands of rainbow-decorated people wandering around town.

Menningarnótt was even more vivacious, blessed by the best weather day imaginable, and organized into a 4 page spread schedule in one of the local newspapers. There was always 20 things going on at once, and there was no way to pick what to go to, since there were always two things happening simultaneously that peaked your interest, compounded by 5 other things that you had no idea what they were and your curiosity sometimes got the best of you. I had ten friends in town, 2 from London and 8 from New York, so I spent most of the day battling through a crowd with 8 obnoxious American men in tow, so my more mellow British friends had no difficulty in finding us in the crowd. I visited the Faroese embassy for some rotten food and nordic cider, saw a choir sing Psalms at Hallgrimskirkja, shopped an outdoor market that resembled more a garage sale, and listened to the informal Kaffibarinn mens choir sing acapella, pissed drunk at Austurvollir. There was always live music, and a couple main stages where the night came to a close with a bang. A sparkling Harpa and firework show sealed the deal, unimpressive by international standards, but a big enough deal to Icelanders that a parking spot within a 5 km radius of downtown could not be found as everyone came to town to see it, all 5 minutes of it.

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the concert crowd at sunset on Culture Night

I went to Bræðslan, a 2 day music festival in Borgafjörður, a small sea-side village in Iceland’s easternmost fjords. Glen Hansard was the headliner, but

Glen Hansard performing at Braedslan

like a true icelandic concert, Jón Sigurðsson and some other of Icelands other most famous artists ended the concert. The final encore included everyone coming on stage and jamming together, improvising and freestyling with a

my cousin Sara, cooling off

crazy light show in the abandoned fish processing plant where the amped crowd flocked. It was July 23rd, the weekend when summer finally arrived, and people spent the days lounging in the sea and icy rivers to keep cool. We tented at the base of  a place called Elf hill, and the magic in the place was real, atleast to me.

One of the riding days on the Egilstaðir riding tour takes us to Sanddalur, a remote sandy valley accessible only by foot, horse or 4×4, believed by the superstitious to be rich in elf life. Their troll-like faces are cut out in the jagged rock, blaring out from the steep, sandy slope, and while we take our lunch break there, the restlessness of the horses can only be explained by one thing – elf presence.

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Sanddalur

Growing up in Iceland and Canada has given me a lot of privileges, but they say allergies are a bigger problem for the advantaged, since 30% of people develop allergies from having too much hygiene. I’m allergic to summer, all the pollens and freshly cut grass, even horses themselves and the sun-dried dust clouds a herd of them kicks up.  This was the coldest summer on record in 75 years for Iceland, and even the warmer east only saw summer fully bloom in late July so I survived more comfortably than expected. Still, I frequently suffered from a runny nose, snored from congested sinuses, and breathed a little raspy from asthmatic suffocation. Ironically, the hottest days were just this last week, with temperatures reaching 20 degrees even though the confused trees have started to golden. Now the rains will start to come, but with the darker skies come northern lights, a sight that makes the arrival of fall more welcoming.

Menningarnótt, Culture Day in Iceland

With only a few days in August spent not on horse back, every time I went back to Reykjavik I had this weird culture shock of not being in the middle of nowhere. What’s good for culture shock is probably culture overload, and I got just that.

Menningarnott is literally translated as Culture Night in Reykjavik, but its actually an all day festival where the entire downtown area of Reykjavik is a big street fair with concerts and markets lining various neighborhoods. All ages walk around, kids, party people, adults and seniors, and you can see balloons and streamers and hear live music from almost anywhere. People have garage sales on their doorsteps and restaurants make temporary street food stands to sell delicious hot dogs and hamburgers in all the major squares.

Lost shoes

There is so much going on in a day that the schedule is just crammed with event listings in hundreds of different locations and venues that its impossible to even pick what you want to do or see everything you want to see. I decided just to spend the day wandering around following my senses. I started by walking with the direction of the wind since it was a bit chilly, and ended up at the National Art Museum by the pond to see some classical music. Then I followed my cousin to a street fair where all the neighbours were trying to sell old treasures.

I ran into a famous actor from Iceland there and couldn’t help but stare since he looked like he was stuck in this surreal movie scene of an antique craft market in the middle of modern day Iceland. Next I followed a black and white cat through an alleyway, and he would never let me get close enough to pet him so after rubbing his furry self on all the doorways and doorsteps, led me towards the Norwegian embassy where Retro Stefansson were giving a live show. I bobbed my head to some great music there, ran into a friend who has the most beautiful, long red hair that you could never miss seeing him in a crowd, and then continued on past a fire-roasting naan bread food stand. Random, no?

I then passed a pair of leather shoes on the sidewalk, politely placed beside each other as if someone were to step in them any minute. Everyone kept walking past them taking no notice so I decided to do the same. Then I walked past the same scene, this time also with a pair of pants, and I looked around for the pantless, barefoot owner and saw no one. Again no one seemed to care so I didn’t think of notifying any sort of lost and found. Shortly after I saw the same thing again, a pair of mens dress shoes and pants on the sidewalk, and two blocks later passed just a pair of pants crumbled on the floor. They must belong to the first pair of shoes… but who knows.

I stumbled past many other entertaining scenes and colourfully dressed people. The young women have such incredible, individualistic style, and I love when they paint their lips in the brightest shades of pink and red with their porcelain pale skin as contrast. Everyone has style and looks super cool as if advertising some personal culture on Menningarnott. The actual night time gets even more crazy and ‘cultural’ with public drinking bringing out everyones true selves.

Aerial view of menningarnott

Headliner bands play in the main square and another stage beside the famous hotdog stand also gets a full crowd. After nudging shoulders every step of the way to get anywhere, me and my 6 friends visiting from Canada went between stages and ate a couple of hot dogs, and then took in the firework show that my British friend Evelyn swore were the best fireworks she had ever seen in her life. The party continued on the streets as one third of Iceland could never fit into all the bars and nightclubs even with every single one filled to capacity. Its basically like new years eve night but with better weather, but still imagining how busy it was didn’t compare to how crazy it actually was. We made it into 2 different venues after waiting in moderate line ups, but when we left to go home at 4 am, we realized why – the true Icelanders were just getting started then, and all the line ups were full of people prepared to be out til broad daylight.