October 18, 2009

In Reykjavík

I arrived in Reykjavík a week ago.

I don't know exactly how many visits it takes for a city to feel familiar. No matter how many times I go to Manhattan, that city feels like an overwhelming surprise. London feels like many long years dodging the rain and coming home late and in England, I am still the consummate outsider. Paris for me is the freedom of being young and the liberty that comes from art--I have big memories in every arrondissement but I still have to check the metro maps to be sure. I wrote a 400-page travel guide to Kiev but I acknowledge that huge swaths of that city remain undiscovered to me.

I have been coming to Iceland's capital now for a decade. My first trip was August 1999 and I arrived on a grey and silent Sunday morning and walked the empty streets alone--an eager American in a Nordic ghost town. Ten years later, I finally tasted the not-silent Saturday night that procedes such Sundays. Thousands upon thousands of made-up fashion teens and basement rockers congregating on wet, dark streets; migrating from club to club, keeping their neon-light vigil 'til dawn. All searching for "it."

That Reykjavík simply means "Smoky Bay" is apt. For the outdoor smokers that blow tobacco clouds up between the red and blue metal houses. For the steam puffs that billow up from the ground and the silver smokestacks of power plants. For the cotton fog that dropped in on a Wednesday morning and only faded away in wisps on this early Sunday morning.

Only when the smoke disappears do you realize that there is a whole land out there--snow-dusted mountains and a panorama of seas, lighthouses, volcanoes. On thoses clear days the city feels new, fresh, and immense asa the sky. On smoky days, Reykjavík is only as big as your stride.

I am here for a music festival. Over two hundred musical acts are strumming, drumming and shouting their sounds out into the cold and we are all here to listen, tap our feet and clap. That these events should take place in a city of fish-filled warehouses and apartment blocks is right. Travelers love sincere places but we are afraid to ruin the moment by pointing them out.

I love this city of Reykjavík. I am not the first traveler to say it, nor feel it. But I add my little voice of admiration to all the rest of them because I like the way this tiny city makes me feel (happy), the way it sounds (like electric guitars and trumpeter swans), and smells (like coffee, clean rain and seaweed). I like coming back again and again and am so glad that I get to.


Caroline in the City said...

It looks spooky! I'm dying to go there.

Karen 5.0 said...

I love Reykjavik, too, and can't believe it's been over a year since I went there to celebrate my birthday. I think I've walked down the street that's in your photo. Have a great time, Drew - I know you will.