Staycation in Reykjavík: Iceland Airwaves Day 3

As many of you are sure to remember, “staycationing”–vacationing in your home town–became a big vogue when the recession hit and people had less money to travel. It’s also just a really good way to get to know the city that you live in, particularly if you are still relatively new there. And so what has been really nice about Iceland Airwaves–besides the (free) music–is that it has given Mark and I an excuse to be out in downtown Reykjavík, discovering new, interesting, and often inexpensive places that hadn’t yet popped up in our daily ramblings and routines.

So much of getting settled in a new place–with new responsibilities, limited funds, and a small social circle (comprised mostly of people who are also new in said place)–comes down to figuring out the basics (where the grocery store is, how to recycle your bottles and cans, how to use the transit system, getting a library card) and creating a daily routine (vocabulary flash cards, grammar study, trips to the swimming pool). So it can be difficult to get out and be a vacationer again, in the best sense. For me, at least, part of getting settled in a new city is establishing enough familiarity that you aren’t always feeling like a tourist, and that can mean going back to the same places over and over, if only because you know how things work there (do I order at the counter? do I bus my own table?) and can be comfortable. But I’m pleased to say that the last few days have taken Mark and I out of our regular orbit and introduced some great new places throughout Reykjavík which we can now happily integrate into our lives.

After a productive morning (swimming for Mark, homework for me), we started our day at the clothing store IceWear, which was hosting mini-sets–with free drinks–throughout the day. It was still tea time for me, but I thought it an enormous vote of confidence for the staff to be handing out not only bottles of beer (Kaldi brand, repackaged with IceWear labels), but also plastic cups of red wine to concert goers who were listening to the sets while picking through the handmade lopapeysa and winter wear. (Another side note: IceWear sells Vík wool products, so even though the drive to Vík is more than worth it, apparently you can get the same inventory–sweaters, capes, yarn–in town for comparable prices.) We came to see Þórir Georg, who has lived a variety of musical lives to date (in hardcore bands, under the name “My Summer as a Salvation Soldier,” etc.), but whose lo-fi acoustic album “Afsakið” (“Excuse Me”) I actually discovered when researching bus lines and neighborhoods in outer Reykjavík. (He’s got a song called “Stræto 14” — and you can listen to full songs of two of his albums if you follow that link, btw.)

Although a reasonably busy retail store with chatty customers and Airwaves-goers (including That Guy in the back, from California, who had just so many thoughts on Iceland that he wanted to share with one of the guys who worked in the shop) isn’t ideal for a quiet acoustic performance, Þórir Georg adjusted quickly and apparently, not unhappily. There were several little kids curled up on the floor at his feet who he kept smiling down at, possibly with a little self-effacement as he started singing the title song from his forthcoming album, with the lyrics “I will die/and you will die/and it will be alright/we’re all relatively young still…”

After leaving IceWear, we headed down to Ingólfstorg square where the people at Inspired by Iceland had set up “the littlest concert venue,” Eldhús. This name, I might mention, drove me crazy all day, since the signs all said that it was “The Little House of Music,” but I knew (knew!) that eldhús means “kitchen.” I was right, actually (yay!)–Eldhús started as the “Little House of Food,” which drove around Iceland for 12 days in March 2012, inviting “tourists to enjoy Icelandic food, surrounded by some of Iceland’s most picturesque landscapes.” But currently, it is a tiny, corrugated iron house–decked out with a turf roof, white picket fence, and, of course, lace curtains–where two or three Airwaves attendees (presumably people who wait around for a super long time or win tickets somehow) get to cozy up with various Icelandic bands and performers who then play a super intimate, super short set for them. The performance is amplified on speakers outside and there’s a live feed which is projected on the side of one of the hotels on the square so that all of the poor schmoes peeking in the windows and standing around in the cold can enjoy as well.

We got there for Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds, a 24 year old Icelandic composer who combines chamber music and classical composition with more pop and indie-rock sensibilities. (He’s also done a fair amount of work for films–recently in The Hunger Games.) He only played three songs–all of which I enjoyed despite the cold–but the live video of his performance (probably featuring a chattering Mark and I, lurking near a side window) hasn’t been posted yet. So you can watch the promo video via the link above and at least see for yourself:

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After Ólafur Arnalds, we met up with a friend at Durum (an earlier excellent cafe discovery during Airwaves) for a warm-up break before moving on to the electronica party that was scheduled, with many acts, at Hlemmur bus station. We (I, at least) had been expecting a lot of ambiance and atmosphere at this bus station happening–like, lasers and lots of attractive people dancing around in shiny disco-disco clothes. What it actually was was a small “stage” set up in the corner of the bus station, which was conducting business as usual. Here’s a shot of the Futuregrapher set that had just started when we arrived:

Hlemmur Gets Crazy.

As you can see, this was a bit anti-climactic, which was charming in its way. It bears noting that the performance area was right next to the doors for staff offices, so occasionally, Strætó employees would walk out of their offices and past the performer either looking extremely skeptical, or not seeming to notice at all. We left this event rather quickly.

Next stop was the ever-popular Kaffibarrin to see avant-garde American composer Nico Muhly. It was already packed when we arrived and not many people left after the previous set ended, but we wended up staking out a table towards the back where we could still hear pretty well. His compositions are multi-layered, energetic, and a little off-kilter, unsettling in (tonal) ways that are really interesting. I’m not going to describe this super well, so suffice to say that it was really interesting music and I would like to hear more of it.

After Nico Muhly, we went to the Noodle Station, for inexpensive, spicy, and filling bowls of Thai-style noodles (your options: chicken, beef, or veggie), which will assuredly feature prominently in my life this winter, and then capped our evening off at Café Babalu, a comfortably cluttered café in a multi-story yellow house which is owned by a former New Yorker. We’d be meaning to go there forever, and I was very glad we went by–it’ll be a great place to curl up to read a book on a snowy day, or play one of their many board games (two different sets of Othello–win!).

We could have continued into the wee hours (the recurrent refrain from Airwaves attendees was ‘Man, I was out until 5 AM last night!’), but I was hankering for home. So ends Day 3!

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