Three o'clock, a Saturday afternoon in late fall. Already the sun is sinking into the Atlantic, casting a last faint glow on the red-roofed houses in the center of town. The streets are empty but for a few old fishermen returning from the harbor and a pair of handsome women pushing strollers past the supermarket. It's a quintessentially Scandinavian scene: scrubbed sidewalks, polished storefronts displaying wool sweaters and puffin dolls, clapboard Lutheran churches. A pervasive sense of order and calm. Even the toddlers are reserved.
At odd hours like this, when most of Reykjavík is home taking a nap, the city appears to be just another sleepy village on the edge of the Arctic Circle, too far from everywhere else for anything exciting to happen—a sort of Lake Wobegon with money.
You would have no idea.
Flash-forward 12 hours. We're jammed against the sleek, glowing bar at Ozio, shouting out drink orders above the chest-thrumming bass of Icelandic trip-hop. The woman behind the bar is devastatingly attractive, but by this point our party of two Americans and two Brits has ceased to comment on such things, since everyone around us seems to have stepped out of a Dolce & Gabbana ad. The crowd oscillates wildly on tabletops, chairs, shoulders, or whatever else they can find.
My photographer friend Martin has just landed in Reykjavík tonight, straight from an assignment in Ibiza documenting that island's famously wild club scene for a fashion magazine. He is dumbstruck by the mayhem before us. "What the hell," he shouts, "was I doing in Ibiza?"
That's when the six-and-a-half-foot blond man in the purple and gold Versace tuxedo enters the bar and delivers his alarming battle cry.
His friends return the greeting in unison. Just another patron, it turns out. Probably drives a Lexus, irons his socks. "YAAAAARRRRRRGGGH!!!" he roars again, bear-hugging his companions. Meanwhile, a girl dressed like the Cat in the Hat is running around dragging her giggling friend across the floor. By her feet.
Outside on Austurstræti—the prim street I strolled this afternoon—hundreds of young Icelanders are whooping their way to the next club, bursting into song, kissing random passersby. Vodka and beer bottles litter the sidewalks, and exhilarating dance beats spill out of every doorway.
"Some sort of holiday today?" Martin yells over the din. No, I tell him, just a typical weekend night in Reykjavík.
Twelve years ago, Iceland snuck up and took me by surprise: I was awake late with the radio when the DJ cued a song called "Birthday" by a band called the Sugarcubes. The lyrics were in English, yet the singer's inflected wail was definitely not from my world. The music swirled around a rumbling, primal bass line, with symphonic swells pulling the tune slightly off-key; all of it was held together by that strange and remarkable voice. It was an utterly baffling sound. The band, I soon discovered, was from Iceland, and the voice belonged to a 21-year-old woman named Björk.
Since then, of course, Björk has gone on to an international solo career, pushing pop music to its outer edge. For much of the world Björk has become synonymous with Iceland; she is her country's most famous export, and the tourist shops in Reykjavík now display her CD's in their windows. It makes for an odd tableau—Björk's startling techno-futurist album covers nestled among those sweaters and puffin dolls—but such juxtapositions are the very definition of Iceland. This is the world's 11th-wealthiest country, per capita, yet one of the planet's youngest and most primitive landscapes (a mere 21 percent of it is habitable). Exceedingly remote, yet proudly cosmopolitan; fiercely traditional, yet enviably progressive; inextricably linked to nature, yet embracing of technology—Iceland is nothing if not contradictory. Come to Reykjavík expecting a somnolent Scandinavian harbor town and you'll find it, but you'll also find a restaurant designed by Terence Conran, a bar owned by a British pop star, a vibrant and eclectic music scene, outrageous fashion, and Europe's most scintillating nightlife. While guidebooks focus on the ancient Viking sagas and the beauty of the countryside—making the people seem like incidental figures in a landscape painting—Reykjavík has earned its place not merely as a gateway to fjords and glaciers, but as a true city of the world.
I admit that my friend and I arrived in Iceland with a certain amount of dread. We'd seen enough of remote Scandinavia to know how bleak it could be. (Try being stranded for a week in Trondheim, Norway.) Not least, we worried about the food: our Lonely Planet guide promised such treats as "rams' testicles pickled in whey and pressed into a cake." Fantastic, we decided on the plane ride over, we just won't eat.
We couldn't have been more wrong, of course. I'm sure you can still dine on rams' testicles somewhere in Reykjavík, along with putrefied shark meat, sheep's eyes, and other ancestral favorites, but you don't have to; certainly not when you could go to Rex (the impossibly chic Terence Conran boîte on Austurstræti) and order a spicy coconut soup with lobster grilled on lemongrass skewers, a crab-mango salad with cilantro oil and cumin crisps, or the freshest sushi west of Osaka. Needless to say, this wasn't what we'd expected.
The transformation of Reykjavík from a tiny sub-Arctic backwater into a symbol of sophistication was blindingly fast. Björk described the changes in a 1997 TV interview: "It's been quite a mad century for Iceland. A hundred years ago, my grandparents' generation were brought up in mud houses. The lifestyle was like the Middle Ages. . . . Iceland developed in maybe eighty years what, say, England developed in four hundred years. It's so quick it's almost violent."