That Iceland has evolved so swiftly—and without violent upheaval or reaction—is testimony not just to its progressivism but to a strong sense of historical continuity: past and future merge almost seamlessly here. Technology is not viewed as a threat to tradition but as merely an extension of it. Björk may use digital samplers and beat boxes instead of lutes and goat-skin drums, yet in her view there's no difference. Electronic instruments, she has said, "are just tools—[like] wood or leather or metal and all that we so far have made music out of." As one of her lyrics puts it: "All the modern things / like cars and such / have always existed / They've just been waiting in a mountain / for the right moment . . . It's their turn now." Perhaps it's appropriate that the Icelandic term for computer, tölva, is a fusion of "number" (tala) and "prophet" (völva). And Icelanders do love their number prophets—and their pagers, minidisc players, Palm VII's, and all the many other gadgets they can buy in the high-end boutiques along Laugavegur street, next to bookshops displaying countless editions of the medieval sagas. The New York Times recently reported that neophilic Icelanders make more Internet connections per capita than any other nation on earth. Meanwhile, an overwhelming majority of Icelanders continue to believe in elves.
"You must get rid of it!" the pink man is telling me in slurred English. We're outside Vegamót, a velvet-swathed bistro and bar, and I've been stopped by a jovial clubgoer clad entirely in pink.
"Get rid of what?" I ask.
"All of it!" he cries with a fiendish grin. "Everything you have!" This he demonstrates by furiously shaking his hips. "You must . . . let it go."
I think I understand. "Free your mind and your ass will follow?"
"Exactly!" the pink man shouts. "Mind your ass and the free will follow!" Then he twirls down the block with his posse, hollering his newfound mantra to a fresh pack of converts.
A sense of desperate urgency unites the clubhoppers of Reykjavík. Thirty-four-year-old ad execs hit the town with the look of teenagers let loose for the first time, buzzing with adrenaline and rarely sitting down. Maybe there's a reason Icelanders call this weekend club-crawl a rúntur: everyone's whirling from one place to the next, so the real excitement is found on the street, en route to somewhere else. And for a town of just 108,000 people, Reykjavík has a dizzying number of somewhere elses.
The hypercharged pace is partly a remnant of the days when all bars and clubs had a mandatory 3 a.m. closing time. But Reykjavík's police grew weary of the three o'clock stampedes, when thousands of drunken clubgoers would spill onto the streets en masse, and the closing law was repealed last July. Now many bars stay open until seven or eight in the morning. (The cops, somehow, find this much more acceptable.)
Three a.m., kaffi thomsen: a glittering blonde spins off the dance floor and introduces herself as Miss Def Kung-Fu. Her Vietnamese silk tunic is drenched in sweat. She asks how we like her hometown, and we rave accordingly. Miss Def offers us a history lesson. "Two years ago everything in Iceland sucked," she shouts, with a vehemence that almost makes me believe her. "And now?Everything's brilliant!" I nearly laugh at the absurdity of it, but then I remember Björk's point: everything happens five times as fast here. Two years in Iceland might be 10 years anywhere else—and a lot can happen in 10 years.
Take, for instance, beer. For most of the century national laws allowed only a watery 2.2 percent brew, which pubs used to spike with vodka. Real beer was legalized only on March 1, 1989, an occasion Icelanders still celebrate as Bjórdagur—Beer Day. It's now hard to imagine Iceland as the puritanical land that also, for a time, outlawed Thursday-night television (to encourage family togetherness) and even banned dogs in Reykjavík. But it's true—and perhaps that memory accounts for the anxious mood of today's nightclubbers, who act as if they've finally been allowed to play, and that this all might end sooner than we think. Reykjavík, in other words, is in the throes of a decade-long coming-out party, and no one is about to let it end.
Seven-forty a.m.: seagulls are ascending into the coralline sky above Austurstræti, and the last of the hangers-on at Kaffi Thomsen emerge to stagger homeward in the sunrise. A lone hot-dog vendor calls out to the night's final customers, and a line forms beside his stand. The sidewalks are strewn with bottles and discarded admission tickets, candy wrappers and cigarette butts. A Vespa roars off toward the harbor, and then all is silent save the squawk of gulls and the whistle of an Arctic wind. I'm on a bench on Austurvöllur Square, too revved for sleep.
Finally they arrive: a convoy of street-sweeping machines, driven by a dozen men in royal blue jumpsuits. They glide around the square like Zambonis, picking up trash and polishing the cobblestones. From my bench I watch them sweep and scrub until every curb and corner is gleaming once again in the sunrise. As church bells sound from across the lake, a punk on a skateboard rumbles by—he's either up too early or out too late. The street-sweepers, finished for now, follow him down the block, around the corner and out of sight.