on being a tourist

I was not an exotic specimen in Iceland. The Middle-Aged Tourists From Florida (forgive me) thought I was a local; the locals thought nothing of me at all. Though tourist season hadn't started yet, with our DSLRs and backpacks, we were everywhere. Almost every morning I saw someone walking along the street with a rolling suitcase, just in from the early flight. 



There was a great deal of construction going on in downtown Reykjavik. Whole new streets of shopping and new hotels. At some point, a bus driver told us that old houses were being knocked down to accommodate more tourists. I was uncomfortable. I was even more uncomfortable when I saw this graffiti next to a new building site:

Eerie, how it seemed all of Iceland had so successfully and completely branded itself. I saw lopapeysur on everyone. Much like cowichans here, a piece of more-or-less traditional clothing morphed into a hipster uniform. But these were the realest hipsters I had ever seen. In the one third-wave coffee shop I visited, they were playing records, changing them regularly. If that shop had been in Edmonton, the record player would have been there, but they would have been playing an iPod, or streaming Songza. All of Iceland seemed tinged with this kind of postmodern mash-up of old with new, new made to seem old and old made to seem new. (I suppose the biggest difference is that, in Canada, there isn't much visible that is traditional or old. Our slow, steady progress has been erasing the past as it goes. It was as if Iceland's sudden leaps forward had cleared large swaths of the old, and left them intact.)

On the one hand, a culture much more visible and entrenched than Canadian culture. Young Icelanders who seemed to have a kind of national pride and identity I've never witnessed in Canada (and certainly not in Edmonton, which people who live here tend to refer to as 'Stabmonton', 'Deadmonton').  On the other hand, a country which built its first paved roads less than 60 years ago and which has since become one of the most modern and progressive countries in the world. 

Hannalisa, a wonderful Icelandic woman I met on my last day, explained the difference between the "old ice cream" and the "new ice cream". The old ice cream was made with milk, was colder, and was more traditional and thus preferred by everyone. The new ice cream was made with cream. I admit that this dichotomy confused me a bit, as both old and new ice cream were forms of soft serve. 

On a whim, I tagged along with a lovely guy from the hostel and attended the university LGBT group's meeting. I asked about surrogacy in Iceland (BC just passed legislation to allow for three or more parents to be listed on a birth certificate, and I was curious about how this issue was being managed in left, progressive Iceland). They told me that, due to worry that women would be exploited for their reproductive capacity, surrogacy wasn't being encouraged. This is the same country that outlawed strip clubs on feminist grounds, that had the world's first openly lebsian prime minister. 

Was it cultural ignorance or observational cherry picking that made me wonder whether there wasn't a certain level of wariness or antagonism between the men and women I saw? I rarely saw couples or mixed groups of Icelanders. I saw intimidating groups of boisterous, fashionable men and intimidating groups of cool, glamorous women. Was it my own position that made me sense the same reserve between men and women as between locals and tourists?

Everything seemed local, a product or a consequence of the place. Iceland the island. There was nearly ubiquitous geothermal heating; there was hardly any produce in the grocery stores. (I saw cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, bananas, and two kinds of apples, nothing else.) Everyone was white. My friend from the hostel gave me the locals' version of social life in Reykjavik for a twenty-something: Because the population is so small and interconnected, everyone knows everyone and the dating scene is less of a dating scene and more of a hook-up scene--perhaps to avoid the drama of making and breaking stronger connections. Apparently the weekends were wild, the streets downtown covered with broken glass by the time everyone went home at five or six in the morning. When I went out at 8 in the morning, someone had cleaned it all up. There was lots of graffiti, but no obvious attempts to cover it up or discourage it. I didn't quite understand. 

Hanna gave me a list of Icelandic bands to check out. She also gave me the CD in her car, and this is one of the songs on it: