Just a couple of days ago I checked my calendar and discovered that Wednesday the 24th of January was the eighth anniversary of my fourth dragon tattoo. So to celebrate I had to put a special song on the stereo at near-concert-volume, much to the chagrin of my cat and my upstairs neighbors.
The song was “Bella símamær” from the album “Gling-Gló,” by Björk Guðmundsdóttir & tríó Guðmundar Ingólfssonar. Yep, it's good old Bjork. “Gling-Gló” is an album of her doing jazz renditions (in Icelandic) of some traditional Icelandic folk songs. I believe it was one of her earliest albums, if not her first. And “Bella símamær” is really upbeat and cheery and lively, plus it's Bjork, who I adore. Just hearing her idiosyncratic singing voice makes me smile. In other words, listening to “Gling-Gló” around January 24 is pretty much a musical antidepressant for me in the midst of yet another Minnesota winter. Well, it works, so I intend to continue the tradition as necessary.
I bought the “Gling-Gló” album on a trip to Reykjavik Iceland in 1999. It was one of those trips where the plane ticket was so cheap I couldn't not go. This was because it was in January, and for some reason people don't seem to flock to Iceland in January. My excuse for going aside from the cheap ticket was that I figured the weather in Iceland in January couldn't be worse than the weather in Saint Paul, and was probably even milder than here. In the event it turned out that I was correct, although the days were about twelve minutes long so you had to pretty much scurry to get anything done that required daylight.
A number of things from this trip stand out in my mind. One is that, upon arriving and checking into my hotel, I decided to acclimate by reading one of the ubiquitous little booklets printed by the government, “Welcome to Iceland, Sucker” or some such title, you know the kind of brochure I mean. I first turned to the “Nightlife” section, since there was so damn much night, and immediately started laughing out loud. I approximate the first sentence here:
The nights get long in Iceland, and Icelanders like to get drunk.
The first paragraph goes on to say that, as a tourist, you should pretty much ignore the drunken Icelanders, they mean well, and they probably won't get into a fight with you unless you're an obnoxious English football fan, in which case you should have had the shit kicked out of you at home and not bothered to come to Iceland for it. Well, I made part of that up, but that was pretty much the tone. “Hmmm,” thought I. “My kind of place.”
Now two things about that first sentence struck me as hugely funny: first, this is the government tourist office talking, and they're not sugar-coating the “nightlife” a bit. They sensibly warn you right up front what you can expect. Saint Paul should do this as well, in my opinion. It would save visiting Iowans a lot of grief. Second, they don't say that Icelanders drink, they say they like to get drunk, which is something very different indeed. I know this from personal experience; trust me. Anyway, suddenly I knew I was going to enjoy my stay in Reykjavik.
This was confirmed the next day when I went for a walk through town and discovered that Iceland is bursting at the seams with beautiful women. I thought I'd died and gone to a Heaven that for some inexplicable reason had really short days. It was funny though; when I mentioned the pretty women to male Icelandic bartenders they invariably laughed and said that “You think the women are pretty here, you should go to the Faeroe Islands.” Unfortunately I have not yet been to the Faeroe Islands, but it's difficult for me for me to imagine such a place -- and I have a pretty vivid imagination when it comes to hordes of beautiful women. By the way, the same bartenders told me the reason the Icelandic women are so striking is that the Vikings used to raid England and carry off the prettiest women, which makes perfect sense if you think about it. If you're going to go to the trouble of tossing a woman over your shoulder – and trouble it is, don't think it isn't – she might as well be a looker.
A quirky thing (to me) about Reykjavik that I soon noticed is that the phone book lists people by their first names. This makes sense, since many people in Iceland don't have last names as we know them. Like Bjork, they have a parental name instead of a family name. I understand that being born out of wedlock carries no stigma there, which I think is way cool and something I really like about Icelandic culture. "Heather Hullesdottir" sounds kind of pretty.
One of the places I went first was to a sushi restaurant. I ended up chatting for a while with the owner, a comely woman who said that the people in Reykjavik seemed a little reluctant to embrace sushi with open arms, so to speak. We both thought this was odd, because fishing is the primary commercial industry in Iceland, and you will not find better, fresher fish anywhere in the world. I hope this has changed since I was there and that the woman and her restaurant are prospering.
The first night that I went to a bar in Reykjavik I showed up at what was purported to be a popular club around 10:30 PM. I think I was the only person in there besides a couple bartenders. "Ungh," I said to myself thoughtfully as I drank my $80 scotch. "Where could everyone be?" The bartender, a beautiful young Icelandic woman, imagine that, said that generally people went to someone's house to drink until around midnight or 1 AM, at which time they finally started venturing out to the bars. She went on to explain that this was because liquor in Iceland was so expensive and it was much cheaper to drink at home. Of course I was finding this out first-hand as we spoke, but I nodded sagely and tried to take smaller sips.
So I hung around the bar for a while until people started showing up, and boy howdy, that tourist brochure was not lying about Icelanders liking to get drunk. I ended up talking to a bunch of people in various states of inebriation and was able to decipher almost none of it, not because their English was particularly bad, but because even their Icelandic was unintelligible at that point in the evening. It's a funny thing that even if you don't know a given language you can still tell that someone is completely drunk as they speak it. At any rate I left the bar about 3:30 AM and the party was still just getting underway. Oh, and did I mention this was a Wednesday? Go Reykjavikers.
I guess the public baths must be effective in preventing or curing hangovers. It seems everyone in Iceland goes to the baths, which are fed by naturally hot springs -- Iceland is volcanically active, and they use the hot springs for all their hot water (including hotel showers). These baths are great social gathering places there, which I think is a pretty spiffy idea. I could see where constant hot-tubbing with 20,000 beautiful young women would improve the bleak Saint Paul winters a lot.
At one point I went on a tour of the countryside, and I discovered to my great joy that Iceland is a dramatically beautiful country. I visited a frozen golden waterfall, a dinky little "forest" with two-foot tall trees (Q: "What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest?" A: "Stand up."), a farm with dinky little horses (you just know they're hiding dinky little cowboys somewhere), and a huge tent-thing where they grew fresh vegetables in the winter. It was all lovely and charming and interesting and that's all I will say about it here. But if you go to Iceland, do get out into the countryside if you can.
In general I found the Icelanders somewhat reserved at first when I tried to chat them up. However, once they figured out that I wasn't whoever it was they were afraid that I was, they opened up and were warm and kind and friendly. And to be really honest, I should admit at this point that only about half of the Icelanders that I encountered were truly beautiful. The other half were guys.
I got my fourth dragon tattoo at a little shop in Reykjavik called (I believe) Tattoo 69. The artist's name was Helgi, and he was a diminutive elfin creature with a wonderfully evil smile who spoke no English whatsoever. There was a kind of trashy-looking faux redhead hanging around as well, presumably Helgi's girlfriend, who handled the translating chores for us. I ended up liking her a lot too, by the way. The three of us began talking away, and I was pleased to discover that Helgi knew the Swiss tattoo artist that did my third dragon. He commented that each dragon I had gotten was better than the last, and that of course his was going to be the best (it was, too). He also wanted me to get my next tattoo in Amsterdam from his buddy Hanky Panky, which I thought was a great idea since HP is the rock star of the tattoo world. Hanky Panky did an album cover for the Chili Peppers as well as a number of Flea's tattoos, and used to run a tattoo museum in Amsterdam that has since had to close its doors.
After getting my tattoo, I went to a nearby bar for the remainder of the afternoon to whimper and soak up local suds and local color. When I got there a bunch of excitable boys in the back room were watching soccer and yelling and throwing shit and generally behaving like Chicago Bears fans, which is something I'm certainly used to so I felt right at home. Eventually the soccer game ended and things quieted down in the back a bit. Imagine my shock and horror, however, when the next program on the TV turned out to be the Vikings playoff game we had just lost a few weeks prior to my trip. That was the year where the game went right down to the final seconds and out trotted Gary Anderson for the Vikings to kick a field goal and win it for us and send us to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, that was the only field goal he missed all year. He had been perfect prior to missing that kick, making single field goal and every extra point he attempted during the regular season. Another heartbreaker for Vikings fans. And I had to watch the entire game (not just the highlights) rebroadcast a month later in Iceland! Who knew? I found myself yelling and screaming the same way I did the first time, hoping against hope that this time Anderson would make the damn field goal.
During the course of my morbid and unhealthy fascination with the rebroadcast Vikings game, the guys in the back room had begun watching me with some curiousity; they were scratching their heads and looking at the game on the big screen TV in puzzlement. I'm not sure they realized American football was actually a sport. Finally they sent the beautiful young female cocktail waitress (ho hum, another drop-dead gorgeous woman, whatever) over to ask me who they should be rooting for, which I thought was pretty decent of them. "The Vikings!" I screamed politely, flecks of foam forming in the corners of my mouth. "Look at the Helga Hats. See the horns? Those are Vikings! Get it? You guys are Vikings too!" I then pantomimed throwing hot English babes over my shoulder and carrying them off to the dragon boats. They never did get it. I guess they've forsaken their proud heritage of pillaging, raping and looting and become accountants or something. Or maybe it was just lost in translation. Anyway, after Anderson missed the field goal AGAIN I shut up and drank more, something one quickly learns to do as a Minnesota Vikings fan. Eventually I ended up gabbing with the soccer guys as best I could and tried to chat up the cocktail waitress with the cute ass [Howdy, cute ass googlers! We're in Iceland now!]. Anyway, we all ended up great friends.
I'll forgo telling you all about the rest of the Hulles Alone In Iceland adventures and just skip to the last night. I was sitting in the hotel trying to decide if I should go out to a strip bar or just hit the sack and wake up bushy tailed and bright eyed. I know, I can't believe I had to think about it either. But I did, and I even called my brother Leo to ask his advice. He just laughed at me and hung up the phone, knowing full well the matter had been decided long before I ever finished dialing his number. (I wonder what time it was there? I'll have to ask him.)
So I climbed into a cab and asked the driver to take me to the most popular strip bar in Reykjavik and threw money at him, obnoxious American tourist that I was. I quickly discovered that we had some translating difficulties to overcome, but once I had pantomimed dancing and getting naked (much to his initial horror) we finally got it all worked out and he took me to a club called Vegas.I have not yet told you about Hulles and strip clubs, but all you need to know for this story is that I immediately felt right at home in the Vegas Lounge. One funny thing that I already knew at the time about European strip clubs (among many funny things) is that for some reason the women in the clubs are never from the country that the club is in. So I was unsurprised when the lovely blond woman who latched onto me like I was her own personal Jesus turned out to be from the Czech Republic. I feel horrible right now because I can't remember her name; I really liked her a lot. Let's call her Anna. So Anna and I chatted as best we could while she writhed her way out of her clothes and into my heart (and wallet). When I found out she was from Prague I proudly trotted out the one Czech phrase that I could remember, "Jci krasna divka." I'm sure I'm misspelling it here (as I recall some of the letters need little hats) but I could -- and still can -- pronounce it just fine. It means "You're a beautiful woman." Quit snickering, what the hell did you think it was going to mean? It's me, Hulles.
When Anna heard me tell her that she was beautiful in her native language (she was!) she lit up like a Christmas tree and began jabbering away at me in Czech. It was really heartwarming to see. I'm sure she must have been terribly homesick and hearing the least little bit of Czech must have been a nice surprise for her. So I felt like an evil ogre when I had to kill her buzz and remind her that I was some dork American tourist who had been to Prague once and that that was all I could remember how to say. She was crestfallen (perfect word!), but as I recall I found some way or another to make it up to her that no doubt involved large wads of gringo bucks. The rest of the night was good clean Hulles fun; fade to black. I made it onto the flight the next morning and here I am back in Saint Paul eight years later.
It was fun for me to relive a couple parts of my Iceland trip while I was writing this blog entry. For example I still laugh when I remember reading that government tourist brochure, and Helgi and the redhead are a fond memory as well. I especially enjoyed recalling Anna; I had forgotten that lovely young lady until I began writing about her just now. Hope you're doing well, Anna, wherever you are and whatever your name really is. And happy anniversary to my tattoo, too. I need more of you guys.
And that fucking Anderson, goddamn it, if I ever have to watch that game rebroadcast again he better make that field goal. He will have had three tries at it by then.
P.S. If you care to, visit the Reykjavik Harbor Watch blog. I like it enough to add it to my sidebar. Thanks to cK for pointing it out to me.