Drink, Write, Love: Discovering Iceland’s Creative Culture

Arielle Demchuk is “trying” to be a writer in Edmonton, Canada.  When not writing, she dabbles in photography, knitting, reading, and of course, travelling.  The best advice she ever received was from a weird animated indie movie called Waking Life, which said that “The idea is to be in a constant state of departure while always arriving.”  She keeps memories of her travels on her writing blog as well as her photo blog. Arielle is quarter Icelandic from her maternal grandmother’s side. She contributes to Stuck in Iceland as a guest blogger.

There is very little question that Iceland is a beautiful country of uniquely stunning landscapes, much of it untouched by civilization and completely open and free to exploration. It’s the backdrop of many Hollywood films and television shows, and the inspiration for prose and poetry. Maybe it’s the inspirational landscapes that cause this, but Icelanders are among some of the most vibrant, most creative people I have ever encountered. Music shows are hosted nightly in random locations, 10% of Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime, and art galleries and museums abound on every corner. In a country long civilized by artists, it only made sense for there to be an Iceland Writers Retreat, the very first one being this past April, and my ultimate reasoning for visiting Iceland. Surprisingly, it was after my first Friday night out in Reykjavik that I really figured out that Iceland is the most nurturing country for those with artistic sensibilities, especially for those, like myself, who haven’t quite latched onto that identity.

Rent accommodation in Reykjavik

Harpa, the concert hall constructed in 2011, is just as much a work of art as the music it houses on a regular basis.
Harpa, the concert hall constructed in 2011, is just as much a work of art as the music it houses on a regular basis.

My relative, María, had taken me on a bit of a rúntur, which is the local term for a pub crawl. It was very different than any Canadian notion of pub crawl I’d ever had; the evening didn’t really get going until midnight, and you never seemed to stay in any particular place for very long. You can even take your beer to go – most bartenders offer plastic cups to those who’d rather be on their way. The night doesn’t wind down until 5 am, whereas the bars back home close at 2 am (Note to prospective travellers: it’s more than feasible, and highly recommended, to have a nap in the evening hours before a night out in 101 Reykjavik). We’d stay for such little time in a place that I’d barely be able to commit a name to memory, only vaguely recognizing an establishment when walking through the city centre the next morning, a clean, quaint city with no evidence of the past night’s debauchery. I too now believe in elves like many Icelanders do – they’re the enchanted beings that transform the trauma of partied-on pathways into gleaming boulevards.

Quiet and peaceful during the day, but sometime in the period between evening and night, the streets come alive, and the nightlife becomes as colourful as the rooftops of Reykjavik’s buildings.
Quiet and peaceful during the day, but sometime in the period between evening and night, the streets come alive, and the nightlife becomes as colourful as the rooftops of Reykjavik’s buildings.

I thought I had partying down to an art back home, but in Reykjavik, I was no more than a professional amateur. While María touted me from place to place, I watched a quiet city less than a third of the size of my hometown come alive that night, and as I scanned the attire of my fellow night-owls, I realized I was hopelessly underdressed in a simple Gap button-down and jeans. As I often am in my travels, I was once again a victim of ill-preparation.

Plaid and scarves: acceptable attire for Canadian bars and the great outdoors, not for Icelandic nightlife.

Plaid and scarves: acceptable attire for Canadian bars and the great outdoors, not for Icelandic nightlife.

Perhaps I just have a permanent look of helplessness. But María decided that she couldn’t simply leave me alone in a bar when she had to go to the ladies’ room. Whenever such an occasion arose, she would turn to the nearest bystander and explain to them in Icelandic that I was her Canadian relative that needed someone to talk to her in English. At least that’s what I assumed was all she told them; even in a crowded bar with a frenzy of music, movement, and martini shaking, for me (and many others) the Icelandic language sounds, simply, like “birdsong.”

I look so helpless that even throngs of little Icelandic horses come to my defence.
I look so helpless that even throngs of little Icelandic horses come to my defence.

As it turns out, María was telling these strangers that, not only was I Canadian, but I was also an aspiring writer, here in Iceland for a writers’ retreat. The first young man that talked to me asked if I was here to have an Eat Pray Love experience and “find myself.” I learned fairly quickly in my first week that Icelanders have a pretty dry sense of humour, so I just laughed. Definitely, minus the praying, and eating sheep balls and shark instead of spaghetti carbonara.

I actually only had a tiny nibble of hakkarl (shark), preferring to indulge in much yummier food in Reykjavik, like this peanut butter-chocolate chilli ice cream crepe from Eldur and this latte and waffle from Mokka Kaffi (both highly recommended).
I actually only had a tiny nibble of hakkarl (shark), preferring to indulge in much yummier food in Reykjavik, like this peanut butter-chocolate chilli ice cream crepe from Eldur and this latte and waffle from Mokka Kaffi (both highly recommended).

He left after a few minutes, and was replaced by an older gentleman. It wasn’t too long before María left me again, this time introducing me to said older fellow, who was nursing his beer without company. She gave him her sales pitch and I looked on in miscomprehension. As she left, he turned to face me; I expected another dry remark on all my “worldly dreams.”

“So you are a writer?” he asked.

I shrugged and shook my head. “Well, no, not really. Trying to be, I guess.”

The next thing that happened, well, it’s pretty corny. An Eat Pray Love moment, if you will.

The man sighed, and as he lightly scratched his head, he said, “You know, we spend so much of our lives trying to be something. We set goals, that we’re going to ‘try to do this’ or ‘try to be that.’ Why can’t we just, be? Life is not about trying to be something. Just live. Make art. Embrace the lightness. Paint the darkness. If you write, then you’re a writer. It’s as simple as that.”

I was not expecting that the entire mythos of Western life, that culture of “trying” and “goal-setting” that permeates through learned capitalist tendencies, to be debunked in a dark, crowded bar in Reykjavik. This stranger understood the culture of “art as life” more than any presumptuous pseudo-artist-intellectual type I had ever met back home. It was in that moment that I knew I had made a wise choice in attending a writers retreat in a country that embraces you for your passions rather than trying to make you conform within the lines of practicality.

I guess it’s pretty hard not to be inspirational when you live in a country that looks like this.
I guess it’s pretty hard not to be inspirational when you live in a country that looks like this.

The Writers Retreat comprised of the last four days of my three week trip. Two days were filled with workshops conducted by well-established international writers, and a third took us on a “literary” Golden Circle tour, which included a stop at the home of Halldór Laxness, Nobel Literature Prize winner and Icelandic national treasure. If you are presented with an opportunity to attend the next Iceland Writers Retreat in 2015, I cannot recommend it enough; to be in this country whose culture incubates artists to their full potential, surrounded by amazing storytellers from around the world, is an experience no dollar amount can cover. The retreat’s motto is to “Escape. Learn. Explore. Create.”; and I can proudly endorse that I did all those things and more. And while the knowledge gained from the Iceland Writers Retreat will stay with me for a lifetime, I will also never forget the people of Iceland that harbour this perfect community for the creatively inclined. Moreover, I will never forget that old Icelandic man in the bar, who taught me that the most important thing we should do in life is, simply, to just be.

 

Iceland Writers Retreat delegates, a group of marvellous storytellers, clustered in front of the home of Halldór Laxness. (Photo credit: Kent Bjornsson)
Iceland Writers Retreat delegates, a group of marvellous storytellers, clustered in front of the home of Halldór Laxness. (Photo credit: Kent Bjornsson)

 

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Drink, Write, Love: Discovering Iceland’s Creative Culture

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