Little Lamb, Who Made Thee?

Sauðfjárbúið að Hesti í Borgarfirði

If you venture outside Reykjavík and into the countryside, chances are you’ll come across a group of Icelandic sheep eyeing you suspiciously from the side of the road. Worse still, they could be casually standing in the middle of the road, licking it furiously as if they’re daring you to run them over. Those who witness this seemingly ill-advised activity on behalf of the sheep might be forgiven for assuming that they are perhaps not all there. And surely many Icelanders and travellers alike have done exactly that. But as it turns out, the sheep are licking precious salt from the road and accidents happen rarely enough that they’ve developed a devil-may-care attitude that sometimes rubs anxious drivers the wrong way. But lest we forget, the countryside has historically been the domain of sheep.

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What Doesn’t Kill You…

I’m outside looking at the wild sea at Nauthólsvík beach. It’s noon on a Wednesday, and despite the winter sun and the scarf, hat, winter coat, mittens and wool underwear I have on, I’m freezing. The temperature is 1 degree Celsius, which the astute reader will note is the least amount of positive degrees possible. This is not good, I’m thinking. See, I’m here to partake in sea swimming, a tradition that many people practise here at Nauthólsvík up to six times a week. But I also want to live to tell the tale.

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Testing, One, Two, Three…

Húrra music venue

I’m standing in the lobby of Hlemmur Square, a hotel and hostel in downtown Reykjavík. All around me, tourists pore over maps, drink beers, and happily discuss their traveling plans. Yes, they are going whale watching in the morning. Yes, that Icelandic beer they’re drinking is delicious, and no, they don’t seem to be listening to the ambient music that streams from a set of speakers in the corner.

Between the speakers stands Nicolas Kunysz, musician and co-owner of independent music label Lady Boy Records. A guitar lies on a table in front of him, and he intermittently strokes the strings whilst fiddling with electronic effects boxes strewn around him. The resulting sound is more akin to a gentle cloud than guitar music, but it’s entrancing. As expressed by its progenitor Brian Eno, ambient music’s core philosophy is that it should be “as interesting as it is ignorable.” But standing here amidst the tourists, whose chatter is threatening to drown out Nicolas’ tender music completely, one wonders if ambient music has been demoted to “just ignorable.”

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To Hell: At Sigur Rós’ Norður og Niður Festival

An Icelandic artist is standing on a makeshift stage in Harpa concert hall and conference centre. Clad in a poncho and Gandalf hat, he has been given the task of introducing indie choir Kórus on stage as a part of the opening ceremony of Norður og niður (“to Hell”), Sigur Rós’ music festival held last December at Harpa. The thing is, the artist can’t see the choir, standing patiently in the staircase opposite him (perhaps they’re obscured by his enormous hat?), so he fumbles on with the introduction in English so broken that at one point someone is heard asking “What the hell is he talking about?” What the hell, indeed! Norður og Niður literally translates as “north and down”, but more colloquially it might be translated as “to hell” or even “go to hell”.

Eventually, the host sees the choir waving and nervously introduces them twice more, further confusing everyone. Luckily, he has been blessed with a most amiable crowd of Sigur Rós fans and music-loving introverts, so whatever dismay we may be feeling as a result of the opening ceremony’s incoherence, we’re silently internalising it while listening to the ethereal Kórus and drinking patented Sigur Rós beer. For some people, this might be hell, but for lovers of the Sigur Róss unique quirk and charm, it’s quite the opposite.

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