In this three-part series, Iceland Review explores the history and culture of Keflavík, as seen through the eyes of the locals.
As far as kitchen metaphors are concerned, Iceland has always been less a melting pot and more a sandwich grill: a historical environment that, generation after generation, melds together a handful of related ingredients (Wonder Bread and white cheese, e.g.) to produce something consistently plain and predictable.
There is, perhaps, only one place that warrants the use of the first-mentioned analogy, not least because of its association with the original referent (i.e. the United States). With nearly a third of residents having immigrated from one of over 50 different countries, the town of Keflavík – and by extension, the Reykjanesbær municipality – has long seemed a place for the out of place. A home for misfits and oddballs. And a venue for various unseemly occurrences.
Widely reputed to be home to more fast-food restaurants than any other town in Iceland, Keflavík is also known as the birthplace of Icelandic rock music, a former fishing town (like most other towns), Iceland’s first – and current – gateway to the outer world, and one of the country’s youngest communities, demographically speaking.
To delve into the many curiosities of this peculiar community, we began by acquainting ourselves with its recent history.
And no past phenomenon looms so large in that history as the former Naval Station. Wriggling out from underneath its shadow seems altogether impossible.
Out of place
There’s a big red house in downtown Keflavík, right next to the main road.
If you ever find yourself standing in the middle of its living room, you’d not be surprised to learn that it’s one of the oldest houses in town. It’s all carpets and teak furniture, and almost every inch of its four walls is covered with landscape paintings and decorative dishes and the occasional stag-head wall clock. There’s but a single disharmonious element in the entire quaint configuration: the house’s resident, Garðar Eyfjörð Sigurðsson.
He’s lounging there on the padded brown sofa, wearing an oversized Rocawear t-shirt, gripping the gilded handle of his brass-knuckle coffee mug – as if he’s starring in a pretty ironic music video. When he lays down the mug and crosses his arms, they display a Kalashnikov rifle, on the one arm, and, on the other, the letters of his nom-de-plume in aggressive font:
His grandmother bought the house in 1978, and it’s served as a place of refuge for members of the family ever since. “My cousin Svanur lived here, my mom, my siblings,” Kilo enumerates. “Anytime anyone needed a place to stay, they stayed here.”
No one’s been here longer than him though.
He lives here with his step-grandfather Böddi, who exists as a mere cough on the other side of the wall and who, in his full physical manifestation, is a much gentler soul than Kilo’s grandfather by blood, legendary strongman Reynir Sterki.
Kilo’s grandmother, to whom he was very close, passed away last year. His best friend died two years ago. Three years ago, he underwent two angioplasties, following a near-fatal heart attack. That’s been his life, for the most part: one bad thing chasing another.
These serial travails are documented on his latest album, The Serenade of Solitude. It’s one of the great Icelandic rap records and, like many of the strange yarns spun in this part of the country, traces its origin to the skein of the former Naval Station in Keflavík:
When he was younger, Kilo’s mother met an American soldier stationed in town. They moved to the Naval Base when he was four or five, and then they followed the bastard to New Orleans, where they stayed for six years. In the States, Kilo suffered horrific abuse at the hands of his stepfather – and he’s been trying to piece himself back together ever since.
“I’m seeing a therapist now, and I’ve learned to face my trauma head-on; I feel like I’m crying all the time these days,” he says, with his irrepressible, child-like smile, preserved in picture-form on an adjacent wall.
The impact of the Naval Station on rap music in Keflavík has not been well documented, but there’s been plenty of ink spilt on the subject of rock ‘n’ roll.
In the early 1960s in Iceland, there was only one state-run radio station broadcasting on a single frequency.
When the first broadcast station on the Keflavík naval base was established in 1963, its signal was just strong enough to be decoded by antennae in Keflavík and Njarðvík. “For the first time in history,” Aníta Engley of the Icelandic Museum of Rock ‘n’ Roll tells me, “Icelanders could change channels.”
It was with the advent of American radio (Kanaútvarpið) that Icelandic teenagers were introduced to Elvis Presley and the Beatles. “In the blink of an eye, you had over 50 garage bands in Keflavík – young kids performing in grandma’s kitchen,” Aníta explains.
By the time the antenna from the Naval Station was enlarged, so that its signal reached the capital area, musicians in Keflavík had enjoyed a two-year head start. Among the bands that availed themselves most fully of this advantage, and perhaps best synthesised the sound of rock music, was Hljómar (“Chords”). By 1964, Hljómar was performing “relentlessly all over Iceland” (as noted by musician and music journalist Dr. Gunni) and probably would have made it big abroad had they not Anglicised their name as “Thor’s Hammer.”
“From Hljómar to the Sugarcubes, from the Sugarcubes to Björk, and from Björk to Sigur Rós,” Aníta notes – the history of modern pop music in Iceland begins with the Naval Station in Keflavík.
“Besides inspiring this museum, and your eventual role within it,” I ask, “did the Naval Station have a direct impact on your life?”
“Well, you can tell by my last name,” Aníta responds, “I’m a product of ‘the situation’ myself. My grandfather was an American soldier of Irish extraction.”
“The Situation” is a euphemism describing the romantic involvement of Icelandic women with Allied soldiers during World War II. Such affairs were poorly received by local men (and the prudes of Reykjavík society), who very high-mindedly accused these women of prostitution or treason; when US troops returned to Keflavík, as part of a post-war NATO agreement, unmarried men from lower ranks were made to observe a 10:00 PM curfew and only allowed to stay out till midnight once a week. (Documents later revealed that the Icelandic government also asked the US to limit the deployment of soldiers of colour.)
But it wasn’t just Icelandic women who fell for American men.
“There are no mountains; calm weather tends to pass through here pretty quickly.”
Clair de lune
Svanur Gísli Þorkelsson is laughing profusely from inside the municipal library in Keflavík. He’s dressed in a dashing winter coat – made from “Scottish wool” – wearing six rings on five fingers, and his grey, curly locks are hanging down to his shoulders.
Robert Plant meets Harald Fairhair.
Besides being knowledgeable about the region’s history, regularly contributing brief historical essays to the Facebook page Keflavík og Keflvíkingar (Keflavík and Keflavík Residents), Svanur has also lived an eventful life. He once met Margaret Atwood aboard a cruise ship in Canada. She was so impressed with his powers of recitation that she convinced him to record an audio version of Beowulf in Saxon.
And then there’s his wedding.
It was on a sunny Saturday morning, on September 11, 1976, that Svanur Gísli awoke to the sound of someone barging into his bedroom. “I’m sorry, but you’re not getting married today!” declared the intruder, his brother.
“What do you mean?” Svanur asked, sitting up in bed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“Croatian freedom fighters have hijacked an American aeroplane – and they’re en route to Keflavík to refuel,” his brother explained.
This grand geopolitical gesture was not a problem for anyone else getting married in Keflavík on that day. Only that Svanur happened to be engaged to Cynthia Farrell, daughter of Captain John Roger Farrell, Commanding Officer of the Keflavík Naval Station. Their wedding was to be held at 2:00 PM at the Farrells’ home, which happened to be situated at the end of a runway – right where the Croats were being invited to refuel.
Determined to ensure that his daughter’s wedding could go ahead as planned, Captain John Roger Farrell had been busy coordinating with police and firefighters all morning. He had ordered security guards at the gate to admit wedding guests without harassment, and instructed them to forgo the inspection of any goods that, on the surface, clearly resembled presents of the nuptial variety.
When the guests arrived at the Captain’s home, they were ushered into the living room, where at 2:00 PM, Svanur’s mother-in-law sat down at the piano to play Clair de lune. As Debussy’s dreamy suite meandered along, the crowd gazed out the broad, panoramic windows towards a Boeing 727 aircraft idling just a few metres from the house. Two men, dressed in white overalls, hands on their heads, appeared on the runway and began kicking a big cardboard box toward the aircraft. When they had scuttled back to safety, a man with a ski mask walked down the airstair and took hold of the box. Somewhere not far off, Captain John Roger Farrell, joined by the chief of fire and police, was directing operations through a walkie-talkie.
When Clair de lune finally faded, Captain John Roger appeared with Cynthia on his arm, and a walkie talkie in the other, as a fuel truck pulled up to the aeroplane.
“His oration was promptly drowned out by the sound of jet engines,” Svanur says, laughing loudly. He and Cynthia later divorced, and Svanur eventually married a British woman.
Her kind “invaded” our island in the 1940s.
Eager to oblige
When Nazi jackboots tramped into Denmark and Norway in April of 1940, Churchill feared Iceland was next. “Whoever possesses Iceland,” the old bulldog is to have observed, paraphrasing one of his subordinates, “holds a pistol firmly pointed at England, America, and Canada.”
Suspecting that the Icelanders, who had officially declared neutrality, would rebuff any overtures of military protection, the British decided to invade. Just after midnight on Friday, May 10, 1940, they dispatched a reconnaissance aircraft to survey the area. Whether owing to accident or miscommunication, the plane flew directly over Reykjavík.
By the time a small fleet of British warships rolled into Reykjavík harbour on Friday morning, a crowd of locals had already gathered. Fishermen. Taxi drivers. A few cops. In retrospect, the British had scant reason to be alarmed (despite their blown cover); when the British Consul arrived at the harbour and observed the unfortunate proximity of the crowd to the mooring ships, he spotted a local policeman and asked if he could instruct his people to step back. “Certainly,” the officer responded, eager to oblige the honourable British gentleman in his quest to conquer the island.
Approximately 25,000 British soldiers occupied Iceland between 1940 and 1941, and the British “invasion” helped end the recession; among other things, 2,000 barracks were imported from Britain and Reykjavik Airport was constructed.
In 1941, the Americans relieved the Brits (who’d previously been relieved by the Canadians), establishing a naval base in Keflavík. The base was split into two airstrips: Meeks Airfield, which would later become Keflavík International Airport, and Patterson airfield, which served as home for most American officers. The US forces left in 1947, in accordance with the Keflavík Agreement, but after NATO was established in 1949, with Iceland as a founding member, the Americans returned in 1951 and were employed as Iceland’s Defence Force.
At its most populous, the naval base in Keflavík was home to some 5,700 people. Despite being segregated from the rest of the community, the Americans, for the better part of the 20th century, exercised an outsized influence on Keflavík’s history and culture.
Hilmar Bragi Bárðarson has the most villainous eyebrows in Keflavík.
They depart from the ridge of his eyes at an impressive 45-degree angle, and although one is initially inclined to attribute some vague edge in his demeanour to his life-long career in journalism, it occurs to one, only later, that it may have had more to do with those two devilish brows. (He’s quite personable and obliging).
As he ushers us into the middle of the Víkurfréttir newsroom, situated at the top floor of a relatively tall, glass office building, he begins talking about last year’s volcanic eruption; the building shook so vigorously in the months leading up to the event that he sometimes suffered bouts of vertigo.
“We were the first to report on the eruption,” he declares, and not without a measure of pride. “The photo that accompanied the article was taken right out this window. We had front-row seats.”
Thirty-six years ago, Hilmar Bragi visited the offices of Víkurfréttir on Career Day. He was hired shortly after that and has been working there ever since. Since 1988.
Víkurfréttir has two other full-time employees: Páll, the editor (who’s off skiing somewhere in Europe), and Andrea, in sales, who intermittently shoots us furtive glances from behind her desk. “We also have another guy who works part-time, along with a handful of freelance writers,” Hilmar explains.
If you’re looking for romantic, high-flown sentiments about Keflavík, you would do well to ask someone other than Hilmar Bragi.
“What differentiates Keflavík from other towns?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I guess it’s the fact that there are no mountains; calm weather tends to pass through here pretty quickly,” he says with a straight face (as far as that’s possible). “But I do suppose that the airport, whether we’re talking the former Naval Station or the international one, has been hugely significant.”
On Wednesday, March 15, 2006, Víkurfréttir almost broke its biggest story. When word got out that the Americans were about to depart from Keflavík, a weary Hilmar Bragi, who had stayed up the night before to report on a conflagration in Garður, scrambled to confirm the story. He reached out to Friðþjófur Eydal, the Naval Station’s Public Relations Officer, who vigorously denied everything until the official announcement was made later that day.
“Despite not breaking the news,” Hilmar Bragi says, “we did manage to squeeze it into our paper, which was sent to print later that afternoon. It would have been a complete disaster if we hadn’t included it.”
And then they just left.
“Whoever possesses Iceland, holds a pistol firmly pointed at England, America, and Canada.” – Winston Churchill
The neighbourhood went dark
Pastor Erla Guðmundsdóttir is sitting on the second floor of her church and drinking a can of diet soda. She has short blonde hair, a handsome face, and is holding a large smartphone in a pink case.
“What distinguishes Keflavík from other towns?”
“The residents of Keflavík are powerful,” Erla says, full of sincerity and passion. “They’re courageous. They’re kind. There’s a sense of solidarity. It’s this rural area near the city, which stretches out into all these directions.”
And then there’s the music.
“We’re different,” Erla continues. “Our funerals are different – because of the music. We were ‘the Beatle town.’ Rúnar Júlíusson was raised right here in this church. He would sit here with his mother and sing. Magnús Kjartansson would make out with his girlfriend in the cellar. Valdimar was a choir boy here. We have one of the greatest music schools in Iceland. Lots of culture. A vigorous theatre. It’s a vibrant society. A good place for children.”
More so than other residents, pastor Erla seems particularly in touch with the different strata of society – attuned to their struggles. (Unsurprising, perhaps, given her profession.)
“When the Americans left,” Erla begins, “you had an entire neighbourhood (Ásbrú, the site of the former Naval Station) that went dark. Many people lost their jobs. And when the economic crisis struck two years later, the unemployment benefits of many residents had already expired. Our community in Keflavík dropped so low.”
“We were going to build a college society,” she continues, “to repurpose the apartments as housing for students. Keilir Academy was founded to raise the education level, which had been relatively low, since it was easy to find well-paying jobs with the Americans without an education.”
Although Ásbrú did eventually become a college community, there were also rumours, as noted by reporter Hilmar Bragi, that capital-area municipalities took advantage of the void left by the former Naval Station, and the relatively low cost of housing, by shipping off “problematic cases” to Ásbrú: that they had paid to transport people to the neighbourhood, shelled out a few months’ rent in advance, along with a deposit, and then just left them there. It was perhaps something akin to modern hreppaflutningar, a historical Icelandic practice of relocating impoverished individuals between counties.
“We tried to be positive,” Erla says, sipping from her can, “but the area has proven problematic. You have many immigrants and asylum seekers. It hurts, listening to their stories. Conditions are not great, but the cost of housing has remained relatively low.”
Despite priding itself on being a multicultural society, a recent paper published by the Social Science Institute of the University of Iceland revealed that more so than other inhabitants elsewhere in the country, residents of Iceland’s southwest region (including Keflavík and Reykjanesbær) believe that “too many immigrants have arrived in the country” – and that they “pose a threat to Icelandic society.”
Given that many Poles reside in the area, my colleague inquires into the influence of the Catholic church.
“The Catholics bought St. John Paul II Church in Ásbrú. During the time of the Naval Station, there were 25 different religions practised at the church. It had a rotating altarpiece to accommodate the different faiths.”
“And who presides over it?”
“There’s a priest called Miko. He’s a refugee – from Iran. He spent time in Greece, and Sweden, too. He’s lived quite a life.”
“We can talk then… ”
The naval base is gone, a closed chapter in the history of Keflavík, albeit one that still lives on in recent memory; it’s easy to elicit stories about the Americans. What’s proven more difficult is getting a handle on what’s replaced them.
On Monday, March 21, late in the afternoon, I reach Mikolaj Kecik. As the parish priest of St. John Paul II Church, he’s spent some time in the shadow of the former Naval Station.
“I’m going on vacation,” Mikolaj says, over the phone. “But I’ll be back on April 7. We can talk then …”