Sunday, June 24, 2012

There is a Light that Never Goes Out

 What's cooler than an Icelandic glacier? Reykjavik hipsters!

I always knew that Iceland was beloved by hipsters. After all, the beautiful video for Bon Iver's "Holocene" was shot throughout the breathtaking vistas of the country. But as much as the bearded hipster yearns for the living his Thoreau-with-microbrew aesthetic in a remote cabin built off a volcano, that hipster is nowhere to be found in Iceland itself. Rather, the only thing American and Icelandic hipsters have in common is the flannel shirt.
 With a population of roughly 320,000, you wouldn't expect so many hipsters, but Iceland is literally (bar) crawling with them. After all, the sun barely sets in the summer so the "night" life is ideal. The midnight sun helps to shine a light on what makes Reyk hipsters different.
That's where I hang my Converse out to dry too!

 Firstly, street art. Depicting everything from trolls picking their noses to geek glasses sporting chickens, the graffiti is more interesting than what you'll find in the museums. The weirdest graffiti often covers a whole building, denoting a hipster haven.

However, sometimes it's covertly hidden down an alleyway or painted on a cheeky fire hydrant because the real hipster doesn't want to be found.

Do you think the wink is meant to be ironic?

Secondly, the record store.

As if the country's landscapes weren't starkly beautiful enough, they inspire some hauntingly gorgeous music too, such as Bjork and Sigur Ros. Consequently, Reykjavik has been selling vinyl before it became fashionable to do so again and no bar is complete without a hipster DJ set or live band.

Thirdly, flashmobs.

I'm not sure if I was visiting during a special festival week or if Icelanders just love playing music on the sidewalk, but I kept stumbling upon seemingly spontaneous concerts. Each time felt unique to both Reykjavik and my vacation.
First, there was the youth orchestra.
Who needs an ipod when you can have a live tuba as your soundtrack?

Second, there was the so-hip-it-hurts men's choir outside the bar. Pints still in hand, they precariously set up some bar stools to stand on and then started serenading the crowd of bemused locals and pleasantly surprised tourists with traditional Icelandic music for 20 minutes. They certainly had the talent of a professional choir, but never set their beer down. Perhaps this was their post-rehearsal vocal relaxation exercise?   
By the way, I don't think they were dressed specially for the event. That's how Icelandic men dress normally- slicked back duckbill hair style, tailored oxfords, and dark wash denim. You'll never look so dapper, so don't even try.

Sometimes hipsterdom can be depressing because you know you'll never fit in and you aren't supposed to, but even tourists have a chance at being part of the scene. Our hostel, Kex, was the epitome of trendy.
There's nothing a Kex receptionist can't do.
No, this is not a photo from The Selby, it's just the lounge on my floor.
Out of the three hostels I've stayed at throughout Europe, none had a gastropub on the premises before. Kex's was a good one too because even locals grabbed a dinner and drinks there.
I never really had to worry about blending in though because I was with my two boss bitches (I'm not being crass, that's the highest compliment I could pay them), Lexie and Kathryn. They bar hopped like pros, sang along to the new Beach House album playing at all the record stores, and knew where the in-crowd ate (see them slurping up delicious pho below.)  They were more than hip enough for Reykjavik. Only their sweet Southern accents gave them away.
Lexie, the Michelle Williams look alike.
Kathryn, master of wearing solid colors.

Reykjavik is a hipster paradise, except it defies one part of the hipster credo- exclusivity. Rather, everyone can get involved- see a flashmob, hear some Jonsi, touch a gorgeous wool sweater, taste the latest it-food, and feel like they're part of something special. After all, it's a small country, so the more the merrier.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Cheeseburger in Paradise

See that bird pathetically attempting to fly? That's a puffin. It's one of Iceland's most prevalent birds, both in the ocean and on your plate. As my Thomas Cook Pocket Guide said about Icelandic food:

“Seabirds are fairly common on the menu, with puffin being the most prevalent. Often served smoked, the taste has been compared to veal....Pickled ram’s testicles served commonly as a sort of pate, and cod chins or cheeks, taken from the fish’s head, are legacies from the days when almost anything was considered edible.”

The only puffins I ever eat come in cereal form and I don't even eat fish. So naturally, I was quite wary of the culinary offerings of Reykjavik. 
Except then I got to Reykjavik and found more American diner food than I can in the States. I have a sneaking suspicion that this might be because of the US military base established in Iceland around WWII. Even though it's now defunct, Icelanders have a developed a penchant for American-style burgers, fries and brunch and after not having them for over five months, I didn't mind.

If Don Draper were Scandinavian, I'm sure he'd frequent Grai Kotturinn (or Gray Cat). I'd say the cafe was going for a retro vibe, except I'm pretty sure they just haven't changed the decor or menu since the 1950s. With thick buttermilk pancakes accompanied by crispy bacon and waiters with attitude, you feel like you're in a New York City diner and sure enough, there were even New Yorkers there. While I was pouring maple syrup everywhere, two seemingly interchangeable groups of Big Apple natives came in for bagels and smeared more than just cream cheese around, but also gossip about the Lower East Side art world. It's definitely worth a visit for pancakes and people watching.
 However, Icelanders are no stranger to fast food themselves.

Hotdogs aren't just famous in Iceland because they're one of the few cheap eats, but because they're a delicacy in their own right. Bæjarins beztu serves the best, complete with ketchup, sweet mustard, fried and raw onion, and remolaði, a mayo-relish sauce. It was too sweet for me, but sweeter on my wallet, so I'm not complaining.

I even found the Icelandic version of the Dairy Queen chocolate dip cone. Although, instead of soft-serve ice cream, it was filled with skyr- a strained yogurt similar to Greek yogurt. The cone started melting before I could get an in focus photo, but trust me, it was delicious.
Reykjavik's cafe culture is equally unique.

Like the rest of the city, the cafes open up late, but stay open late too. Cafe Babalu is a hipster haven with its kitschy decor, delectable cheesecake (more American food done better from across the Atlantic), late hours and therefore bottomless coffee refills. Lexie, Kathryn, and I spent hours there conversing over cake. Sitting in cafes all day isn't a nuisance, it's expected in Reykjavik and since that's one of my favorite hobbies anyway, I gladly obliged.
All mochas are called Swiss mochas in Iceland, making them extra decadent.

Kaffitar is the Icelandic equivalent of Starbucks, except with better coffee. It's one of the few chains Iceland has (well other than the omnipresent Dominoes, Subway, and KFC), with locations in The National Museum and Keflavik airport. The cafe's colorful decor gives you as much of a jolt as espresso does.

By seamlessly combining a retro throwback atmosphere with the cafe culture, Mokka is the epitome of the hipster dining scene in Reykjavik. It's one of the oldest cafes in the city and has the chic minimalist lighting and leather booths of the 1950s to prove its longevity. 

However, it hasn't stayed in business for over half a century because its hip, but because the drinks and desserts are some of the best in the city. Hot chocolate shows up on a lot of Reykjavik cafe menus, but Mokka's is particularly rich and warming on one of the city's windy days.
From all of my traveling, I've become a waffle connoisseur of sorts. I was never that impressed by the typical American waffle drowned in maple syrup. However, in Europe, waffles don't even pretend to masquerade as breakfast, but dessert and I can't resist dessert. Consequently, I have to try all of the waffle variations. For example, Germany's waffles are smothered in custard and berries. Mokka is especially known for its waffles, so I had to taste Iceland's take on them. Their waffle is served with a generous helping of whipped cream and strawberry jam, which is as tasty as it sounds. Although, to be honest, German waffles are still my favorite.
I didn't expect to eat three cheese burgers in Iceland, but if there's one thing I've learned about this country is to expect the unexpected.