Every year Reykjavik celebrates Culture Night on the Saturday closest to August 18. August 18 is the day that Icelanders commemorate the incorporation of Rejkjavik as a city in 1786. (There was a settlement in Reykjavik since 900, but this was the establishment of a city as business center.) In 2017, August 19 was Culture Night, which actually starts in the morning and runs all day, with free admission to all museums and national/city galleries, plenty of events like live music, drama performances, 10K runs, walks and bike races… lots of food, face-painting and fun. The buses also run for free all day.
This is one great day to be in Reykjavik. In addition to the music and the sights, there was some waffle-themed event, which we missed, and an event with a pancake theme that we also missed, although we stopped at Café Loki, (because how could we not?) and ordered a pancake plate as our own event.
And there was our Skulagata friend, Khamil.
Decode is a genetics research project, owned/funded 100% by Amgen Corp. Decode takes advantage of some unusual features of Iceland to study genetic markers connected with certain diseases. Iceland has an isolated gene pool and familiar historical records that go back more than 900 years, making it easy for researchers to identify and isolate data (fewer variables). 166,000 Icelanders have donated their DNA to the Decode project. That number becomes even more impressive when you think that the population of Iceland is about 330,000.
Decode only opens its doors to the public once or twice a year, and Culture Night was one of those times. We all wanted to go to the open house. As we were discussing our desires for what to see on Saturday, there was a conversation that, as I recall, went something like this:
Daniel: According to their website, it’s at Skulagata 8. [That’s how I heard it.]
Me: Skulagata. I know that street.
I did know that street. I’d walked down part of Skulagata every morning the first three days I was in Iceland, to go down to the waterfront and Gamla Hofnin, the old harbor. I didn’t remember seeing a place called Decode (I did remember a Domino’s Pizza) but there were several severe office buildings and it seemed possible Decode had been in there.
Daniel: It looks like a short street. It shouldn’t be hard to find.
It was a short street. On Saturday, after we parked, we walked its full length and found no Skulagata 8. Along the way we theorized why we couldn’t find it. Once we stopped to discuss our next steps. A local man made the mistake of coming out of his apartment at just that moment and we pounced on him. Did he know where Skulagata 8 was?
Our innocent victim did not look like most Icelanders I had seen. Many or most have light hair (although reddish brown is common), fair skin and most have light colored eyes. This is a not a surprise in a country with an isolated genetic pool. Our helper was a slight, slender man with brown skin, brown hair and sparkly brown eyes. He didn’t know where Skulagata 8 was; he thought he had heard of Decode. He pointed out that several buildings that faced the water (and Skulagata) were actually addressed to the nearest cross street. He wished us good luck.
Daniel had a theory that Skulagata was actually a longer street than we had first thought, and that it continued across Snorrabraut, closer to where we had parked. We crossed Snorrabraut and wandered up a couple of streets that were not Skulagata. By the way, all this pedestrian to-and-froing was easy and safe since many of the streets down to the waterfront were closed for the holiday events. We did not find the second length of Skulagata. That’s logical, since there isn’t one.
We came back and wandered aimlessly in a courtyard area on Skulagata for a little bit, when we saw a slender dark-haired man walking across the parking lot. He saw us and waved. “No luck, eh?” he said.
We said no, no luck. He told us to have a good day.
Another swing back across Snorrabraut with a detour to check out Escape Reykjavik, a live action game, when it occurred to us to check the website again, and this was when we discovered that the address was not Skulagata 8. It was Sturlagata 8, at the other end of town.
Along the way we stopped at the Koloportid, where Linda bought a sweater and Daniel and I sampled Kaestur Hakarl. (Of the three of us, Linda made the best choice there.) We had lunch and walked through a town square where people were starting to gather. At the statue in the center, people had started a spontaneous memorial for those killed in Barcelona. We walked along Lake Tjornin, commonly called The Pond, and into the university district where we found Decode. They were not offering any information about their project (apparently they never do; they refer people to the website) but they had refreshments and an art show.
Daniel has a way of navigating, even with a map, that I would call urban arithmetical. It’s perfectly logical; just determine the distance and the direction. If you have to go two blocks east and four blocks south, it doesn’t really matter in which order you do those things. There’s an element of approximation; often you are going “roughly” four blocks. And this system can get stymied by unexpected construction or cul de sacs. It’s perfect for walking though. And we walked. A lot. I was somewhat skeptical, but Daniel’s navigation was good.
Across the street from Reykjavik’s soaring Lutheran cathedral, the Hallsgrimkirkja, we stopped at Café Loki for something to eat.
Replenished, we ambled down Frakkastigur, through a lively, boho-arty neighborhood, across Laugavegur, which I call the Shopping Street, down toward the harbor until we ended up, again, on Skulagata. As we drifted toward the car, our interest was snagged by a tiny, eclectic gallery/thrift shop and we went in.
“Well, hello!” said someone sitting across from an ornate, velvet loveseat. It was our Skulagata friend! He was watching the gallery while the owner ran an errand.
When you meet someone for three times in one day, it seems necessary to introduce yourselves, so we did. His name was Khamil, he was from Iran, and he sells Persian style hangings and floor runners. While we were talking, Linda mentioned that she is a film-maker and Khamil said the owner had worked on films, most recently with Ridley Scott. Linda talked about her current project, a film on near-death experiences, and she and Khamil fell into a dynamic conversation because Khamil knew of a man in Iran who was declared dead for some quite-long time period, like fifteen minutes, and came back to life. There was much exchanging of business cards and e-mails.
The owner returned and we met him. He said he had worked on Prometheus, but he seemed like a nice man so we didn’t hold that against him.
The cramped place filled with folk art, new art, old knick-knacks and gew-gaws, watercolors and old oils, with a large golden Icelandic cow sculpture… and the three appearances of Khamil, our Skulagata friend, made me think for a minute that I’d fallen in to a Neil Gaiman story.
It wasn’t Icelandic folklore or myth, but maybe, like the odor of sulfur in the hot water in Reykjavik, there is just a whiff of magic in the air on Culture Night.