Understanding Love and Iceland (Translating Valentine’s Day)

(Relics of Saint Valentine, Rome)
(Relics of Saint Valentine, Rome)

In the past, February 14th has been the time of year that I have, in my way, celebrated valentines — despite its muddled origins and dreaded Hallmark affiliation, despite the syrup and the backlash. Mostly through craft and postal solidarity, I try to observe the under-event: International Correspondence Day (February 14th being the 2nd largest card-sending holiday world-wide).

And/or I celebrate the anti-valentines — the lesser understood antimatter of the heart. Or Lupercalia, the ancient Roman festival of the wolves. AND this year the new moon lands on February 14th as well, kicking off the Chinese New Year (2010 – go golden tiger!).


But this February 14th I find myself in Reykjavik, Iceland at an artist residency through Samband ??slenskra Myndlistarmanna (a.k.a. S??M). Asking around, St. Valentine doesn’t seem to hold much sway here (Norwegian St. Olaf with his battle-axe “Hel” a more popular cultural motif) — and the closest thing to the wolf or tiger in the native fauna is the arctic fox (quietly minding its own arctic business).

08-Arctic Fox

So what is celebrated here at this time of year? I was disappointed to learn that I just missed some of the best dates for catching a glimpse of ??lfar (elves) or hulduf??lk (hidden people) — Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and January 6th. (Next big day: June 24th.) These winter dates are a time when it is thought that the barrier between worlds becomes a little thinner. It is also when the Icelandic hidden folk are engaged in their own celebrations and, like Montreal’s all-city moving day, often changing households en masse. During these hectic and lively times, chance encounters by humans are much more likely, and sometimes elf-objects are left behind in the hubbub (like the cast-iron pot speculated to have belonged to an elf child, currently on display in the National Museum of Iceland).

It is also traditional on New Year’s Eve for human Icelanders (even in the city) to walk around their houses 3 times at midnight saying something along the lines of, “Go if you want to go, stay if you want to stay, but cause no harm to me or my family” — a respectful honoring of new and old neighbors and a couldn’t-hurt request for peaceful coexistence.

But what I was able to take part in was Reykjavik’s lively Museum Night (once and still sometimes known as the Winter Lights Festival) on February 12th. For this celebration all of the city’s museums and galleries are free and stay open until midnight, with a dizzying array of live music and performances offered practically everywhere.

(A further note: most of the art museums and galleries here, of which there are many, are usually free to the public anyway — and larger historical museums that ask for an entry fee often offer a free day each week. It is a point of pride to the Icelanders that these cultural resources are available to the whole community — and despite the current economic crisis, the arts institutions are doing their best to keep this tradition going.)

Some impressions of the evening and what I learned about Iceland:

* Iceland does believe in love! At least a little bit. Maybe ironically, or playfully — but the Museum Night festivities were kicked off with The Love Walk — costumes encouraged, a rally of love songs and poems provided, and Icelandic celebrities with torches to lead the way in a communal stroll around the lake. (White swans half-glowing in the dark posed picturesquely on the lake’s ice floe.) Here is some evidence from last year:

Reykjavik Love Walk - Photo by Eygl?? Svala Arnarsd??ttir
Reykjavik Love Walk - Photo by Eygl?? Svala Arnarsd??ttir

* Fashion Shoe: We peeked in at a (conceptual?/art?) fashion show in the National Gallery of Iceland — but not wanting to push through the crowd, we watched through the big windows, then just as happily watched our fellow onlookers. The story goes that Reykjavik’s streets and sidewalks are geothermally heated for winter safety, yes — but perhaps also (and more importantly?) to allow the fashionable Icelandic ladies to show off their fancy heels in all seasons. An inspiring parade.

* Screaming Man, Reykjavik Art Museum Hafnarh??s: Visual artist Siggtryggyr Berg Sigmarsson performed some screaming. The more distance I had from the actual event, the more I was strangely glad that this screaming man had been part of my night. Downstairs in the museum: real moon rocks to hold.

* I missed the Poem of Lights at the opening ceremonies, but I did catch some of the Teen Slam at the Reykjavik City Library. Literature still plays a huge role in Icelandic culture: Iceland has a 100% literacy rate, school curriculum includes the ancient sagas (poetic and prose eddas) and the rich history of the nation’s folk tales — and I learned that in many Icelandic communities when a child turns 2 years old (!), the local library will mail the child birthday wishes and a library card.

Even though the slam was in Icelandic, it was completely captivating even to non-Icelandic speakers — live musical numbers with the words sung, poems accompanied by music, and some pure spoken word. There didn’t appear to be any judging between acts, but all of the pieces were 3 minutes or less (keeping to typical Slam rules). I read later that the theme of this slam was “mawkishness” — but what came through to the audience was refreshing sincerity. Maybe the theme allowed for enough “persona” to boost the performers’ confidence, letting the vulnerable awesomeness of teen talent shine through. Teen Slam rules!

* Icelandic Folk Singing – We caught some beautiful harmonies and delicate folk tunes (medieval to modern) at the National Museum of Iceland, performed by a couple beaming happiness on the steps to the 2nd floor. The last few songs became sing-a-longs, the entire museum joining in. Upstairs: an Icelandic children’s movie — Palli Was Alone in the World (Palli Var Einn ?? Heiminum).

* Pay Attention to Your Dreams: Traditionally dreams play a prominent role in Icelandic culture. In the ancient sagas dream interpretation (or misinterpretation) often features in the plot, and the hidden folk commonly appear in people’s dreams if they need to express something (thereby avoiding the struggle with ordinary human-eye physics).

So perhaps not surprisingly, dreams also seemed to feature largely in the Museum Night’s offerings. To name just a few: the Reykjavik Municipal Archives asked for brief written descriptions of dreams to be sent leading up to the night with select readings during the festivities; individual dream interpretations offered by Sigr??n Gunnarsd??ttir at the Municipal Archives and by ????ra Elfa Bj??rnsson at the Hafnarfj??r??ur Library; lecture (in Icelandic) on “Dreams Told in the Sturlunga Saga and Dreams of Present Day” by Gu??r??n Nordal at the Settlement Exhibition; “Music for a Dream Machine: Installation with Dream Machine” (!) by sound artist R??nar Magn??sson at the Art Museum ??smundarsafn; and a film screening of Draumur um Draum (“Dream about Dream”) on the life and work of author Ragnheidur J??nsd??ttir.

* Otherworldly Music: In the paper, this event was listed simply as “The Culture House: ??l??f Arnalds in solo concert.” When she started singing, the overhead lights were dimmed so that the spotlit archived books behind her could glow. Performing almost entirely in Icelandic, at her eeriest ??l??f seemed to be shaping leaves with her mouth, creating the sensation that she could shift seasons with the fragile-force of her singing, and that we were being lead — slowly, persistently — into another world.

* * *

So happy new year tigers, saints, wolves, arctic foxes and elven singing to you today! I hope you add a card to the global card migration and celebrate in whichever way you choose.