As I stood on a line snaking down a steep set of stairs in a narrow white-washed house and out the front door, and down a curvy path to the sidewalk, I thought that only in Reykjavik, Iceland would the locals and visitors alike be able to hang out in the house of the city councilman who stands over the stove cooking waffles that you could then nibble on with a generous dollop of whipped cream.
That's exactly what I did recently on one of the most special Saturdays of the year in this petite city. The capital's Culture Night -- it should really be renamed Culture Day & Night since the multitude of events go on from early morning to after 11 pm -- is a 15-year-old annual festival of art, music, dance, crafts, design, food (and more) that attracts thousands of people.
This year saw the inauguration of Harpa, Reykjavik's architecturally-noteworthy concert hall and conference center that glistens along the old harbor. After Iceland's economic collapse in 2008, this cultural center is bringing new life to the waterfront, especially given the curiosity factor the building provides: Some 1,000 hexagon-shaped glass bricks reflect and refract the ever-changing light and the landscape of sky and sea.
Culture Night always starts with the marathon that attracts participants from all over -- on my flight from JFK, I sat next to two women runners from San Francisco. (Many of the city streets are closed to vehicles because of the marathon route.) Children can participate in their own 1.1 km or 700-meter runs and, from the crowds of parents with toddlers in tow, it was very popular.
With a massive three-page Culture Night schedule in hand, I packed in as many cultural events as possible within 14 hours or so. And that included stopping at the city councilman's house for waffles and cream. I joined a handful of others sitting in his living room enjoying the sun pouring through the windows of the second floor, checking out his CD collection and admiring the artwork hung on the walls. (And, of course, the cloud-like waffles and sweet cream.)
At the Reykjavik Museum Harbor House -- one of many museums that wave the admission fee and extend their normal hours on this Saturday -- I watched children attempting to solve a giant jigsaw puzzle from one of Erro's (a pop artist) paintings.
At another branch of this museum, I explored an exhibition dedicated to the Icelandic horse, which has long played a significant role in the life of the nation. Interestingly, a few paintings showed a mythological sensibility while one was quite apocalyptic
Outside the pond-side City Hall, children played chess at a row of tables.
As I rounded a corner, I ran into a clutch of people who are part of a historical walking tour of the city.
Then it was on to the National Museum of Iceland where I had the opportunity to embroider my name on a table cloth using a traditional stitch.
I strolled down the street to the lawn adjacent to the National Gallery where I found Sola, the storyteller, dressed in a long crimson dress, and her story mobile, a van displaying a boldly-colored image of a young girl reading a book as she reclines in a dragon's paw.
The day (and night) was packed with activity after activity: Bollywood dance classes, calligraphy workshops, flea markets, violin recitals, jazz and rock bands, Tai Chi demonstrations, photo exhibitions.
At 10:45 pm, LED strips that line the glass blocks in Harpa lit the facade for the first time with myriad colors that will keep the building glowing through the long Icelandic winters. And then the sky brightened with a stellar fireworks display at 11pm along the harbor.
Even though I visit Reykjavik almost every year, I think I'll most miss the city this year because of Culture Night. It's an event that intimately connects you with the life of the city and its people -- something I'd like to experience year after year.
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