Larissa Kyzer enjoys midsummer in Iceland
“Happy summer solstice,” I wished a southerly-dwelling friend of mine this weekend. “I had no idea,” she said, wishing me a happy day in return. “Do you have any local traditions to take part in?”
Now, if you’re talking about traditions along the lines of those our Nordic neighbors partake of during the midsummer season — dancing around maypoles, donning floral crowns, lighting bonfires, and consuming large quantities of fermented fish — the answer is no. (Bonfires are a popular New Year’s tradition here, but the opportunity to freak out a foreigner is generally excuse enough to bust out the fermented fish shark.)
Rather, I’d say that summer is more of a state of mind in Iceland than it is a season, or a holiday, or a set of prescribed traditions. There’s a kind of urgency accompanies the sudden shift from near-constant darkness to near-constant daylight, a sense that while it may not exactly be warm, this is the time to go out and make the most of what several of my coworkers and acquaintances have referred to as “fallegt land okkar”—our beautiful country. Suffice to say, out of office auto-replies are quite commonplace from April to September.
Not to say, of course, that people aren’t sucking up every ounce of daylight here in Reykjavík, too—far from it. Last summer, my first in Iceland, I lived in a quiet, seaside neighborhood mostly occupied by large families. Nearly every house on my block had a jumbo trampoline battened down in their yard, and the springy sound of joyful jumping echoed down the street as late (or as early) as 1am on clear nights.
I distinctly remember a Saturday later that same summer, notable because it was the only day that season that I was able to sit outside in a sleeveless shirt for more than half an hour. I was out with a group of friends, and making our way to a park, we passed street musicians, people selling crafts, and even a giant inflatable swimming pool where kids zipped up into giant plastic balls could gambol about like bubble-encased sumo wrestlers. Arriving at the park, itself surrounded by cafés with outdoor seating, we plonked ourselves down on the grass, and (excepting a brief and enterprising run to a nearby Vínbuð for a few cans of beer), didn’t move for the next three hours.
Around us, however, the air was almost literally buzzing with excitement. Every single café table and chair was filled. There were guys strumming guitars, their classic rock covers mingling with the sound of tinny pop music as teens tried to get as much volume as possible out of their phones. Not one, not two, but three bachelorette parties — each with increasingly antic displays of pre-marital liberty — trooped through the clusters of people lounging on the grass. A coworker on her way to a barbeque sat down with us for a bit and debated whether it might not be better to go straight to the beach instead, or maybe she could do both? A young girl walking a bunny on a leash skipped by. Children scrambled up to the tip top of a statue and whooped.
It was invigorating and kind of panic-inducing, too. It was the perfect day, after all, not only sunny, but warm, too, and everyone knew that it wasn’t going to last. How to make the best of it? There was no right answer, of course, but the most popular one seemed to be: Do Everything. All at once. Right now.
Everything, of course, but sleep. Sleeping in the summer is not only a bit of a challenge, what with all the extra light, but it also feels like a total waste of time. You slept all this winter, and you’ll sleep all the next. So that now, at 11:30pm on the evening of the summer solstice, you find yourself packing up your croquet set (a delightfully optimistic gift from abroad) and trooping down to a seaside field for a few games. Yes, of course. Let’s play midnight croquet. Let’s take a walk. Let’s start a movie at 4am. Let’s bake a cake and rearrange the furniture. Let’s do anything but sleep.
“For me,” writes Marvi Ablaza Gil, a nurse in the psychiatric ICU department at the National Hospital, “the first signs of summer include the influx of manic patients. Of course, this is entirely anecdotal on my part (there is absolutely no evidence yet that this is so) but in my mind, there are more patients who seek help for mania as the summer approaches.” Mania, she explains, is “a sustained elevated mood where someone is easily irritated, has flights of fancy and grandiose ideas, impulsive behavior, pressure to keep talking, easy distractability and markedly decreased need for sleep (or remains awake for days).” She rejects the idea that Icelanders tend towards mania during the summer months, but urges everyone — Icelanders and tourists alike — to “keep in mind that sleep regulation is important.”
Even after you get the hang of this regulation, however — black out curtains easily do the trick — the urge to do, do, do, doesn’t really go away. “We tend to overbook our calendars,” Marvi writes, “in order to take advantage of longer days. Last summer, I know of one colleague who always had something going on everyday. Be it barbecue parties, group hikes, bar hopping or just meeting her sewing club friends, she was doing something every second there was daylight. She explains it very simply. It was just an opportunity to break out after the long dark, winter months.”
I get this now. After that first summer, when the light began to wane again and the weather turned from pretty chilly to downright cold again, I was angry. Really and truly mad. I grew up in the desert but over the ten years prior to my arrival in Iceland, had moved to New York and grown to love the changing of the seasons — when the languid heat of summer gives way to the crisp bite of fall. But there’s no real fall in Iceland to get you ready for winter. Instead, there’s a mild change of temperature, accompanied by an uptick in wind speeds, and nary a red or orange leaf to kick about. So what did we have to look forward to? Darkness, of course. I huffily took to my fleece pajamas, tucked myself into bed, and only got up when I absolutely had to. (Which, for the record, what with school and work, was pretty much 8:00am, every day. But I wasn’t happy about it.)
Now summer’s returned, though, and I find myself making oodles of to-do lists. Go to the pool every day. Go sea swimming twice a week. Collect dandelions and make wine. Visit the baby animals at the zoo. Go on day hikes. Camp. Go work on a goat farm for a few weeks. Cultivate herbs in window boxes. Cook all food outdoors. The activities aren’t even restricted to outdoor ones: take a dance class, volunteer at the library, bake bread, start crocheting a friend’s baby blanket, learn to paint. Start that short story I’ve been mentally plotting. Read fifty books, and not just ‘beach reads’ — read The Magic Mountain.
I haven’t done half of the things on my list yet and I’m confident that I won’t get even half of these things done before the summer ends. But I want to: Do Everything. All At Once. Right Now. Because pretty soon, it’ll be winter again.
Larissa Kyzer is a writer and student of the Icelandic language at the University of Iceland. She currently lives in Reykjavík with her partner Mark and blogs about life and language-learning at ethandthorn.wordpress.com.