Let’s Build a Chinese Hotel in Iceland

Oh this is good: the government of Iceland, which we can perhaps say is on thin ice where the economy is concerned, has no idea what to make of a Chinese businessman with ambitious designs—running hundreds of millions of dollars—to build a giant luxury hotel and “eco golf course” in what is essentially a barren waste of snow on the other side of the country from Reykjavik.

Maybe my favorite thing about this batty entrepreneur, Huang Nubo, is that when the Times called to ask him about his overtures to the tiny European nation, they were told he couldn’t comment for a very specific reason: “he was off climbing a mountain, his company said.” In an even better quote, Iceland Foreign Minister Ossur Skarphedinsson addressed the extreme climate and isolation of Grimmstadir, the proposed hotel site, by saying it was a place where “you can almost hear ghosts dancing in the snow.”

But that’s part of the allure for Huang, who imagines a resort for China’s well-to-do to escape pollution and congestion and enjoy fresh, clean air. Or is it step one in China’s plot to annex all of Scandanavia? Gain shipping routes to Arctic oil? The plan seems too far-fetched to be anything but an elaborate front. All we can say is that it’ll be hugely disappointing if this turns into anything but a James Bond movie.

Photo credit: Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

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Photo Gallery: Icelandic Bottle Service at Airwaves Music Festival

In New York, there’s bottle service. In Iceland, there’s Elf Rock service. That’s right: a portable Elf Rock bar one totes around to strategic Icelandic destinations like the magnificent Gulfoss waterfalls, the world’s first geyser (called Geyser), and, of course, all the hottest venues at the Iceland Airwaves music festival, where you can even bring the mobile Elf Rock bar on stage with the band, pop it open, and start serving drinks during the show. For the uninitiated, actual elf rocks are those magical rocks found all over Iceland’s rugged terrain, where elves are believed to live. The mobile Elf Rock bar put together by the Swervewolf contingent for this year’s Airwaves festival was a particular hit with the Icelanders, stirring primal passions in their Viking souls at first sip.

The first night’s Elf Rock bar was stocked with the local Brennavin, Angostura bitters, ginger ale, brown sugar, a bar towel, and shot glasses. Then, for a rad snowmobiling trip to a glacier with Mountaineers of Iceland, the bar featured ultra pure Reyka vodka on the rocks and pristine glacier ice. Other times, the Elf Rock went with a Mexican tequila theme, including lemons and salt. This was a particular hit backstage at the Vandelles show at Idno, where the angelic Icelandic girls choir Karitur Islands kissed it for good luck before hitting the stage.

You can drink in the street in Reykjavik, and Icelandic rapper Blaz Roca played Elf Rock barkeep on the corner at 4am to a bevvy of his groupies after playing a packed show. You’d think in a country known for its astronomical drink prices, hip spots like Boston, Bakkus, Nasa, and others would frown on people rolling in with their very own bar. Instead, having an Elf Rock bar in tow allowed us to breeze past lines, walk right up to the bar, and start serving drinks for everyone. As our Icelandic friend Stella explained to us, this was “because nobody would dare offend the Huldufólk,” starting with the coolest mayor in the world Jón Gnarr, who’s down with the Moomin elves. Check out this gallery of shots the BlackBook and Swervewolf crew snapped of Icelanders enjoying Airwaves and the magical mobile Elf Rock bar. Wonder if this would work in New York…

The World’s Best Mayor Welcomes You to Iceland Airwaves

Last year when I visited the excellent Iceland Airwaves music festival in Reykjavik, which wrapped up last night after five raucous, drizzly days of bands, Brennavin and cured shark, I wrote a post for BlackBook about how the Icelandic people — though some of the coolest, fun-lovingest and downright looniest on the planet — had just one joke. Soon afterwards, an Icelander named Jón Gnarr, who among other things used to play in Bjork’s band the Sugarcubes, stood up for Iceland (and Icelandic humor) and told one of the best jokes the world has ever heard. It was so good that the joke got him elected as Reykjavik’s mayor.

The set-up for the joke, if you will, was the upheaval in Iceland following the country’s recent and infamous financial meltdown. But Gnarr’s delivery was so spot on, so attuned with the collective Icelandic Weltanschauung Elfenschauung, that he and his satirical Best Party won a landslide victory in June 2010. Some of his campaign promises were downright ludicrous, like free towels in the country’s popular public swimming pools. Others were more realistic, like building a Disneyland near the airport.

This is akin to, say, Al Franken being elected to the Senate with the fundamental difference that Gnarr’s so-called Best Party has maintained the elaborate joke to this day with a straight face, whereas Franken soberly strove to make people take him seriously as a politician. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t a serious side to Gnarr. To wit, the Best Party only forms coalitions with other political parties whose members have seen all five seasons of The Wire. And as fashion designer Bergthora Gudnadottir of wool-chic Icelandic label Farmers Market told me the other day, “Some people expected the city to fall apart when the Best Party came to power, but everything is functioning as always.” So even the Icelandic fashion crowd seems to approve. Anyways, that’s a little background on Jón Gnarr. To properly do the man, the feat, and the festival justice, read the Mayor’s “Welcome to Reykjavík” address for Airwaves festival visitors in the Grapevine, the English-language Village Voice equivalent of Reykjavík. Click on the link above for the full piece, or read it minus scientific equations here:

Welcome to Reykjavík 3.8.2010 by Jón Gnarr The odds of you being in Reykjavík are not great. The greatest part of mankind is elsewhere. It is scientifically proven. When I was little, I would often ask myself why I had been born in Reykjavík. Is it a coincidence where one is born? Is it subject to some universal law? Did I exist in any form before I was born? Did I have anything to do with where I was born? Why did Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler not bear any children? Did they not try to? Can it be that no child wanted them as parents? I don’t know, but I do not believe in coincidence. I do not believe that God plays dice, especially not when human lives are concerned. These thoughts inevitably lead one to consider Schrödinger’s cat. He is probably one of the most famous cats in the world (maybe after Ninja Cat). Still no one knows what it was called? What was Schrödinger’s cat called? Abracadabra? I don’t remember. Let’s call it Phoenix. That is a common name for cats. Phoenix was of the nature that it both existed and not. Therefore, it always existed, and even if Schrödinger killed his cat in a rather tasteless manner, it is still alive at Schrödinger’s house, while Schrödinger himself has been dead for a long time:

Does this mean that I always existed, or that I never existed and do therefore not exist now? That can’t be! It would mean that all our existence was unreal and only existed in our own imagination. If I do not exist, then neither do you. I have a hard time believing that. The facts speak for themselves. If I am not real, then how could I fly to Finland, send myself a post card with a picture of Tarja Halonen, the President of Finland, fly back home and welcome the mailman that brought me the card? I don’t know. I am one of many Icelanders that believe in elves and trolls. I mainly believe in Moomin elves. It is more of a certainty than a belief. I have seen them and touched them. I know they exist. I have been to Moominworld in Naantali, Finland. I have evidence; photographs, video recordings and witnesses. I had a good talk with Moomin Papa. He told me that life in Moominvalley was much better after Finland joined the EU. He encouraged us Icelanders to join the EU. He also said that the Moomins had always existed, long before Tove Jansson “invented” them. The Moomins are eternal, at least in books.

I hope these thoughts shed some light on the history of Reykjavík and its culture. I hope you enjoy your time in Reykjavík, that you go swimming a lot and tell all your friends how fun Reykjavík is, and how everyone is always happy there and that you will never forget your hotel, Suðurlandsbraut and the eternally young cat Phoenix.

Photo: Leonard DiNardo

How I Survived the Iceland Volcano

Maybe it was the cat. Admittedly he was gray, not a black, but he was the harbinger of bad luck all the same. Twenty-four hours after my meeting with little “Smoky” outside Reykjavik’s iconic Hallgrimkirkja church, the volcano went off. And for Europe, life really hasn’t been the same since.

I’ve been to Iceland three times now, and the “land of the ice and snow” (as Led Zeppelin describes the place in “Immigrant Song”) keeps getting weirder every time I visit. I suppose that the one constant is Iceland’s incurable, perpetual sense of impending meltdown.

I was there on July 31, 2008, when for the first and only time temperatures in Reykjavik hit 99 degrees Fahrenheit. I ate pizza and played baseball in the park until 1am. It was surreal and brightly sunlit — one of those typical Icelandic high summer days when day turns into, er, the next day, give or take half an hour of partial darkness. Very disorienting. Three months later I was back, and summer really was over, as the banks’ ludicrous attempts at impersonating Bernie Madoff started unraveling. The winter of their discontent is set to last an ice age.

And now here I was back in Reykjavik in mid-March, with the city doing what it had always done best: showing off its creative verve and tenacity as the comeback capital launched an inaugural Fashion Festival.

For a population of 300,000, Iceland has a lot to recommend it. No country on the planet seemingly has more artists, designers, published authors, and musicians per capita. Another local stereotype is open to debate, but I’m going to say it anyway: These Vikings are bloody good looking. Never underestimate the powers of an enviably attractive gene pool’s to persuade you that later and later late-night follies really are a good idea. Like driving out to an erupting volcano, for instance.

So there I was in a Reykjavik nightclub called NASA (appropriate, considering what impact the night was about to have on the stratosphere) at the Fashion Festival wrap party. News filtered through to this most glamorous of gatherings that a volcano has erupted a fairly short (and ultimately enticing) drive from the capital. While whale-watching is a celebrated local pastime, volcano-watching had an entirely novel allure. At least that was the contention of my co-driver Paolo and three giggling and ever-so-slightly merry models from the Eskimo Agency as we piled into our hire car and headed towards Eyjafjallajokull, a word so utterly unpronounceable that the girls simply giggled even more uncontrollably when they attempted teaching it to us. This seemed to take up the entire journey, I should add.

Nature had stolen a march on the sleeping authorities, and the roads were open. Minimal visibility wasn’t getting us far, so we wound down the windows, risking pneumonia in the process, and caught the sulfur trail on the breeze. And there it is, like a scene from One Million Years B.C.: steam, ice, snow, mist, heat, and that sulfur stench. Any moment now, Raquel Welch is going to run down from the hills in her rabbit-fur bikini while being chased by a Triceratops.

We risked the last mile on foot. I don’t want to get overly sexual here, but close up—well, not that close, or you’ll lose your eyebrows—volcanoes do something to girls, and boys, and specifically what boys like to do to girls, and vice versa. There is absolutely no getting away from it. An ejaculating monster of a volcano like Eyjafjallajokull (ejaculo-fellatio?) is something to behold. We stood transfixed as a dazzling magma-fueled lightshow strobed the fuming mists. It was like special effects for a KISS show. We finally left as daylight and the possibility of road closures sunk in. Back at the hotel, watching the eruption go off again on national TV, I smelled volcano on my scarf. I worried that the scent might set off the explosive-sniffing dogs at the airport, but thankfully they missed it.

Now I’m home again in West London, directly under the flight path of Heathrow, the world’s busiest airport. It’s been closed almost a week since last Thursday—no flights in or out since the second and latest set of explosions started. And you know what? Island races don’t cope very well without airplanes. Oh, Iceland’s doing fine—bar a couple of hundred locals who’ve been evacuated from the flood plain next to the volcano, the country has carried on daily business as usual.

But here in Britain, it’s chaos. As I write this, the British Navy is sending an aircraft carrier to pick up troops from Spain on the way back from Afghanistan. Two hundred thousand Brits are stranded abroad, and if that’s not bad enough, our fresh bananas and pineapples from West Africa have disappeared from the supermarket shelves.

And no, the panic hasn’t died down just yet. I know this to be true because the TV networks are playing Björk’s “It’s Oh So Quiet” over images of the volcano’s latest eruption. I Google “Immigrant Song,” and it turns out there’s a version by the Viking Kittens. Maybe some relation to the girls in the rental car on that surreal night in Iceland when the earth literally moved.