I made new friends–they were preexisting friends for others, but they were new for me. They passed around bottles of “Icelandic Schnapps,” as the English label on the bottle of lichen schnapps named it, and Topas, which has been likened to NyQuil, Robitussin, and mouth wash.Around ten, everyone went home to watch the comedy show. Every year there is a comedy show on Icelandic television. SM told us he needed to watch it “not because [he] like[ed] it, but because it was the only way to get the jokes everyone would be making.” Rather than watching the show, we failed to figure out how to make the television work for local stations. Instead, we drank and argued about when we should head into town.
Around eleven:30 we left for the Church. The Church is a Lutheran church towards the center of Reykjavik. It has, I am assured, a name, that none of us ever use. It is, quite possibly, the tallest building downtown. Climbing up the hill to the Church, our group separated. The sound of fireworks turned into bright explosions rising over the Church. SM and CS carried fireworks over their shoulders, like flags or guns. We stopped just outside of the crowd around the Church. The gold tip of SM’s rocket served as a rallying point like a flag in a battle field. We gathered. “Once we go in,” someone said, “we won’t be able to find one another.”
This was an introduction to the nature of Icelandic crowds. There is a dense gathering of people around the outside, but once you get close to whatever it happening, space appears. We have seen this in queues, at shows, and at New Years Eve.
We set down the fireworks we had been carrying and, for a moment, watched. All around us things exploded. In front, behind, to the sides.
It was like being in a war zone.
A happy, delicious war zone.
The clock on the Church said we had time, so we tore apart the fireworks packages like children. Like a birthday or Christmas. That intense, holiday fervor mixed with the almost feral desire that seems to seize people once fireworks become involved.
I first set off fireworks before the Fourth of July in 2008. It was after I graduated from University. In Pennsylvania, fireworks are like being a diabetic in a chocolate shop. We’re surrounded by them, but we, as residents, cannot purchase them or set them off. N, beloved, darling N, bought some and we went down to D’s family farm to set off mortars in the cow fields. That’s how I learned to set off fireworks. The careful positioning, the lighting, and the scurry away to what we assume is a safe distance. I also learned the soft, quiet fear that sets in in the moment between the fuse burning out and the firework exploding when you wonder, worry, if it will actually work and, if it doesn’t, how to deal with the possibly loaded bomb in front of you.
We organized the fireworks into piles. CS handed me a pile of rockets and SM pointed us to a bottle filled with water. All over the church yard were wide mouthed bottles filled with water that people used as launch sites. Everywhere, except behind us, others were setting off their own explosives with wild abandon. There was no organization. There was no planning. There was alcohol and beautiful, destructive chaos.
We set off the rockets. It seemed like the natural thing to do.
I mean, everyone else was doing it.
We got caught up in what was happening. We lost ourselves in the mad dash between the bottle and the supposed safe zone occupied by our friends. We lost track of the time. Everyone did. The year slid away unnoticed. Someone looked up and saw that the minute hand had moved past the twelve and that it was, officially, 2011.
The rockets sat in rest. We opened up bottles of champagne, “the most expensive from the Duty Free shop,” someone said, and hugged. We kissed. We yelled in the new year, minutes behind the world.
And then we went back to the fireworks. We set off our own and watched others. People used sparklers and flares to set off more fireworks. Sparklers lit sparklers
and lead to chain reactions. People who weren’t adding to the cacophony in the sky looked up, and even those hunched over fuses, lining up rows of smaller “children’s fireworks,” or balancing rockets into bottles would pause and lean back, staring at the sky.
Earlier in the day, we had been walking when we saw a child with a set of the lines of small red pipe like fireworks you see on Chinese New Years. He also had some small cherry bombs. We stopped our walk to watch him as he lined them up carefully, positioning them in such a way that they would set off one another. Right before he lit them, he looked up at us and smiled. He struck his match, set the fuse, and then backed up. He was wearing safety glasses. He was an inspiration.
We tried to mimic him with our bucket of smaller fireworks: butterflies, cherry bombs, black cats, sparklers. We didn’t succeed. Surprisingly, only one person was hurt.
AO was hit by a fallen rocket. One intended to go up that instead fell down and launched itself sideways. It wasn’t ours. The green fire shooting straight at him caused the rest of us to run while he stood there.
It hit a bottle of whiskey in his pocket.
It was less than an hour after midnight when the fireworks had all but stopped. A van playing Ride of the Valkyries, unofficial but inspired drove around the Church.
The bars were set to open at one:30–they would close at seven, we were told. We debated staying out in the cold. We argued about going to bars, or stopping by someone’s hotel. We decided to go back to the flat we rented. With an even larger crew than we arrived, we went home.
Of course, the drinks came out. We blew through bottle after bottle. People brought wine. People brought Icelandic drinks–beer and liquor. We had our own supply, from the duty free shop that had been attacked methodologically by the people who exited the plane with me. The man in the wine section there had explained to me that drinks from Duty Free were about 80% cheaper than those in the country proper. SM asked if we minded a few of his friends coming over. We didn’t. They brought more friends.
Before we knew it, we had a party.
One by one we checked out for the evening. Our last Icelandic guests left by seven am, when the bars were closing.
SM had told me, of New Years Eve in Reykjavik, that “if you can survive it, you can survive anything.”
(Photos are CC-BY-SA by Mika Matsuzaki and Christine Spang. Photos of fireworks themselves are by Nathan Trachimowicz, copyright 2011)