Friday, August 17, 2007

The Great Fish Day

Last weekend was the sixth annual Great Fish Day (Fiskidagurinn mikli in Icelandic) celebration in Dalvík and since it was both a festival all about fish and just an hour north up the fjord, obviously I had to go. The town of Dalvík only has about 2000 residents, but each year since they began holding this festival on the second weekend in August, thousands have flocked to the town both from elsewhere in Iceland and from outside the country, to sample fish cooked in every possible way, all entirely for free. Last year, 30,000 people came for the festival and this year they estimate that it was the largest attendance yet, at 35,000.

Pretty much every Icelander I’ve talked to makes the same comment when I mention this festival: “When they started this, everyone thought they were crazy to give out everything for free.” But it provides fabulous publicity for a town that is based mainly on fishing and fish processing, and most of the fish and other ingredients and the entertainment for the festival is donated by local companies, both fishing companies and other businesses in the area. Obviously it’s worked out, because the festival has gotten bigger every year, but it certainly is an impressive feat for such a small town.

When Adam and I got to Dalvík on Friday afternoon, the place was already packed with elaborate tent complexes and campers on what seemed like every small piece of grass in the area spreading out from the campground. After wandering around for about twenty minutes trying to figure out where we should pay to set up our tent, we found the swimming pool office (which doubles as the campground registration), where they told us that camping – like everything else – was free for the weekend. Turns out the town had basically turned all the large grassy areas into temporary campgrounds, and there were tents everywhere, even lining residential streets.

We set up our camp at the edge of town next to the swimming pool, and set off towards the center of town where the festival was officially being inaugurated before sending everyone off for the festival’s kick-off evening event – Fiskisupukvoldid mikla. After the official opening ceremony, forty or so homes throughout the town opened their homes to the festival guests and served everyone homemade fish soup. We walked through pretty much the whole town (it’s a small town) to see all the decorations and the crowds and waited in a number of lines to try some of the fish soups, which were all different though also all excellent.

It felt a bit like an odd version of Halloween: all the homes in town were decorated with fishing-themed items, from nets to scarecrow-style fishermen made by stuffing foul weather gear to all kinds of colorful fish, often made by children. Throngs of people roamed the streets going from house to house, first waiting in line for their turn to be served a steaming bowl of soup and sign their name in the guestbook (each house had a book for people to sign so they would know how many people had come and where they were from) and then milling about talking and eating and in a number of places listening to musical entertainment, which ranged from acoustic guitars and accordions to a performance of such party classics as the limbo (performed in Icelandic with the instrumental version as a recording in the background) in a style that would have begged the question “do you do bar mitzvahs?” anywhere but Iceland.

Here are some samples of the home decorations:

Local residents serving guests from giant pots of soup:

And lots and lots of people waiting for and enjoying their soup:

Official festivities on Friday night ended at 11pm and began again at 11 the next morning. There were barbeques and booths set up along the dock and the street perpendicular to it, all with different kinds of fish, from a giant grill (I think this is the one that is noted as the longest barbeque in Iceland) for fish burgers to fried fish balls to grilled cod and Arctic char to shrimp salad to a Nigerian stand (there are a number of Nigerian fish companies involved, since Iceland sells a lot of fish to Nigeria) with dried fish (harðfiskur) and a number of Icelanders wearing Nigerian costumes. In addition to the free food, though, there was also a wide variety of entertainment, including rotating bands at the main bandstand (a few of which performed American country songs, which temporarily produced an aura around the festival that reminded me strangely of Montana), horse rides and a giant blow-up play area for the children, a clown troop that both performed together and sent members off into the crowd to hand out candy, facepainting, boat rides, and an educational display showing different species of fish and other marine life.

Here’s the assembly line at the fish burger grill (“sex” means six in Icelandic, but I’m pretty sure the pun on their shirts here is entirely intended even though I don’t get the joke):

And a very hungry Adam with his burger, modeling both the giant open mouth of a hungry codfish and the very lovely hat I knit while at sea:

The Nigerian stand complete with a display of drying fish hanging overhead, showing how the harðfiskur is made:

And, in case you doubted that people had gotten into the spirit of celebrating fish, look what this girl chose to have painted on her face:

We took a ride on the Saefari, the ferry that normally sails from Dalvik to Grimsey, which gave us a chance to look back on the town and the festival from a little farther off.

This is the Saefari (certainly recognizable from a distance – I don’t know the reason for the bright coloring):

Here’s Dalvik, mid-festival:

And here’s the crowd on the dock – quite impressive:

Even after the festival officially ended at 5:00, though, the town and the campgrounds stayed crowded. As it got dark, crowds collected at the harbor again for a performance by a local band of songs to which pretty much everyone knew the words and sang along, which was followed by an impressive fireworks display.

Adam and I had been doubting the quality of Icelandic fireworks displays as people set off a few fireworks of their own from their houses, but I’m convinced these were the best fireworks I’ve seen in quite a few years. So no problem that I missed the 4th of July in America – I got the Great Fish Day instead.

On Sunday, the crowds finally began to thin out, and Adam and I spent the afternoon at the town swimming pool, which is particularly nice, and provided an excellent venue for relaxing and playing cards, in addition to some sliding and swimming and getting warm in the hot tubs.

So there ends the story of my latest real adventures. My sore throat has finally gone away, Adam is back in the US, I finally got a chance to read the last Harry Potter, and tomorrow morning I’m leaving the student guesthouse which has been my home here in Akureyri. I’ll be spending the next ten days going along with group of Nordic students taking a Nordnatur course on monitoring aquatic ecosystems, thanks to Hreiðar, who is in charge of the part of the course in Iceland and thought I would enjoy going along and might be able to lend an extra hand at times. We’ll be going some interesting places and meeting interesting people, and I’m sure I’ll learn a lot both from getting the chance to see places I wouldn’t otherwise and from the chance to talk with experts while we’re there – the concept reminds me of a Williams-Mystic field seminar. You can follow the schedule here, although I think the plans are pretty flexible both to account for the weather and this being the first time they run the course. And then after the students leave, I’ll be heading south to Vestmanneyjar for my last few weeks in Iceland. Not sure how much I’ll have Internet access, but I’ll check in when I can.

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