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Rigsy's Gone To Iceland

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Rigsy | 14:46 UK time, Tuesday, 6 January 2009

I was always curious about Iceland - sitting all the way up there, out of reach of the rest of the world and free to operate as it sees fit. A huge, wobbly country, volcanic tremors tickling the pixies, a place over run with strange sounding singers and guitars you play with a bow. That sound a little too romantic? Well last year I watched Heimi and, if anything, it feels like I'm holding back.

I always wanted to go. The final straw was hearing a band from Reykjavik called FM Belfast - specifically a song named Synthia.

Probably my favourite track of 2008, 'Synthia' was the kind of weird, wonderful sound I could happily associate with Iceland.

Before I continue, the inevitable 'why are they called FM Belfast?' question actually has a brilliant answer. I went to SXSW for ATL TV earlier this year and was allowed to choose one non-Irish band to cover. I chose FM Belfast. We filmed them, then chatted briefly on a crowded Austin street. I asked them why they were named after Belfast.

Loa, their charming lead singer, explained (I paraphrase)...

"We used to be an awful metal covers band, doing grim versions of horrible songs, for a joke. Belfast seemed so horrible on the news that we named ourselves after the city."

At this point she realized I'd asked because I was actually from Belfast. Mortified, she began to dig a hole, before production boffin Arni jumped in to help her out.

Anyway, when two friends of mine decided to head to Iceland for Christmas and FM Belfast agreed to be our tour guides, a plan was hatched. £500 for all flights (Belfast - Heathrow - Reykjavik) and four nights at a hotel seemed more than reasonable, given we were to visit a place which seemed so strange and distant it might as well be in outer-space. Off we went.

Now, given I almost always end up disappointed, building things up way too much in my tiny head, setting myself up for the inevitable disappointment that is the actual reality - it really is so impressive that I came home raving just so much about this wonderful little place.

It's weird. We knew it would be, but there's stuff we didn't expect, even after reading a couple of different books about the place on the (lengthy) flight over.

Just as an example of something subtle, yet wonderful about Iceland-  there are no chain stores in the main part of the capital city. No KFC, no Zavvi, no Pizza Hut, no Boots. They're just not allowed. So what you get are amazing, independent, Icelandic shops and places to eat that are properly unique. Apart from everything else, this makes every single building unbelievably cool.

Our first night was spent checking out music and bars. We went to NASA to see a couple of bands. NASA is about the size of the Mandela Hall in Belfast and we're told it's the best venue in the country. The first band we saw were called Borko.

They were amazing. As in, if I saw them playing Belfast, I'd be texting Paul McClean within seconds and approaching the band, excitedly wondering just what ATL could do for them, frying their head with giddy enthusiasm. They kind of sounded like Air during the 'Moon Safari' era - all dreamy and... well, Icelandic.

They were the first of four acts on as well - Iceland has a ridiculous amount of amazing bands. Given the entire population is less than that of Greater Belfast, it's mad when you think they've given us Mum, Sigur Ros, Bjork, GusGus, Leaves and Emiliana Torrini in the last few years. Mad, I tell you!!

Bouncing onwards with FM Belfast to a bar called Boston. Like a giant living room - cosy and inviting - Boston is seemingly full of the trendiest people in the country. We meet the keyboardist from the aforementioned Borko, the guy who wrote this book, a guy who claims he played tambourine on Sigur Ros' last album (his story checked out), a girl who shows us her illustrations in the local listings paper and a load of writers, illustrators and musicians. No one seems to work in a petrol station, no one is an accountant. Though no one seems to have any money either (we seem to be buying quite a few rounds, but we're happy to do so).

Perhaps we should point out we booked this holiday a fair few weeks before their economy collapsed - none of us are that devious.

We eventually (almost) pass out on a sofa in Cafe Cultura and wonder what it would be like to actually live in this city. I conclude none of us are nearly talented enough. Or sufficiently good looking.

That was day one. Later on, we'll swim in the Blue Lagoon (basically an enormous outdoor bath with weird, creamy, bright blue 'water'), check out some glaciers and ride snow mobile's through the mountains, eat at just about the finest restaurant any of us had ever stumbled upon, swear far too much at the madness of the Gaysirs (there were kids around), casually dander by a waterfall which could surely compete with Niagra Falls before forging friendships with people so wonderfully silly, they remind us of home.

Actually, maybe we could fit in here. Reykjavik is tiny (all the main shops are basically on one long street) - no bigger than Derry - so it's easy to feel pretty welcome. As long as they don't think you're English, you'll be embraced. As the single most enviromentally sound nation on the planet, it's a pretty healthy place to be, despite the (blatantly obvious) lack of cash.

All we'd have needed was a better story to tell, a bigger beard and a woollier jumper and I'm pretty sure they'd have let us stay forever. I'd have happily done so.

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