Where everybody knows your name, and can pronounce it

Posted in:Places & The Local Department
Egill Helgason standing in front of an old house in the centre of Reykavík
Image: Karólína

To many visitors, Þingholt is the real centre of Reykjavík, and the place they spend most of their time while in the city. We asked one of its better known inhabitants, Mr. Egill Helgason, to give us a tour. (Bonus feature: some interesting observations on Icelandic grammar.)

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The name Egill is one of the most interesting monikers in Iceland. An ancient name from the Sagas, Egill (the name, not the person) is the bane of existence for many foreign students of Icelandic, for it declines like this:

Nominative: Egill (AY-yitl) e.g. This is Egill.

Accusative: Egil (AY-yil) e.g. I asked Egil.

"This is just a street I like; it’s very peaceful, says our writer guide, pausing to wave hello to a passing pedestrian. You don’t really notice this street, but for me it’s the centre of Þingholt."

Dative: Agli (AK-lih) e.g. This gift is from Agli.

Genetive: Egils (AY-yils) e.g. I miss Egils.

As someone who communicates regularly with The World Outside Iceland, journalist, broadcaster and political commentator Egill Helgason bears the burden of a perpetually butchered first name with aplomb.

The youthful 50-year-old is one of the most famous residents of Þingholt, the name of the historic centre of Reykjavík. Anyone who lurks long enough around the neighbourhood is bound to encounter this jovial fellow walking to a meeting, for coffee, or out to play a round of football with his eight-year-old son. When you spot him, give him a smile and a wave—after all, everyone else does.

Nominative: Þingholtin (The THING-holt) — “This is Þingholtin.”

(Attention grammarians: The beautiful, ancient language of Icelandic has a certain assuredness with its place names. One does not only enjoy nature, one enjoys the nature. One conquers the Esja, Reykjavík’s signature mountain. Consequently, the ancient area of Þingholt isn’t just Þingholt in Icelandic; it’s the Þingholt, or Þingholtin.)

This primarily residential neighbourhood in central Reykjavík used to be an enclave for the capital’s intelligentsia. At the turn of the last century, hemmed between the old Reykjavík town centre, rocky hills (where Hallgrímskirkja church now stands), and marshes around Tjörnin (the Pond), this collection of small timber or corrugated iron homes housed Reykjavík poets and politicians whose names remain well-known today.

After decades of neglect from the mid-40s until the 1980s, during which time those who could afford it moved to bigger accommodation in the equally grammatically challenging Vesturbær or Laugardalur, the neighbourhood gentrified once again, thanks to an effort by its residents to improve their homes and gardens.

Egill Helgason walking in Þingholt, looking at his mobile phone

Næpan, a building in the centre of Reykjavík

Nowadays, the area’s colourful homes remain a sought-after location, attracting a mix of politicians, artists, writers, and, in the pre-2008 era of excess, not a few conspicuous útrásarvíkingar, or “business Vikings”. Immigrants and students attracted to the central location round out the mix.

“Sometimes I like to imagine myself walking in the footsteps of the poets and writers who used to live here,” says Egill from the sitting room of his mid 19th-century home in the heart of Þingholt. “There is so much history in these houses; you know who used to live in each of them.”

Egill compares Þingholt to the old quarter of any other European town, like Gamla Stan in Stockholm for example, although he points out that most of the homes in Þingholt have gardens, giving it a “leafier” feel that in some more urbanized neighbourhoods in other Nordic cities.

Traditionally, the neighbourhood of Þingholt is described as the area around Þingholtsstræti Street, stretching uphill to Óðinsgata and Freyjugata and to Laufásvegur in the south. Secondary school Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík (“MR” to all the locals), which has moulded the young minds and fine-tuned the grammar of Iceland’s political and social elite for over a century, remains a focal point of the neighbourhood.

More recently, the name has started to apply to a larger area. “When you read the ads of houses for sale,” Egill says, “all the estate agents classify the homes far across the hill as part of Þingholt, even though this isn’t technically true.”

Egill Helgason walks past a house in the old part of Reykjavík

Egill Helgason walks on the street in the centre of Reykjavík

Accusative: Þingholtin (The THING-holt) — “Around Þingholtin.”

Egill begins our walking tour on Miðstræti (“Middle Street”), a one-block row of perfectly preserved mostly three-storey corrugated iron homes from the late 19th century.

“This is just a street I like; it’s very peaceful,” says our writer guide, pausing to wave hello to a passing pedestrian. “You don’t really notice this street, but for me it’s the centre of Þingholt.” Egill lived in the only stone house on the street from 2002 until 2007.

The architecture of Þingholt plays a central role in Egill’s love affair with the neighbourhood, which tends to inspire a devout loyalty amongst many of its residents. “On a summer’s night you just drift around the streets and houses. It’s so full of character,” he muses.

Rounding a corner, we head to what Egill describes as a “hidden gem” of the neighbourhood. Tucked behind 19th-century merchant Thor Jensen’s house is a small dirt football pitch, with two somewhat tattered football nets at either side. A grassy slope provides room for spectators. One might often find Egill and his son here on clear summer evenings, enjoying a little father-son bonding time. The pitch is a former horse corral and is encircled by an old stone fence.

“When [well-known Icelandic entrepreneur] Björgólfur Thor bought the house, he wanted to turn this into a parking lot,” says Egill ruefully. “And just before it happened they realized this corral was a hundred years old so they weren’t allowed to destroy it.”

We return up Skálholtsstígur. Egill waves a greeting to a man chatting busily on a mobile phone.

“It’s a pity there aren’t more shops in Þingholt,” Egill comments. “There was another one and then the Bónus opened and the shop promptly closed its doors.”

Egill Helgason looks at the selection at a fishmonger's table in Reykjavík
Egill Helgason buys fish

A great exception to the mass production is another stop on Egill’s tour: the plainly named Fiskbúðin on the corner of Freyjugata and Óðinsgata, sells a selection of the freshest riches of the sea. Egill nods a friendly greeting to the owner through the window. His favourite selection is cod, an unusual choice for Icelanders, who, despite their sentimental attachment to this deep-sea dweller, prefer to indulge in haddock, perceived as a “classier” fish.

Dative: Þingholtunum (The THING-holtu-num) — “Always something going on in Þingholtunum.”

As we approach the Einar Jónsson sculpture garden, Egill greets a couple of journalists stopping by.

“I go here with my son,” says Egill, ushering me through the entry gates to the free garden.

“I like the sculptures because they are from a period that speaks to me, it’s sort of mystical,” he says, strolling on the marked paths around the two dozen or so sculptures, some of which Egill says are presented in rather a smaller final form than the artist originally intended.

Egill Helgason in the Einar Jónsson sculpture garden

Egill Helgason by a statue in the Einar Jónsson sculpture garden next to a statue presided over by a cat

Egill Helgason on the phone in the Einar Jónsson sculpture garden

Egill singles out one of his favourites, the monument to poet Hallgrímur Pétursson (58 cm x 105 cm x 60 cm), who died of leprosy in 1674. Pétursson’s ailing body lies on his deathbed, the phalanx of huddled masses behind him representing salvation.

Exiting the sculpture park, a gaggle of costumed girls from the local secondary school stop and request a photo with this famous Þingholt resident (that’s a photo “with Agli” in Icelandic), who happily obliges.

Genetive: Þingholtanna (The THING-holt-anna) — “The best coffee of Þingholtanna.”

There are a few downsides to the charmed Þingholt life, Egill assures me. He cites the usual grievances of being in an urban centre (even one on an Icelandic scale)—drunks or drug addicts, noisy weekend revellers, and a dearth of parking spaces, but hastily adds that “the benefits far outweigh the costs. It’s not how the people in the suburbs picture it.” Nor is grammar a consideration — after all, consider local community Hafnarfjörður (or HAP-nar-fyord-ur), Hafnarfjörður, Hafnarfirði, Hafnarfjarðar.

Egill Helgason shops for coffee at a café in the center of Reykjavík

Egill Helgason drinks a cup of coffee on Skólavörðustígur in Reykjavík

Egill Helgason drinks coffee at Kaffifélagið on Skólavörðustígur í Reykjavík

The last stop on this short walking tour is Kaffifélagið, a relatively new café on the main street Skólavörðustígur (“one of the nicest main streets in town”), where Egill claims one can find the best coffee in the capital.

While the journalist sips a cappuccino outside, a woman driving down the road in a yellow Yaris stops, rolls down her window and calls out: “Halló Egill!”

There is no anonymity in Iceland, perhaps particularly in Þingholt. But for Egill Helgason, that’s just fine.

Eliza Reid, a staff writer and an above-average good person, walked all over Þingholtin with Agli Helgasyni on Thursday, 30 April 2010. Karólína later followed him with a camera almost as big as she is, and took many pictures of him, in Þingholtunum on Friday 28 May, and during the live transmission of his TV show on Sunday, 30 May. You can see the rest of them on Flickr.

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