REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Reykjavik, set among the snow-streaked fiords of Iceland and under the ice-blue northern skies of the Atlantic, is a small, modern capital where people speak softly, hang on to old homey ways and impress visitors with prideful accounts of old Icelandic history and culture.
Icelanders were surprised that President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev suddenly settled on Reykjavik as the site of their summit conference next weekend. But no Icelander seems awed by the selection. They feel sure that Reykjavik, small as it is, can cope and that Iceland, rich as it is in both antique and modern achievement, can make itself better known throughout the world.
A little more than 130,000 people live in Reykjavik and its suburbs--55% of the total population of Iceland--but most of the capital's population is relatively new. Reykjavik has grown by five times or more since World War II.
'Was Like a Fishing Village'
"When I was a boy, and I am 56 years old now, Reykjavik was like a fishing village," said editor Matthias Johannessen at his offices in the daily newspaper Morgunbladid. "Life was something like the way Isaac Bashevis Singer describes life in his little villages."
As a result, despite the cars that crowd the streets in the hunt for scarce parking slots and the modern concrete apartment blocks going up by the seafront, Reykjavik still keeps touches from a bygone time.
At tea on a recent afternoon, lawyer Gudjon Strykarsson, and his wife, Agusta, a schoolteacher, talked about the increase in crime in the last few years. Gudjon believed that they should lock the door of their home when go to work each day, but Agusta did not like the idea. They already locked their door when they slept at night and that seemed sufficient to her.
"Years ago," she said, "our doors did not even have locks."
Images of smallness and tranquility and old ways abound. For 20 years, ever since television began in Iceland, there has been no telecasting on Thursdays, giving Icelanders at least one free night to attend meetings, converse with friends and family, go to the movies, or read.
The phone book lists almost everyone alphabetically by first name rather than last. This follows standard Icelandic practice, for most people do not use family names the way Americans or Scandinavians or other Europeans do. Instead, Icelanders use their father's first name as a second name, adding "son" if male or "dottir" if female. Vigdis Finnbogadottir, the former professor of French who is president of Iceland, is thus known by everyone as Vigdis, her second name indicating only that she is the daughter of Finnboga.
Television announcements have appealed for all Icelanders to stay away from Reykjavik restaurants this week, making room at tables for the 3,000 or so journalists and officials coming for the Reagan-Gorbachev summit. The appeal reflects how few facilities there are in Reykjavik to take care of so many visitors. The town has fewer than 1,000 hotel beds and only 10 restaurants that are listed in the official hotel and restaurant guide as those with "full service international menu."
Site for Previous Summits
Reykjavik has hosted a major international event twice before--the world championship chess match between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky in 1972 and the summit conference between President Richard M. Nixon and French President Georges Pompidou in 1973--but neither event required as much organization and security or attracted as many journalists as the impending Reagan-Gorbachev summit.
The U.S. government had to postpone a trip by an advance team of American officials for one day last week while U.S. Embassy staff telephoned frantically throughout Reykjavik for housing. The shortage in housing is being made up by Reykjavik residents who, in response to government appeals, are renting private rooms and apartments to visitors. Children at two schools have been given a week's holiday so the school buildings can be fashioned into press centers.
Icelanders are confident that the job will be done. "If they had given us three months," said Bjarni Sigtryggsson, the assistant manager of the Saga Hotel, with a smile, "we could not have done it. But since we only have ten days, we are doing it, because we have to."
Icelanders are also proud of their climate. Despite the name of their country and its location just south of the Arctic Circle, Reykjavik residents like to make the point that their winter climate is not much different from that of New York. Reykjavik, which is warmed by the Gulf Stream, has only 52 days of snow a year. It takes record cold levels to bring temperatures below zero.
Yet an unseasonal snow began to fall last Thursday, and it has been chilling, wet and nasty most of the time since. "Perhaps Iceland," said an office secretary, "decided to really look like Ice-land when the two great men meet here."