We win, you lose, suckers

When you retired were you thinking of  giving your savings and your pension fund to a relative who said he could take the money to Las Vegas and double it?

It might be tempting but since you are sixty and might live to ninety-six you need the income from your pension and your savings to keep you off welfare for thirty-six years.Finding a job when you are sixty is had. Collecting returnable bottles or cutting lawns doesn’t bring in much money.

You probably decided against giving your gambling relative your money and, instead, invested it with your bank’s financial advisor because banks are supposed to be safe places to put your savings.  Your capital is what you were able to save after paying for your mortgage or rent, car payments, your groceries and clothes, your children’s braces and hockey equipment. Those saved dollars took a lot of effort and self-discipline.
You went to work every day. You put up with a lot of crap. It may have been a good job but there’s always a lot of crap in the workplace. Idiot bosses, grouchy co-workers.
You figured bankers were conservative, cautious. You figured they’d recommend you put your savings into bonds in some good, reliable company such as Transcanada or Fortis. It never occurred to you that a lot bankers are river boat gamblers just like your gambling addicted relative. River boat gamblers playing with someone else’s money. Your money. When they drew a winning hand, they took a huge piece of the pot. After all, it was their luck and skills that caused the poker chips to pile up in front of them–or so they say. They also used those winnings to pay the people on their team. There wasn’t much left to pay you for providing the money for the poker game.
When I used to play poker with my teenage friends, we often spent the evening playing “Dealer’s call.” Every game had a different set of rules. No stranger could have followed what was going on. These were our private games. That’s what the bond and stock traders have done. They’ve created ways to gamble that only they understand. The difference is that we were using our own money but they’re using your money.
Some of the games the fund managers play are simple. Take, for example, Greek bonds. The Greek government wanted to spend more money than it could raise from taxes. The solution was to borrow it. Governments can create bonds at any time. They say we’ve got these pieces of paper. You’ve got money. We’ll give you these pieces of paper and take your money. In return, we’ll pay you interest for s set period of time. They go to the people who specialize in selling bonds and give them a fee. The bonds are offered to other financial institutions, pension funds, banks, sometimes to individual buyers. To get people to buy the bonds, the government has to offer interest payments. That’s where risk comes in. You’ve got to believe that the Greek government can keep paying interest. But your financial advisor says, government debt is safe debt. How often does any government not be able to pay its bill?.  
 If you are retiring, you need an income stream to replace your salary. So, you look at Greek government bonds and decide that 5% for a ten year bond is pretty good. It’s certainly a lot better than half a percent on a savings account. You can’t pay the bills from half a percent interest.
You buy ten thousand dollars worth of bonds. Once a year, the Greek government sends you a cheque for five hundred dollars for the use of your money. It’s all good, except that you begin to hear news reports that the Greek government is having financial problems. You don’t want to lose your ten thousand dollars. You decide that you’ll sell the bonds but discover that they’re now only worth four thousand dollars. If you hold them to maturity, you’ll get your ten thousand back. However, they don’t mature for another eight years. You decide to buy insurance against the Greek government not being able give you back your ten thousand dollars. This, of course, would cut into your capital. Normally, the cost of the insurance would be quite small but everyone thinks that Greece will end up defaulting, that is, not paying you back. The insurer wants $5,600.00 up front and a thousand dollars a year to insure your ten thousand dollar bond. The cost is so high, you say forget it.
Then the European Union announces that in order to avoid the chaos that will be created by the Greeks throwing up their hands and saying they can’t pay back the people who bought their bonds, we want people who own the bonds to voluntarily agree to having the value of the bonds reduced by twenty-one percent. That is upsetting. At least, you think, you’ll get the interest payments and seven thousand nine hundred dollars back but, a little while later, the EU says, we want you to agree to having your bonds reduced by fifty percent. 
Your ten thousand dollar bond is now only worth five thousand dollars–if you hold it to maturity. When you object, the person who sold you the bonds says, “If you don’t agree and Greece defaults, the very most you could expect to get back is about thirty-one hundred dollars.” That five percent that was supposed to help pay your retirement expenses doesn’t look so good anymore.
You say you don’t own any Greek bonds? Are you sure? There’s a good chance that your pension fund owns some. There’s an even better chance that your bank owns some. Both your pension fund and your bank used your money to buy Greek bonds. You check and both institutions say we don’t have any direct exposure to Greek debt. They’re being weasels. If you check further, you will likely discover that they’ve loaned money to banks in Europe and those banks have bought Greek bonds. Your bank and pension fund have lots of indirect exposure.
Imagine now if you’d bought a lot of Greek bonds. Your financial adviser thought they were a great investment. Say you’ve got a hundred thousand dollars worth and you are using them as collateral for a business loan for one of your kids. The bank calls you up and says those bonds are only worth fifty thousand dollars now, instead of a hundred thousand, we need another fifty thousand dollars collateral. What do you do? You’re retired. You don’t have a job and a steady income stream except for the interest and dividends on your investments. You can call you kid and say, sorry, but you need to find someone else to cosign your loan. If you still want to provide the collateral for the loan, you may need to put a mortgage on your house or take out a serious line of credit.
If your pension fund has a large amount of Greek, Spanish, Irish, Italian, French, Portugese bonds, it may not be getting those interest payments they need to pay your pension. They may send you a letter saying they have to cut pension payments by ten percent, twenty percent, who knows how much? They did lay off risk by buying default insurance but the situation is so serious that the EU has said we can’t have a default so accepting this devaluation of Greek bonds has to be voluntary. That means the default insurance isn’t worth the paper on which it is printed. Good thing you didn’t waste more money buying it.

Since you are on a small pension, the loss of your ten thousand really matters. Your kid’s business might go belly up.

And that’s just one of the poker games that the inside boys are playing right now. There are lots of others and all of them have one purpose: to let the one percent keep all the millions they’ve made and to shift the cost to you. That’s called privatizing profit and socializing debt. When companies make money, the hot shots get to take huge amounts of that profit but when they make mistakes, you pay the bill.
We used to be told that a free market was the foundation of the capitalist system? Really? The principle has now been replaced with “when we win, we keep the money, when we lose, you suckers pay the bill.”

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

Icelandic Hollywood film producer Sigurjón Sighvatsson, whose portfolio boasts more than 40 movies and television series, has secured the movie rights to Yrsa Sigurdardóttir´s 2010 crime thriller Ég man thig (I remember you).
The sale of the movie rights has put her in the spotlight again but, in spite of how busy she is with her multi-faceted life, she came to the University of Victoria to give three lecturers as a Richard and Beck lecturer.
Yrsa is multi-talented. Most writers of prize winning murder mysteries would find that a full-time profession. Instead, Yrsa also writes books for children. More surprising than that and what intrigued an over-flow audience was that she is also an engineer and writes in her spare time. It was in  her role as an engineer that she gave one of the lectures. She explained how Iceland‘s topography and natural resources combined to put Iceland at the forefront of the world‘s attempt to create and harness green energy. Large geo-thermal and hydro-electric projects have taxed both the imagination and the resources of a country with a population of just three hundred and twenty thousand.
In North America, Yrsa is best known for her adult fiction. He second lecture was on „Nordic Noir and the Writing of Crime Fiction“. Yrsa discussed the sudden, surprising emergence of Scandinavian crime fiction. She talked about what characteristics unite—and distinguish—the writers involved and what explains the world-wide popularity of their work. Yrsa also offered some „how to“ hints for aspiring crime writers.
Interest in Yrsa‘s work has grown with the purchase of movie rights. „When the author and her publisher Pétur Már Ólafsson at Veröld, were guests on RÚV´s Rás 2 radio morning show, Olafsson said he had been certain from the start that the book would be filmed but had decided not to accept any offers until the book had been translated into English.
“But when a man who has worked with Robert De Niro, Nicholas Cage and Natalie Portman comes calling, you pick up the phone, don’t you?”, he said.
“The work on the screenplay has begun but many things are still undecided. It is possible that the film will be shot in Iceland and that parts of it, or even the entire film, will be in the Icelandic language.
“What appeals to Sigurjón is namely the Icelandic landscape. This is what makes it so special […] but  naturally, at the same time, the story itself knows no natural borders,” Olafson continued. “So what he sees in it is a uniquely Icelandic international thriller.”
Sigurdardóttir herself said that she will not be invovled in the adaptation—she has complete faith in the screenplay writers. “It is a special genre of writing,” she explained. “But I look forward to reading it and mostly I look forward to seeing the movie.”
“According to visir.is, Sighvatsson has hired Icelandic screen writer Ottó Geir Borg for the job.
One of the films Sighvatsson has produced, Wild At Heart (1990), as directed by David Lynch, earned the Golden Palm in Cannes.
“In addition to the aforementioned actors, Sighvatsson has worked with Hollywood big shots such as Harrison Ford and Jeff Bridges.
“Sighvatsson is not the first film producer to express an interest in Sigurdardóttir´s stories. The German film production company Team Worx Television & Film GmbH bought the movie rights to…Ashes To Dust“.
If members of your family enjoy reading murder mysteries, they might enjoy finding a novel by Yrsa under the tree on Christmas morning. There are four in English to choose from: Last Rituals, My Soul To Take, Ashes to Dust, and The Day Is Dark.
(Quotes with permission of IcelandReview.com. A slightly different form of this article first appeared in Lögberg-Heimskringla. This is the 125th anniversary of LH. Consider celebrating her birthday by buying a subscription.)

Gimli Halloween

There was a lot of excitement at Halloween. It started with our mother asking us what sort of costume we wanted and then she improvised one for each of us. I remember nothing of the many costumes I wore except for the year I went Halloweening as a pirate.  I think I was a bit of a dandy because I’d seen a picture of a buccaneer with a shirt that had lace cuffs and I wanted that. The crocheted dust catchers on the arms of the living room sofa may have been pressed into service.
There wasn’t a lot of money around. A penny still had value and you could get two-for-a-penny or even five-for-a-penny candies at Greenberg’s store. No one passed up a penny lying on the ground. A movie only cost fifteen cents, a CocaCola five cents, a bag of sunflower seeds, five cents. If you found a penny, you had twenty percent of a treat. It took a bit of wheedling to get a nickel from your parents so the idea of going from house to house collecting apples and candy fired the imagination. In the week before Halloween, instead of counting sheep after I went to bed, I counted apples and candy falling into my bag.
Our mother provided my brother and me with a pillow case each. We had to hold them at the middle so they didn’t drag on the ground.
We didn’t go far, probably no more than two square blocks. We went without adults but as a group of four or five kids. We didn’t go out until after it got dark so we kept together as we navigated the back lanes or the front sidewalks. We yelled “Halloween apples” or “Trick or treat”, although we didn’t have any tricks up our sleeve. The adults who came to the door were appropriately scared by our costumes, dropped apples or candy into our bags, pretended not to be able to guess who was behind which mask.
When we got home, we poured our loot onto the kitchen table. It was mostly apples, many bruised from our bumping our bags into things, but there was a smattering of store candy and homemade fudge. Our mother turned most of the apples into apple pie but the apples that had survived their trip with the fewest bruises provided us with an apple a day until they were all gone.
For a couple of years, my mother got us to help her make candied apples. We carefully picked only perfect apples at Bjarnason’s store. Red, round, without bruises. When we got them home, we washed and polished them. We put sheets of wax paper on two cookie trays. Our mother carefully put the wooden handles into the apples. As she boiled the sugar and water, the house filled up with the syrup’s sweet smell. These special apples went to special friends and relatives and, of course, we kept one for each of us: my mother, my father, my brother, myself.  I still can feel the glazed sugar breaking as I bit into my candied apple, the sweetness of the sugar, the slight tartness of the apple, the delicious, luxurious texture of crystallized sugar and apple as I chewed.
Some years there was a Halloween party at the community hall. There was food and dancing and the adults went all out, creating elaborate costumes, often revealing a side of themselves few had suspected, the matron dressed as a dance hall girl, the banker as a river boat gambler, the quiet housewife as a princess. There were always lots of angels. At some point in the evening, the dance music stopped, the judges took their place on stage and we all paraded around the hall in a large circle. We had to go around to the music many times before the judges were able to pick the winners.
There were witches, of course. What would Halloween be without witches? They were a little scary, especially if their costume was well done or if the witch was particularly good at a loud cackle. However, these witches had no history, no embedded culture of folktales and legends to help them be frightening. In Europe it had been believed at one time that witches would gather on All Hallow’s Eve, arriving on broomsticks at a party, a party hosted by the devil. These witches were considered dangerous because they could cast spells that would bring harm to people, make them or their animals ill, cause bad luck, or control people’s actions, causing them to do evil things. Our witches weren’t dangerous. They often had a piece of candy to offer after their cackle. They liked to waltz and polka and do the butterfly. If you wanted to see witches fly, you just needed to watch a witch dancing the butterfly with a lumberjack on one side and a pirate on the other as the band speeded up the music toward the end of the tune. The witch’s feet hardly touched the dance floor.
There were some tricks. An ambitious group of teenagers once put a farmer’s wagon on top of a barn. They left it there for a day for everyone to admire but the next night took it down. Someone put a half dozen garter snakes into a friend’s car. The friendship survived.
There were always a few spoil sports who wanted Halloween banned because it had pagan roots. This is a party hosted by the devil, they said but if it were, it was a pretty mild and meek devil. The devils that turned up at the Halloween party in red long underwear and horns made from cardboard liked to eat and dance and have a drink out by the woodpile with the angels.

Hunger

When you travel and spend time with the local people where you visit, you’ll always be subjected to various tests. A lot of the time the tests have to do with food.
One time when I was in Iceland, I was taken to a restaurant and when my host asked what I would like, shocked by the cost and unable to read an Icelandic menu, I told  him to order. He ordered raw whale meat and raw prawns. The whale meat was delicious and the prawns quite tasty.
Because both the whale and the prawns were caught off the coast of Iceland, I had no fear of being poisoned by pollution. The seafood comes from the cleanest fishing grounds in the world. 

Many people reading this blog site will have been to Iceland and while there have been offered hákarl (rotted shark) and brennivin. Brennivin is a kind of schnaps with the nickname Black Death. When you eat rotted deep sea shark, you usually wash it down with Black Death. The brennvin, I’ve found makes my mouth so numb that I can’t taste the putrid shark.

Some people claim to enjoy hákarl. I find the claim far-fetched but then some people enjoy being masochists. On the prairies, it would be similar to claiming that you enjoy being sprayed by a skunk.
However, the ritual offering of rotted shark and the sharing of it is valuable because it is a reminder of the poverty that held Iceland in its iron grip for centuries. Protein was in short supply. So was fat. So was grain. Deprived of grain crops by the drop in world temperatures, Icelanders were left with only one crop, grass. On that grass, cattle, sheep and horses had to feed. Deprived of a fair price for their meager trade goods by the Danish trade monopoly, Icelanders could not add to their food supply. With their precious arable land destroyed in places by volcanic eruption, they were pushed to the very edge of survival.
Food was so scarce and so precious that the worst crime that could be committed was to steal food.
Deep sea shark eaten fresh will kill you. The sharks, because of the depth at which they live, excrete their urine through their flesh. When the shark has been buried in the cold sand of a beach for six months, enough of the urine has dissipated that the flesh is edible. However, the urine has not all gone and the taste is challenging. Everyone who braves eating rotted shark should have a t-shirt that says, “I ate hákarl and survived.” Only starving people would have first eaten shark that had washed ashore and lay there long enough to be safe to eat. That’s like eating road kill.
Not only was protein in short supply in Iceland but there was so little fat available that the longing for fat has become part of Icelandic folk lore. In one story, a man sits nearly all night on a crossroad, refusing to be tempted by anything so that when dawn breaks, he will receive a large reward. He breaks his fast because he is offered fat and he says, “I couldn’t refuse the fat.”
The weather was too cold for grain to ripen. In its place there was a small amount of expensive imported barley or rye available for those who could afford it and, in some places in years when the weather was mild, the seeds of lime grass. Icelandic moss (actually a lichen) replaced grain and was used with other ingredients to make a kind of flat bread. In place of bread, dried cod was eaten with butter. The poor ate cod’s heads.
One time, when I was in Iceland, I saw an advertisement for a traditional Icelandic supper. I went and tried everything, including the ram’s testicles. They were a bit chewy and pretty well tasteless. The mutton soup was excellent. The rest of the meal must have been made up of foods I was used to eating: skyr, pancakes, rullupylsa, because I have no memory of them. There were cubes of rotted shark and an ounce of Black Death. There was no svið (a split and roasted sheep’s head). I’m sure that if there had been I’d have remembered an eye staring at me.
The traditional foods of immigrants are usually the foods of poverty because most of those who emigrated were the poor. The wealthy land owners and the nobility weren’t inclined to leave their home country. Why would they? Their political and social systems gave them everything the needed or wanted. Those people only moved when there was a political revolution and moving saved them from the firing squad or the chopping block.
One time when I was talking to a Ukrainian Canadian about emigration, he said, “We came to eat.”
Icelanders also came to eat. So did Norwegians and Danes and Swedes. There are documents from Scandinavia about people in times of starvation joining hands and jumping off cliffs. In times of starvation. Not because they missed one meal. Because they were dying of hunger and there was no food. None.
Today, there is still starvation but it is in countries like Somalia or North Korea where politics and warfare destroy the ability of people to create their own food.
In North America, we don’t have starvation but we do have hunger. That is in spite of the fact that in North America we have so much food that grocery stores have aisles devoted to nothing but dog and cat food.
We still live in a time of abundance. Our ability to grow food is such that we export it to other countries at so low a cost that we make it impossible for their farmers to earn a living.
Every week, stores throw out hundreds of thousands of pounds of food. Meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, bread. Into the dumpster. Sugar peas flown all the way from China. Into the dumpster. Meat shipped all the way from Australia. Into the dumpster. Manitoba pork. Into the dumpster.
No need to eat rotted shark. No demand for ram’s testicles. When we eat these, we are eating the memory of the times of starvation, when being fat was a sign of health and wealth, when being poor meant being emaciated and hungry all the time.
However, times are changing once again. In Vancouver, there are long lineups at the food kitchens. In Victoria, the Mustard Seed, a church that feeds poor people needs money so desperately to buy groceries that it has taken out of mortgage on its property. We have defeated diseases like polio, have driven back the scourge of tuberculosis. But we have not found a way to feed the hungry even though we waste vast quantities of food. We subsidize the use of corn for fuel so that corn for food is taken away from the food supply. That drives the price of food up, putting many food products out of the reach of the ill, the old, the unemployed, the working poor.

When you are in Iceland, eat rotted shark, chew on ram’s testicles but, as you eat them, remember why they are part of our history, remember the times of starvation and why our people migrated to Canada. We came to eat.When the immigrants first came to Canada, they faced hard times. Diaries and letters are filled with references to the struggle to provide food for their families. They’re also filled with references to the generosity of neighbors sharing what they had and of Icelandic community groups holding fund raising events to pay for groceries to help feed those less fortunate. It’s a good tradition, a tradition of which we can be proud. When we say “I’m proud to be of Icelandic origin.”, let this be one of the things of which we are proud.

Pet Cemetery

(From my diary)
I’ve owned two houses. One was built in 1914 by a ship’s carpenter. It seemed a very ordinary house from the outside, brown shingle, yellow trim. Once I’d moved in, I discovered the brass ship’s locks in the doors, the cabinetry that only a trained cabinet maker could build, the finally matched fir paneling.  In the fourteen .years I stayed  there, I often felt like I was living inside a sailing ship.
When I left, I moved to a house I’d long coveted. It was overgrown with thorn bushes, vines and bamboo so that you could barely see it from the street. The part of the yard that wasn’t overgrown was uncut. The stone wall along the west and south was slowly disintegrating. Above this tangle, the steep roof and the black beams showed through the dogwood trees and pines. Through the gaps in the branches I could see the leaded glass windows. Often, when I walked by, I joked with a friend that someday, I would own this house but it was one of those things you say without really believing it, the way you might buy a ticket on a car being displayed at the mall. You buy it but have no real expectation that you will win.
Then, one day there was a real estate sign on the corner of the property and my friend whose parents have been in real estate all their lives and who knows all about flipping and fixing and creative financing said, “Let’s look at it.”
I said no, all that would happen was that I would be terribly unhappy after seeing it and not being able to afford it. But she’s persistent. On Saturday, I found myself rather reluctantly being dragged between the stone gate posts. Because of the address, people were pulling up in Mercedes and Cadillacs. An Oriental family zipped past us and veered off to the left to look at the west side of the house. Moments later, they zipped past us heading out the gate.  They looked positively ashen.
“What in heaven was that about?” I asked. Their Mercedes was disappearing down the street.
On either side of the sidewalk there were overgrown gardens, then a two foot stone wall bordering the house. In the ten feet between the wall and the house there was a thicket of bamboo and flowers and weeds. We circled around to the left. There, in the bamboo thicket, were white wooden crosses. We began to count. There were thirty-one altogether and each one had the name tag of an animal. There was Rover and Boopsie and Silver and Lassie. We had stumbled across a pet cemetery.
“Gross,” I exclaimed.
“Never mind,” my friend said, “it just helped eliminate some of the competition.”
Inside the house there were beams and three fireplaces, a hexagonal sun room, a silver plated chandelier, sconces and more leaded glass windows that I’d seen since last visiting Craigdarroch Castle.
“Make an offer,” my friend said, after we’d been through the house.
 “Be serious,” I replied.
 “You make an offer. They say no. You’re in the same position as if you didn’t make an offer.”
So I made a ridiculous offer. Ridiculous being the sum I could afford. They never even bothered to counter. The real estate agent sniffed and said the owners had already turned down a cash bid that was bigger than that. So I forgot about it. But three months later when I was still in bed on a Sunday morning, the phone rang. A woman’s voice asked, “Are you still interested in the Tudor Cottage?”
 “I haven’t got any more money,” I said.
“Fine,” she said. “They have to sell it by midnight tonight or they’ll lose the ocean front property on which they’ve made an offer.”
They signed my original offer at 11:30 that night. A month later when I took possession, my parents were visiting me. My mother took over cleaning the inside and my father and I tackled the yard. Quince bushes with wicked thorns covered the yard. The bush had handsome waxy leaves and in the spring a fine display of small deep pink flowers. However, no branch grows more than five inches in one direction before turning sharply to the side. The result is that branches interlock. Spines stick out from every direction. To cut a branch back on a normal bush, I’d cut it close to the main stem or even the root. Here there was no main stem and the root was protected by fifteen feet of tangle. We tried cutting larger pieces and pulling them out. They were locked in place. Our arms were immediately covered in painful scratches. We backed off and began to cut away small pieces that we could then maneuver free. It took us nearly two days before we discovered we’d been cutting back not one but three separate bushes that had grown together.
The reward was that in this tangle, we discovered two toppled bird baths. They were made of concrete but painted to look like terracotta and beautifully designed. We scraped off  the dirt and moss, set them upright. We finally cut away the last of the thorn bush that had worked its way into the ivy covered fence. When the corner was clear, we discovered a flower bowl built into the top of the stone wall. In the side of the wall, tucked behind a plum tree there was a terracotta three quarter face. When we had finished with the thorns, we started on a fifty year old boxwood and fond, enclosed, the bust of a boy set on an old stump. On the west side, we pulled out the white grave markers  then started to cut back the bamboo thicket. As we hacked and chopped, a slate sidewalk appeared. When the walls were clear we found two plaques in the front wall. At the gate, under a pine there was the half-size figure of a woman.
A neighbour who was in her nineties and who had lived on this street for forty-five years stopped to watch our progress. “Don’t,” she said, fixing me with a stern eye, “do anything to the gardens except clean them up. Wait until the spring. This used to be a show place. You never know what might still have survived.”
The chipper truck appeared. The pile of branches was now more than head high. Two men started shoving branches into the chipper. As each branch went through, there was a sudden, harsh buzz and a stream of wood chips flew into the truck. Just as they were finished, a private hauler arrived to pick up the garbage we’d hauled to the lane. There was old lumber and wire. Disintegrating furniture from under the sundeck. The remains of a clothes line and platform that were riddled with dry rot.
“You could have bought a new condo,” my father says as we’re hacking away at a bank of lilacs which have grown so weedy they won’t bloom. “We could be lounging around.”
He was the one who discovered the bust of the boy that had been enclosed by the boxwood. Our clearing the yard had been like a treasure hunt and I notice that as we work, he’s watching to see what other treasures might appear. 
photo by j.o.magnusson

Ida Pfeiffer’s Iceland

In 1845, Ida Pfeiffer made a trip to Iceland by herself.
There was outrage in some places at the idea of a woman traveling alone in such an isolated, difficult place. Some of that outrage was simply at the idea of a woman traveling alone. Since early childhood she had wanted to travel and with her children grown, she decided to travel, to keep a diary and, if possible, to have her diary published. She accomplished all her goals.
Her books, written in German, were widely translated. She sugar coats nothing in her travels. She talks about both kindness and meanness, both honesty and dishonesty, cleanliness and dirtiness. She describes the rigors of sea-sickness and long days in the saddle without excusing herself in any way.
Her book, now reprinted in a modern version, A Visit to Iceland and the Scandinavian North, can be ordered over the internet and, although her portrait of Iceland and Icelanders thirty years before the emigration to North America began isn’t always flattering, everyone of Icelandic background should read it. It explains a great deal of why our ancestors left Iceland for the uncertainty of North America. I was shocked by some of the things I read but, when I finished, I had a better understanding of why Jón Sigurðsson (June 17, 1811 – December 7, 1879) dedicated his life to the cause of Icelandic independence.
 Ida Pfeiffer visited Iceland in 1845. Jón was then 34. He knew intimately the conditions in which Icelanders were living. He knew that until Icelanders could create their own laws, keep and spend their own taxes, they would never live in anything but poverty.
Ida lands at Havenfiord. Here, she sees houses that belong to merchants. They are, she says, like houses in Europe. Everything comes from Copenhagen. There are mirrors, cast iron stoves, beautiful carpets, sofas, neat curtains, even musical instruments.
It is then a shock when she describes how the Icelanders live.
“From these handsome houses I betook myself to the cottages of the peasants, which have a more indigenous, Icelandic appearance. Small and low, built of lava, with the interstices filled with earth, and the whole covered with large pieces of turf ,they would present rather the appearance of natural mounds of earth than of human dwellings, were it not that the projecting wooden chimneys, the low-browed entrances, and the almost imperceptible windows, cause the spectator to conclude that they are inhabited. A dark  narrow passage about four feet high, leads on one side into the common room, and on the other to a few compartments, some of which are used as storehouses for provisions, and the rest as winter stables for  the cows and sheep. At the end of this passage, which is purposely built so low, as an additional defence against the cold, the fireplace is generally situated. The rooms of the poorer class have neither wooden walls nor floors, and are just large enough to admit of the inhabitants sleeping, and perhaps turning round in them. The whole interior accommodation is comprised in bedsteads with very little covering, a small table, and a few drawers. Beds and chests of drawers answer the purpose of benches and chairs. Above the beds are fixed rods, from which depend clothes, shoes, stockings, etc. A small board, on which are arranged a few books, is generally to be observed. Stoves are considered unnecessary, for as the space is very confined, and the house densely populated, the atmosphere is naturally warm.
“Rods are also placed around the fireplace, and on these the wet clothes and fishes are hung up in company to dry. The smoke completely fills the room and slowly finds its way through a few breathing-holes into the open air.
“Fire-wood there is none throughout the whole island. The rich inhabitants have it brought from Norway or Denmark; the poor burn turf, to which they frequently add bones and other offal of fish, which naturally engender a most disagreeable smoke.
“On entering one of these cottages, the visitor is at a loss to determine which of the two is the more obnoxious—the suffocating smoke in the passage or the poisoned air of the dwelling room, rendered almost insufferable by the crowding together of so many persons.”
The contrast between the homes of the Danish merchants and the Icelanders could not be starker.
“The whole commerce of Iceland thus lies in the hands of Danish merchants who send their ships to the island every year, and have established factories in the different ports where the retail trade is carried on.
“These ships bring every thing to Iceland, corn, wood, wines, manufactured goods, and colonial produce, etc. The imports are free, for it would not pay the government to establish offices, and give servants salaries to collect duties upon the small amount of produce required for the island. Wine, and in fact all colonial produce, are therefore much cheaper than in other countries.
“The exports consist of fish, particularly salted cod, fish-roe, tallow, train-oil, eider-down, and feathers of other birds, almost equal to eider-down in softness, sheep’s wool, and pickled or salted lamb. With the exception of the articles just enumerated, t he Icelanders possess nothing; thirteen years ago, when  Herr Knudson established a bakehouse, he was compelled to bring from Copenhagen, not only the builder, but even the material for building, stones, lime, etc; for although the island abounds with masses of stone, there are none which can be used for building an oven, or which can be burnt into lime: everything is of lava.”
The next time you visit Iceland, make a pilgrimage to the statue of Jón Sigurðsson, look around at the buildings, the cars, the people, and say thanks. Don’t just leave it to once a year on June 17.

Paradise Reclaimed

We should all read Laxness because his books answer many questions.
For example, I knew that a man needed to be worth the equivalent of four hundreds to marry but what are four hundreds? I would have asked Haraldur Bessason but he isn’t with us anymore. So I asked Laxness. He isn’t with us anymore either but his books are still with us and we can get answers to our questions by reading them.
In Paradise Reclaimed Laxness says that Steinar’s farm was worth twelve hundreds “whereby one hundred was the equivalent to the price of a cow.”
If you know about hundreds, then when Laxness says in Independent People that when the Bailiff of Myri’s wife married the Bailiff, “She had added a hundred hundreds of land to the estate as her dowry and had stocked this land afterwards on obtaining her inheritance.” She was the daughter of “a boat-owner in Vik”. Her family was so rich that when she married she brought with her as a dowry the equivalent of a hundred cows. When she got her inheritance, it was so large that she was able to stock all this land with cattle. The rich and politically connected families married each other. The Bailiff wasn’t going to marry some hired girl and the daughter of the boat builder wasn’t going to marry some crofter.
Bjartur, the protagonist of Independent People,  had to work eighteen years to save the down payment on a terrible piece of land, a piece of land on which no one  had been able to prosper . However, with making a down payment on this land, he is able to marry and so the novel begins not just with his purchase of the land from Myri but his marriage to Rosa, one of the female servants of Myri.
He is suspicious of the arranged marriage, the enthusiasm of the Bailiff’s wife for the marriage and he asks his new bride, Rosa, in a roundabout way if she is not already pregnant. It turns out that she is. The Bailiff’s son has made her pregnant and the Bailiff’s wife is using Bjartur to cover up what her son  has done.
There is not much described of what went on at Myri, no flashbacks of Rosa in the hay with the Bailiff’s son, but in Paradise Reclaimed, we see the seduction of Steina. She’s a young, just confirmed, girl, naïve, living on her father’s farm. She has no experience outside the farm. Bjorn of Leirur, is worldly, older man with powerful political connections.
Steinar, the protagonist of Paradise Reclaimed, has inherited his farm from his father. He is not rich. However, he is very careful, treats his land and animals well. He is described as meticulous. He asks Bjorn of Leirur for some mahogany from a shipwreck. In return he says that Bjorn may use his homefield to feed his horses. In Iceland, where grass is the most precious commodity, this is a generous offer. Steinar then leaves for Denmark. In his absence, Bjorn abuses the offer and brings not one or two horses to feed on Steinar’s  homefield but  hundreds. A homefield and its cultivated grass is precious, necessary for survival. Bjorn’s horses destroy it. Bjorn also impregnates Steinar’s innocent daughter.
After Steina has had a son and visits Bjorn one late night to ask him what he knows about her father’ s fate, Bjorn discovers that she intends to leave for Utah to join the Mormons. Bjorn, who has denied that he was the father of her child, decides he wants to keep him in Iceland. That men like him get many young women pregnant and then declare that they are not responsible is clear from the sheriff’s reply. He says, “Yes, I’m branded as an idiot,” said the sheriff, “for not sending you all to jail where you belong.” He doesn’t just say “you” but “you all”.
The gulf between the peasants and the wealthy, well-connected farm families is made absolutely clear in that a few lines after the conversation about his illegitimate son, Bjorn and the sheriff begin to discuss “something that is worth spending words on”. That is a chance to buy a trawler from England, a steam ship that can catch as much fish “as all the seamen in fifty fishing stations in Iceland put together.”

Read Laxness.  Really read Laxness. Don’t just skim his words. Ask yourself how what Bjorn of Leirur did to the trusting Steinar and his daughter, Steina, any different than what the bankers recently did to Iceland? They were trusted. They held important positions. They had strong political connections. They betrayed the trust of the people just as Bjorn of Leirur did. They destroyed people’s home fields.
The Bailiff’s wife in Independent People says, “Whenever a poor man married and set-up as a crofter in the dales, she , too, would marry in the spirit and kiss his footsteps. She therefore lent a large tent for Bjartur’s wedding, so that coffee could be drunk in the shelter and a speech made.” But she didn’t say that she was using him to cover up the indecency of her son who got Rosa pregnant.
And just a paragraph or so later, the narrator says, “Meanwhile the women folks, sitting inside were holding a whispered discussion about Steinka of Gilteig….She had had a baby the week before, you see, and several of the women had been running to volunteer their services in the croft…for all are eager to help when somebody has an illegitimate baby, or at least during the first week, while nobody knows who the father is.”
Laxness tells us what a hundred is. He describes Steina spreading butter with her thumb. He tells us   many details of life at the time the books are about. He helps us envisage the past. That is part of his genius. His eye for detail. His understanding of his society. But he also describes Icelandic society in a way that helps make today in Iceland understandable. When we hear and read about people demonstrating, beating on drums, demanding justice, we only have to remind ourselves of the agent Bjorn of Leirur with his gold and silver coins, and we know why many people in Iceland are so angry.
                                                  

Independent People for Christmas

Halldor Laxness was a problem for Iceland. First, he was a genius and geniuses are always a problem. They don’t see the world the way we see it. If they did, they wouldn’t be geniuses. They would just be telling us things we already knew because they would be seeing everything just like us. Most of us like to be told what we already believe. It makes us feel smart. It also makes us feel comfortable. There is no person more intelligent than the person who agrees with our opinions. Laxness had his own opinions.
Second, Laxness was a problem because he became a Catholic. Lots of people have never forgiven him for that. After all, making Iceland Lutheran took some doing. It required chopping off the head of the last Catholic bishop of Iceland. And here Laxness was, all these years later, going off to the Abbey St. Maurice in Luxembourg. He even got baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church. Third, having offended a vast number of people in Iceland by living in an abbey and praying to God to change Icelanders back to being Catholics, he became a Socialist. A Socialist! A Communist. An enemy of capitalism. If he were alive today, he’d be writing a novel satirizing the New Viking capitalists. I expect there are a number of Icelanders who think to themselves, good thing he’s safely dead.
Of course, a lot of people still haven’t forgiven him for winning the Nobel Prize. He satirized the farmers both big and small. He described their conversations about tapeworms and the various home cures. He pointed out the foolishness of the wife of the Bailiff at Myri with her comments about loving the joys of country life. Laxness says about her “She loved the peasants more than anything else in life, and never missed any opportunity of convincing them of the value of the country idyll or of the delight implicit in living and dying on a farm.” Being rich, she said “Rich people are never happy…but poor people are happy practically without exception.” Laxness later gives us a scene of Rosa’s death (Rosa is the first wife of Bjartur, the main character of Independent People), alone, in childbirth and scene after scene putting the lie to everything the Bailiff’s wife has to say about the wonderful life of the peasants. This woman must rank, surely, with Mrs. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, for stupidity and self-delusion. Like Mrs. Bennet, she’s hilariously ridiculous and since she represents a self-important segment of Icelandic society, there are people who don’t appreciate the portrait.
A lot of people were offended by Independent People. They recognized themselves and their relatives in the portraits. They would much rather that the book had been a failure. The winning of the Nobel Prize put the ruling class in a difficult position. On the one hand they couldn’t help but be impressed and proud, on the other, their criticism was gagged. It’s pretty hard to say, “I despise his book. The author is a traitor to the nation by showing us in this light but I’m proud of his winning the Nobel prize. However, I wish someone who made us look wonderful had won.”  There are still people today who take umbrage over Laxness’s portrayal of Icelanders and, in particular, of people they recognize as being based on members of their families.
The truth is, however, that Iceland was the poorest country in Europe. It was backward. It was beset with a political and agricultural system that kept the country from moving ahead with the rest of Europe. Bjartur’s fierce battle for independence at all costs, his pig-headed stubbornness, does present a clear view of Iceland at the time it is set. It also helps a reader understand why it was possible for the country to end up today in its current financial mess and why there are now such fierce demonstrations against what has happened. The same small group of family elites still rule Iceland. They might no longer refer to themselves as the goði , but the same attitude of their superiority, their right to make decisions for the peasants, the same belief that they are entitled to take what they want, still prevails.
I was once told that some of the fishermen in Gimli, Manitoba, my hometown, complained about one of the fish buyers, not because he stole from them by cheating them on weights, by saying fish was rotten when it wasn’t, that he’d got a smaller price for their fish than he actually had, but that he stole too  much. That he was stealing was taken for granted.  Of course he was stealing. In Iceland, the Danes had stolen and the Icelanders who worked for them had stolen. It was a way of life. That’s how the system worked. Why wouldn’t a fish buyer with a bit of money and a bit of social position in Canada steal from people he considered inferior to himself? He believed itt was his right.
I don’t want to make this book sound too serious. It does deal with serious issues but it is also a satire, it is hilariously funny at times, it’s insightful. For example, when Bjartur takes his daughter, Asta Sollilja to town for the first time and goes to buy her a book of poems for her education, the book has been out of print for thirty years. When he creates verses of his own, they are so convoluted by the need for complicated form that they make no sense. Stuck in the past, unable to adapt, he brings disaster on himself and his family, yet, in his own way, Bjartur is both admirable and unforgettable.
For those of us with an Icelandic background, Independent People is essential reading because it makes clear what our ancestors were leaving when they chose to come to Ameríka. It also helps us to understand Iceland today. It’s a highly entertaining book with brilliant writing well served by the translation of J. A. Thompson and with an introduction by Brad Leithauser.
Giving a book at Christmas is a fine Icelandic custom. A book doesn’t have to be just released to be worth giving. Be proud of your Icelandic heritage. Think of Bjartur as a much loved but incredibly frustrating grandfather. Independent People is worth putting under the tree.

The plumber from hell

(from my diary)
My friend VT called. She said her basement was flooding. From the panic in her voice, I was sure the house was going to sink, its roof disappearing like the deck of ship under the ocean waves.
When I got there she was wading around in six inches of water, trying to salvage boxes packed with her belongings. I wrestled everything moveable onto tables and shelves but there was a lot of  loose debris. Sort of like after an ocean liner goes down. Cushions and small wooden items and clothes. Anything that would float. I kept wanting to yell “Man the pumps. Women and children first.”
It was after that she got new drain tile put in. A first class job. Except the first class job was about as valuable as being in first class on the Titanic.
The drain tile man had dug a hole and put in a sump pump. That was to lift the water to the storm sewer. The cord wasn’t protected from the rain and shorted out. Flood number two. This time VT’s brother joined me and we got everything moved in record time. The days following were filled with the sound of vacuum cleaners sucking up water and the whir of fans drying out the wall to wall carpet. The plumber, confronted with the fact that he’d connected the pump outside the house instead of inside dismissed the fact with a shrug and showed VT two poems he had written. She’d told him she was a writer. He was, he said, in his heart a poet and plumbing was what he did to pay the rent.
The third time VT called to say that water was seeping through the wall, I was beginning to think of how trouble free life would be in Arizona or the Sahara desert. This time she didn’t want me to lift boxes but to dig into the clay behind the camellia bush that sits in the corner by the porch. She said she could hear water running. I put my ear to the wall. It sounded like an underground stream just somewhat smaller than Niagara Falls. Her son-in-law was supposed to be on his way. He’s younger and more muscular  than I am and a much better candidate for digging in clay.
“The camellia’s got to go,” I said. VT went inside so she didn’t have to watch me chop her prize camellia down to a stub.
Have you ever dug clay? God, her or him, pagan or Christian, invented clay to make life hell for people who have to dig. Sort of their penance on earth so they don’t have to hang around in Purgatory and clog up the system. It stuck to the shovel. It stuck to me. It stuck to itself. Gradually, though, I managed to uncover some copper tubing and then a blue plastic coupling. VT had turned off the water but I could tell this was the place. The ground was saturated. That’s when her son-in-law turned up.
He’s a drywaller, not a plumber, but he’s got a sense of how things operate. He got some water, washed off the coupling and recognized that the plumber had put the inside rings on the outside of the coupling. Just to be sure, he turned on the water. At that moment, I was leaning over the hole and got sprayed with wet mud from my crotch to my chin. 
Her son-in-law took off the coupling, reorganized it and screwed it back on. He tried the water again, made a few adjustments and everything worked fine. I admire people like that. Because of them things like heat and water and electricity and telephones work. I wish I could be like that. It would be great to be this writer who could also fix plumbing and trucks and, if necessary, roofs, with nothing but a bent paper clip, some tape and a rubber band.
Instead, I help people write stories, teaching them the intricacies of plot and point of view, showing them to scan lines. Sometimes, I help them I help them sort through conflicts and unhappiness, putting them on paper so they can t hen  throw their grief into the garbage and  get on with their lives. There’s a good feeling in that but it’s not the same as fixing a door so it closes properly or shingling a roof. The problem with helping people fix themselves is that you’re never sure they’re fixed. Sometimes, they claim they were never broken. You never get a window saying that after you’ve taken out the shards and cleaned off the old putty, then set the new pane in place and puttied it, “You’ve ruined my life. I’ll never be a proper window again. I was better off with loose, dried out putty. I’m worse off than I was before.” When people say something like that about their lives, they don’t usually whisper that, they stand in the office doorway and shout it before raging away to show their story/poem/play to their mother/father/lover/best friend who reassures them the story is perfect and doesn’t need a single word changed. And that they’re perfect, too, and have absolutely nothing to learn and no need to grow.
Having been screamed and yelled at, mostly by parents when I taught high school for a few years, I’m not much on screaming and yelling, but I must admit if I could have found him ,I’d have yelled and screamed at the plumber who put the connection on inside out.
l did try to find  him. I thought that I  and VTs son-in-law might persuade him to return VT’s money. No luck. He’s moved on, leaving houses all over Victoria with basements that flood, water tanks that burst, taps that give cold water from the hot faucet and hot water from the cold faucet. Maybe he’s in Castlegar or Calgary. The next time you phone a plumber check to see how long he’s been in your city or town, ask him if he’s ever worked in Victoria, ask him if he’s been writing any poems lately.

Autumn leaves

I wonder every fall  if my ancestors really understood what they were doing when they left Iceland. Did they know how many trees there were in Canada? Did they know that every tree had leaves and every leaf would fall and, when their descendants had houses and yards, they’d spend hours, days, sometimes weeks, raking up leaves and taking them to the recycling yard.? Dwarf birch in Iceland don’t get to spread their leaves very far. Did they realize that the outcome all their sacrifices would be their descendants having conversations with municipal clerks about whether a tree was dead or not?
“The tree is definitely dead,” I said, exasperated. “The gall wasps got it.”
“We’ll have to send out a tree inspector,” the municipal clerk replied. “Garry Oaks are protected trees.”
“The bark’s coming off in strips. Some of the branches are bare. There hasn’t been a leaf on it in two years.”
“We need,” she explained patiently, “a death certificate.”
I expected an ambulance, maybe even a hearse. At least someone in a white coat who would hold a stethescope to the trunk and write a prescription or two before giving up. Instead, there was this guy with a clip board who stood on the road, scribbled onto his clip board and  handed me a form with, “Looks dead.” written on the bottom.
The reason there are still big Garry Oaks around is because they’ve got so many twists and knots in them that they can’t be used for lumber. I keep thinking it’s like all the guys with flat feet not ending up in graveyards in Europe during the last war. Not being able to march saved their lives.
Garry Oaks have more leaves than any tree in the world. The leaves are tough. They’re not like maple leaves or ash leaves that quickly rot away. Oak leaves turn bronze colored and become just about as hard. In spite of a winter of steady rain, come spring, they’re still crisp as fresh corn flakes.
My neighbour is a genius at mechanical things.  His solution for oak leaves is to upend his Lawn Boy rotary lawn mower, build a box around it, then dump his leaves into the box. Sort of like a humungous coffee grinder. Chops  the leaves into little bits. I’m terrified of the garburator, never mind an upended lawnmower. I keep worrying that I’ll slip and my hand will somehow fall into the dark hole that lies beyond the strips of rubber. The idea of an upended rotary mower gives me nightmares. My solution is to pile the leaves at the corner stop sign and let the passing cars grind them down to a fine powder. Then I scoop them up with a flat shovel, load oak leaf pulp onto the wheelbarrow, then heap up more oak leaves for the passing traffic to reduce to dust .
“I’m going out to blow the leaves,” my nephew says. Blowing is the rage among gardeners; raking is passé.
I used to enjoy raking leaves. Mostly what I enjoyed was the easy motion and the silence. There was just the scratch, scratch of the rake and rustle of the leaves. It was a time for meditation, for deep reflection on whatever needed reflecting upon. My nephew puts on ear protectors, a face shield, slips the Echo motor onto his back, and looking like an extra from Road Warrior blows leaves down the lane and across the lawn onto a blue tarp that he hauls to the curb to await the arrival of the gully sucker. The gully sucker is a monstrous white truck that actually is a giant vacuum cleaner. One man drives it. Four men in florescent vests follow behind. One holds a corrugated tube big enough to suck up a full grown adult, never mind children and small dogs. Two workers follow along with rakes and pull forward any leaves that the vacuum has missed. The fourth one holds up a sign warning oncoming cars to slow down.
There are worse leaves than oak leaves. Arbutus leaves survive for years. They are nature’s answer to plastic. The story is arbutus don’t shed their leaves, they shed their bark. And, its true as far as it goes. In December and January, when I look out my front window, the arbutus tree is waxy green, with large bunches of bright red berries. The trunks is deep red or purple and is starting to tear and fall away in strips. After a good freeze, the berries ferment and we have a day or two of drunk flocks of birds. Not a little tipsy. Absolutely plastered. They fall off the branches onto the ground, others fly into windows and walls. They’re as noisy as any group of students in the SUB on a Saturday around midnight.  The only thing missing is a rock band.
Arbutus leaves do fall off. They just don’t fall off all at once, or over a few weeks, like the oak leaves. They fall off all year. They’re sharp and brittle and even though they turn yellow or black, they are virtually indestructible. I used to gather them up and burn them but then the condo-environmentalists decided that burning was bad. So now they go into the garbage cans for the municipality to burn.
There are leaves that I covet. Those are from the maples that line the road into Uplands. They’re big and soft. They rot quickly and make a rich, dark humus. Each year I think I’ll beat the gully sucker to the boulevards of the rich, load up my pickup with these leaves and pile them into my compost box. I never do it. It’s one thing to collect seaweed for the compost box. It’s another thing to risk being confronted by the local police as a suspicious character collecting leaves from between the Mercedes. What would people make of the headline, “Retired professor arrested for stealing rich people’s leaves”?