New Years in Kiev, episode 5

 The Cultural Palace( Жовтневий палац, Zhovtnevy palats)
We’d been to Uzgorod and Lviv and returned to Kiev for New Year’s. The weather had been mild and when we walked out, the golden domes of the cathedrals glowed in the winter sun.
It was a time of new beginnings, of hope, for Peristroika and Glasnost were still new, and everyone thought democracy and good times were just around the corner. You could feel hope. It filled the air,it rose from the people walking down Kreschatik Street.
Ivan took me to a cultural palace to celebrate. Every seat was filled. Beside us were rows of WWII veterans in their uniforms with medals across their chests. These were the survivors. Thirteen million of their comrades were killed in the battlefield, died in hospitals, died after the war from their injuries, were lost in combat or died as prisoners of war. Fourteen million civilians died. Eight million civilians were killed in Ukraine. I wondered if any of the soldiers had been at Leningrad where one million people died, many from starvation and freezing to death. I wondered if I could share their memories, what horrors I would see.
I expected the evening would be filled with young women in crocheted blouses and skirts, red boots, with flowers in their hair. With young men with their embroidered shirts and blue, baggy pants, doing impossible tricks as they danced. I expected to hear the balilaika.
Instead, the stage was taken over by a group of rock musicians in torn blue jeans, playing extremely loud music, doing their best to imitate what they thought was American success. The torn blue jeans were faked, of course, a statement from America about the rebellion of the over-urbanized, over-privileged middle class children of upwardly mobile parents.
On the way out, after the concert, I accidently put my chapka on backwards. On the escalator, a lot of people had a good laugh at the Canadian who couldn’t get his hat on right.
The weather was mild. Ivan and I walked back to my hotel with our coats open. There was a table reserved for me in the dining room with a bottle of wine and chocolates. “Wine, chocolates, music, beautiful women.” He waved his hand at the room packed with people already partying. “The rest is up to you.”
I sat there watching the crowd, in the heart of the heart of a country and people I love, but after awhile I went back to my room. I lay on the bed. I couldn’t get the image of the old soldiers, row on row of them, their medals polished, their uniforms pressed, watching a group of young people screaming into microphones, jumping about the stage, deliberately wearing torn clothing, out of my mind. I thought about the medals and what they meant and I wondered if the old soldiers wondered how what was happening on stage could be the outcome of all the horror and sacrifice.

The Black House, Lviv, episode4

Tonight we stay in a Soviet hotel,” Ivan said.
“What’s that?”
“A Dneister hotel in Lviv. With Soviet people. No Intourist. This is okay?”
“It’ll be like home,” I said. I was sprawled on my bunk writing in my diary. We’d left Uzgorod late and with the dark and the rain there was nothing to see from the window of the train.
“We had left before supper but Ivan promised we wouldn’t starve. He had slipped into the kitchen and now he took a package of lox, bread, cheese and two bottles of local beer out of his coat pockets.
“A picnic you call it,” he said. “Is that right?”
There was a tablecloth with Ukrainian stitching and a vase with dried flowers. Ivan was busy dividing the salmon and the bread. We had no plates so he tore the paper in half and put the food on each piece. He opened his pocket knife and stuck it into the cheese.”

“Yes,” I said, “a picnic.

I wished it were daylight. I would have liked to see the countryside. I’d heard about Lviv all my life. Every immigrant said, at some time in his story, “When we got to Lviv…” It was from here that the trip to Germany began and from there to North America. It was in Lviv they said good-bye to the Ukraine, to their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.
The salmon and the bread were good. The cheese was old and strong. The bottles of beer were large, a quart maybe.
After we’d eaten, Ivan said, help me with my English. We were sitting together on the lower bunk when the conductress brought the tea. Ivan was reading out loud from Saturday Night. I was watching the page, correcting his pronunciation. The article was on Aides and after he’d finished it, he said, I didn’t know it was so serious. We haven’t heard. I’m sorry. I just joke about the women. I talk lots. I don’t do anything.” I felt sorry for him, the way I felt sorry for myself when the information had first sunk in, that nothing was going to be the way it was ever again, like after somebody has died and at firsts you think nothing will change but it does and one day you finally accept it.
We arrived at midnight. Ivan made me get my suitcase and stand in the door well between the coaches. “No car tonight,” he said. “We take taxi.”
We hurried along the platform and down the broad steps to the taxi stand but there was already a line up. In front of us was a fashionably dressed woman with a tiny dog.
“Wait here,” Ivan said, “I go check.” When I started to wander away to look at some sculpture, he said, “Watch the luggage., These are good people but watch anyway.”
“Why do you say Dneister is home?” He had a habit of doing that, waiting for an hour or maybe a day before asking about something I had said, as if first he had to give it a great deal of serious thought.
I was busy looking out the window of the taxi, trying to see everything that went by. “Because at home there is the Dneister district and the Dneister school and Dneister everything. Everyone came from Halychena. They settled in the swamp. Berlo and Frazerwood and Silver and Winnipeg Beach and Malonton and Dneister. Everybody knows Dneister.”
The next morning I fell in love with Lviv. The entire city was a museum. I loved the cannonballs hung in chains as punishment for striking the cathedral. I loved the black house stained with walnut juice. I loved the causal way my guide Pasha said, in the town square, “There is the house of Count Dracula.”
“What do you want to see?” Pasha asked.
“All of it. Every stone.”
Pasha laughed. “Have you a year and we go out every day. Maybe not every stone but the most important things. That takes a month. How much time do you have?”
“A day.”
“A day! A day!” He threw his arms in the air.
“Show me what you want,” I said. “It’s your city.”
“We’ll take the car.”
“No, no car, no driver. We walk.”
We went through the ritual of my not being American but Canadian and how Canadians love to walk. Pasha gave the driver a package of Canadian cigarettes and told him to meet us later. We toured the square and looked at the building Ukrainian prisoners were forced to build. The day it was completed, they were executed. Then we went to the cemetery. Here Pasha told me stories of bodies buried in the graves of others until it was safe to re-bury them under their own names. There were tombs, centuries of tombs, all with stories, and endless, haphazard gravestones and plinths, a jumble of history and necessity, not at all like the orderly precise graves of Sweden with their carefully raked gravel beds, but chaotic and full of emotion.
I was still separate from it, untouched, somehow, until we were leaving and I saw a stone pillar and on it, flowers. I went to look and the flowers were in a beer can. The simplicity of it touched me. I stood there for a long time, not wanting to ever forget the flowers or the can or the pillar or the way I felt at that moment.
It was a crazy day, a day like no other, as if we were both frenzied, both wanting me to see, to feel, to be imprinted with Lviv. We went through a Gothic passageway into a courtyard which contained a statue of a man and woman joined back to back. Here, Pasha said, adulterers had been tied to display the shame of their unfaithfulness. Because of the perfect acoustics, music was played here in summer and people stood around the balconies but it was not this Pasha had brought me to see, but an opening in the pavement and steps leading down.
“They have only recently found these tunnels under the city,” Pasha said. “They are very old and no one knows where all of them go. It is good to see them but if we go down here there will be no time for anything else.”
I was torn between the two but chose to see more of the city. The sight of the tunnel raised memories of the catacombs of Kiev, of glass-topped coffins, of bodies in white shrouds, their faces covered with purple cloth embroidered with silver and gold. I’d had enough of that, of claustrophobia and death.
Instead, we went to a cathedral and chanced upon the city symphony practicing. Like the flowers in the beer can there was something appropriate about it, something better than having come dressed for the finished performance. We stood on the edge of a large crowd, listening to Bach, among a flock of gilt angels which hovered about the walls. In the center of the room a massive plumb hung suspend from the cupola and swung endlessly back and forth. I was overawed b the beauty, by the magnificence of the carvings, by the size of the building. Everywhere I turned there was something worth seeing. Now I understood what Pasha meant by my having to stay for a year to see everything. This building alone, to be seen, not looked at, but truly seen, needed a day to itself.
We went to a second cathedral and here there was no symphony, no spectators, only worshippers, nearly all old women in black clothes, lying flat on the stone floor or walking on their knees, repeatedly stopping and crossing themselves, fingering their beads, asking who knew what favour or forgiveness. The room was filled with the light and space of the New Testament. The pastel columns soared toward a glory of stained glass. But then I crossed the room to the entrance of the old cathedral which was Gothic, heavy, filled with shadows and fear, a place suitable to worship an avenging God. I deliberately placed myself where the two interiors met and stretched out my arms to either side.
“I did not intend to make this a day of cathedrals,” Pasha said “but this is on the way.”
We stopped at what had been an Albanian ghetto to look at a church which had sunk many feet into the gourd so that it seemed more like a ship foundering than a building. The gate was fastened with a chain and lock. “Lviv is built on marsh. Everything looks solid but it sinks. It is a problem.”
We stopped in a sixteenth century street. The buildings were a solid wall which came right to the edge of the cobblestones on either side. There were no signs. No people. If I had been alone, I would have walked by without stopping. Pasha opened a door and we were immediately in a small room crammed with people eating cake and drinking coffee. The conversation paused when we entered, then began again. I went with Pasha to the counter to pick out cake and to watch the coffee being made. The man behind the counter took a small metal pot and carefully measured out coffee for it and water. Then he set the pot in a bed of hot sand. When he brought the coffee to our table, it came in tiny cups. It was strong and black and like nothing I’d ever drunk before.
“Just time for one more place,” Pasha said.
The car was waiting for us. We went to a hill overlooking the city. We got out beside a tour bus and climbed the hill. There were lots of trees and the ground was covered in last year’s leaves. We stopped at the wall of an old castle. Stone steps wound upward and children ran past, chasing each other and laughing. When we reached the crest there was no one else there. The wind was cold and nearly blew my cap off.
“Is it always like this? I asked.
“Worse,” Pasha said. “But it is worth it.”
Lviv was spread out before us. A vast sweep of trees and buildings and endless golden domes and steeples. Above us there was endless blue sky and scudding clouds.
“Magnificent!” I exclaimed. The golden buildings spread out in all their glory, like something from Arabian nights. Everywhere I looked as we circled the hill were steeples and cupolas,  like the risen Christ, I thought, like hosannas in brick and metal, a golden city built on faith.
“Yes,” Pasha agreed. “Magnificent. To keep this one running,” he sighted along his arm and I leaned close so that I was looking at the right building, “took the taxes of fifteen thousand peasants every year.”
Later, when I was back on the train, writing in my diary, I tried to remember the names, the endless names, and the dates, but they ran together. I remembered instead, the tombs stained black with walnut juice and the black house and the coffee and Pasha saying that when the Americans came they wanted to argue about everything, even if they knew no history, no politics, and I wrote it all down, except for how magnificent the cathedrals were, writing down, instead, fifteen thousand, and trying t imagine it in Canada. A city the size of Lethbridge or Brandon and fifteen thousand families every year forced to pay their income tax to keep one local church running. I had intended to write a story about the cathedrals. Instead, I wrote about the stone column and the bouquet of flowers in a beer can.

Glass in Uzgorod, Ukraine, episode 3

Ruins of Nevytsky Castle

The hills were gently rolling. There were patches of snow in the woods. In the open, the snow had melted and the grass was the yellow of old ivory. Just after it started to become light we crossed a stream and the sound of the train changed, becoming momentarily deeper. While we’d been traveling, I’d grown used to the steady clicking of the rails, the creaking of the car, the slight chatter of the metal parts underneath us.
The water was running green with the melt, faster and higher than normal. I could tell this because the water poured white like thick, twisting cords over and around obstructions. If it had run at that height for a long time the obstructions would have been worn down or carried away and surface wouldn’t have been so turbulent.
We’d left Kiev the night before. We had fallen asleep right after having left and now Ivan, who usually stayed awake taking care of details, checking and rechecking our travel plans a minimum of three times, was still not awake. In Kiev, Natasha, the Intourist guide, had called him Vanya and fussed a little over him, scolding him gently, explaining to me that I never had to worry, that Ivan was known for endlessly checking details, for never letting anything go wrong. He had blushed and looked away but it was easy to see that he was pleased. Now he was asleep in that utterly exhausted way one usually sees only in children. He was sprawled on his back, his mouth open, the muscles in his face loose and relaxed.
During the night, I had wakened when the train stopped at Chop. There was a great deal of coming and going and I thought it might be more soldiers getting on but when I raised the blind and looked out, it was skiers. They were lining up with their equipment before getting onto the train. Daily life goes on, I thought, remembering the displays in the Museum of the great Patriotic War, the tables of medals and letters and personal effects and the pictures of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Ivan whispering “Only since Gorbachev. Before that nothing. Not even to ask.” Later, outside the museum, he said “Soon it will be over,” but it wasn’t over yet.
As the skiers were getting onto the train, someone else far away was being shot at or shooting at someone, or lying in a hospital or being buried. It had been like that in the USA during Vietnam and it made people crazy. Soldiers in a fire fight, all around them people being wounded, killed, and then they’d get on a plane and a day later they’d be walking down the street in Dallas or Los Angles or Boston and the war didn’t exist. Everybody was shopping or eating burgers or getting laid or doing drugs. At the same time the soldiers knew their buddies were in the jungle trying to stay alive.
In the first pale light, we passed houses that might have been from my childhood in Manitoba. Wooden houses plastered with mud and whitewashed. When the track was higher than the houses, I saw that woodpiles and outbuildings enclosed a muddy courtyard with chickens and the occasional pig. With the melting snow, the roads had turned to mud. I remembered mud like that in the Interlake, mud clinging to my boots, mud on my mittens, mud underfoot as I slipped and slid. We’d lived like that, before the roads were paved and everyone could afford a car.
Outside a small woods, I saw a father and son who had been cutting hay in a ditch. They’d piled the loose hay into a sheet which lay on the ground, had pulled the four corners together, and, as I watched, the father expertly flipped the load onto his back. The son was carrying two hand sickles. I was glad Ivan was asleep. He wouldn’t have wanted me to see this father and son. He’d be embarrassed. He wants everything to be the best, the newest, the way we did when Formica and polyester were the touchstones of progress.
In Kiev, Ivan had been proudest of the new apartment blocks. The hills had been scraped clear and the red earth looked flayed. The blocks were narrow, anonymous buildings. Beyond the buildings there were untouched hills, hills covered in trees, and then a cluster of houses from old Kiev, houses with tile roofs and patchwork fences and fruit trees. I’d recognized them as surely as if I’d lived in t hem. I’d felt I could get off the streetcar we were riding and walk to them, certain that when I opened a gate and entered a yard and said dobra dene, the face and the hand turned toward me would be a hand and face I knew.
“New homes,” Ivan had said proudly of the apartment blocks. “For the people.” When I asked him about the cutting down of the trees, about the ecology of the area, he looked confused. “We have just started to think about that,” he said. “There is much discussion.”
It doesn’t matter where you go, communist, capitalist, developers are all the same. If you put them in the same room, they’d share all the same complaints, the same problems–councils who made too many restrictions, people who protested change, fools who didn’t understand the need for housing–and they’d discover that they were not enemies but that they had a common enemy, the public, the unappreciative blockheads for whom they were trying to do so much.
Natasha had told me that I was lucky to be going to Uzgorod. The best coffee in the USSR was served there. It was true. The Turks had conquered here and though they were gone, the taste for strong coffee lingered. We drank it in the hotel and it was better than any I had drunk in a long time. I was staying in a hotel which had been built by Finns and Hungarians. My table had a Canadian flag. The first night when we had supper, the Canadian flag was there again. I wondered if it was to warn others off or if it was a matter of pride, an expression of solidarity.
Early in the day, I visited a Pioneer Palace. One of the instructors had lingered in the hall, inviting me to visit him after supper. The three of us, Irena, the president of the committee for foreign visitors, and Ivan and I had strolled through the dark, walking to a concrete apartment like the ones in Kiev. We were met at the doorway by Gregory.
“No lights yet,” he said in Ukrainian and Ivan translated automatically. Gregory opened the outer door. “No glass for windows either.” The windows were covered with pieces of plywood. He clenched his fist as if grasping something. “Peristroika,” he said. “Then we’ll be able to order glass from anywhere we want. No more ordering and waiting. With peristroika we can do anything.”
Gregory’s wife was dressed in pink and his daughter was in a white party dress. On the table were cream filled pastries and a dish of walnuts and a sliced orange. I gave them chocolates I’d brought from Canada. Gregory and his wife were engineers but that was not where their hearts were.  His wife was a poet and he was an artist. His art was not well understood, Ivan said. We went to look at Gregory’s art. He made pictures from copper. There were fifteen or twenty pieces on the wall. They were carefully done and beautifully framed. Gregory had thought up the idea himself, made the tools, developed his technique, used his engineering skills to gild the surface with touches of silver. He had become so involved with his art that he’d given up his engineering job and taken a teaching position. Once Peristroika was complete he thought there’d be a chance of tourists coming to Uzgorod and buying his work.
We drank Red Rooster. We made toasts of friendship, of brotherly love. The raspberry liqueur was so strong that it paralyzed my mouth. Gregory’s wife turned off the lights and lit a candle and read her poetry. For once, Ivan didn’t translate. She had a manuscript in front of her but she didn’t need it. She knew her poems by heart. Her voice, passionate, pleading, demanding as the lights on the New Year’s tree glowed and reflected off the gifts underneath. All the time she read, I kept thinking about the copper pictures, the tools and the techniques and the dedication which had produced them and the years it had taken and the fact that all these were known, had been known for years in North America and was regarded not as art but as a craft, a hobby, and when peristroika came to Uzgorod it wouldn’t all be glass or tourists but, perhaps, shock and disappointment.

The Oranges of Peristroika, episode 2


Moscow station. Moscow station, I kept thinking It wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before. It was beyond anything I’d ever imagined. A maelstrom of people
Ivan had said, “Stay right behind me. Don’t lose sight of me.” Then we’d plunged into a turbulence of bodies and suitcases and boxes tied with rope. The noise was overwhelming. Afghanistan was not finished then and not since my childhood had I seen so many soldiers. I’d been born the year W.W.II started. There’d been an air base two mile south of town where they were trailing plots for the Battle of Britain so I’d grown up with all these men in uniform being around. But it hadn’t been like this. I was shocked by how young the soldiers were. Some still had the smooth faces of children, the gangly, disjointed bodies of adolescence.
The station seemed filled with darkness. The dark, heavy coats, the dark chapkas, the dark shoes. Here and there a red babushka glowed like a poppy in a dark field. Then all of a sudden there were the oranges, a pyramid of colour, crates of Egyptian oranges piled high. At home I took oranges for granted, stuffing a few into a plastic bag, without thinking about it. But here they glowed a bright as the golden domes of the cathedrals, brighter even, a mass of golden colour.
“Peristroika,” Ivan said. “Before it was the black market, now it is being a good citizen.”
“They don’t work for the government?”
Ivan shook his head. “Free enterprise. The new capitalists.”
“Stay here,” Ivan said, dropping his luggage beside a wall. Then he disappeared, swallowed up in the fierce current of bodies. All around the pile of oranges people eddied. Soldiers bought one or two before hurrying off to their trains. Ivan suddenly reappeared, a paper bag in his hand. He grabbed  his suitcase and said, “Come, come, we have to hurry!”
Frightened at the thought of being left behind or of losing sight of Ivan’s small, round figure, I rushed after him, pushing through the crowd until we came out on a train platform.
There, we paused, put down our bags for a moment’s rest. It was like something out of a movie, I thought. It was night and everywhere, Red Army uniforms, soldiers climbing onto trains, civilians lining up to get onto the cars, the platform in constant turmoil, and then two women went by, red arm bands on their coats.
“Who are they?” I asked and Ivan wrinkled his face in distaste.
“Nobody anymore. Pretty soon over.” He cut the air with his hand to signify finality. “Busybodies checking on everybody else’s business. Nothing better to do.”
The compartment was nicer than I expected. There was a single bed on each side with a table in the Centre against the wall under the widow. I hadn’t slept since leaving Canada and now, overwhelmed with tiredness, I took off my shoes and lay down. My body ached as if I’d been beaten. The shock of the day was still with me. St. Basil’s with its expression of Christianity beyond my understanding. The Kremlin with its high red walls. The eternal flame and its piles of fresh flowers.
The train jerked. Then jerked again and there was the sound of metal on metal and then the slow forward motion and tired as I was I had to look out the window. I didn’t want to miss anything. I sat at the table. Ivan opened a bottle of soda water. I’ll have to remember that, I thought, the bottle opener is under the table.
By the time we reached the outskirts of Moscow, the night had deepened and the brilliant white snow was now purple and gold. The stained buildings had given way to stretches of fresh snow and dachas surrounded by picket fences and scatterings of trees and empty, unused roads. The conductress had knocked and brought tea in glasses held with metal holders. The tea was strong and served with large hard lumps of sugar and biscuits. She had been stunningly beautiful, the way I knew Russian women could be, with blonde curly hair to her shoulders, a wedge blue cap on her head, a peasant blouse, a blue skirt and leather boots.
I wished I could say something to her, something in Russian, something kind and not stupid. Like most North Americans though I was trapped in English by my arrogance and all I knew was da and nyet and possibe and chapka and chi. so I said possibe when she handed me my tea. Then, unable to think of anything else, I dug in my handbag and took out a box of Purdy’s chocolates and opened it and held it out and was delighted by her pleasure. When she took one, I urged her to take another After she was gone and we were sitting at the table, sipping tea, I thought nothing could be better than this, I’d never forget this, the Army officers in their uniforms, the sound of the train, the snow covered dachas, the tea, the beautiful conductress. When I woke in the morning, still in my clothes, with a blanket thrown over me, Ivan was saying, “William, wake up, wake up, we are at Kiev soon.”
We took a car to the hotel. When I was in my room, I started to say something and Ivan held up one finger to stop me. Then he turned on the television so it was quite loud and no one could hear what we were saying.
Just before he left, he took the paper bag out of his suitcase. In it were four oranges. One for his wife, one for his son, one for himself. He took out the fourth orange and gave it to me. I didn’t want to take it because I guessed at what it must have cost but I knew I couldn’t say no without it being misunderstood so I took it and kept it and didn’t eat it until three days later when I was sitting in the park with the statue of Taras Tschevchenko. I took a long time eating it, using my pen knife to make thin slices, eating all of it, even the slightly bitter rind.

The Ten Cent Christmas

When my aunt was a recently married bride (she was eighteen), she and her husband were very poor. They lived in a shanty. Jack was an ordinary airman in the airforce and the pay was not intended to support both him and a wife. However, my aunt was beautiful and he was dashing in his uniform and they, like many young couples, were full of hope. Love, they believed, could overcome all problems.

Their first Christmas all they had between them was ten cents. Mind you ten cents still meant something. You could buy something with ten cents. It was two third of a  haircut, for example. It was two thirds of a ticket to a movie. It was two ice cream cones. Still, it was just ten cents.

They set up a tree and decorated it with what they were able to make.

My aunt went to the butcher shop and she said to the butcher, “Can I get some hamburger for ten cents?”

And the butcher, who had known her all his life for this was a small town, Gimli, Manitoba, where nearly everyone was related by blood or marriage even though new interlopers like my uncle were appearing because an airbase was being built for the war effort in Europe, said, “Sure, Florence.” And he took her dime.

He went to the back, away from the counter and, when he returned, he gave her a package wrapped in brown waxed paper and tied with butcher’s string.

When she got home and opened the package, there was the hamburger and with it, short ribs and steak.

My aunt is in her eighties now and in a nursing home but she has never forgotten that Christmas. She’s told me about it many times over the years and I’m always happy to hear and re-hear it.  

Christmas Day in Gimli

(from my diary)

There were other magical days. Easter. Islindingadagurinn. The day school got out. Thanksgiving. Birthdays. But Christmas always had its own magic. Part of that were the songs. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Christmas Bells. Good King Wenceslas. Everyone has his or her own favorites. There aren’t a lot of rousing songs about Easter or Islindingadagurinn. I don’t remember a plethora of songs about school getting out. There might have been a tune or two about Thanksgiving but I don’t remember them offhand. There’s Happy Birthday but it’s brief and once it’s over, there aren’t any lively tunes about growing older.
Maybe the magic of Christmas is founded in its religious beginning. Maybe it’s founded on the mixture of pagan beliefs and Christian beliefs. Mistletoe and kissing and Christ being born. Mistletoe and kissing can lead to kids being born. No question about it. But I doubt if that had anything to do with Christ’s being born because his was to be a virgin birth.
When I was a kid there was nothing more important than the Christmas Eve service at the church. That’s because, ham that I am, I always got a few lines to say and a chance to put on a costume. I thought I always got a part because I was a brilliant actor. My mother said it was because I learned my lines. The church was always packed for the service. No empty pews at Christmas. We got small brown paper bags with candy and an orange. This was before the ToysRUs mentality took hold. A peppermint in one’s mouth with an orange in one’s pocket was a taste of heaven. That’s because nothing more was expected. TV hadn’t arrived to tell us about all the things we should want and make us unhappy because we didn’t have them.
Normally, after the service, we went home and opened our presents. Then Christmas morning there would be one present from Santa Clause.  We were very lucky children, my brother and I, because between my parents and my grandparents there was always a gift under the tree. The gifts were often something useful, like clothes we needed but sometimes there were a baseballs and bat, a bow and arrow, a football, not all at once but one for each year. There was always a book, usually one of the Hardy Boys series. Christmas wouldn’t have been Christmas without a book. I didn’t know then that it was an Icelandic tradition to give a book at Christmas.
There was the Christmas tree, of course. We took the truck into the country and idled down country roads until we saw something the right size and shape, then waded through snow and chopped it down.  My father set it up in the living room and my mother directed the decorating. A lot of the decorations were handmade, knitted or cut from tin can lids. There were some store bought decorations and a string of lights.
People try to make Christmas however they can. Valerie Kline, my friend for twenty years, was born in an internment camp in Uganda during the war. There were no Christmas trees so her father decided to make one. He found a narrow tree trunk, drilled holes all around it. Collected palm fronds and stuck them in the holes. The family made decorations and since in their native Germany and Hungary they lit candles on the tree, they collected candle stubs , set them on bits of tin and fastened them to the fronds. On Christmas Eve, they stood back to admire their tree as Valerie’s mother lit the candles. Then in one great whoosh the dry fronds went up in flames and Valerie’s dad, Gene, grabbed the tree and flung it through the door. It was as Valerie often said, a Kodak moment.
More important than the gifts was the company. If I had to forgo one or the other, I’d have done without the gifts. As I kneeled on the couch so I could watch out the front window through the darkness and the blowing snow for my grandparents, I vibrated with excitement. They came down by bus and walked from the bus stop to our house. “Here they are, here they are,” I’d shout. My grandmother always wore a Persian lamb coat and black boots with a fur fringe. My grandfather wore a heavy wool coat that reached his ankles. Then uncles and aunts and cousins and best friends started to appear until the house was bursting with conversation and laughter. The coats and parkas piled up my parents’ bed. The smell of the turkey roasting, the cranberries cooking, the vegetables boiling and baking, the pies, the cakes, the cookies swirled out of the kitchen into the living room. We were always a large group because Christmas was about sharing. Christmas was about friendship. Christmas was about caring. It also was about story telling or playing Rummoli for pennies or Snakes and Ladders.  Christmas was about storing up good memories for the future to help us through the difficult times that are always ahead.
There were always desserts afterward. My Irish mother learned to make vinarterta soon after she got married so we always had vinartera with the Christmas cake. There were calla lilies and snowballs and rosettes. I don’t ever remember a store bought cookie. There were pies, of course. What would Christmas dinner be without pies?
Even as a child I remember pausing at these times, in the midst of the laughter and conversation and food, and looking around the room at everyone, and being grateful that Christmas was like this and wishing that it could always be like this.
It couldn’t be, of course. People grow older. They move. They  marry and have their own Christmases with their own children and their inlaws. They die. How I long for it to be possible to relive some of those Christmases, for those same people to come tramping through the door in a swirl of cold air turning white around them.
Although I now live in Victoria instead of Gimli and although my grandparents and father  and mother and brother are gone, we still make Christmas. Our lives aren’t as tightly bound because we live in cities but on Christmas Eve, we gather at my house for dinner and conversation and gifts. My son and his family come from Bellingham, my daughter and her family from Brentwood, my nephew and his family from Sidney, my sister-in-law and my niece from Vic West. Sometimes , if we’re lucky,  friends and relatives join us. We just add another table.
In Victoria at Christmas it often rains rather than snows. Some flowers still bloom in protected corners. It doesn’t look like Christmas in Manitoba. But with the magic of Christmas, when my guests begin to arrive, many others arrive with them. They’re the guests of Christmases past, still alive in my mind, my grandparents, my brother, my uncles, my father, our good friends, the Kellers. They swoop in through the opened door in their heavy winter clothes with snow and cold air swirling around them, still laughing, shouting greetings, doling out kisses and hugs, a crowd of them and I greet them, everyone, and welcome them to my house for no Christmas is separate from those of the past and no one is forgotten.

Snowing in Moscow, episode 1


It was snowing in Moscow when I arrived. Big flakes, as big as my thumbnail. As we stood in the lamplight at Shermatyvo, waiting for our car, the flakes spiraled like endless  small birds through the pools of light. The women were wearing bulky coats and the men long cloth coats or heavy jackets. Although it was nearly the end of December, the winter clothes weren’t needed. The air was swarm, the way that only winter air can be, as if it were soft to the touch, and underfoot the snow was turning to slush so that I was glad I’d bought waterproof boots at Sears before I’d left.
“Taxi, you want a taxi,” a man said in heavily accented English.
“Good capitalists,” Ivan said, laughing and waving himaway. “They have a car and they want to make a few rubles. Gorbachev’s New Man.”
Our car arrived and once I was sitting down, I realized how tired I was. It was dark out so there wasn’t much to see, snow and darkened buildings and , sometimes, a high fence. It wasn’t the way I had imagined it. The idea surprised me because I hadn’t realized I’d expected anything.
“You’ve been traveling a long time?” Ivan asked.
“Twenty-four hours,” I answered, wondering if it were true, confused by the lack of sleep, the eleven hour time change, the shifting images of airports, the surprise I always feel at having arrived somewhere distant after a long trip.
“We’ll be at the hotel s shortly. You’ll sleep then.”
But I didn’t sleep. Instead, I spent the night alternating between lying on my bed and standing in the window, watching the street. For most of the night the street was empty, then a city crew appeared,, noisily scraping away the snow and sometime after that a woman unlocked the doors to the building opposite the hotel.  She went inside and a minute later a light went on and I could see that she was in some kind of office. Then, gradually, although it was still dark, people began to appear in two’s and three’s and enter the buildings. Lights began to go on here and there.
Standing there, in the window of the Hotel Moscva, I had a sense of deja vu and this time I knew it what it was that I’d experienced at the airport. Something about our standing outside Shermatyvo made me feel  if I were a child again, waiting at a bus stop in Winnipeg with my grandmother and now, I felt like a young man, standing at a window of the St. Alex Hotel. There was the same winter darkness, the same bulky, dark clothed figures scurrying through the cold, that same intensity of light from the windows. The hotel room with its high ceiling and the bathroom with its black and white tiles had something elegant and practical about it at the same time, the way CN hotels always made me feel.
At breakfast, I was disappointed by the samovar. I’d always thought they were filled with tea but discovered it contained only hot water. There was a buffet of cheese and bread and sliced meat and cold vegetables. I wasn’t hungry but I drank four cups of chi. I learned to say chi right away. It was my first Russian word. There were others I knew because they’d become English words. Words like czar and commissar but this one would always be special to me, the way the first word learned in a foreign place is always special.
“Today,” Ivan said, “you go sightseeing with Olga. Very good English.  Very pretty. You take car. You brought camera? You can take pictures anywhere. Ask anything. Glasnost is here.”
But the car didn’t arrive. Ivan sent me to shop in the Berioshka while he telephoned about the car. Outside, the snow had quit falling and the day was clear and cold. When Ivan found me among the marushkas, he was apologetic about the car but shrugged his shoulders signifying nothing could be done. Later, Olga apologized twice more. It told  her I was glad someone else had taken the car because it meant we could walk. The day was colder than the previous one and the freshly frozen ice crunching under our feet and our breath rising in plumes reminded me of being twenty in Winnipeg. There was the delicious feeling of being warm inside my clothes and walking beside a pretty woman to somewhere interesting.
On the way to the Kremlin I suddenly felt that strange disorientation, I sometimes feel when I encounter something totally unexpected in a foreign place. City crews were hanging snowmen and bunting and signs saying Happy New Year on the lamp standards. The streets were thick with people dressed in the same motley of  jogging suits and American parkas that you’d see in Regina or Edmonton. Waiting at a red light, I was overcome with black and white images I’d repeatedly seen on World At War. It was like I kept expecting bombed out buildings and people struggling through the snow, pulling the dead on sleighs.
We waited in line for a ticket to the Cathedrals. The domes were surrounded by scaffolding. The new gold leaf shimmered in the clear winter sky, filling the air with yellow light. Before I left Canada, one of my friends said, “Moscow is an Eastern city. There you will know you are not in the West.” but as I stood in line, looking at the multiple onion domes and crooked crosses, instead of everything seeming foreign and mysterious, it made me think of Winnipeg and small prairie towns.
There were a hundred people ahead of us waiting for tickets. We shuffled forward for half an hour before we reached the booth. It had three windows. Although it was a holiday and the city was filled with visitors two of the windows were shut. The one that was open was small, no more than a hand’s width and so low that everyone had to bow down to ask for tickets.
After seeing the glory of the cathedrals from the outside, the interiors were a disappointment. They felt closed in, cramped, heavy, more like caves for the dead than entrances to the Resurrection. I could imagine centuries of worshippers crowded together in their dark clothes, holding candles, hoping to get a glimpse of the icons which rose from floor to ceiling, barbaric, full of vanity and authority, promising everything which was unobtainable on earth.
“Here are icons,” Olga said. I could hardly have missed them. The paintings were in rows from floor to ceiling. “We are not religious but these are our heritage, our history, so we must preserve them.”
She said it with all the felling of a tape recorder. Intrigued, I began to watch her out of the corner of my eye, wondering it would be possible for an honest moment to emerge, when she might say something she had not repeated a thousand or ten thousand times before. I’d heard that voice in other places, wherever there were tourists. Tour guides on buses talked like this. Except when I was in Hamburg. In Hamburg it had been different. The guide, even after he’d been told, could not grasp that we were Canadians. He would be describing some  historical building,  his voice running in a worn groove and then, as if he’d had a short circuit in  his program, he’d suddenly and bitterly describe  how the area had been bombed by Americans and how women and children and old people had to sleep in the snow and rain. These accusations would appear suddenly and disappear as suddenly, nearly incoherent fragments of some nightmare world.
“Here are more icons,” Olga said as we rounded a pillar. “You are Christian. You must like icons.” There was a flicker of emotion in her voice. Concern, I thought. As if she were worried that I was not reacting correctly, that my interest had not been properly calculated.
I thought I might try to explain to her about Christians, about the difference between Catholic and Protestant, about Martin Luther and graven images, about the splintered and splintering Catholic church, about Jimmy Swaggert, about people who kiss snakes to get close to God, about a religion so full of permutations it can preach forgiveness and love and yet manifest itself as a bumper sticker imploring every passerby to kill a Commie for Christ. Instead, I followed her down the narrow stone steps and into the sunlight and was happy with the crowds of children, the clusters of tourists, the Russians on holiday and wondered as she led me to see Napoleon’s cannon what she would look like without her large coat and her chapka, what she would wear if it were a warm day in June. Ivan had said over breakfast that she was a single mother and now I wondered if she had a lover, if when she went home at night she spoke to him with anger or passion or fear or love, with something in her voice other than the practiced neutrality of memorization and then I remembered the stories about eight people sharing a two or three room apartment and wondered instead if this, then, showing me about the city, was not what she escaped from but what she escaped to.
After the debris of Napoleon’s defeat, we looked at the Czar’s bell and the czar’s cannon. The czar’s cannon had never been fired and his bell had never been lifted from the ground. They had been built too big to actually be used. Now, they were just curiosities, concrete examples of ambition gone mad.
Olga left me at the hotel but after lunch, she returned with the missing car. We rode out to a brown and white castle that looked like it had been made of iced chocolate cake. She told me it had been used to house ex-czarinas. The idea took me by surprise. It had never occurred to me that one had to do something with left over czarinas. In America the divorce and widowed wives of the rich and powerful married someone who could afford to keep them and faded into an obscurity broken only by scandal or death. Like the cathedrals, the neglected castle was surrounded by scaffolding.
“Are they planning on having more czarinas?” I joked, pointing at the repairs.
“Peristroika. For tourists to look at.”
“And glasnost?”
“We can say what we wish. There are demonstrations nearly every day on Red Square.”
She showed me Moscow University, then we went to the Lenin Hills Here, because of the view, we got out of the car. I asked about the ski jump. She told me how high it was, the amount of materials in it, how long it took to build, how fast the skiers traveled. I said, thinking that even for a guide she knew an exceptional number of facts, “Does you son use the ski jump?”
She turned sharply toward me and blurted out, like someone else had suggested the same thing before me, “Never, never, would I let him do this. It’s much too dangerous.”
The chauffeur had got out and was smoking a Canadian cigarette a little ways away. She glanced at him, then added, just in case he had overheard what she had said,“Of course, if he showed talent and, if he could bring honour to the Soviet Union and if he was needed, I wouldn’t keep him from doing what was best for the country.”

The Long Whine

Well, I’ve read 101 Reykjavik by Hallgrímur Helgason. Certainly gives a different version of Icelanders. No vinarterta or kleinar. Lots of booze, ecstacy, cigarettes, Cheerios, joints, pornography, sex, lots of sex, hetro, homo and bi, even some with animals. Makes you wonder how Icelanders ever manage to get any work done.
Mind you, there is a mention of Elsa, Hlynur’s sister and her husband, Magnús. Elsa is a nurse. She and her husband live in a suburb. Magnús is a psychologist or something but mostly he just lies back in his LazyBoy type chair like a great fat walrus. There’s Mom, aka Berglind. She has a job. She works at the Imports office. That is, she does, when she’s not being a lesbian with Lolla whose real name is Ólöf. Lolla is a counsellor. There´s obviously a great need of counsellors, particularly AA counsellors. Hlynur´s dad is a drunk. Probably because his wife was a latent lesbian. Hlynur is the narrator of the novel.
Hlynur sounds like a disgruntled fifteen year old but he´s actually thirty-three. During the course of the novel, he turns thirty-four. He still lives with his Mom and doesn’t like the fact that Lolla moves in with them. Hlynur spends his days drinking, doing drugs and watching pornography. For someone who lives on welfare and is completely without ambition, he’s very judgemental.  
The book makes it quite clear why Icelandic women columnists write articles about how foreign men are much more desirable than Icelandic men. Hlynur and male friends, if they’re not gay and suffering from AIDS, spend their time scoring drugs and getting drunk.  Hlynur doesn’t pay for rent or food. His mother even buys him his underpants.  When he manages to pick someone up at a bar and have sex with her, he immediately bolts. Even during sex he keeps his sunglasses on.
Anyone who knows anything about Iceland’s history, knows it’s all the fault of the Bishops and the large-land owning farmers. The Bishops, at one point, went to the king of Denmark and got him to pass a law saying that Icelanders were not to have any leisure activities. During the long nights of winter that would have left not much—knitting, telling ghost stories or sex, except the farmers wanted to keep all the young women for themselves so they got a law passed saying a man couldn’t marry until he was worth the equivalent of four cows. Most Icelandic men were lucky if they owned a quarter of a cow. Maybe even the tail. That left the sheep, masturbation, and brandy for entertainment.
 Hlynur manages to get a girl he picks up at a bar pregnant  (at least he thinks he’s the father), his mother’s lover Lolla pregnant (at least he thinks he’s the cause) and his sister pregnant (no, whaow, the book doesn’t  go there. He steals one of his sister’s birth control pills, she gets pregnant and he thinks it is because of the stolen pill.)
There’s no one in the novel slopping up svið, consuming cod heads, rattling out rimur. They´re too busy staggering from one drunken party to the next.
Hlynur isn´t someone in real life whom I´d want to spend much time with, probably no time with. An unhappy Mommy´s boy at thirty-four, he’s addicted to whining and welfare. What makes the book worth reading, though, is the author’s control of voice. It never fails. If I went to the K-bar and overheard him talking, I’d know it was Hlynur immediately.
The other virtues of the book are the language and the humour. 101 Reykjavik contains the funniest Christmas family get together, I’ve ever read. Hlynur’s grandmother is there. “I give her a kiss. She gets up for me, and her entire body starts to shake as she stretches out her hand to me. Looks like she’s dancing to some hardcore techno. Yeah. Not bad, Granny. At last someone who can dance at 120 beats a minute. As I’m wobbling there with my vibrating granny, I miss Mom’s greeting to Dad, but manage to catch a glimpse of his handshake with Lolla.”
When Hofy, a girl that he’s met at a local bar, tells him that she’s pregnant and he’s the cause, he’s standing, staring at her and thinking, “Sexual desire means nothing but trouble. Copulation equals complication. Outmoded. If only it were a mouse…If only there were a wire sticking out of Hofy, attached to a mouse, and you could just delete it all and…defrag her. I stared down at the mat. No mouse.” Later, her father, Palli, comes (A brain in a baseball cap.) and he and Hofy insist that Hlynur go to the family home. Hlynur says Hofy’s mother sucks him into her embrace. “I disappear into her, like a seed into an egg. Hofy’s ma….She releases me from her embrace and I’m suddenly worried. I might have made her pregnant.”
The imagery is often brilliant. Many times, I found myself going back to read a line for the sheer pleasure of the language. “Taxis roam through the city, faint glimmers of hope in the storm, converting the cold into kronur.”  I put it down to centuries of Icelanders using kennings. They’re always calling something by a hundred different names.
When someone says, “I’m really proud of my Icelandic heritage.” I don’t think this is what he’s  got in mind. He’s thinking about Gullfoss and Geyser, Vikings and Icelandic horses , maybe the sagas, not some guy like  Hlynur trying to have sex with some Icelandic chick so drunk she’s passed out in her tent, the tent having collapsed in the pouring rain.
If you enjoy voice, language, a zany perspective on life, get some rullupylsa out of the fridge, slice some brown bread, put on lots of butter, make coffee and settle in for a read. If you’ve got a picture of your amma on the wall in her Peysuföt, turn the picture to the wall until you’re finished.
The novel has been turned into a movie. You can watch it instead of reading the book but you’ll miss the really good things about the book, the language, the imagery, the voice, the crazy point of view.

You’ve been ripped off

Do you read the news about the money problems in Europe any more? Do you bother to listen to the commentaries on TV about Greece and Spain and Portugal? Do you know what is happening in Ireland? Do you bother to watch the rioting and demonstrations in Greece? It’s all old news. News is defined as three days. More than three days requires constant new slants so the public doesn’t yawn and say “I heard that before.” Flick.
I mean, for most people, it’s probably “Flick.” on day one.
When I was an undergraduate at college, I got hooked on economics. I took theory of business, money and banking, labour relations, etc. I loved charts and diagrams. I liked the logic of supply and demand. That gives me an edge when it comes to reading stuff about the economy. By an edge, I mean that I actually understand some of it. A lot of it, though, doesn’t make any sense so how do most people who have no background in economics figure out what’s being talked about?
Most of the time, though, when I do watch TV, if stuff comes on about the economy, it’s “Flick.” Old movies are more fun.
I still haven’t got the Euro Zone and the EU and the EUC and who is in and who is out and where England is in all of this sorted out. Personally, until recently, I never cared. Except, of course, for what happened to Iceland. When the English declared the Icelanders terrorists, I lost it.
Awhile back, the Americans talked to decision makers around the world and convinced them that free trade was the way to go. A world economy was the goal. Go to where there is the cheapest production costs—little kids working under appalling conditions, no safety, hardly any wages—and sell the products in the countries where people had the most to spend. Great plan If you were a company with a lot of money. No business plan can beat it. Rip of the producers and the consumers.
The grease was cheap money. That’s your savings and my savings. The money we’d saved to live on when we retired. The money we’d expected to get five or six percent but the big companies wanted money at half a percent. What a break. What a business plan. Rip of the producers, consumers and the involuntary investors. Yah. The days of the Barbary Pirates was at hand again.
The problem, of course, was that cheap money is tempting. I mean, if someone says, you can borrow money at  two percent or three percent or four percent why wouldn’t you borrow it and buy lots? Why wouldn’t you buy big screen TVs, cars, houses? They were giving money away and since everybody was borrowing cheap money of course everthing was  going up in price. Why wouldn’t it. Those big screen TVs just flew off the shelf and those 60k SUVs roared out of the dealer’s lot. When you are using cheap money, price is no object.
The problem is that when you move all your jobs to places where there are no safety rules (they cost money), where you can pay people a dollar a day or so, where there are no pension plans, no medical plans, and those good, unionized jobs disappear and aren’t replaced, you replace producers with consumers and you take away their good incomes so they’re not good consumers anymore.
That’s when you get 40% of young Greeks unemployed. Four out of ten young people without a job. 43.1% of 15-24 years unemployed in Greece. Over all ages, 16 out of every hundred. In the United Kingdom 17.7% of 18-24 year olds unemployed. In Spain 21%. It makes the USA look good with 8.6%. Canada looks even better with an unemployment rate of 7.4%. But if you think it is going to stay there, you’ve got another think coming.
How many unemployed young people does it take to create a revolution?
In Ireland, the newest industry is bankruptcy tourism. Leave southern Ireland. Go to Northern Ireland to declare bankruptcy. The penalties are lot less severe. Who woulda thought it when we were being told about the Irish economic miracle. Amazing the mindless bullshit journalism presents as fact. 
In the UK unemployment is at a 17 year high. There are a million, count them, 1,000,000 young people unemployed.
The bright lights in Brussels and the IMF want to solve the problem by raising taxes and cutting government  jobs. Not their jobs, of course. Of course not. If the young people who are being told they have no future—no you cannot become a doctor, lawyer, teacher, university graduate, have a good job—use flash mobs to create a revolution and decide that what needs to be done is cutting off heads, the first likely to go are Brussels bureaucrats’ heads.
Of course, those young people without a future might question the trickle down theory. You know the theory. The rules were changed so a few people could make not millions but billions, and the theory was that some of it would trickle down when the billionaires buy expensive houses, cars, jewelry. Young people might point out that a pension of 400,000,000 dollars which some of the trickle down proponents have got would provide 8,000 people with a 50,000 dollar job for a year and that 8,000 people earning 50,000 a year might not just send a trickle down but a tsunami because they’d spend most of it on things like mortgages, food, clothes, education, their childrens’ teeth.  Eight thousand people will always have a greater multiplier effect than say one person (or even two) with the same amount of money.
I hate to say it but you’ve got to listen to the economic news. It’s only boring because you don’t know that they’re talking about how you’ve been and are being ripped off. I dunno. If someone was reading a report about how a burglar broke into my house, stole my furniture, trashed the house, totaled my car, I’d want to hear it. I’d want to know how he did it so I could set things up so he couldn’t do it again. I’d also like to see him in the slammer.
And if I was listening to how that thief wrecked my kids’ futures, I’d want to listen even more carefully and I’d keep in mind that old business maxim: Don’t get mad. Get even.
Flash mobs, the Occupy Movement are a start. The technology exists to marshal the victims. There are a lot more victims than perps. But that’s just the start. The real work is changing the rules. I was annoyed this summer when someone vandalized my car. I’m really mad about people who have vandalized my present and my kids’ and grandkids’ futures.

Icelandic magic and superstition

This murder mystery, Last Rituals, in spite of its focus on magic and witches, charmed me. It charmed me because of the characterization, particularly that of Thóra Gudmundsdóttir and her family and her potential German boyfriend, Matthew.
Her family life is a slow motion train wreck. She´s divorced, her kids don´t like spending time with their dad, her sex life has been reduced to zip for two years, and she´s always short of money. She works for a small, very small, law firm and the secretary whom she can´t fire might as well have arrived from hell. At thirty-six, she’s only left with memories of what it was like to do impulsive shopping, go for weekends to Europe, never worry about paying bills, having a car that is dependable.
The other thing that charmed me was the humour. The book, with Thóra having to solve the murder of someone who was fascinated in satanic rituals and torture, is gruesome in places and, yet, I often found myself laughing out loud.
Often, the humour comes from the contrast between the world around the murder and the mundane world of family and personal life. The fact that Matthew, an investigator from Germany, is not Icelandic and doesn´t speak Icelandic allows for situations that can´t help but make a reader smile or laugh. These are the kind of scenes that one wants to share, the kind that make a reader want to say, “Listen to this,” then read the passage to them.

I read My Soul To Take first, then Last Rituals. I wish I‘d read them the other way around because Thóra‘s story about her family life continues from one to the other. They‘re like a family serial punctuated with crimes that have to be investigated.

Yrsa has a tremendous ability to pick up on some minor detail, incorporate it into the life of the main characters, the weave it through the story like a pattern in an Icelandic sweater. For example, the secretary from hell, Bella, keeps reappearing. The things she does and refuses to do make anyone who has dealt with numerous secretaries groan in recognition but Bella is also used to help define the relationship of Thóra and Matthew and to show some of the limitations of Thóra’s character.
The material involved with the murder is fascinating in and of itself. For people who don’t know much or anything about Iceland’s history, there’s enough explanation that what is going on can be understood but not so much that it reads like a treatise or a tourist brochure. As in any good murder mystery, there are many suspects, many details that make no sense at the beginning, many false leads and only one logical conclusion.
When Yrsa lectured in Victoria for the Richard and Margaret Beck Trust, the overflowing crowd asked many questions. One that was asked many times in slightly different forms was how could she be a director of Verkis, one of Iceland’s largest engineering firms and write murder mysteries. Some of these questions were about time. She’s not just an engineer but a wife, mother, grandmother. But others were more about how can an individual, female or male, be an engineer and a murder mystery writer? How can both of these be in the same head? Or heart?
I see no contradiction between the engineer and creative artist. During the decades I taught creative writing at the University of Victoria, I always emphasized that students should do a double major. That second major could be just about anything but the ideal student I was always seeking was the creative writer who was also a physicist, chemist, biologist, anthropologist, engineer, mathematician. When someone gets beyond rote learning in the sciences, they become not just an analyst but a creative thinker. Marry that with the ability to write well and they have the potential to bring worlds to us that we normally never get to see. 
There’s also the reality that most writers and artists in Iceland (and Canada) live in poverty. Even those writers whose books you see being reviewed in The Globe and Mail or The Vancouver Sun or who appear on TV seldom make a decent living. One highly successful book doesn’t provide a lifetime of income. To make as much as a dentist, a writer would have to have an international best seller year after year. That’s why the lesson provided by Yrsa is so important to young writers. No profession keeps you from being a novelist or a short story writer or a poet but many a profession provides the money to live well while writing.
In Yrsa’s case, it is easy to see her engineering mind at work. Her novels are complex, they require numerous narratives and subplots to succeed. The narrative structure all has to fall into place with each character, each event, each detail carrying the story forward to its necessary conclusion.
Successful engineers must not just be able to manipulate numbers, they must be able to motivate, organize and supervise people. That’s what a novelist does. Yrsa organizes her people and her flow chart (plot) in such a way that she creates novels that are page turners. She knows how to organize a project and she knows how to organize a novel so that it is filled with suspense.
If you haven’t read Last Rituals, buy it, read it. I got my copy at Tergesen’s. Other book stores have it. It’s only 17.99. That’s not much for hours of good entertainment. Besides, if you are reading this blog, you probably have some Icelandic background. Besides wearing a plastic helmet with cow horns and drinking Icelandic beer at Islindingadagurinn or slurping up coffee with vinarterta at Amma’s restaurant, reading is required if you want to claim you’re proud of your Icelandic heritage.