Embrace Our Heritage Part 6


In 1872 when Richard Burton visits Iceland, he says “Their hay was not housed but heaped in stacks two yards square, upon raised mounds, at short distances, and covered with sloping turf to lead the rain into surrounding ditches.”
Did you know that? Did you know that hay was placed on raised mounds, that it was covered in turf to shed water. If your great great grandparents worked on a farm, their tasks would have been to scythe the grass, rake it, stack it, and cover the stacks with turf. They would have worked long, exhausting hours, every day the same. Hay came before everything because there was only one crop in Iceland and it fed the sheep and cows and these cattle fed the people.
“In summer they ate cods’  heads, boiled, like most other food for it had to be cooked in a pot over an open fire. In winter they ate sheep’s heads kept in fermented vinegar of sour milk (Syra), or in the juice of sorrel (Sura) and other plants.  The mutton was sold.” Why was the mutton sold? Because they could not afford to keep it for themselves. Everything they needed, horseshoes, nails, iron bars, rye flour, needles, thread, spices, rice, everything except the very few things that could be produced on a farm had to be obtained by trade with the Danish merchants.
In the 1800s in Iceland, “bread was not the staff of life. It was eaten only on high days and holidays, that is at births, marriages, and deaths.” The better off “farmers baked cakes, broad and thin, like sea biscuits, of black rye flour from Copenhagen.”
In 1872 the yearly death rate per thousand in Reykjavik was 59-60 compared to 20 in London. Burton says, “The list of diseases is so extensive that little beyond the names can be mentioned.” There was nothing romantic about living in unheated homes made of turf and lava. The floors were often wet dirt. There was little light. There was no ventilation as the body heat had to be kept inside. Houses were crowded. Communicable diseases spread quickly because of the crowding and because of the kissing that was used in greeting.
There was always a shortage of fuel. Our families burned peat, birch twigs, dried sheep dung, fish bones, brown coal (if there was some in their area) and driftwood. Only the Danish traders or a very well off farmer could afford imported wood. A number of travelers report that there is only one stove in an Icelandic home in the entire country. Stoves only make sense when there is a lot of fuel and it is cheap. If, as I did, you grew up with a wood stove and wood furnace, you’ll remember the cords and cords of wood required to keep the house warm and food cooked.
Our ancestors’ world was one largely without money. As long as the Danish restrictions on trade existed, the traders had no competition either as buyers or sellers. They set both the price they would pay and the price at which they would sell. They also just gave credits against purchases. It was only with the lifting of the trade restrictions and the coming of the English and Scots buyers of horses and sheep that money was injected into the system. The English and Scots paid in silver. If you want to read about an Icelandic agent who worked for the Scots, read Paradise Reclaimed. One of the characters, Bjorn of Leirur, is a buyer of sheep and cows for Scots businessmen.

Embrace Our Heritage Part 5

Reykjavik


The stories in What The Bear Said are set in one or more of these three worlds. “Sigga’s Prayer”, takes place in the first world of Iceland and ends as she is leaving for Amerika. The title story of the book, “What The Bear Said”, takes place in New Iceland. “Sidewalk of Gold” begins in Iceland and ends in New Iceland. These are stories about the transition between the old world and the new world and how people joined both past and present to create these new lives. These are stories of emigration and immigration.
The Iceland of our ancestors was a harsh place. Poverty in the 1800s was endemic. Iceland was the poorest country in Europe and Europe was poor, so poor that people left their home countries in vast numbers.
We can embrace our heritage by embracing facts, by embracing numbers but that is not where memories lie. When we say let us embrace our heritage, we usually mean let us embrace our families, our ancestors, our people. Our people with all their quirks and virtues and faults. Just like us and our relatives today with our virtues and faults.
 The Great Geysir

In 1874, Bayard Taylor, a famous American journalist went to Iceland to report on the visit of King Christian IX. Bayard and his companions went to the geysers at the same time as the king and his entourage.
Bayard writes, “Soon afterward there came a married couple, the mother carrying a baby which, as it needed but a glance to see, was almost dying of croup”. Croup is caused by a viral infection and results in a barking cough and a narrowing of the airways. It interferes with a child’s ability to breathe. The child would have been struggling to breathe. “They had carried the child on horseback for five hours, in the hope of finding relief. There was no time to be lost; hot baths and poultices were ordered at the byre (farm) near at hand, and in the meantime an opiate was administered. The gasping and writhing of the child was too much for those strong Icelandic men. The mother stood calm and firm, holding it; but Zoega (the guide) ran away in one direction and Eyvindur (the other guide) in the another, crying like children, and the farmers turned aside their heads to hide their tears.”
“At the byre nothing could exceed the kindness of the farmer’s family,–in fact, of all who could help. The King’s purveyor furnished white bread for a poultice; a hot bath was made ready, and the father stuffed the child’s clothes into his bosom to keep them warm for it. All night the people watched with it, and the next morning everybody looked happy, on hearing that its condition had somewhat improved.”
“I made an effort to talk with a group of farmers, finding them ready enough, only a little embarrassed at the start; but when I asked: “Do you know Saemund’s Edda?” there was an instant flash and flame in their faces and all shyness vanished. The Njal and Volsunga Sagas, Snorre Sturlsson, with a score of obscurer Sagas of which I had never heard, were eagerly mentioned and discussed.”
There is everything in this account. The diseases that afflict Iceland, the lack of medical care, the stoicism of the people, the great difficulty of travel, the pride in the distant heritage and the belief that there was once a golden age.
Surely, all this is worth embracing. Reading Taylor”s various accounts of Iceland in 1874, I want to reach through time and embrace the people he describes. Taylor says “Within an hour I had seen tenderness, goodness, knowledge, and desire for knowledge”.

Embrace Our Heritage Part 4


The World In Between

The world in between. That was the world of my great great grandparents, those people who could legitimately claim to be Icelandic while living in Canada. Born in Iceland, emigrating, And then adapting and integrating them with the world of New Iceland.
bringing with them memories of Icelandic life and landscape, Icelandic ways of thinking and believing, Icelandic traditions.  
My Icelandic grandmother died before I was born. My great grandfather, Ketill, and my grandfather, Svein, both died when I was 6. My great grandmother, Fredrikka, died when I was 15. I vaguely remember Fredrikka and some of her stories. But she came to Canada with her parents when she was three. Her stories were about early life in New Iceland. They were not stories about Iceland.
This in between world is the world Gudmundur Stefansson refers to in 1873 when he writes a letter to his sister, “It is impossible for me to describe the developments, machines and order in everything here, as it is inconceivable for those who have never seen such things.”
Mybook of stories from New Iceland, What The Bear Said, is about the people who were born and raised in Iceland, who made the momentous decision to risk their lives coming to Amerika, and who made a life here. They left a world of raising sheep and dairy cattle, of fishing in open boats on the North Sea, of turf and lava houses, of travel by horse in a country with no roads, of a homogeneous population with little contact with foreigners unless they lived in areas where explorers and scientists traveled.
They came from a country without forests 
to a country covered in forests, 
from a country that had not yet entered the industrial revolution to a country undergoing an industrial revolution. They left a country where no grain could be grown to a country where grains of every kind could be grown, where growing grain would be central to their lives. 

They were used to only dealing with people like themselves to dealing on a daily basis with many different nationalities.

I bow down to them with admiration. Many paid for their bravery with their lives. Testament to their sacrifice can be found in graveyards across Canada or in records of burials at sea.

viking vs dairy farmer

 Here’s Kirk, baby, brave, ruthless, handsome, read to fight against great odds for fame and fortune.
“I agree that the emigration to North America is a much more pro-social saga than the viking tales, so we should ask ourselves why it is that these ancestors are given short shrift in our history books and other media.” Eric Swanson
 Here’s my great grandfather, Ketill, with my great grandmother. Now, who would you want to fantasize about being? Kirk, baby, or Ketill the dairy owner and farmer?
Eric is one of the regulars on Facebook. He is knowledgeable and astute. His question is in response to my post about Embracing our heritage (3) and comparing my great grandfather and Kirk Douglas in the movie, The Viking.
The Viking Age was from the late  8th to the 11th  century. Some historians say the Viking age began in 793 and ended in 1030. 1030 is a long time ago. It is now 2012. If you even count the ragged end of the Viking era and extend it to 1100,we’re over nine centuries, count them, 9 centuries and a bit away from the end of the Viking era. That’s 900+ years ago.
So, we say we want to embrace our heritage and we skip over 900+ years, ignore all the generations who lived in Iceland since the year 1100. Doesn’t seem like much embracing to me. What are we saying when we do that? That all those generations who lived in Iceland, who farmed, who raised sheep and cattle, who fished, who made the best lives they could, don’t matter?
The odd thing about this is that the Vikings of the Viking age were Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and others. Iceland’s population meant that it was only a small part of the Viking raiding and expansion. Yup, we were there but it’s not like Iceland had the population of all these other countries combined and was conquering the known world.
Nine hundred plus years have passed. Why, as Eric asks, are our ancestors given short shrift? I’m sure there are complicated sociological and psychological reasons but, for me, it’s quite straightforward.
Vikings are far away in time. The reality of their lives can be conveniently ignored and romanticized. It’s the same with stock market scams. The further away the mining property, the easier to run the scam. The further away the property, the greater the fantasy about untold riches.
The closer in time, the harder it is to get rid of reality and replace it with fantasy. It’s pretty hard to glorify and romanticize war when the war is going on or even for the next generation or two when the participants are still alive. My grandfather who fought in WWI and was both gassed and wounded didn’t think there was anything romantic about life and death in the trenches.
No one thinks the pirates off the coast of Somalia are romantic. They’re a bunch of ruthless, nasty criminals. Nine hundred years from now, their descendants may be romanticising the attacking of freighters and cruise ships and making the pirates out to be heroic figures. It’s amazing what the passage of time allows.
Also, for the past 900+ years, Iceland and Icelanders have been about raising sheep and dairy cows, about fishing in open boats, in making the most of their isolated lives in a hostile environment. To me, they are the heroes. However, it’s hard to make adventure filled movies about raising sheep or milking cows, about scything grass or catching fish. Adventure requires constant conflict and action.
Kirk Douglas having adventures is much more exciting than my great grandfather milking cows or cutting hay. If you have a boring job, an uneventful life, who do you want to fantasize about? Kirk and Tony in the midst of battle or my great grandfather delivering milk and feeding cows? The truth is that nearly everyone, like 99.99 percent of us choose safe, steady lives. I know some individuals who can actually call themselves explorers or who chose dangerous jobs in dangerous places. Me, I chose being a teacher. I had no desire to go to Africa to become a mercenary or to join rebels in South America.
I wanted to live my life like my great grandfather and fantasize about adventuring with Kirk for an hour or so in the theatre and then go home to a warm, comfortable bed.
But, I know who the real heroes in my life are and they’re not the ones created by Hollywood.

Embrace Our Heritage Part 3


The theme of the Brandon INL annual conference was “Embrace Your Heritage”.
I’d tried to do that some time ago by writing a book of folk tales set in Iceland and New Iceland. What The Bear Said has fourteen stories. Some take place in Iceland. Some take place in New Iceland in Canada. However, I realized that the characters both human and other wise, lived in a third world, a world that only they could experience. I called that the In Between World. That was the world experienced by people who lived in both Iceland and Canada.
Only these people ever could live in this In Between World. Those who stayed in Iceland would remain in their known world. Those born in Canada would remain in their known world. My great great grandparents and my great grandparents, however, would live out their lives in this In Between World.  
Dividing these worlds up made me realize that much of what I once thought of as my Icelandic heritage is actually my Canadian, Manitoba, Gimli heritage. If, when I was young, someone had asked me about my Icelandic background, I’d have talked about pickerel fillets, Lutheran Sunday school, smoked Goldeye, hockey, fishing on Lake Winnipeg, Islindingadagurinn, Tergesen’s general store, Bjarnason’s dry goods and grocery store and, of course, Icelandic food.
When I was young, people still spoke Icelandic over the coffee table. You heard it in the stores. But not in our house. My mother was Irish. Not in my grandfather’s house. After his wife Icelandic wife died, he married a woman who was German and Polish. You also heard Ukrainian in the schools and on the playground. My favorite English dialect was called Bungi, a mixture of Cree, Scots, and Orkney. It was the most mellifluous language I’ve ever heard. My great grandparents, my grandparents, my parents, me—four generations in Canada and the disintegration and integration was well under way.
However, Gimli, the original centre of New Iceland, having a lot of residents of Icelandic background made it feel, when I was a kid, as if hockey had something to do with being Icelandic. The hockey players had names like Sveinson, Bjarnason, Kristjanson, Valgardson, Magnusson. 
The truth is that in small towns all over Canada populated by widely different ethnic groups, hockey was being played. Hockey was a Gimli experience, a Manitoba experience, a Canadian experience. The fact that many of us had Icelandic backgrounds was incidental. Kids of an Icelandic background got to play Canadian hockey but so did Polish, Ukrainian, German, English, Scots, Irish kids.
I knew the world of New Iceland because I grew up in it. Yet, even here, there was a whole background that I didn’t know, partly because most of the material the early settlers recorded was written in Icelandic and by my generation, the fourth generation, the language was lost to most of us. The truth is that the hockey team that won the first Olympic gold medal, the Falcons, made up of Icelandic players, had to fight to be allowed to compete.
To me, the other world, the world of Iceland just before and during the period of emigration was a complete mystery. This was the world in which my great great grandparents and great grandparents were born and lived.
My research has shown that nearly everything I’d been told about Iceland when I was growing up turned out to be wrong. Not because anyone lied but because Iceland was a long distance from Gimli, Manitoba both in miles and time. In many cases people simply misunderstood what they had heard.  Iceland had an early parliament, for example, but it was not a democracy, it was not representation by population, ordinary people didn’t get to vote. Nor were women fierce independent warriors. Most of them were hired help on farms and lived lives of dreadful drudgery and deprivation.
Discovering that my great great grandparents weren’t dashing Vikings but indentured farm laborers living in an agrarian society that had great difficulty feedings itself meant if I were going to embrace my real heritage, I needed to learn as much about Iceland in the 1800s as possible.
Great grandpa, it turned out wasn’t a Viking raider. He was a farm laborer. He didn’t come to Canada to pillage but for the opportunity of having his own farm and dairy business. Kirk Douglas would never have been interested in playing him in a Hollywood movie.

The Vikings are Coming

Photos by W. D. Valgardson

The vikings will be on the hill at Gimli. In their chain mail and metal helmets. They’ll roast meat on a spit. Work at Viking crafts. They’ll have mock battles. A short distance away is the Gimli Viking. Although he’s not authentic because of his horned helmet, he’s much loved. Thousands of people have been photographed standing in front of him. Bring your camera.
You know that it’s Icelandic Festival time in Gimli when you see the Viking tents go up, when you see people wandering the streets in clothes from Viking times. Islindingadagurinn. Icelandic Celebration. The long weekend of eating vinarterta, pönnukökur, rullupylsa, kleiner. Of drinking authentic Icelandic beer. Skal. And drinking kaffi. Kaffi is the national drink. At one time Icelanders infused a local moss to make a tea like drink but once kaffi appeared, no more drinks made from moss.
They used to put a hard piece of sugar between their teeth and suck the coffee through it. One piece of hard sugar might last three cups of coffee. My great grandparents saucered their kaffi, pouring it into their saucer (yes, coffee cups in those days had saucers, fairly deep ones) blowing on it, then slurping it. Their kaffi was saucered and blown.
Vikings didn’t have coffee. Tough on them. They had to put up with weak beer and mead (if they got to Europe). Icelandic Vikings must have had a hard time having fun. There wasn’t a lot to have fun with. No coffee, no brennevin, lousy accommodations on a long boat, having to row day after day. No wonder they were so grouchy when they finally arrived somewhere. The Vikings on the hill, I expect, in spite of doing their best to replicate Viking life, drink coffee. I think I’ve seen some takeout coffee cuts in the trash.
They don’t take slaves. The Vikings were slave traders. That’s one way to make sure your business makes a profit. Grab some people and put them to work without wages. Authenticity or not, I expect that the tourists would object to being carried off as slaves. Especially as when the weekend is over the vikings go back to jobs in grocery stores or shopping malls. It’s one thing to be carried off by a Viking in full armour, it’s another to discover he sells light bulbs for a living.
I like these Vikings. In spite of the swords and shields, the spears, they’re friendly. They really know their stuff. They love answering questions about all things Viking. They’ll even sell you some of the crafts they make.
I like hanging out on the hill. Just so long as they don’t make me drink mead. I drank mead in Sweden. From a horn. It was terrible. The mead, not the horn. The horn was rather attractive. The mead, not so much. If you want to get an idea of what it is like, put a shot of vodka into a glass with half a cup of water, three tablespoons of honey and stir. Don’t do this if you’ve got diabetes.
The Vikings will also be in the parade. These are the kind of Vikings that throw candy to you instead of pointing their spear at you and stealing your candy. Come and see for yourself. On the hill in Gimli, beside the harbour. The first long weekend in August.

Embrace your heritage (2)

When people emigrate, they bring with them the memory of their homeland. They bring with them religion, values, sets of behaviours. They have experienced life within their country and culture. They bring with them what they know. What they come to is the unfamiliar. For the Icelandic settlers the unfamiliar was forests, bitterly cold weather, water that froze to six feet, large wild animals, building with wood.
Once in Canada, a normal survival mechanism for every immigrant group is to live close together. That way, the shock of the new is alleviated somewhat. For Icelanders, their new communities were in New Iceland and in the West End of Winnipeg. There, they could speak Icelandic, eat Icelandic food, attend Icelandic churches, socialize with people like themselves.

These centres, created and bound by need, are not stable. Shortage of good land, greater opportunities, growing security in the new world, all of these cause some people to seek other places to live. First, one or two leave, find a place such as Argyle in Manitoba where the land was better for farming, they notify friends and relatives who then follow them. 

Still others, more adventurous, perhaps, looked further afield to  Victoria or Seattle or North Dakota or Saskatchewan, and others, encouraged, followed. Once again, in these new places, they formed supportive communities, communities that would provide a familiar world.
However, with each move, the separation that occurred with the original emigration grew wider. The language began to fade for there was less opportunity to speak and read it. Yet, there was and is a desire to preserve elements of both the original Icelandic culture and Icelandic Canadian culture. Those cultures are what we call our heritage.
How do we embrace that heritage?
I think first of all, we have to know that heritage. You cannot embrace what you do not know. Often, that heritage is, after a few generations, reduced to a few folk dances, some traditional music, some particular foods. At Icelandic Canadian receptions and banquets there are always trays of vinarterta, rullupylsa, kleinar, pönnukökur.
Who am I? What am I? Those questions have a critical interactive relationship to heritage. 

I think I’ve always been a vinarterta Icelander. If someone said to me, embrace your heritage, I’d reply by eating another slice of this seven layer prune torte. Or, at least, I would have until I developed celiac disease. Not being able to eat vinarterta caused an identity crises and made me look at what else might be part of my heritage.

Not being able to eat vinarterta or Icelandic pancakes or Icelandic donuts made me question who I was but the question was intensified by a letter I received as editor of the Icelandic Canadian newspaper. 
It said, “I’m a proud Icelander.”
However, I know that the writer is fourth or fifth generation Canadian. He’s not an Icelandic citizen. If he landed at Keflavik and said to the border guard “I’m Icelandic”, the border guard would say, “No you are not.” If he applied for medical or pension benefits or the right to vote, his application would be refused.
So, I asked myself, what can he mean? I think the answer to that is, “I’m proud of my Icelandic heritage.” Me, too. You, too. That’s why we were at the INL conference. We were there to embrace our  heritage.
Our families didn’t just bring recipes with them. They brought their lives with them. They brought their history with them. Their living conditions. Their memories. Their heritage, our heritage, is their lives in 19th C. Iceland. The laws they lived under, the houses they lived in, the working conditions, the medical conditions, everything, that’s their heritage and, therefore, our heritage. If, because, like my great grandfather who was a laborer, they could only change their job once a year, if he was essentially an indentured servant, that was his heritage and, therefore, my heritage and, therefore, our heritage.
Our past is worth preserving. That’s why we were in Brandon at the INL convention. That’s why we raise money to support Lögberg-Heimskringla and The Icelandic Connection. That’s why we support the Icelandic department at the U. of Manitoba and the Icelandic library. It’s why we support the Icelandic summer camp, the Snorri program, the various clubs, the INL. It’s why we attend August the Deuce and Íslindingadagurinn. 

It may be for some that our Icelandic heritage is a piece of vinarterta, a bottle of Icelandic beer and a plastic viking  helmet with horns. No  harm in that. But if that is all it is, it doesn´t seem like much to be proud of.

Embrace your heritage (1)


For two years, I was the editor of the bi-weekly newspaper called Lögberg-Heimskringla. It’s the oldest continually published ethnic paper in Canada. Once published in Icelandic, it is now published in English.
The paper represents in a very clear way, the progress of integration and adaptation. It was begun out of a need for Icelandic immigrants to have Canadian laws, customs explained to them in Icelandic. It provided guidance in everything in a country where everything was unfamiliar. It provided news of Iceland, Europe and beyond. It gave people who did not speak or read English a way of staying connected to their own immigrant community.
It had, in its early days, those specific functions ethnic immigrant papers have. That is, it helped people adapt. It provided advice on everything from how to grow potatoes to who to vote for. Gradually, though, the immigrant community in the area called New Iceland and in Winnipeg, began to dissipate. Members moved to other parts of the province, to other parts of the country, to the United States. More people learned to function in English. A new generation being born in Canada, even if bilingual, had English as its primary language.
The two papers, Lögberg (Lutheran and conservative) and Heimskingla (Unitarian and liberal) had followed a tradition established in Iceland where papers were  highly partisan and often reflected the extreme views of the person who started them or who edited them. The papers attacked each other. For some the conflict was entertaining. For others, it was divisive and hurtful and they withdrew their support.
The readership, as people moved away, learned English, integrated, married people of non-Icelandic background, fell. After a time, the community could not afford two papers. There weren’t enough advertisers or subscribers. Peace was established and the papers were joined.
Two of the normal forces in immigrant communities were at work. There was less need for information in Icelandic and growing integration (doing business, interacting socially) meant greater identification with the English speaking community. 
The paper, to its credit, adapted. Initially, both papers and then the combined paper, were in Icelandic. Gradually, recognition that many people of Icelandic descent born in Canada were not learning Icelandic but still wanted a paper meant that the paper started to publish some material in English.
Today the paper is published in English and with a few scattered Icelandic words and an occasional Icelandic lesson.
The paper has given up its ethnic immigrant role. No one needs to read in Icelandic how to plant onions or apply for a job. Or how to vote. Now, the paper‘s role is to celebrate the past, to help keep the wide spread communities linked, and recognize the Icelandic community‘s contribution to both Canada and the United States. It also works to keep the link between Iceland and the community alive and to provide news in English about Iceland.
The paper still plays an important role maintaining our community‘s identity. Canada is a polyglot of national groups, of languages, of cultures. We have chosen to be a multi-cultural society. That means that within the Canadian context, each group that wants to maintain its links to its pre-immigrant past needs to actively support its history, its culture, and its language. To remain cohesive and connected it needs an umbrella organization like the Icelandic National League and a publication like Lögberg-Heimskringla.
You cannot embrace your heritage unless you know about it and, to know about it, you need both organizations (clubs, the INL) and a newspaper or news magazine.  
(This series will be based on my presentation at the INL convention in Brandon, Manitoba)

Icelandic National League convention

The Kaffi Tima choir welcomes the multitude.
Embrace your heritage. That was the rallying cry of the 93rd Icelandic National League convention.
I drove for three days from Victoria, BC to Brandon, Manitoba. To embrace his heritage, Henry Bjornsson drove from Seattle. Claire Eckley was late coming from Minneapolis because she was caught in a storm. Joan Cadham Eyolfsson and friends came from Foam Lake. The gathering of the clan was taking place.
In Brandon, Harold and Norma Jonasson, along with Bob Isleifson and the club volunteers, were taking care of the last details, preparing for over 170 attendees.
Over a year in the making, the convention was coming together.

At conventions, food matters and the free breakfasts that had been arranged were outstanding. I was fed ham and cheese omelets, vegetable omelets, light breakfasts of peach yogurt with fruit. The coffee was good enough to please even Icelanders, the world‘s coffee connoisseurs.

There were coffee breaks with pönnukökur, rullupylsa, vinarterta. The skyr with cream and sugar was outstanding.
Entertainment is always important. The Kaffi Tima choir warmed up the crowd at the meet and greet. Entertainment is a way for a club to show off young talent and the young talent on show wowed the crowd, none more so than  Ari Jakobson who styles himself as a crooner.  Heather Jonasson presented a magical program on the flute. The three national anthems were sung by Heather Jordan, accompanied by Theresa Thordarson. That’s easy to say, national anthems sung by…, just try singing, Oh, Canada, The Star Spangled Banner and Ó Guð vors lands one after the other. And do it well.
Awards are always a big part of conventions. They´re the once a year opportunity for the Icelandic North American community to honour people who have worked for years as volunteers. I was pleased to see my friend Gunthora receive the Laurence Johnson Lifetime Achievement Award.

Gunthora (fourth from the left) receiving her award.

There are the lectures and speeches, of course. They provide the backbone, the justification for all this music and eating and talking and hugging and even kissing. Icelanders are notorious kissers.

The presentation that had me rapt was Ryan Eyford´s “It Seems So Far Away to Iceland: The Correspondence of the Taylor Sisters, 1880-1930.” Everyone knows about John Taylor, the minister that led the Icelanders from Kinmount to the promised land of New Iceland. He had three daughters. Susie married a Lutheran minister, Haldor Briem, and moved to Iceland. She never returned to Canada. Ryan is working with the letters from her correspondence with her sisters.

Alana Odegard gave a talk on her seven years in Iceland. She went through the things about Iceland she misses, and to much laughter, the oddities of Icelandic society. She never adjusted to svið. She discovered that Icelanders don´t believe in planning too far in advance. Everyone dresses well. She misses the ocean, the language, Icelandic candy and the swimming pools.
There was relief to hear that the Snorri program is fully booked. Nelson is continuing with his massive Silent Flashes project. Logberg-Heimskringla is doing well. Harley Jonasson laid out the ambitious Riverton Heritage project. Johann Sigurdson and David Collette are organizing the Fara Heim Expedition. They’re taking a sailboat around the northern seas searching for evidence of Viking landings. If anyone would like to join them, they can do so by paying a passenger’s fee. Peter Bjornson and Tammy Axelson reported on the Gimli Heritage museum and Peter is promoting a new project of collecting rocks in Iceland and Canada, shipping them to the opposite country and building cairns with them.
The heavyweights of the conference were Donald K. Johnson and Ambassador Þórður Ægir Óskarsson. Don, as he has so many times before, contributed financially to the conference. He explained the current financial situation in Iceland and spoke about the possibility of Iceland adopting the Canadian dollar. This was Þórður Ægir Óskarsson’s first INL convention. He has a good sense of humour. Given the financial situation of Iceland and Europe, the effort needed to deal with our many desires and demands, he will need it.
The last day there was a highly successful bus tour to Bru and Grund.
As for me, I drove a long way, it cost quite a bit, six nights in hotels, gas, meals.  But I got to see a lot of friends, had a chance to make many more friends, caught up on community news, heard a lot of interesting talks, saw places I hadn’t seen before. I even gave a talk in which I got to expound on life in 19th C. Iceland, one of my favorite topics, and the major subject of my blog site, wdvalgardsonkaffihus. The convention flattered me by choosing my book of Lake Winnipeg folk tales, What The Bear Said, for their online reading club. Pretty hard to beat that.
Next year the INL convention is in Seattle. It’ll be a shorter drive from Victoria. A longer hike from Nova Scotia or Ottawa. It’ll be worth the trip. I’m sure of that. I’ll see you there.

 

Bus tour of the heart

Bru church
The most memorable moments are often spontaneous, unforeseen, unexpected, flashes in time when something happens that will stay with you for a lifetime.
Today, that happened at the Frelsis (Liberty) Lutheran Church of Grund.
The day started inauspiciously with overnight rain, large puddles on the parking lot of the Victoria Inn in Brandon, Manitoba. The sky was heavy with grey clouds and no more than a small blue opening with the sun shining through.
We crowded onto the bus that the INL Brandon chapter had arranged to take us on a tour of the Icelandic settlement areas. There was an overflow crowd so cars were also filling up. They would follow us as we wove our way through a labyrinth of country roads.
We first stopped at the Skalholt graveyard. A small area of grass enclosed with metal poles and chain link fencing, it sits alongside heavy scrub bush, thin, ragged poplar trees just starting to leaf out, a few scruffy firs. Just before the graveyard, the land has been cleared and its rolling surface is ready for planting. The bus driver tells me that this is potato country, that just one area supplies all the potatoes for McDonald’s outlets in Chicago. The early Icelandic settlers eventually left here, unable to prosper or even survive by farming this sandy soil for grain.
Some of the graves are lined with what looks like zinc. The graveyard itself is tidy and well taken care of. Some graves are from a few years after the first settlers arrived. The crowd shuffles about, signing a guest book, taking pictures, moving from one grave  to the other, forming and reforming knots of people taking pictures of each other. A recent grave has a broken pot lying on its size. It is filled with artificial flowers.
We then stop at Bru. Bru means bridge but there is no bridge in sight. There was at the original site. Bru was a Lutheran church that was de-sanctified. It was moved ten miles to the farm of Albert and Annette Wytinck. The church is now a café and the Wytinck’s provide bed and breakfast. The church has been kept intact, stained glass windows, chancel, interior decorations but the pews are gone, replaced by picnic style tables and chairs running the length of the church. 
We are so many that when we are seated everywhere a table and chairs can be jammed, I’m on the stage at the front, looking down on the three crowded rows of tables laden with food and I think of loaves and fishes and Christ’s feeding of the multitude. Here, though, instead of loaves and fishes, it is egg, salmon, beef sandwiches and bowls of lettuce with dressing. On a sideboard are platters of tarts, cake and slices.
Albert Wytinck gives a talk on the history of the church, the creation of the carvings in it. After his talk, he entertains the crowd with country and western songs. The crowd is appreciative and he has no trouble selling his CDs.
We go from Bru to Grund. Built in 1889, Grund is the oldest standing Lutheran church in Canada. Its full name is the Frelsis (Liberty) Lutheran Church. We are greeted with the ringing of the copper bell. The sound, we are told, can be heard five miles away. The church, once the centre of the community’s social life,  is only used in the summer.
Grund church

It’s a fine church with its high windows and its pews polished with more than a hundred years of use. Vera Bjornson, one of the local people who are there to meet us, is an organist. She is asked to play something for us and, appropriately, begins to play a hymn. Spontaneously, people gather and begin to sing. You can tell that many on the tour are Lutheran church goers. Soon, the hymnals are out and people are shouting out, No. 482, when that is finished, no. 535. Hymn follows hymn as people request their favorite hymns.
I’m busy chatting to a member of the Victoria club who has introduced herself but I’m drawn like a magnet to the organ, the spontaneous choir, the first words of “Amazing Grace”.  It is this hymn that I have often turned to in time of distress and death. It is this hymn that often has comforted me.
The crowd around the organ grows. Many of us are living earlier times, Sunday school, Luther League, church services in our home towns. Afterwards, talking to people, I realize that they, like me, because of the age and style of the Grund church, are reliving the wooden churches of our childhood and youth, churches in Gimli, Hnausa, Riverton, Manitoba that are all gone.
Interior Grund church

Ellen Rawlings (Johnson) has been at the door of the church in her Icelandic dress. Now, she stands at the pew and relates the history of the Skalholt church,  emphasizing that it was so important to the settlers that it was built with volunteer labour while the settlers still lived in log cabins. In the midst of the heavy labour of clearing the land, sowing crops, building a life from scratch, they built God’s house.
We linger longer than we should. The historic organ, the hymns, the church. Something unexpected, something spontaneous, something precious has happened and we want to hold onto it.
Our arrival has been rung and, now as we are leaving, our leaving is rung. The sound of the bell is rich, full of lasting echoes. It spreads over us as we board the bus, spreads out over the land where our ancestors cleared the rolling hills and planted the first crops, spreads out over the simple graves in lonely graveyards among those rolling hills. I like to think, the sound, as it spreads outward, says to those people who came so far, from Iceland to Kinmount, Ontario, to New Iceland in Manitoba, to the Argyle district and lived and died there, you are not forgotten.