Fall colors

Fall colors

Yesterday, after supper, I went for a walk around Playfair Park. It’s a nice little park. Great gardens, although at this time of year, they are a bid bedraggled. The showy blooms of summer have disappeared.

I often make this half hour, forty-five minute walk. Sometimes, I go around the park one time, sometimes two, sometimes three. Threes my limit. It’s off the main road, cars seldom rush by and I can admire the yards of the houses along both sides.

However, yesterday, when I entered the park, there were, at the entrance, a group of women getting dogs out of cars. Dogs of all sizes and breeds.

I like dogs. My last dog was a Chihuahua named Chico. Incredible smart. Lots of personality. Smarter than Lassie except if I’d fallen into an abandoned well, no, that’s not likely, I don’t think there are any abandoned wells in the area, if I’d fallen into a declivity, hmmm, no, no declivities, if I’d sprained my ankle say, and was lying on the ground moaning and groaning and making the awful faces associated with excruciating pain, and I’d have said, Chico, home, go home, bring someone to help me, Chico would have run home, no question about it, he knew about home and how to find it, but when he got into the house and barked a couple of times, someone would have given him a couple of cookies, maybe a bone from the fridge, and he’d have taken them into his little cloth house that sat at the end of the cupboard, chewed on them, then fallen asleep. He would have done exactly as asked. Go home. Ask for help. He’d done his bit. The rest was up to the people who weren’t smart enough to understand his barking. Or, he might not have understood the “help” bit. Go home and ask for help. He wasn’t good with compound sentences.

Anyway, just so you know, I like dogs. Dogs often like me.

However, as I walked further into the park, I saw more women with dogs. They were everywhere. Among the trees, sitting on benches, standing in groups, throwing balls, conversing in clusters. I’ve never seen this many women with dogs in one place before. I thought it might be a dog owner’s convention. Some of the dogs were very big. Big, big, big. One looked like a black wolf. His mistress had to hold his leash with both hands when he saw me. I could see her heels digging in. I wondered if I could leap the nearest fence into a neighbour’s yard or if falling down and playing dead would work. “Don’t let go of that leash, lady,” I thought.

There wasn’t a single man in the park. I don’t mean single as in matrimonial. There weren’t any married men either. What I’m trying to say is that I was the only man in the park. There were rottweilers, German shepherds, corkies, veinerschintzls, you know the kind that are so long in the body, their front legs and back legs don’t always know what the other is doing, bull dogs, huskies, at least one wolfhound. By the time I got to the palm tree, I started to get really nervous. I started looking for a tree I might be able to climb. There are lots of trees but none of them have low branches and I can’t jump as high as I used to.

I circled the bottom of the park. A lot of dogs stopped running around and stood there watching me. I had, for a fleeting moment, a memory of an article I’d read about how in Europe instead of the hounds chasing a fox, if there was no fox, the nobility sent out a peasant and after he’d got a head start, set the dogs loose and followed on their horses.

I didn’t want to get into an argument with the wolfhound or even the terrier about who was more alpha, him or me. I didn’t have bear spray for battle or a pocket full of cookies for bribes.  If necessary, I could lie on my back with my arms and legs in the air.

I’ve lived in this area for nearly three years now. Now and again, once in a while, I see a woman walking a dog but never vast numbers of them all at once. I would have liked to have stopped and asked if this was some sort of weekly or monthly get together. Instead, I scuttled along the rhodo hedge and out the driveway.

Tonight, I went back to Playfair Park to take pictures of the fall colors. There were two men there. One was having a picnic with his wife and infant daughter. She had blonde curly hair and waved at me. The other fellow was sitting on the grass by himself with a basset. There was a woman nearby with another basset. The bassets were playing together. I thought they were a couple but the female owner left and took her basset with her. The other basset sat down in the grass and watched them leave.

No wonder there are so many pet stores. No wonder there are so many shelves of dog food, dog toys, dog grooming items. Tonight, at the exit to the park, there was a group of women standing, talking. They were all holding poop bags. As I went by, they started dropping the bags into the barrel the park provides.

Something I noticed about those dogs. They were incredibly well taken care of. Their coats shone. Their diets are obviously good, they get bathed and brushed regularly. They all had balls to chase or toys for tug of war. I’m sure they get regular checkups at the vets. In winter they’ll have jackets to protect them from the rain and cold. The smaller breeds might have boots.

Like I said, I like dogs but, I think I’ll take my walk earlier in the afternoon, before the work day is over and, just in case, keep some biscuits in my pocket.

 

 

 

Putting On The Style

If I remember correctly Solli Sigurdson sings a song about putting on the style. It should be a popular  hit as nothing is as important today as style. Style costs money and credit cards pay for it. They pay for it so much that Canadians, according to an article in The Star, “the average consumer’s total debt load is” $26,221. Credit card debt is $3,556. Then, of course, there are mortgages. Car payments.

What made me think about this is the other day when I went to the RumRunners bar in Sidney and, overwhelmed by a desire to eat gluten free fish and chips, I didn’t worry about the price. Along with a diet Pepsi, plus tip, the bill came to 30.00. For one piece of halibut and a potato.

Today, I was at the strip mall to get some gluten free bread at Origen bakery and decided to check out the Old British Fish and Chips shop. They’ve got a sign in the window saying “Gluten free menu.”

Yup. They do. I had to try it. There goes my waistline again. One good sized piece of halibut and more French fries in a half-order than any sane many could possibly eat. $10.08.

So, let’s see. There was no atmosphere. I took the fish and chips home wrapped in newspaper. There was no view of the harbour and the islands. There was no cute waitress smiling and checking to see if my fish and chips were okay. There was just a woman at the counter who took my order and a woman dipping fish in batter, putting fries into hot oil. No linen napkins.

Fish and chips, 10.08. Actually, the order taker at the counter rounded the bill off to 10.00. Atmosphere $20.00. Man oh man, I should have paid more attention to the atmosphere. It cost me twice as much as the meal. I guess the extra twenty was so that I could put on the style.

I guess that’s what we’ve been doing with our houses. Putting on the style.  There’s a new house in Coquitlam. It’s got a “beautiful kitchen with centre island, wok kitchen, granite counter top, stainless steel  cook top and more, 7 bedrooms, 2 ensuites, crown mouldings, in floor heating” all in 5300 sq ft. The owners put it up for sale for 1,280,000 on March 10. Price drop, price drop, open house, open house, currently 998,000. Let’s see, my putting on the style cost me an extra $20.00. It’s going to cost them at least 282,000 plus closing costs. Maybe more. There’s no sold sign yet.

Putting on the style. Clink clink of cocktail glasses. “I have 20 feet of granite counter tops.” “Really, is that all. I’ve got 30 feet.” “We have seven bedrooms.” “Oh, seven, really, we only have five. But you should see our view.”

Putting on the style. I grew up in an 800 sq. ft. house. Three bedrooms. No bathroom. Washed in a basin. Bathed in a galvanized tub. Heated with wood, then coal, then oil, then natural gas. Never felt deprived. I was warm, secure, well fed, clothed. We went once every couple of weeks to a matinee at the local theatre. No car. We took the bus to the city, street cars and buses when we got there.

Putting on the style. I guess we did that with big home cooked dinners on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Nice clothes when we went visiting. Entertaining and feeding people on the Icelandic Celebration weekend. Having an occasional meal at the local Chinese restaurant.

My parents’ goal and my grandparents’ goal was to owe no money. There was no halibut in Gimli, Manitoba but there was lots of Lake Winnipeg pickerel, whitefish, goldeye. We’d never have thought to pay for it in a restaurant where it would cost us twice as much as the food so we could put on the style. It’s not something we would have considered even though we could have paid the bill in cash, not on borrowed money with a credit card. (There were no credit cards.) It just made no sense.

Having been through the Great Depression, neither my grandparents nor my parents wanted to owe anyone money. The saved until they had enough to pay for something and then they bought it. Eaton’s had a lay away plan. You put so much down, then paid them a bit at a time until the object was paid for then you picked it up. It was yours. You’d paid for it.

If my grandfather was alive today, I can hear him saying to me after I told him about going to the RumRunner. “How much did you pay? Thirty dollars for a soft drink, one piece of fish and some fried potatoes. Who were you trying to impress?”

 

 

Fish&Chips

A couple of days ago, I went to a restaurant in Sidney, BC called RumRunners. It’s got a nice location on the harbour in Sidney, the windows look out on the sail boats and motor boats and yachts. There’s a nice view of some islands. The ferry to Sidney Spit docks right beside the restaurant.

I have a soft spot for this area of Sidney for it is here that I brought my mother and father when they were still well enough to visit BC and able to get around easily.

Since I’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease, I’m a reluctant restaurant patron. Despite the growing incidence of celiac disease, the majority of restaurant staff have no idea what it is. I’d visited this restaurant a couple of years ago, explained to the waiter that having celiac disease I was seriously allergic to wheat, rye, oats, barley and spelt. I ordered fish chowder. He assured me that there was no gluten in it, but when he brought it, there were two slices of bread on top of the soup.

However, on this visit, the young waitress immediately said, oh, yes, I know about celiac disease. We have a celiac friendly menu. She pointed out items on the menu that were safe to eat but then added “And, our fish and chips are made without gluten.”

Unless you’ve lived without fish and chips in a place like Victoria where fresh seafood is all around, where the British tradition of fish and chips is strong and the food good to excellent, you have no idea what it was like to hear that the batter was gluten free, the French fries made in house and not rolled in flour, both deep fried in oil that was not used to fry products covered with batter made with wheat, you have no idea how I felt. I was dumbstruck.

I looked to see if she were joking. If she were, no tip. The possibility of fish and chips was no laughing matter.

She crossed her heart and swore the batter and chips were gluten free. I ordered it along with a Diet Pepsi.

When it came, the batter was light, crunchy, delicious, the halibut so fresh it had to have been caught that morning. The French fries were crisp on the outside, soft on the inside. I ate the fish and the French fries slowly, making sure I tasted every morsel. I took deep breaths between each bite. I sipped my Pepsi.

Today, I went to Origen, a bakery dedicated to gluten free baking. No gluten passes through its door. They do have oats but the oats are grown and processed away from all other grains. Unfortunately, the door was locked, the sign said, Closed on Mondays. I’d gone to buy gluten free sourdough bread.

I sped to Babba Rose’s. There, joining the line of patrons that never ends, like an infinite caterpillar, I made my way to the counter. Date bar. Gluten free. Quinoa chocolate muffin, gluten free. Pizza. Gluten free. Lasagna, gluten free. With my bag of loot in hand, I braved the traffic by crossing Cook Street to my car. Today, pizza and date bar. Tomorrow, lasagna and the chocolate muffin.

Tonight, though, after the calories in the pizza and date bar, I’m having brown rice and beans for supper. It also helps to balance the budget. A gluten free diet is healthy but it is also expensive. My 3.50 cent muffin costs more than tonight’s entire supper. The beans and rice come to about one dollar. If I’d eaten it with a couple of corn tacos, it would have cost about 1.35. With a salad, it might rise to 2.00.

I like beans. I like brown rice. I like keeping my waistline inside the waistband of my pants. But now and again, once in a while, now that I’ve discovered fish and chips that are gluten free, I’ll break the bank, eat those fries with vinegar and salt, hang the expense, ignore the calories. We only live once. Some people dine on Kobe beef, pheasant, caviar. Let them have it. I’ll take my fish and chips.

 

 

Independent People No More

Lately, I’ve been writing some posts about the drop in housing prices here on the foggy West Coast. I’ve been intrigued because it reminds me of something that happened to an old friend of mine, Bjartur of Summerhouses.

I went back to visit him, particularly that part of his life called Years of Prosperity. All his life, he struggled against poverty. He worked for eighteen years to save enough money to buy a scrappy bit of land with a falling down sod and rock hut. Like most of us, he couldn’t pay cash. He had to take out a mortgage. In Iceland, the way to independence was not by farming, for there were no crops grown except a bit of hay in the home field, but by raising sheep. Dairy cows were more a luxury because the sheep produced wool, meat and milk on less grass. As Bjartur says more than once, sheep are everything. The narrator of Independent People says, of the farmers, “They lived for their sheep.”

Bjartur allows neither himself nor his family any luxuries. He lives in his turf house and makes all his decisions based on how his actions will help to make him independent of the rich farmer at Rauthsmyri who sold him the land and holds the mortgage. He is plagued with bad weather, with sheep diseases such as tapeworm and lungworm.

But these were the times of hardship and this essay is about the times of prosperity. Some say every cloud has a silver lining. If a store burns down, a competitors business improves. If a tornado devastates a town, the contractors and building suppliers are guaranteed work. So it was in Iceland, except the fire and tornado struck in Europe with WWI. When millions of men are needed for warfare, they must be fed and clothed. They are not available for farming or manufacturing. The demand for supplies of all kinds increases by leaps and bounds and with demand, prices rise.

Bjartur and the other farmers (sheep herders) in Iceland found, with the beginning of the war in Europe that there was an insatiable demand for everything they could produce. Europe needed, demanded vast amounts of supplies that were consumed without concern for cost.

The Icelandic farmers don’t understand what is happening in Europe and when they discuss the war it is “This so-called World War, perhaps the most bountiful blessing that God has sent our country since the Napoleonic wars saved the nation from the consequences of the great Eruption and raised our culture from the ruins with an increased demand for fish and whale-oil.”

With unprecedented prices for everything they could produce, the “tenant farmers undertook the task of purchasing form their landlords the land they held, and those who already before the outbreak of hostilities had gone through fire and water to acquire t heir began now to think of renewing their buildings. Those who were in debt were given opportunities of incurring greater debts, while upon those who owed nothing, smiled with an incredible seductive sweetness….In some houses there were to be seen not one but as many as four china dogs of the larger size, even musical instruments; womenfolk were walking about wearing all sorts of tombac rings, and many persons had acquired overcoats and wellington boots, articles of apparel that had previously been contraband to working people.”

“Now, in this welter of money and joyous prosperity that had burst like a flood upon the country’s scattered homesteads, some, it was to be regretted, appeared to have lost their powers of sound judgment for there was no disguising the fact that holdings were being bought a prices which were ridiculously high, that the passion for building was exceeding the bounds of good sense.”

Bjartur, that crotchety old guy, doesn’t fall for any of it. He says “He who is without debt is as good as any king.”

However, fashion and profit that seems like it will never end, cause him to give up his life-long principles and when the Fell King stops by Bjartur’s croft, he says, “Someone was saying you were thinking of building yourself a house.”

They discuss the possibility of Bjartur getting the money to build a proper house to replace the rock and turf house that has provided Icelanders shelter from the wind, rain, cold and frost for hundreds of years. Left alone to make his decision Bjartur would probably have stayed with what he had but driven by pride, he says “Oh, I don’t suppose I’d need more than a year or two before I was square with them again. Some people thought prices could collapse at the end of the war, but the wool touched record heights in the spring there, and I’ve heard form a responsible quarter that they’ll be giving us more than ever for the lambs this autumn.”

The Co-op manager meets with him again, tells him that they’ve got a large load of cement and that lambs will sell for fifty crowns a head. “and there on the paving, before the crofter has quite waked up to the fact, lie the first loads of cement for building.”

Bjartur is proud that no matter how bad the situation at Summerhouses, “we never ate other folk’s bread. Other folk’s bread is the most virulent form of poison that a free and independent man can take; other folk’s bread is the only thing that can rob him of independence and the one true freedom.” Yet, having decided he will have a house, he wants “A big house or nothing at all.” He is persuaded to have a basement and two stories.

No granite countertops, no swimming pool, no Macassar Ebony flooring, but there were four rooms and a scullery on the main floor. Money ran out before the upper storey and the roof were built. So many people were building that there was a shortage of corrugated iron for roofs and there was little window-glass. Lamb prices held up that fall and Bjartur got another loan and bought timber and window-panes and corrugated iron. There were the kitchen “a range with three grates” plus a concrete stairway. The doors had been overlooked and could not be obtained and Bjartur’s suggestions of knocking a few boards together, using some ordinary door-hinges were rejected by the builder. After all, when you build a real house, you need nothing but the best.

There’s no furniture, either. You don’t have furniture in a croft. You’ve beds along the walls. People sit on them to eat, sleep in them. The stove was a hole in the floor. There was nothing to move into the concrete house.

The narrator says, “People take more upon themselves than they can manage if they aim higher.”

It was, the narrator says, usual for people to owe a merchant money and when they owed too much, to be refused any more credit for coffee, rye flour, a needle and thread. People, refused credit, did die of hunger. Bjartur, owing money to the bank, sells his better cow to pay wages, some money off the loan and interest.

In the autumn when Bjartur’s house was one year old the market for wool and meat collapsed. No longer killing each other, the Europeans had time to raise their own sheep.

The big farmers, the ones with political power, who were able to arrange large financings for modernizing their farms, arranged for people like Bjartur to be put on rations on credit, the equivalent of a today’s soup kitchens or food banks, so they could keep paying the interest on their loans. However, the day came when Bjartur could no longer pay interest. He was no longer of any use to the money machine.

The bank forecloses on Bjartur’s property. It is to be sold by auction. The eighteen years he has spent working to raise a down payment, the interest he has paid on the mortgage, the principle he has managed to pay off, all is lost. When land was rising in value, when lamb and wool were bringing high prices, the sheriff had offered Bjartur 15,000 crowns for his property but Bjartur turned it down for prices were going up, prosperity was everywhere, prosperity had arrived and would stay. Instead, she proved fickle. What he could have sold for a small fortune, he held onto, he abandoned his belief that owing nothing meant independence and freedom and built a house that he could not afford.

Only the rich prospered. What they had sold, they collected interest on and when they could no longer collect interest, they took back. Those who had worked, who had struggled, lost everything in their desire to own a modern house.

It is a cycle that occurs over and over again. What would Laxness have said of the kreppa? Of the housing crises in the USA, of the housing crises that is descending on the West Coast, that may very well spread across Canada? What would Bjartur of Summerhouses, having left Summerhouses for Urtharsel, the croft abandoned by his mother-in-law many years earlier, think if he were watching land falling in value by 55% in Maple Ridge, BC?

What would Bjartur think as he watched house after house foreclosed on, as he watched people walking away from their homes as he walked away from Summerhouses? That the banks always get everything? That the banks have not changed? That as they pushed easy money out the door with their advertisements, as they drove up prices with easy credit and liar loans, as they encouraged people to use their houses as ATMs to pay for holidays, vehicles, new furniture, that they were already getting ready to take back what they’d sold to people who wouldn’t be able to afford what they’d bought as soon as there was the slightest downturn.

Would Laxness think that the bankers and financiers of today, the wealthy elite, the one percent, are any different from the bankers and rich farmers of Bjartur’s day? Or would he only think that now that they have a larger reach, they are able to grab more for themselves?

(All quotes from Laxness, Independent People)

 

 

 

The side of the road

 

July 02 V959872 $1,348,888 $-350,112 -21%

“Will you live in a box by the side of the road? Will you live in a tent? Or in your car, if it hasn’t been repossessed? Will you sleep on the WalMart parking lot? Will you, will you?”

To hear some “experts” this will be the fate of those who have large mortgages. The fate of people who will be bankrupted by interest rates climbing even a percent or two. The fate of people who, when their mortgage has to be renewed, can’t come up with the difference between what is owed on the mortgage and the new, lower assessed value.

The Norns

The doomsayers say that house prices will drop 25%, 40%, 70%. All equity will be lost. Foreclosures will happen. It will be slow  but relentless, just like when the bank foreclosed on my grandfather’s house. The furniture will go out on the street. Or to the auction. Or sold off for whatever you can get at a garage sale.

The doomsayers, rubbing their hands with glee, are selling their properties, hoarding cash, waiting for when the banks and credit unions, desperate to unload properties they’ve foreclosed on, put up wall dividers, pin hundreds of pictures of houses and condos on them. Just like they did in the 1980s. I remember those wall dividers and pictures. If you had cash, you could bargain for 50% of the mortgage. Mortgage of 300,000? Buy it out for 150,000. The person foreclosed on may have paid off 200,000. Doesn’t matter. They couldn’t come up with the difference, they couldn’t make the payments, they couldn’t keep their job, they couldn’t stop getting sick, they couldn’t keep their marriage intact, they couldn’t. They couldn’t.

Tent city, New Jersey, USA Photo by Robert Johnson

Of course, there are the flippers, the ones who have been buying condos before they are built, get in early, get in cheap and when the condos are built, sell and make a big profit. Make a really big profit by buying five with as little down as possible. Now caught with prices falling. There goes the Ferrari.

And the builders. You’d think the builders, being in the business, would be the first to avoid disaster. Never. They never see it coming. They’re building houses for which they want twice the assessed value. Except the doomsayers say that soon assessed value will mean nothing. In the Vancouver area, in Victoria, in the Okanagan, the unheard of, the unbelievable is  happening. Houses are selling below assessed value. Even more unbelievable in these places where the only direction for prices is up, asking prices below assessment aren’t bringing in sellers, aren’t even bringing in viewers.

That, of course, is the doomsayers point of view. But the real estate agents are saying nonsense, the bankers are saying nonsense, the mortgage brokers are saying nonsense, they’re not making land anymore, immigration creates constant demand, rich Chinese will pay any price to have a haven.

Will we, like the Americans, have tent cities of those foreclosed on, tossed out into the street? Will we have people who, over campfires, reminisce fondly about when they had granite counter tops? Solid maple cabinets, Molteni Range Cookers, with  a Combination Oven, the Blast Chiller, the Precision Vacuum Sealer, and even a Stand Mixer. Will some men weep with memories of a lost P.D. Part Cooker? Will the dispossessed as they spoon beans out of tin, despair over their lost Perlick Outdoor Fridge and Beer Dispenser? Will there be one upmanship as someone mentions the Kalamazoo 900 Series Hybrid Grill? Will someone lie awake at night, tossing and turning, as she remembers her Cal Spa Outdoor Super Sports Cabana (35,000) at the edge of her swimming pool, now someone else’s at half the price or less?

If you listen to the doomsayers, all this will come to pass. The Lexus will be lost. A shower at KOA will be a treat.

Not here, mortgage holders scoff, not here. It’s different here, in Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg. The real estate agents, the bankers, the mortgage brokers say, that’s right. Calgary is booming, Saskatoon is booming, Winnipeg never felt the recession. Here, we will get to keep our granite counter tops, our Kaos lamp fixture by Orazio, our Vividus mattress.

Take your pick. Place your bets. Ask the Norns for guidance.

Viðar Hreinsson and Stephan G

 

Here´s Viðar

Viðar Hreinsson has come and gone. We are better for his visit.

Viðar is the author of Wakeful Nights, the biography of Stephan G. Stephanson. The Icelandic version was published in two volumes in 2002 and 2003. The English version is one volume. In his talk last night he said that if he had the opportunity to re-edit the original Icelandic publication, he would have cut out some material. However, individuals who have read the book or are part-way through reading the book say that they love the detail because it gives them not just a picture of Stephan G’s life but of life in Iceland and later in the USA and Canada.

We picked up Viðar at the Clipper ferry terminal. He´d been in Seattle giving a reading and talk at the Icelandic Club there. His trip was arranged with the cooperation of the Icelandic National League, the various Icelandic clubs, the Richard and Margaret Beck Trust and the Icelanders of Victoria.

The Clipper that brought Vidðar is a catamaran that takes two and a half hours to make the trip from Seattle to Victoria. He said the weather was good, the trip over, smooth. Thank goodness. In rough weather, the Clipper has been known to deliver a lot green, wobbly passengers. In any event, since Viðar has worked on Icelandic fishing boats and experienced bad North Sea weather, we expected him to easily handle anything the waters around the BC Coast could throw at him.

The day was hot. The sky clear. We intended to take him sight seeing but one of the circuits in the house blew out when I went to change a light bulb. My son in law and an electrician friend responded. Instead of seeing Gold Stream Park or the Empress hotel, Viðar got to watch the intricate search for an answer to why there were live wires that weren´t supposed to be live and dead light bulbs that should have been live. It wouldn´t have mattered except the circuit that went down included his guest bedroom, the dining room where the food and coffee were to be served and the stairwell the guests were expected to ascend.

As the search went on, we began talking about Icelandic history and literature. Viðar knows his Icelandic  history, politics and geography and has an opinion about them all. He´s not shy about taking stands and it is easy to see why he would want to write a book about Stephan G.

Here are Viðar’s wonderful shoes.

Stephansson was a man ahead of his times. Today, we do not think of poetry as a way of expressing political, economic and social views but in Stephansson´s time, (b. Iceland, 1853-d. Alberta, 1927), poetry, particularly in the Icelandic immigrant communities was  used for all these purposes. Poetry was not all about the beauty  of daffodils or pretty girls. For Stephansson, his poetry was a way for him to express deeply held beliefs about war, capitalism, and the role of humans in the environment.

Over coffee, Viðar talked about the difficulty of supporting a family as a free lance scholar and writer. Not for him, the security and comfort of a tenured academic position, but the hurly burly, high energy world where individuals, corporations and institutions have to be convinced to provide funding for projects like Wakeful Nights.

Making a living as a writer of any kind is precarious. The stories in the newspapers or on TV about some writer who has just received a million dollars for a first time manuscript is there because the occasion is rare. So rare, that it is news. The struggle of most writers is to pay the rent, the grocery bill, or, as Viðar told us, to buy a pizza to celebrate his son´s birthday.

Here’s Viðar´s wonderful book.

Viðar read from the book, then gave a talk about the content of the book, followed by a reading of some of Stephansson´s poems. Even though most of us do not understand spoken Icelandic, it made no difference. We followed along on handouts and let the music of the language wash over us. Afterwards, there was a question and answer period. All the available books were bought. We had coffee, dainties, fruit and conversation.

It was a pleasure to have this event in my home. After the talk, Tom Benjamin, the president of the Icelanders of Victoria club, thanked Viðar and I mentioned to the guests that this was an historic occasion because soon after the first Icelandic settlers arrived in Victoria in 1886, gatherings such as we had with Viðar was an important part of their life.

Ben Sivertz, in his autobiography says “There were Sunday gatherings in different homes where the house would fill with people in an atmosphere of story and song, coffee  and cake and poems – always poems. Recent compositions would be read and met with universal applause.”

This evening with Viðar was about poetry, about a great poet, about the life of these immigrants who had travelled far and formed new communities and new identities, about Iceland. There was coffee and cake. We lived, for those hours, in a proud tradition.

Thanksgiving for angels

At Thanksgiving, my mind turns to angels. The strange thing about angels is that most people have it wrong. They think they should have wings and wear white robes. Nope. Real angels look just like you and me. They often enter our life, then disappear into the hurly burly of life. I expect there is lots of demand for their services.

One of my angels appeared just outside Denver, Colorado.

We’d been living in Nevada, Missouri for four years. Great job in a college for young women but the opportunity to return to Canada had come in an unexpected phone call  asking me if I’d like a job at the University of Victoria. It might seem like an easy decision but it wasn’t. I loved southern Missouri. I loved the heat (my bursitis disappeared), the shower roses, the pecan pie, the cicadas, the sense of living every day with history, the people with their soft drawling voices (my son’s name, Val, was drawn out to about three syllables, stretched like golden toffee).

However, the lure of Victoria with its charming Old England fakery, its harbour, the ocean, fresh fish, its moderate climate, its monkey puzzle trees, Murchie’s tea house, a hundred different things made me say yes, sure, of course.

We loaded up a too large Uhaul, we took everything, the piano, new stove, the kids, the cat.  The cat and the kids were in the car, but  you know what I mean and, early one morning, we eased away from the curb outside our house with the mulberry tree, past the pecan and redbud trees, and soon were in Kansas.

All went well until we were just outside of Denver then the car overheated on a steep slope. I am congenitally incapable of understanding motors;  however, even I could see that our fan belt had broken.

There I was in the middle of nowhere, a wife, two kids, a cat, a trailer. If I’d been a fix-the-motor with strange stuff like my father, I would have used a pair of my wife’s panty hose or something but I’m not. At the moment of greatest despair, a truck pulled up behind me, the trucker got out, said, “Ya’ll havin’ trouble?”

He took a look, then said, “They’ll be fine, you come with me.”  He took the broken fan belt, I hopped into the truck and off we went. It was a long drive to the next place with a garage that had car parts for sale. It was hot. He reached into a cooler, opened  a can of cold beer and handed it to me. I don’t normally drink beer but I wasn’t turning it down.

The garage didn’t have the fan belt we needed. “That’s okay,” the trucker said. “There’s a garage down the road.”

Over hills, down hills, until we came to another garage. They did have a fan belt. We turned around and headed back to the car. My wife, daughter, son, cat were limp with the heat. No shade. Wickedly large sun.

He pulled out some tools, loosened things, pried on the fan belt, tightened things. I started the motor. Everything worked. I was weak with relief.

“What do I owe you?” I asked.

He laughed. “Nothin’,” he said and squeezed my shoulder. I got a business card off him before he disappeared down the highway with a wave.

His truck disappeared over the crest of a hill.

“Nothin’,” he’d said. “Nothin’. You don’t owe me nothin’”.

I sat sideways with the car door open, overcome with relief.

“We made our way through Oklahoma, through Utah, through Washington State, onto the ferry at Port Angeles, cleared customs and parked in the driveway of our rented house in Victoria, safe.

I’d had one book published then. Bloodflowers. I opened boxes until I found a copy and I signed it to “Our highway angel” and mailed it.

“Nothin’,” the word rings like a bell in my head every time I think of that highway, no houses, no commercial buildings, no people in sight, the baking sun, the heat, my wife and kids, the car and trailer immobile. “Nothin’.”

That’s what angels say when you ask, “What do I owe you for kindness, generosity, time, effort?”

“Nothin’.”

 

Does it hurt, yet?

It doesn’t matter what political party is in power, the rule is the same, savage those least organized, most unrepresented, least able to provide donations to a political party or to provide high-paying directorships or jobs to politicians out of office.

That’s us, folks. You and me.

You made reasonable assumptions about the income you would receive on your savings or for an annuity. Reasonable assumptions don’t take into account the venality of the political class.

I just came across a copy of The Financial Post, January 26, 1980. Here are part of the tables provided.

“Five-year GICs and term deposits

At the banks:

Bank of B.C.        11%

Bank of Montreal 11.25%

Bank of Nova Scotia 11.25%

At the trust & loan companies

Canada Permanent         10.75

Canada Trustco                 11.25

Fidelity                                                11.25

Etc.

The government(s) lowered the interest rates, and lowered the interest rates, and lowered the interest rates to keep the economy moving. Except it didn’t. All it did was create a housing bubble that has threatened to destroy the American economy, robbed people of homes as the bubble collapsed, allowed lenders to make liar loans, sell worthless bundled mortgages in a frenzy of greed.

In the meantime, retirees were having their financial feet cut out from under them. That’s not the banks money that is being leant out at 2.99%, that’s the depositors’ money. And, because the loan rate is so low, the interest paid to the depositor is next to nothing.

Interest rates have not been set by the market. There has been no free market. Interest rates have been set by government(s) for all the wrong reasons. The very people who railed against government interference in the free market, capitalist system have been the first to privatize profits and socialize losses. The bankers who have, once again, created a terrible financial mess, get massive loans of our tax money and give themselves outrageous bonuses because they’re still in business.

Vancouver and Toronto are the centers of real estate madness with no price too high because no matter how high a price, the buyer knows that someone will pay even more. The music will never end and no one will be left without a chair. The music is stopping and more and more reports are of real estate “investments” going bad. The real estate industry plays games with the numbers but sales are down, prices are down and indications are that they’re going to keep going down.

The problem is that a lot of people in their sixties and early seventies have a simple retirement plan. Sell the house. Live off the avails. That’s fine, except a lot of people are retiring and how many younger people can afford houses of one million plus? I’m a bit ahead of the curve. A war baby, I retired eight years ago, sold my house and down sized three years ago. Right now, I wish I’d downsized into a rental.

When I downsized and bought my current house, the market was crazy. There was little for sale and what there was was mostly garbage. Tatted  up junk going for unbelievable prices. The atmosphere was that of a carnival with people certain they were going to win a prize.

The housing crash in the USA didn’t have to happen. It wasn’t a natural disaster like a tornado. It was created by a toxic combination of bankers and real estate companies abetted by governments. You’ve heard of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac in the USA and the disaster they became. We’ve got our own CMHC. Those guaranteed mortgages? You and I are doing the guaranteeing. The bankers take the commissions and you and I take the losses.

In the meantime, to keep the housing bubble from collapsing, interest rates are kept at artificial levels. Retirees like you and me are being robbed. We thought we were in a market economy, we thought free enterprise was what existed in Canada. Not anymore.

Doesn’t matter whether the government if Conservative, Liberal, NDP, marijuana party, they all feed the same hogs with food off our plates. Check out what you get for your savings. Check out your grocery bill. It ain’t us whose being fed.

 

 

The Saanich Fair

I love the Saanich Fair. There’s not much that will draw me back to Victoria from Gimli, Manitoba before the long weekend in September but the Saanich Fair will. I would like to take all sorts of people I know to the Fair and say, see this, look at that, isn’t that amazing?

This year was the 145th Annual Saanich Fair. It’s the oldest continuous agricultural fair in Western Canada. For $10 a day on Saturday and Sunday and $9 on Monday, you can lose yourself in the incredible world of agriculture on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.

What surprises me is that the first agricultural fair here took place in 1867. The Icelandic emigrants wouldn’t arrive in Gimli until 1875, eight years later. The first ship load of settlers arrived on Salt Spring in 1859. People who pre-empted land ended up paying a dollar an acre. (Salt Spring, Charles Kahn) By the time Icelandic immigrants were trying to farm hopelessly rocky land in Nova Scotia and Kinmount, 1874, 1875, good land and a good climate meant that settlers on Salt Spring had already developed orchards and were raising sheep. One islander, “a graduate of the University of Heidelberg” already had an orchard with 1800 trees. His partner rowed strawberries and other fruit to Victoria. (Salt Spring, CK)

Although Scandinavians had settled in British Columbia, they’d had to travel far and, often, circuitously, either around the Horn or, more likely, to the East Coast of the USA, then across the continent to California, then by ship up the Pacific Coast. The Finns started arriving on Vancouver Island and area in 1882. However, once the CPR had completed its rail line to Port Moody, then Vancouver, the Icelanders started to arrive. In the Icelanders of Victoria display it says that Thorkell (Kelly) Johnson and his wife, Maria, arrived in Vancouver on the first train in 1886. Others soon followed and in an article in Heimskringla, 1953, Arni S. Myrdal says that “In the autumn of 1887 we moved into our new home.” and, later, that “We had been in Victoria but a short while when letters began to pour in; most of them were from friends and acquaintances seeking information about the city.”

If Kelly Johnson was the first Icelandic settler to arrive in 1886, then only eleven years had passed from the settlement of New Iceland. A thriving Icelandic community developed in Victoria with a distinct culture, at least one store, a church. However, a recession started and, once again, many Icelanders picked up stakes to move to Pt. Roberts.

The Icelanders who came were not farmers in any sense of the term as we use it today. In Iceland, they could not grow grain. The cultivated no market gardens or orchards. In Victoria, they entered a surreal world where there was little that could not be grown. However, they seem, in large part, to have chosen the trades for that’s where the jobs were, or government work, or education.

It’s all about the climate. Pretty hard to grow figs in Manitoba or walnuts or cultivate vineyards for creating prize winning wines. No slander on Manitoba. I love Manitoba strawberries, raspberries, hazel nuts, blueberries but on Vancouver Island we live in a world of micro climates. Find the right southern slope and walnuts and figs prosper, grapes thrive, peaches turn ripe and succulent, kiwi hang from vines.

 

Maybe it has something to do with the kind of people who migrate here but people dedicate their lives to emus and llamas, to miniature horses and Clydesdales, to more varieties of chickens than I ever had any idea existed. They’re product proud whether it is local honey or heritage beets. It’s not just profit that brings them to the local markets with their produce but pride.

The 4H section of the fair is large. There are entries of every kind from vegetable art to scarecrows. There are animals competitions, the best goat, sheep, horse, pig, rabbit, chicken. Ribbons abound.

For years it was impossible to buy any of the products. The public demanded the right to buy the produce on display and now the farmers and market gardeners have booths laden with freshly picked produce. You can buy heritage fruits and vegetables you never see in the store.

There are demonstrations of using draft horses, of blacksmithing, of milking goats. There are pie, muffin, watermelon, ice cream eating contests. There’s dressage and a continuous horse show.You can even gaze at the stars.

Vancouver Island is all about flowers and there are flower displays and competitions.

They’ve combined the food booths of a Folklorama with the agricultural fair. The Hungarian booth has people lined up for a block but all the booths are busy.

On the main stage, musicians entertain the crowd that wants to sit down for a while.

Somewhere in all this is a chance to learn how to get involved. You can learn about raising chickens in the backyard, how to quilt, how to spin wool, grow Dahlias, milk a goat, have a farm in your backyard, make halters, raise bees.

I’ve always gardened, never farmed, never raised animals, but once a year over the long weekend in September, I return to my Irish roots, to a heritage of owning farms in Northern Ireland, of raising both crops and animals, of an Icelandic great grandfather who was a dairyman and farmer, of an Irish grandmother who loved gardening with a passion, who could grow anything, even on a city lot in Winnipeg.

Everything in our stores come from here, from the earth. Every child should visit the Saanich Fair, should see and smell and hear and touch live animals, should see the machinery, should meet the people who work the earth, raise the animals to feed us.

It may not be the Saanich Fair you are close enough to visit but there are others like the Brandon Fair, like Fairs spread across Western Canada, teaching us about both the present and the past.

 

1987: Iceland trip

Ketil and Sophia. He may have come to Canada with nothing but he became a dairyman, a farmer, a general merchant. He prospered.

 

In 1987 I made my first trip to Iceland. Like most events in my life, it was not planned. I went not knowing what to expect. When I returned I wrote an article for Books in Canada. Much has happened in Iceland over the last 25 years.

_____________________________________________________________________

From Field Notes

My trip to Iceland

‘Steam rises on the horizon and I, coming from a world away, mistake it for smoke. It is only the first of many assumptions that will be wrong.”

 

It is still dark when the phone rings. I stumble to the study, pick up the receiver expecting the worst (I have survived my children’s adolescence but not without scars) only to hear the operator say, “Hold the line please. I have a call from Iceland.”

“Mr. Valgardson,” a voice says form somewhere so distant it was once known as Ultima Thule, the end of the inhabitable earth, “I’m calling to invite you to Iceland.”

“What do you want me to do?” I ask.

“Nothing,” she replies. “We know all about  you. We now want to show you Iceland. Will you come?”

“Yes, of course,” I reply.

Outside my window, the apple tree is drenched in bloom and Victoria is soft green beneath the rising sun, but inside me there is heavy surf, the waves breaking over jagged, dark lava and a stark landscape of rock and ice. It is as if I am caught momentarily in a double exposure.

“Someone will write,” she adds. “Send you the details. Everything will be paid for.”

And then she is gone and I’m alone, staring, stupid with sleep and surprise, at the telephone.

My great-great-grand father, Valgardur Jonson, and 18-year-old son, Ketil Valgardsson, left Iceland in 1878. Driven away by erupting volcanoes that covered wide portions of the country with lava and ash, widespread hunger, and a political system that placed all power in the hands of the Danes, Ketil. Keteel. My great-grandfather, splitting wood in his backyard. An old man with a handlebar moustache. In this basement, his coffin prudently bought years before his death and set on two saw horses. In his kitchen a drawer that always held peppermints.

I was raised in Nya Island, New Iceland, an area in Manitoba once exclusively reserved for Icelandic immigrants. For days after the telephone call, the images of Gimli flood me. The people, the boats, the fishing, the houses, the Icelandic Celebration. It is like watching a dozen slide shows all at once, hearing a dozen competing voices in Icelandic and English. An Icelandic-Canadian friend tells me I’ve received a great compliment, that no one has been invited to Iceland in this manner since Stephan G. Stephansson.

However, nothing, as every ethnic writer knows, is as simple as it looks. Ethnic communities are filled with conflict, secrets, loyalties, unspoken rules. I take a young Icelandic woman to supper and ply her not with liquor but with questions. Some of what I hear I already know, but other things are new.

“Talking about yourself is worse than being the whore of the district,” she says. On an island with a total population of 250,000, with everyone related, no one is a stranger. It is not necessary to talk about yourself. Everyone else will do that for you.

“How curious will they be about me?”

“They will discuss even the hair in your ears,” she answers.

She has other warnings. As I eat, I shift my knife from hand to hand. She explains that Icelanders consider such ta le manners to be crude (they eat European-style with fork held firmly in left and knife in right), but it is the North American habit of eating things with one’s hands that appals them. I begin practicing keeping my fork in my left h and. Even my morning toast, I eat with a knife and fork.

Others tell me to buy liquor in the duty-free and take it as a gift. Liquor is so expensive that it is a generous way of returning a favour. Buy duty-free liquor in Winnipeg, then another two bottles in Keflavik (you can buy duty-free in Iceland before you enter the country). This is illegal, but I’m assured that no one will check.

If someone makes a toast, look him in the eye before he drinks or he will think you don’t like him. Take plenty of headache tablets for hangovers. Everyone mentions the drinking. I tell someone I don’t drink and he says, “They’ll assume you’re a reformed alcoholic. That’s the only reason for not drinking.”

Take long underwear (I find myself searching for long underwear in Selkirk, Man., the week before I leave) because even in July it can be cold.

The don’ts are formidable. If you’re offered salad, treat it like a condiment. It’s so expensive that they don’t eat it the way we do. If you are offered salmon, don’t eat more than one piece. If you are offered lamb, don’t take a second helping. Both are very expensive. Don’t say anything critical about what you see or hear. Take suits and ties, not blue jeans.

I leave Winnipeg on Icelandair on July 14 and fly into the midnight sun. It is impossible to sleep. Five hours later and a five-hour time change and we’re dropping onto the tarmac at Keflavik at 8:30 a.m. My first sight of Iceland is rows of American long-range bombers, AWAC spy planes, American fighters. Keflavik is a U.S. controlled military base and, secondly, a civilian airport. This the front line of the American cold war against the Russians.

Between Keflavik and Reykjavik, the land is barren. ON these shattered lava fields, nothing grows except moss, and that, often as not, is grey rather than green. My hosts, the national Librarian and a Lutheran minister, point out landmarks. The most striking one is a cone-shaped mountain called Keil. Steam rises on the horizon and I, coming from a world away, mistake it for smoke. It is only the first of many assumptions that, during the coming two weeks, will be wrong.

My lodging is the married-student quarters at the University of Reykjavik. The apartment is like a nicely appointed motel room with kitchenette.

I try to sleep but these are the days of the midnight sun. The sunlight floods through the drapes. I toss restlessly, give up, and return to my balcony. Below me, children are working in communal gardens.

I and my host, Finnbogi (Finn boy-ya) Gudmundson, are to leave the next day to visit my great-great-grandfather’s farm. I still have no idea what to expect. When I get up in the morning, I dress in blue jeans, then a warning I have been given earlier begins to sound. I take off my jeans, put on my tweed suit and knitted vest. When Finnbogi comes to the door, I realize I am suitably attired for I am nearly his double. Together, like two English gentlemen at the turn of the century, we face unknown impeccably attired.

It is to be a memorable trip. It is my first look at the hot-water mains that snake across the country bringing geothermal water to heat the city. Finnbogi points out Haldor Laxness’s  house (he won the Nobel Prize in literature). My host is a marvel. He knows stories about every rock, every farm. He tells me one anecdote after another. At first, I try to remember it all but, finally, sit back and let it wash over me.

Soon we leave paved highway and ride on roads similar to those in Manitoba during the 1940s – washboard gravel strewn with rocks the size of fists. We follow the ocean. In this country of fire and ice, of geysers and active volcanoes, the interior is still so dangerous that there is a tourist brochure called “How to Travel in the Interior of Iceland.” Among other things it says, “Wade across the ford before attempting to drive over, and check the condition of the river bed. Look out for quicksand. The man who wades across the ford should wear a life jacket and be attached to a life line. The cold water in Iceland can cause cramp in those who fall in and even death.” I face this in a tweed suit and $40 silk tie.

“We’ll know if they got a whale at the whaling station,” my host says. He opens the window and sniffs. The air is fresh, clear. He rolls up the window. Shortly, he rolls down the window again. This time there is a bitter, sickening smell, as if something has been left in the sun to rot. At the whaling station, we stop. Here, the smell is overpowering, making the air heavy, greasy, so that if feels like a soiled towel.

Behind a low wall, tourists are taking photographs. Immediately before us, an Icelander and a Japanese are cutting up long strips of blubber. The blubber is thick, gelatinous, flecked with red meat. The Icelander sinks a long hook into the flesh and pulls. The Japanese, with what looks like a long, heavy field-hockey stick the foot of which is razor –sharp steel, makes precise cuts, splitting the blubber into segments. The blubber must be heavy, for the Icelander, large, thickly muscled, strains to pull the strips aside. Behind the blubber is the carcass. It is massive, the red flesh dark and bloody. Another Icelander with a curved knife is splitting the carcass in half. As he cuts, a winch separates the two halves. Below me, the Japanese takes a whetstone from a leather holder fixed to a belt in the small of  his back. He is squat, as heavily muscled as a professional weightlifter. As he expertly sharpens the curved blade I think, “Samurai.”

We stop for lunch at a hotel. It could be any CPR hotel in small-town Canada. Heavy, solid, a room of nearly empty tables covered in white cloths. I am in for a shock. Soup is $5 a bowl. Fish fillets and the ubiquitous small boiled potatoes are $15. I make my first faux pas. I comment on the prices, then express a curiosity about cost unbecoming to a guest. When I realize that my host is offended, I start a discussion about something else. The food is good, solid, well cooked, but even though I am not paying for it, the prices stick in my throat like a fish bone.

As we drive along, Finnbogi points out a volcanic crater. Here, he says was a farm. One evening the farmer came in and said that a fissure was beginning at his gate. Where the farm stood is exactly where the volcano now stands. The cliffs are alive with millions of birds, and in one set of dark and brooding cliffs, an outlaw lived. We pass a s hallow salmon river where the water runs over and around bare rock in endless small waterfalls. Though there are no trees and the landscape is as barren as the moon, every turn in the road reveals startling shapes and colours.

That evening we stop at Borganes. The hotel is open for tourists, but its real purpose is to house young fishermen. Signs on the door say “Out of your shoes.” Rows of shoes line the foyer. These young men work long hours at hard labour. Set meals are prepared for them. I, although I know I shouldn’t be, am difficult, insist that I cannot eat another large meal. My host, emphasizing to the kitchen staff that I’m skald (a writer, that most precious of title in a land where every child knows the sagas the way our children know Saturday cartoons), manages to get me a toasted cheese sandwich.

Later, he brings out a copy of a book written by one of my great-great-uncles. As we sit in his room, he translates for me. My ancestor, it turns out, is more notorious than famous., “Did he ever drink so much that he fell off his horse?” I ask.

Breakfast is a buffet of cold sliced meats and cheese, salt and sugar-cured herring, marmalade (everywhere I will go for two weeks, there will be marmalade; it is the national jam of Iceland), bread, coffee.

We drive until we arrive at Adabol, my great-great-grandfather’s farm. There is still a farmhouse here. The land is still farmed. The farmer does not speak English. There is not much to see: a simple farm house, a shed, a lagoon, the homefield with its rich hay, the grey, shingle beach, the mountains behind. The sparseness, the beauty, turn and shift within me. It is as though never having been here, I yet know the colour and shape of every object. I want to touch everything. I pluck a daisy and press it in my diary I pick up a rock and put it in my pocket. When I walk on the beach and the farmer says that my great-great-grandfather used to walk along this stretch of beach when he need to think, I am overwhelmed, for I, too, do this on Vancouver Island on a similar beach. Again and again he mentions some habit or trait of my ancestors and it is as if he were writing a character sketch of me.

Although it is a warm day and he should be in the field drying hay, the farmer asks us in for coffee. It is a great compliment, for good weather is precious and is not to be wasted. Of everything there is to see in the house, my attention is drawn inexorably to four eagles’ feet hanging from the mantelpiece. These, the farmer tells me, he took out of my ancestor’s house before it was torn down. The feet were preserved by smoke because, for decades, they hung beside the fireplace.

When we have finished our coffee and go outside, the air is dense with ghosts, indefinable forms that turn the air thick, white, palpable. (Eighty percent of Icelanders report extra-sensory experiences. Those who don’t have them are psychically retarded.) As we begin to drive away, the unexpected happens,. Until this moment, I am distant, holding myself back. All at once, it is as if something I have carried all my life inside me leaves, and I, bereft of that something that has always been there, not me but with me, sit, tears running down my cheeks. I turn to the widow so my host won’t see. I have been brought up in a culture where to express any emotion but anger is a sign of weakness. My throat hurts so much that I feel I will choke. Back over the fence, over the homefield to the house, it is as though who, or what, has left me, slips through thick air. I want to ask the driver to stop, to let me out, so that I can run back as far as the fence, but I cannot speak for the pain and sense of loss, and the car carries me relentlessly away. This must be what they felt when they left, I think, leaving this beach this lagoon this field this ocean these mountains. Then the road turns and the farm is wrenched from sight.

______________________________________________________________________

Twenty-five years have passed since that visit and, in those twenty-five years, much has changed. The Americans have left. The Cold War is over, replaced by small hot wars in the Middle East. Planes don’t need to stop to refuel. The great economic boom has turned into the kreppa. Whaling has mostly stopped. Iceland is no longer a distant, exotic place. It is flooded with tourists to the point that it may not be able to handle anymore. Icelanders, once a rare sight in New Iceland, come by the plane load. The countryside has moved to Reykjavik. There are now 320,000 Icelanders.

The internet means that there is constant daily interaction. Endless photographs uploaded to personal websites and Facebook mean that no waterfall, no fjord, no glacier is a surprise.

As for me, I’m a little bit more knowledgeable about Icelandic immigration history. Adabol wasn’t my great-great grandfather’s farm. He and his son, Ketil, were laborers, indentured servants and may have been hreppsomagur, welfare cases. Valgardur was seriously ill when he emigrated. He died shortly after arriving in Canada and is buried in an unmarked grave, a grave long ago eroded by the waves of Lake Winnipeg.

None of it matters. A land made of fire and ice is a hard land. Many died of disease and hunger. I’m glad Valgardur and Ketil emigrated. They created a new life in a new place so that I can greet the descendants of those who stayed. Blood and history unite us.