West Coast Icelandic Children

salmon fishing

In talking about the Icelandic settlers, we most often relate stories of their adult trials and troubles and not much is said about the children who were living the same life with them. That’s a shame because a child’s early life determines much about the adult he or she becomes. It also demonstrates qualities about the adults. How adults treat children reveals much about them.

We are fortunate that in Memories of Osland many of the people writing share anecdotes and details of their childhood.

Steina (Philippson) Degg “remembers going to the lake with other children and adults to skate in the winter and to swim and picnic in the summer. Steina remembers walking out to “Baby Island” in the mud (“Baby Island” is a very small treeless island near the Philippson and Luther Johnson homes). She took something to read, the tide came in and she had to sit there all alone till the tide went out again a few hours later.”

Gerald (Jerry) Philippson says “The kitchen was a place of wonders – cookies, cakes, etc”. “My Father and Grandfather talked very rapidly in Icelandic while I explored other areas, such as the kitchen, where Grandma Freda had the frying pan on while she whipped up the batter for Icelandic pancakes, the greatest treat known to a seven year old.”

And then there are experiences like Elin (Einarsson) Vaccher’s. “The Christmas that I was six years old really stand out in my memory. It was the time that Santa came to our schoolhouse. We were so excited when we heard him jingling his bells as he came up the sidewalk. Then he came into the school room – big as life in his red suit. As he bent over beside the tree to pick up our gifts his beard caught fire from one of the little candles on the trees. As Santa ripped off his beard we gasped in astonishment when we found out that Santa was really George Philippson.” She says we had “wonderful teachers. The would take us on nature walks to Bremner Lake. In the summer it was a popular spot for picnics and swimming.”

Loretta Vaccher Heuscher says Nina Amma Jonsson  “always had sugar cubes dipped in coffee and dried in the warming oven as special treat for us, and Gisli had special dried fish as a treat for us if we were really good.”

“Every Christmas we had a concert with plays and songs and all of us pupils got a chance to ham it up.” “Great for fishing – caught my first good sized trout about a quarter mile up what we called Frank’s Creek…In winter when the lake was frozen over it was excellent for skating and palying hockey. …One year Pop said if he caught over 2,000 sockeye he’d buy me a .22. Well he did and I got it, 12 years old and got my first deer with it that fall. One morning later on, Frances woke me up early in the morning to tell me a nice deer was standing behind our house. So I took Pop’s 30-30 and nailed it, a nice two-pointer. Had to get Uncle Walter to help me skin it and cut it up.”

Frances (Oafson) Hanson describes the community Christmas concert in a way many of us will recognize from our own experience. “Everyone at Osland looked forward to the Christmas concerts that were held every December. Our teacher worked with us – assigning our parts for the plays, teaching us the carols to be sung, and letting those of us who were willing to choose a poem to memorize for our big event. Parents assisted—men constructed a wooden stage at the cloak-room end of the school, so we had a place in which to put on costumes, ladies  made curtains (from bed sheets) to conceal the stage area between acts, someone cut a Christmas tree, and tinsel and decorations were borrowed for it. Families and bachelors contributed to the refreshments, music and games for everyone to enjoy after the concert”

“Following the concert and the handing out of treats to the pupils, there were games for everyone, then dancing to the music to the accordion played by Barney.

“Bull-head fishing, at high tide, was a favourite summer  ‘sport’ for children. I enjoyed fishing off the end of the small dock in front of our yard. Our gear was just a length of net twine tied to a stick, little fish hook (if one was available) or a safety pin at the end of the line and a piece of lead for a ‘sinker’. Worms from the garden were kept in a tin can for bait….Every Spring there were large clusters of frog’s eggs hanging from sticks in the creeks.”

Carl Olafson gives us a slightly different view of a child’s life. He says “little did I know that after you’re three you could participate in some of the action – later on it was called ‘chores’ – like collect the eggs, feed the cat, feed the goat, then when you got to be four or five, you were allowed to chop kindling and wood so long as you were careful not to cut off any fingers.”

Carl summarized life for kids pretty well when he says “We kept occupied, going to school, doing chores, skating, and playing indoor games like Chinese Checkers, Monopoly, chess, crib and rummy. On weekends the people would get together to have a social. The bachelors would supply the coffee, tea and milk, and the married couples would bring home made cakes cookies, and ponnukokur (Icelandic pancakes). The kids just had to bring their appetites.”

A touching piece in Mary Jonina (Jonsson) Heinrich’s description of her childhood at Osland is unique for it captures the sense of isolation from the larger world for children and the shyness that results. She says that her foxgloves weren’t as tall the last year as when she was young and “we used to hide behind them. A strange boat would tie up at the wharf and we children would run to  hide in masses of foxgloves. Many times it was the Rawleigh man, Mr. Evans. Afterwards we’d get the treats – syrups for making drinks, lemon soap that smelled so wonderful .Another boat that came was the “Northern Cross”. Then we’d have church services at the school house and sometimes on board the boat.”

“ I recall when we got oranges for Christmas each one was wrapped in tissue paper. Those tissues were smoothed out – of course for what else – the outhouse.”

There are a thousand thousand memories in Memories of Osland and it is difficult to leave any out so if you can, buy this book, it is a treasure. Many thanks to Frances Hanson and to all those who contributed to sharing with us the lives of the West Coast Icelanders.

As a last memory, I will use Alice (Kristmanson) McLean. “Once a year we would get lucky as the Dolly Varden used to head for the lake to spawn and we actually were able to catch something that looked like a fish. I remember having my first barbecue. A big bonfire on the beach, a grill and we’d cook our catch. To kids brought up on fresh fish and eating it two or three times a week thinking we were hard done by, I can’t believe we would get excited about barbecuing fish, but then again we’d never had fish burned by the fire – caught by us and cooked by us!

To the people coming to the INL Seattle AGM, welcome to our West Coast World. We have come here from the late 1800s on from Iceland, Winnipeg, Selkirk, Gimli, Lundar, and many other places on our journey westward. The West Coast is a world of wonders, from Skunk Cabbage meadows to apple orchards, from fresh caught salmon to halibut, from ocean shore to Rocky Mountains.  In spite of distance and time we still like our coffee strong, our ponnukokur rolled with brown sugar and our skyr sweet.

Who Were The West Coast Icelanders?

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Some of the Icelanders who came to the West Coast went logging. They came from a country where trees were scrub birch a few feet high. What do you think they thought and felt when they saw scenes like this?

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From a country with no trees to a country covered in vast forests. This forest is outside Prince Rupert.

Who are these BC Icelanders and where did they come from?

“Gisli and Jonina Jonsson and their baby daughter, Kristjana, came to Canada from Iceland in 1902 to settle in Selkirk, Manitoba. While there Gisli worked as a carpenter and in the fish cold storage plant. In 1914 he came to British Columbia on an exploratory trip. He was looking for a place to settle where weather conditions were more temperate and working conditions more to his liking.”

Gudmundur “George” Snidal,  his wife Ingunn “Inga” and their three children came to Olsand in the early spring of 1919. They came from Graham Island, B.C. George Snidal was born in Iceland in 1879 and came to Canada at an early age. Inga Sigurddottir was also born in Ielandin 18886. She came to Canaa in the spring of 1910. Bhey were married in Winnipeg in late 1911.

Olafur ‘Oly’ Olafson was born in Iceland in February 1904 to Halvardur and Sigridur. In 1910 the Olafson family – three children, Oly (six), Hilda (three), and Swana (two), and Halvardur, who was 38 and Sigridur, 35, emigrated fro mt heir home country to Canada. They speont one winter in Winnpeg, then headed west to the Queen Charlotte Islands wehre othe rIcleandic famileis had gone to live.

In 1918 Benecikt Steffan Hohnson, with his wife Sigurlina Valgerthur Johanesdottir, moved from Manitoba to the northwest coast of British Columbia. Ben and Sigurlina were both born in Iceland – he in 1864, and she in 1862 – and were married in that country before immigrating to Canada in 1888 on the ship  “Cirdasia”. The had four children. Lutehr, their son, was born in Winnipeg April 26, 1894. He was married, before the family moved to B.C, to Thurihur (Thura) Oddson, the daughter of Gudni and Gudrithur Jonsdottir. Thura was born in Reykjavik, Iceland December 121, 1900 and came to Canada in 1901 with her parents and Grandparents.

And how did these Icelanders, braving the trip to England or Scotland, from there to Canada, across the country to Winnipeg, picking up and moving still further west, creating for themselves a small Icelandic colony on Smith Island, live?

According to Elin (Einarsson) Vaccher in Memories of Osland “At times during the winter months we would be locked in by the ice that came down the river. Before winter set in my father would go to Prince Rupert for supplies – sacks of flour and sugar, butter in 14 pound boxes and a quarter of beef. Then men would hunt deer for extra meat during the winter. My dad made a good root cellar with a cement floor below our house. We stored vegetables from my mother’s garden there. Potatoes in large bins and carrots and beets in barrels of sand. Durnig the summer my mother was kept busy tending the gardens and the animals while the men were fishing. She would salt fish and preserve salmon and fruit in jars for the winter. As child I remember my mother baking sugar cookies with half an almond or a raisin on top. She also baked jelly rolls to have on hand for company. Every weekend she baked a layer cake spread with jam filling for the family. Vinatarta was special and only baked at Christmas and Easter.”

How Icelandic is that?  There they are, probably about seventy people, living on an island on the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by forest, trees beyond imagining, in a community connected by a wooden sidewalk that wound its way through the forest and at Christmas and Easter the mothers and grandmothers make vinatarta. And I remember my mother in Gimli making those sugar cookies with half an almond on top and jelly rolls. To me, sugar cookies and jelly rolls are childhood, Gimli, Icelandic, Lutheran, but they’re obviously also Osland, BC, Icelandic, childhood, there over the vast prairies, across the Rocky Mountains, beyond the mainland, there’s vinatarta on a plate with a mug of strong coffee, and jelly roll and sugar cookies. There in the fog and rain, in the vast forests, on the edge of the world. Icelandic.

A World Beyond Imagining

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Masset Haida village

There are a lot of people coming to the INL conference in Seattle. So many, in fact, that it is sold out. Because the conference is being held in Seattle, the focus, of course, will be on the Icelandic American community. However, in the late 1800s, people moved quite freely between Canada and the USA, sometimes moving from Victoria to Seattle, then moving back. A lot of people of Icelandic descent in Washington State are from families that travelled across Canada by train, stayed in BC for a while, particularly in Vancouver and Victoria, then moved to Point Roberts and Boundary Bay. The historic ties are strong.

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Skeena

In the book Memories of Osland there are numerous stories of that emigration from Iceland to Winnipeg, from Winnipeg to the West Coast of Canada and then from there to points south. All you have to do is read a few biographies to realize just how Icelandic a small community like Osland was.

Johan Phillipson in Excerpts from “Grandfather’s Story of the Philippson Family” says, “My parents were living in a small and isolated Canadian-Icelandic community called OSLAND which was located on Smith Island at the mouth of the Skeena River. I was born at the nearest hospital in Prince Rupert on April 2, 1916.”

In the article, “The Family of Kristjan & Sigridur Einarsson”, the author says “Kristjan Einarsson was born in 1873 in Iceland. In 1910 he came to Canada and followed the carpentry trade in Winnipeg until he moved west to Masset on the Queen Charlotte Islands around 1912. There he married Sigridur Olafson, widow of Hallvardur Olafson.

“Sigridur was born in 1875 in Iceland. She married Hallvardur Olafson in 1902. In 1910 Hallvardur went to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada with their children – Olafur, Thorhildur, and Swanhvit. The family moved to Masset in 1912. Hallvardur had been in failing health for a year and in 1914 he passed away.

Kristjan and Sigridur moved to Osland in 1915. Land there was promoted by Thorsteinn Davidson, and Einarssons, and other Icelandic families bought land and built their homes there. Kristjan worked as a carpenter during the winter and fished for salmon in the summer months. He was a very good carpenter and made the windows and doors for almost every house in the settlement. He loved good books and over his long lifetime accumulated a large library of Icelandic books.”

How could any story be more Icelandic than that?

Born in Iceland, immigrating to Canada, stopping in Winnipeg, suffering a death in the family, remarrying inside the Icelandic community. Amazing that there was enough Icelandic community that Icelanders were able to marry Icelanders. And, they stayed within an Icelandic community on an island in the mouth of the Skeena river.

This was a world beyond imagining.

Had you ever heard of these people, these Icelandic individuals who had travelled across Canada and founded a community on a small island where they adapted to life in British Columbia? They raised goats and gardens, fished for salmon, worked in canneries, found jobs in Prince Rupert, endured the rain (at least it was West Coast rain on a green world and not driving horizontal rain that kept crops from growing), learned to log, built houses from wood and brought up families.

What a heroic journey this was. What strong people. What determination was required. What costs they paid. Graves attest to that.

And there, in the green world, in the world of towering trees, it says of Kristjan “He loved good books and over his long lifetime accumulated a large library of Icelandic books.”

 

West Coast Icelanders: Osland

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The Skeena Valley

I have wonderful books in my library. These wonderful books aren’t necessarily what you might imagine them to be—the great works of literature bound in leather. My great books are somewhat different. They are books like Memories of Osland compiled by Frances Hanson. Books like these, first person accounts of life in the various scattered Icelandic communities of North America are treasures. They hold within their covers, the hearts and lives of those people who made the difficult decision to leave Iceland and risk everything by coming to Canada.

Some groups settled in communities that survive to this day. Gimli, Riverton, Arborg, Lundar, spring to mind. Foam Lake, Markerville. But others, like Osland, appeared and disappeared. Many of those that disappeared didn’t disappear completely but with the urbanization of Canada and the building of railroads, highways and airports travel became easier, less expensive and necessary. Opportunities in the cities were greater for more people than in rural communities. Farms, instead of being divided and re-divided with each generation, grew in size, required fewer individuals to plant and harvest grain.

With the depopulation of rural Canada a way of life disappeared. In some cases, like Osland, there was the real danger that its existence as a functioning Icelandic community would be forgotten. Thank goodness for people like Frances Hanson. It takes someone to decide that memories must be recorded so we and future generations know who we are. And we are, not just us, not just New Iceland, not just Winnipeg, not just Vancouver. Our story is much broader than that, more complex than that, more interesting than that.

In introducing Osland, I will shamelessly take extensive quotes from it. The first biography in the book is about Arni Thorarinsson Long. It was written by Thura Johnson in 1966.

Arni Thorarinson, Thura tells us, was just one of a group of “Icelandic people who came to the Pacific coast with the intention of settling on Graham Island. Finding that place not to be what they had expected and hearing of the boxful salmon fishery on the Skeena River, also a strip of arable land, virtually in the mouth of the Skeena, all this was more than a little tempting. Arni was born in Iceland, December 29th, 1857. His father was Thorarinn Richardsson Long, his mother Lisabet Jonsdottir. Arni’s grandfather was an Englishman, who in part, had been brought up in Denmark. A short story appeared in the “Logberg” (an Icelandic newspaper) several years ago telling of Arni’s grandfather, Richard Long, how as a lad of twelve years had shipped as a cabin boy on a merchantman out of an English port. The ship had been overtaken by pirates, they killed the Captain and crew, all except young Richard, intending to train him in piracy. However, that was not to be. Through some mischance the pirate ship was seized by Danes and the pirates brought into Copenhagen, tried and found guilty of piracy on the high seas. All were hanged, but Richard’s life again was spared because of his tender age. A merchant in Copenhagen took the young lad into his home and treated him as a son. The Danish merchant who had business interests in Iceland, trained Richard in the art of commerce, and when he reached the age of twenty Richard was sent to another town in Iceland to become the manager of a general store, and well as handling export and import from that point, for his foster father.”

“Richard Long married an Icelandic woman and they became the parents of seven children—five sons and two daughters. One of these sons was Thorarinn who became Arni’s father. Arni Long came to Canada a young man and lived in Winnipeg at the time of the Riel Rebelling. …In February 1897 he married Margaret Sigridi Bjarnadottir Julius.”

Arni moved to Osland and lived there “until he was seventy years old”.

Imagine if Frances hadn’t compiled this book, if Thura hadn’t written Arni’s profile. What a family story! If it were mine, I’d insist on it being told once a year to the assembled family.

The biography is short but what a few words hold. The ship had been “overtaken by pirates”. Imagine what that was like. “They killed the captain and crew.” The implied scenes are horrendous. Imagine being a twelve year old boy experiencing this. And then the Danes seizing the pirate ship, bringing the pirates and twelve year old boy as prisoners to Copenhagen, transported to prison, tried, sentenced to death, the entire pirate crew being marched off to the gallows.

I thought I was traumatized because my grandmother lost me in Eatons.

Then being pardoned and miraculously, a kind hearted Dane takes him as a son, trains him, ships him to Iceland. And two generations later, his great grandson arrives on an island in the mouth of the Skeena because there’s good hay for sheep and lots of salmon.

Unbelievable. Except it’s all true and it is all there for us to read and marvel over because Icelanders love to read and write and are obsessed with preserving family histories. Thank goodness!

So, there you have it, the story of one of those West Coast Icelanders.

 

 

Atli at Arborg

SONY DSCAtli and Þruður receiving a gift of appreciation at the Arborg Thorrablot.

There is a measuring cup of water on the table. I’m a pessimist by nature and when I look at it I automatically think, that glass is half empty. However, Atli, our Consul General, is by nature an optimist and when he looks at that same glass he automatically thinks, that glass is half full.

I have embarked on what I call an archeological search for my Icelandic heritage. Not in Iceland but here, in Canada. From Coast to Coast. What is that heritage and what evidence of it exists?

Atli in his farewell speech at the Arborg Thorrablot gave me places to search. They are not all graveyards.

Atli believes, and is very persuasive in his belief, that the Icelandic community in Canada is alive and well. He so firmly believes this after nine years in Winnipeg that when he and þruður return to Iceland, it is their intent to travel around the country, speaking in every village and town, telling them about us, about these Western Icelanders. These Western Icelanders he calls “These good people.”

He is going to tell Icelanders that some of us still speak and sing Icelandic.

He is going to tell them that we have Icelandic clubs.

He is going to tell them that we have Thorrablots.

He is going to tell them that we still eat Icelandic food.

He is going to tell them that we have proven our devotion to the Icelandic department at the University of Manitoba.

He is going to tell them what wonderful people we are and how we have welcomed them and many other Icelanders into our communities.

He had more evidence of our Icelandic culture. However, I was writing by hand and couldn’t keep up with all of his points. I’m sure he will add those that I’ve missed.

I will use his points to dig for evidence of our Icelandic heritage. I will ask about how many people still speak and sing in Icelandic. I hope that it is many and that those people are spread across Canada.

I’m going to pay attention to what Icelandic clubs there are and what they are up to.

I’ll read LH for evidence of the vitality of our Thorrablots.

I’ll dig around to see how many people still make and eat Icelandic food.

I’ll have to talk to Birna and PJ and Sigrid about the Icelandic department and the Icelandic library.

I’ll have to see what I can learn about all the Icelandic visitors that come to Canada.

These, and institutions like Logberg-Heimskringla, are our living identity.

Pessimist that I am, I’m still heartened by the work that has been done in Riverton and the work that is going to be done.

I’m greatly heartened by the work being done in Arborg on the heritage village.

I’m heartened when I see the bookshelves in Tergesen’s bookstore that hold Icelandic books and books by authors with an Icelandic background.

I’m heartened when I go into the Reykjavik Bakery and see Icelandic brown bread for sale.

I’m heartened every time I see another book by an Icelandic North American author or authors published.

So, there are reasons for hope. At the same time, when I go home to Gimli and I see so little evidence of things Icelandic in daily life, when I go to the West End of Winnipeg and see that it no longer has an Icelandic identity, when I go by the building that used to house the Jon Bjarnason academy, when I see that there is no longer any demand for the books that were so precious that our ancestors brought them in their trunks, I feel that the glass is half empty.

However, Atli gives this pessimist hope. After I talk to him, I can say, that glass is half full. I’m probably being unreasonable but I guess what I want is for the glass to be not half-full but full.

For me, the pillars of the community are Logberg-Heimskringla/The Icelandic Connection, the Icelandic Department and Library, and the INL. They are major archeological sites. They are major proof of our existence past and present.

I do not mean to ignore or dismiss our American compatriots. I have not included them because I don’t know enough about them to comment. For that we need someone in the US to write us and tell us what evidence there is of our existence.

 

The Arborg Thorrablot

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It was cold.  Not a little cold. The kind of cold that if your car breaks down on the highway, fifteen minutes later you’ve become an ice sculpture.

There was drifting snow swirling across the highway. The only evidence of life were four ravens on the white wasteland. Four ravens waiting for us to turn into ice sculptures. I could hear them muttering “We’ll start with their eyes. That’s the tastiest part.”

Three Ravens in snow

There was snow, snow all the way to the horizon. Snow drifts you could sink into up to your waist.

However, Arborg was having a Thorrablot and being there was worth any risk. Arborg knows how to put on a Thorrablot to die for.

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Our MC for the evening.

Avery Simundsson was the Master of Ceremonies and she kept the evening organized and under control. I’d recommend  her as an MC for Thorrablot’s everywhere.

The highlight of a Thorrablot is always the food. The greatest compliment I heard was “This is just like a really good Lundar dinner.” No greater praise has any meal ever received. People left the buffet table with towering plates of hungikjot, roast beef, mashed turnip and potatoes, peas, cole slaw, green salad, gravy. The desserts glowed like jewels but since I have celiac disease I couldn’t eat any of the slices and pies. Instead, I helped myself to skyr. There was the biggest bowl skyr I’ve ever seen. With a platter of fruit beside it to assuage one’s conscience. I told Helga Malis who was sitting beside me as I gorged myself, the fresh pineapple, melon, strawberries, and grapes had negative calories so I shouldn’t put on any weight.

Our table was the Gimli table. People from the different communities gather at their own tables. It’s an ancient instinct, totally tribal. However, there was visiting among the tribes and visiting is second only to food. I was the only male at our table so I modestly claimed the other members of the table as my harem.  It was that kind of evening. Oh to be a teenager again. Me and ten beautiful women.

If you don’t go to Thorrablots, you won’t understand the importance of the visiting. I got to see Birna and PJ from the Icelandic department. Birna is the chair. Peter is a professor in the department. I got to see David Thomasson. His dad and my dad were good friends. They’re both now fishing on the big lake up yonder. Atli and Þruður were there. This will be one of their last events before Atli retires and they go back to Iceland after nine years among us. We all think the Icelandic government should just appoint him Consul General for Life. I met some Facebook friends, particularly Joel Fridfinnson. He promised to take us for a tour of the heritage property at Riverton. I look forward to it.

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Rosalind and Einar Vigfusson

I got to talk to talk to the well-known carver, Einar Vigfusson. He  has been to Iceland five times to teach wood carving. I also got to talk to the translator, Borga Jakobson.

There was a program, the kind of program that it is worth travelling through the Arctic Chill to hear and see.

Pall Bjornsson and  his wife came from Iceland to join us in celebrating our survival of the winter. (Except, of course, the day after, a blizzard hit. I returned to Victoria that next day, not to escape six feet of snow and temperatures that would make a polar bear happy but because I had business to attend to.)

Pall gave a speech and slide show about the Legacy of Jon Sigurdson. He had an interesting talk on Jon. He showed us a picture of stacked up books written about this father of Icelandic independence. It is just slightly shorter than the Alps. He talked about Jon’s life after death. There is a museum about Jon, an annual celebration in his honour (for which Western Icelanders, that’s us, can take the credit), a statue in Reykjavik and a duplicate in Winnipeg, numerous commemorative plates with his picture on them, a gay bar named after him, pictures on Icelandic currency. He’s more alive now that he’s dead than he was when he was alive. No one has reported seeing him in Laundromats but like Elvis and Diana, or, more accurately, they, like him, have vigorous lives after death.

Atli gave a farewell speech. But I’ll talk about that separately because what Atli has to say to us takes some telling.

The amazing Rosiland Vigfusson, although she no longer trains and conducts a children’s Icelandic choir, organized a choir to sing for us. They only had a chance to practice five times and, in spite of that, entertained us admirably.

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The choir

David Gislason, poet, translator, singer, introduced each of the songs. Havð er svo glatt (Jonas Hallgrimsson); Minni Íslands (Bövar Jakobsson, text, music Rosalind Vigfusson); The Wayfarer (Stefán G. Stefánsson); Vas við hofið (Hákon Aðalsteinsson, music Rosalind Vigfusson); Nú er su stund (traditional).

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The women singing to the men

The highlight of the evening, though, was when the men got up to sing Fasturlandins Freyja  to the women and then the women got up to sing Táp og fjör og friskir menn to the men. (The spelling may not be exact as I’m in Victoria reading David’s handwritten notes. I hope I got it right and that the last two words of the women’s song shouldn’t read frisky men.)

There was music after the event but hardly anyone danced. That’s partly our age. I think, though, it  might be our Lutheranism lurking in the background. When I was a teenager, the church elders lived in fear of our having sex because it might lead to dancing. Instead, we did what Icelanders love to do, visit, talk, discuss genealogy, discover cousins of various sorts, renew acquaintances. Have a second helping of skyr.

By the time we left the hall, the cold had come down like iron. However, the wind had dropped. The snow ghosts had stopped scurrying across the highway. The road was good but there were icy patches. I drove very carefully. The ravens had given up hope of a meal of frozen eyeballs and had retreated to wherever ravens go at night.

It was a Thorrablot to remember.

 

 

 

My Vinarterta Heritage

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Heritage is a funny sort of thing. It turns up in strange places and in strange ways.

Yesterday, I took cousin Dilla and JO for supper to Amma’s Tea Room and Gift Shop.

During the summer Amma’s is crowded and getting a seat is often a problem. All the summer visitors are in Gimli. In March there aren’t many visitors. There are locals about in puffy parkas and fleece lined boots and toques. They’re usually on an errand of some kind. There’s no hanging around on street corners to gossip when it’s 22 below and there’s a 20 mph wind.

Some of the restaurants close down in the fall and don’t open again until Gimli quits looking like Siberia. The Beach Boy, one of my favorite hangouts in high summer because of the pickerel fillets and Mediterranean salad, is closed, but when I phoned, the owner said March 18 we’re open. I return to Victoria on March 17. Bad timing. However, I’ll be back shortly. I want to be here during the spring.

Amma’s Tea Room has a different strategy. It opens for supper 5-6:30. There’s just one meal prepared. No menu choices. Last night it was veal cutlet with gravy and pasta with a cheese sauce. I couldn’t eat any of it—gluten in the pasta, gluten in the gravy and the coating on the veal. However, Cousin Dilla, knowing the way of all things Gimli, phoned ahead and asked the chef to make something gluten free for me. It turned out to be chicken salad on a bed of mixed greens.

The ladies had wine. I had cranberry juice and tea. The ladies had cheesecake. I was saved from serious calorie intake because the desserts all had gluten. My virtue, what there is left of it, wasn’t voluntary.  The bill was $36.00.

One of the Gimli heritage delights is meeting people unexpectedly. We were just finishing up when Valdine Bjornsson (Geirholm) appeared and we had a short chat. Valdine and I started grade one together and went through all the triumphs and tragedies of the next twelve years in the same class.

Although it’s called Amma’s restaurant there were no Icelandic dishes. Once the summer trade begins, there will be.

However, tea room and Icelandic don’t quite rhyme. Icelanders are addicted to coffee, kaffi, not tea and Amma’s looks and feels very English. I’m not sure what an Icelandic café should look or feel  like. Maybe wickedly strong coffee, 17 Icelandic desserts, rotten shark, dried codfish, a few sheep’s heads, and, for the less adventurous, lamb and whale meat. With chess sets at every table and couches for people to lie down on after knocking back glasses of Black Death.

There is the local KaffiHus. In spite of its name, it’s food, which is quite good, is standard coffee shop fare. Sandwiches and melts and wraps and muffins.  It’s coffee is excellent.

Maybe that is what is left of my heritage.  An occasional name. Some occasional food. However, it’s hard to separate Gimli heritage and Icelandic heritage. They are wound tightly together. The Beach Boy is owned and run by a Greek. However, the restaurant’s forte is pickerel fillets and pickerel fillets are as Gimli as you can get.

It helps that a short distance away from Amma’s is Tergesen’s general store and book store. We dropped by the book store since it is one of the few places you can always get Icelandic books in Icelandic and in translation. They also have books by writers of Icelandic descent—there’s Arnason, Gunnars, Holm, Valgardson—and Icelandic authors such as Indridason and Yrsa, two wonderful Icelandic authors. And the clerk in the bookstore who chatted with us is from Iceland.

Gimli used to be Icelandic. Now, it’s a bit like archeology finding that heritage. There’s the Viking statue, thank goodness. There’s Islendingadagurinn. Thank goodness. There are the visiting Icelandic groups, often excellent choirs, who come and entertain. Thank goodness. There are the charters back and forth. Thank goodness. There are usually some Icelandic flags fluttering in the breeze. If you know where to look, you can buy vinarterta. No local skyr though. A local person who used to make it for sale says that the health rules and the costs imposed make it unprofitable to make locally.

In the spring the Reykjavik Bakery will open. Thank goodness. Birgir will return from his wanderings in Europe. He will make us cookies in the shape of Viking helmets and Icelandic brown bread.

We wished Iceland well during the kreppa but, at the same time, hoped that it might lead to an influx of Icelanders seeking refuge in New Iceland. That hasn’t happened. It’s easier for Icelanders to go to Europe. They can get a job without a lot of paperwork. It’s closer.

I’m not complaining. I take what I can get. At Lans Aux Meadows, all they found was a pin but it was a very precious pin. It proved the Icelanders had come to the New World. Maybe our Gimli pin is vinarterta. It proves that we do have an Icelandic heritage.

 

What They Stole

greedy-bankers-300x199

 

I grew up in Gimli, Manitoba. Gimli is regarded as the heart of New Iceland. It is, in many ways, the focal point for the individuals of Icelandic extraction in North America and for the various Icelandic North American communities.

When I was growing up in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, Gimli still retained much of its Icelandic character. Relatives and friends still spoke Icelandic over coffee and in the stores. The Lutheran ministers were often from Iceland. A lot of the food was Icelandic, particularly the desserts. We ate skyr and rullapylsa and kleiner and ponnokokur. Iselendingadagurinn was a local celebration for locals and their extended families. People came from near and far to renew acquaintances.

People were tremendously proud of their Icelandic heritage.

Until around 1971 there wasn’t much travel between Iceland and North America, at least not from New Iceland. With increased ease of air travel and lower costs, visiting back and forth began

One of the outcomes of the separation between the people in Iceland and the immigrants and their descendants for decades was that a romantic notion of Iceland developed. That’s quite normal with all immigrant cultures.

Cherished by the immigrant community was the belief that Icelanders were exceptionally honest. All through my childhood and adolescence, I heard people talking about how honest Icelanders were. There were no police because there was no need for them.  Even though a prison had been built by the Danes there was never anyone in it.

The exceptional honesty of Icelanders sprang from fertile soil. Early explorers commented on this honesty and generosity of spirit in the face of poverty and hardship. Travel writers always read what had been previously written about Iceland and seldom questioned it. They’d come to visit for a few weeks in the summer when the weather permitted. They’d travel about the countryside, staying in farms, study birds, look at saga landscapes, investigate the mineralogy, then return to England or Scotland or America before the weather trapped them in Iceland for the winter. Attitudes in a previous book got incorporated in the next book by the next author.

In New Iceland there was a culture of dignity and honesty. That didn’t mean that everyone of Icelandic descent was honest or dignified but there was an attitude about appropriate behaviour and it was an attitude that transcended poverty. I remember once, as an adolescent, doing something foolish and my mother saying to me, “Why would you do that? You’re a Valgardson.” Within the community there was a certain standard of behaviour expected. Although that standard was broken at times, everyone was aware that it had been broken.

Romantic visions are important. Some would dismiss them for cold, hard facts. That is a mistake. Romantic visions often help hold us together, give us unity in the face of difficulty.

Cold hard logic would have instructed the first settlers to look after themselves first, to follow the saying “What’s in it for me?” Instead, in the face of tremendous hardships, they shared their homes, their food, their resources with friends, neighbours, countrymen. They had a romantic vision of who they were and what their ethnic background required of them in terms of compassion and justice.

When the idea that greed is good, that there was no social responsibility to ones relatives, friends, neighbours, countrymen spread through Iceland and making money in vast amounts seemed to be possible, people in the Icelandic community in North America were initially impressed. It was a bit like the PeeWee hockey team winning the NHL. The cry of look at our people, powerful, strong, like the Vikings, although the people saying it seldom knew anything about the Vikings outside of Hollywood movies or comic books. They had it wrong, of course. They should not have said look at those Vikings.  They should have been saying look at those Turkish pirates who have come to steal and do harm to us.

When the kreppa came and Iceland’s economy crashed and the behaviour of those who created the crash was revealed, we discovered that a lot of Icelanders got hurt by other Icelanders. The people who created the crash cared nothing for their relatives, friends, fellow Icelanders. Community ceased to exist. There was a large cost to the people of Iceland so that a small handful of Icelanders could benefit. This financial disaster wasn’t done to the Icelandic people by foreigners. This was like the Turkish raids. Except this was Icelanders pillaging their own people.

The Turkish raiders sold Icelandic men, women and children into slavery. The reckless, irresponsible behaviour of the bankers who caused the kreppa, if the penalties demanded by England and Holland had been enforced, would have been turned into economic slaves for decades to come.

However, the cost wasn’t just internal. The cost also occurred in the diaspora, not just because some Icelandic North Americans got conned into investing money in this banker’s folly of greed. Few had the kind of money that attracted these pirates who came to North America on their raiding. I was told when Landsbanki had representatives in Gimli that they weren’t interested in anyone unless he had a million dollars to invest. Our unimpressive wealth saved many of us from folly.

No, the cost to Iceland is not the hostility of a few individuals who lost money in the banker’s schemes. The loss was of our belief in the honesty of Icelanders. It was a cherished belief. It was a belief of which the community was proud. It was part of our identity and our heritage.

The community could say, yes, we come from a tiny country. Three hundred and twenty thousand people. That’s the population of a small Canadian city. It has no large role to play in world politics. However, the characteristics of its people are unique and one of those characteristics is an exceptional honesty.

No one I meet says that anymore. The bankers took people’s money, their savings, their investments, their pensions, everything they could. That the Turks would raid Iceland, stealing, enslaving, killing was cruel but understandable. They were foreigners from a different culture. That Icelanders could beggar other Icelanders, deprive them of their incomes, their homes, their savings, was not understandable. Hopefully, the money can be replaced.

Unfortunately, there are things that once lost cannot be replaced. One of those things is people’s belief in the honesty of the people from which they are descended. This cost is far bigger than the money lost. These Turkish raiders should live in shame, should be shunned, disowned, cast out. Yes, they’re our relatives. That makes their crimes much worse. Iceland would be better off without them. Banishment  was used in the sagas. Perhaps it is time to implement it again.

The Bard of Riverton

 

In 1961-62 I lived in Riverton, Manitoba. It was a memorable year. The one thing I didn’t do was meet Guttormur. I regret that. I was already writing. Already wanted to be a published author. I knew of his poem “The Winnipeg Icelander” but really didn’t know anything about the author. Part of that is being busy in my first job teaching high school, being young, being recently married. It’s a time of life when one’s focus is more inward than outward.

An opportunity missed. Guttormur was born in 1878. He died in 1966. He was born in New Iceland and his interests and concerns in his poetry was largely about the settlers. These are the people he knew. He was in a different situation from Stephen G. Stephenson, the Alberta poet who was born in Iceland and didn’t come to Canada until his late teens.

I always regarded Riverton as a bit wild. It was something of a frontier town. For a long time it was the end of the road. Here is where the horse and cat trains left for their hard journeys north along Lake Winnipeg. This was their first civilized stop on the way back. The Riverton Hotel was famous (notorious) for the hard drinking and fighting that went on there.

Surprisingly, or maybe not, it turned out highly intelligent, successful students. My classes were memorable for the abilities of the students. For in the frontier -roughness was a culture that valued learning and literature. It was a place where the bar room brawler could also talk  knowledgeably about the sagas or quote verses from Havamal.

It was a place where someone like Guttormur could live and write.

If there is one thing I admire more than others about Icelandic Canadians it is their ability to laugh at their own foibles and Guttormur, in “The Winnipeg Icelander”, does just that. He hears on a daily basis how Icelanders have adapted their Icelandic and have mixed it with English. However, they say it in Iceland, in New Iceland it’s a mix of Icelandic and English “on Main street with my five dollar cheque.” And you may be able to say “út í marshi‘ but what do you do with “moose”. There ain’t no moose in Iceland. There is a story told about the first settlers not having any idea what a moose was thought that when it was suggested they go hunting for a moose to feed themselves that they thought it was mice they were looking for.

Eggert Peterson left me a message on my blog site asking me to post the entire poem. Here it is. He says that when a relative of his used to read it out loud at gatherings, he laughed so much that he could hardly finish reading.

Guttormur, you’ve been gone awhile now. However, we haven’t forgotten you. This is a tip of our hat to you. Thanks for the poems you left behind. Some people leave death, destruction and pain behind them. You, like many poets, left love and laughter. Thanks.

Eg fór on’ í Main street með fimm dala cheque
Og forty eight riffil mér kaupti
Og ride út á Country með farmara fékk,
Svo fresh út í brushin eg hlaupti.
En þá sá eg moose, út í marshi það lá,
O my- eina sticku eg brjótti!
Þá fór það á gallop, not good anyhow,
Var gone þegar loksins eg skjótti.

Að repeata aftur eg reyndi’ ekki at all,
En ran like a dog heim til Watkins.
En þar var þá Nickie með hot alcohol.
Já, hart er að beata Nick Ottins.
Hann startaði singing, sá söngur var queer
Og soundaði funny, I tell you.
Eg tendaði meira hans brandy og beer,-
You bet, Nick er liberal fellow.

Og sick á að tracka hann settist við booze,
Be sure, að hann Nickie sig staupti.
Hann hafði’ ekki í lukku í mánuð við moose
Af Mathews hann rjúpu því kaupti.
-Í Winnipeg seg’r ann að talsverðan trick
Það taki að fira á rjúpu
Og sportsmann að gagni að gefa ‘enni lick,
En God – hún sé stuffið í súpu.

Við tókum til Winnipeg trainið-a fly,
Nick treataði always so kindly.
Hann lofði mér rjúpuna’ að bera’ upp í bæ
Eg borgaði fyrir það, mind ye.
Svo dressaði Nick hana’ í dinnerin sinni
Og duglega upp ‘ana stoppti,
Bauð Dana McMillan í dinnerinn sinn,
„Eg drepti ‘ana,“ „sagði’ ann, „á lofti.“