Gimli Life: Them Others

vikignsatue

Them others. You know, those people who aren’t Us. In Gimli, there have always been two major groups of them others: the air force personnel, particularly the ones who lived in town and the summer campers. The campers weren’t camping as in living in tents. They had summer cottages and, sometimes, were called cottagers. Them there cottagers.

The airbase when it was built because of WWII brought something that Gimli had little of, permanent jobs with wages paid regularly plus benefits. Gimli had been a village with commercial fresh water fishing as the main industry. Fishermen sold their fish to the local fish packing company and the fish was prepared and packed by local people. The fishing seasons were seasonal with long layoffs between seasons. Some families sewed on nets. This was hard, tedious work for as little as a penny and a half a fathom. There were some stores, a few cafes, a post office, a telephone exchange, a lumber yard, the train station, the local school, a movie theatre, a bowling alley, a municipal office, an RCMP office with one Mountie. In that mix there were some steady jobs with year round wages but businesses were family business. If non-family were hired, they were few and pay was minimal.

The other source of income was the cottagers. They bought building lots, hired local carpenters to build cottages, hired kids like me to cut their grass, hired babysitters, got their hair cut at my father’s barber shop, bought fresh pickerel fillets (I sometimes rode around on my bike offering fillets at fifty cents a pound), but mostly kept to themselves. Town kids and city kids didn’t mix much unless the city kids were cousins. Part of the division was caused by the fact that many cottagers were Jewish and the town was mostly Icelandic Lutheran. The Jewish families didn’t want any summer romances blossoming and the townies were prejudiced enough that, for a time, there was a “gentleman’s agreement” not to sell to Jews. That was in spite of the fact that one of Gimli’s stores was Greenberg’s. Greenberg’s was a wonderful store, exotic summer fruit in the window, long and narrow, it was divided down the middle, dry goods on one side, soda fountain, candy, beyond the soda fountain, a few booths and tables and chairs where you could sit and slurp away your soda or milk shake. Greenbergs also owned the movie theatre where we went to watch Roy Roger and Gene Autry sequels.

The tourist season in Gimli is short. Cottagers come out around the end of May to open up their cottages and shut the cottages down before school begins in September. When I was young, not many people owned cars. However, the railway came to Gimli in 1906 and that’s why my grandparents were able to have a small cottage where my grandmother could come with her daughter to escape the stifling muggy heat of Winnipeg and my grandfather could come down on a Friday night and return on a Sunday evening. Cottages were not the mansions of today. They were usually just a framed in box, no insulation, the studs still showing. There were no waterworks in Gimli so everyone had a backhouse. People got water from the artesian wells that were at nearly every corner.

The cottagers were often resented. During coffee over many kitchen tables, chippy lips bitched about the cottagers. They contributed nothing to the town. They brought their groceries from Winnipeg. They didn’t patronize the local stores. They thought they were superior. They stuck together. They didn’t pay enough taxes. They sunned themselves on our beach. Some of the commentary was vitriolic. I watched my mother bite her tongue during these conversations. Making a living in Gimli was difficult. My father got up before dawn during fishing season, went out to his nets, took his catch to the shed, iced it, came home, washed, got dressed in a suit, went to the barber shop, cut hair all day long, came home for supper, changed into his fishing clothes, dressed his fish, in hot weather might go out for a second lift. To feed, clothe and house us, he worked all the time. He particularly worked long hours in the summer because come winter time, he might be lucky to get one or two haircuts a day. Some of those would be on credit. The campers filled the chairs in his shop and they paid cash. My mother carefully managed the nickles, dimes, quarters, dollar bills that he brought home.

His business wasn’t much different from that of other local businesses. The winter months were hard months. Business was always slow. That didn’t keep some people from constantly complaining about the cottagers.

Gradually, people bought cars. Train service stopped. Today, there is no train or bus service. With so many people owning vehicles, a third group now comes to Gimli, particularly on weekends when there is good weather. They’re the day trippers. Many of them, from my observation, are Asian, particularly Filipino. That’s not surprising since the Filipino population of Winnipeg has grown exponentially over the last decade. They are inclined to do things as a family group, sometimes three or four vans full of people. They park at the beach, set up BBQs, spread blankets, relax and enjoy themselves. I see them with a touch of envy and wish I knew some of them well enough to be invited to join them. We used to get together like that at the beach before our family got spread across the world. Uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, parents, all of us cooking wieners and hamburgers over an open fire at Willow Island or at Midas. Lounging around on blankets. Drinking cold beer and home made lemonade. We don’t do it anymore.

The people who bitched and complained about the air force personnel, who resented their presence, got what they wished. The airport was shut down, turned into an industrial park that, once the government transition grants ran out, turned into an industrial park wasteland. The good jobs with steady wages and benefits disappeared.

There is still some griping about the cottagers, although many of the cottages are being bought up, torn down so that permanent winter homes can be built. Some of the people doing this are retiree cottagers who have decided to move to Gimli permanently. The complaints are the same, they use the beach, they don’t spend enough money in town, they don’t contribute to the life of the community. Most of it is still just an expression of resentment about other people having more money or taking up parking spaces. Jealousy coats a tongue with bitterness.

How important are those day trippers? Who benefits? Put up a gate at Highway 9 so only people paying taxes in the municipality can enter and what businesses go under?

There are two gas stations. I expect one of them would quickly disappear. There are two coffee shops. One might survive, maybe. The Kaffee Haus does a roaring business in summer. It employees a lot of locals. In winter, not so much. Chicken Chef? How much of their business is transient? When I’ve been here in winter, there are a lot of empty booths. The Oldie, that is the old hotel, has survived for many decades. As a kid I used to go with my friends to watch the drunks fighting outside. It’s café was busy the other day. Looked to me to be all summer people. The Dollar store would probably survive. It sells inexpensive stuff that isn’t worth driving to Selkirk for. Tergesen’s, Gimli’s most venerable store, built in the 1800s, containing a fine book store on one side and a top quality clothing, souvenir store on the other. Gone. The pizza place and the Chinese café close to the dock. Gone. The Lakeview Hotel. Gone. Some of the ground floor stores might survive in other locations. Robin’s Donuts, gone, for sure. The art gallery at the harbor. Gone. Kris’s Fish. Gone. Tip Top meats and groceries. It would probably survive. It has survived everything for around a hundred years. Day trippers don’t buy there much but cottagers do. Whitecap restaurant? Maybe. The Beach Boy, famous for its pickerel dinners with summer lineup that go out the door, down the stairs, along the sidewalk. Business is so slow in winter, it shuts down. Gone. The museum? A slow death. Government grants would keep it on life support for a while. The Gimli Theatre. Probably would survive. Day trippers don’t go to movies. It’s patrons are locals and cottagers. A-spire Theatre. It seems to be kept alive by those damn cottagers, you know, the ones who use up parking spaces, not day trippers, so it would be okay. Amma’s Kitchen, gone.

Am I one of those detested interlopers, taking up good beach space, polluting the dock, cramming into popular spots like Brennivin’s Pizza Hus which seems to be the most successful restaurant in town. It stays open all year. It would survive. Does the fact that I was born here, grew up here, but left in 1957 to go to university and only come back for the summers make me one of THEM or one of US. Is it okay if I use the benches at the beach? Would it be okay for me to have a BBQ with some friends on the grass under the trees? Does the fact that I buy my groceries at Tip Top, Super A, Sobey’s, the Fresh Carrot make a difference? That I buy my gas at the Husky station? That I buy books and Viking helmets at Tergesen’s. That I eat a lot of pickerel dinners at The Beach Boy? That every year, I spend around $12,000.00 for my three months in Gimli. Is there a threshold that makes someone non-bitchable about? People who spend X amount are welcome and those who spend less than that are not? Would I get a pass card that would unlock the gate at Hwy 9 and Centre Street?

It’s an old conflict. Us and Them. Tribal, I guess.

 

 

 

Viking Feast

headtableA Midsummer Night’s Feast

I risked attending the Viking feast in Gimli. It is the New Iceland Heritage Museum’s annual fund raiding gala. I wasn’t sure it was being held in the Lakeview Hotel but about twenty feet from the door, I could smell the Icelandic hardfish and I knew I was in the right place. Sure enough, just inside the door of the banquet room, there was a large platter of flat bread and another of dried fish. On the way to the feast, I stopped in Tergesen’s and bought a Viking helmet . I thought there would have been a forest of viking helmets but I was the only male in the audience with appropriate head gear. Good thing I didn’t go full bore and turn up with a sword, battle axe, and chain mail. I think the lack of Viking helmets was because the audience was older, respectable, could afford forty-five dollars for a ticket, five bucks for cutlery, ten bucks for the silent auction, twenty bucks for booze. That’s eighty bucks and if you are twenty years old and making minimum wage that’s more than a day’s wages. You are more likely to be serving the food than eating it.

We were told there was the danger of trolls appearing so I bought a rune stone. There also were rune stones on the tables. The stones came from the local beach. I thought back to some of the trolls I worked with over the years and wished I’d thought to paint runes on stones from Gimli beach to protect myself.

The evening began with the blowing of a horn. We had a welcome in verse to the village by the Skald (Nick Burdey), remarks by Jarl Ragnar of the Red (Dean Bjornson), toast to the Jarl by Torgeir, the Swedish right hand of the Jarl (Terry Vezina), lots of Skols,(the two best were to Tammy Axelsson and to the kitchen wenches), the Warrior Bard who was sabotaged by the musical equipment when he went do his barding (Ari Jakobson), the Spa Kona (Helga Malis) who every so often rose to pronounce wise Viking sayings. I opted to pay for a knife, fork and spoon. I guess I could have drunk my soup from the bowl, eaten my potato and carrot and ribs with my hands, which would have been more authentic, but terribly messy so I ponied up a couple of bucks to eat like the English.

As part of the entertainment, there was an airing of grievances, the funniest one being the grievance registered to the MP of the area because Edmonton has direct flights to Iceland and the trip from Winnipeg to Edmonton is too long. The request was that the MP ask Parliament to get rid of Saskatchewan to make the trip shorter. There was also a settling of accounts and the risk of having to wear the Viking helmet of shame, a helmet with large horns decorated with flowers. I must say that Bill Barlow made a great Troll even though his nose kept falling off. I couldn’t eat the dessert of Ponnukokur or the rocky troll bits that were sponsored by Gimli Super A Foods. It is obvious from the program that that the Vikings plundered many local businesses so they could have their feast. I won some of the plunder in the silent auction and now have a box full of attractive items from Amma’s Kitchen. Once the feast was over, people donned Viking costumes to wear for photographs.

June 17: the king’s visit

thingveller

“Have you heard what they are saying?” Fusi asked. He was cutting grass.

“No, I haven’t time for gossip,” Bergir replied.

“The king is coming to Iceland.”

“The king? What king?”

“The king of Denmark. He’s bringing us a constitution.”

“I wish he’d bring me a better blade for my scythe.”

“Do you know what a king looks like?”

“No. We’ll find out when he comes, won’t we?”

And so they did. It is 1874. A king is coming to Iceland. It is the first time such a thing has happened. Christian IX is coming to present the Icelanders with a constitution. This is the culmination of years of work by Jon Sigurdsson and his followers.

This is no small occasion. By the time five Americans, including Bayard Taylor and Samuel Kneeland arrive on the yacht, Albion, there are one German, two French, one Swedish, one Norwegian and one Danish frigate in the harbour. Frigates are warships, mounting a lot of cannon. Closer to shore there are twenty smaller sailing ships.

Iceland is a world of dull colors, dark browns and blacks, greys. People are poor and brightly coloured European cloth is expensive. Houses are small and dimly lit. There is little in the way of pomp and ceremony. There are no castles. The houses of the wealthy are described as good quality farm houses in England or Scotland.

 

In anticipation of the arrival of the Danish king, flags have been raised on all the larger buildings. A new dock is being got ready and workmen are building a crimson canopy over it. This is where the king will come ashore. It wouldn’t be dignified for him to be carried ashore and he hardly can be expected to wade ashore.

 

Although the rest of the country in 1874 is still isolated with some people never having seen a foreigner, Reykjavik is used to having sailors and traders come to stay for short periods of time. Now, a “few officers and sailors from the foreign men-of-war are mixed with the crowd.”

 

Half an hour after the Albion arrives, the foreign frigates are all in a flutter of brilliant colors. People crowd the beach. The masts of the king’s ship make their appearance above the low western head-land. Then French, German and Swedish officers come on deck in full uniform, boatswains and gunners take their stations, and—it begins to rain. It will continue to rain for the king’s entire visit. The Icelandic weather is no respecter of royalty.

 

The king’s ship appears from between the islands.

The foreign frigates in recognition of his arrival fire their cannons. Some frigates carry twenty-eight guns. It is no wonder that Bayard Taylor says “flash, smoke and thunder follows in rapid succession from the five hulls, the rocky shores send back their echoes and the whole harbor rings.” The Icelanders “standing in a dark line in front of the houses, silent and motionless” will never have seen or heard anything like this extravagant greeting.

 

This cannon greeting is replied to by the king’s ship. To add to the noise the sailors on the foreign frigates cheer loudly as the king’s ship passes between them.

 

The king and the prince and their party are rowed to shore. Here, there is a royal pier that “slopes down to a platform, between a double row of Danish flags hung

with green garlands.” The king’s party and the greeting party stand on the platform. Speeches of welcome are made and replied to. However, in 1874 there are no microphones, no loudspeakers, so no one more than thirty feet away can hear what is being said. Those close enough to hear, cheer from time to time, but the two thousand people who can’t hear what is being said, stand silent. The welcoming takes ten minutes. When it is over, the Governor leads the way up the pier. He is followed by the king and prince. Although there is resentment toward Denmark because of trade restrictions that have caused a lot of hardship and favored a few well connected Icelanders at the expense of the many, the crowd is polite and the King and prince look very cheerful and friendly.

 

What follows is as close to a parade as the Icelanders have ever experienced. The Governor, all decked out in his finest, the King and Prince in impressive uniforms, then important officials, the “the bishop in velvet and satin, a snowy Elizabethan ruff, and a high hat, the clergyman,” and the members of the official Icelandic committee. These are described by Taylor as being strong, wind burned men who look like farmers. They are wearing heavy brown coats and Taylor notes that the white gloves they have been given don’t go together with their clothes. The parade has about forty people in it. When they have passed, the curious crowd falls in behind them and follows them to the Governor’s residence.

 

When they arrive at the Governor’s house, the door opens and Madame Finsen, the Governor’s wife, appears, dressed in a simple black silk, without any ornaments. She descends the steps of the first garden terrace, curtsies at the right moment to the royal guest, a little less deeply to the Prince, and accompanies them to the door. Taylor is impressed by Madam Finsen. It is not often that someone, even a Governor’s wife, has the king drop by to visit. She handles the greeting admirably.

 

The curious crowd waits and watches. The Bishop, members of the official committee, and other officials wait at the bottom of the garden, until summoned by a chamberlain in a red coat, when they are led inside. The crowd has seen enough already to talk about for years to come. The Icelanders have now seen what a king looks like, a prince is added as a bonus, and vanity and self-importance are on display in the garden. The word poppinjays comes to mind, or a Halloween costume ball but my sympathies are with the sturdy farmers who have been decked out in white gloves. Were the gloves a way of identifying them as being part of the official greeting party or were the gloves because there might have been the risk that they would touch the king or prince with those rough farmer’s hands?

 

 

The next day at eight o’clock, a gun from the King’s frigate booms. Lines of linked flags are run up to the peak of the masts and yard-arms. Taylor says that “the gleam and sparkle of the linked flags…is something glorious to behold.” On the hills, long lines of people on horses are still only specs but they reveal that people are coming. All transportation is by horse, riding horses, pack horses, spare horses and soon Reykjavik will be crowded with the small Icelandic horses.

 

This day is a busy one. There will be a commemorative service at the Cathedral, an evening banquet in a hall of the university and, in the evening, a festival on the hill of Austurvelli. The hill is a mile from town.

 

At the banquet, the king mingles with the guests. When dinner is announced “the King gives his arm to Madame Finssen, the band blows its trumpets, and the guests march into the large hall of the University, which is decorated with flags, pyramids of rifles, stars made of swords, and other warlike ornament.”

 

The evening is Danish. The flags, the rifles, the swords are symbols of Danish power. They have an army. Iceland does not. Everything about the dinner is Danish. According to Taylor, the silver plate and porcelain, with the royal arms, the wine glasses, cakes and bonbons—everything except the snipe and salad, are Danish. There is duck and venison, green peas, truffles, but the rarest thing for the Icelanders are the black Hamburg grapes which come with the dessert. Few Icelanders would ever have seen grapes, never mind tasted them.

 

After the banquet, the king and his party and the dignitaries walk to the hill nearly a mile away, where there are flags, tents, and two thousand people. An area large enough to accommodate five thousand people has been cleared but Taylor says that only two thousand people have come to celebrate in the wind and the rain. It may be the weather that has kept people away, or the expense and difficulty of traveling to Reykjavik on horseback but Taylor is one of five Americans who have come to see Iceland free itself from a monarchy and he interprets the small turnout as an expression of Icelanders dislike of the monarchy and their desire for a republic.

 

Iceland in 1874 is poor. The population has been repeatedly devastated by bad weather, epidemics, and oppressive political and business practices. The Icelanders do not have storerooms of gold. What they have is their singing. The singing in the cathedral was impressive. Now, there is singing before the formal program begins. Between the presentations, the admirable male choir of Reykjavik sings.

 

The king now leaves for the geysers. The Great Geyser is one of the wonders of the world. His party requires 180 horses. The Americans also go to the geysers. The king waits at the geysers for three days but there is no eruption. The geysers are as stubborn as any Icelander.

Having been disappointed at the geysers, the king and his party return to Thingvella.

 

When the Americans arrive at Thingvella around eight o’clock on Thursday evening, the wild valley had undergone a complete transformation since they left it three days before. Both Taylor and Samuel Kneeland describe the valley. The steep green slopes along the foot of the Allmannagja are dotted with little tents ; four large pavilions, with several smaller one’s, have been erected along the bank of the river ; on the Mount of the Law a flagstaff is planted, from which floats the ancient banner of Iceland, a white falcon in a blue field ; while on the opposite side, towards the Axar cataract, on a mound, there is a decorated shelter with the standards of the nations represented at the Festival. On the right floats the colors of Norway, England and the United States; on the left those of Denmark, Sweden, and the German Empire. Taylor says groups of people are scattered all over the valley, or on the rocky, grass-topped heights; there are flags everywhere, smoke rises from camp-fires. Instead of the usual silence of Thingvella, there is shouting, people greeting each other, and singing, always singing.

 

Taylor describes the King’s arrival in such a way that it makes me wish I could go back in time and be at Thingvella for this moment. Oh, to have a movie camera as all this takes place. The natural setting is spectacular. A group of twelve Icelandic bonder, or farmers, selected for their appearance ride forward to meet His Majesty at the farm of Skyrcot. It is described as a little oasis in the lava-field, about a mile distant. They escort the king to the site of the festivities. Just before they get to their destination, the farmers split into two groups with six on each side of the path.

 

The Chairman of the Committee, Fredriksson, makes a short speech, welcoming the king. The crowd which has gathered cheer so loudly that some of the horses become frightened. Gov. Finssen is thrown off his horse. The King, who is an accomplished rider, sits firmly, patting his horse on the neck. “Then twenty-four girls come forward, scattering the native flowers of Iceland—thyme, anemone, saxifrage, and geranium—in the Royal path, while the choir, posted on the lava rocks, strike up one of their solemn, soul-stirring chants.” The Royal camp is pitched, as before, on the little hill in front of the church, but there is now quite a village of

tents around it.

 

What an incredible scene, the great chasm, the horses, the tents, the farmers on their horses, the king and his party, twenty-four beautiful young women in their traditional Icelandic costumes spreading flowers before the King.

 

The next day there is a light but steady rain. Everyone, except the Icelanders, goes to the area where the official ceremonies are to take place, wearing waterproof coats. Having read this I immediately think of Bjartur of Summerhouses in Independent People when he says “I’ve been wet all my life.”

 

A bridge of planks has been built across the river. After crossing it, the King stops to listen to a formal speech given by Herr Thomssen, of Bessastaðrin the name of the People of Iceland because it is Iceland’s thousandth anniversary. This speech, Burton says, has, as all the other speeches made by Icelanders, two components: an expression of loyalty to the King while, at the same time, wishing to have their own government.

 

The King replies briefly. There are cheers. The band plays the Danish national anthem and everyone walks to the mound. At the official site, there are a bunch of formal greetings and well wishes read out from abroad. When those are done, the King spends half an hour listening to people who want to talk to him. Although Burton, Kneeland and the other Americans are strongly Republican, Burton says that the King’s manner “as it has been from first to last, is admirable—never lacking in true dignity, yet thoroughly simple, friendly, and familiar.”

 

With the formal ceremonies over, the choir goes to the door of the large pavilion. There they sing a new song written by Jochumsson. It is superbly sung. When the song is over, the Americans are ushered into the pavilion. They sit with the other foreign guests.

 

The banquet in Reykjavik was Danish. The decorations were Danish. The food was brought from Denmark, much of it tinned. However, this breakfast is Icelandic. It is “salmon, mayonnaise of fish, cold mutton, and excellent Rejkiavik bread, with claret, sherry, and finally champagne. It is, in fact, rather a dinner than a breakfast, or served as such for the Royal party.”

 

With this meal over, the King and his party–remember he needed 108 horses so this is no small group–get ready to ride back to Reykjavik. It is raining heavily. It began to rain when the King arrived and it is still raining. At one o’clock the King and his retinue are in their saddles but there is one more spectacular moment coming.

 

The choir goes ahead of the King to the Allmannagja. “There, under the lava walls of the tremendous cleft, sing a parting song. One by one the cavalcade disappears around the corner of the sharp crest, and Thingvalla is left to the people of Iceland.”

 

Think on that, the long line of horses, the royal figures, the choir, the cliffs, the rising voices, the steady rain. What a dramatic moment. All this has occurred because of Jon Sigurdsson and his followers. This is what it was like. It wasn’t abstract. It was horses, rain, people, food, camp fires, tents, speeches, songs, cheering.

 

It is here that Steinar of Hlidar brought his magical horse to give to the king. Even though he was not important enough to be invited to the festivities, it is here that he comes and all this is what he sees and hears.

 

Samuel Kneeland, in his book, An American In Iceland, sums up what he has seen by saying, “Jon Sigurdsson has done something important, even heroic, for Iceland. He hasn’t been Joan of Arc. He hasn’t led the Icelanders in armed rebellion. He’s done something much more important. He’s convinced the Icelandic people that their situation is not hopeless. Centuries of oppression have made it seem impossible that there can be a better way of being governed. Jon Sigurdsson has convinced people that there is a better way and it is achievable. Iceland has no army. It has no resources to raise an army and equip it. It must depend on persuasion. It must move gradually toward independence.”

And so, it came to pass and when we celebrate June 17, we should remember these events, these images. We are fortunate that Samuel Kneeland and Bayard Taylor left us books about these events. If you want full descriptions of their adventures in Iceland, you can read Kneeland’s, An American in Iceland, and Taylor’s Egypt and Iceland in the Year 1874. All factual material has been taken from their books.

 

 

 

June 17: Winnipeg

 

Mermaidsmermaidkathleen

Mermaids: Kathleen Hiley

June 17: Winnipeg

The June 17 celebration of Jon Sigurdsson day was fun. I’d been asked to participate in the evening’s entertainment so I first stopped at the Winnipeg Art Gallery to check the light on the podium and the sound of the mike. Microphones are all different and you have to know how you use the one provided. Got to meet Kevin Olafson who was organizing the Nuna show.

I’d parked at the Bay parking lot. It is right across from the art gallery. Went into the Bay because when I was a child and into my teens, going to the Bay was a big deal. It was in the basement you could get a malt and hot dog. Only in Iceland are pilsar as good as Bay hotdogs and they don’t have malts. The Bay was depressing. At one time, it was classy. Now, the floors have broken and missing tiles, there are large areas with no products. They need to do like Victoria, shut it down, turn the building into classy condominiums.

I drifted down Portage, stopped at Don’s photography store and, after weeks of struggle, decided to buy a telephoto lens so I can take pictures of the Ospreys of Willow Island. The ospreys, I hate to admit, are smarter than me. Even when I wear camouflage, cover my hat with twigs and leaves, they know it is me. They wait until I’m just starting to get into camera range and then they fly to a tree in the marsh. I swear I can hear them laughing.

I walked to the Legislature. Took some photographs of the wreath and monument. Found my way to the reception in the office of Peter Bjornson, Minister and MLA, but more importantly, son of this years’s Fjallkona, Herdis Bjornson. Heidi was born to wear a Fjallkona costume. She looked regal but she also made all the dainties: vinarterta, asta bollur, ponokokkur, rolled sandwiches. It was charming to hear Peter say in addressing her, “Madame Fjallkona, Mom….”

The Eimskip executives appeared. We drained the dregs from our coffee cups and found our way out of the Legislative labyrinth to the Jon Sigurdsson statue. The Solskrikjan Choir, led by K. Wilson, was bravely contesting with the passing traffic. They looked dashing in their white and red. The loyalists were gathering, gradually filling up the rows of chairs.

Consul General Hjálmar Hannesson introduced the guest speaker, Gylfi Sigfusson, the CEO of Eimskip. A lot of speeches by visiting dignitaries are yawners. However, Gylfi´s speech was interesting. I’m hoping, assuming, that it will be reproduced in LH. It gave a comprehensive history of the creation of the shipping line and its importance to Iceland’s struggle for independence. Gylfi emphasized the fact that it was Winnipeg Icelanders who provided twenty percent of the start up money for Eimskip.

The speeches were neither too long , nor too short, the rain held off and when the official program was over, we all trooped to the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Bardal’s black bus was available for those who wanted to ride. I walked back to my car on the Hudson Bay parking lot and wolfed down a ham and cheese sandwich made with gluten free bread.

A good sized crowd came to the gallery for the show. It was well worth their effort. Eimskip, because this is their 100th anniversary, has produced a film in two parts about the history of the company. We watched the first part. I was fascinated because it was made up of news clips taken in Reykjavik and New York close to the beginning of the 1900s. If you want to see the Reykjavik of your great grandparents and grandparents this is the film to watch. I hope that Eimskip makes the film available to all the Icelandic clubs and donates a copy to the Icelandic Library at the University of Manitoba.

With the evening over, we went on to the vaudeville entertainment. Zach Allard accompanied himself on two songs, ‘New North –Side Air’ and ‘Ship and Anchor’. He was followed by a presentation that riveted my attention. Kathleen Hiley and Quincy Hiebert danced an excerpt from “Beating of Wings”, that had me sitting forward in my seat. As someone brought up on The Royal Winnipeg Ballet and a long time folk dancer, I was filled with admiration for the choreography by Gaile Petursson-Hiley and the marrying of the bodies of the dancers in a demanding, captivating routine. Time and again, I would like to have taken photographs but, of course, the light wasn’t right and I’d left my camera and new lens in the car.

Victoria Sparks followed the dancers and treated us to a tune entitled “Rock Song” on keyboard and percussion, followed by “Bi Bi og Blaka”, an Icelandic Folk Song.

Feeling that I would be boring after the singing, dancing, percussion, I launched into a description of the week in 1874 when, for the first time in its history, a Danish king came to Iceland. Christian IX was coming to present the Icelanders their new constitution.

We go to a great deal of trouble, work, and expense to say Jon Sigurdsson was a great guy because he was instrumental in getting that constitution which was the first step in Iceland obtaining its independence but no one seems to have any idea what actually went on when the king spent a week in Iceland. I regaled the crowd with tidbits such as the King’s staff bringing fresh Hamburg grapes for dessert at the official banquet. Grapes were not something most Icelanders had ever seen, never mind eaten. Standing behind the mike, blinded by the lights, I heard the sounds of the audience but not clearly enough to know whether they were laughing at my amusing tidbits or snoring. I’ve had a couple of people say “Wow, impressive research, Bill.” I worry that is like someone saying about a movie, “It’s really worth seeing for the landscapes.”

In any case, I see all this through a dark filter. When I went out to my car, the back driver’s side window had been smashed, my Sony A33 and two lenses, including the lens I had just bought that afternoon, had been stolen. The thief also stole the insulated bag and freezer pack my cousin Dilla had given me to keep my sandwich cool. I hope he was appropriately disappointed when he looked inside. Even with insurance, the loss for me will be around eight hundred dollars and, more importantly, the two memory chips had my month’s research photographs. Those can’t be retaken until next year.

It was a cold, bitter ride back to Gimli but I was warmed by the events of the day. I wouldn’t let a petty thief steal that.

 

David Arnason: There Can Never Be Enough

SONY DSCGimli Life: drove into Winnipeg yesterday to attend a book launch for David Arnason’s new collection of stories, There Can Never Be Enough. Had supper at the Prairie Ink restaurant that is part of McNally Robinson bookstore at Grant Park. Jim Anderson, that writer of all things Labau, stories and poems of marshes and fishing, bookseller of extraordinary Icelandic Canadian documents, organized a table of writers and editors so conversation before David’s reading was lively and interesting. Filing the other tables were relatives, friends, colleagues, admirers, fans. For me it was a chance to meet and chat with people I might otherwise not see during my three months in Gimli. Linda Sigurdson Collette was there, sitting with the Consul General Hjalmar W. Hannesson and his wife, Anna Birgis, and when David and I and Hjalmar were getting our pictures taken, got us organized so David’s books were front and centre.

It was a happy crowd and the Prairie Ink restaurant is a happy location, its staff used to the vagaries of writers and fans, used to having service cease while an author is introduced and gives a reading and, hopefully, signs large towers of books hot off the press. David’s new collection was so hot off the press that it had just arrived from Turnstone Press two hours before the launch. There’s a nail biter for you.

David and I went to the Gimli Collegiate together. Not surprisingly, given his family’s penchant for discussing saga characters as if they lived on the farm just down the road, he became a teacher of literature. While I and my new wife went to Riverton in 1961, David and his new wife (it was a time of new wives and husbands and we were shockingly young) went to Arborg so he could teach literature there. Our paths crossed again, when two years later David and I bought taught at the Transcona Collegiate.

I went off to teach in Snow Lake and scurvy and David, much more sensibly, went on to earn a Phd. During those years, he was learning about Canadian literature and honing his craft in the writing of fiction and poetry. Like many members of the Icelandic Canadian community, like a moth attracted to the flame, or an Icelandic Canadian from the Interlake, attracted to Lake Winnipeg and vinartera, he returned to teach at the University of Manitoba. He had a house in Winnipeg and a cottage on Willow Island with, as I remember vaguely, some amazing literary beach parties. He was part of and central to the growing canon of Canadian literature, Manitoba literature and, particularly, Icelandic Canadian literature.

He has taught for decades and, as a result, has had a large influence as a teacher, writer and editor on hundreds, if not thousands of individuals. His CV would take a strong man to carry.

When all these external successes are set aside, the position of acting Head of the Department of Icelandic Studies, the head of the Department of English, all those well deserved rewards for hard work well done, it is his writing, particularly his short stories that best define him. He is a fine reader with an excellent sense of timing. I have heard him read his work many times and, each time, it is a pleasure for his stories are filled with truth and laughter. Years go by and a chapter from a novel (his chapter on the problem of his family’s kissing all the time, I will never forget) or a short story will spring to mind and I’ll chuckle to myself and people nearby look around to see what it is that I’m laughing at.

David’s reading last night was like that. He read a story about square dancers and the questions their existence raises. The story was delightful, laughter rippled through the room, I look forward to taking There Can Never Be Enough out into the sunshine and sitting and reading it and laughing out loud no matter how many strange looks I might get.

This was one of those “You should have been there moments”. Driving back to Gimli (it is an hour and a half each way), I was pleased that I had gone into the city to hear David and to see people in the crowd whom I hadn’t seen for a while.

Gimli, Manitoba has always been about commercial fishing. However, it is often pointed out that the Icelandic settlers who came to this area in 1875, in spite of terrible poverty, brought books in their trunks. We know that is true because books in Icelandic seem to be everywhere. Jim Anderson specializes in finding homes for them. It is said that every Icelander and every North American of Icelandic descent is determined to publish a book before he or she dies. From the number of books published in the Icelandic Canadian community that also seems true.

David, with his place at Willow Island, the very place where the first Icelandic settlers landed in 1875, represents a great tradition.

Dumb and Dumber

I had my camera and new zoom lens stolen, my car window smashed but at least I didn’t have three dimwitted teenagers pump me full of bullets like the armored car employee in Toronto. There is not a large gap between breaking into cars and stealing or knocking over the local corner store or going for a big score with an armored car. These actions don’t usually come without a history, although the police say the three alleged culprits had no previous record. That may simply be that one of them was just smart enough to observe the obvious.

As a teacher of forty years, high school, college, university, I don’t like to diss the dolts but dolts there are. Dolts are people who can’t make connections between acts and consequences. You know, the Victoria police are taking down a street corner drug dealer and half a block away another dealer is collecting money and handing over drugs and standing on tip toe to watch what is going down. I’ve heard of people like this as having a flat line learning curve. The words “likely consequences” simply don’t mean anything. Questions such as “What do you think might happen if you do that?”, that being taking a rifle stolen in a B&E and holding up a local bakery, gets a shrug of the shoulders. The shrug of the shoulders is because the person being questioned is thinking, “I’ve got a rifle, I want some money to go partying, buy booze, drugs, the bakery has money, I’ll hold them up, they’ll give me their money, and I’ll go out and have a good time.”

“You will probably get caught,” comes as a suggestion that seems quite impossible and can be mitigated with a paper bag with eye holes pulled over the perp’s head. The linear thinking doesn’t allow for analyzing past experiences of bakery-holder-uppers. Doesn’t mean researching the fate of bank-holder-uppers as being caught within fifteen minutes of a robbery. Doesn’t mean finding out how much money is in a bakery till on a Friday night and matching the proceeds against the consequences of armed robbery, or attempted murder if the baker decides to fight back.

I use the example of the bakery hold up because many years ago, the bright lights in one of my classes decided they were going to finance a hot weekend this way.

Knocking over an armored car is a step up. There’s a lot of money. The guards are armed. They can communicate with the police. Frankly, the risks are so great that I can only vaguely remember an armored car being knocked over somewhere in the distant past. It’s more the stuff of movies from the nineteen thirtees and forties. Maybe the alleged perps watched a lot of black and white movies and said, “Yeah, that’s the way to go.” I wonder if they searched through thrift shops to find old fashioned felt hats, had cigarettes in the corner of their mouths as they lurked about. Obviously, they must have cased the joint, does anyone say “cased the joint” anymore?

A defense lawyer may plead desperation, the overwhelming need for a pair of three hundred dollar running shoes, the psychological devastation wrought by not being able to shop for name brands, the need for status driving away common sense. Don’t believe a word of it. It’s simply the inability to connect cause and effect. You know: if I try to hold up an armored car, the guard is armed and will likely shoot at me, I’ll shoot back, the moment I do, I’ll be guilty of attempted murder, or worse, murder, I’m eighteen, I’m facing a life sentence, I’ll spend from eighteen to forty-three years in prison with a bunch of people who aren’t socially desirable companions. Nope. The armored car guys have bags of money, I want bags of money, they, the selfish bastards won’t give me the bags of money, I’ve got a pistol, I’ll make them give me the bags of money and then I’ll have lots of money and can shop all I want. I remember wanting to shout into the ears of dolts like this, “There isn’t much classy shopping done in prison.”

Of the three alleged perps, one must have been smarter than the other two. That’s usually how it works. The smarter guy (I didn’t say smart) will have concocted a plan, explained how it would work, the bountiful rewards, will be the leader. If the guard hadn’t been shot, if the charges weren’t so serious, if the likely sentence wasn’t so long and the brains behind the operation was back out on the street, I know exactly what he’d be telling his potential gang. Bad luck, it was all bad luck in an unreasonable world. We’ll do it again and we’ll be luckier this time. The ability to think cause and effect won’t have been improved.

They would have been better to stick to property crimes. There are so many of them, that trying to report one to the Winnipeg police on the phone means waiting for an hour or so to get one’s turn. There are so many property crimes that the police force has resorted to having victims report on line. The police do their best but they’re like King Canute trying to drive back the ocean waves by beating them with a chain. Manitobans need to pay more taxes, need to hire more police, give them more equipment and while they do their best to hold back the tsunami of lower level criminality, pay yet more taxes to remedy the social ills that foster crime.

Of course, this is theft at its most basic level. Maybe I am being unfair. Maybe the perps are well read. Maybe they’ve read of all the theft at the top of the financial chain, millions and millions, if not billions, with no consequences, white collar crime, and thought they should get some of the loot before it all disappears.