Beginning to unravel Kiljan’s Mystery

THRESHING_3356

Chapter 7

“Ulga was here,” the receptionist said as I tried to slip past to Valdi’s room. “She says you are trying to take advantage of her father.”

“I am not,” I replied. “Valdi’s got all  his marbles.”

“I’ll have to check with the head nurse. Ulga’s his next of kin.”

“What’s there to check? You know me. You know Valdi.”

“Paper work,” she said. “Rules. No visit today.”

I tipped back my head. The ceiling needed painting. I’d driven from Winnipeg. The weather was crappy. It was cold, there was packed snow and ice on the highway. My friends were out of town so I’d have to stay with my parents which would mean my father would press  his hand to his chest and look strained and my mother would panic and say, “Oh, Bob. Have you chest pain?” And my father, the scammer, would hold his chest and make his way uncertainly to his living room chair while my mother hovered, her face pale. Half her friends were widows. Husbands were becoming a scarce commodity and, thus, more valuable. The widows line danced together. It was like being back in junior high except they were wrinkled.

I’d end up getting the shovel from the garage and shoveling out their driveway, their sidewalk to the front door, around the side, the back steps and staggering into the house, but before I could take my thermal boots off, she’d say, “Honey, can you just shovel off Mabel’s walk? Herbert died and she can’t shovel snow. Ostereoperosis.”

I’d plunge out into the screaming wind, the blowing snow, the shoulder  high drifts and shovel until I could barely lift my arms. Mabel would come to the door and opening it a crack would say in a high, squeaky voice, “Would  you like a cup of hot cocoa, dear?” What I needed was two ounces of rum straight. That’s what Herbert had drunk. Dark navy rum. He’d left behind six bottles but she’d never opened them.

“When’s the head nurse coming in next?” I asked the receptionist, hoping she wasn’t on holidays in the Bahamas.

“Tomorrow morning.”

I punched the numbers on the security pad and let myself out. I went to my car, drove half a block away, then walked back. Valdi’s room was near the end of the wing on the main floor. I waded through knee deep snow to his window. He never lowered his blind. He said it gave him claustrophobia. He was sitting in his wheelchair reading a book. I tapped on the window. He didn’t pay any attention. I tapped harder. He looked up, looked around. I tapped a third time. He wheeled over to the window. The window had a slider at the bottom, two of them. He pushed the first one open easily enough but the second one was frozen. He searched and found a pen and dug at the accumulated ice. It didn’t work. I used my bare finger to write U L G A in the frost on the window. He nodded his understanding, took the pen and started writing in a notebook. My legs were slowly freezing into place.  When he finished, he pointed toward the lobby. I struggled out of the snow, made my way back by stepping in the holes I’d made earlier. I went to the front door. Valdi was lurking inside. There were the inside glass doors, then a small lobby, then the outside glass doors. A woman in a wheel chair came toward Valdi to see what he was looking at. She was wearing an ankle bracelet that automatically locked the doors. He waved his fist at her. She scooted away. I punched the code into the outside pad, the doors opened. Valdi shot forward, handed me the piece of paper he’d been writing on, backed up, I turned around and bolted out the door while the receptionist was just looking up to see what had caused the draft.

I turned on the heater in the car and looked at the sheet of paper Valdi had thrust at me. On one side was a map. On the other side were two names. Dmytro and Natalie Romanyuk. “Ask them about Kiljan. Don’t lie. Tell the truth. No tape recorder.”

I turned the paper over, held it at different angles. I wondered if there was any secret code on it but since I’d watched him draw and write, I had to accept that what I got was all there was.

There is something lonely about pulling onto a Manitoba highway in winter. The clouds press down, keeping out the sun. The wind blows snow in waves across the blacktop. The cottage yards are drifted snow. There are feet of snow on the roofs. Windows are dark. You feel like there is no one else in the world. There are empty fields, white desert until, in the distance, there is a dark line of trees. It is no wonder that people made sacrifices to appease the gods, to bribe them to bring back the sun. They wouldn’t have had to kill people and eaten their hearts if they could just have flown to Arizona.

The silence must have driven the settlers mad. No wonder they walked for hours to get to a party or dance, stayed until dawn, rediscovering the sounds of voices and music. I turned on the radio, was comforted by the sound of an announcer reading the news. Nowadays, in the city, it was all noise, all the time. Cars, trucks, buses, airplanes overhead, construction, radios, TVs, Ipads, laptops, noise, black and threatening, replacing the silence but not leaving us any less lonely. Everyone ignoring everyone else in the food court as they texted someone else, somewhere else. But here, at this moment, there was just the car motor, the faint whine of the wind. I turned off the radio, began to pay attention to Valdi’s map and the landmarks he’d noted.

I found the turnoff, watched the mileage so I didn’t miss the next turn, turned again, passed a farm with a red barn and two grain storage sheds, found a driveway on my left with a red pickup and a blue car.

I didn’t have to knock. Dmytro opened the door. “Tom?” he said but it was more a statement than a question. “Valdi called.”

“He would like to have come,” I answered. “Ulga.”

“Children can be a problem,” he replied. He obviously knew Ulga.

Natalie came down the hallway. She took my parka and toque, my gloves. I pulled off my boots and set them on the rubber mat so snow wouldn’t melt onto the floor. “Here,” she said, “and handed me a whisk. Do your pants.”

The Romanyuks were older than my parents. Late sixties, probably early seventies. Dmytro was dark from being outside a lot. He was thin, looked like he might be made of leather. Natalie was short, plump, had her hair pulled back in a loose braid. I followed them into their kitchen. We sat at the table.

“Valdi asked us to talk to you,” Natalie said. “What do you want to talk about?”

“Halldor Kiljan Laxness,” I said. I couldn’t imagine what they could possibly have to do with Laxness. They were Ukrainian to the core. There were framed photos of kids in Ukrainian dance costumes on the wall over the table. I assumed they were their grandchildren. There was a wooden bowl filled with pysanka, Ukrainian Easter eggs. On the wall were two hearts woven from wheat stalks. I looked for a crèche or a cross but there weren’t any.

If the Romanyuks were still here, their family probably came to the area in the 1890s. The men in sheepskin coats spreading across Western Canada. The government and the railways wanted them to fill up the wilderness, turn it into farmland, ship grain on the railway, order goods from Eastern Canada, keep the Americans from flooding north of the fifty-fourth parallel, make the railway owners rich.

“Why?” Dmytro asked.

I remembered Valdi’s note. Tell the truth. “I teach high school. I want to be a published writer. If I get a book published about the Interlake, I may be able to get a job at Red River College.” I didn’t know what they’d think of that. No great goal, no setting the world on fire. I was embarrassed and looked at the table. The salt and pepper shakers were skunks with their tails up. “My mother has a pair of these,” I said.

Natalie got up. “Tea or coffee,” she asked. “You Icelanders like coffee.”

“No, tea is fine. It’s easier on my stomach.”

She put on the electric kettle, took some saran wrap off a plate and put the plate onto the table. There was poppy seed cake, snow cap cookies, and apple cake. Dmytro had gone outside. He came back in, stamping his feet.

“I plugged in your van,” he said. “You got stuck at Valdi’s.”

I admitted it. It was obvious that our adventure at Valdi’s farm was known throughout the district. Any news at the nursing home travelled far and wide. Very little happened so news was a precious commodity, eagerly spread to family and friends, who then passed it on.

Natalie sat down with us, pushed the desserts at me, filled my cup with tea. Dmytro and Natalie looked at each other. They were still trying to decide what to say.

“It was a long time ago,” Dmytro said. “Everybody is dead. Maybe we should just let them sleep.”

“I am not just writing about Laxness’s visit. I’m writing about the people of the Interlake. There are a lot of them in the ground. I go searching and I find graveyards, sometimes just one or two graves where a farmhouse used to be and I ask myself, what is their story? Why should they be forgotten as if they don’t matter?”

We sipped our tea. I ate a piece of poppy seed cake. Natalie pushed another piece at me. It was very good. I hadn’t had poppy seed cake for some time.

“She is a good cook,” Dmytro said. “She knows how to bake. You should taste her varenyky.” He put his hand over hers and squeezed it and she smiled with pleasure at the compliment.

“Rich people have books written about them all the time. Even if they are not very interesting, they can afford to have their story written to show how important they are. Ordinary people maybe do more, are braver, work harder, suffer more, take bigger risks but no one writes their story. So, rich people get remembered and ordinary people get forgotten.”

“It is not my story to tell,” Dmytro said. “It is Natalie’s. If she forgets something, I can help her.”

Natalie gave him an exasperated look and he smiled and I realized he was teasing her. “Maybe we should move to the living room,” Natalie said as if I wasn’t being treated formally enough.

“No,” I said. “Here it is easier to reach the cake.” They both laughed and relaxed more. The kitchen was the centre of the house, the place where everything happened. The living room had the big TV but the kitchen had a small TV and I guessed that the big TV didn’t get turned on very often, maybe for hockey or football or something special. Natalie would work in the kitchen, keeping one eye on the TV when her favorite shows were on.

“First, you should see this,” Natalie said. She got up and motioned for me to follow her. Dmytro came with us. She led me to the guest bedroom. We stood at the window. There was a small hut with plastered whitewashed walls. It had a shingle roof but I guessed that originally the roof would have been thatch. It would be over a  hundred years old. The snow was up past the windows. It might have been ten by twelve feet. Under the outside plaster there would be squared timbers. The inside would also be plastered and whitewashed. I’d seen many places like this but most of them were falling down.

“Sometimes, in the summer,” Natalie said, “we go out there and sit and talk about our parents and grandparents. About stories they told us. About things we have read.”

“This Kiljan you are interested in, he and Valdi’s father walked here, through the mud and slept on the floor. Their car took a horse and an ox to pull it out of the mud. They had been stuck once already. This time they were up to the axel.” She paused and studied the little house. “My great grandfather built this. They lived in it for the first years while they cleared the land. His brother and wife came and they lived with them until they could build their own place. Family takes care of family.”

We went back into the kitchen. “My people came from Bukovina. There we said with pride we were from Bukovina. Here, we were called Bohunks. Everyone thought they were superior to us. The English, the Icelanders, everyone.”

“Before there was that little cabin, there was a lean to. They slept under the lean to with a smudge in front to keep off the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes were in clouds. Do you know Kamarno?” Yes, I said, I knew Kamarno. I had been there. It was a few houses beside the railway line. At one time it had been important because it was there farmers could take cordwood to ship to Winnipeg. That was when there was a cordwood economy. Cordwood provided credit at the store. Then the railway was pushed through over the swamp to the Icelandic community of Gimli, the Icelandic settlement of fishermen. Kamarno gradually faded away. “There is hardly anything left there. There is a big mosquito sculpture. Komarno means mosquito. Here, they ate us alive but we didn’t make a monument to the mosquitoes.”

“We should be sitting in your grandparent’s house for this,” Dmytro said.

“Yes, but there are many stories, many questions, many answers. Maybe Thomas will come when the snow is gone and we will sit in the old house and remember the old people.”

“I would like that very much,” I said. For a moment, my heart had sunk into my socks for I thought they were going to say for me to come back in the summer. Now, my heart nearly leaped out of my chest because they were offering to share their story telling.

“Everything in Ukraine was farms. Everything was done by hand. For that you need lots of serfs. You could sell the land and the peasants were sold with it. At one time three million serfs were owned by around fourteen hundred landlords. Some nobles sold serfs without land. It was a system based on slavery. Serfs could be conscripted for the army. One of the punishments for serfs was to be put into the army. They were treated so brutally that some committed suicide to escape.”

“You have to understand this to understand what happened when your Kiljan came and was trapped in this little house for two days.” Natalie saw that my cup was empty and automatically filled it with tea.

“He and Vidar’s father had walked for more than five miles. It had been raining for days. The roads were clay. They slipped and slid. They fell. My grandmother, when she mentioned them, called them The Mud Men.”

“Laxness was a dandy. He always wore expensive clothes, even when he was broke,” I said. “He thought it was important to associate with wealthy people. They make the decisions.”

“He wore spats,” Dmytro said. “No one here had seen spats.”

“My grandmother sent them to wash in the pond. It was raining but not really cold. Besides, people who come from a place called Iceland shouldn’t worry about the cold.” When she said this Natalie looked at me out of the corner of her eyes to see how I reacted.

“It’s not so cold,” I protested. “It’s wet a lot of them time and lots of wind.”

“We know,” Dmyrto said. “We visited Iceland for three days when we were coming back from Lviv.  We swam in the Blue Lagoon.”

“Conditions in Ukraine were desperate,” Natalie continued. “The landowners could do anything they wanted. They were in charge of the police, they were the judges. Imagine if tomorrow you woke up and you had no rights and someone came and said, I own you. What would life be like?” As she said this, her voice stopped being soft and the words had anger in them even though she was talking about a long time in the past.

“The old people told this. They sold the little bit of land and animals they owned. Even though they were serfs they had two acres from which they had to feed themselves. They had a small house. The landlord was angry. He did not want his cheap labor leaving. His people were like his pigs and horses. They should stay to be eaten and ridden. He fined them even though they had done nothing wrong and he took part of their money. Making the landlord angry was a crime.”

“They took the train, then had to walk three days to Hamburg. They took a ship to Liverpool. We visited Hamburg and Liverpool. We wanted to see these places, walk where they walked. They took a freighter to Quebec City. They still had some money so they were able to take the train to Winnipeg.”

The phone rang startling the three of us. Dmytro jumped up and answered the call. He hung up. “Valdi has spoken to the head nurse. I expect he has been raising hell. He got things straightened out. He needs you to come back right away.”

 

 

 

Laxness nearly remembered

laxness3

Chapter 4

Valdi had sung with the area choir as long as his knees held out but when it became too painful to stand, he left the choir to join the audience. The choir master would have arranged a chair for him so that he only had to stand when he was singing but Valdi said no, there’s a time when you have to let an old bull go to pasture. At the nursing home, he was willing to join the motley crew that turned up on Saturday nights to entertain. He’d stand with one hand on the arm of his wheel chair. There was a thrill among the residents when one of their own stood up to perform.

His interests were unashamedly local. He might occasionally watch an NHL game but he took no great pleasure in it. Instead, he preferred to attend local hockey games where he knew the grandfathers and fathers of the players. He would much rather have talked about the local players, discussing their skating and stick handling, than some over paid person he knew nothing about. A player on the Midget hockey team was of more interest to him than the star forward of the Winnipeg Jets. He only followed the NHL closely during the years when Reggie Leach, the Riverton Rifle, was playing in the big leagues.

I visited Gimli in the winter but not as often as in the summer. The highways were often blurred with drifting snow, there was ice, cars frequently stuck in the roadside snowbanks, temperatures that with wind chill were minus forty.

He had my phone number and, from time to time, he’d phone me. “Are you coming to Gimli?” he’d demand.

“The roads are bad,” I’d say.

“You’ve got snow tires. What’s the use of paying to have snow tires if you don’t use them?”

“The RCMP have issued a weather warning.”

“It’s a good day for chess. Besides, that cute nurse that flirted with you last time is going to be on duty. You know, the one who plaits her hair.”

“She did not flirt with me.”

“She did. She did everything but pat your bum. She’s separated, she’s hot. A real man would invite her over to the hotel for a drink. It’s just across the street. There are lots of empty rooms. They don’t cost much. Don’t be cheap.”

I waited to hear why he was trying to tempt me to risk my life driving sixty miles when the RCMP were saying stay off the highways.

“The Wolves are playing tonight. I haven’t been out of this bloody prison for three weeks. You need to get out. There’s more to life than lesson plans and correcting papers.”

“The game will be canceled. The other team won’t come.”

“They’re here,” he replied. “They’re not wimps.”

“If they go into the ditch, they can pick up the car and carry it back onto the road.”

“I remembered some things about Laxness.”

“It can wait.”

“I’ll forget. My memory is getting very bad.”

Sometimes, I went in spite of the weather. I knew when he called like that he was pretty desperate. He and I would go to the hockey game and he’d watch from behind the glass and wire windows but I knew that something had happened, he’d got bad news from his doctor or his daughter had phoned.  Or both. Other times when he called, he’d want me to drive him out to the farm. His longing for the farm was like an ache that couldn’t be cured.

He’d sold off his animals but he refused to sell the farm. In spite of everything he held onto the buildings and the land. His daughter had tried to persuade him, even threatened to take over as Power of Attorney and sell it in spite of him but he’d fought back, enlisted his lawyer, insisted on taking a mental competency test. As he said, failing knees and failing kidneys didn’t mean a failing mind.  Although it made no sense, he still hoped for a miracle. His daughter went back to her library in a huff.

The house sat empty. He paid for the grass to be cut, allowed a neighbour to use the garden, rented out his fields. The barn and toolshed still housed his equipment.  At first when we’d go to the farm, he’d asked for my help getting onto the tractor, the combine, the grain truck but in the last few visits, he hadn’t attempted  climbing up. When we visited, I usually stayed near the door as he moved around the shed using a cane, talking to the machines as if they were animals, patted them,  ran his hand lovingly along them. When we visited his shop, he touched the welder, the lathe, the saw, stood beside them lost in thought. We never went in the house. That had been his wife’s domain.

I drove a ten year old Ford van. It worked out just fine.  He could get into the passenger seat. I could put his wheelchair in the back.

When I was in Gimli and stayed overnight, I usually stayed with friends who had a single bed in one corner of the basement.  Most of the time it was covered in boxes and clothes. I just moved them onto the floor and went to sleep. In spite of Valdi’s saying the hotel wasn’t expensive, it was, at least on my salary. It was meant for holidaying tourists with open wallets, not a high school teacher collecting early immigrant stories for what he hoped would become a book.

I didn’t go the day he called so he had to play checkers with a resident who wasn’t suffering from dementia. Shortly after he’d got to Betel, he’d said, “It’s no fun playing against someone whose brain has gone off the tracks.” Most of the residents had brains that had gone off the tracks and some of them had brains that were complete train wrecks. Their heads leaned to one side and their mouths  hung open. What was painful for him was that he’d known many of these people all his life.

I did go a week later. It was cold but there was no wind, the highways had been ploughed, the sky was a bright blue. It was 35 below but inside the van, with the heater ramped up, it was too warm for wearing mukluks and thermal  long underwear so I turned the heat down and drifted down the dark channel created by the ploughed drifts on either side of the highway.  The poplar forests behind the barbed wire fences that were buried in snow had snow piled so high that their tops might have been a forest of bushes. The shadows were shades of blue. It was deceptive, this artificial warmth inside the van where my feet sweated and I’d had to shrug off my parka. If the van stalled or slid off the road, I’d have to wrap mysel f in my down parka, pull on my deer hide gauntlets that came nearly to my elbows, pull the flaps of my sheep’s hide helmet down and tie them under my chin, and wrap a scarf around my face.  In this weather you could die within a quarter of a mile and if you were stupid enough to try to cross an area of unploughed snow, you’d become exhausted and die standing up, your legs frozen into the snow up to your crotch.

I thought we’d play checkers or chess or discuss the latest idiocies of the Canadian government or the Icelandic government. He had on his wall two metal  scales. I don’t know their original purpose but he used them to express his disgust with both governments. He called them his stupidity scales. He moved the marker up or down as news of government actions warrented. The markers slid up and down in a vertical slot and could be put into short horizontal slots marked from zero to twenty. He bemoaned that the scales didn’t go to a hundred, particularly during the years of the kreppa, the financial crash in Iceland. “There are stupider politicians than in Canada and Iceland,” I said. “I don’t care what they do in in North Korea or Malaya,” he snapped.

I tried to talk him out of going to the farm but it was hopeless. He hadn’t been there since November. It was now Christmas holidays. “You might as well take me to the farm,” he said. “You’re living off my tax money for doing nothing. You lollygag about your place, sleep in, watch TV, eat spaghetti out of tins and fart.”

I did nothing of the sort. I graded papers, made up lesson plans, did research at the archives and the Icelandic library at the University of Manitoba. I seldom watched TV and I hadn’t eaten spaghetti out of a tin since I was twelve. As for farting, I avoided garbanzo beans even though I liked eating them curried. Besides, one of the freedoms of living alone is that one can fart as often and loud as one wants and no one complains.

An attendant helped Valdi get dressed for winter, clucked her tongue at our going out,  blamed me for the idea. Valdi had told her that I wanted to take some pictures of the farm in winter. The attendant had taken it as gospel. The staff had all seen that I carried a camera around most of the time.

The town had nearly disappeared under the snow. Snow banks were as high as the eaves where the north wind got to sweep in unobstructed from the lake. The road west was clear, the road north was clear, but when we turned west again onto a country road, there were small drifts that ran from shoulder to shoulder. We could see where vehicles had come through. By the time we got to Valdi’s farm the snow had narrowed the road to one lane. The farmer who rented Valdi’s land also checked periodically on the house. However, he didn’t bother to plough the driveway. We could see snowmobile tracks that went to the side door and circled the house. He’d shoveled the snow away from the side door but the front steps were buried. The drifts spread away over the fields so it was like looking at a white ocean. What had been thick, unrelenting forest when Valdi had bought the land had been reduced to the occasional tree that stood black against the snow.

We sat there, looking at the house and the barn and work shed. There was a large three sided structure that had been used to store hay. The three metal silos reflected the sun. A jack rabbit appeared. White on white, we wouldn’t have seen it except for its movement. It must have been forty pounds. It paused to study us.

“I used to hunt those buggers,” Valdi said. “Hardly ever got one. Bush bunnies are easy. Whistle, they stop, you shoot them in the head.” Valdi reached out and hit the horn. It blared and the jack rabbit bounded away in a frantic zig zag path meant to throw off eagles or wolves.

A snow devil appeared on a drift beside us. It looked like a small tornado.  It appeared and disappeared. It was a first warning of wind starting up. If we got drifted in, as close as the house was, there was no way of getting Valdi from the truck to the house. I wondered if I could make my way there.

“We’d better be going,” I said. I put the van into gear and wished the farmer who rented the land had cleared part of the driveway so it would be easy to turn around.

“Go straight,” Valdi said, “turn at the next cross road. It’s just half a mile from here.”

I looked ahead and didn’t like the narrow trail that had been pushed open by vehicles traveling over the road. Unless I shoveled out a spot on the driveway to the house there was no place to turn around. I had a shovel in the back of the van but the drifts were over three feet high and the constant wind and cold had made the surface hard. I decided to back up. I figured with the wheels in the ruts, I’d follow them with no problem. I lowered the window and eased the van backward.

“Don’t you think you should go forward?” Valdi asked.

“The cross road may not be open, then we’ll be a mile in and if we get stuck, I’ll have a mile to walk to the highway. “ Two more snow devils whirled and disappeared.

I got back about a hundred feet when the van slipped sideways off the hard packed snow and the left back wheel  dropped. “Shit, shit, shit,” I said. It wasn’t a creative response but it was appropriate. I got out, took out my shovel and began to dig around the back wheel. I chipped away at the hard packed snow.  I got back into the van, tried to pull forward, the tires spun, I backed slightly, rocked the van a number of times, and when the tires caught, I was running the motor too fast and we shot across the road and both front wheels went into the snow bank.

“Better call the tow truck,” Valdi said.

I didn’t know the local number for a tow truck so I decided to call the nursing home. I’d explain our predicament and ask them to send a tow truck. I had a service plan. It cost 118.00 a year. I took out my cell phone, went to punch in the number and realized the battery was dead. I hadn’t used the phone for some time.

I looked back toward the highway. At this time of day, at this time of year, there might not be a vehicle going by for hours.

“There’s a toboggan in the work shed. You could pull me on that,” Valdi said. “Here’s the key. Don’t drop it. I’ve a key for the house and the house is heated, the electricity works and the phone is working.”

I looked at the gas gage and decided that we couldn’t spend the night in the van. It would be dark soon and nobody, if they actually noticed a vehicle on the side road, was going to come to see if everything was all right. A toboggan! Down the road, over the snowbanks. At least the side door had been shoveled free.

I wrapped myself in my parka, helmet, scarf, pulled on my deerskin gauntlets, pulled up my mukluks and tightened the drawstring at the top. The wind was becoming more persistent. I could see loose snow lifting over the fields. If it persisted, there could be a white out. People got lost and froze to death going from a house to a barn, never mind trying to find a house set back an eighth of a mile.

The road was treacherous. The surface was slippery and uneven.  I walked with my arms spread. When I got to the beginning of the driveway, I had to kick into the snow to make a step, then heave myself onto the surface of the drifts. The first few steps were easy. The snow was hard and held my weight. I didn’t lift my feet but skidded forward. That is, I skidded forward until I broke through and my left leg sank up to my knee.  I had to lie forward and pull so the force of getting the one leg free didn’t make the other one break through the surface. It went like that the whole way. Hard, hard, soft, hard, hard, hard, hard, soft.  Fortunately, the shed door opened inward.  I climbed over the drift that was piled up against it.

The toboggan was hanging on the wall. I stopped to rest, then took it down. I shut the door behind me and retraced my steps or, I should say, tried not to retrace them , avoiding soft spots.

When Valdi lay down on his back on the toboggan, his feet hung over the end, I gave him the shovel to hold. He grasped it to his chest. I pulled him along the road. The wind was steadier and even though only my eyes were uncovered, it was cold. I pulled Valdi to the beginning of the driveway. There was no way I could get him up onto the snowbank.

I took the shovel and cut a narrow inclined path for about nine feet. I then packed down the snow. At the top, I turned around, got on my knees and pulled the toboggan hand over hand as I backed up, all the time hoping my weight wouldn’t break through the glazed surface.

Valdi was now face down, holding onto the curved front of the toboggan. The surface of the snow was as difficult as the first time I crossed it. I didn’t dare go off the driveway because there was a ditch that fronted the property and if I sank into that I might never get out. In places, I crawled.

Darkness comes early in December in Manitoba and it obliterates everything unless there is a moon. Thank God a moon rose up, enough of a moon, so that light reflected off the snow. The world turned purple.

Valdi gave me the key to the house. I got the storm door open, then the inside door. I helped him sit up, then he put his arms around my shoulders and we did a kind of crazy, drunken dance up the steps, me hanging onto the railing, backing into the house, him struggling to get his feet up the steps and over the lintel. The door opened into the kitchen and I was able to walk him to a rocking chair beside the kitchen table.  He fell into it and I caught his knees so he didn’t go over backwards.

I was breathing too hard to say anything. I shut the two doors, then turned up the heat and thought, thank God, when I heard the furnace start. The house was too cold for us to take off our parkas so he rocked in his rocking chair and I paced back and forth thinking of everything that could go wrong, like the furnace running out of oil.

“Give me the phone,” he said. There was an old fashioned phone on the counter. It had a long cord. I gave it to him. He rang a number.  There was no answer.  He tried two more times. “They must be out,” he said. “Probably curling. They curl.”

“We can call the tow truck,” I said. I was annoyed. We were marooned in a vast ocean of snow and ice.

“No point,” he answered. “He can get the car out but he’s not going to get us out of here. You want to make that trip back to the road? Just wait. They’ll get home soon enough.”

He put down the phone and said, “There’s bowls in the cupboard, a can opener over there, lots of canned soup in that cupboard, there’s bread in the freezer and a toaster to toast it.” He was struggling with his parka. I helped him take it off. “Good thing I’m prepared for the worst. Be prepared, that’s what the Boy Scouts say.”

“You need to get back to the nursing home to take your medication,” I said. He might think it was a great adventure but I didn’t.

He fished in his parka pocket and pulled out three pill bottles. “I never go anywhere without these.”

I heated up tomato soup in the microwave, made a pile of toast, made coffee and discovered some whitener and sugar for the coffee.

“Isn’t this great?” he said. It was obvious that he saw it as a great adventure. After being confined to his poky room in the nursing home, I expect it was. However, I wasn’t in a mood to be generous. I had planned on spending the night at my friend’s place. They were going to have a few people over, eat BBQ ribs, drink a few beer, have a few laughs. It had been a heavy term and I needed a few laughs.

“I loved it in weather like this. Nothing to do in the winter except read and relax. Take a look at the living room. There’s a fireplace. There might even be some wood. Catherine and I used to have a fire on days like this. It’s a great feeling. Get a fire going and we can sit in there. No TV but lots to read.”

He put his arm over my shoulders and we struggled to the living room. He sat in his leather armchair like he was king of the world. There was, as he’d said, kindling and birch slabs. I found some paper and matches and started a fire. Three walls of the room had bookshelves from the floor to the ceiling. Shelves were taken up with books about Iceland, many of them in Icelandic, quite a few in English. There were books of poetry in Icelandic. I flipped one open. It had been printed in Winnipeg in 1898. I took out another one. It had been printed in Gimli in 1901. I ran a finger over the spines. He had an early Madame Pfeiffer, A Journey to Iceland and Travels in Sweden and Norway  and a reprint of Olafsson and Palsson’s 1752-1757 Travels in Iceland.  I worked my way along one shelf and then started on another.

“What are you going to do with these?” I asked. I’d taken down a copy of the Almanak from 1875. Someone had bound it with tape to the Almanak for 1876.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Hard to say. Maybe the person who buys the house will want them.”

“They should go to the Icelandic library at the university.”

“Now you sound like my daughter. That’s all she can think of. Books should be in libraries. They sit there gathering dust and after they’re copied digitally, they’re tossed out.”

“Why don’t you call Joe again?”

“Yes,” he sighed. “Bring me the phone.”

He called and this time Joe answered. “Joe,” he said, “Valdi here. I’m at the farm. We slipped off the road. Yeah, we got in fine. Could you come and get us? After you’re finished with the cows? That’s fine. We’ve got all we need here.”

We played cribbage until we heard the sound of a skidoo, two skidoos, actually. Joe and his wife, Alice, each had a skidoo. They raced over the snow and stopped at the kitchen door. They came in, took off their helmets, shook hands, and Valdi insisted on their having coffee.

“It’s like old times,” he said and I imagined that they’d had dozens or hundreds of evenings around the kitchen table.

We got dressed for the outdoors. I got on behind Alice and Valdi got behind Joe and off went, racing through the night, up and down drifts, around trees and stopped at their back door. We had to go inside, take off our winter gear, have more coffee, then Joe said, “We’d better be getting you back. We got into his Ford Ram with the big tires, he took us down a mile, across a mile, out onto the highway, then pulled the van onto the road and waited to be sure I got the motor started, then that I got the van onto the highway. He helped me get Valdi into the van and flashed his lights and beeped his horn when we drove away.

“We could have stayed the night,” Valdi said. “There’s three bedrooms. It was built for a family.”

The wind was blowing steadily now, the highway was blurred by drifting snow, fingers of snow were starting to reach across the pavement.

“You were going to tell me something about Laxness,” I said.

“I forgot,” he replied, “in all the excitement caused by your not being able to stay on the road.” I glared at him. He had a way of shifting blame that was very annoying. “I figured we’d just stop for a look at the farm in the snow, then go further down the highway to a place I know. It’s got a Laxness connection.”

“Tell me about it,” I said.

“No point, unless you can see it. What do you think of the house?”

“House?” I said, I was torn between being annoyed at having tomato soup and toast instead of BBQ ribs and not hearing something new about Laxness. Besides, if his librarian daughter heard about this adventure, I’d be hearing from her. She reminded me of some teachers I’d had in public school. I did not remember them fondly.

 

 

 

Christmas in Reykjavik with Ebenezer, 1814

ebenezer
In 1814-15 Ebenezer Henderson became the first Englishman (Scotsman) to spend the winter in Iceland. He was there to sell and give away Icelandic bibles. He was devout, well educated, a brilliant linguist, and utterly determined to spread the word of God. He was a keen observer and during his year in Iceland, he made enough observations to fill a two volume book based on his visit.

He has a chapter (Ch. IX) that describes winter in Iceland. I thought, when I first read Iceland or the Journal of a Residence in that Island, during the years 1814 and 1815, that it would describe various Christmas customs practiced by the local people of Reykjavik since he spent the winter there.

He does describe the weather. He says that “On the 6th of December, with clear weather and a light breeze from the east-north-east, it sunk to 8 degrees 30”, after which especially toward the end of the year, the weather became remarkably mild and continued in this state till near the middle of January”.

He adds that there was a lot of snow, so much so that there was great distress among the peasants because they ran out of hay.

He says that the Northern Lights were exceptional.

In Iceland Review there have been some reports in recent days about the danger of traveling in Iceland. Here is what Henderson has to say about winter travel in 1814-15. “The distance between the houses; the dreadful chasms and rents in the lava hidden by snow; the rivers either choked full of ice, or but slightly frozen…all combine to present obstacles, which few have the courage, or physical strength to surmount”.

In winter, “The men are occupied in fabricating necessary implements of iron, copper and wood, &c.; and some of them are wonderfully expert, as silversmiths…They also prepare hides for shoes; make rope of hair or wool; and full the woolen stuff.”

The women, “Besides preparing the food…employ their time in spinning, which is most commonly done with a spindle, and distaff; knitting stockings, mittens, shirts, &c. as also in embroided bed-covers, saddle clothes, and cushions.”

“Reykiavik,” he says, “is unquestionably the worst place in which to spend the winter in Iceland. The tone of society is the lowest that can well be imagined. Being the resort of a number of foreigners, few of whom have had any education, and who frequent the island solely for the purposes of gain, it not only presents a lamentable blank to the view of the religious observer, but is totally devoid of ever source of intellectual gratification. The foreign residents generally idle away the short-lived day with the tobacco pipe in their mouth, and spend the evening playing at cards, and drinking punch. They have two or three balls in the course of the winter, and a play is sometimes acted by the principle inhabitants.”

And there you have it. Not a single word about Christmas. Not a word about any marking of the birth of Christ in church or out. No mention of local customs. No Yule lads, not even to disparage pagan ways. No Christmas cat. No ogres or giants. No potatoes in shoes. No new piece of clothing. No Christmas songs inside or outside the church.

Did he just not think they were worth writing about. He describes in detail the fishing, the farming, many aspects of daily life. He tells us about the reaction of both wealthy and poor to receiving a new Bible. But not a word of any celebration of Christmas. It may just be the because of the church to which he belonged but he goes to such great effort to record everything around him that it seems a shame, if there were Christmas celebrations among the Icelanders (I wonder who those other foreigners in Reykjavik were who were such a bad lot) that he didn’t record them for us.

Olive Murray’s Love of Iceland 1929

olivechapman_acrosslapplandwithsledgeandreindeer
I was unable to find another good picture of Olive so I took the picture from her book about her winter journey across Lapland by sledge and reindeer. However, this post is about her final days in Iceland.

It’s always difficult when you make a good friend and then she or he has to move away. That’s the way I feel about Olive Murray Chapman.

I’ve taken my time reading her travel book, Across Iceland. I have found her account of traveling in Iceland in 1929 fascinating. It is probably more fascinating for me than for my sometimes readers because I’ve read and written about many travelers who came to Iceland in the 1800s. The earlier accounts are all about horses, the lack of roads, the isolation, the wickedly bad weather, the accommodation in churches, farmhouses and tents.

By 1929 great changes have taken place. There are now the beginning of roads and, in a country where there have been no wheeled vehicles because there were no roads, there are not just vehicles but motor vehicles.

Olive mentions, time and again, specially made Buicks that can stand the battering of these primitive roads, full of rocks, mud holes, roads that degenerate into stream beds and barely discernible tracks over mountain passes. More startling to a reader of 19th C travel books on Iceland is the mention of a telephone.

“At eight o’clock we all sat down to coffee and cakes, after which I tried to get some sleep on my sofa, but this was out of the question, for the farm at Stapi, like so many of these primitive and isolated little homesteads, is the proud possessor of a telephone.”

“I started off in the public motor from Reykjavik on June 18th. It was pouring with rain and the car was tightly packed with country folk bound for different farms along the route. Their baggage was tied onto every available part of the car; two great sacks rested on the mudguards and a packing-case was strapped on the radiator. I had a front seat beside the driver.”

“We now followed the dried bed of a river, splashed through several streams and finally stuck once more in the middle of a particularly wide one, with the water well over the axle…the driver and another man tried in vain to restart the car.”

“At last a farmer came to the rescue of the driver. Together they dug away the mud from under the wheels, and finally got the car out of the river.”

These two changes mark the end of Iceland as it has been. All travelers in the past have explained about the tremendous isolation of the Icelandic farms, of the impossibility of travel for much of the year, of the hardship and danger crossing rivers. Olive mentions that a bridge is being built. This is a major change.

There are other changes occurring. With steamships, regular tourists can afford to come to Iceland. It is only three or four days from Leith. There can be schedules. People can make plans. No one needs to be a Lord or millionaire businessmen who can rent a yacht.

In spite of there being more visitors, Olive is still a novelty, so much so that people are fascinated by her.

“About 8:30 we reached Halldórstadir farm, perched high up on the hill above the river. I was welcomed by a charming Scotch woman, who had married an Icelander thirty-five years ago and had lived here ever since. She was quite excited at my arrival and told me that, with the exception of an English sportsman who had stayed the night four years ago, I was the first British traveller she had seen or spoken to for ten long years!

“She made me very comfortable, giving me a dear little bedroom, and a delicious supper of Scotch porridge, eggs, scones and home-made jam, to which I did full justice.”

She offers to pay the owners of the homes where she stays but many refuse any payment. Tourists are still guests, not paying clients. Hospitality comes before profit.

“Is it not possible for me to have a room to myself?” I asked him anxiously.

“No,” he replied, “they are very poor people. They have only one room,” adding cheerfully as an afterthought, “but you can have the sofa to yourself”.

The next morning the húsmódir brings Olive hot coffee and cold pancakes and a jug of hot water. At 9:30 breakfast was provided. It consisted of a wild bird cut up and mixed with a thick lukewarm paste plus lots of hot milk.

When they were ready to leave, Olive tries to pay for their room and board with five Kronur. Such a sum would have been significant to people who were so poor but they refuse the money.

There are, though, other major changes taking place. Earlier travellers have recorded that there are no hotels, no inns, that accommodation is in churches, farm houses or in their own tents. Now, Olive reports that there are hotels being built, that there are hotels already built, some farmers have enough travelers passing by that they have set prices and have built accommodation.

At Thingvellir she hears the ring of a hammer, imagines that is from fairies or trolls but discovers that on the bank of the river “some workmen were busy erecting a little wooden hotel.” At Stykkishölmur there is a little hotel where she stays. She and two Icelandic businessmen guests have their meals with Jón Gudmundsson, the proprietor.

However, when she leaves Stykkishölmur by horse, she once again enters the Iceland that is still untouched by roads and telephones. At the foot of the Haulkadalur pass, they asked if they could stay for the night at a tiny cottage. “A dear old couple welcomed me warmly. They had no food ready at hand, but their son took his rod to the lake and presently returned with some fine salmon-trout.”

Having reached Akuryeri with some days to spare before her boat will leave for Leith, she explores the surrounding countryside.

On her return from Námaskard to the parsonage of Skútustadir, she says the “ride was a dream of loveliness, in striking contrast to the bare desert of sand and lava through which we had so lately come.”

And there we will say goodbye to Olive. It is with some regret. I wish the book were longer, that she’d returned to Iceland and written another book about it but she was off to far places so she could write about her adventures in other countries.

Nineteen twenty-nine is a long time ago. I was born ten years after her visit to Iceland. Although I lived in Gimli, the centre of New Iceland, I never came across her book. I wish it had been there. I wish I could have read it when I was ten or twelve. It would have created in me a burning desire to visit Iceland. Sadly, although I was a great reader, I never came across travel books about Iceland when I was young. If the high school library had been filled with the works of Burton and Henderson, Waller and Taylor, Pfeiffer and Kneeland, and
others, many hearts would have been stirred and many thoughts would have been turned toward the country from which our ancestors came.

The Good Guest, Olive, 1929

olivehorse
Olive Murray was welcomed everywhere she went in Iceland. That is partly because of the generosity and kindness of the Icelanders but it was also because she was a good guest.

When she stays at the parsonage at Setberg with Séra Jósef Jónsson and his wife, Hólmfridur Halldórsdóttir, she doesn’t just observe but participates.

She says, “before going to bed, I strolled out to watch the pastor and his children, who with some of the farm hands were busy sorting great piles of sheep’s wool, which had been spread out to dry in the sun. This work was going on together with haymaking in all the valleys where there were farms. The wool is washed, dried and afterwards collected in piles, packed in big sacks and sent off to be sold to merchants who, in their turn, ship it to England, Spain and America, mainly to America. On my return from Iceland in August in a freight steamer round the north and west coasts, we put in at eight little ports for the purpose of collecting this wool, and arrived at Leith with 3600 loaded sacks on board!”

“I stayed out till nearly 10 p.m. at Setberg, enjoying the warm evening sunshine, helping to sort the soft, clean wool and taking some photographs and sketches.”

Later, at Miklibær she spends most of the afternoon helping with the hay. “Haymaking time is very important in Iceland, for the number of ponies and sheep which a farmer is able to keep during the winter depends largely upon his stock of hay which he uses for their fodder.”

Her willingness to help pays off for this kindness is repaid in kind. She does not want to continue her trip in a car for the previous experience of the roads was not good. However, she has not been able to find available horses at haymaking time, nor a guide.

“The pastor’s wife and her brother-in-law had ridden off to a farm some miles away to take coffee with some friends. On their return we all had supper together and then, while the sun s hone upon a golden evening, bathing the lovely valley in glory, I energetically did some more haymaking. To my joy, a farmer, who was helping with the others, offered to supply three ponies for the rest of my journey, which he said would take a couple of days. A young man whose name I think was Magnússon, a native of Akureyri, and who had been at the farm at Miklibær on a visit, offered to be my guide.‘

“My spirits rose in leaps and bounds, for it looked as if I should be able to ride into Akureyri after all, and if my luck held I ought to reach it on July 17th, a day sooner than the date on which I had roughly calculated”

“We sat in a circle among the sweet smelling hay while the price of the ponies and the wages of the guide were discussed. Magnússon wished to know if I would be afraid of fording a rather difficult and swift river, to which question the pastor´s brother replied:
“Oh, no, she is not afraid: The farmer from Bólatadahlid told me that she rides the ponies not at all like a foreigner, she rides like an Icelander!”

The next day when they reach the river, they “then plunged into the swirling water. My pony was splendid: stones were whirling past his sturdy little legs, but he bravely battled on and I found the best plan was to keep my eyes fixed steadily in front on the tails of the others and not to look down at the foaming torrent of icy water which was splashing over my legs. Had I slipped in, I should probably have been swept away by the current into the deep part of the river where rescue would not have been easy. However, we all got safely across and another little adventure was over.”

They travel all day and don’t arrive at a farmhouse until nine o’clock. “Haymaking was still in busy progress, but the farmer left it and came to greet us, asking what we wanted. To our anxious inquiries as to whether we could stay the night, he replied:

“Já!”

“Have you eggs?”

“Nay.”

“Fresh fish?”

“Nay.”

“Porridge and milk””

“Já Já!”

“I was so faint and tired, Magnússon had to lift me from my pony.”

The farmer’s wife feeds them the porridge and milk. Olive finally sleeps. At eight o’clock the next morning, the farmer’s wife brings “coffee and thick bread and butter…and at 10:30 she had ready a substantial meal of sandwiches, salted fish and a delicious Icelandic pudding, a sort of custard eaten with sugar, cream and nutmeg.”

After breakfast, they are on their way and eventually, Olive sees a sign “20 kils. to Akureyri.”, her destination.

Shortly, she “rode up to the little Godafoss hotel and was shown to the luxury of a real bedroom once more, with a comfortable bed, a hanging cupboard and—joy of joys!—I learned there was a bathroom!”

She has made a difficult journey, one that few foreigners had ever attempted and which even Icelanders seldom made. Instead, travelers usually traveled by boat. She’d made her way from farm to farm, her phrase book and her growing notes about how to say words and phrases in Icelandic allowing her to communicate enough to get by. From time to time she has been fortunate to meet Icelanders who speak English.

She is always greeted with courtesy. People cannot always do as she wishes, there is hay to make, wool to sort, animals to take care of but if they can’t help, they find someone who can.

Relationships are never one sided. If Olive had been arrogant, difficult, demanding, critical, all those things that make travelers ugly and unwelcome, she would not have found Icelanders so helpful. She may have had kronur in her purse but, as she says time and again, her offer to pay for her lodging and meals, is turned down. Icelanders, in 1929, are often poor but they are proud. She took nothing of that pride away from anyone. Respect gathers respect. It is obvious that her willingness to put up with hardship, to make the best of things, to not be afraid, to participate, earned her the respect that was evident when the pastor’s son says she doesn’t ride like a foreigner, she rides like an Icelander.

Olive understands and appreciates that she has just had a great compliment.

Búdir, the most beautiful place in Iceland: 1929

“I had intended to leave Stapi for Búdir where there was, I learned , a good farm, not later than 4 or 5 p.m.; but, although a message arrived from Búdir to say that horses and a guide would call for me by the hour, it was nearly 9 p.m. before they finally turned up.”

”It was nearly ten o’clock by the time we got started, for the guide Jónsson, a handsome youth with curly red hair and bright blue eyes, had to have a meal and the ponies a rest before we could get away.”

“At midnight…stopping after a while to rest them (the horses) at a tiny farm out of which ran a couple of men. After looking at me with great interest and curiosity, and inquiring of Jónsson who I was, one of them disappeared, returning in a few minutes with a welcome glass of fresh milk which he offered me, refusing to take any payment. When at last we rode away, the men stood outside their door watching us and waving their hands, till we were out of sight.“

“About one o’clock my guide pointed out the Búdir promontory far ahead along the coastline, and soon after we passed one or two solitary riders, farmers I imagine. They stopped in each case to shake hands with us both, and to exchange snuff with Jónsson from out of the quaint bone horns which they all carried.“

“In the more remote parts of Iceland one seldom sees a man smoking; tobacco is too expensive, and the people—both men and women alike—take snuff instead, throwing their heads back and sniffing large quantities up their nostrils.

“I gathered that the riders all inquired of Jónsson, with great curiosity and a certain amount of chaff, who I was! In other words no doubt using the Icelandic equivalent for: ”Who is your lady friend?” His answer seemed to satisfy and surprise them and, after warmly shaking hands again, they would ride on, crying out: “Verid thér saelar!” “Be ye happy!” the customary greeting invariably exchanged between passing travellers. When a stranger accosts another in Iceland, it is considered polite to fire out a battery of questions: “What is your name?” “Whither are you bound?” “Whose son are you?”

“It was nearly 2 a.m. when, very weary and sleepy, I reached Búdir farm. It was a two-storied wooden house, and I was shown upstairs to a bare boarded room with the welcome sight of a real bed in one corner. A good sized table in the centre of the room, a locked cupboard and one or two chairs completed the furniture. A smiling, good-natured woman bustled about putting clean sheets over the usual eiderdown bedding, and then hurried off to prepare eggs and bread and butter as if it was the most usual thing in the world for a stranger to turn up at two in the morning!’

“I spent the afternoon sketching and exploring the beauties of Búdir and its estuary. It was certainly the most beautiful place I had yet seen in Iceland. The outline of mountains round the coast was magnificent, while behind, away to the west, rose up the mighty snow-capped peaks of Snæfells-Jökull. Among the sheltered hollows in the dunes were grassy patches where I counted a variety of wild flowers, among them quantities of forget-me-nots and wild pansies of a lovely violet shade, patches of golden saxifrage and the delicate sea pink. Búdir is, indeed, famous for its flowers, of which there are said to be 150 different kinds, more than in any part of Iceland.”

Olive stays at Búdir for three days. She sketches but with difficulty because the weather has turned bitterly cold with a wind from the north and frequent cloud bursts.

So, imagine 1929, an English woman, an artist, rural Iceland, still so few tourists that when one turns up, especially a woman, she is a great curiosity. We´re inclined to think of women in earlier times as delicate but nothing could be further from the truth. They rode horses, they managed house holds without any conveniences, no automatic washing machines, dishwashers, electric stoves. They had children with the help of a mid-wife, if they were fortunate. If not, they managed on their own. If they were well to do, they had servants and had to hire, manage, fire them.

There is nothing shy about Olive. She exudes self-confidence. She goes to Iceland with nothing but a phrase book and the absolute certainty that she can handle whatever turns up. She finds accommodation; she hires guides, rents horses, eats whatever is put in front of her, rides through the night over trackless wilderness.

She has read about Iceland and Icelanders and what she has read has given her complete confidence in the honesty and decency of the Icelandic people. She travels from place to place with Icelandic guides and trusts them completely. Her trust is well placed. She is treated with courtesy and kindness. Her book, beneath the surface events, is a testimony to the Icelandic people. It shows them as generous and considerate, as honest and trustworthy.

Who could read Olive’s account of her Iceland travels and not think well of Iceland and Icelanders?

On to Gullfoss

gullfoss

Olive stays for a few days at Kárastadir. She sees no other visitors and wonders if maybe hardly any visitors come. However, she is told that she is early in the season and, soon, the Germans, Danes and Americans would start arriving. They´d do the usual round of Geyser, Gullfoss and Thingvella, then go home. Hearing that, she decides that she should visit Gullfoss and Geyser before the tourist hoards arrive.

The distance is 70 miles. She´ll have to make the trip by horse. Her guide, to her dismay at first, is the farmer´s thirteen year old son. It´s been arranged for them to stop overnight at a farm thirty miles away.

The day starts out fine but soon turns to drenching rain. (Sound familiar?) It’s obvious Olive isn’t all that impressed by Geyser. She’s more concerned that it is five o’clock and she hasn’t had anything to eat since breakfast at 8:30. She and Sigurdur stop at a farm and the farmer’s young wife provides them with “delicious home-made biscuits and little cakes”.

Off they go in a blinding rain. Sigurdur loses his way but they come across a local man and he points the way. Eventually, they reach the farm where they are to spend the night. “The farmer’s wife spoke a few words of English; she had big blue eyes and wonderful long plaits of corn-coloured hair.”

“My hostess helped me off with my dripping oil-skins and led me to my room. It was outside in a wooden outhouse. The farmer’s wife brought me four boiled eggs, quantities of black rye bread and butter and hot milk, after which I felt better and slept soundly in spite of the howling tempest outside and the torrents of rain beating against the window and on the corrugated iron roof of the shed.”

“The ride to Gullfoss and back would be about fifteen miles, but having come so far I could not turn back now, so I put on my oilskins over my riding clothes, donned my sou’wester and, after a good meal of coffee, stewed lamb, gravy and potatoes—green vegetables and fruit are unobtainable in Iceland—I felt ready for anything.”

They reach Gullfoss. Both she and Sigurdur are overawed by the falls. They stay at a different farm house on the way back. Olive has a bit of an adventure because the farmer’s wife goes with them. She is herding six horses. Olive gets to ride one and they all race together over some moorland. The farm wife’s destination is a spot where some labourers are working. Olive has lunch with them, tries out some Icelandic words and one of the labourers tries some English.

They reach Kárastadir around 7. P.m. A few days later she leaves Kárastadir with fond memories. She gets a ride on a freight lorry for the sum of 3 Krónur. “I had a seat by the driver in his little enclosed wooden box, and my luggage went on behind with several sacks, some scrap iron and three men; the latter were very jovial, they sang songs and handed round peppermints to all, including myself. There was also an attractive little puppy which I nursed on my lap.“

The kindness of Icelandic hosts is mentioned time and again in travel accounts that span more than a hundred years. That kindness is well captured b Olive‘s last words about her stay at Kárastadir.

“The farmer’s wife and some of her children came to the road to see me off. She gave me her photograph and some rosebuds off a little plant she had been trying to grow indoors; and, with a sweet smile, begged me by realistic signs to write to her from England. I was quite sad to say good-bye to her, for the whole family had been so kind and hospitable. They could not do enough for me, and nothing was too much trouble.”

Kárastadir: 1929

http://www.reykjavik.com/reykjavik-roaring-20s/

“On June 26th, 1930, Iceland will celebrate the one thousandth anniversary of the birth of her Parliament at Thingvellir. Thousands will flock to the plan for the celebrations, and among the visitors will be many Icelandic settlers from Canada.”

“At the foot of the mountains overlooking the lake, and about half an hour’s walk from Thingvellir, is a farmhouse where it is possible to stay very comfortably, and I determined to spend about ten days here for sketching and exploring the beauties of the place.”

And determined, Olive certainly is. Remember, she is traveling alone, a woman in 1929, knows no Icelandic and has just a book of Icelandic phrases to use to tell people who she is and what she needs. She gets to the farm, not by horse, for things have changed, but in a truck.

“The distance from Reykjavik is only about thirty miles, and as there is now quite a good road it is possible to motor. I got a seat in a timber lorry that was going in that direction. My suitcases and hold-all were wedged in between various packing-cases, and I sat in front between the driver and an elderly countrywoman who was travelling in my direction. We first had to collect goods in various parts of the town; this took some time and it was nearly 7 p.m. before we got away.

“For some distance we climbed the rough desolate, lava-strewn country bare of all vegetation, with a background of mountains streaked with snow. At one point we came upon a stout and cheerful peasant woman seated on a rock by the wayside smoking a cigarette, and with a bundle beside her. She was waiting for the chance of being picked up by a passing car and given a lift; for these lorries, of which there are quite a number in the vicinity of Reykjavik and in other places where there happen to be possible roads, are eagerly sought after by the country folk, who frequently make use of them as we should use a motor-bus.”
“Somehow or other the driver managed to squeeze the stout new-comer between himself and me. We were now four on the front seat, and how he managed to find space to drive with the newcomer’s arm around his waist—for there was no other room for it—I can’t imagine! In addition, several youths had perched themselves on the packing-case behind. We continued on our bumpy way, for the road, although superior to many Icelandic roads, was plentifully supplied with big pot holes. Finally, some miles farther on, the stout lady and the youths left us, evidently for some farm near. They shook hands several times with everyone all round, and I was careful to remove my glove first in the approved fashion, for an Icelander always does this. I had already come to the conclusion that a good motto for those visiting Iceland is: “When in doubt shake hands.” It is always necessary, for instance, to shake hands with your hostess after a meal, during which she often waits upon you herself.”

“About 9 p.m. we came in sight of Kárastadir, the farm where I was to stay. It was away over moorland some distance from the road and built under the shelter of high hills that towered up behind and were streaked with newly fallen snow.

“The lorry driver dumped my luggage by the roadside and, after vigorously sounding his horn to attract the attention fo the farmer, he shook me warmly by the hand and continued on his way. I could see some figures running about by the farmhouse and, after waving to them, I left my suit-cases where they were and started to walk across the fields over the rough cart track that led to the farm. Soon I saw a man and two children hastening to meet me. To my relief, the farmer, for it was he, spoke a word or two of English and, after giving me a courteous welcome,he went off to fetch my belongings while I made myself acquainted with the rest of the household. There was the farmer´s wife, a tall, fine-looking woman, very shy and silent; an old granny; and another woman, who helped with the cooking. There were also at least eight children, the youngest about eighteen months. After they had all, one by one, shaken hands with me, I was shown to a tiny bedroom with a clean boarded floor, a table with a basin and jug, and the bed with its usual mountainous eiderdown covering.”

And, so, there you have it, Olive is off on another adventure.

She has heard about how beautiful Thingveller is, wants to see it, sketch it, visit the famous booths described in the sagas. She hasn’t had to ride a horse from Reykjavik to Thingvella. Instead, she’s got a ride in a lorry. The local people haven’t had to ride horses over moorland but are able to get rides on passing vehicles. There is a road and, although it is generously supplied with potholes, it is still a road. The isolation has begun to be conquered. Farm workers aren’t trapped for years on end on a farm. They can get to the big city (although Reykjavik isn’t very big, yet) and be in touch with city life. The stranglehold of isolation and poverty and the power of the large landowning farmers is gradually giving way. Reykjavik may not be Paris but it provides a look at a world where there are jobs, where you might have an option to be something other than an indentured servant.

There is the chance, both for the farm family who provides Olive with lodging and meals, and for the guides she will hire, a chance to make some silver, currency instead of butter or wool.

Silver means that money can be saved, foreign goods bought, passage bought, the luxuries that were available only to the wealthy purchased. Get a copy of Björn G. Björnsson´s book, “Large Turf Houses” (www.salka.is), and look at the interior pictures of Bustarafell or Glaumbær. The interior shots at Laufás make clear the kind of things my ancestors didn´t have. The living room picture with the table and plush chairs, the ornate lamp, even the use of so much wood on floors and walls. (If you are not going to Iceland, then check with Tergesen‘s bookstore in Gimli, Manitoba to see if they carry Björnsson´s new books.)

If Ketill and his father, Valgardur Jonsson, had this kind of house, they´d have stayed in Iceland instead of emigrating to Canada in 1878. However, 51 years have passed. Jonsson has been long dead. Ketill is 69. By 1929, much has changed in Iceland. One of those changes is the opportunity to get jobs off the farms, to escape from some of the draconian laws that controlled anyone who didn´t own a farm. However, all those who owned farms weren´t rich, money was hard to come by and tourism, although more possible because of steam ships, roads and motor vehicles, is still a trickle and the farmer where Olive stays will have been glad to add her silver coins to his purse.

Icelandic population, 1861-1870

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Our lang lang and lang lang lang ammas and afis lived through these times. 1871 and 1872 were yet to come. Take a look at the relationship between births and deaths. In 1862 in Iceland there are more deaths than births and the population falls slightly. 1864 and 1865 must have been good years because there is a major increase in the population.However,in 1866 the population falls again but it is still well above 1861. More people are surviving. In 1867 there is a large increase, nearly a thousand more births than deaths. And by 1870 the population has climbed to 70,084.

Year Births Deaths Computed pop Percentage
1861 2525 2391 66,973 +0.20
1862 2693 2874 66,797 +0.27
1863 2648 2115 67,325 +0.80
1864 2760 2001 68,084 +1.13
1865 2757 2100 68,741 +0.96
1866 2662 3122 68,281 +0.67
1867 2743 1770 69,254 +1.42
1868 2449 1970 69,733 +O.69
1869 2177 2404 69,506 +O.33
1870 2276 1698 70,084 +0.83

There was the belief–I’ve run across it in a number of places– that Iceland could not sustain more than 60,000 people. If the population rose over that number, then starvation or disease would cut the number back.

When Icelanders were locked into a medieval system of land owner and serf or indentured servant with a severely limited supply of land and that land useful for nothing but grazing, the relationship between population and productivity was pretty predictable. You can only graze so many sheep or cows per acre.

There were no grain crops because there were not enough frost free nights for grain to ripen. The highly variable factor was the weather. Get three or four good years in a row and marginal land could be farmed. That led to families being established and families meant children being born. The population increased. But bad weather was inevitable and when that happened, snow and frozen ground in summer, harbours filled with ice, bitter cold winds, and the hay crop failed, sheep and cows died. People farming on the margins soon followed. In really bad years, it wasn’t just people on the margins.

However, even though it took a long time to break the hold of the land owning farmers over the right to fish, fishing was gradually increasing. Farmers wanted to keep the system going because it provided lots of cheap labour. Indentured servants don’t get much, if any, say in their pay or working conditions. The problem was that what existed was a system with predictable and limited means of production. Only fishing could increase wealth so that a temporary increase in population could be sustained.

From our historic hindsight we know what is coming after 1870. There will be volcanic eruptions and with them the destruction of grazing land, the destruction of livestock and the relationship of people to land, hay, and cattle, will be thrown out of whack.

Iceland wasn’t like Canada. There were no great frontier areas to farm. The pressure on what could be produced was huge. It was compounded by the fact that from 1861 to 1870 the population had gone from 66,973 to 70,084.

The people who left for Amerika because there was land, lots of it, vast amounts of it, did what was necessary for their own survival given these two factors: the increase in the size of the population and the destruction of grazing land. They also did everyone who stayed in Iceland a tremendous favour because their leaving brought the relationship of land to population back into balance.

Iceland missed the Industrial Revolution. The new technology wasn’t going to save it. When the emigrants left, there were still no roads. A Medieval system of land ownership and crofts and indentured servants still existed. There were no factories. No banks. If there was a wheeled vehicle, it was a wheelbarrow.

Iceland had not embraced the change sweeping through Europe. It’s salvation would be when the large land owners removed the restrictions on fishing. Icelanders had been fishing with one hook to a line while just offshore the Portuguese were laying fishing lines that were miles long and had thousands of hooks.

In Gimli, in my childhood, I heard of men crying because they felt they’d betrayed Iceland by leaving. Poetry books from that time and earlier, written in Icelandic, are filled with poems praising Iceland’s beauty. They are poems filled with regret and guilt. There is no reason for either. The emigrants betrayed no one. Their leaving left more food for those left behind and, indirectly, improved the lot of the indentured and wage workers, by removing some cheap labour and forcing up wages.

My great grandfather, Ketill, who, in Iceland, would have had nothing because he would have been paid so little, came to Canada in 1878 with nothing. He worked as a labourer, then he had a dairy, then a general store. He had a fine home. He owed no one anything. He kept his coffin in the basement because like many who started out with nothing, he didn’t want to be buried a pauper. He died with money in the bank.

As this table shows, the population had grown to what was considered unsustainable. Then there was volcanic disaster. The choice was stark. To die of hunger on a mountain path or leave for the unknown.

In Independent People, Laxness makes fun of the romantic movement created and populated by the well-to-do, the privileged in Iceland. They come to Bjartur’s farm, Summer Houses, to extoll the virtues of the peasant farmer. They are ridiculous, self-indulgent, dishonest for they know nothing of the real hardships of being a small holder.The emigrants knew reality.

Many in Iceland had a strong belief in the need to stay in Iceland to fight for its Independence. They saw Iceland rising toward its golden, glorious past. Others saw enough opportunity to satisfy them. Others would have left but didn’t have the means.

Eventually, it sorted itself out. One can write nostalgic poetry or make nostalgic speeches but, eventually, our lives are consumed by earning a living, raising a family, being part of our local community. Enough to eat, clothes, a place to live, necessities, some luxuries, for a few, wealth. But when I stand in the graveyard in Gimli and the wind is blowing in from the lake and I look at the graves of my great grandparents, my grandparents and my parents, I think, you did fine. Over three generations,you made a life.

New books from Iceland: Björn G. Björnsson

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The doorbell rang and when I went to see who was there, I found a package that said, “Iceland Post”. When I opened it, there were four books that I am happily adding to my library. The photographs, text and design for all four books are by Björn G. Björnsson.

The books are Large Turf Houses, Turf Churches, Writer´s Homes, 18th Century Stone Buildings. The books have minimal text but it is helpful in explaining the significance of the pictures. In 18th Century Stone Buildings, there is a quarter page description of VIÐEY HOUSE. It says, in part, “In 1752-5 the Danish authorities built a fine residence on Viðey Island off Reykjavík for Treasurer Skúli Magnússon, known as the Father of Reykjavík. Desgned by Danish court architect Niclai Eigtved, Viðey House was the first stone building in Iceland.“

NES HOUSE is described as “Iceland‘s first Surgeon General was appointed in 1760, and in 1761-7 a residence was built for him at Nes on the Seltjarnarnes headland, and it remains little changed.“

In the book, Writer‘s Homes, there are pictures of Halldór Laxness´s home, GLJÚFRASTEINN.“Halldór Laxness was born in Reykjavík in 1902, and published his first book in 1919…from 1945 his home was at Gljúfrasteinn in Mosfellssveit (now Mosfellsbær).” There are pictures from the Culture House/Old National Library from SNORRSSTOFA, from Jónas Hallgrímsson’s Hraun, Oxnadalur.

The book, Turf Churches, is a delight. It brings together images of churches in a way that allows this viewer to bring together many disparate images seen over the years. Among others is the church Saurbær, Eyjafjörður and the Núpsstaður Chapel. As with all the books, the presenting of these buildings both from various views of the exterior and the interior gives the mood of the buildings. It is easy to imagine those hardy Icelandic families riding up to the Núpsstaður Chapel in the 1700s to worship, visit, gossip, court, chew some snuff and even have a drink or two. Nice details are included in these short descriptions. For examples ‘Hannes Jónsson of Núpsstaður was a renowned mail-carrier in the days before the nearby glacial rivers were bridged; he guided travellers across the perilous rivers on horseback.”

Large Turf Houses will be a favorite of visitors. It will be hard not to buy this book after visiting some of these houses. Icelandic North Americans frequently talk about the turf houses they have visited. They are fascinated in places that help them to see what living conditions were like for their ancestors before the great emigration. Admittedly, this collection of large turf houses is a bit misleading as to actual living conditions. Most of our ancestors didn’t live in places like Glaumbær or Laufás. Þvera, for example, “was built in the latter half of the 19th century. On either side of the entrance are two reception rooms.” However, as I write mostly about foreign visitors to Iceland in the 19th C and these visitors, being wealthy aristocrats or clergy of high social status, they did not stay with poor farmers and fishermen. They stayed with the upper class, the kind of people who lived in these large turf houses. These pictures give a real sense of what life could be like in Iceland if you had good land, some money and good political connections.

As a North American Icelander, if there is such a thing, I’m grateful to Björn, for these books. The exterior and, perhaps, more importantly, the interior shots of the various buildings provide a clear view of what life was like for some Icelanders during the 19th C. According to his biography, Björn has worked as a designer with RÚV national TV. He also has designed sets and costumes for theatre, TV and film. He designs exhibitions for museums and visitor centres. He has made 70 TV programmes on historic buildings and sites and Icelandic cultural heritage.

They are expecting 900,000 visitors in Iceland in 2015. I expect that the visitors to the turf churches, the large turf houses, the writer´s homes, the 18th Century stone buildings, will carry away a large number of these books. If you want to have copies, I´d suggest that when you are next in Iceland, you buy them before the visiting hordes appear.