A Vínarterta Icelander No More

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I hate to admit it but I’m no longer a vínarterta Icelander.

You know the kind. I love going to Íslendingadagurinn, the celebration of our Icelandic heritage, that takes place in Gimli every summer. I do the rounds. The Viking village on Bill’s Hill. The Viking demonstrations of fighting with swords and spears.

At the harbour, I visit the tents with one million earrings made by hand somewhere east of Dauphin or imported from India. There is an entire village of tents filled with wooden toys, pottery gnomes, scarves from the Far East, fake shrunken heads, sweaters from Korea.

I never miss the sand sculptures. Or the bathing beauties playing volleyball. At the dock there’s the Something-Dunk where people sit on a slippery pole out over the harbour water and flail at each other with pillows until someone falls off.

The big event of the weekend is the parade. One thousand and sixty-seven Shriners, some Knights of Columbus, people dressed up like Vikings, the local potentates riding in convertibles, some Scots bagpipers (I think they are Shriners, too), a large farm wagon loaded with real Icelanders who often are members of a visiting choir and who regale us with songs, the words of which no one understands.

The parade is so popular that people start setting up chairs along the parade route two hours before the parade. By the time the parade starts, the crowd is three deep on the sidewalks.

There’s the Gimli park. This is the centre of the universe. It’s a block square, has a large heritage hall, a stage with backdrops painted with scenes from Iceland, plus the pioneer cairn that was moved from third avenue. The parade starts outside of town because all the floats need a large space to assemble. There are a lot of floats.

Often families are having reunions and when they do, they make up a float and march in the parade to let everyone know they are having a reunion. Just to be sure everyone understands why they are in the parade, they carry a sign made from a bed sheet that says something like VALGARDSON REUNION. They often come after a group of clowns on miniscule tricycles and in front of Shriners in glossy costumes with yellow shoes that turn up at the toes.

Interspersed are local politicians reminding the local voters who to vote for in the coming election.

Clowns used to throw away three and a half tons of candy but at the last parade I attended, I didn’t get to collect any candy. Some kid in New York dashed out for free candy at one of their parades and got run over by motor cycle cop and since that happened, no free candy for anyone. I didn’t think it was a real problem. When the candy wasn’t thrown far enough and landed on the road, I always just pushed the kids out of the way and said, “That’s dangerous. Stay where you are, I’ll get it.” I used to collect all the candy I needed to give out at Halloween.

At the Gimli park, at the head of the parade, the Mounties whose faces have turned redder than their uniforms from marching in the heat stop and stand in a respectful manner while sweat spills over the tops of their boots. The Fjallkona, that is, the Maid of the Mountains, the woman chosen in an enclave more secret than that which selects popes, descends regally from the car with her two princesses to place a wreath at the pioneer cairn. The Fjallkona is our queen for the year and wears a royal outfit, a headdress, a green robe with ermine trim and, of course, other things. For whatever reason, an older woman is always chosen. Someone said that she is supposed to represent dignity and wisdom. I’ve always thought the Fjallkona should be the current Miss Iceland. It would improve the male attendance at the ceremonies.

The dance hall is converted to a cultural centre for the weekend. Tables are set up to display those things that are culturally connected to the Icelandic community. Bags of Icelandic coffee (kaffi) are for sale. Historic pictures are for sale. Books–antique ones are sold by Jim Anderson, modern ones by Lorna Tergesen of Tergesen’s bookstore. Not just any books. Books by Icelandic and Icelandic Canadian authors like me.

Logberg-Heimskringla, the oldest ethnic newspaper in Canada, has a table where members of the board and volunteers encourage the circulating crowd to subscribe. It’s a hard sell. I may be biased because I was editor of LH for a short time when it was desperate for someone to check spelling, punctuation and grammar but in spite of my having been editor, I tell people it is worth purchasing a subscription.

There’s a kitchen that has Icelandic food and coffee (kaffi). I don’t go there anymore since I’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease. It’s too painful not to be able to eat vínarterta ( a six layer prune tort with cookie layers between the mashed prunes), kleinur (Icelandic donuts), pönnukökur (crepes spread with brown sugar and rolled), brúnt brauð og rúllupylsa (pickled lamb flank on brown bread), rosettes (originally Swedish, they are thin, crisp shells often served with a dab of whipped cream and strawberry jam). I can eat skyr (Icelandic yogurt) but a dish of skyr, as good as it is with local strawberries, doesn’t assuage my grief.

When it isn’t Íslendingadagurinn, I go to the Reykjavik bakery for coffee. The baker, Birgir, is from Iceland. I ignore the displays of Icelandic pastries. I particularly resent not being able to eat the cookies shaped like Viking helmets with horns. Which brings us to the subject of Viking helmets. Historically accurate Viking helmets are not adorned with cow’s horns. It’s too bad because the truth is authentic Viking helmets are boring. I’d never choose one over a helmet with horns. A helmet with horns is much more useful. In a pinch it can be wielded as a weapon or used to roast two wieners at once over an open fire.

Next to the Betel nursing home there is a large statue of a Viking with horns. I take a picture of it every summer. I’m not sure why. It looks the same every year. Thousands of people take their picture with it. They stand in front of it, sit on it, climb on it. Bus loads of people descend to have their picture taken in front of it. I don’t just take its picture. I also rub its knee for good luck.

A lot of the fun of being an Icelandic Canadian (American) is food. You get to try svið (cooked sheep’s heads), hakarl (deep sea shark that is rotted), mutton soup, dried cod with butter, seaweed and horsemeat. I can eat all of those. No gluten in any of them. But what is the point of cleaning your plate if there is no dessert as a reward? If you’re brave enough to eat deep sea shark that has been buried in the sand for six months, then dug up for your pleasure, you should be rewarded with all the vínarterta (iced) you can eat.

You can now get Icelandic beer in Gimli but I can’t drink that either (gluten).

It’s enough to make me embrace the Irish side of my family. I can eat all the potatoes I want. No gluten. And Irish stew. And tea. Maybe I’ll become a potato Irishman and go to celebrations of the spud and dance to the penny whistle. My father used to put a thick coat of clay on potatoes and pop them into a bed of coals in our back yard. They were delicious. Although he was Icelandic, I thought he baked potatoes this way because my mother was Irish and he was acknowledging her ethnicity.

Maybe I’ll go half-way and eat Icelandic mutton soup with baked potatoes. It won’t be the same, though. Nothing beats a plate of pönnukökur, vínarterta, kleinar, and rúllupylsa on brown bread with a pot of Icelandic coffee made in a poki (an old sock).

I’ll do my best. I’ll hang onto the sagas, onto Havamal, onto LH, onto an Icelandic helmet with horns. It won’t be the same, though. Someone who can’t eat vínarterta will have a hard time convincing anyone he has Icelandic genes.

Icelanders To The Rescue

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In her talk at the INL conference, Trish Baer discussed the work she has done over the last five years on images from the Eddas.

Old Scandinavian history from the time of the Vikings was lost in Europe after Christianity took over. The lack of understanding of that earlier time can be seen in many of the illustrations about the various pagan gods. We’d still have no real idea what people believed if it wasn’t for the Icelanders.

The Icelander who rediscovered, for Europe, knowledge of pagan times was Arngrimur Jonsson. He was in Denmark and mentioned that there were manuscripts in Iceland that contained information about the early history of Scandinavia. These were the Poetic and Prose Eddas.

Trish chose to study images in the Eddas with the purpose of creating an international database for scholars and others. In her years of study, she increased her knowledge of Icelandic, of the sagas, of Icelandic history and digital editing. These images, with the names of their creators and the times they were created, reveal much about the misunderstanding of people with regard to the gods and goddesses of Viking times.

Many people celebrate their Icelandic heritage by wearing Viking helmets with horns, drinking an Icelandic beer and eating a piece of hakarl. Some do all three things at once. They’re all good. However, it is people like Trish who expand our knowledge of Icelandic history and myth. The work is painstaking. It requires the development of research skills. Its rewards are few. There aren’t a lot of companies out there offering jobs for Medievalists, never mind jobs that pay like those offered to bankers.

Trish started her talk by saying that the gods belonged to a dysfunctional family. I’d never thought of them like that. When someone who actually knows the Eddas and the Sagas talks about these characters and their relationships, that’s when I realize just how little I actually know about the pagan gods.

Trish’s work on the images of the Eddas is ground breaking. It is not just that she has set up a digital website so these images can be studied from a distance but that the images reflect the ways the gods were seen, how those images changed over the centuries.

She didn’t carry her topic forward into the present day but I hope she will or that someone else will take what she has done and show how those individuals that our ancestors once worshipped have become comic book and movie heroes who still stir the imagination.

What does it mean, actually, to be called Thor? How much history, how many events, how many images are embedded in that name?

And who, actually, created these images that underpin our ideas of the Vikings? Trish dealt with this by showing the dates and the creators of various images. How exactly did all this feed into the Icelandic bankers being called Vikings?

Imagery that helps relate the stories we all know rather vaguely has been neglected. Perhaps, if we look at them more carefully, we may understand ourselves better. Like how come, I wear that plastic Viking helmet from Tergesen’s, chomp on hakarl and wash it down with brennevin? What is it that I celebrate at August the Deuce and Islendingadagurinn? What is it that I want to emulate or invoke when I buy a grandkid a Viking helmet and plastic sword?

Most of us will stick to eating vinarterta to celebrate our Viking heritage and maybe add a bit of dried fish but the more scholars like Trish (soon to be Dr.Baer)explore, understand and share the details of our heritage, the more there will be for us to know about who we are and why we are that way.