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.