immigration posterImmigration poster We’ve all heard of the ships of the emigration but how many of us have actually seen a travel schedule for those ships? These were real ships, real crews, with fares to be collected, schedules to be met. These are the ships that took you to your destination in Iceland or, if you were leaving Iceland, took you away to the distant shores of your dreams. Here is one of the posters your ancestors would have seen and studied closely. Think how intently they would have read the information, the dates, the cost, the accommodation. If they were thinking of leaving Iceland, taking young children, how important would be the length of the voyage to Scotland? If they had carefully saved their rigs dollars, had them hoarded in a sock under their pillow, they would have memorized the cost of the fares and, at night, counted their coins once again to see if there were enough silver there to buy a passage and, if there weren’t, they’d have lain in the dark, thinking about how they might get the rest. These posters held people’s futures. Ameríka. Ameríka. The land of dreams and opportunity. In Independent People Laxness has the fare of the youngest of Bjarturn’s sons paid for by a relative already in Amerika. That youngest son later sends money so that one of his brothers can follow him to Amerika but the brother squanders the money on a horse because he has become infatuated with a girl who is above his social station. There will be no Amerika for him. In Paradise Reclaimed, the main character, Steinar of Hliðar, does go to Amerika where he eats turkey and porridge but only at the ruination of his family. He eventually sends money so that they may join him in Utah. Amerika was on everyone´s mind. Many left. Many more would have left if they could have raised the cost of the fare. The well-to-do farm owners were opposed and tried to keep information about Amerika and how to get there reaching their workers. In one instance, an agent who was to give a talk in Reykjavik about the opportunities in Amerika was unable to do so because a group was organized to make so much noise that he could not be heard. In spite of the actions of the farmers, word did spread, small-holders who had sheep and land to sell, often could raise the money necessary. However, many were unable to take their entire family so some children were left behind, sometimes wives were left behind, but with a promise that when there was money to pay for their passage, the family members would be brought to Amerika. Some families sold everything, travelled to the ports to meet the ships that would take them to England or Scotland only to have the ships come so late that the potential emigrants having had to spend their money for room and board could no longer could pay for a ticket. There are many stories of individuals borrowing money from friends and family and, when they arrived in Amerika, making their first priority paying off their debt. The emigrants seldom had large dreams. The poverty in which they lived was such that they often just hoped that life would be improved. In Amerika, a woman could get a job at five dollars a month with board and room. Five dollars, for some farm workers, was the equivalent of two year’s wages. Ameríka, where the letters said, there was lots of food and it was good. Where a man didn’t have to be worth four hundreds (the equivalent of the value of four cows) before he could legally marry. Ameríka. Where your employer didn’t have the right to beat you with a rod or a tree root. And the first giant step to having your own land was a voyage to Scotland. Surprisingly, although many North Americans of Icelandic descent can say in what year their langi afi or amma came to Amerika, few have any idea of what conditions were like. This original poster will provide a lot of information about what those great grandparents had to pay and what the voyage was like. Think of them seeing this poster and how it must have affected them. (image from The Home of the Eddas, Charles G. Warnford Lock, 1872. A somewhat shorter version of this article originally appeared in Logberg-Heimskringla. Consider subscribing.)

Passage to Amerika


We’ve all heard of the ships of the emigration but how many of us have actually seen a travel schedule for those ships? These were real ships, real crews, with fares to be collected, schedules to be met. These are the ships that took you to your destination in Iceland or, if you were leaving Iceland, took you away to the distant shores of your dreams. 
Here is one of the posters your ancestors would have seen and studied closely.
Think how intently they would have read the information, the dates, the cost, the accommodation. 
If they were thinking of leaving Iceland, taking young children, how important would be the length of the voyage to Scotland? If they had carefully saved their rigs dollars, had them hoarded in a sock under their pillow, they would have memorized the cost of the fares and, at night, counted their coins once again to see if there were enough silver there to buy a passage and, if there weren’t, they’d have lain in the dark, thinking about how they might get the rest. 
These posters held people’s futures. Ameríka. Ameríka. The land of dreams and opportunity. 
In Independent People Laxness has the fare of the youngest of Bjartur’s sons paid for by a relative already in Amerika. That youngest son later sends money so that one of his brothers can follow him to Amerika but the brother squanders the money on a horse because he has become infatuated with a girl who is above his social station. There will be no Amerika for him. In Paradise Reclaimed, the main character, Steinar of Hliðar, does go to Amerika where he eats turkey and porridge but only at the ruination of his family. He eventually sends money so that they may join him in Utah.
Amerika was on everyone´s mind. Those who were leaving and those who were staying. Many left. Many more would have left if they could have raised the cost of the fare. 
The well-to-do farm owners were opposed and tried to keep information about Amerika and how to get there from reaching their workers. In one instance, an agent who was to give a talk in Reykjavik about the opportunities in Amerika was unable to do so because a group was organized to make so much noise that he could not be heard. In spite of the actions of the farmers, word did spread, small-holders who had sheep and land to sell, often could raise the money necessary. However, many were unable to take their entire family so some children were left behind, sometimes wives were left behind, but with a promise that when there was money to pay for their passage, the family members would be brought to Amerika.
Some families sold everything, travelled to the ports to meet the ships that would take them to England or Scotland only to have the ships come so late that the potential emigrants having had to spend their money for room and board could no longer could pay for a ticket. There are also many stories of individuals borrowing money from friends and family and, when they arrived in Amerika, making their first priority paying off their debt.
The emigrants seldom had large dreams. The poverty in which they lived was such that they often just hoped that life would be improved. In Amerika,  a woman could get a job at five dollars a month with board and room. Five dollars, for some farm workers, was the equivalent of two year’s wages. Ameríka, where the letters said, there was lots of food and it was good. Where a man didn’t have to be worth four hundreds (the equivalent of the value of four cows) before he could legally marry. Ameríka. Where your employer didn’t have the right to beat you with a rod or a tree root. And the first giant step to having your own land was a voyage to Scotland.
Surprisingly, although many North Americans of Icelandic descent can say in what year their langi afi or amma came to Amerika, few have any idea of what conditions were like. This original poster will provide a lot of information about what those great grandparents had to pay and what the voyage was like. Think of them seeing this poster and how it must have affected them.
(image from The Home of the Eddas, Charles G. Warnford Lock, 1872. A somewhat shorter version of this article originally appeared in Logberg-Heimskringla. Consider subscribing.)

On Prostate Cancer

(from my diary)

I was to leave for my regular summer holiday in my home town of Gimli in two days so I nearly cancelled my physical. I hadn’t had a physical in five years and my doctor was insisting on it. Later, I thought, I can have it later, but he’d been very insistent so I quit packing for the trip and went to his office.
He looked here and there, prodded me, asked questions, pronounced me healthy. I was dressed and at the door when he said, “I forgot the prostate test. Take you pants down, this will only take a minute.”
I did as he said and bent over the table. He put on a rubber glove. He put a finger in my bum. I felt him poking around, then stop and I immediately knew something was wrong.
“I don’t think you should leave Victoria,” he said. “I’m going to make an appointment with Dr. Piercy, the oncologist.”
With that my world was turned upside down. My father already had prostate cancer. It was slow growing and he hadn’t had anything done about it except to get checked once in a while. Some prostate cancers are like that, slow growing, others are aggressive and grow rapidly.
When I got to see the oncologist, he poked around as well, then announced that he needed to do a biopsy. 
“You won’t need an anaesthetic. It doesn’t hurt,” he said. Wrong. You lie there while they punch little samples out of your prostate. It hurts like hell. Afterwards, I peed blood.
It was pretty tense waiting for the results but when they came they were negative. I had a party. Except that the oncologist wasn’t convinced I didn’t have prostate cancer. My PSA was rising steadily. He set up another biopsy in three months. That one came back negative as well.
“I don’t believe it,” he said. “You’ve got prostate cancer. We just haven’t found it. The next time we’ll use an anaesthetic and I’ll go all around your prostate. When I’m finished your prostate will look like a colander.”
In the meantime I was sent to the cancer clinic in Vancouver. The specialist there said to watch and wait. I wasn’t impressed. Watch and wait for what, until it was too late?
The third biopsy found the cancer. It was at the front. Normally, they just test the back. The oncologist drew a diagram for me. The cancer was the shape of a peanut.
“What do you want to do?” he said. “You can choose to do nothing. You can choose surgery. You can go the hormone and radiation route. I’ll arrange for you to see Dr. Blood. He’s the chemical man.”
My friend Valerie came with me. Dr. Blood showed us a chart and explained that at this stage either procedure had a fifty fifty chance of being successful. Valrie asked, “If this were you and not Bill, what would you choose?” He said he’d have the operation.
We walked out of his office and I phoned to say I wanted to go ahead with the operation.
I had to have a bone scan first. If the cancer cells had spread beyond the prostate, there was no point in having the operation. There’s nothing to a bone scan. They shoot you up with a radioactive dye, you lie on a table and a machine above you moves slowly from toes to head.
“You have a spot on your spine,” the oncologist said. “It’s unlikely that it’s cancer that has spread but we need to know for sure. Were you ever in a car accident?”
I wasn’t in a car accident so we went to the hospital. I had the Xray that would determine whether it was cancer or an old injury. It was early morning. I was beside myself with anxiety. Valerie insisted we go for breakfast, ordered for me. I ate mechanically. We had an hour to wait for the results. When we got them, the mark on my spine was an old injury. I phoned the oncologist and said book surgery as soon as possible.”

It is hard for someone who hasn’t had cancer to understand the trauma of the tests, of the waiting for results, of the uncertainty, of the fear. You started to slide down a slippery slope my GP said the moment I found that hard spot on your prostate. There’s no going back.
To ease the transition, the hospital puts on an information evening once a month for men diagnosed with prostate cancer. There the audience gets to hear about everything from the history of surgery (at one time one hundred percent of patients died from having surgery) to the meaning of test results. The patients are grouped together on the basis of what type of treatment they are having or are going to have. This is where I learned that when I came out of surgery to look at the clock. If very little time had elapsed, then it meant they’d cut me open but had found the cancer had spread and so sewed me back up without doing anything. I heard that the younger you are, the more aggressive your cancer is likely to be. Knowing that we all felt terrible for the young man of thirty-eight who was assigned to our group. I heard about the possible results of my operation: the operation might work, it might not. The results could be that I would be incontinent and have to wear a diaper all my life. The odds were high that I would be impotent. I could end up paralyzed from the waist down.
A lot of men worry about being impotent, especially if they’ve got younger wives. The good news is that Viagra and some of the other pills work sometimes. There’s a drug called Muse. Surgeons are being careful about not cutting nerves if they can avoid it. Some surgeons are using a nerve from the ankle to restore sexual function.  There’s a lot of adjustment for couples. The hospital puts on evenings for couples on how to have sex after your male partner has had prostate surgery.  
The morning of surgery, my daughter stood on one side of my gurney and Valerie stood on the other. They each held one of my hands. Each told me she loved me before I was wheeled away. A friend of mine who is an anaesthetist came in especially to administer my anaesthetic.
When I woke, I checked the clock. A couple of hours had passed.
You live with a catheter and a plastic bag that collects your urine and blood. You empty the day bag which is small and put on the large night bag before you go to sleep. You wash each bag out with vinegar and hang it up to dry. At first it is difficult but in a few days the procedure becomes routine.
I could have stayed home but I went to work with a bag attached to my ankle. I think I was trying to prove that I was still alive. Then the catheter came out, everything worked, and life returned to normal.
At first, I went for regular PSA tests every month. At the beginning, there was one alarm with the score jumping. A second test showed the PSA stable. Those were hard days.Now, I go for a PSA test once a year.
Carol Shields told me that once you have cancer, you develop a cancer eye. It’s like a tiny TV camera way back in your head somewhere, always watching.
I’m lucky. I’ve made it to seventy-two. I’m still a bit tense when I go for a PSA test and while I wait for the results. Eleven years is a long time but as the oncologist said to me, cancer is very unpredictable.You never know what to expect.

A Good Death

My great grandfather, Ketill, died while splitting wood in his backyard.
I expect, in the split second of his death, he had no complaint. As a nurse once said, “We all have to die of something.” And he agreed.  He was well prepared. He had his coffin in the basement resting on two wooden trestles.
 What could be better than standing in front of the chopping block, the splitter high overhead, the swing down, the eyes focused on the exact spot which will allow the block to fly apart, death coming in the instant just before the wide-headed splitter sinks into the wood or just after so that man and wood fall together?
What better place to tumble down but among the golden, honey colored pieces of split wood that have piled up around the splitting block, a growing mountain ready for the wood stove, the ground scented with wood chips and bark, this final place marked with well-built cords, each precisely four by four by eight.
An axe is hopeless at this work, its narrow head sinking deep into the wood. It must be levered out, the block lowered to the ground, then the handle forced down. The block is left with nothing but a useless cut.
The splitter, on the other hand, is wide headed, flaring out, with springs on either side that when the head strikes the wood, dig into the curving tree rings and force the wood apart along the grain. A clean blow to wood without knots sends the split pieces flying. Some pieces are big enough that they have to be picked up, set straight, then split again and some again, perhaps eight good pieces from a single block. A good clean block can be split so fine that the wood comes away no wider than a cedar shake. This careful slice may then be held by the corner while with a hatchet, I peel away narrow kindling strips.
Some blocks often have three or more knots from branches, knots that reach deep into the wood, knots so tough they turn away the splitter’s edge, and hold the wood-grain tight against repeated blows. Tricks and strategies are needed to reduce this wood to burning size.
To study such a block is to seek a place where one blow will divide the space between the knots. Where that’s not possible, then the block may be split across the outer edge, then turned, and turned, each time another piece hacked off. On some such blocks, the knots remain unbroken and the split wood, now separated, must be pulled along the dark brown branch roots so they come away with a hole where the knot has held them close.
What is it about this work that contains within it a good death? The outdoor air, sharp with fall, the tall fir trees through which the sun filters, the smell of fresh split wood, pungent, filling up my lungs with every breath. The motion of the heavy splitter, rising up, pulling tight stomach, chest, and arm muscles, the sharp sound the splitter makes as it divides the wood? My feeling at the long day’s end, relaxing before the wood stove flames of something done that has been felt and seen instead of something done with words and numbers?
I see Ketill now, at eighty plus, splitting Manitoba birch beside the lane and as I swing the heavy maul, I hope that in his heaven there are trees to cut and wood to split and coffee made for him to sip before a warming fire.

Greenhouse of the Heart

In The Greenhouse Audur Ava Olafsdottir creates a spell binding character with Lobbi, a young Icelandic man who is confused by life. One night he’s had sex in his mother’s greenhouse with a girl he hardly knows. Sometime later she calls him. When they meet at a café, she informs him that she’s pregnant but that he’s not to be concerned. She doesn’t want anything from him. She continues with her life as a student. He continues dealing with his own issues.
Lobbi’s issues include the fact that his mother has been killed in a single car accident. Trapped in the car, she phones home as she’s dying. Lobbi’s father isn’t there and it is Lobbi who has the last conversation with his mother. He still lives at home. His brother, who is a twin of sorts (Lobbi, in explaining his brother who looks nothing like him and has autism, explains that they were in the same womb at the same time but born two hours apart, one on each side of midnight), comes to visit once a week.
When she goes into labour, Anna does call him and Lobbi is there for the birth of their daughter, Flóra Sól. However, he has nothing to do with Anna or his daughter after the birth.
Lobbi learned to garden from his mother, developed a passion for roses and, when the opportunity arises, replies to a job offer from a monastery in a distant land. The monastery is the site of a famous rose garden that has fallen into decay. Taking cuttings from one of his mother’s rare roses, he leaves for Europe.
Adventures happen to him as he travels. He meets a number of young, attractive women who are interested in him (he’s handsome, awkwardly charming) . Although he claims to have no feelings for or connection to Anna or Flóra Sól, he always shows these women a picture of his daughter. Each of them comments that the child has no hair. His insistence that he has no emotional connection to his daughter, to her being the result of a momentary accident, is undermined by the irritation he feels at what might be a criticism of her. He´s not as detached as he likes to think he is.
The novel´s narrative is handled beautifully, with information at the beginning that is cryptic but later explained in stages. It is a bit like peeling an onion. First one layer, then another, then another. The death of the mother is handled in this way so that when the details of her death are finally revealed, we feel Lobbi´s pain. The sub plot of the bereaved father and the autistic brother also form interesting threads throughout book, effectively reinforcing the main plot.
Lobbi, as the main character, is developed the most. His struggles with wanting to be intellectual but his constantly being made to pay attention to the needs of his body create a humorous conflict but his confused sincerity often makes it sad laughter. Many men, reading this book, will revisit the insecurities of their youth. We see little of Anna in the first part of the book but, after she reappears, along with Lobbi, we begin to fall in love with her. The minor characters are gems. Father Thomas, the monk who has hired Lobbi, is unforgettable. He likes a daily drink and his passion is watching old movies. Every time Lobbi asks him for advice about life, Father Thomas, instead of quoting scripture, suggests a movie he should watch.
Lobbi freqently phones his father to reassure him that all is well. His father, more than once, asks if people are good to him. Lobbi says yes, everyone is good to him. And they are, the nurses who take care of him when he has an appendix operation, the mother and father at the Inn where he stays, the butcher at the local shop, the old woman who lives in the same building, Father Thomas.
This is a book full of kindness and understanding. It´s also a book full of heartbreak. In a way it is a coming of age story. It is proof positive that you don´t have to be a man to write convincingly about men for it is not just Lobbi who is captured convincingly by Audur but all the many men in the book, even those with walk on parts.

The Greenhouse has won numerous awards in Iceland, France and Quebec.

Brian FitzGibbon has done an admirable job of translating The Greenhouse. He has previously translated 101 Reykjavik.

Call your local bookseller and ask if this book is in stock. If it is, tell them to put it aside and you’ll pick it up shortly. If it’s not in stock, tell them to order you a copy. Give it to yourself for Christmas.
This book kept me up until one a.m. this morning. I had intended to read the first few chapters, then finish it when I got up. Ha! I didn´t put it down until the last word was read.

Icelandic Quirks

This is the second time I’ve read The Little Book of The Icelanders. It was just as funny and as insightful as the first time. Although I’m four generations away from Iceland, I still recognized quirks and behaviours that made me both laugh and cringe.

Tragedy is easy to discuss. We all agree on tragic. Humour is hard to discuss. What is funny to one person isn’t funny to another. However, there is likely to be something humorous for everyone in Alda Sigmundsdóttir´s ebook.

Laxness is concerned with social injustice, Yrsa and Indridason with murder. That can all be leavened by laughter.

Alda moved abroad at the age of five. She returned to Iceland twenty-five or so years later in 1994. Although she was Icelandic and had been in the Icelandic school system between the ages of seven and ten, she was now a foreigner with a foreign perspective. That has allowed her to observe her fellow Icelanders with a keen eye and make note of their quirks and oddities. She is definitely not heimskur.

She points out in her introduction that tradition and conforming are important to Icelanders. Because of their history, sticking together and not rocking the boat have been important. Something that should be interesting to readers is how this has changed with the financial meltdown and its aftermath but those comparisons you will have to do for yourself.

 She explains about people, young and old, being addressed by their first names. We should have had this explanation when I was in high school and we got a new principal who was outraged by our disrespect because we addressed him by his first name.

She explains about the oddity of the phone book listing everyone by their first name and their profession. While there are official controls over what you can call a child, there are no controls over what profession you can claim. The result is that the Icelandic phone book has “nine sorcerers, three alien tamers…59 Jedi Masters and (my personal favourite) two hen whisperers.”

Some people have written essays on whether or not Icelanders have a sense of humour. They obviously didn’t grow up in an Icelandic community. Alda says “The Icelandic sense of humour is dry, self-effacing, sarcastic and has a special penchant for the absurd.” Taking yourself too seriously is considered a minor offense in Iceland. In the Icelandic community in Canada, the tradition holds because a cutting criticism is to say that someone is full of himself.

She explains naming, family names, the politics around the naming of babies including the role of að vitja nafns.

A section on driving in Iceland made me greatly relieved. There are things I do that I can now blame on my Icelandic genes. “Take indicator lights, for example. Icelanders use them very sparingly, if at all. Frequently they’ll put them on in the middle of a turn (as in: look, I’m turning!) or right after they’ve turned (I just made a turn!).

Twenty-to-twenty-nine year-old Icelanders are 95% on Fésbók. Fésbókarlýðræði, or Facebook Democracy is having a major influence on the politics in Iceland.

There are too many topics covered to mention them all but only a book about Iceland and the social habits of its population would have a chapter on „The Invaluable Social Function of the Hot Tubs”.



Buy it. You can’t put it under the tree but you can put it on someone’s computer for Christmas. Laughter is good medicine. 

Alda says she’s signed a deal with Forlagið, Iceland’s largest publisher, for the publication of this book in print form (and electronic form too, in fact). Publication slated for 1 May 2012.


If you want a paper copy, you should be able to buy one in Iceland this coming summer.

http://icelandweatherreport.com/the-little-book-of-the-icelanders


To order the book, use the url above or Google The Little Book of the Icelanders. That should give you a page with the title of The Iceland Weather Report and a picture of the book cover. Below the cover of the book there is a picture of a credit card. Just click on a credit card symbol on the page. It will open up and provide PayPal. The book is 24.99 and worth every penny.

Time and tide

Time and tide wait for no one. Neither does the Salt Spring ferry.
When you spend a lot of time on the islands off the coast of British Columbia, you learn to move to the rhythm of the ferry system.  When I first started to ride the SS ferry, I used to be in a panic about not being on time or there being so many cars waiting that I would not be able to get onto the ferry.
The roads on Salt Spring twist and turn, there are double and triple curves. The roads rise and fall. There are places where you can legally travel 80ks and hour but a lot of the time the speed limit is 40k or 30k. There are people on bicycles, walking, hitchhiking. In summer, where the road runs along St. Mary Lake, there are parked cars, groups of young people in bathing suits, little kids carrying inflatables. In fall and winter there are still parked cars but those are from adults who are out fly fishing. Driveways are hidden by curves, trees, blackberry thickets.
None of this makes speeding reasonable. Trying to boot it in order to catch a ferry will likely end in disaster.
Today, I realized how much I’ve adjusted. After two days of splitting stove wood and I did something last night, lulled by music and the warmth of a wood fire, that I haven’t done in decades. I  fell asleep on the living room couch. This morning,  I left early for the ferry. There was time to admire the beauty of St. Mary Lake’s far shore with its brightly colored trees. Flaming red maples appeared at the edges of yards and, in the fields, there were sheep grazing. In the Fulford valley, the vineyards were turning from green to pale yellow. Roadside stands were piled with bags of organic apples.  Each stand had a box in which to leave payment.
When I reached the bottom of the bay, I could see the ferry off in the distance. Ferries, I’ve learned, don’t move very fast. I would reach the embarkation parking lot long before the ferry docked.
I feel like an old pro now. When the parking lot is full, the cars park along the road. At first I used to think that if I didn’t get into the parking lot, I’d be left behind. Now, I know just how far along the road you can be and still get on the ferry. Today, the parking lot wasn’t even half-full. The summer tourists are gone so only locals are travelling back and forth.

There was time to get a cappuccino from the Morningside Organic Bakery café and bookstore.  Fulford Harbour is funky and the Morningside is the funkiest of the funky. It’s made of driftwood and concrete, it serves handcrafted sandwiches, soups, salads, noodles, superfood, raw food, smoothies, shakes, bread, pastries, cookies, chai, premium coffees and teas. Its homemade bread is wood fired. It buys its produce from local organic farmers. It also does double duty as a bookstore. The walls have shelves displaying books on everything from Buddhism to animal rights.

Manon made me the cappuccino. I bought a package of gluten free cookies to go with it. We chatted. There was no rush. The ferry wasn’t going to sprout wings.

When I came out, the ferry was just docking. I took some photos, settled into my car.

The foot passengers and then the motorcyclists came off. After that, the cars. The gate closed, then opened. We rumbled on. No deckhands waving us close together so they can get as many cars as possible onto the ferry. No tourists climbing up the stairs to sit on the roofs of the side deck cabins so they can sight-see. We’re the locals. We’ve made this trip so often that we sit in our vehicles and read or nap. If it’s cold, we go into the cabins and find a seat. It’s not that cold yet. That will come later in the year when there’s ice on the fresh water ponds and rime on the trees.

It wasn’t so long ago that this was all exotic. Now, it’s all part of a rhythm, like an old song, the weaving drive, the slowing down through Ganges, the speeding up as the houses thin out, the roadside signs for free range eggs, apples, vegetables, flowers, the slipping into place to wait for the signal to board, the rumbling of the motor and the blast of the ferry whistle as we pull away from the dock.