The Economics of Halldor Laxness

In The Fish Can Sing, Halldor Laxness presents through the narrator Álfgrímur, the economics of Björn of Brekkukot and, thus, his own economic philosophy.
Björn is a lumpfisherman. He lives on a small piece of land and, with his fishing, supports himself, the woman who shares the house with him and the child, Álfgrímur. He does not go far from shore seeking cod, nor does he fish the rivers for salmon. He doesn’t seek to maximize his catch nor as the modern term goes, monetize it. He does not dream of having a larger boat, of having many hired men instead of one or two, or increasing his profits. He does not have the ambitions of a modern day banker or businessman.
Björn is interesting precisely because, while he is created as a fully realized character in the novel, he also represents a set of ethical principles, particularly with regard to money and how it is earned.

On the first page, as one of those simple details that might be dismissed as only being about back story or setting, Álfgrímur tells us that “on the exact spot where Gudmundur Gudmunsen (the son of old Jon Gudmundsson, the owner of Gudmunsen’s Store) eventually built himself a fine mansion house—on this patch of ground there once stood a little turf-and-stone cottage”.  With no ado, no sign posts but in a quiet contrast, the conflict between values the reader will see throughout the novel is set. The values are represented by the cottage versus Gudmunsen’s store. There is a little fillip added with Gudmunsen’s Store being spelled the Danish way so that we are gently nudged to understand that these values will be Danish values, learned in Denmark as opposed to the values of the authentic Icelandic farmer.

It is also significant that it is the simple Icelandic peasant cottage that has been replaced by the mansion built from profits made by the Gudmunsen’s store. In another of Laxness’s novels, Christianity Under Glacier, the house of Godman Singman has been built on church property, overshadowing the neglected church building. In both cases, the amassing of money has overtaken Icelandic values, both secular and Christian.
It is, of course, not just Laxness that makes this distinction. Charles Lock, in The Home of the Eddas (1879), makes a similar point.  He went to Iceland in 1875 and spent twelve months there. He says, “Circumstances compelled me for the most part to shun the principal cheapsteads, such as Reykjavik and Aukeryri, where the life of the people are half Danish, half Icelandic, and threw me among the pure-blooded bondar and peasant classes.”
Álfgrímur, the narrator in The Fish Can Sing, tells the reader that “The rest of the town’s inhabitants were cottagers who went out to the fishing and sometimes owned a small share in a cow or had a few sheep.” This is the large amount of the population who live in opposition to and are exploited by the well-to-do farmers who are aligned with the Danish overlords.
In the spring when Björn went lumpfishing, he sold his fish from a wheelbarrow. He boils fish liver for the oil, makes do with what produce the family can manage to produce. We’ve been told that the cot has peat pits as a preliminary to Álfgrímur recounting an anecdote about a man comimg to Brekkukot with a sack over his shoulder. The sack contains peat that he has stolen from Brekkukot. Fuel in Iceland is always in short supply. It is carefully husbanded. The thief’s crime, in a place where there is so little fuel that it is often hard to find enough to cook food, is serious. Björn has already given this neighbour peat. Now, Björn asks the thief in to discuss what it is that he has done. He tells him his actions are wicked, but after coffee, he gives the neighbour the peat.
One is reminded of the scene in Les Miserables when the police bring Jean Valjean’s back to the home of the bishop who befriended him. Jean has returned this kindness by stealing  of some silver candle sticks. The bishop says Jean didn’t steal them, that he had been given them. 

For a period of time, Laxness became a Catholic, then a Communist. Both outraged both his countrymen and people of Icelandic descent in North America. The question is when Björn forgives the peat thief and gives him the sack of peat is Laxness, through Björn, acting as Catholic or Communist? Álfgrímur would doubt both for he says that his grandfather was “a man of orthodox beliefs” but not one to cite scripture or to ask God to do anything. Any forgiveness that was given came from Björn. He also did not forgive in the name of the state, particularly a state that adhered to a philosophy that denied individualism and Björn forgives as an individual.

Early in the book when the principles upon which it will be based are being created, Álfgrímur describes the standards by which life was lived at Brekkukot.  He says, “I think that our own standard had its origins in my grandfather’s conviction that the money which people consider theirs by right was unlawfully accumulated, or counterfeit, if it exceeded the average income of a working man and therefore that all great wealth was inconsistent with common sense.”
Shortly thereafter, Álfgrímur says that his grandfather believed “that the right price for a lumpfish, for instance, was the price that prevented a fisherman from piling up more money than he needed for the necessities of life.”
These are simple beliefs and are obviously not believed in a society where someone can say out loud “Greed is good.” and not become an automatic laughing stock. Björn of Brekkukot, today would see that it is the Danish traders’ belief that the price of lumpfish should rise and fall with supply and demand that has triumphed, that economic values dominate all other values, including the values of democracy. This belief in the right to make money prevailing over all other values carried Iceland not just to the brink of collapse but to collapse itself. It is only by open revolt against such avaricious, materialistic principles by the banging of pots and pans outside of Parliament, the repeated public demonstrations, the actual physical rebellion of Icelandic society that has driven out the bankers. It is those people who had values more in line with Björn of Brekkukot who finally rebelled against the values of Gudmunsen’s store, against the values of another Björn, this one, Björn of Leirur,  in Paradise Reclaimed.
It is, of course, precisely these values of Björn of Brekkukot that made Laxness the object of investigation by the FBI and the enemy of many in the Icelandic North American community for what is the opportunity of North America but the opportunity to make money? And what is the person who would question that right but the enemy?
Who in North America today defends those who are the equivalent of people who sometimes own a small share in a cow, or have a few sheep or own a small rowing boat? The political struggle in the Congress and the Senate, in the Canadian Parliament, is among the privileged as to who gets the greater percentage of the spoils, not between the defenders of ordinary people and the privileged one percent.
In spite of the growing disparity in wealth in North America between the privileged few and the larger society, there still exist those who believe as does Björn of Brekkukot. Just the other day a relative of mine, offered a sum for some old books said no, the price was too much and she named a lower price and said this is what they are worth. The books, like lumpfish, had a price unrelated to what the market might pay at any given moment. And I, in one of my short stories, many years ago, wrote of a fictional character based on my father who when offered fishing equipment by a friend who was a terrible drunk, always bought it but, when fishing season came around again, always sold it back at the price he had paid and of the disaster created when the equipment was bought by a lawyer from the city who saw only an opportunity to make a quick profit. The values of Halldor Laxness, of Björn of Brekkukot  is what creates a decent society. This is the fabric of a society where human failure is recognized as inevitable and not exploited. This is a society where forgiveness is more important than punishment.
Laxness would in his own way preach that society is not governed by tooth and claw, that it is not a collection of predator and bloody meal, of exploiter and exploited. Or, at least, that it does not have to be. How subversive is that?
During the time Denmark ruled Iceland, the Icelandic employees of the Danish merchants treated their fellow Icelanders abominably; they passed on Danish contempt. It was a lesson rubbed into the very grain of Icelandic society and was still in the grain in 2008. It is what allowed the bankers to disregard the welfare of everyone in the country except their own welfare. You can only enrich yourself while destroying your family, neighbours and society if you hold them in utter contempt. You can only get away with doing it in a society that has been brain-washed to believe that the values of Gudmundsen’s store and Björn of Leirur are the only values that matter.
 It is time, even past time, that Icelanders began to read Laxness again and listen to what he had to tell them. Then they might answer the question, who is right, Björn of Brekkukot or Björm of Leirur along with his disciples, the bankers of America and the EU?

Transitions

My friends and I are in our late sixties or early seventies. We’ve been through life’s passages together. Just as we were all thinking about sex and dating at the same time, getting married at the same time, having children at the same time, we are now thinking about life between seventy and eighty at the same time.
We like to think that we are individuals with our own unique problems, concerns, life crises, happiness but, the truth is so many of life’s major events are predictable passages.
When I was in my late forties and went to my doctor to complain about my eyesight bothering me (I already wore glasses) and I asked him what was wrong, he laughed and said, “Middle age.” The solution was progressive lenses. When many years later, I had to wear a hearing aid, I was embarrassed until I noticed that many of my contemporaries were wearing hearing aids. We have, on the whole gone through the teenage angst of our children together, their getting married, their producing grandchildren for us, together. We mostly retired within a few years of each other.
A conversation with a long-time (I eschew the world “old”) friend today turned to a new  topic, relocating and downsizing. They go together. In our middle years when we were becoming empty nesters, our children moved far and wide. The days of three generations of a family living in the same small town are long gone. Opportunities are nearly always elsewhere. There aren’t many jobs for people with university educations, particularly graduate degrees, in a small town. He result is that our children and our grandkids are spread from Fredericton to Victoria, down to Texas, across to Australia and in places many of us had never heard of until we had family there.
Now, though, that our “kids” are pushing fifty and have settled down, and are, themselves, becoming empty nesters, more and more of my contemporaries are considering moving closer to their kids. That’s particularly true if divorce or death has left them alone. Part of that is simply being practical. As you grow older, you have more medical problems. Many hospital tests require that someone take you to the hospital, then pick you up because you’ve had a sedative and are legally impaired for twenty-four hours. The importance of having someone willing to do that starts to loom large.
In some cases, that move is occasioned by a sense that a person wants to live somewhere where they don’t need a car. They want to be a bus or taxi ride or in walking distance from grocery stores, dentists, dry cleaners, banks, post offices, restaurants. At one time driving an hour into a city to shop or go to a play seemed like nothing.  Part of growing older is recognizing that driving an hour into the city is more tiring than fun. There also are warnings about what could happen as friends start to have problems with their night vision or macular degeneration or their balance. A condo in an area where there are shops and services starts to look pretty good.
More, though, than moving, is the question of downsizing. It seems to be on nearly everyone’s mind. We’ve all gone through the phase of having a growing family, needing more space, a bigger house, more furniture, a rec room, a yard.  Now, often reduced to being alone, a big house feels empty, lonely, more  work than it is worth.
I just recently downsized. I went from a large, rambling heritage home with innumerable rooms, a double lot with what seemed endless flower gardens plus a kitchen garden for vegetables, a carriage shed with an addition where the Chinese cook lived in the 1920s. The trouble is that when you find yourself alone, those innumerable rooms are inclined to echo. With my parents no longer coming to stay for the winters, with my sister-in-law having bought her own home here, with retiring and not having as many dinner parties or receptions, the house was too big. The decision was hard because I loved that house. It was the house I’d always dreamt of owning.
I hated to give up my poppy plants that I’d cultivated and transplanted until there was a hedge of them. Six feet tall, with massive white blooms. The wisteria that wrapped around the bird bath. My nephew planted it for me. The grape vines that grew along the stone wall. I planted those.
I replaced it with a bungalow. No yard to speak of. Real estate agents call it easy care. I resent it the term. Friends say I could have hired a gardener and had everything done for me. They miss the point. It’s not just the having. It’s the doing. It’s the satisfaction of digging that soil, of choosing those plants, of planting those shrubs and flowers.
What I left behind weren’t just the living room fireplace, the study where I could shelve all my books. What I left behind were memories. Here is the living room where the whole family gathered to open Christmas presents. Here is the dining room where we celebrated birthdays and holidays, where we started with one table and ended up with three end to end to accommodate a growing family plus friends.
Here is the yard where I hid Easter eggs for the annual Easter egg hunt. Under that camelia, in the crook of that lilac branch.
 .
Downsizing forces us to make decisions. It’s a simple calculation. A condo half the size of the house means half our belongings have to go. A condo a quarter size means three quarters of our belongings have to be shed. Some decisions are easy. All that stuff that has accumulated in the basement. When you ask yourself, what was I keeping that for, the decision is easy. But then, there are the hard decisions.  Some things have to be let go even if we love them. It’s not the monetary value that we grieve. It’s the rocking chair our children and then our grandchildren used. It’s the leather couch that is too big for an apartment. It’s the carpets we chose so carefully but aren’t needed when there is wall-to-wall.
Then there are the items that we thought were valuable. We’re always shocked by what we are offered because we know what we paid for these items. Stamp collections often sell for one tenth of their retail value. Art, unless we’re lucky, goes for a quarter of its insurance value—if that. The buyers don’t pay for hopes or dreams or memories of holding hands looking at a painting that would be perfect for the living room and trying to decide if we could afford it. And then there are the items no one wants. They go to the thrift store or the garbage dump. Precious to us, they are precious to no one else.
It’s a good thing that when we are young and accumulating, buying a house, filling it up with all the things we desire, that we don’t think or even know about downsizing.  It would take away the joy of having earned something, the joy of having something that we want, whether it’s a patio set or a hot tub. Each stage of life has its necessary events.
Don’t get me wrong. I like my new bungalow. That doesn’t keep me from grieving my heritage home, the big yard, the flower gardens but probably what I grieve the most is not having the energy to make use of them. I used to run behind the lawn mower for exercise. Up a slope. I’m not able to do that anymore. I was plodding and when I finished, I needed to have a nap.
The lesson of downsizing , I guess,  is to store up not worldly goods but good memories for when that day comes, it will be memories that you can take with you and that will warm you and comfort you. Memories don’t take up any space. They fit into a bungalow or a condo or, eventually, if we live long enough, in a single room in a nursing home.

Land of the Eddas,Lock

 STEAM BETWEEN LEITH AND ICELAND
NOTICE TO TOURISTS, ANGLERS, AND SPORTSMEN.
The First-Class Steam-Ship “CAMOENS,” 1054 Tons register, 170 Horse-power, will leave Leith for Iccland once a fortnight, going round the Island, commencing end of June; calling at the Faroe Islands if required. Thus affording Tourists, Anglers, and Sportsmen an excellent opportunity of visiting that Interesting Country, its Burning Mountains, Geysers, Salmon Rivers, Shootings, &s.
The S.S. “CAMOENS” is a Full-Powered Fast Steamer with superior Passenger Accommodation; has spacious Saloon on deck. The State-rooms are lofty and well-ventilated, and situated quite apart from Dining Salon. For further particulars apply to 
 R. & D. SLIMON
LEITH
During my childhood, one of the great myths about Iceland was that it was isolated. While it was true that individual farms were isolated by both the lack of roads and terrible weather, that didn’t stop tourists from coming to se this fabled land. The sagas brought people. The sagas were read, studied, admired. The figures in them were heroic. The stories fired the imagination. As well, the geology, the land of fire and ice, brought both explorers and tourists. Probably, the single greatest attraction was the geysers. These were one of the wonders of the world.
Reykjavik, even when it was no more than a small village, was the focal point for both explorers and tourists. Here, ships anchored, supplies were brought ashore, horses were bought or hired. Guides were contracted. Iceland was an endless source of fascination for members of England’s Royal Society. Expeditions were financed for everything from exploring the possibility of mining sulphur to cataloguing Iceland’s birds.
In 1875, as our Icelandic ancestors were beginning to flee from failing hay crops, volcanic devastation, and political oppression, Charles Lock was leaving Granton on the 6th of July on the steamer, “Fifeshire” for Iceland. The boat had been chartered to carry Icelandic horses back to the British Isles. Locke and his party land at Húsavik.
By 1879, when his book The Home of the Eddas is published, he feels that so many books about Iceland have been published that he has to reassure his readers that his book has new material. He also points out that while other explorers and tourists only stay for the summer, he has spent an entire year in Iceland and that before him, only Henderson (1814-15) and Dillon (1834) have spent twelve consecutive months in Iceland. 

He also reassures his readers that he did not spend his year in Reykjavik and Aukeryri both of whom he says are Danish. Since he was searching out the locations of the Eddas, he spent his time with real Icelanders.

He believes that so many people are interested in visiting Iceland that at the end of  his book, he includes information for potential travelers.   

His first information is about travel routes and costs. Two regular mail steamers, he says, sail during a portion of the year between Copenhagen, Leith or Granton, the Faroes and Iceland. One of them makes  short tours to ports along the Icelandic coast.

Name  Departure from Copenhagen  Leith or Granton  Arrival Reykjavik
Phoenix                               1 Mar 9 a.m                         3 Mar                     15 Mar
Phoenix                               17 Apr 9 a.m.                      21 Apr                   29 Apr
Diana                    15 May 9 a.m.                    19 May                  4 June
Altogether, he lists nine sailings with the last being on Nov 8 from Copenhagen, arriving in Reykjavik on Nov 22. That is the ship that anyone who has been delayed by traveling conditions would have been in a panic to catch. Miss it and the traveler is likely to be spending the winter in Iceland. Henderson, when he deliberately stayed, got through the darkness by reading the library he’d brought with him.The unprepared traveler could suffer through a very bad winter.

Locke also details the coastal trips. The first one, I assume because of the ice, isn’t until May 25 to Vopnafjorður, then to Akureyri, 27 May; Skagaströnd;Ísafjorðr, 29 May; Flateryi, 29; Þingeyri, 30; Bildudalr, 30; Bíldudalr, 30; Stykkishólmr, 1 June;  and back to Reykjavik, 4 June.
The fares that he gives are as follows: Between Leith and Faroe, 1st class single ticket, 3 pounds, return (same voyage), 5 pounds. Between Leith and southern ports of Iceland, 1st class ticket, five pounds, return (same voyage), 9 pounds. Children under 2 years traveled free. Between 3 and 12, they paid half fare. Fares included 100 pounds of luggage. Children could have 50 lbs of luggage. If you had more than the maximum amount, you paid 9d for every 10 lbs. You had to pay extra for meals. Adults 5 shillings, 3 pence a day. Children paid 3 shillings a day.
There were cattle boats but Lock recommends they not be taken. He says that if you are timid, are distressed by rank smells, or are upset by coarse food coarsely served, you don’t want to be on them.  He says that there is now a ship dedicated to shipping salmon and it be better to take that than a cattle boat.
These fares seem quite small. However, in context, they were quite a lot of money. A cook in England, in a large house with a staff might earn 20 to 30 pounds a year. Teachers might ear 43 pounds a year. If such a trip cost in all about 15 pounds that would be more than a third of a teacher’s salary. If a teacher today is earning sixty thousand dollars that would be the equivalent of making the round trip to Iceland at $20,000.00. That sure makes today’s airfare look cheap.
People coming to visit the ports of Iceland had money. Even if they just came as tourists and didn’t travel around the island, renting horses, hiring guides, paying for meals and services, the cost was substantial. But, still they came, both men and women. In groups and singly. Iceland was, after all, the land of the Eddas and the Sagas and it fired the imagination.

Suffer the little children, Indriðason


With every book I read by Arnaldur Indriðason, I become a greater fan of his writing.

I read Voices some time ago but yesterday, beset by cold and snow in Gimli, Manitoba, I settled down to reread it. Well written books are worth rereading. The first read is for sheer pleasure. The second reading is for appreciating. This second read is to admire the craft of the novel. And Indriðason is certainly a master craftsman.

When I was in my teens and twenties, I was addicted to reading English murder mysteries. These were inexpensive Penguin paperbacks. They were, as I remember, brilliant, just in the way that many police/detective TV English shows are brilliant today.
Why were they brilliant? Because they never cheated. They never held back information and then suddenly provided it in the last few pages with an aha gottacha. The only person getting to play in a novel is the author and tricking the reader shows neither a good grasp of craft nor respect for the reader. An author who finishes a plot with an, “I tricked you, look at me, see how clever I am, I tricked you,” is an author who shouldn’t be published.

The Penguin mysteries were brilliant because they developed character. They might not have developed characters with the roundness of a Jane Austen but the major characters were developed in such a way as to make them human, understandable. They were usually flawed because we are all flawed. That’s the human condition. When we triumph, we don’t just triumph over circumstance but over our own weaknesses. Since these characters were human, we cared about them.

The minor characters, while flatter or even flat, were deftly drawn in a few lines, often unforgettably so. A sharp image, precise details of some characteristic created them so the reader could see them quite clearly.
Although many so-called genre novels have clichéd themes (crime does not pay), the best murder mysteries, went beyond that, explored some aspect of the human condition, left a reader not just puzzling over plot but thinking, afterwards, about the meaning of what had happened and how it related to him or her world.

In these top notch murder mysteries, setting was created in a way that no matter how exotic or distant, the reader could imagine what it was like to be in that location. This was done with preciseness in language. The language was sensory. Not sensual. Sensory. As a reader, I could taste, smell, hear, feel, see what was happening. Poor writing was general, vague, imprecise and didn’t open up the experience on the page so it could be entered.

Indriðason does all these things right in Voices. It´s no wonder it won the CWA Gold Dagger award.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir, in a lecture said that in a murder mystery, the worst has happened. The novel then reaches back through events to unravel why and how it has happened, who has done the worst.

That is true in Voices. It begins close to Christmas. A hotel employee who dresses up each year as Santa Clause has been murdered in the basement room in the hotel where he lives. None of the employees at the hotel seem to know anything about him. Although he has worked at the hotel for years, he is a cipher.

The police team that Indriðason has created is already on the case on page one. Elinborg, the female member of the team is already at the hotel. Sigurdur Oli, the junior officer arrives, then the main character, Erlendur, appears. Every one of these three has been created in such a way that makes them human, flawed, with weaknesses and strengths, with limitations, with prejudices. Erlendur is the roundest of the characters but each of the three has a life and the travails that go with it. By the end of the book, I feel that I know them well enough that I wish I really knew them. That is a great accomplishment on the author’s part.

The plot, even though I was reading the book for the second time, held me. It is detailed, complicated, logical. The behaviours of the suspects and public figures is clearly motivated. The hotel manager with his fear of a scandal affecting the hotel’s Christmas business and his lack of compassion for the dead doorman is very real. I can see him sweating, worrying, completely unaware of how perverted his are his values. The prostitute, Stina, who is introduced near the end of the book is unforgettable, not just for her recently implanted large breasts, but because of the reaction they get.

There is, to add to the delight of this book, a kind of dark humour that, to me, is particularly Icelandic, that runs through the entire narrative. When Erlendur meets Valgerdur, a biotechnician taking saliva samples, for the first time in years, he’s overwhelmingly interested in a woman and, out of practice, naturally reticent, he, with the help of his daughter, Eva, manages to screw up the potential relationship.

Indriðason is in such control of his material that he is able to keep a running joke about the heat in Erlendur´s hotel room working throughout the story. He also is able to keep numerous parallel stories—that of an abused child, for example—working throughout the narrative. It’s a bit like watching a juggler adding more and more objects that he can juggle and wondering just how many he can hold up at once.

Chekov said, If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” Indriðason puts a poster on the wall at the very beginning of the novel and, at the very end of the novel, it’s importance is made clear. It is brilliantly done.  Indriðason knows his craft. He knows his Chekov. And, for those who study these things, he knows his Maupassant. Anyone wanting to learn to write mysteries, would well to study the lessons here.

Good book. You don’t need me to tell you that. It has won accolades here, there and everywhere. However, if you haven’t heard of Indriðason, or don’t think you are interested in murder mysteries, this is a reminder of why you should buy this to put under your Christmas tree as a gift for yourself. 

After the Christmas feast is over, and Boxing Day has come, shoo the children off to another room to play with their new toys, let those who will fight the madding crowds in the shopping centres do so, pour your favourite drink, get a fire going in the fireplace, put up your feet, and allow the author to draw you into the seamier side of Reykavik, the side the tourists don’t get to see.


A Tablespoon of Love

I love cooking.
I’m not talking about having one speciality such as barbecued steak that can be whipped up once a summer.

I’m talking about lamb shoulder chops, sweet potato, onions, carrots, a bit of broccoli stem, simmered together for an easy supper for visitors. My mother always said if you want the kids to hang around, feed them. It’s great advice. Noses get anchored to delicious aromas, stomachs anticipate satisfying food. 
I’m talking about the attraction of Trinidad curried chicken steeping overnight in coconut milk, soya sauce, chilli pepper, salt, then fried the next afternoon in turmeric and curry and, when the chicken is falling off the bone, setting it aside in a warm oven while cooking chunky green pepper, apple, onions, celery in the curry gravy, then putting everything together in a welter of tastes and smells. Ladled over steaming rice, served with side dishes of chopped fresh fruit, dried raisins, almonds, cashews, this is a dish that is part of family lore,  that is anticipated months in advance, that tantalizes the neighbourhood through the open windows. The windows are open, even in winter, because with a lot of people cooking, the kitchen heats up and fills with steam. This is a dish that requires a big plate with a nicely turned up edge to hold everything. What’s particularly good about it for feeding visitors is that it can be prepared the previous day. Beer, tea or yogurt drinks wash it down well.
For years I’ve made Trinidad curried chicken for Christmas Eve. Non-traditional food for the Eve and a traditional Christmas dinner at my daughter’s for the Day. My daughter and her husband are both good cooks. Their tables groans with turkey, sweet and white potatoes, gravy, vegetables of many kinds, condiments, stuffing,all followed by homemade pie, cookies, slices. However, there are empty places at the festive table now for my son in law’s parents are gone. My parents are gone. There are friends who used to join us who are no longer here. Yet, when we raise a glass or a fork, it is with happy memories from meals gone by.
We’ve all grown older. That affects both the cooking and the eating. When my daughter now says, “I’ve got three kinds of pie. What would you like?” we used to say, “Yes.” No one says “Yes” anymore to all three. There was a time when we could eat ice cream pumpkin pie, pecan pie and apple pie and never put on a pound.
My mother was a wonderful cook. My father was a good and inventive cook. When you grow up with people who love to cook, it is hard not to delight in the selecting, the preparation, the cooking, the serving of food.
My mother made lemon pie with love. When my father married her at the age of twenty, he said, “I’m going to have lemon pie every day.” He didn’t eat lemon pie every day but we ate it often, crisp, flaky crust, deep lemon, high meringue slightly toasted on top. When we were playing or working outdoors and it came close to coffee time and we could smell the lemon faintly on the air, we licked our lips in anticipation.
Love is as important to cooking as butter. You don’t find it listed in the recipe book because it is understood that good food requires love. Two tablespoons flour, one tablespoon butter, two tablespoons of love.
Love gives you a dozen raisin tarts with a crust that crumbles in your mouth. When you bite into the sweet richness what are you tasting but love?
Good family cooking ruined me, of course. I’m not just talking about my waist line. My doctor says eight pounds have to come off. It’s a struggle. However, good family cooking also ruined me for restaurants and prepared foods. I try restaurants but then sit there fiddling with a meal I wouldn’t serve or eat at home. I buy convenience food from the store freezer but seldom buy it twice. I don’t find it convenient to eat food that offers nothing but convenience.
We often talk about great meals we’ve shared. Less often, we talk about great meals we’ve prepared together. Yet, the choosing of the menu, the shopping, the preparation of the food, the cooking, done together creates a team, brings people together in a happy task, gives everyone a stake in the banquet set before usl.
Food isn’t just for eating. It is also one of the ties that bind family and friends.
During this holiday season, or any holiday season, give your children and grandchildren a gift that will serve them the rest of their lives. Get them to help in the kitchen. Give them a chance to say, “I cooked the broccoli.” Or, “I helped make the rice pudding. “ or the stuffing or salad.
Make helping in the kitchen it fun. Don’t worry about the mess.  Start kids with something simple and quick, something that they’ll want to eat. If you are making pastry, make sure you have some left over and let them roll it up with cinnamon and butter and brown sugar. Cut the roll into pieces and pop them into the oven on a cookie sheet. When the pastry is ready, share some with them with a glass of cold milk and find something to laugh about. Love and laughter go together.
Take them shopping to the grocery store, not for a humungous cart full of groceries, but for some of the amazing variety of Chinese vegetables you can find nowadays. Buy enough for a stir fry, then leave. If you don’t own a wok, go buy one. Get them to help you to discover what you should do with mo qua or daikon. Solve the mystery of bok choy. Make the mysterious familiar. Food is a mystery waiting to be revealed.
It wasn’t until I was married that I was introduced to the taste of kippers, green peppers and mangoes. I introduced my wife to pickerel cheeks with sweet and sour sauce, holopchi, skyr with strawberries.
Not all experiments work out. Keep some shepherd’s pie in the freezer. There’s nothing wrong with homemade shepherd’s pie and catsup. If nothing else, you can always whip up toasted cheese and bacon sandwiches served with fresh fruit.
This is Canada. Our neighbours and often our relatives by marriage come from the four corners of the earth. Ask them to make an ethnic dish. At one time, we had a Ukrainian neighbour. We started some festive meals with kutya (boiled wheat and honey) and ended with Icelandic vinarterta (a seven layer torte a prune filling). 

Literate? Think so?

I’m illiterate.
That would make me feel really bad except that I know that you are illiterate. Misery loves company.
What’s that you say? You aren’t illiterate. Of course, you are.
The first time I realized I was illiterate was when I went to Iceland.  I was taken to a language party. The group met on a regular basis. I came in, was introduced to everyone, everyone spoke to me in English, then someone said, “Danish.” Everyone started speaking Danish. Then someone said “German.” And they all started speaking German.
They went through a number of languages before, to my great relief, they worked their way back to English.
What brought back this memory was that on my mother’s last night at the nursing home, I met Josie. At ninety, she can still move furniture. She spoke to me in Icelandic and I had to admit I was illiterate in Icelandic. “Ekki,” I said. 
That ekki really is ekki. Once, in desperation, at six a.m. in the pouring rain in Rejkavik, I managed to make a caretaker understand that I had the use of an apartment and I wanted him to let me in. I dredged up forgotten words from childhood. God knows what he heard.
Every-so-often this happens to me. I’m going along in a kind of unilingual haze, thinking I’m literate and then someone says something in another language or about another language. This happened when I was editor of Logberg-Heimskringla. Nelson wrote to point out that we’d spelled an Icelandic word incorrectly.
I had to write back and tell him that I’m illiterate in Icelandic.
I’m also illiterate in Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, Spanish, German and Finnish. I’m not just illiterate in Finnish. Confronted with it, my IQ drops to zero. Have you been to Finland? Have you tried to read their signs? They’re in Swedish and Finnish. Thank goodness I can make a guess at the Swedish. But Finnish makes me go back to grade one and the bottom of the class.
Of course, I also realized I was illiterate when I was in Russia. I knew vodka, sputnik and tsar. Try sidling up to an attractive woman in a bar and whispering those words in her ear. They didn’t make me literate. I could print out my name in Russian but with three words and my name, I wasn’t going to read Tolstoy in the original. I wasn’t going to have an intense discussion on the meaning of life. Or order a meal.
After realizing that I was illiterate when I was in various locations, I realized that literacy is determined by geography. It’s not a general state of being. I always thought I was literate because I could read, write and speak English. That didn’t help in Ukraine or Cuba..
If I were smarter, I’d have realized this principle when I was a teenager. A NATO pilot who only spoke French came into the Gimli bakery. He couldn’t make himself understood. Finally, I and a friend who’d taken some basic lessons in French managed to make out that he wanted six tarts. 
There were lessons there about the importance of being literate in many languages but I missed them. I was too focused on skating, girls, pool, girls, hockey, girls. If the girls had said that they wouldn’t go out with us unless with could talk to them in Polish, German, Ukrainian, Icelandic, English instead of grunting, it would have improved our educations immensely.
Most of the time, being illiterate in another language doesn’t matter, even when we are abroad, because we nearly always can find someone who is literate in English.
However, there can be problems in countries where the language is ostensibly English. When I first moved to the United States, we stopped at a restaurant in South Dakota. Not South Carolina. Just across the border from Manitoba. It still felt like home. I asked for a nip and chips. The waitress looked at my oddly and I realized she didn’t understand me.
“Hamburger,” I said.
She nodded, went away and brought back a bag of potato chips. “French fries,” I said. She gave me a wary smile. This was when the Cold War with Russia was still on. I was hoping she wasn’t going to call the FBI. That’s how they catch spies, at least in some movies. The spies can speak English but it’s not idiomatic.
Of course there was the screaming hilarity when we were teenagers and heard an English pilot say that he’d met a very nice local girl and he was going to knock her up.
We get so comfortable in the smallness of our local language that it is easy to forget that in most places, we’re illiterate. When I briefly took over as editor at Logberg-Heimskringla, my lack of literacy in Icelandic came roaring back like a tidal wave, like a raging forest fire, like a meteor shower.
Vinarterta and skyr do not a vocabulary make. Knowing a few scattered words did not help me catch the error in sumardúðir which should have been sumarbúðir.
There are, however, all sorts of people around Winnipeg and among the readers of LH who are literate in Icelandic. They are nearly all women. That´s partly because a lot of the older men have died. Some people say men die off first because they are constitutionally inferior to women. I say men are simply more adventurous, always rushing off ahead, looking for new frontiers. They just can’t help it. It’s the testosterone.
That´s not the whole explanation, though. Do you remember spelling competitions in grade school? The teachers called them spelling bees. I called them humiliate and torture the boys. One half of the class stood on one side of the room and the other half on the other side of the room. The teacher gave you a word. She didn’t even have the decency to whisper it in your ear. She said it out loud. If you spelled it wrong, you had to sit down. I never got sore feet from standing. The last person standing was the person who won the competition. The last person was always a girl.
If the teacher were a sadist, she’d put the boys on one side and the girls on the other. Then the slaughter would begin. It was like machine gunning the boys with double syllable words. Cat, hat, dog, and house were okay but the girls could spell words like Mississippi. It wasn’t fair. They sang that word out when they jumped rope. The problem with girls is that they did their homework and read the dictionary.
If the teacher said to one of the boys, “Why don’t you look up how to spell words in the dictionary?”, the boy would look puzzled and say, “Dictionary?”
For a long time I was illiterate in English. Comic books and newspaper comics and the Hardy Boys and Robin Hood got me over that. I got tired of waiting and hoping that someone would read me the coloured comics on Saturday mornings. I wanted to know what Tarzan was saying to the animals. 
It’s too bad there hadn’t been comic books in Icelandic. I’d have done whatever was necessary to learn to read them. I’d probably have learned Finnish if it meant being able to read comic books. And The Black Arrow and Robinson Crusoe.
That would have still left me illiterate in a lot of languages. My friend Valerie’s father was the only person I’ve ever known who was a polyglot. I think he knew sixteen languages. He could listen to German, say, and send it out as Morse code in English. He knew Swahili. He used to call me Bwana Makuba. Big chief. At least that’s what he said it meant. You never know, do you?
If I had to do it again, I’d do like those Icelandic farmers I keep reading about who taught themselves Danish, German, Latin, English during the long winter evenings. Most of them seem to have done it by reading the Bible. I’d probably choose something a little more light hearted but it would be pretty nice to travel and talk to people in their own language. Makes the argument I hear in Canada about how if a child learns more than one language it’ll fill up his brain and won’t leave room for him to learn to play computer games pretty lame.
   
 (This is why you should give some books to the kids in your family for Christmas. Books they want to read.)

One True Note, Laxness

 The Fish Can Sing (Vintage, 2008)

A genius of a book. A brilliant book. A book that grabbed my heart. 
How could I, coming from Gimli, with some Icelandic genes and a lot of Icelandic history and culture, not have read this book before now? It makes one wonder about the waving of flags and toasts to Iceland and speeches and Viking helmets and all that and just how meaningful it is when someone like me hasn’t read The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness.
How many North Americans of Icelandic descent have read The Fish Can Sing? Raise your hands. I think I’m going to ask this question at next year’s Islindingadagurinn. That way I won’t feel quite so guilty. Guilt likes company.
I have excuses. I lived in Iowa, Missouri, British Columbia. None are hotbeds of Icelandic culture. But I’ve never missed an Icelandic Festival and never turned down a piece of vinarterta. Surely, part of that experience should have included reading stories by Laxness. He’s the only Nobel prize writer we’ve got. It’s not like Laxness’s books aren’t available. Tergesen’s always has them on sale and you now can buy them on Amazon. They’re not expensive.
This is an easy book to read. For one thing, it is a happy book. It’s about a little boy without a father and whose mother, when she leaves for America, hands him to an elderly couple. The couple at Brekkukot treat him in every way as a beloved son.
The narrator is that boy grown-up. He explains that since he has no father, his last name is Hansson which means ”His-son.” There is no man’s name, Arni or Baldur or Ragnar so that he could be called Arnis-son, Baldurs-son, or Ragnars-son.
The couple who take on the role of both parents and grandparents but are neither, they’re not even married to each other do not just feed and clothe him but provide him with a set of moral values, with security, with an education and, finally, with an opportunity to rise in the world.
Brekkukot is just a fisherman’s cot but it also is a place of refuge. People who need a place to stay come there, sometimes staying for years on end. These visitors help to provide the boy, Alfgrimur, with an education. People come to get well, others to die. The property lies beside a graveyard and it is here that Alfgrimur hears singing and eventually sings over the graves of those who cannot afford to pay someone to sing for them.
Nearby lives an elderly woman, younger than the woman he calls grandmother, but nearly blind and deaf. She has a son who has become famous as a singer in Europe and who has the stage name Gardar Holm. Many people assume that Alfgrimur and Gardur Holm are related but the relationship is never defined. Gardur Holm takes an interest in Alfgrimur, buys him cakes, gives him money, counsels him.
The book is about fishing for lumpfish, about eating cream cakes, but it is mostly about poor Icelanders who are presented in a way that is dignified, that makes them human, that allows them to be proud in spite of their poverty. These are people who are honorable and, who, in spite of a lack of formal education, ask profound questions.
Alfgrimur gives us a picture of his grandfather, Bjorn of Brekkukot, that brings him to life. Here was a man who was never heard referring to anything contained in the sermons but wouldn’t accept even a Bible without paying for it. When a neighbour steals precious peat from him then, with a guilty conscience, brings it back, Bjorn invites him in for coffee, discusses what has been done and ends up giving the peat to the thief.
Bjorn would not have been out of place in New Iceland. I recognize him. As a child I knew rough fishermen, usually stolid and silent, strong, even hard but they, too, seeing someone with less than them would have given the thief wood from their woodpile.
This book is a delight because of the sympathetic descriptions of the people with all their oddities and foibles. However, it also raises serious questions about the purpose of life and the way it is lived. Bjorn ignores the marketplace. He does not lower his price when there are fish in abundance, nor does he raise his price when there is a scarcity of fish. To him, fish have a value whether they are abundant or scarce.
 Gardur Home is presented as a world famous operatic singer. He appears and disappears, always with rumours of his success swirling around his visits. Gradually, though, the façade that he presents is shattered. 
At a dinner in his honour that ironically is really about the success of the merchant who has provided the money for Gardur Holm to go to Europe and to have a singing career, the merchant says that “it isn’t enough that Icelandic fish should have Danish ribbons and bows, it has to have the ribbon of international fame. In a word, we have to prove to the rest of the world that ‘the fish can sing like a bird’. And that is why we who sell the fish have made great efforts to improve the cultural life of the nation”.
But Gardur Holm in talking to Alfagrimur tells him a story that reveals what his life has really been like. The grant of money is seldom much and it often doesn’t arrive. It is the story of artists yesterday, today and tomorrow. It is the story of artists in a society that values fish and profits or aluminum smelting and profits or banking schemes and profits over all else. 
The artist, as Gardur Holm describes him, is a poor wretch desperately clinging to the small gifts given by the merchants of fish. (or, if you wish, the Canada Council)
At the beginning of the book, the narrator says, “I think that our own standard had its origins in my grandfather’s conviction that the money which people consider theirs by right was unlawfully accumulated, or counterfeit, if it exceeded the average income of a working man; and therefore that all great wealth was inconsistent with common sense. I can remember him saying often that he would never accept more money than he had earned.
“But what does a man earn, people will ask? How much does a man deserve to get? “
This book was first published in 1957. How more relevant could it be to a society that has been told that greed is good? A society where bankers steal a good deal of people’s money and lose the rest through incompetence, where bonuses are obscene and retirement packages beyond all reason? Where a small percentage of the population takes more and more of society’s wealth?
The questions and objections being raised by the Occupy movement and others, even the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of England, are all here. For those who are prepared to fight for social justice, a picture of Halldor Laxness on their flag would not be amiss. 
This is a book to enjoy but it is also a book to ponder.
Put it under your Christmas tree. Time is running short but you can still get a copy for someone who wants to be proud of his Icelandic background.

The Great Feast at Thingvalla 1874

At Geyser, the famous water fountain has refused to perform even though a king waits expectantly. Finally, reluctantly, the king leaves because he has to return for the formal ceremonies that will take place at Thingvalla, that place where the early Icelandic parliaments were held. Here, there will be great celebrating. Many speeches will be made, many toasts drunk, many songs sung. Icelanders, famous for their choirs, will serenade the king. But the Icelanders, not quite knowing what to do with a king since none has come to Iceland before, and because they are intent on breaking free of Denmark after centuries of oppression, greet the king politely but not enthusiastically. They have little in the way of resources with which to entertain but they do their best. In Reykjavik, the banquets were made from food brought from Denmark. Here, on the great plain, most of the food is simple, Icelandic food. 
Bayard Taylor, with his party, leaves the geysers and rides to Thingvalla. The landscape is greatly decorated. A village of tents has sprung up. People have gathered from all over Iceland. Here the festivities with the King will be held.
Iceland lost its independence centuries before. Now, there was the possibility that they would regain that independence. In 1845, the Danish government had made some small concessions but, compared to the Faroes and other Danish colonies, Iceland was still treated badly.
Although the liberalization had not been much, it had been enough to create both hope and action for self-rule.
Taylor says, “The leader of the movement is Jon Sigurdsson, a name dear to the people of Iceland, although its bearer could not be present at this memorable anniversary. The Constitution which, as the King declared, he “brought with him,” is mainly due to the persistent claims and representations of Jon Sigurdsson at Copenhagen.”
Taylor summarizes the major clauses. There are seven parts.
The first part sets out the relationship; of the King and Danish Government with the Althing. Legislative power belongs to the King and the Althing. The King has the executive power. The judges have judicial power. The Governor is the most powerful person in the country and he is appointed by the King. The Althing only sits for six weeks and that once every two years.
The King has to approve any laws passed by the Althing.
In part two, the structure of the Althing is set out. There will be thirty deputies elected and six chosen by the King. If the government is dissolved, the King’s appointees continue to hold their positions. There’ll be an upper and lower house.
The third section lays out the legislative roles of the two houses. The regular Althing will meet on the “first work-day in July in Reykjavik. Each house can introduce and pass bills. The Althing has entire control of the finances of Iceland but any Danish appointees have to be paid first.
Section four describes the judiciaries’ powers.
Section five makes the Lutheran Church the state church but people have “liberty of conscience.”
Section six contains the details governing daily life. It describes the right to private property, poor-laws, elementary education, the freedom of the press, freedom of association, taxation,
The seventh section describes how the constitution shall be amended.
Royal power and Danish supremacy is guaranteed by the constitution. Still, it is a beginning. Icelanders have waited hundreds of years. They can wait a bit more.
Taylor say, “Yet, with all its illiberal and even despotic restrictions, the people accept the Constitution, for it is something. If nothing else, it is the beginning of that political education
which they have utterly lost for so many centuries, and which alone can finally qualify them to obtain their just demands.
“The great service which Jon Sigurdsson has rendered to Iceland is not so much in the gift of this Constitution as in the fact that he has broken the long apathy of the people, persuaded them to ask, and secured them a result which means courage for the future, if not satisfaction with the present. In this sense the list of August, 1874, is the opening of a new era in Iceland’s history.
 “I have rarely, if ever, been so profoundly interested in a race. Not Thingvalla, or Hekla, or the Geysers—not the desolate, fire-blackened mountains, the awful gloom of the dead lava plains, the bright lakes and majestic fiords—have repaid me for this journey, but the brief glimpse of a grand and true-hearted people, innocent children in their trust and their affections, almost more than men in their brave, unmurmmering endurance.”
(With notes and quotes from Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874, Bayard Taylor)

 

Bayard Taylor, with his party, leaves the geysers and rides to Thingvalla. The landscape is greatly decorated. A village of tents has sprung up. People have gathered from all over Iceland. Here the festivities with the King will be held.
Iceland lost its independence centuries before. Now, there was the possibility that they would regain that independence. In 1845, the Danish government had made some small concessions but, compared to the Faroes and other Danish colonies, Iceland was still treated badly.
Although the liberalization had not been much, it had been enough to create both hope and action for self-rule.
Taylor says, “The leader of the movement is Jon Sigurdsson, a name dear to the people of Iceland, although its bearer could not be present at this memorable anniversary. The Constitution which, as the King declared, he “brought with him,” is mainly due to the persistent claims and representations of Jon Sigurdsson at Copenhagen.”
Taylor summarizes the major clauses. There are seven parts.
The first part sets out the relationship; of the King and Danish Government with the Althing. Legislative power belongs to the King and the Althing. The King has the executive power. The judges have judicial power. The Governor is the most powerful person in the country and he is appointed by the King. The Althing only sits for six weeks and that once every two years.
The King has to approve any laws passed by the Althing.
In part two, the structure of the Althing is set out. There will be thirty deputies elected and six chosen by the King. If the government is dissolved, the King’s appointees continue to hold their positions. There’ll be an upper and lower house.
The third section lays out the legislative roles of the two houses. The regular Althing will meet on the “first work-day in July in Reykjavik. Each house can introduce and pass bills. The Althing has entire control of the finances of Iceland but any Danish appointees have to be paid first.
Section four describes the judiciaries’ powers.
Section five makes the Lutheran Church the state church but people have “liberty of conscience.”
Section six contains the details governing daily life. It describes the right to private property, poor-laws, elementary education, the freedom of the press, freedom of association, taxation,
The seventh section describes how the constitution shall be amended.
Royal power and Danish supremacy is guaranteed by the constitution. Still, it is a beginning. Icelanders have waited hundreds of years. They can wait a bit more.
Taylor say, “Yet, with all its illiberal and even despotic restrictions, the people accept the Constitution, for it is something. If nothing else, it is the beginning of that political education
which they have utterly lost for so many centuries, and which alone can finally qualify them to obtain their just demands.
“The great service which Jon Sigurdsson has rendered to Iceland is not so much in the gift of this Constitution as in the fact that he has broken the long apathy of the people, persuaded them to ask, and secured them a result which means courage for the future, if not satisfaction with the present. In this sense the list of August, 1874, is the opening of a new era in Iceland’s history.
 “I have rarely, if ever, been so profoundly interested in a race. Not Thingvalla, or Hekla, or the Geysers—not the desolate, fire-blackened mountains, the awful gloom of the dead lava plains, the bright lakes and majestic fiords—have repaid me for this journey, but the brief glimpse of a grand and true-hearted people, innocent children in their trust and their affections, almost more than men in their brave, unmurmmering endurance.”
(With notes and quotes from Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874, Bayard Taylor)

The King at the Geysers

In Reykjavik, there are various formal affairs but one of the major goals of his hosts is to show the king the Geysers. The geysers are one of the wonders of the world. The geysers don’t erupt but much is revealed about both the Icelanders and the king during the time the king waits to see the Great Geyser send its legendary column of water skyward.
Although the King has ordered 160 horses for his trip to Thingvalla and the geysers, Zoega manages to find 30 more horses for Bayard Taylor’s group of twelve men. This group is made up of seven visitors, the steamer’s cook, the second steward plus three Icelanders—Geir, Zoega’s nephew, Eyvinder and Jón. First, they travel to Thingvalla. They stay overnight, then continue to the geysers. The Americans set up their tents and wait for the geysers to erupt. The King’s party arrives shortly after them. They, too, set up their tents and wait. During this waiting, Taylor learns something about Icelanders.
“I saw half a dozen—four men and two women—stand vacantly grinning at the King as he
passed them, and even when he politely saluted them, the men hesitated, in awkward shyness, before they even touched their hats. Another, to whom he was speaking in a kindly manner, with his hand upon the man’s shoulder, suddenly remembered that some mark of respect was necessary, and snatched off his hat with as much haste as if there had been a hornet inside of it.
“Among the people were several sick persons, who had made long journeys in the hope of finding a physician in the King’s suite. Disappointed in this, they turned to Dr. Hays and our jovial Rejkiavik friend, Dr. Hjaltalin.
“The first case was a man suffering from Bright’s disease, for which, unfortunately, we had no medicines. But the medicine-chest, when it was opened, attracted our visitors with a singular
power. Men and women crowded around, gazing with eager interest and (as it seemed to me) longing upon the bottles of pills and potions.
“Soon afterwards there came a married couple, the mother carrying a baby which, as it needed but a glance to see, was almost dying of croup. They had carried the poor child on horseback for five hours, in the hope of finding relief. There was no time to be lost ; hot baths and poultices were ordered at the byre near at hand, and in the meantime an opiate was administered. The gasping and writhing of the child was too much for those strong Icelandic men. The mother stood calm and firm, holding it; but Zoega (he has come with the King’s company) ran away in one direction and Eyvindur in another, crying like children, and the farmers turned aside their heads to hide their tears.
“At the byre nothing could exceed the kindness of the farmer’s family,—in fact, of all who could help. The King’s purveyor furnished white bread for a poultice; a hot bath was made ready, and the father stuffed the child’s clothes into his bosom to keep them warm for it. All night the people watched with it, and the next morning everybody looked happy, on hearing that its condition had somewhat improved.
“The next case was a boy with hip disease, for whom little could be done, though the Doctor constructed a temporary support for his foot.
“The people invariably asked how much they should pay, and gratefully shook
hands when payment was declined. I made an effort to talk with a group of farmers, finding them ready enough, only a little embarrassed at the start; but when I asked: “Do you know Saemund’s Edda !” there was an instant flash and flame in their faces, and all shyness vanished. The Njal and Volsunga Sagas, Snorre Sturlusson, with a score of obscurer Sagas of which I had never heard, were eagerly mentioned and discussed. It was remarkable to see their full knowledge of Icelandic literature, and their vital interest in it.
Do you know who first discovered America?” I asked.
“Yes, yes!” they all cried, in a body; “it was Leif, the son of Erik the Red.”
“When was it?”
“About the year 1000. And there was Thorfinn Karlsefne, who went afterward, and Thorwald. They called the country Vinland.”
“We know it,” said I. “I am a Vinlander.”
“They silently stretched out their hands and shook mine. An instinct of the true nature of the people arose in me. Within an hour I had seen what tenderness, goodness, knowledge, and desire for knowledge are concealed under their rude, apathetic exteriors. To meet them was like being suddenly pushed back to the thirteenth century; for all the rich, complex, later-developed life of the race has not touched them. More than ever I regretted my ignorance of the language, without knowing which no stranger can possibly understand their character.”
The Americans and the King’s party are to be disappointed. They’ve come, like many others, to see the Great Geyser. At one moment, it sounds like an eruption will occur.
“The King, who had turned aside to salute our company, was in the act of expressing to me his admiration of the scene, when the Little Geyser gave sudden signs of action. There was a rush of the whole party. His Majesty turned and ran like a boy, jumping over the gullies and stones with
an agility which must have bewildered the heavy officials, who were compelled to follow as they best could. It was a false alarm.”
Even a king cannot command the Icelandic wilderness.
(With notes and quotes from Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874, Bayard Taylor)

Reykjavik in 1874

I don’t think most people, including me, have had any idea of what it was like to have the Danish king come to Iceland for the first time in history. It’s easy to say, Christian IX went to Iceland but kings don’t just go somewhere. They are kings. There must be some pomp and ceremony.
Reykjavik, in 1874 was still a small town. There were about two thousand people, I believe. The important people were mostly Danish officials. However, there were some Icelanders with social stature. The country was desperately poor. Yet, they wanted to be good hosts, to behave in a way of which they could be proud.
In this third episode, the king’s ship has arrived, the king has come ashore, and, now, the action shifted to the Governor’s house. Here were Icelanders dressed their best, ready to associate with royalty. Taylor captures the scene in Reykjavik. The women in their picturesque dresses, the men in their dark clothes, the street full of horses for everyone had come to Reykjavik by horse. To travel any distance required not one horse but a number of horses. There will have been horses everywhere.
Taylor and his friends go visiting. He describes these visits and also comments on the Icelanders and the way they deport themselves. He compliments Reykjavik, giving it a good character. It’s been spruced up for this regal visit.
So, here is Taylor. Read his descriptions and imagine that you are there, standing on the street, going visiting.  
“The Bishop, Committee, and other officials waited at the bottom of the garden, until summoned by a chamberlain in a red coat, when they too disappeared behind the Governor’s door. I now turned to inspect the crowd, and found to my surprise that the women were much more picturesque figures than the men. Many of them wore square bodices of some dark color, a gown with many pleats about the waist, with bright blue or red aprons. Nearly all had a flat cap–
or, rather, a circular piece of black cloth—on the top of the head, with a long black tassel on one side, hanging from a silver or gilded cylindrical ring, an inch or two in length. These rings are precisely like those which the women of Cairo wear over the nose, to hold the veil in its place. Some of the girls had their hair braided, but many wore it loose; and I saw one maiden whose magnificent pale yellow mane suggested a descent from Brynhilde.
“The men showed only two colors—the brown of their wadmal coats and trowsers and the ruddy tan of their faces. Few of them are handsome, and their faces are grave and undemonstrative; but they inspire confidence by the simple strength expressed in the steady blue eye and the firm set of the lips. There were plenty of tawny or piebald ponies with manes like lions, in the streets. I suppose many healths must have been drunk during the day, for the old Norse habit still flourishes here; but I saw only one man who was somewhat unsteady on his legs, while he managed to keep his face sober.
“In the afternoon, under the guidance of Herr Magnusson, we made a number of visits. Bishop Pjeturson first received us, and with a gentle, refined courtesy becoming his station. Conversation was carried on in French with himself, in English with his son, and in Danish with his wife. A bottle of champagne was produced, and the kind hosts touched glasses with us, in welcome to Iceland. We explained our object in coming, told of the interest felt by our countrymen in this rare historical anniversary, and claimed kinship of blood on the score of the
early relationship of Goth and Saxon, and our own later infusion of the Norman element. There is no Icelander—no Scandinavian, indeed—but knows and is proud of the race from which he is descended.
“Our next call was on Herr Thorberg, Governor of the Southern Syssel (District) of Iceland. Madame Thorberg spoke English with fluency and elegance,—in fact, we have discovered that the Rejkiavik ladies generally speak English and the gentlemen French. Then we visited, in turn, the Professor of Theology, the Dean, and the Rector of the University. The latter gentleman had heard of the collection of volumes for Iceland made in America—mainly through the efforts of Prof. Willard Fiske of Cornell University,—but stated that, with the exception of a case of
publications of the Smithsonian Institute, nothing of it had yet arrived. The duplicate volumes, when they come, are to be sent to Akureyri, the northern capital.
“It was stretching the hospitality of the gentlemen almost too far to visit them toward the close of a day so important and exciting for them; but nothing could exceed the genial warmth and kindliness of our reception. I notice something of the same quiet dignity, which is a characteristic of the upper classes, also among the common people. It must be a chief feature of the Gothic blood, for it exists in the same form in Spain and some provinces of Sweden. Such men
will take your pay and serve you faithfully, but you must never forget to treat them as equals. The impression which the Icelanders have made upon me, thus far, is unexpectedly agreeable. I am convinced that I should find the ways of the people easy to adopt, and that, once adopting (or at least respecting) them, I should encounter none but friends all over the island.
“As for Rejkiavik, it is far from being the dark, dirty, malodorous town which certain English and German travellers describe. The streets are broad and clean, the houses exceedingly cosy and pleasant, the turf of the greenest, the circle of the fiord and mountains truly grand, and only the absence of any tree suggests its high latitude.”