At the Geysers, Trollope, 1878

Sketch by  Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909)
At five in the morning Zoega, the famous Icelandic guide, had the ponies ready at the shore. For sixteen tourists, a cook, two servants, five guides, twenty-four in all, there were sixty-five horses. Imagine the scene. A spare horse for person, that’s forty-eight, with seventeen horses used as pack animals. The pack animals will carry the hundredweight of food, tents, clothes, and general baggage. The cost? Sixty-five pounds. In a country where barter was still used and silver, rare, the sum was a windfall.
Icelandic horses are small, that’s why they are referred to by Trollope as ponies. He says that the women were fairy Mastiffs, a light burden for any horse but that his horse would have to carry over sixteen stones. That’s twenty pounds to a stone. He weighs more than three hundred and twenty pounds.
Normally, Trollope says, he is used to travelling about five miles an hour by horse but here they made seven. The first stage is done in four hours. After twenty-eight miles, they stop for lunch. They’ve each brought a lunch and tea is made. The pack horses had left the previous night so as to be at Thingvalla when the travellers arrive. The tents will be set up. Food will be ready.
“Thingvalla is a wonderful place, very picturesque, worthy, in itself, of a journey. Taken as a whole it was perhaps of all that we saw in Iceland the most worth seeing.”
When they get to Thingvalla, arrangements are made for John Burns’ wife to remain with the minister and his family. The ladies spend the night sleeping in the church and the men sleep in tents.
The next day they ride to the Geysers. They expected the trip to take eight hours. The baggage horses weren’t able to leave before them. When the travellers get to the geysers, there’ll be no prepared dinner and no tents in which to rest. However, each carries a lunch, there is whiskey available and one of the farms close to “our resting-place on this day huge bowls of milk, washing-basins full of milk, were brought down to us from a neighbouring farm-house.”
Trollope, with his writer’s eye and writing style, captures a sense of the adventure in the following passage: “A few miles on from thence we came to the river Bruara, crossing it at a spot so beautiful and so singular that it will always rest on my memory distinct from all other river scenes. Some miles beyond the Bruara it was benevolently suggested by the elder Zoega that he would gallop on to a certain farm about three miles off and, as our own provisions were in the rear, have provided for us such comforts as the farmer could supply. Then it was a passion for fast riding first came upon our ladies. Zoega started in a gallop, and, – truth compels me to state the fact, – Miss Stuart would go with him. There fell upon Zoega a strong desire to reach that farmhouse alone, – but an equally strong desire on Miss Stuart to be there with him. When Zoega got off his pony at the gate, Miss Stuart, at the same moment, slipped off from hers at the same spot.
“After that, till we were back at Reykjavik, there can be no saying which of the three young ladies rode the hardest. Miss Reddie at last got an ugly lanky pony which for a while enabled her to leave every one in the lurch. Miss Campbell would for awhile take up the running so that we were inclined to back a little red wall-eyed animal which she rode against the field.
“As one result of the fast riding we got our coffee at the farm-house, called Muli, and had also an ample opprtunity of seeing the appurtenances of a comfortable Iceland grange. Our meal consisted chiefly of curds, cream, and sugar, which some of us pronounced to be excellent, and of which some of us ate very heartily. The curds were a little sour, – but were so deluged with thick cream that I thought them to be delicious.
 “After remaining at Muli nearly two hours, we galloped on, and soon reached the field of the Geysers which was about four miles distant.”
“Here we were at the Geysers! To most of us, I think, the Geysers had been the chief point of attraction. As I had seen the Geysers of New Zealand, and had learned how inferior were those in Iceland, I cannot say that it had been so to me. But the Geysers even of Iceland are a sight to see, and I was glad to have an opportunity of visiting them. Our ride to and from the Geysers, with Thingvalla, the Bruara, and our galloping ‘Mastiffs’, will always be dearer to me than the Geysers themselves.”
Trollope says that since he has seen the geysers of New Zealand, he thinks the Icelandic geysers to be “second-class Geysers.” He thinks the area around the geysers is so destroyed by the eruptions so that while it is a curious place, it is not beautiful.
 “I left Thingvalla with soft regrets, as I told myself that I should never again see that interesting spot. Thrice I had bathed in its rivers, and had roamed about it till I seemed to know all its nooks. It is a place full of nooks, because of those wonderful rifts, – and full of greenness. I had not cared much for the Geysers, but Thingvalla and the Bruara had been very charming to me. It was strange to me that there should be a place in Iceland so beautiful and so soft as Thingvalla with its lake.”
When they reach Reykjavik they wake up a photographer at six o’clock in the morning to get a group portrait made.”
And so it ends. But such a summary does this little book a great injustice for Trollope is a famous writer for good reason. His writing is clear and precise and has attitude that is revealing. Although he does not dwell on John Burns, he creates a picture of a man worth knowing. The same is true of the young ladies who ride at breakneck speed. In such a book, all he can provide is a brief glimpses but each glimpse is worth having. He is of his class and one cannot hold that against him. After all, no ordinary folk travelled to Iceland. Those who came to study and observe were wealthy and often titled. Barbers and cobblers couldn’t afford the ticket. As for the behaviour of the Mastiffs, today, we are none better. I’ve taken a cruise ship to the Baltic ports and had little experience of the people. Our captain did not even include local notables for our tables. We toured and bought trinkets and were insulated from the daily reality of the people.
This book, as small as it is, is valuable to those of us of Icelandic background for it provides a glimpse into Icelandic life that we seldom see in traveller’s accounts. The dinner party is a gem. The only thing one could have wished for was the dinner menu. Hopefully, some of those reading this series of excerpts, will read all of How The ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland and, of those, some will go on to read some of Trollope’s novels. And, perhaps, some of my readers will read the dinner guest list and see if any of their ancestors danced on the Mastiff’s deck.
(quotes from How The ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland)

The Dinner Party, Trollope, Reykjavik, 1878

 Sketch by Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909)
It’s 1878. John Burns has come to Iceland from Castle Wemyss on the yacht, Mastiff. He’s brought his wife and fourteen guests. Their purpose is neither academic nor literary. They’re in Iceland to see the famous geysers. In this, they join many other visitors who have come to observe, marvel at and try to understand the geysers.
Iceland is in crises. The weather, volcanic eruption, Danish rule and the stranglehold on the political and economic process by the ultra-conservative landowners has created poverty and hopelessness for many. Iceland is locked into its past by its elite. In the meantime, England has traded canals and coaches for railways. In 1806 the first fare-paying passenger train has gone into service. In 1863, fifteen years before the Mastiff anchors in the harbour at Reykjavik, England has its first subway. By 1800, London has a population of 950,000 and is growing toward what will become a population of 6 million in 1900. Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland, may have a population of 2,500. That is what Trollope has been told but from his observations, he doubts the population is that large.
In Iceland, the country suffers from a history of Icelandic bishops determined to ban all frivolity, all entertainment unless it is religious. As well, there are not the resources to purchase the supplies necessary or provide support for the fine arts. The state of Icelandic culture is captured by Halldór Laxness, in his novel, The Fish Can Sing. It presents a tragic picture of an Icelandic singer who is supposed to be a great success in Europe. The local merchants believe that he must be a great singer because he can sing louder than the noise made by eleven hundred pigs a day being butchered in a slaughterhouse in Denmark. In England, that frivolity and leisure activity has turned into a sophisticated culture. The big news of the day is that an Australian cricket team has arrived. Oxford defeats Cambridge in their first golf match. Gilbert/Sullivan’s opera “HMS Pinafore,” premieres in London. What seems most amazing is that “the first rugby match under floodlights takes place in Salford, between Broughton and Swinton.”(Wickipedia) What would the Icelandic bishops thought of all that?
As different as chalk and cheese, the Mastiffs and the Icelanders. At dinner there will be sixteen English, fourteen Icelanders.
The guest list provided by Trollope includes the following:
  
Governor HILMAR FINSEN, and his wife, Lady OLUFA FINSEN.
Mr. THORBERG (Governor Praefect or Amtman) and his wife.
Mr. A THORSTEINSON (Treasurer)
Bishop P. PJETURSSON, and his wife.
Miss THORA PJETURSSON, his daughter (our particular friend).
Mr. J. PJETURSSON, (Head of the Superior Court.)
Mr. J. THORKELSON (Rector of the Latin College).
Mr. J. ARNASEN (Inspector of the Latin College).
SIGRIDUR JONSDOTTER and GUDRUN KNUTSEN (two beautiful
young ladies in full Icelandic costume).
Mr. JON JONSSON (Sheriff of Reykjavik).
(To an Icelander, the one puzzling thing about the guest list is why Thora, so often described for  her beauty, so obviously a woman, and definitely, the daughter of the bishop, would be described as  his son? However, it is an understandable error and, more to the point, it is an indication of what will happen to the Icelandic naming system in North America.)
To celebrate the supper, the Mastiff is decked out with flags and her guns are fired. The Mastiff’s boats collect the Icelandic party and bring the visitors to the ship.
Trollope is seated between the beautiful Thora and the Governor’s wife, Mrs. Finsen. Thora he leaves to entertain other guests and devotes himself to Mrs. Finsen. It is this same Mrs. Finsen who received Christian IX when he came to Reykjavik and did it so well that Bayard Taylor says about her, “The door of the Governor’s house opened and Madame Finsen appeared, dressed in a simple black silk, without any ornaments. She descended the steps of the first garden terrace, curtsied at the right moment to the royal guest, a little less deeply to the Prince, and accompanied them to the door. This sounds like a very simple matter ; but not many ladies would have accomplished it with such admirable grace, tact, and self-possession.”
Mrs. Finsen speaks English and Trollope says that during the course of the dinner that Mrs. Finsen tells him so much of her life that he might know an Englishwoman for thirty years and not learn as much about her. He describes Mrs. Finsen as “comely, brown, pleasant, smiling lady, with a large face, bright eyes, and a look of homely good humour that I have never seen excelled”. It might be a compliment but it has an edge to it and it is impossible not to think of some of the descriptions in Pride and Prejudice of the country behaviours that embarrass Elizabeth.
They have dinner but, alas, there is no menu to show what the visitors brought for this grand meal. What might there have been on the table that would have amazed the Icelanders? When the king banqueted, it was fresh grapes. After dinner there are toasts, then they all go on deck to dance.
Sketch by  Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909)
Trollope is quite interested in the fact that “Thora was dressed as she might have been dressed in Paris or in London….Our other Iceland beauties, Sigridur and Gudrun, were there in the full picturesqueness of their native costume. It was all very unlike the dresses of our own girls, but most unlike no doubt in the head-dress. This consisted of a white hat, with, I think, yellow bands to it, made something in the shape of Minerva’s helmet, with the crest turned forwards. From this depended a light veil covering the shoulders, and hanging down the back, but leaving the face free. Then there was a jaunty jacket, partly open in the centre, with large bright buttons down the front and on the sleeves. The skirt beneath was of some bright colour, projecting forward like an extinguisher, coming even quite down to the ground so as to hide the feet, but with no inclination towards a train. In fact it seemed to be of exactly the same length before and behind. The head-dress, as may be seen in the excellent portrait furnished by our artist, for which Sigridur had that morning sat, is very pretty. The costume as a whole is picturesque and the jacket is becoming.”
After dining and dancing away the night, on Sunday morning, the English have a church service on board the ship, then go to a service at the Reykjavik church. There, Trollope notices that the ladies are all in their Icelandic costumes. He is told that the congregation has been ordered to show off their finery for the visitors.
There may be hunger abroad in the land and people trudging over mountain passes to reach harbours and ships that will take them, they hope, to a better life. There may be people who own little or nothing, who are considered such a burden on Icelandic society that their fares are being paid to North America because it is cheaper to get rid of them than for the sýsla to keep them. But, as always, there are those who are well connected, well paid, well fed, well dressed, well educated, well entertained. No one on the guest list will go hungry the day after the banquet, or a month or year after the banquet; none will dress in rags, will sleep with the cattle, will walk for days over mountain passes and heaths in a desperate hope of a new life in a New Iceland where they can have their own land.
The English guests, having proven excellent hosts and, having met their social obligations, are ready to turn to the true purpose of their trip. To the geysers. The marvelous, legendary geysers. The geysers that, today, still draw busloads of tourists from around the world. Except this trip in 1878 will be made on horseback.
(Quotes from How The ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland, Anthony Trollope)

Trollope’s picnic, Iceland,1878

Sketch by Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909)

In 1878, Iceland, faced with disastrous weather, recent volcanic eruption, the continuing domination of Denmark in spite of the new constitution brought to Iceland by Christian IX in 1874, was riven with conflict. Some, seeing the end of Danish rule, the actual appearance of coinage brought in payment by the English and Scottish traders who were buying cattle, the possibility of Icelanders becoming merchants and traders instead of just the providers of goods to trade in a monopoly situation, were strongly opposed to the emigration that was going on. These were the nationalists and idealists. Also opposed were the better off large landowning farmers who were seeing their cheap labour disappear and, as a result, wages, little as they were, going up. In a marginal economy with one crop, hay, even well-to-do farmers could be reduced to penury by a summer when the grass didn’t grow. Conservative, opposed to change, the dominant land owners’ solution was to keep costs as low as possible. That meant keeping the majority of the population as indentured servants. On the other hand those who had no future were determined to leave. They rode, or often walked, to the coast, waited for ships that were frequently delayed by bad weather. The conflict between those who wanted no emigration and those determined to search for a life where there was opportunity was often bitter.
In the midst of this social upheaval, the Mastiffs, Trollope says “were all engaged in frivolous pursuits of buying silver ornaments and talking to the good-natured people in the shops, – all of whom seemed to possess a little English”
John Burns, the wealthy host of the trip, was busy on his own errands. He was going about Reykjavik asking “all the greater people of the town to come and eat dinner on board the Mastiff.” Burns also decides that there should be a picnic in the afternoon of the Saturday even though the dinner is Saturday night. None of the travelers, of course, has anything to do but be presentable. The food was prepared by the on-board cook.
Trollope has mentioned before that except for curds (skyr?), milk and cream, none of the travellers try any Icelandic food. On the coming Monday, they intend to pack a hundredweight of English cooked meat and bread with them to the Geysers.
The picnic is a great success. Thora “the divine” goes with them. She’s fluent in English and can translate for them. They sail three or four miles to an island devoted to the breeding of eider ducks.
Thora leads them to the home of the owner of the island. For Iceland, he has a fine house. Trollope can’t resist a little sarcasm by saying that Icelanders all seem to like English gold and gives as an example a lot of Icelandic silver work set out on the piano that is obviously there so the English visitors will buy it. Word, it would seem, has gone ahead about the Mastiffs shopping for trinkets in Reykjavik.
Trollope says that it was while they were having their picnic that “Thora made herself so divine that our Wilson seemed altogether to succumb to her attractions.”
 According to Trollope, the picnic lunch was stupendous. However, they didn’t dally as they had to get back to the Mastiff to prepare for “the grand dinner.”
The English travellers are worldly, used to the best of everything. Their lives could probably be described as sumptuous. There is nothing in Iceland to compare with Castle Wymess or even the grand houses of the other members of the party. To these visitors, intent not on geology, politics, history, ornithology, but only on seeing the famous geysers, what must be, for them, a primitive and poor society is no more than amusing. It’s a diversion paid for by someone else. Unlike Charles Lock they are not in search of the Eddas. Of course, it is impossible to know what any of the other party members thought or felt for it is throughTrollope’s lens that everything is reported and his description is constrained by good manners and obligation.
There is probably no more telling detail of the attitude of the travellers to the Icelanders than the attitude toward Icelandic food. What was available, it is true, was limited. And, one might add, when the Danish king came to Reykjavik, the food for the banquet in the city was brought with him. However, when the reception in his honour was held at the Almannagjá, it was Icelandic food that was served him and no one mentioned that he declined.
The only items of value to the English travellers, it seems, are the bits and pieces of silver jewelry that are bought as souvenirs and, even some of these, Trollope says, may have come from the British Isles. Unlike S. E. Waller, a young painter who, inspired by the sagas, had so little money that he could not afford more than three horses and a single guide, the Mastiffs were not seeking the home of Burnt Njál. Waller travelled across Iceland to paint scenes from the sagas. Even a small amount of money would have made his travels less arduous. However, the Icelandic farmers, recognizing that he was not rich, befriended him. He learned something of the Icelandic people’s generosity and kindness. They often provided food and accommodation without charge. Nor did they charge for their precious grass. Waller came to Iceland with a deep appreciation of Icelandic literature and history. He sought, in the face of hardship, to create something of lasting value. The Mastiffs brought nothing, it seems, with them beyond English gold and took away nothing but trinkets.

Trollope at Reykjavik, 1878

The Mastiff arrives in Reykjavik early in the morning. After bathing in the ocean, the travellers go ashore. 
They first visit Governor Finsen, the Governor-General of Iceland. Trollope comments on how kindly the sixteen unexpected guests were received. The Governor also provides them with all the information required for finding a guide and horses for their ride to the Geysers. 
From there, they go to the Sheriff’s, then to the Bishop’s (http://books.google.ca/books/about/Biskop_Pjetur_Pjetursson.html?id=5OgEHQAACAAJ&redir_esc=y.) The bishop is considered Iceland’s greatest theological writer since Gubrandur Thorlaksson, the first translator of the Bible into Icelandic. He served as a member of the Icelandic Althing, or parliament, from 1849 until 1886, for the last eleven years as speaker of the upper house.
There, they meet Thora, the Bishop’s daughter. She is so beautiful, so charming, so vivacious, that she is repeatedly mentioned in Trollope’s account of their stay in Reykjavik. He even suggests, teasingly, that one of the male members of the English party has fallen in love with Thora and might return to Iceland to court and marry her.    
He says, “But at the Bishop’s we became acquainted with Thora, the Bishop’s daughter. Thora, before we left, had become to all of us the heroine of Reykjavik. Even Wilson, the unhappy one, was softened altogether by the charm and wit of Thora, and became quite devoted and almost gay in her presence.” (http://www.forlagid.is/?p=573500) A book about Thora has recently been released in Iceland. Unfortunately, it is only in Icelandic.
After these formal visits to the dignitaries of Reykjavik, they roam about town like typical tourists of today. They buy silver ornaments, silvered belts and filigree work as souvenirs. They also buy leather whips and satchels.
Fish, he notices, is spread out on every available piece of ground, that bread is rare and that the mutton (he was told) is good.
What is more interesting is that he says, “I do not think that any one of our party ate a morsel of Icelandic food during our sojourn beyond curds, cream, and milk, – unless it might be a biscuit taken with a glass of wine. Our provisions had all been brought from Scotland, and from our ship’s stores we carried with us up to the Geysers what was needed.” They ate no Icelandic lamb, no fish.
What he praises is the education of the people. However, he does not know that from his own experience. He quotes from Sir George MacKenzie who published a book about Iceland in 1811, sixty-seven years before.
“The amount of reading which certainly does prevail throughout Iceland is marvellous. There is hardly in the island what can be called an upper class. There is no rich body, as there is with us, for whose special advantage luxurious schools and aristocratic universities can be maintained. But there is a thoroughly good college at Reykjavik, with a rector and professors, at which a sound classical education is given; and there are now also minor schools….There are five newspapers published in the island, two of them at Reykjavik.”
He’s surprised that there is no bank. The result is that most commerce is based on the barter of goods. “The imports and exports are considerable, fish, oil, skins, tallow, and wool being sent away in exchange for timber, wood, tea, sugar, and all those thousand little articles of comfort which a civilised community uses every day almost without knowing it. But nothing can be imported or exported without payment being rendered in the old world fashion of barter.”
In a walk he took by himself around “the back of the town, where lies a little lake with marshy land around it, I found a number of women and children turning the peat for drying, or sending away in baskets on their ponies that which was fit, carrying on their operations very much as they do in Ireland. Fuel to them is a matter of great solicitude. During eight months of the year artificial warmth is necessary; and not only have they no coals, but neither have they wood. Coal imported from Scotland may be bought at Reykjavik; but as there is no carriage for anything through the country except on the backs of ponies, very little coal can ever be seen beyond the limits of the town.”
The Mastiffs are typical well-to-do tourists. Their accommodation is on the ship. They buy what souvenirs they can find. In Iceland, in 1878, the emigration to North America is well underway. Hunger is widespread, there’s been a major volcanic eruption, economic and social conditions are driving away what will eventually be twenty percent of Iceland’s population. There is no mention of any of it. There’s not even any awareness revealed.
It is, perhaps, instructive that Trollope made his walk around the back of the town by himself. Perhaps a writer, even one who has made himself a place among the wealthy and the prominent, has a wider interest in the world than his wealthy, privileged friends.
(Quotes from How the ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland)

The Mastiff at the Faroes, 1878

Sketch by Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909

Trollope and his friends leave St. Kilda and head for the Faroe Islands. They are on a sightseeing junket paid by the head of Cunard Lines. They’re travelling on the yacht, the Mastiff. They hold high positions, individually, or as members of important families. They are used to life in European cities. At St. Kilda, they’ve seen what life is like in an isolated place where bare survival requires charity. Where good fortune is the gift of a few feet of rope. Now, they go to the Faroes, also isolated, but with a population of around ten thousand and circumstances that allow them to fish and farm more successfully. This visit is good preparation for when the Mastiffs  reach Iceland.
The Faroes are inextricably linked with Iceland. Numerous books about Iceland are also about the Faroes. Harper&Brothers published a book, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroes in 1841. Kneeland says in his book, Travels In Iceland, 1874, that travellers should go to Iceland via Scotland, the Orkneys, Shetlands, and the Faroes. Russell’s, Iceland, 1914, starts with a chapter on the Faroes.
The Faroes, as small as they are, were the first country to offer Iceland financial aid during the recent economic crises. In spite of that, the Faroes are often dismissed by Icelanders, brushed off with a sniff. That may be because of their size or it may be lingering resentment that the Faroes were always treated well by the Danish king. When Christian IX stopped at the Faroes on his way to Iceland in 1874, the Faroese had nothing to ask from him. No one asked for a new constitution. The population was quite satisfied with the way it was being treated. The Icelanders wanted a new constitution and independence. They’d suffered for centuries under harsh Danish law and trading monopolies that exploited them.
When the Mastiff’s passengers arrive at Thorshavn, Trollop says, “The postmaster, with a considerable proportion of the population, was there, on the rocks, to receive us.
“We were taken first to the postmaster’s house, – only, I think, because the doing so was an act of hospitality. Here we found ourselves in a very pretty room, comfortably furnished, overlooking a beautifully picturesque nook of the sea.” This would be, in Iceland, the description of a Danish trader’s house, not an Icelanders. Ida Pfeiffer, in 1845, upon arriving in Iceland describes the Danish traders’ houses this way: “If any person could suddenly and without having made the journey, be transported into one of these houses, he would certainly fancy himself in some continental town, rather than in the distant and barren island of Iceland.
She then adds, “From these handsome houses I betook myself to the cottages of the peasants, which have a more indigenous, Icelandic appearance….Throughout my subsequent journeys into the interior, I found the cottages of the peasant everywere alike squalid and filthy.”
Trollope, having landed safely and been greeted politely, says, “Then we proceeded upon a walk, a number of men and a long string of pretty maidens accompanying us. We went about among the narrow streets, – streets which are required for no wheeled vehicles, – and saw other maidens looking at us from out of the windows. These streets were not rectangular, straight, and ugly, but ran crookedly here and there, up and down hills, round the little indented bays of the sea, with houses standing sometimes angularly, sometimes with gables to the roadway. And the houses were all covered with green turf, with turf that at this time of the year was growing, – a mode of roofing which gave a singularly picturesque appearance to the place.
“The turf is used as a protection against snow, and is a protection of which the ‘Mastiffs’ saw more when they found themselves in Iceland. That it should have been found necessary here I am surprised, as Thorshavn though it lies between 61 and 62 N.L., is not a place of very much snow. The climate is moist and foggy, and storms are frequent; but the winters are not severe. The frost lasts hardly beyond a month, and the harbours are seldom icebound. But there are the houses covered with grass, giving to the place from a little distance the appearance of a town under the sods.
“When we had perambulated the streets we were taken up to a little hill over the town so that we might look down upon and see the nature of its situation and its structure. Thorshavn lies all around various little nooks of the sea, and has the smell and flavour of the sea which is peculiar to such places. It is very pretty, but its smell and flavour, combining that of many fishes, is one to which the visitor must become accustomed before it will be palatable. There is certainly the ancient and the fish-like smell; – otherwise Thorshavn is delightful.
“There are, I was told, about 10,000 inhabitants in the islands, of which the capital holds about 900. Looking at statistics composed as to the Faroes about twenty-five years ago, I find the number of the people given as 8,150 for the group altogether, and 1,500 for the capital.…The cultivation is very poor, the ground being too rocky for the general use of ploughs. Horses and cattle are rare. The wealth of the farmers consists in their sheep. The sheep, however, are never housed, and the wool is torn from their backs instead of being shorn. Here, as at St. Kilda, there is a great enterprise of bird-catching, for the sake of the flesh as well as the feathers. There seemed to be little or no poverty. A good carpenter in Thorshavn would earn 4s. a week; in other parts of the islands a moderate carpenter would earn 2s. They use Danish coins, of which the crown contains 100 farthings; this crown is worth something over as. The people generally are healthy; the girls appear to be remarkably strong. But here again I was told that rheumatism prevails.
“When we descended from the hill… to see the church. It was now considerably past midnight, and yet there seemed to be no difficulty in finding the key. The church was spacious, – not at all unlike one of our own ugly churches, with pews, and a gallery, and an organ. It seemed to me to be larger than would be wanted in England for a population of 900; but it is probably the case that a larger proportion of the population attends Divine service than is the case with ourselves. It was evident that they were proud of their church, and that they who accompanied us were anxious that we should see it.”
Although the Faroese appear much more Danish than the Icelanders–they have adopted the Danish system easily, the language, the coins, the postal service, the government appointments, and they appear to be better off–there is much similarity with Iceland. Some are in the details Trollope mentions.
Neither shear sheep. They pull off loose wool. It is an odd, wasteful practice that results in poor quality wool even though wool is a major trading item. If North American Icelandic beliefs about Iceland being held back because of lack of contact with more efficient ways of doing things were true, one could understand sheep not being sheared. It could be assumed the Faroese and Icelanders simply didn’t know that sheep should be sheared. However, the oddity of the practice of pulling off loose wool is such that not only does Trollope mention it but so do any number of other English travellers. One has to assume that the travellers mentioned it to people in both the Faroes and Iceland. Nearly every account of travels in Iceland states that wealth is not in silver but in sheep. The practice would seem to be more about attitude, a crippling refusal to change that Laxness repeatedly mentions in his novels,  than lack of knowledge.
Faroese buildings, like Icelandic ones, have turf roofs. Again, Trollope’s eye for detail, that essential quality of the novelist, notes both the turf roofs and the incongruity of them for there are other roofing materials available. In Iceland, he will see a situation where the people have no choice but to use sod, where wood is so scarce that whale ribs are used as roof beams.
Trollope notes that the streets of Thorshavn won’t accommodate wheeled vehicles. The stop in the Faroes prepares the travellers for Iceland, a country with hardly any attempt at building roads where everything, even the dead, are moved on horseback.
The major difference is that the climate is milder and Trollope makes note of it. Oats and barley will ripen. However, the winds can be fierce, so fierce that it actually strips away sod. In Iceland, the ripening of grain stopped far back in history. The one crop is grass. The Icelanders, like the Faroese, cut sod and dry it for fuel because fuel of any kind is in such short supply. In Iceland, it is so scarce that farmhouses are not heated. In the Faroes, the houses are heated but Trollope notes that the use of sod for fuel relentlessly reduces the pasture for the sheep.
This brief stop gives the travellers a preview of what is to come. Trollope, the famous writer, is the guest of Mr. John Burns, the owner of the Cunard Lines. He comes in luxury, the guest of a man who lives in a castle, a member of the nobility, the kind of successful businessman who can afford to take sixteen people on a yacht the size of the Mastiff.  A man who can afford to be both demanding and generous. One gets the impression that these tourists are no more enlightened about the condition of life for those outside their social class than today’s tourists on a cruise that stops at various ports of call. They look at the sights and buy local souvenirs. It may be when they return home, that in describing the people they saw, they will use the word “quaint”.
Trollope, used to upper class English society, a society in which he has made a place for himself among the rich and powerful, can’t help but see, because he is a novelist, what people’s lives are like. However, he is writing about the trip as a gesture of friendship to John Burns so the account of the trip must please his patron. There is no curiosity about the “peasants”, no visits to the earth like hovels like those Ida Pfeiffer made. There’s no point in complaining that Trollope isn’t Dickens. After all, none of the passengers would have any reason to enter the hovels of the local peasants in the areas from which they came. Why would they when abroad? Money shields the Mastiffs from daily reality. However, Anthony Trollope had a keen eye, and from some of his observations, one might expect that he had much to think about after he had his nightly whiskey and water and went to bed.
(Quotes from How the Mastiffs Went to Iceland)

Trollope at St. Kilda, on the way to Reykjavik, 1878

The Mastiff Built: 1878 Ship Type: Coaster Tonnage: 871 grt Length: 230 feet Breadth: 30 feet Owner: G & J Burns Ltd Glasgow Remarks: Broken up at Genoa 1924

 The people of St. Kilda

When travellers in the 1800s went to Iceland by ship, often from ports in Scotland or England, they seldom went directly to Iceland but more often stopped in places like St. Kilda or the Faroes. Descriptions of life in these places gives us an idea of what life was like for people on  these isolated islands and give us a chance to compare their daily life with life in Iceland.
In the case of Trollope and his companions, a group made up of people who were either wealthy and/or famous, aboard the Mastiff, stopping at St. Kilda and the Faroes, both highly picturesque places, was an adventure. Life in England and Scotland had progressed. The Industrial Revolution had brought train travel, new farming techniques, factories. Visiting the various islands was like stepping back in time.
“Nothing can be more picturesque than the approach to St. Kilda.…by degrees, we came upon the little green valley opening down upon the shore in which the people of St. Kilda live. There were the few acres that are cultivated in the island, and there is the row of cottages, eighteen in number, in which the inhabitants live. There is also the chapel which has been built for their use, and there also lives their pastor, who has been now twelve years among them.
“We went ashore in the ship’s boats, and the inhabitants came out to meet us with gracious smiles. With them was their minister, and with them also was Miss MacLeod, the sister of MacLeod, the proprietor of the island…..The first care was to land certain stores, – tea, sugar, and such like, – which Mr. Burns had brought as a present to the people. It is the necessity of their position that such aid should be essential almost to their existence.
“It is about forty-five miles from the nearest of the large inhabited islands, – forty-five miles, that is, from humanity; but St. Kilda is in itself so small that there is no ready mode for traversing that distance. There is no communication by steamer, except such a chance coming as that of ours. The whole wealth of the small community cannot command more than a small rowing-boat or two. When we landed, the men were in sore distress for a few fathoms of rope, which they obtained from the liberality of Mr. Burns.
“The island is about two-and-a-half miles long, and about seven in circumference; the highest land is about 1,200 feet high…it contains about thirty acres of cultivated land, lying just in front of the cottages, on which potatoes and oats are grown….There is, too, a considerable amount of pasture-land among the rocks and hills, on which are maintained about fifty cattle and 400 sheep; but with them there is much difficulty. The winter here is very cold, and in winter the stock is necessarily left to shift for themselves….Then we walked up among the cottages, buying woollen stockings and sea-birds’ eggs, such being the commodities they had for sale. Some coarse cloth we found there also, made on the island from the wool grown there, of which some among us bought sufficient for a coat, waistcoat, or petticoat, as the case may be.
“In their want of other fuel, the inhabitants skin the turf from their pastures and burn it. Gradually, thus, the grass is going, for it is burned much quicker than it is produced. In this way the food for the sheep and cattle will quickly disappear.
“They (the cottages) are soundly built of stone, and each contains two well-sized rooms; but it may, I think, be taken for granted that this is due to private munificence and not to the personal efforts of the inhabitants. There are still to be seen the wretched hovels in which the people dwelt before the stone cottages were erected, fifteen years ago.
“The pastor, whose life here is certainly not to be envied, and who acts as schoolmaster as well as minister, receives £80 per annum from the Scotch Free Church….There is but one person in the island, but himself, a married woman, who can speak a word of English. No books can reach him; hardly a newspaper.
“There are between seventy and eighty inhabitants on the island, of whom, among the adults, the female outnumber the male by nearly two to one. This, of course, comes from the fact that the young men can leave the harshness of such a life much more easily than the young women. I was told that at the present moment there were two marriageable young men at St. Kilda, and twelve marriageable, but unmarried, females….Each man is his own shoemaker and tailor. They dye their own wool. Whatever furniture they use they make generally for themselves. They make their own candles. But perhaps the chief employment of the men is the catching of sea birds; the feathers of which they sell, and on the flesh of which they in a great part live. The bird which they eat is the fulmar…. Sometimes they have bread. Sometimes they make a stew with oatmeal and fulmar, – not delicious I should think to any but a St. Kildarite; – sometimes they luxuriate with corned mutton. Sometimes they have porridge. Occasionally they have been near to famine; and then they have been kept alive by presents.
“I have said that the St. Kildarites appeared to be healthy. From a medical report, however, published by the same traveller, Mr. MacDiarmid, it appears that they are greatly troubled with rheumatism and scrofula. But the curse of the island in regard to its sanitary condition is a disease among babies for which the cause has not yet been discovered. At about eight days old the children die. That this was so I heard from every side. It seemed to prevail to such an extent that a child at that age would be more likely to die than live.”
This same problem of babies dying shortly after birth plagued the Westman Islands and, to some extent, the Faroes. In the Westmans, the cause was eventually discovered to be tetanus.
Imagine, an island so isolated and so poor that the village is desperate for a piece of rope. A place where people live mainly on sea birds. Where the entire village is housed and kept alive through the generosity of the owner of the island.
Eventually, the British government moved the people from St Kilda. There were only 80  households to move. That seems extreme but, remember, that at one time, the Danish government considered moving the entire population of Iceland to Denmark. The task would have been a logistical nightmare. If there had been fewer Icelanders, it might have been possible and Iceland would have suffered the same fate as St. Kilda.
In Iceland, there was enough arable land that there could be well-to-do farmers but the greatest number of Icelanders lived in poverty. Many had only a quilt, a horn spoon, a wooden bowl, their clothes and a few coins. A lot had no coins. But they were better off than the people of St Kilda. They could afford a piece of rope.

(Quotes from How the ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland. Picture of the Mastiff courtesy of Rory O’Farrell)

When Anthony Trollope Visited Iceland, 1878

Part 1
As I was growing up in Gimli, Manitoba, nearly everything I was told about Iceland was incorrect. Memories of Iceland were distorted by time and distance. Events and social conditions were filtered through a lens of misunderstanding. In the days of my childhood, people didn’t fly over the pole to Iceland. People seldom flew anywhere. When one person moved to Gimli from Iceland, it was the talk of the town.
Perhaps one of the largest distortions was the picture of Iceland as a country so far from everything that it was completely isolated.  While Iceland wasn’t a hub of activity like Denmark or Norway, it certainly wasn’t an isolated place with no communication with the outside world. The Danish traders had stores in Iceland and Danish families lived at some of these posts. Danish trading ships came to Icelandic ports in the summer. Well-to-do Icelandic farmers and officials travelled to Denmark and sent their children to school in Copenhagen.
However, contact wasn’t just with the Danes. Europeans were fascinated by Iceland. Germans and French came but most of all, English people came. Not just men but women as well. Summer after summer, they came to study the geology, the fisheries, the bird life. They came to see if the sulphur beds could be mined. They came, time and again to see the geysers for the geysers were one of the wonders of the world. Some came to travel to the places described in the sagas. When the Danish trade restrictions were lifted, the English came to buy horses and sheep. They also fished offshore.
Most of those visiting Iceland came with a serious purpose. Many were members of the Royal Society of England. They came to learn about volcanoes and lava and glaciers. They took the temperature of the Great Geyser and of Strokkur. They pondered how the geysers worked. They recorded daily life on the isolated farms. They wrote reports on the fisheries. They came to sell Bibles and spread the word of God.
However, one person who came in 1878, during the time of emigration, didn’t come for a serious purpose. He and his fifteen companions came to party and visit the geysers. They did both. He was Anthony Trollope, Victorian England’s most popular novelist. When he returned to England he wrote a short account of this excursion. His account is deceiving because it says nothing about the importance of the visitors. A quick read through might leave the reader thinking these were just ordinary, everyday people who came to ride Icelandic horses and party with the elite of Reykjavik.
No ordinary people could afford to visit Iceland. If ordinary people saw Iceland it was sailors like the thirty-four crew on the yacht, The Mastiff that brought Trollope. The owner of the yacht was Mr. John Burns, the owner of the Cunard Lines. He lived at Castle Wemyss with his wife. He paid for the entire trip. The yacht, the supplies, the horses and guides. His fourteen guests were allowed to buy antique Icelandic jewelry and other trinkets but, otherwise, were not to mention money.
Trollope lists those guests but says nothing much about their social station or their accomplishments. For example, in the list of the members of the party, he simply says there is a  Mrs. H. Blackburn. He doesn’t tell us that the lady is Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909) a Scottish painter who was one of the most popular illustrators in Victorian Britain. She illustrated 27 books. She provides the illustrations for Trollope’s book, How The ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland.
The party’s two Nautical Advisors are Admiral Ryder and Admiral Farquhar. These are not honourary titles. Ryder is Sir Phillips Ryder, Admiral of the Fleet. Farquhar is a Scottish rear-admiral. One guest is simply described as Mr. Albert Grey. He is Earl Grey, the son of a former prime minister of England and a member of Parliament.

Besides Jemima, there are three other women, Miss Campbell, Miss Stuart and Miss Reddie along to keep Mrs. Burns company. These are no helpless, shrinking Victorian violets. They’re horsewomen and manage to outride all but the Icelandic guide.
In the next excerpt, I’ll tell you about the beginning of this madcap adventure to Iceland. But before we get to Reykjavik, we’ll visit a couple of interesting ports along with the distinguished partiers.
(with notes from How The ‘Mastiffs’ Went To Iceland and Wickipedia)

Old photographs

I dredged them out of the crawl space. Plastic yellow and red boxes filled with 35mm colour slides, strips of black and white film in brittle paper sheaths. They’d made many moves, Winnipeg to Riverton, to Snow Lake, to Pinawa, Manitoba, then off to Iowa and Missouri and, finally, to BC. Here, they’d moved to four different houses. The evidence of those towns and cities is all there, although some places spark no memories. Perhaps they were taken during a move but why did I take them? It’s a mystery.

I’ve had to relearn how to use a scanner, to master some new programs, although master is probably the wrong word since I’m struggling to understand some of the functions. I’ve managed to copy the slides and film onto the computer.
The first thing I’ve discovered is that even in their plastic boxes, the pictures are covered in dust. I’ve had to go to London Drugs to buy a lens brush. I’ll have to start all over again, cleaning slides and film strips before I make a final copy.
Dust or not, I’m reliving my life. Once again, my daughter is all dressed up in a pink dress, sitting in her high chair, reaching for the birthday cake her mother has made for her. In another picture she is sitting astride a kiddy car (at least that’s what I think we called it). It’s got bright red metal pedals, a wooden seat. She’s got on white shoes and white socks with her pink dress. I’m not sure she’ll be able to reach the pedals. She’ll grow into her gift.
But who gave her this locomotion, this childhood treasure? Did we buy it? Is it from her grandparents?  I’ll have to call my ex. She remembers everything. Like most men, I’m not good at details. She was at home, spending each day with our daughter, taking care of her, helping her, teaching her, making the world a good place for her. I was off every day teaching school.
That’s the problem with being young and having children. Young is a very busy time of life. Going to school, getting a job, working for advancement, buying a house, a car, furniture. We were fortunate because my wife was able to stay home. But I was learning to be a high school teacher and tutoring on the side.  
There’s another picture, earlier, taken from the back as our daughter is teaching herself to walk. She’s using the edge of the couch to help her pudgy little legs hold her up.
I remember that couch. All we had was a hundred and fifty dollars. Even in those days a hundred and fifty dollars wouldn’t buy much. A friend of a friend sent us to a factory that made furniture. That’s what I loved about Winnipeg. There was lots of manufacturing and if you couldn’t afford Eaton’s or The Bay, there was usually a connection that would get you through the door of a wholesale.
Even the wholesale didn’t have anything for a hundred and fifty dollars. But, the owner, seeing two broke kids in desperate need said, “You know what? Someone ordered a couch. They put on a down payment then didn’t want it. Custom made. One fifty and it’s yours.”
Green fake leather. Built for giants. It was the biggest couch I’d ever seen. We took it. We could seat the whole family on it. It was not built for moving but we moved frequently and we took it with us. What else can you do when you get a great Winnipeg bargain? Years later when we left for Iowa so I could go to graduate school, we didn’t haul it with us. I wonder what happened to it? I’ll have to ask my ex.
Each day, I send my son and daughter a picture from their past. My son wrote back and said he remembered the sandals he’s wearing at the cottage in Gimli. They were a bit too long and he kept stubbing his toes. He admires a flowered shirt that I’m wearing at the beach and says that he’d wear a shirt like that. In those days I wore nothing but flowered shirts. I’d forgotten. When we moved to BC, I adopted the local camouflage, plain shirt, tie, tweed jackets, wool slacks in winter, cotton in summer. I gave up my cavalry boots for shoes.
I go back time and again to the picture of my one year old daughter on her kiddie car. My heart aches as I look at her for with the picture comes the memory of picking her up, holding her, helping her learn to walk.
I would that I’d taken a thousand thousand pictures of her and her brother but I came from a family that hardly ever took pictures. We have to make do with these few small treasures.
When my daughter saw the picture of her one year old self in the high chair reaching for the birthday cake, she wrote back and asked, “Is that me?”  Yes, yes, that was you. It all seems quite magical, birth and growth and aging. All the people we have been. Yes, let me remind you of your younger self.
A busy time. Lesson plans. Grading papers. Tutoring to make extra money. Taking classes for a BEd. Writing. Writing. Trying to get published.
But there was time for a cake, for a birthday party, for presents, for a pretty dress, for a photograph. 
Thank God for that photograph.

Romance among the radishes

(From my diary. Advice to a recently divorced friend.)
Every generation has its own etiquette. The problem was that when I got divorced, I’d been married for over twenty years, and had no idea what that etiquette was. The last time I’d dated was in 1961.At that time, the big question that raged through the school was whether or not it was all right to kiss on a first date. By the time I was on my own again, the question was whether it was all right to have sex on a first date. I didn’t really believe that until I overheard one of my female students saying, “I always like it if a guy asks you your name first before he asks you to go to bed with him.”
There is this image of the wild bachelor, the married man set free from the bonds of matrimony and let out on the town. A dangerous fellow, inclined to grab other men’s wives somewhere between the pickles and the spices, along aisle four, and ravish her where the mayonnaise and the mustard meet. My experience is if they grab any man’s wife on aisle four it is because they are desperately looking for the mushroom soup and can’t find it. If you see men standing frozen in front of the freezer section so long they’re shivering, it’s because they can’t figure what kind of TV dinner to buy.
You will face challenges. The first challenge I faced was learning where to put a quarter to unshackle a grocery cart. You can laugh all you want but when you have never done it, it’s a problem. My wife always got the cart. My solution was to stand around the grocery carts, glancing at my watch like I was waiting for my wife to finish shopping, and surreptitiously  watching until someone took out a quarter and put it in the slot and popped the blue button.
The next challenge came about because there are no clerks anymore. It used to be you could go up to a store employee and ask “Where’s the little jars, you know, of that hot mustard from Europe.” and they’d send you to aisle five, third shelf and you’d discover the Dijon. Nowadays, if you don’t know where something is you’ve got to ask other customers. The third challenge. There’s no point in asking another man. It may seem impossible for someone to be more confused than you, but they are. Most men aren’t shopping anyway. They’re just wandering around until their wife waves for them to come and push the buggy outside, load the groceries into the car and drive her and what’s left of their pay cheque home. That means you’ve got to work up enough nerve to ask a woman.
Fourth challenge. If you do ask a woman where the corn meal is or whether you should buy light or dark Soya sauce, she’ll assume you really want her body. Even if she’s got one full grocery cart in front of her and is pulling another one behind her and obviously has enough kids to eat the contents in six and a half days. 
The first time I got a startled response over a question about pork chops, I went home and looked in the mirror. I didn’t seem any more dangerous looking than when I was married. I hadn’t been unmarried long enough for that worn down look to have faded. It’s not like I was jaunty, with an open necked shirt, three gold necklaces, or a tie with a hand painted fan dancer on it. The mystery was solved when I was standing at the checkout counter. One of the magazines blared, “The best places to meet men.” Number one was the grocery store. It had never occurred to me that there could be romance among the romaine.
Most of the men you’ll see in the grocery store don’t look like candidates for sexy looks in front of the celery. They’re mostly bald and short of breath and look like they need their clothes pressed. I once saw a handsome, tall, distinguished man at the deli counter. His arm was in the iron grip of a young, beautiful, frighteningly skinny woman. She’d found him and she was hanging onto him. She may have found him around the focaccia and she wasn’t going to chance his slipping away among the salads.  All us ordinary people stood back and stared in disbelief when he ordered three hundred grams of the ham that was on sale. No one expected people like that to eat ham that’s on sale. It wasn’t until they were out of sight that one of the regulars spoke up and ordered three hundred grams of the same ham. That’s two hundred grams more than she usually orders. Before that, I’d heard her say to her friend she was going to get kolbasa. I expected that night as she dined on the ham, she was sharing it with the Greek god who ordered just before her
The problem is that your motives in asking where the cumin can be found won’t be pure. It’s not that you want to invite anyone to come in just yet. It’s just that you need practice actually talking to women who weren’t friends vetted by your wife. And it won’t be long before you start thinking about asking someone out. The problem is that you won’t have the faintest idea of how to go about it. I asked one of the guys I work with. He suggested putting an ad in the paper. He said that’s what he did. I shouldn’t have been surprised. He was a journalist.
SWM wants to meet interesting women. Friendship possibly leading to romance was the ad he put in. He got sixty-five replies. He called fifteen of them. Made ten lunch dates. None of them survived to the dessert course.
 
“Go to the bar,” another colleague suggested, ignoring the fact that I don’t drink. “Get blasted. By the sixth drink they’ll all look beautiful.” Six Perrier’s with lime might have cleaned out my kidneys but it couldn’t alter reality. In any case, don’t do it. If you are tempted, I’ll introduce you to a friend of mine. He did that some years ago and when he sobered up in a motel bed after a five day drunk, he found he had a wife. And he did have to ask her what her name was.
Don’t click on any of those internet ads offering a romantic liaison with Russian women. Or any kind of women. I’d say let nature take its course. It turns out that magazine at the checkout was right. Grocery stores are great places for women to meet men. And men to meet women. Don’t shop once a week. Buy a few groceries each day. Check out what is in grocery carts or baskets. It will reveal a great deal. A basketful of nothing but heat and serve dinners might be a warning sign.
Six months from now, your life will sort itself out somewhere between the laundry detergent and the paper towels. Or the fruit and the nuts. As we get older, there are fewer and fewer men. If you really do want another relationship, the odds are in your favour. After a certain age, the most inept survivors become a prize of sorts. Even though you are approaching your best before date, you’re not there yet and someone will think you are worth taking home along with her groceries.

Denouement in Reykjavik

We had a disagreement during supper. Joseph had misjudged me. He said if I’d write a letter nominating Gorbachev for the Nobel prize for Peace, someone would write a letter nominating me for the Nobel prize in Literature.
I’d have been happy to write the letter but I was insulted by the idea that first of all, I could be bribed and, secondly, that I was so vain that I would think that I was anything more than a minor Canadian writer. I don’t handle hurt feelings well and, instead of letting the suggestion pass, I hit back by saying maybe Joseph should nominate Brodsky. Joseph looked like he was going to choke on his caviar. We’d hardly spoken to each other for the rest of the meal.
On the way back to the hotel, Joseph said, I’ll check to see if Ivan is there. He can’t be trusted to get things right. Maybe he’s not arranged your train tickets properly and your visa is running out. At the hotel, Joseph had gone ahead and come back immediately.
“He’s not here. Go to your room in case he phones. I’ll start checking to find him. There’s only an hour. This is very serious. You could be in a great deal of trouble. Do not leave until I call.” I went to my room, unsettled by the unexpected conflict, and finished my packing. I was, suddenly worried, remembering all the warning I’d been given before I left Canada. All the relatives who’d said the Checka or the KGB or the GRU would get me. That I would disappear into the Gulag and glasnost and peristroika were nothing but a trick.
I thought about the day when I was in my office at the university and someone had knocked on my door. I’d opened it and a man with brown hair and brown moustache had said he wanted to talk to me. As he came into the room, he flashed his ID but so quickly I couldn’t read the card. “My name is Brown,” he said. “I’m with SIS. I went and sat behind my desk. He took a chair opposite me. SIS is not supposed to come onto Canadian campuses.
“We heard,” he said, “you are going to Ukraine.” I nodded once. “You had a meeting here, in Victoria, with a Joseph Rapunski.”
“He’s a journalist. He was with a group of musicians.”
“That’s his cover. He’s a KGB major. He’s their minder. His job is to see no one defects. How did you meet?”
“He works for a magazine in Kiev. They publish my work.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t go. There’ll be traps. Sparrows.” When he saw I didn’t understand, he said, “Young girls. Pretty girls. Ballerinas who have to make an extra dollar or two. Photographs in compromising positions.”
“I’m a bachelor,” I replied. “They’d be trophy photos.”
He went very still. “A smart alec,” he said. “You don’t want to be a smart alec with these people. Your Joseph is a KGB major.”

I sat there and didn’t say anything. Finally, he stood up. “Have a good trip,” he said.
We’d had a little party the evening before I left and the next door neighbor said, “Look for a good Ukrainian girl to marry, Bill. One who’ll stay home and who can cook.”
A friend of theirs had gone to the Ukraine years before and when he’d got back to Canada, he kneeled down and kissed the ground. He’d wanted to visit the village from which his people came. Now, I had been told everything had changed.
I began to pace, something I had not done for a long time, then I remembered what Olga and Margarita had both said, that Ivan never left anything to chance, that everything was checked three times because when he started the job, he’d made a mistake and he never wanted that to happen again. They’d also said if there was a mistake it wasn’t my problem. The hammer would come down on Ivan. He’d lose the meals he loved so much and the first class travel and entertainment. I picked up my bag and went out into the hall. There was no baba in her little room. I slipped down the back stairs. I caught Joseph and Ivan sitting in the Intourist Office, talking and laughing. When Joseph saw me he looked shocked and quickly said, “I have just found him. I was going to call you.”
“Good,” I said. I ignored the empty brandy glasses sitting on the table and said to Ivan,. “Joseph thought you might have got lost.”
Ivan looked away and his face flushed the way it always did when he was uncomfortable. We went to the cash bar in the foyer and Joseph bought us all double brandies. I took a sip of mine, then put it down.
At the platform, Joseph said good bye. My annoyance was overshadowed by a feeling that we wouldn’t meet again, not the three of us, that one of us was going to die. Sometimes the future comes to me like this and it makes me afraid. I thought of the good things about Joseph. How I owed him this trip. After we’d had coffee together at a mutual friend’s house and he’d returned to Ukraine, he’d called me in the middle of the night and said, “Bill, it’s Joseph. You want to come to Ukraine.” I’d agreed and in a couple of weeks, a letter of invitation had arrived. I thought it was Joseph who would meet me at the airport, who would show me around but it was Ivan who was in charge. Now, grateful for a trip of a lifetime, I said, “Don’t work too hard. I don’t want to come back and hear that you’ve died of a heart attack.”
“No, no, don’t say that. That’s bad luck.” If he’d dared, I think he would have crossed himself.
It turned out it wasn’t Joseph. It was Ivan. After he dropped me off, he picked up a group of Americans at Shermetyvo. He’d toured them around for two weeks, then took them back to the airport. He then caught the train back to Kiev by himself–when I read the letter I’d got telling me of the circumstances of his death, I could hear the roar of Moscow station, the thousands of feet on the floor sounding like surf, the lines of people moving like a dark current, the piles of brilliant Egyptian oranges being sold by Gorbachev’s new entrepreneurs, and Ivan’s short, wide shape and worn coat, moving ahead of me–and had been killed on the train. The letter and the obituary I got in the mail made it sound like an accident. But one night late the phone rang and it had been someone wanting help with a visiting writer from the USSR. I’d mentioned Ivan, how he’d been killed in an accident and the caller said, it wasn’t that way. Ivan had been murdered. After I put the phone down, I wondered who would dare murder a travel guide. He wasn’t, I was sure, just a travel guide but like Joseph, had a second career. When they were together they were equals, neither gave the other orders. I assumed  that meant he was also a KGB major.
For the next few days I thought about the train a lot, remembering the compartments with their stainless steel bars which locked the doors, the passageway, the conductress who kept such a close eye on things that the first time I used the washroom at the end of the coach and had knocked on the he wrong compartment door, she’d come flying down the passageway, saying, “Nyet, nyet!” The only place he could be murdered without witnesses was in a washroom or in his own compartment.
Ivan, though, had suffered from loneliness and, late in the evening, sometimes visited the day coaches. Good people sit back there, he said. I understood that. I, too, had shoved my way up from the working class but the cost was never feeling like I belonged. It is always like I’m just visiting and never really know the rules or the language.
Ivan was new at his job. “Good in Spanish,” he’d said, during that first taxi ride from the airport, “good Russian, good Ukrainian but only school English.” He’d been nervous about his English. “Maybe you want someone with better English.” He sounded like he hoped it wasn’t true.
“Your English is better than my Ukrainian so I won’t complain.”
The good Spanish came from four years in Cuba. In some minor job. I knew that because when I’d asked him about Castro, he’d only seen him passing in a car.
He had difficulty setting limits. He over ate and although he said, “Gorbachev says no to drunkards.” and refused to drink alone, he still liked to drink. Too much food, too much liquor had stretched his clothes tight. I ran up the stairs leading to the Museum of the great Patriotic War. Half-way up, Ivan had to stop to rest. I ran down to see if he was all right. His face was purple. His breathing was labored and it was five minutes before his colour was normal..
On the last day in Moscow, just before we left for the airport, I took everything I didn’t need for the return trip and piled them on the table and said these are for you. Do what you want with them. I’d meant it as a favor. I thought he might make enough to replace his worn black coast.
After the late night phone call, I often sat in the kitchen thinking about the fact that I’d got part of it right on the platform in Kiev. Be careful, I should have said to Ivan. Sit with your back to wall. Slow down on the food. His marriage was over but his wife and he still had to live in the same apartment. Get a girlfriend, I should have told him, on your travels,  so loneliness doesn’t drive you down train passageways late at night. I put the obituary in my scrapbook, along with my pictures of Kiev.
That would have been the end of it except the Canadian Embassy in Oslo called and asked me to go to Iceland for four days. The first night in Reykjavik, I found myself walking with the cultural attaché through the pouring rain, looking for a restaurant which seemed to constantly elude us. The attaché’s specialty was the Eastern block so I asked him who would dare kill a travel guide?
The attaché was thin and dark and was trying to salvage his umbrella which the wind had turned inside out.
“Criminals,” he said. “Organized crime is a serious problem. The soldiers coming back from Afghanistan are well organized and heavily into the black market. Something that’s worth only a few dollars here is worth a lot there. They’ll kill you for our shoes.”
I thought about the pile of razors and chocolates and writing materials and clothes I’d piled on the table. Three shirts. I wondered, in a job where scarce goods came as gifts, if a man who liked his food too much might not drift into dangerous waters.
“Political?” I asked.
“Something personal, more likely. An argument, perhaps. People get killed for crazy reasons.”
The rain was sheeting down and we were both huddled under an awning. The attaché shoved the umbrella into a garbage container. I studied the neon signs across the street. The restaurant for which we had been searching was directly opposite. We had passed it twice without seeing the entrance. Sometimes, one misses the obvious.
“One has to ask though, why they want you to think he’s dead,” the attaché said.
The wind suddenly shifted, driving the rain sideways, soaking us with ice cold water. I gasped with the shock and wished I’d stayed inside.
“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” I said.