Sigrun Davidsdottir: combining journalism and fiction

Sigrun Davidsdóttir´s second Beck lecture was on the combining of her role as an international journalist and a fiction writer. Along with her career as a journalist, writing for Icelandic radio but also for major international publications, she has also written novels and children´s stories, her latest novel being Samhengi  hlutana. This is a combination in which I,  personally, am interested.

There are historic precedents, for example, Hemingway was both journalist and fiction writer. Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage) worked as a reporter. Mark Twaine worked as a journalist. So, even though the two worlds of journalism and creative writing seem quite separated, the one built of facts, the other of imagination, those two worlds have quite successfully come together many times, in many ways. I have  never been able to see this great gjá that separates the two. It is true that there are reporters, journalists who lack imagination and equally true that there are fiction writers who are too lazy to research their facts. But that is a failing of individuals, not of a failing of the professions.

Sigrun, like all Icelanders, even though she h as lived abroad since 1988, has been affected by the kreppa, the economic crises or crash of 2008. Because she was reporting on the crash and its effects on people, she built up a store of knowledge. From that, she wanted to create a novel because a novel can tell the story that, at this stage, may not yet appear in the newspaper.

This most recent novel, Samhengi  hlutana, takes place in London and Reykjavik during the years 2002-2010.

She says she was inspired by a variety of writers.

Leif Davidsen is one  of those. He‘s a Danish author, educated as a journalist, he worked as a freelance journalist, began covering news from Russia for Danmarks Radio. He was stationed in Moscow. Since returning to Denmark, he‘s been writing political thrillers.

John Grisham, of course is well known. He learned his material working as a lawyer and turned that knowledge into novels like The Firm. 

Chris Morgan Jones wrote An Agent of Deceit. The author worked at a business intellience agency for eleven years advising Russian oligarchs and he uses the material he‘s learned to create a thriller.

All of these novelists, although they helped move her toward writing a novel about the Kreppa, were unsatisfactory. Their short comings were that the reader doesn‘t get to know the financial information, the tax evasion schemes are never completely explained. She wanted her readers to know what happened in Iceland.

If anyone was a direct influence it would be Peter Hoeg‘s novel Smilla‘s Sense of Snow.

In Writing Into Reality, she wants a credible story, a world the reader can step into and believe. She wants a balance of reality and fiction. Reality can‘t get in the way of the story but the facts still  have to be right. If the story is well told, it shouldn‘t matter from where the readers come from. This is a good attitude because, today, with ebooks and international publishing readers may be in Japan, India, Russia and any number of other countries.

 Like all authors, she wants her book to be a page turner. She wants the reader get to the last page. The thriller often has a set structure/plot but Sigurn didn‘t want her book categorized as a thriller. She was going to write a novel set in Venice in the 18th C. Instead, 2008 happened. The result was a book set in the present, a book in which she wants to take the reader through the mental landscape of the crash. It isn‘t just the financial manipulation that matters but the way of thinking by the participants.

That, the desire to create the psychological and moral (or immoral) landscape of the people who created the crash, was the most interesting element she mentioned. In a way, she is following in the footsteps of Stephen Crane in The Red Badge of Courage where he describes the inner world of a young soldier. The focus is on the mind of the character.

Sigrun repeated many times that economic crashes are not acts of nature. They are created by people. In many cases, a small group of people. In Iceland, the crash may have been created by as few as fifty people but then there were all the others who went along with what was happening or, who refused to see the evidence in front of them, of what was happening.

The crash occurred because of choices some people made. Who wanted the banks privatized? Who worked together to get it done? Who set up a system of loans without collateral? Nature didn‘t do it. Some people did it? What were they like, how did they think, what were their morals, motives?

Let‘s hope that Samhengi  hlutan, Not A Single Word, gets published in English.

Saving or heritage: clothes

 Sunna Pam Furstenau. Photo taken by her cousin, Hjálmar Stefán Brynjólfsson. The upphlutur is modern and was sewn by Oddný Kristjaánsdóttir.
One of the most noticeable things in photos taken during and shortly after immigrants arrived in Canada are their clothes. You see crowds on train platforms and you know right away from where these people have come. Icelandic clothes, German clothes, Ukrainian clothes, Mennonite clothes. 
Today, the same is true in the West End of Winnipeg. You see people in clothes from the Middle East and from Africa. You know they’re definitely not Icelandic and that they’re probably recent arrivals.
The most obvious sign of integration and assimilation into Canadian society is the changing of ethnic clothes for whatever the local people wear. Part of that is because people want to fit in. However, the need to wear clothes appropriate to both work and the climate are paramount. 


Photo from

Icelanders wore clothes in Iceland that were suitable for unheated houses that were constantly damp. The people also were constantly damp. In Independent People, Bjartur of Summerhouses says that he has been wet all his life and it has never done him any harm. Visitors to Iceland in the 1800s frequently mention being soaked through and how difficult it was to get their clothes dried out before they had to put them on the next day.

C. W. Shephard in 1867 and his companions, trapped for days by a May storm, decide to go out to try to bag some wild fowl. He says, “returning at night, draggled and drenched, to cook our supper in the dark recesses of the kitchen, while we hung up our soaking garments in the vain hope that the smoke from the smouldering fire might dry them.”
There were no roaring log fires, no fireplaces, no chimneys, only holes in the floor where the precious fuel of dwarf willow, peat and dried sheep dung were burned to cook porridge or bake flat bread. Skyr didn’t require cooking. Neither did dried fish. It was pounded with a stone hammer until it could be chewed.
Visitors to Iceland in the 1800s and even before always comment on the clothing that Icelandic women wear. There are often long sections describing women’s clothes. These are frequently accompanied by sketches or paintings. There are fewer descriptions of men’s clothes.
John Coles, in 1882, describes Jón of Vidrkær this way: He wore a dark suit of homespun cloth of homely cut, trousers much patched about  the knees regardless of colour and material, a black felt wideawake, and a knitted comforter round the neck…Though in outward looks he may have passed for a gentleman in reduced circumstances rather out at elbows, he was prompt in action, civil, and obliging. A bargain was soon struck for the hire of his services as guide”
Photo from
Jon’s wife, Johanna Katrin, is described as “a fair woman, about 30 years of age, with a pleasing expression of face and bright, healthy complexion. She wore the usual Icelandic cap with silken tassel falling down on one side of her head, and a thick woollen dress, such as is worn by any Scotch wife.”
S. E. Waller arrives in Reykjavik on a Sunday in 1874 and says this, “Just about this time the beauty and fashion of Reykjavik came pouring out of church, and we had ample opportunity for inspecting any peculiarities of dress and appearance. Many of the Iceland ladies wore bonnets and carried parasols of Danish or English manufacture, but the generality had nothing on their heads but the little black woolen cap with the silver ornament and long silk tassel used alike by rich and poor,  in-doors and out. The fashionable colour was black…The men were all dressed in dark clothes, and almost all had round felt hats.”
The appearance of the parasols and bonnets indicate that even in Iceland clothing is changing, being influenced by European fashion in Reykjavik.

Sketch by Jemima Blackburn, from How The ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland, 1878

However, when Trollope comes to Iceland in 1878, he writes with great enthusiasm about “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.”
As hard as life in Iceland could be, account after account describes the shock of the Icelandic immigrants in Canada when winter set in. Icelanders had never experienced anything like it. Their houses in Iceland were made of layers of rock and turf with walls two to six feet thick. Heat was provided by body heat. Twenty people might sleep in one room. Often, heat came from the sheep and cows that were stabled next to the living quarters. Clothes were made of wool. Wool holds body heat even when wet. However, body heat and wool couldn’t keep anyone warm in forty degrees below zero in a Canadian winter.
Survival required that the Icelanders adapt in every way possible, including their clothes, as quickly as possible. The picturesque quality of the women’s clothes didn’t keep them warm.
Also, many women stayed in the cities, particularly Winnipeg, and took work as domestics. There, they learned English ways of being clean, of dressing in an English way, of how they needed to dress to fit into city society. They had risked hardship and death for opportunity and were determined to make the best of their traveling to a new country.
Living conditions outside of the city were extremely difficult. For the first few years, just as in Iceland, the struggle was to get enough food to survive. But building homes that would hold out the cold and hold in the heat from stoves was also a challenge. Cutting down trees, grubbing out tree roots, tilling the earth, were completely new. There was no farming in Iceland beyond pounding sheep manure to dust and then spreading it on the home field. The frost heaves made scything difficult and everyone worked at the haying but this wasn’t harvesting as it was known in Canada.
Icelandic clothing had to give way to clothing suitable for daily life in a country where the summers were hot, the winters, cold. Icelandic clothes had to be regulated to the closet where they would remain except for special occasions.
Today, women still wear the traditional Icelandic dresses on special occasions such as weddings or formal occasions. They are most seen at Islindingadagurinn , the INL convention or August the Deuce. They are a way of reminding people of the time of immigration, of our heritage. They’re a way of saying, “Remember your mother or amma or lang amma or lang lang amma. Remember our Icelandic heritage.”
Today, we can encourage the wearing of historic Icelandic women’s clothes as a way of reminding ourselves of our identity. It helps arouse curiosity. It gives us a chance to answer questions, to impart a bit of history. It helps set us apart as our ethnic clothes are different from that of others. 
Wearing clothes from the time of immigration pays respect to our ancestors. It says, I remember you. I haven’t forgotten. However, it would be good if at various functions there were displays naming and explaining the different costumes so that along with a sense of the exotic there is an element of education for both ourselves and strangers.
I’m quite sure that Sunna Pam Furstenau has a lot more impact on her audiences because she’s wearing her traditional Icelandic costume.             

Icelandic food through history

Trish Baer and Sigrun Davidsdottir (photo credit, WDValgardson)
Sigrun Davidsdóttir gave a lecture called “Icelandic Cuisine: from poverty to pizza” on Sunday, 26 February, at the University of Victoria. Her visit was arranged and sponsored under the auspices of The Richard and Margaret Beck Trust which is administered by Patricia Baer and Dr. John Tucker. Trish Baer is completing a Phd on images in the sagas. Dr. Tucker is a member of the Medieval Studies department and an avid supporter of all things Icelandic.

Sigrun is making her first visit to Canada. She left Iceland in 1988 and lives in London, England. She works as a professional journalist but, like many Icelanders, is successful at many different tasks. She has written novels, children’s stories, worked for radio among other things.

This visit is particularly meaningful because, besides having relatives who immigrated to Canada, she is the sister-in-law of Kladia Robertsdottir, a long-time resident of Victoria.

With an audience that ranged from Icelanders who have immigrated to Canada to people who know little or nothing about Iceland, Sigrun left nothing to chance.

She started by explaining that in spite of its name, Iceland is neither very hot nor very cold. This climate has shaped everything to do with food in Iceland. With salt, the normal preservative of hot climates, too expensive for everyday use in preserving food, the Icelanders had to find some way of preserving food. They used whey. Iceland is the only place in the world where this method is used.

The sagas, 12-14th C., have some references to food but not many. Food was, even in those days, for surviving, not enjoying. There are references in Egill’s saga: fish, eggs, whales, and livestock. In Grettir’s saga there is a verse in which an immigrant to Iceland bemoans having left behind grain fields for wasteland.

In the early years of the settlement, the weather was still mild enough that barley and oats could be grown. Around 1400 the climate grew colder. The growing season became shorter. From that time grain would not ripen.

There was only fresh meat in autumn. There was a small tradition of cheese but that disappeared because skyr was more efficient.

For a long time fishing was just for local consumption. Only small amounts of fish were exported. There was no tradition of Gravlax, or pickled herring or of curing and smoking salmon.  There was no seafood tradition. There was no bread tradition because of the cost of imported grain. Flat bread and rye bread were made but that was all.

Something that kept an elevated food tradition from developing was the lack of an aristocracy. There were no wealthy local merchants.

The lack of variety in the Icelandic diet lasted into the 20th C. The diet was very limited until after the war.

Sigrun gave an example of an uncle of hers who had been born in 1920. His father died and his mother was left with nine children. The mother farmed out six children and kept the three youngest. The uncle was sent to live on a farm. He worked as an errand boy. His job was to bring food, porridge and skyr, sour blood pudding, to the people working in the fields. His clothes were wet all the time. He was never dry. Life like this was not considered poverty. It was just normal life. Although Sigrun didn’t mention it, Bjartur of Summerhouses, in Independent People, says that he has been wet all his life and it hasn’t hurt him.

In the 20th C fishing takes over on an industrial scale. This brings more money into the economy and with it better food. There was no food language in Icelandic. They borrowed it from the Danes. They also copy the Dane’s in creating housewife’s schools where young women can learn how to do domestic tasks, including cooking.

Fifty years ago, a group of foreign politicians, including a Bulgarian, visited greenhouses in Iceland. The visitors were given tomatoes that were grown in the greenhouses. The manager of the greenhouse said to them that these were the vest tomatoes in the world. The Bulgarian was amused. So was the audience.

At one point, Sigrun needed to earn more money and, being resourceful, realized there was a real  need for some cookbooks. Inspired by her sister-in-law, Kladia Robertsdottir, Sigrun wrote the cookbook, A Cookbook for Young People of All Ages. In it, she tried to show Icelanders what they could do with local ingredients. However, her culinary language was Danish and she had to relearn or recreate an Icelandic culinary language.

She did things like suggesting using wine and spices when making head cheese and serving blood pudding with cooked apples and pears.

If foreigners go to Iceland in winter, they get to experience Þorramatur. This is not an ancient feast or ritual. It was created by a restaurant owner in the `1960s. By offering food in the old way of cooking, he was such a success that you now can find these items anywhere.

Today, Icelandic cooking is international. However, since the Kreppa, there has been a new emphasis on local food.

The Icelandic diet today is much better than it was in the past but the other side of that is a large problem with obesity.

Of all the Icelandic foods, the one that has the greatest international success is skyr.

She highly recommended two restaurants: Dill and Sjávarétta-Kjavarinn. Oh, and as a reminder, there are now beer micro breweries in Iceland and the beer is excellent.

Saving Our Heritage

As an identifiable community in the Canadian mosaic, we face what every other community faces, assimilation, integration and a growing loss of our immigrant culture. We’ve held onto our identity for a long time. It’s changed, of course, because to adapt is to survive and prosper. The process is inevitable. As each generation grows old and dies, a new generation more distant from Iceland appears.

However, we are not helpless, hopeless items subject to the forces of time or society. We do have resources. We’ve just got to organize and use them. How well we will maintain our identity depends on us and what we do.

Our ancestors were devout. Religion mattered to them. In an environment where they were subjected to the vagaries of the weather, where their lives could end at any moment from disease because there were no effective medications, where there was virtually no control over their daily lives (they had to be attached to a farm; they could only change jobs once a year), they had to put their faith in the Lord.

I’ve seen how important religion was to them. Space and weight were critical to people emigrating, yet they brought Bibles. Years ago, when I was collecting Icelandic books to keep them from going to the garbage dump at Gimli, I had a box of Bibles. No one wanted them. People couldn’t read them anymore. As well, church attendance had fallen off so there wasn’t any great demand for any Bible, never mind those printed in Icelandic.

The box of black Bibles in my basement was ironic because when Ebenezer Henderson went to Iceland and spent the years 1814-15 there, he was there because Icelanders didn’t have Bibles. He has seen to the printing of Icelandic copies of the Bible and with the help of the British and Foreign Bible Society, he traveled to Iceland. The Icelandic merchants at Copenhagen allowed him to send the Bibles to Iceland without charge. A Westy Petræus, Esq. takes 1183 Bibles and 1668 New Testaments to Iceland as a favour to Henderson.

When Henderson arrives, he is met by a crowd. A man carried Henderson to shore on his shoulders and the crowd called out ‚Peace! Come in peace! The Lord bless you!‘

He, like all other travellers, immediately pays his respects to the Right Rev. the Bishop of Iceland. He then rides to the residence of the very Rev. Marcus Magnusson, the archdeacon of Iceland, and dean of Guldbringé and Kiosar Sysséls.He is told that “the peasants would have paid double the price, if it had only been in their power to obtain them.“

At Tiörnabæ, the farmer buys both a Bible and a New Testament. Henderson has just turned to re-enter his tent when two servant girls came running with money in their  hands to pay for a New Testament each. A number of people collect at the door of his tent and a young man to whom he has given a Bible reads from the third chapter of the Gospel of John. The people sat or knelt on the grass to listen, tears running down their cheeks.

At Kiarné, about two miles south of Aukeryri, there was no service planned for Sunday. However, Henderson heard some singing that came from a cottage. “The inhabitants, consisting of two families, had collected together for the exercise of social worship, and were sending up the melody of praise to the God of salvation. This practice is universal on the island. When there is no public service, the members of each family (or where there are more families they combine, join in singing serveral  hymns, read the gospel and epistle for the day, a prayer or two, and one of Vidalin´s sermons. Where the Bible exists, it is brought forward and several chapters of it are read by the young people in the family.

Today, I see no families so devout that they will ride on horseback or even in a car for miles to purchase a Bible. Nor, do I see families gather together to worship in the absence of a minister. The church, in its social role, held the community together, provided an opportunity to gather, to participate in group behaviour. It provided leardership.

The ministers, in spite of often being poverty stricken, were still important figures. Today, they are in short supply, still paid badly, preach to half-empty churches, are collateral damage to scandal, are no longer the best educated individual in the community, and no longer have the social status they once enjoyed. Society grows more secular by the day and while sects appear whose beliefs and behaviours, while claiming to be Christian, are bizarre.

We can support the religious aspect of our  heritage by going to church. If parishoners want, if there are enough of them of Icelandic background, it can become a centre for the learning of the Icelandic language and history and genealogy. If parishoners want.

We can make an effort, through the church, or through the Icelandic clubs, to actually learn about Iceland‘s church history. The same is true for the church history of religion in the Icelandic population in North America. However, even after all this time, there are still sensitivities over religious conflict from earlier times. The unspoken choice has been to avoid our religious history rather than risk inciting old conflicst. It seems a strange choice given that our problem is that most people don‘t care. When was the last time you had a serious discussion about the importance of the church in daily life in Icleand or New Icleand?

Unfortunately, we‘ve lost the physical evidence of our religous heritage. I grieve the loss of the wooden churches at Gimli, Riverton and Hnausa. Many years ago, I saw the Hnausa church. It was small, beautiful, surely an act of art to God. I saw it after it was vandalized. One would have thought it had been overrun by the bitter enemies of Christianity.No church stands there now. What was lost was not just a place of worship but a symbol of our heritage.

We are fortunate in having the Unitarian church in Gimli preserved. It was built in 1905 and, at least, gives an indication that religion did play an important part in the Icelanders daily life. Here, we need to take a lesson I was taught in the catacombs under Kiev by my Communist guide. We had travelled for a long time along the tunnels, with bodies on every side, then came to caves filled with gold and silver religous items. I was amazed. I said to my guide, “How is it that they are here?“ He replied, “It is not because they are religous. It is because they are our history.“ I think that the members of our Icelandic North American community need to take that lesson to heart. Lutheran, Unitarian, United, Catholic, Agnostic, Heathen, whatever, we need to preserve our history. Support the preservation of our history.

The same is true for the Vikur Lutheran church in Mountain. Our ancestors, only nine years after the settlement in New Iceland, thought having a church was so important that they built this church. Now, it needs a new roof. The cost shouldn‘t fall only on the local people. Or only the Americans. It is our history. It is our heritage.

Thank goodness the people of Markerville have preserved the Markerville Lutheran Church.

Today, we get DPT shots. Mothers and fathers don‘t have to pray to God that their children don‘t die in their arms from diptheria. Read Wasteland with Words to find out what that was like when they had nothing but prayer. But just because we now have science to ask for help, doesn‘t mean that understanding and preserving our religious past can‘t help preserve our heritage. If we don‘t, we‘ll never understand who we are or why we are the way we are.


Guest article by Ken Kristjanson.

In the late fall Lake Winnipeg, like an old duck hunter, gets tired. Slowly the waves reaching the shore decrease in intensity and the great lake’s energy is temporarily put on hold until next spring. Ice forms in the bays. Eventually, as incredible as it may seem, the thirteenth largest fresh water lake in the world will freeze to a thickness of four feet.
The Fishers of the great lake have been following with keen interest this passing parade. They have carefully stowed their fall season fishing gear and they are readying their equipment for the winter fishing season. Even though the lake is freezing, the fish are aggressively hunting for food to sustain themselves for the long winter. This is the best time to catch fish.
The Fishers know that as the ice thickens the fish become very sluggish. So now, on first ice which is like rubber and only one to two inches thick, is the time to act. Of course the ice will not yet support horses or mechanized equipment –dog teams are the transportation of choice. In anticipation of fishing on first ice, the majority of Fishers maintained husky dogs the year around. I have fond memories of riding nightly in my father’s Essex to Isfeld’s farm south of town to feed the dogs. They were always excited to see us. All dog teams had names. My grandfather Siggi’s team was called “The Golden Flyer”. His imagination seemingly exhausted, the dogs were simply called “Blackie, Whitie and Brownie”.
The first, ‘rubber’, ice was smooth as glass and while it gave the dogs no trouble at all, this surface made walking difficult for the fishers. And so an ingenious piece of equipment was fashioned. First, an old car tire was cut into four inch pieces. Then a local blacksmith, in my time it was  “Dusty Gusty Eliason” or John Chudd, would afix a two inch cleat to the bottom of the rubber tire. The cleats were sharpened and attached to the boot of the wearer by rope bindings. (Later versions were all metal.) No doubt the idea came from the mountain climbers who used crampons to climb the Alps. On Lake Winnipeg they were simply called “Creepers”.
The freezing of the lake gave us kids a whole new dimension to explore. Soon there would be skating and hockey games. But now! There was rubber ice to play on. Naturally the kid who went out the furthest from shore had bragging rights that day. So with fame awaiting us, my brother Robert and I ventured where no kid had gone before. Of course I fell in. Later, while relating this story to an aunt she exclaimed, “I hope you called to God for help.” I said no, I called to my brother Robert.  He was closer.

Note from WDV
(Ken Kristjanson comes from one of the historic fishing families in Gimli. He is currently working on a collection of non-fiction pieces about Lake Winnipeg. I’m hoping that he will contribute them as he gets them finished. His father created a private museum of historic Lake Winnipeg fishing equipment that was of great interest to me and to many others. His brother, Robert, is still commercial fishing at Gimli.)

Serendipitous Cooking

I think I love cooking because both my mother and father loved cooking. The sweet and sour pickerel cheeks, the baked whitefish, the pickerel fillets, were all made with love.
My father came in from the lake, cleaned the fish, filleted it, if the pickerel were big enough, cut out the cheeks. The whitefish usually came as a gift from someone fishing further north on Lake Winnipeg. They made the various pickerel dishes together but it was my mother who made the bread stuffing for the whitefish, then baked it.
My parents were adventurous cooks. “Try this,” was part of their vocabulary. Fish livers, fish roe, beaver tale, moose burgers, venison chops, rabbit stew.
Making something out of nothing was a kind of magic trick. If there hadn’t been a lot of fish in the nets or haircuts in the barbershop, my mother started doing interesting things with potatoes, rice, pasta, usually with some hamburger concoction. But often it was Chinese style food. A sort of Cantonese cooking because we had a Cantonese restaurant in town. The combinations were sometimes a bit odd. Stir fried rice with apple pie for dessert but, then, that’s what Sam Toy served in the Gimli Cafe
Maybe that’s why tonight I decided that I’d see what I could make from the odds and ends in the fridge and freezer. I hate wasting food. It comes from my childhood.
Some left over black beans. A half a lime. A part of a red pepper. A broccoli stem. A half a sweet onion.
I put some white rice in my small frying pan. I’ve got so that I prefer using my small frying pan with a lid to using a pot to make rice. I let the rice partly cook, then spread the black beans on top. They were already cooked and just needed heating up. I squeezed the half lime over them, put the lid back and lowered the heat to less than 1. 
The black beans would have been fine for protein in the meal but when I checked the freezer, I found four prawns left in a bag. Thawed those out with warm water.   
Peeled and cut the broccoli stem in rounds, shredded the red pepper, chunked the sweet onion. It was all still pretty bland so I took two small hot pickled peppers out of half empty jar and threw those into the wok along with the veggies. 
Stir fried the veggies and peppers for a few minutes, then threw in the prawns. When the prawns were nearly done, put about half a cup of a sweet mango salsa from an open jar into the stir fry.
When the prawns were cooked, I tipped the wok over my plate and slid everything onto it. I added the rice with the beans and lime.
My folks would have approved. The sweetness of the salsa with the heat of the peppers was delightful. Next time, though, I’ll put in four small hot pickled peppers. I like food that bites back. When I’m in Gimli, the heart of the heart of pickerel fillet country, I’ll make this and put it over the fillets. Or, I’ll make it with pickerel cheeks.
No recipe. Just a sense of what goes together. The trick is not to cook the veggies too much. They need to stay crisp.
Tomorrow’s supper? I dunno. Maybe beans on toast. Depends how lazy I’m feeling. However, I’ve got sort of a yen starting for Trinidadian curried chicken and I have four chicken thighs in the freezer. Alex Campbell brand. No growth hormones. No antibiotics. No arsenic. Just chicken. Let’s see. What will I need? Apples. Okay. Garlic. Okay. I’ll rummage through the fridge and cupboard. We’ll see how I feel about it tomorrow morning since it all should sit in a marinade during the day.

Great great amma shopping, Reykjavik, 1874

So, your Great Great amma Runa or Helga or Sigrun has convinced your great great grandfather, Gunnar or Helgi or Bjarni, to take her with him when he goes to Reykjavik with all the products they have amassed over the year. The trip may take days. They’ll camp at night at places where they can get grass for the horses. Grass governs everything. Without the horses, there will be no transport and no trade. The may stay in tents or they may stay at farms that have enough accommodation for them and their animals.
Great Great amma will ride side saddle. It’s a risky business as the horses travel over rough terrain. Riding astride would be much safer, more comfortable but ladies don’t ride astride yet. 
Women have drowned crossing rivers. Think of those heavy dresses, trying to stay in the saddle, the ice cold river from the glacier, the furious water driving ice on top and boulders below. If she’s lucky, there’ll be ferrymen to take her across.
Every traveller’s description emphasizes the difficulty of travel over the heaths and bogs but, particularly, over the rivers. Some rivers are so wide and the water so fast that the locals say to fix your eyes on the far bank and not look down at the water so you don’t become dizzy and fall into the current.
Be that as it may, your Great Great amma has been on the farm for the last twelve months. There may have been no visitors. She may have seen no one but those who live on the farm. Besides that, the Danish merchants are known to be free with the brandy before the bargaining begins. A few free drinks and it is easier to pay less and charge more.
As well, what woman in her right mind would trust a man with shopping for a year’s supply of goods? What man would remember a needle and thread? Especially after a few brandies and snorts of fresh snuff? It’s not an idle concern because one third of the value of exports is used to buy brandy, coffee, sugar and tobacco.
There’s a small entrance-hall, an outer door, then one room on each side. One is a public room Burton says with “jostling boors and drunken loafers.” The other is where ggamma is headed. It is a private store.
There are broad cloths and long cloths, woolen comforters, threads, and a few silks and satins. There will be hardware of all kinds; iron for the blacksmith, some steel and brass wire, farriers’ and carpenters’ tools. There will be cooking utensils; spades and scythes, sewing machines, fish-hooks of various kinds. There’ll be some hunting rifles, old military muskets.
GGamma will have a choice of cereals, brown and white sugar, hams, sausages and sardines, butter, figs, raisins, prunes and olive oil. There’ll be pots and pans, boxes, funnels, kettles and lamps and lanterns.
GGafi will be busy looking at the leather on the wall that he might use for saddles, thongs, straps and raw hide for shoes. He’ll be checking out scythes, metal for horseshoes, nails, lumber, anything that is needed for the sheep.

Everyone on the farm has his or her own wooden bowl from which they eat all their meals but there’ll be some cheap crockery and glass ware.GGamma might buy a piece or two since it adds a bit of class to the house.

But everything except what is listed as trade goods must be bought. Ink, brushes, cocoa, chocolate, ale, wine, vinegar, dyestuffs, varnish, playing cards, resin and gums, caps, cork, buckwheat meal, oatmeal, block metal, nails, iron chain, iron wares, zinc plates, paper, soap, sago, saltpetre, rope.
Think of your Great Great amma there in the store. She can only buy what she can afford and what she can afford is what the Danish merchant has given her husband for the goods they’ve produced over the winter. It is hard to conceive but they have to buy everything because Iceland has no metal deposits, no forests, no grain crops, so few vegetables as to be insignificant. They can’t make vinegar. They can’t make paper. They can’t make varnish. The list is endless.
Every item is precious. Every item took hard physical work. Haying. Taking care of sheep and cows. Milking. Making butter. Skinning sheep. Preserving meat. Plucking wool. Combing, cleaning, spinning, knitting. Great Great amma knows what it took to pay for that needle and thread, that jar of cinnamon.
Every purchase has to be weighed, one against the other, against the next twelve months before the trade ships come again.
And, when the purchases are made, there’s no having someone load them onto the local transfer. The horses are outfitted with a layer of turf to protect their backs, then a saddle with pegs on which boxes will be hung. The boxes have to be packed. The horses are tied head to tail and the caravan leaves for one day, two days, three days. Maybe more. The bogs have to be traversed, the quicksand avoided, the rivers crossed.
Think of her, your great great amma, sitting in her side saddle, a long line of laden horses behind her. She’s survived one more year and, now, with the goods she has, she hopes to survive another year. She must have. You’re here.  

(With material from Richard Burton, Utlima Thule)

The reference to a sewing machine is correct. “After successfully defending his right to a share in the profits of other sewing machine manufacturers, Howe saw his annual income jump from three hundred to more than two hundred thousand dollars a year. Between 1854 and 1867, Howe earned close to two million dollars from his invention.” from Inventors

Shopping In Reykjavik, 1874

If your ancestors lived in Reykjavik or, more likely, visited there to trade, who would they have dealt with? Who were the people who decided what they’d be paid for their precious trade goods and what they’d paid for the supplies they needed to survive for a year?

Richard Burton, 1874, gives a good picture of who made up the business establishment.

Since the trading season was the summer when the weather was at its best, the traders would all be in Reykjavik but, not surprisingly, most of them left for Copenhagen as the trading season ended. From RB’s description, it sounds like the traders kept a good deal to themselves, making the best of this hardship post by having picnics at the Laxá River and by going riding in the countryside. The country folk, and since Reykjavik was little more than a small town, virtually everyone was country folk, might be working  long days getting in the hay, taking care of animals, pounding dried fish, knitting, doing everything possible to see that there would be enough food to last through the coming winter, but the traders, as they picnicked, had no such concerns. Come the end of the season, they were heading back to Denmark and civilization.

The storekeepers were called merchants (kaupmaðr). They were the big shots. They called the shots.  Their establishments had no signs or names on them but had prime positions facing the sea. The people who worked in these stores were mostly hired  help working for Copenhagen firms. They received fixed salaries rather than being on commissions.

According to RB, these are the people your ancestors would have had to deal with:

1.       Hr Egill Egilsson (Icelander), of the Glasgow House, and agent of the “Jón Sigurðsson‘ steamer
2.       2. Hr Fischer, A Dane, married to an Icelandic wife, settled at Copenhagen, and occasionally visiting the island. He occupies the corner tenement to the right of the Bridge House and he has large stores fronting his shop.
3.       Hr Havstein (Dane), who has not long been established; his private dwelling is attached to his store at the west end of Harbour Street, but he usually lives at Copenhagen. This house charters two or three ships a year to carry its goods.
4.       4. Hr Hannes Jónsson, an Icelander, son of the former Bishop Steingrimur Jónsson. His stock is furnished by Hr Jonsen of Copenhagen, who has also establishments at Hafnafjörð, Papós, and Seyðisfjörð.
5.       Hr Robb, the son of an English merchant, who settled at and was naturalised in Iceland. He speaks German, but not a word of English. It is the smallest of all the establishments and seems to do business only in lollipops. (Naturalisation is wisely  made easy in Iceland. The foreigner swears allegiance, pays $2, and straighway becomes a citizen.)
6.       Hr P.C.Knutzen, a Dane, whose agent is Hr Sviertsen. He trades on his own account, without a company and, being young and wealthy, he prefers Copenhagen to Rekjavik. At Hafnafjörð he has another establishment, and an agent(Hr Zimsen).
7.       Hr Möller. The Club is held at  his house.
8.       Hr Schmidt (Danish), who hires a house at Reykjavik, and passes the winter at Copenhagen. He is consul for Holland.
9.       Hr Th. A. Thomsen, a Dane of Flensburg, born in Iceland. He passes the winter at Copenhagen; and, besides being one of the principal traders, he is well-known for his civility and kindness to strangers.
10.   Hr Edward Siemsen, at the east end of the town. He is agent for his brother and their nephew, and he also acts as Consul for Denmark.

Only two of the traders are Icelandic, Egill Egillsson and Hannes Jónsson; however, Hannes is only an agent working for Jonsen of Copenhagen, a company large enough to not only have a trading post in Reykjavik but stores at Hafnafjörð, Papós, and Seyðisfjörð.

The Icelanders weren’t bringing money. There was very little silver (rigs dollars or the occasional shilling).

When they rode into Reykjavik with their pack train of horses, they were bringing “salt meat, beef, and mutton; tallow; butter, close packed; wool in the grease; skins of sheep, foxes, and seals; feathers, especially eider down;  oil of whales, sharks and seals; fine and coarse jackets of Wadmal, woolen stockings, and mitts; stock-fish and sulfur. The major items they wanted in return for their goods were timber, mostly pine and fir, salt, coal, grain, coffee, spices, tobacco and liquor. They could get beams for roofing and framing, twenty-two to twenty-four feet long, one inch boards for side-lining of houses, three-inch planks, and finer woods” for the cabinet maker.

They had to pay $2 for a 44 gallon barrel of salt. They had to have salt for the fishing season.

The coal that was available came from Britain. There was a chronic lack of fuel but coal was both expensive and difficult to transport on horseback. Split birch stove wood was imported but it wasn’t available to the ordinary Icelander.

The wheat and rye came as grain, flour and made into biscuits. Baking ovens, RB says, only exist in Reykjavik. Grain being taken into the countryside would be made as loaves cooked in the ground or as flat bread. An oven would take too much fuel.

Rice had become a staple commodity and was used for making rice-milk. A number of travelers from around this time mention being served rice milk.

There were luxuries. Cinnamon, pepper, cloves and nutmeg were available. Coffee was available but tea was very rare. A little chocolate, RB says, was brought from Copenhagen.

Large amounts of snuff were imported and sold at $3 a lb.

The trading shops sell port, sherry, claret, champagne, rum and cognac. They are expensive and of poor quality. The beer is used for commercial establishments. Brennivín, Korn-schnapps, or rye spirits are so cheap that there is no need to water them down unless you’re selling them to the peasants and adding a little water is a way the merchant can make a few extra cents. Apparently country merchants can sell 600 gallons of liquor a year.

So, there you have it. You ride into Reykjavik with your trade goods to get a year’s supply of everything you need to survive the coming winter and you  ride out with salt, lots of salt, enough grain, probably rye, to last the year, some wood planks if you’ve had a good year and can afford it, some bags of Rangoon rice and, if you’ve had a really good year, some spices to add to your daily diet of fish, skyr, rye bread and porridge.

You probably have a bottle of brandy in your pocket and sway a little in the saddle as you take some fresh snuff out of your horn.

There were more goods than that available, of course, but it will have to wait for tomorrow for a more detailed list of the items your great great grandmother hoped to buy when she arrived in Reykjavik.

(Material from Richard Burton’s Ultima Thule, 1875.)

On Being Canadian

Canada is an immigrant country. Our immigrations have happened at different times in Canada’s history. The flood of refugees from Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, happened around the same time. However, when those surges ended because of population pressure easing, because of economic conditions improving, refugees started to come from other countries.
We all like to think that our group’s immigrant experience was unique. However, the challenges faced by having to adapt to Canada have proven to be much the same. The need to learn English or French. The need to adapt to Canadian law. The need to learn to work in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious community. The need to adapt to new ways of working, of learning new skills. The need to accept change of their most dearly held beliefs.  The need to accept intermarriage. The need to be tolerant of people who look, think, and believe differently. The need to change one’s identity from I’m Icelandic, Ukrainian, German, Polish, English, or X, to I’m Canadian.
We all want to hang onto some aspects of our community’s pre-immigration life.
Religion, for example. It has a structure that helps bind the community. It often provides organized support. The religious leaders, whatever they are called, are usually the best educated. Religious leaders can provide guidance, provide help with documents, make their believers feel less isolated. However, both the Roman Catholic priests and the Lutheran ministers, of my childhood, once powerful decision makers,  have faded away, become mostly irrelevant in a growing secular society. We no longer hold church services in Icelandic. Pews in every church are empty.
Clothes. At first, we hang onto them because that’s what we’ve got to wear. But living conditions are different and soon they are replaced and become something to wear on special holidays. Some end up in museums.When that happens, they have become the past.
Food. Food is the easiest to hold onto. Recipes come in heads of wives and mothers and grandmothers and are shared in a tight knit community. Early cook books testify to this with every recipe having a name attached to it. Runa´s peanut butter cookies. After a time, they are codified in recipe books, made available for those leaving the community and for those outside the community. Food is often part of ritual and even when it is something not eaten regularly, it appears at certain holidays. Hakarl, rotted shark, is one of those. However, some foods adapt well, are easily copied, commercialized. The perogi is probably the best Canadian example. It appears at buffets from Victoria to Newfoundland. What buffet in Gimli, the heart of New Iceland, would be complete without perogis?
Holidays. Immigrant groups keep some of these but often they fade away because the larger society has its own holidays and the larger society accommodates variety by making these holidays secular. Christmas has traded Christ for consumerism. Gifts to the Christ child have become midnight madness at Walmart. The death and resurrection of Christ have become a rabbit hopping about giving away chocolates. In an attempt to regain some sense of ethnicity, older immigrant cultures such as ours, create events around holidays that have been long forgotten, and these are fun,  but they are history lessons.
Publications. We created publications for our people out of necessity. It was the best way to provide new immigrants with information on everything from Canadian law to how to grow and store potatoes. Advice was desperately needed. Information about where and how to get work. Help with learning English. Newspapers like Lögberg and Heimskringla were essential. Now, over a hundred years later, those essential tasks no longer need to be done. We are so integrated, we no longer have immigrant needs.The paper´s current role is to provide connectivity to a widespread population of people whose relationship to their heritage is often tenuous. Intermarriage, the loss of Icelandic as a daily language, migration within and away from Canada, all are forces of ethnic community dispersal and integration into the larger society.LH can provide context, history, connection, a relationship with Iceland.
Language. At first there is no need to try to preserve language. It is the language of the immigrant community. But the demands of survival are that at a minimum, English be learned. If other ethnic groups live in the area, then there is often the need to learn those languages. My grandfather’s solution was to stop the babel of Icelandic, German, Polish, Ukrainian by declaring that English be spoken in his house. There were many like him. Many parents didn’t want their children to learn the original language so as to avoid discrimination because of having an accent. Later, when people were more established, there were classes set up but with the classes there was the acknowledgement that the immigrant language was no longer the working language of the community. For us, at the beginning, church services were in Icelandic. Newspapers were in Icelandic. But, gradually, that had to change as the language was lost. It became irrelevant to daily life and particularly irrelevant to members of the community who migrated to other areas.
What makes me think of these things is that on the weekend, I went to the funeral of a friend. She was Jamaican. The gathering of mourners was the largest I´ve ever seen. Sarah was beloved in the Jamaican community. At the service, a number of the people who spoke said how much they loved Jamaica. They reminisced about going back to Jamaica for holidays. They spoke much like some people in the Icelandic Canadian community speak about Iceland. After the service, we gathered for the reception and shared a meal of curried goat, red beans and rice, spiced chicken, salad. It was a fine reception.
Some of my people came from Iceland in 1875, others in the 1880s. We´ve been here a long time. Our connection with Iceland is not so passionate, so filled with recent loss, so closely attached as the Jamaican mourners. The large majority of the people at the funeral and reception were Jamaican but, already, there were us others, these descendents of Icelanders, sharing  friendship, grief and a meal.
Afterwards, on the trip home, I thought about me and my generation, about how my Irish half has faded, simply become Canadian, how my Icelandic half has retained something of an ethnic identity because of living in an Icelandic Canadian community when I was a child, becoming and staying involved with other Icelandic Canadian communities, and I wouldn´t want to give that up, but as I sat at Swartz Bay, waiting to drive off the ferry onto Vancouver Island, I thought about the funeral, the reception, my friends, that I would not want to give up any of this, and said to myself, this is what it means to be Canadian.

On Leaving Home

(Photo by WDValgardson)

Birth and death come to all of us. Leaving home comes to nearly all of us. It wasn’t always this way. My father was born on 3rdA Ave. in Gimli, Manitoba. When he married, he moved three blocks down the street. Later, after my brother’s death in an industrial accident, living in a house with too many memories, he and my mother built a house a block north on 3rd Ave.

I guess you might say that he’d left home but in the off-seasons when he wasn’t commercial fishing, he barbered. The barber shop, built by his carpenter father, was just a few steps from his father and step-mother’s house. He often put a sign in the window of the shop saying “Gone for coffee.” and went to visit in his parent’s kitchen.

He knew every person in town by name. He knew the morning smell of the bakery with its fresh bread and cinnamon buns. He knew the sound and smell of the blacksmith’s shop as John Chudd hammered together some anchors for him. He knew the cool, long Greenberg store with its soda fountain and its candy counter.

Every day he walked the same sidewalk from the house to the shop and back. He walked that path twice a day for these were more leisurely times and he came home for lunch. In the summer, when he first started fishing, he pulled a wagon with his nets down to the dock, then rowed off-shore. He always tried to be on his nets at dawn. He’d lift, haul  his fish home, pack it in ice, get cleaned up, go to the shop, cut hair, then, at the end of the day, clean and repack the fish.

On Sundays, he’d visit relatives. His mother had twelve brothers and sisters and they’d mostly stayed in town. They’d married and had children so there was a lot of visiting to do, a lot of coffee to drink.

The changes were seasonal. The hot Manitoba days with crystal blue skies and small floating clouds turned to fall with wind and storms and looming masses of grey cloud. Then one day there would be snow flying past the window and, in a while, the ground would be white. The snow would come more frequently, the drifts would begin. Finally, sometime in March as the days grew longer, the air warmer, the sun brighter, puddles would form. There would be water in the ruts during the day. Then the harbinger of spring, the pussy willows would appear, grey and white.

There were births and deaths and these were celebrated and mourned communily for the newly born and dead were all known. There were weddings, Christmas gatherings, New Year’s dances, Halloween and, in the summer, a rush of relatives who came for Islindingadagurinn, the Icelandic Celebration. Winnipeg was a distant city. It was rumoured that there were cities beyond it, cities where some people had gone. They left a hole in the fabric of life. They no longer were at the garage for a gossip. They weren’t at the hockey rink to cheer the local team. They had voluntarily chosen a type of death.

But times change and that which was not possible, or did not seem possible, became possible. A fisherman’s son was offered the chance of going to university even though he didn’t really understand what university was. He stumbled through his courses, while every day Plato and Locke and Rousseau led him further and further from home, changing his language, turning him little by little, into a stranger. People told him this was success. The graduation, the job, the guaranteed salary, the promotions, the raises,  but then one day when he was busy riding high on his new life, and his new life was marked by airplane terminals and airplane flights and distant cities and hotel rooms…


Frigid and clear, the air condenses on wings

And fuselage. Riding twenty-seven thousand feet high

On success, the land below faded to insignificance,

I sit, detached. But then, the pilot

Shifts our route. Below me lies Lake Winnipeg.

Amazed, I try to name my childhood places.

“There, there,” I want to shout, “there’s Riverton,

And Beaver Creek,” and then, with surprise, I mark

And mark and mark, a tiny side road, a clearing

In the trees, some buildings set a familiar way

And know, since this is Sunday noon, my parents

Are having tea. Plank table, chairs, the heavy mugs,

My mother standing at the stove, my father taking off

His boots, my orphaned brother’s son, his hair in disarray,

Reaching for the lemon pie. If I could, I’d shout, “I’m here,”

Or better still, drop softly down, drift,

My parachute unfurled, into the yard,

Then nonchalantly wander in, embrace them all,

Take down my cup form off its peg, then ease

Into their conversation. In middle-aged despair, I sit,

A helpless product of decisions made

In adolescence. The steward passes with the food,

I hardly hear him for the throbbing of my blood.

(Poem from The Carpenter of Dreams, Skaldhus Press)