Tom Koppel: Mystery Islands


Photos courtesy Tom Koppel  and Annie Palovcik

Tom sailing a trimaran on the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, with a heavily tattooed Maori chief, Hone Mihaka, standing nearby.

There was a soft rain falling as we went to the Black Sheep bookstore in Ganges, Salt Spring Island for the release of Tom Koppel’s book, Mystery Islands, Discovering the Ancient Pacific. This is Tom’s fifth book. He’s spent a life time earning a living writing for magazines and newspapers. I first met him decades ago because we were both members of PWAC (the Periodical Writers of Canada). He was the real thing, a freelance writer successful in one of the hardest professions.

Over the years, I lost track of him, heard mutual acquaintances mention his name from time to time and was delighted when I discovered him with his wife, Annie Palovcik, on Salt Spring. They work as a team on travel articles and, today, Tom said in his talk about the research behind this new book that his books have all risen out of his articles. He writes numerous articles and, gradually, the concept for the book appears. He can’t just put the articles into a book, there is a lot of rewriting to do, always more research but eventually, they form a coherent whole.

 A girl dancing at small island of Rabi in the Fiji Islands, where the residents are of Micronesian descent, transplanted by the British from the ruined phosphate island of Banaba

The Black Sheep bookstore is one of those great old fashioned bookstores, selling both new and used books, providing support for local writers with promotion and readings. It’s crammed with books. I’ve spent many a happy hour browsing the shelves, investigating nooks and crannies, finding the occasional treasure. It is here that I discovered a copy of the history of Salt Spring Island and because of reading it, when Tom talked about the Hawaiian families who settled here and how they now had completed the circle by going back to Hawaii to visit regularly, I understood what he was talking about.

A visitor viewing the largest tiki in the Marquesas islands

Standing on the stairs at the Black Sheep bookstore, Tom regaled the audience with anecdotes from this latest adventure. Kayaking, on high tide, through a ruined imperial city built on artificial islands. Walking through it during low tide. Another day, he and Annie headed out through massive sand dunes as much as 200 feet high to explore an archeological site. There were no land marks and no signs. After a number of hours, their water began to run short and they turned to make their way back by following the shore line. Eventually, they found a sign with an arrow, followed it and, to their relief, discovered their driver waiting with the car.

Tom’s adventures were in an area of the world completely foreign to me, Fiji, Micronesia, far from my usual area of Scandinavia but, having listened to his talk, I’m looking forward to reading Mystery Islands.

The book begins with a visit to a village. Visiting men and women are expected to wear cotton sarongs, called sulus. On shore, the guests are offered a small bowl of kava, a mildly intoxicating beverage. If they want to accept the drink, they call out “Bula”, and clap their hands once. After they drink, they clap their hands three times. It’s concrete detail like this that make travel adventures come alive.

Recently, we’ve had Douglas&McIntyre, one of Canada’s most important publishers, declare bankruptcy. Canadian bookstores have been closing down at an alarming pace. It is more and more difficult to get published. When I first saw Tom’s book, Mystery Islands, I was surprised and pleased because the production quality was so high. Top notch paper, lots of colour photographs.

Tom explained to the assembled multitude how the publication came about. In spite of his reputation and previous publications, a New York agent couldn’t find a publisher for the book. A Canadian agent couldn’t find a publisher for the book. Then a friend suggested that he contact professionals in the subject area of the book. Word went around and, eventually, one person told him that a new publishing company,   USP Press, University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji Islands, was conducting a competition for original manuscripts. In the nick of time, Tom entered his manuscript. He won first prize. He received three thousand dollars and had his book published.

The book is beautiful. The pictures excellent and interesting. However, distribution from so far away, sending books across borders (taxation problems), is difficult, if not impossible. Tom’s books have to find their way in a system that is much like the sand dunes where he and Annie were lost. Books can be ordered directly from him, $40.00 plus postage, at 193 Richard Flack Rd.  Salt Spring Island, BC  V8K 1N4. However, it is easiest to email him at . As reviews will appear for this book full of history, adventure, travel, engagingly written (I’ve only had a chance to read the first few pages but since it is by Tom, I can guarantee that it will be engagingly written), bookstores will start to stock it but there isn’t any need to wait on the vagaries of the Canadian distribution system.

However, this is where we are, today, in Canadian publishing and distribution. A well-known, successful author has to find a publisher in Micronesia. His manuscript is a prize winner. Yet, he has to personally see to the distribution of his book. Writing is a major part of our Canadian culture. If more and more Canadian publishers go out of business, if more and more Canadian bookstores go out of business, there will be no Canadian literature. We’ll soon return to what publishing was at one time in Canada, a branch plant economy.



Publishing Stephan G

In pages 347 to 361 of Wakeful Nights, the biography of Stephan G. Stephansson, there is a description of everything that took place to get his poetry published in book form. It seems both sad and appropriate that I should be reading these pages as news has come that Douglas&McIntyre, Canada’s largest independent publisher has declared bankruptcy.  With the demise of D&M, a Canadian voice has been stilled.

When Stephan G. was publishing, there was, as yet, no Canadian voice. His writing was in Icelandic and was read by people in Iceland and by the Icelandic immigrants and their descendants.

After Eggert Jóhannsson suggested that money be raised to publish Stephan´s poetry in book form, Stephan wrote back to say that he could not keep operating the farm and prepare such a manuscript. He said that he´d need $20.00 a month so that he could hire someone to do the farm work while he edited and rewrote.

How little times have changed. This correspondence takes place in 1906. It is now 2012 and very few Canadian writers can survive without a day job. Many, such as David Arnason and Kristjana Gunnars, have held or are holding, teaching positions. Other writers are carpenters, lawyers, farmers. Like Stephan, they fit their writing into the nooks and crannies of their days.

In Stephan’s case, his friends and supporters do raise money to provide him with the time to work on his manuscript and to publish it. To publicize the book and promote sales, he goes on a tour. By so doing, he begins a tradition that has become critical to any author. Viðar Hreinsson, with the support of the Icelandic National League and various Icelandic Canadian clubs, has just finished a tour promoting and selling Wakeful Nights. It seems ironic, reading about Stephan´s tour—Winnipeg, Marshland, Argyle, Shoal Lake, New Iceland, Duluth, Gardar, Churchbridge, Wynyard, Foam Lake, etc.—that his biographer has just completed a similar tour, giving presentations in many of the same places.

Andvökur was published privately. Now, these many decades later, the English language edition of Stephan´s biography, Wakeful Nights, had to be published privately. There are many reasons for that. The Icelandic North American community is small and widely scattered. Although, Stephan G is well known among older members of the community, he is no longer well known among the younger generations for he wrote in Icelandic and the language has largely been lost. Canadian publishers such as D&M have fierce competition from American publishers who have the advantage of their much larger population that is, by and large, only interested in American authors and American subject matter. Publishing a book about an author whose work is of interest to a small ethnic group makes no financial sense.

Viðar says in his preface, “Funding the work on this biography was difficult. I worked at various odd jobs, borrowed money, and finally entered into arrangements with three funding sources: the Icelandic shipping company Eimskip, a genetics company and a bank.” It took a lot more than Stephan’s need for $20.00 a month so he could edit his poems. But then, the editing could be done by Stephan at home and didn’t require international travel, years of research in Iceland and North America and writing that was yet to be done, not already done.

There are those, unfortunately, who believe and espouse a market place view of life to the exclusion of all other values. Nothing should be allowed to exist unless it makes a profit. These are the progeny of the money changers whom Christ drove from the temple. They are inclined to know the price of everything but the value of nothing. If it were for them, there would be no published poetry by Stephan G and no biography. Nor much of anything that we might call culture or history.

Although I grew up in Gimli, Manitoba which many see as the heart of all things Icelandic in North America, I never heard anything of the religious conflicts that divided the community. My father regarded the church with utter contempt and, if he ever spoke of it, he chose no sides. His contempt was universal. My mother was Irish, didn’t speak Icelandic, and as an outsider, was not privy to the fierce gossip that raged around kitchen tables or the attacks and counter attacks in Logberg and Heimskringla. The papers were still published in Icelandic and that kept the internecine warfare private. The British overclass wouldn’t have been the slightest bit interested in Icelanders ranting and raving about obscure religious opinions. The result was that when I was growing up, I knew about King William and the Battle of the Boyne but not the battles that took place in the West End of Winnipeg.

Wakeful Nights has made me aware of some of the religious undercurrents, the Lutheran/Unitarian divide, the secular divides over women’s rights, capitalism and, although, I haven’t got there yet, the divide over active participation in WWI vs Stephan’s pacificist ideas. I’ve always regarded Icelandic Canadians, myself included, as rather stodgy, phlegmatic and reserved. We’re inclined to make long speeches and be rather uptight about a lot of things. It comes as a revelation that behind this mask are raging, tumultuous emotions. I assume this is the lingering effect of a Viking heritage.

When Stephan went to Winnipeg, Viðar says, “There was still strong antagonism in the Synod and Stephan’s supporters wanted to steer him clear of this dispute.”

Stephan arrives in Winnipeg on November 3, 1908. The city has grown to 150,000 but the Icelandic community was still raging about opposing religious views.

Ours was a small, very small, tiny, teeny ethnic community, in a much larger immigrant community. Stephan G was the most talented, productive writer we produced. Like any writer, unless he is going to write romantic pap, he’s going to write works based on his beliefs. Our community is now even smaller in proportion to Canada’s population, never mind to the USA’s population. Writers from other immigrant groups have created Canadian literature. The Icelandic place in Can Lit is very small. It is Stephan’s accomplishments that may give us a place in Canadian literature, and that is only because his work was able to overcome the opposition by people who disagreed with his view of life.

That place in Canadian Literature is still tenuous because translating poetry into English from Icelandic is filled with problems, many of which seem insurmountable. That Wakeful Nights has been published is a great help. It may be that because of it, Stephan G and the Icelandic community will be recognized in Canadian literature courses. However, it is one thing to say “Stephan G was a great writer. One of the best.” But then Guttormur Guttormsson, the poet from Riverton, did say in a one of his poems that we know we’re great because we say so. Without translations of his poems that prove Stephan’s a great writer, it is still just an assertion. Anyone can claim that.

I laughed out loud when I read one of Stephan’s comments. Rögnvaldur Pétursson wrote to him asking for a poem for the publication, Heimir. Stephan eventually sent him “‘Landnámskonan’ (The Settler Woman).” “Everything in it, however, challenged generally accepted views, he pointed out, adding that he preferred that his revolutionary poems be published in the “most acrid reactionary papers” rather than liberal papers, as the healthy have no need of a doctor.’” What a hoot! That’s like saying I’ve written an article that sex is bad and I want it published in Playboy. For a guy sitting on a farm in the middle of nowhere in Alberta, he certainly knew how to get under people’s skin.

Canadian literature, as can be seen by the repeated bankruptcies of Canadian publishers and Canadian bookstores, is under threat. With it, our Canadian identity, which never seems quite certain, loses an important way of defining ourselves. Stephan’s poems about the immigrant experience, about the landscape, about the conflicts, about the values tested and retested, can help with that identity. As Icelandic Canadians we need very arrow in our quiver and, it would seem, with current events, every arrow in our Canadian quiver.

Perhaps if Stephan had been the literary equivalent of Norman Rockwell, producing romantic, unrealistic but comforting clichés, he’d have had fewer people incensed by his writing but, then, he wouldn’t be considered one of Iceland’s great authors, nor one of ours. He’d just have been another public relations promoter for the moneyed class.






Spinning, Weaving, 40 years on Salt Spring

This past weekend, I attended The 40th Anniversary of the founding of the  Weaver‘s and Spinner‘s Guild Exhibit and Sale at the Art Spring Gallery on Salt Spring Island.   They have done the exhibit and sale on a yearly basis for the past three years. There were two galleries. One gallery held the regular show and sale of fine textiles, clothing, and yarns.

The second held an art show. When I entered the gallery that held the Eye For Colour show, my viking genes caused me to immediately go to this paired piece by Valrie Short (weaver) and Karen Dakin (potter).  Val‘s  weaving is based on traditional viking/celtic design and colours and Karen Dakin‘s Viking rabbit in a helmet with horns made me smile. It was the kind of piece I‘d love to see at the Icelandic National League convention in Seattle this coming spring.


The Eye for Colour show was first held in 2006. This is its third time and the first time they have expanded the invitation to include artists other than painters. What a good decision that was. The marrying of the different arts with weaving was often surprising, always beautiful.

Mary E. Paddon, Yarns by Deerhaven

In the past the work of guild members was only paired with paintings. This year it was paired with artists from other guilds and featured pottery, basket weaving, painting and glasswork. For each piece of fabric there was a complimentary piece of art shown with it. One pairing was a painting of Christmas roses (white hellebores) by Victoria Olchowechi with a touch of pink matched with a white sweater spun and knitted by Susan Asatill. Part of the power of art is that it can, through association, stir both memory and imagination. These two pieces, classy, sophisticated, made an image of my mother spring up, for the moment I saw them, I knew that these were the two pieces that would have caught her attention, drawn her to stand in front of them and call my father to come and look.

There was a happy personal quality about this show that can be captured, perhaps, by some written comments by the artists attached to their products. For example, one note by Susan Astill said, “Fleece was Salt Spring fleece, produced by a sheep named Joan, a Cheviot.“ Donna Vanderwekken had a note on an exquisite blanket saying that her goal was, “To use only yarns I had dyed last summer. Indigo for different shades of blue. Dahlia petals for yellow, Bronze Fennel for lime green. Apple bark for rust.“ It is this personal quality, the connection between the producers of the art, the art and the viewer that was delightful.

Many of the local artists were present and available. There was both a spinning and a weaving demonstration.

Spinning, knitting and weaving in Canada are considered women’s arts and from my observation of the visitors to the show, it is still mostly women who are interested. During the time I was at the show, there were only two other men. However, my Icelandic background, and my interest in Icelandic history and culture brought me to the show. For those with little or no knowledge of Iceland, the connection between a spinning, knitting and weaving show on Salt Spring Island and Iceland will be quite obscure. Icelanders, living through centuries in a hostile climate that allowed no crop except grass, survived because of their sheep. The sheep provided meat, milk and wool. The other domestic animal was the milk cow but sheep are much more economical and provide a better return in a climate where there was no guarantee that even grass would grow well when icebergs filled the bays and the ground froze in summer. It was sheep that provided wool for warm clothes.

In the 1800’s a number of British travellers went to Iceland. One of those was Richard Burton. He wrote a book called Ultima Thule (1874) in which he said, “The principal occupation of the women is spinning yarn during the summer, and knitting and weaving in winter. A rude loom fixed and upstanding, not a little like that of ancient Egypt and of modern Central Africa, and worked…by both sexes, stands in every farm. A good hand can weave three yards a day. The Vaðmal…much resembles the tweeled cloth or frieze worn by the Leith fishermen.

“There is only one kind of Wadmal generally worn, but in most parts of the island, and especially in the east, there are finer qualities used for “store-clothes” and woman’s attire. The Ormadúkr is worked like a drill, the Einskepta like twill. It is sold by the ell,or two Danish feet (=2 3/8 English feet).

“The usual colours are grey, black, light-blue, and muret….It is excellent stuff, durable, and, after a fashion, waterproof.“

Knitting was so critical to survival that it started early with some accounts describing children being taught to knit at age four and, by age eight, required to knit two sets of fishermen‘s mittens a week.

According to Consul Crowe‘s report of 1870-71, in 1869, there were 76,816 pairs of stockings produced and 55,601 one fingered mittens.

Nowadays, in the Icelandic North American community, many homes proudly display spindles and spinning wheels but these, once necessities, are now sentimental family treasures.

It was with this background that I came to the Weaver‘s and Spinner‘s Guild show, with a mind filled with images of fishermen‘s mittens, stockings, fine and coarse wadmal, with images of  my great aunt sitting at her spinning wheel in her Icelandic costume. I brought with me a range of patterns and colours in my memory, a way of thinking about these arts.

Of course, the weavers of today don‘t labour in turf and lava huts with tiny windows covered with animal membranes. Today, the process has been made somewhat easier than it was in Iceland simply because it is done in well-lit, warm, comfortable surroundings. The knitter, spinner, weaver still must know about a great deal more than these processes. She has to know about sheep, about the characteristics of their wool, how to prepare it, and the use of dyes. For example, a weaver, buying wool “right from the sheep“ will have to wash and card or comb it for spinning and, in so doing, may lose up to fifty percent in weight in dirt and grease.

In Iceland, there is just one breed of sheep. But in North America the weaver or knitter can choose wool from many different sheep and they all  have different characteristics. For example, wool from a Romney will have less grease than Merinos and Corriedales. With a Romney, a spinner may only lose 30%. It was obvious in talking to Mary E. Paddon that weaving isn’t just a job or a task but a passion for she was able to tell me all about dying, spinning, weaving, wool, sheep, and the history of it all. Along with demonstrating spinning, she also had a piece in the Eye For Colour show.

The pieces on display vied with each other for my attention. One pairing, a painting of peaches (Libby Jutras) with a handwoven blanket (Donna Vanderwekken) reflecting the colours in the painting brought me back three times to look at it.

Pat Davidson didn‘t have anything in the Eye For Colour show, but she had pieces in the regular show. My favorite piece of the moment of hers is a tea towel that a friend of mine bought a few days ago and now adorns a family cedar chest. I found this tea towel quite extraordinary because it made me realize something that I once knew but had forgotten. That is that even the humblest items in our homes can be things of beauty.

Photo by J.O.M. Pat’s hand woven tea towel.

Icelanders plucked wool (Icelandic sheep naturally shed their wool and when it was loose, it could be pulled off)  to trade for necessities, they knitted and wove such long hours that it is said they used little sticks called wake picks to  hold open their eyelids. They wove wadmal they could trade for nails, for horseshoes, for rice, for grain to make bread. The goal was not beauty but quantity, utility, durability. They knitted and wove so they  might eat and be clothed. However, the need for beauty always exists and from all this knitting the traditional Icelandic patterns developed, the Lopapeysa was created and stylish Icelandic designs appeared. I wondered, as I stood and admired the weaving and the knitting at this Salt Spring show, what all those Icelanders would have thought of the beautiful items on display.

The 40th Anniversary of The Weaver’s and Spinners Guild Exhibit and Sale is about the talented people who belong to the guild, the people who raise the sheep, who prepare the wool. But it is also a tribute to all those who have come before, before the creation of the Spinning Jenny, the creation of artificial fabrics, all those like my great great grandmother and her mother and her mother before her.

Spun and woven and knit, wool clothed the world. In recent times, artificial fabrics replaced wool and made clothing more affordable. Lost, though, was the community connection, the relationship between the producer of the wool, the spinner, the knitter, the weaver and the people who bought the yarn or cloth and made the clothes. We no longer can say this fine blanket came from a sheep called Jenny, was spun by Mary, was woven by Susan.

The Weavers in the Eye For Colour show have taken what was a common, humble task and from it, created beauty and, in so doing, have paid tribute to all those weavers of the past.






Jesus Loves Me

There is one overriding reason, purpose for coming to church on Sundays, Pastor Skonnord, the new minister at the Gimli Lutheran church said this summer, that is to praise the Lord.

“Holy, holy, holy, praise God Almighty,”  that sort of thing. Lutheran hymns aren’t all that singable. If God has a good ear, he must flinch at some of my off key singing. I’m saved by the choir. They guide me down the righteous paths of sound. Some hymns make no sense musically so I just stand there and listen.

I agree with the pastor. We’re there to tell the Lord we worship him (her?) with our songs and prayers. The sermons sometimes enlighten, sometimes befuddle me and I think I’d better read, re-read that bit of scripture again. The readings for the day are usually interesting and it’s nice to have them read by various members of the congregation. Getting people to participate is good.

There are some things that are new or, at least, that I don’t remember from when I was in Sunday school. This pastor and the one before him take some time to sit down on the steps leading to the altar and have the children of the congregation gather round while he tells a story with a moral to it. I think everyone enjoys it. The problem is that some Sundays there are no children. It’s not a good omen. A worse omen is the number of signs I’ve seen on churches in the last few years offering the building for sale. They end up becoming restaurants or music schools. Thank goodness, I don’t know of any that have become banks.

The other new practice is stopping the service and having people  go about shaking hands and saying “Peace be with you.” I like that. It gets people out of their pews, makes them have direct, physical contact with each other. Not exactly Holy Roller stuff that my father used to describe at some church he went to in Winnipeg for a time but nice. Since we’re not persecuted and persecution helps more than anything to make people feel like a bonded community, we need other things to bind us.

After the service, the minister and his wife stand at the exit to the foyer and shake hands with the congregation as it leaves. It’s good but I sort of feel sorry for his wife. I’m glad that when I was teaching high school that the school board didn’t expect my wife to come to parent-teacher meetings to shake hands with the parents. I was pleased to see the Pastor’s wife wearing slacks. The Pastor even suggested for one service that people wear shorts. There was going to be a BBQ after the service. I waited for thunder and lightning and a booming voice, not of God but of the church elders. When I was a boy, a new minister’s wife wore shorts to cut the grass on a hot summer’s day and the wives of the elders called on Jehovah to strike her dead. There was a possibility the poor woman was going to become a human sacrifice or have the letter S for shorts branded onto her forehead.

The best part, even though it’s not the reason for going to church, is coffee after the service. You get your coffee, some home baked dainties, and you sit down at a table with five other people and catch up on news. When we do that, I sort of feel that it must have been like that when Christ and the Apostles were preaching and teaching. Afterwards, people gathering together on the hillside or in the courtyard to discuss news. That helps to create community.

I know it doesn’t sound all that exciting but when I’m in Gimli, come Sunday, my feet just lead me down the sidewalk to the church. When I leave, my steps seem lighter.

Compared to the past, it all feels rather un-judgemental, liberal, socially correct with no imprecations, threats, warnings, being hurled from the altar, no wrath. I get the feeling if a minister today showed wrath, the congregation would try to get him psychological help. Wrath’s out. Warm and cuddly is in. Away in a manger has taken over from you will burn in hell, sinners.

I keep sort of expecting wrath. Or at least weirdness. When we lived in southern Missouri, I tried going to the local Lutheran church and quit because the altar was draped in the American flag. “Onward Christian Soldiers” was sung every service. Some congregation members had bumper stickers that said, “Kill a Commie for Christ.”

In Iowa, we didn’t get a chance to quit. We got fired. When the white, middle class, social climbing congregation discovered I was a graduate student, a church elder took me aside and explained we were not welcome and that we should attend church with people of our own social class. Being white didn’t cut it. The purpose for going to that church was definitely not to praise the Lord. It had something to do with houses of a number of square feet and a minimum income. I got the uneasy feeling as we were escorted from the premises that the money changers had taken over that temple, lock, stock and barrel.

One of my favorite writers is Ebenezer Henderson. He went to Iceland in 1814 and this is how dedicated he was, he stayed over the winter and continued his work of distributing Bibles in 1815. He says in a preamble to his book, Iceland, or, The Journal of a residence in that island, during the years… that his purpose in visiting Iceland “was exclusively to investigate the wants of its inhabitants with respect to the Holy Scriptures”. Now, that is dedication. Iceland in 1814-15 wasn’t exactly Denmark or France or anywhere else, for that matter. Reykjavik was a few houses buried in snow and assaulted by wind. Henderson fortified himself with enough books to last the winter.

He says that so great is the devotion of the people to the Lord that even though a family is so distant “from any place of worship…that they can only attend twice in the year, in order to receive the sacrament; and even then they do not repair to the parish church, but to a Bænahus, or house of prayer, situated at a considerable distance in the desert, where two other solitary familes meet with the clergyman for the above purpose.“  For shame, for shame, I think to myself when I‘m lying in bed of a Sunday, get thee to thy feet and hie thee to church. Or something like that.

Henderson didn‘t lack in wrath. Rain marooned him at a farm called Finnstad. He hoped to socialize with the family. However, he found them guilty of “Sloth, swearing, and slander“ and learned that the children had been guilty of composing Nidingavisar, satirical songs about the local priest “and almost every person in the parish“ and even helped other children to compose such songs about their own parents. “They were sentenced to be beaten with a rods at home by the constable of the parish, and to stand public penance in the church, as a warning to the congregation.“ The parents were fined sixty-eight rix dollars.

Jesus whups me, this I know, for the pastor tells him so. Harsh at this may seem, it was fairly lenient. In England, I believe, they were still hanging seven year olds for stealing hankies. Being beaten with a rod for making fun of the pastor seems fairly merciful.

In spite of that Henderson says “In their general habits and dispositions, the Icelanders are a very  moral and religious people. They are carefully instructed in the principles of Christianity at an early period of life, and regularly attend to the public and private exercises of devotion. Instances of immorality are in a great measure confined to such as frequent the fishing place, where they are often idle for days  together; and where such as have made proficiency in wickedness, use every effort to ensnare and corrupt their young and inexperienced companions.“

I wonder what he would have thought of the Riverton Hotel in the heydays of the cat trains hauling fish from north? Or the Gimli parlour when the whitefish boats came in? He would have waxed apopleptic. And had a stroke.

Times change. We‘ll leave wrath to the unhinged right wing ministries who make the news hour for protesting at military funerals, against Jews, against gays, against anyone their narrow minded bigotry disagrees with. We seem to our credit to be separating our prejudices and bigotries from our relgion.

When I was a child, the church, influenced by the Norwegian Synod, was closer to Ebenezer. There was more hell and less heaven. Maybe being liberal, non-judgemental, non-punitive isn‘t so bad. I admire Ebenezer but I guess I‘ll take Jesus Loves Me over Hellfire and damnation.



Which Is The New Iceland?

When I was growing up in Gimli, Manitoba, that is, the capital of New Iceland, Iceland was a distant and storied place. During the war years, 1939-45, Iceland was an important strategic location, a permanent battle ship and aircraft carrier in the North Sea. Travel there was restricted largely to the military, first the British and then the Americans.

After the war, there were a few Icelanders who came to New Iceland. There were regarded as rather exotic creatures, sort of the way polar bears are when they drift onto land on ice floes.

A lot of people, including many of my relatives, spoke Icelandic. However, the tight, insular world of New Iceland, had started to break down. People who weren’t of Icelandic extraction lived in Gimli, Arborg, Riverton. WWII had brought the air force training base to Gimli and as a child, I was much more used to seeing and hearing pilots from many different countries than I was to seeing Icelanders. When I was in high school, two young airforce men from England taught us ball room dancing. They both had won dance contests in England. We heard French pilots in the bakery. We snuck onto the base so we could go to the rec centre to play basketball, swim in the pool, play badminton and floor hockey. When we became too noticeable, we’d be expelled. We’d wait a week or so, then walk the two miles to the PMQs, go from there through a hole in the perimeter fence, and make good use of the rec centre.

We grew up taking good Cantonese food for granted. Sam Toy provided excellent Cantonese food at prices we could afford.

Our classmates were German, Polish, Ukrainian, Irish, English. My father hired seasonal fishermen. Many of those were aboriginal.

However, there in the background, over coffee at Aunty Vi’s or at Dolly and George’s, at Grandma Bristow’s, there was Icelandic spoken. There were pictures of Iceland, post cards from Iceland, all those names ending in –sson but never –dottir since we’d stopped naming girls after their father’s, Helgisdottir or Ragnarsdottir and, instead, had adopted family names. We’d dropped the Icelandic letters. Valgarðsson had, in two generations, become Valgardson. Gottskalksson had become Olson.  And, perhaps more to the point, Gottskalksdottir had become Bristow and produced thirteen children who now traced their lineage not just to Iceland but to Oxford, England.

The Gimli Lutheran church had ministers from Iceland. The two seemed synonymous, Lutheran and Icelandic, as if all those German, Norwegian, Danish, American Lutherans, didn´t exist. Gradually, though, in Winnipeg and in Gimli, the services changed to English, the relationship between Icelandic and Lutheran faded. Having an Icelandic minister was no longer necessary.

We had some teachers of Icelandic background in elementary school but I don´t remember any difference that it made. In grade four we had Miss Greenberg, in grade five and six, Mr. Roal, in grade seven, Mr. Susky, in grade eight, Johnny Gottfried. None of them were of Icelandic background.

In high school, we had Miss Stefansson. The rest of the  high school teachers were a kaleidoscope of changing ethnicities.

We had the Icelandic Celebration. It was a party. A family party for a long time. A party about us, although I, for one, never learned anything about that Usness beyond seeing the Fjalkona on her podium, hearing some speeches in Icelandic which I didn´t understand. The speeches in English were filled with platitudes, no information. For me the Icelandic Celebration was about relatives swarming in through the door, lots of conversation, lots of food, and the occasional dollar slipped into my hand by happy visitors.

Today, we´ve got a viking statue that everyone loves in spite of his horned helmet, the local museum, the continuing Icelandic Celebration. The Icelandic language has mostly disappeared although a determined group meets at Amma´s Cafe regularly to practice speaking Icelandic. Icelandic desserts continue to be eaten but not baked sheep´s heads or dried cod.  

When a friend of mine went to Iceland some years ago and gave her name at a hotel, a name ending in –sson, which meant she was someone’s son, she got an odd look. Nowadays, no one would bat an eye. As a recent Icelandic visitor said to me, “That’s the way the spell Icelandic words in North America.”

Iceland is the New Iceland, no longer the poorest country in Europe, no longer rural, no longer isolated and New Iceland, well, it’s Canada.




Saturday Market: Salt Spring Island

When many people think of Salt Spring Island, they think, automatically, of the ferry ride over, the passing islands, the chance of seeing a pod of killer whales, the funky coffee

shops when they get off the ferry at Fulford Harbour.

However, for many people, Salt Spring Island is synonomous with the Saturday market in Ganges. The island is home for a lot of highly talented, accomplished people who have a passion for excellence and come Saturday, they gather to set up their booths, set out their products and, in so doing, create a brilliant palette of local colour.

High quality food is always for sale. Locally made cheeses, local fish, a wide variety of market produce, baked goods for all tastes (including gluten free), chocolate treats, preserves, honey, various vinegars. There are arts, crafts, musical instruments, jewelry and more.

In spite of the cost ($30.00+) of the ferry, people come from far and near. Add in the cost of gas and a hop over from Vancouver Island can be a bit pricey. It doesn’t matter. People love going to the Salt Spring market. Like me, they are fed up with shopping malls. When I drive every year from Victoria to Manitoba and back, I have no desire to go to any shopping mall. Why bother? They all have the same stores, the same products. Sure, if you are a nervous traveller, afraid of anything but what you are used to, malls are great. You can spend all day in an environment that is just like home. In that case, why bother going anywhere?

Local markets, when well run, give a view of the community, provide an opportunity to meet local people, offer products that are unique. They have about them a sense both of authenticity and festival.

I don’t know about you but I’m fed up, more than fed up, with every product I go to buy in a mall coming from China. Canada, our country, great country, talented people, overwhelmed by mass marketing. If it costs a bit more, I don’t care. I want to buy Canadian. I want to buy local. I want to know the people who produce the food I eat and the products I use.

I want to support entrepeneurs such as this young charmer with her home made purses for the big sum of $2.00.

Her mother got her two friends into the next picture. They were there, she said, for moral support.  Where else would you meet three such charming young ladies? Where else would you get to support the work and initiative of young Canadians like this?

Local birdhouses are made with local wood and draw local characters. People watching at a local market is half the fun of being there.

How about buying a steel guitar? Locally made.

If you have a local market, support it. Go there, meet the talented people in your community. Be part of the community. Buy directly from your neighbours who tilled the soil, crafted the wood, threw the clay, made the product. No one except Canadians are working for the welfare of Canada. Everyone else is taking care of their own interests. If we don’t support Canada and Canadians, no one will.




Thanksgiving hunger

Have you ever really been hungry? I don’t mean peckish as in, “I think I could use a cup of coffee and a kleinur to tide me over until supper time.”

I mean hungry, with nothing to eat for the last day or so, the kind of hunger that means a constant headache, a pain in your stomach, so hungry that you’d eat things you normally wouldn’t? Hungry enough to eat out of a dumpster? Hungry enough to steal, to beg? To stand on the divider between the traffic lines with a piece of cardboard saying, “Hungry.”?

So hungry that you cried? So hungry that you’d beg? Please give me something to eat.”

As hungry as the Icelanders in 1783 after the Laki eruption? In Iceland to steal food was the worst sin imaginable but when three out of four animals die because of ash and sulfur dioxide and there’s no meat and milk, stealing food becomes a matter of survival. Ten thousand people died, that’s one out of every five people.

Or, how about the potato famine in Iceland between 1862 and 1864? Icelanders, unable to grow grain because of the Little Ice Age, had started to grow potatoes. The potatoes suffered from blight. This time only five percent of the people died.

Or how about the volcanic eruption in 1875? The one that made a situation with political repression, dreadful weather, worse. That meant people, particularly in the North East, desperate.

Desperate. Like, I’m desperate because I can’t afford to go to a concert? Desperate because I can’t afford to buy a new couch? Or desperate as in if we can’t get to North America, we’re going to die of hunger.

Desperate for food. Desperate to eat.

There were no Pilgrim Fathers in our background. Thanksgiving came to Canada with American settlers (refugees?). Doesn’t matter. There was reason for Thanksgiving. If we hadn’t imported Thanksgiving, we’d have invented it. Food on a plate. Enough food stored to last the winter. One Ukrainian settler in the Gimli area said, “We came to eat.” So did the Icelanders. We spread out all over North America finding good places to eat. Not five star hotels but good land, good fishing, good cattle ranching, good jobs, good housing. Good everything.

Look how hard we searched. Nova Scotia, Kinmount, New Iceland, Winnipeg, The Dakotas, Argyle, Swift Current, Foam Lake, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria, Point Roberts, Boundary Bay. Even Alaska. Looking for a place where we could feed ourselves.

Look at what our families found, what they created, what they can put on their plates today. From private meals at Thanksgiving to fowl suppers, we honor the people who sailed to North America, who took trains, who took boats across the Great Lakes, who walked, who rode horses, who kept moving, always looking for a place where they could produce enough food to feed their families, where no one would die of starvation.

To my Icelandic ancestors, to my Irish ancestors, to my English ancestors, my thanks, my thanks for the food on my plate. Bless, bless.