Denouement in Reykjavik

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

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

The Danish King Arrives

 Mrs. Finsen, the Danish Governor’s wife
Bayard Taylor was a famous American travel writer. He wrote articles and travel books and gave public lectures. He had just been in Egypt when his paper instructed him to go to Iceland to attend the visit of Christian IX. It would be the first visit of a king to Iceland and was particularly symbolic because after hundreds of years, Iceland was being granted a constitution. The first step toward regaining her independence was being taken. Americans who were soon to celebrate their hundred year anniversary of independence were particularly interested in political events in Iceland.
A group of seven men, one English, one Icelandic and five American, were able to obtain the use of the Albion with its crew to make the trip from Scotland to Iceland. In all, the boat would  carry twenty crew and seven passengers. Since the boat was not a passenger ship, the travellers had to sign on as crew members, even though as Taylor says, it was simply a convenient fiction.
One of the travellers was S. Kneeland, a medical doctor. After the voyage, he wrote a book about this historic event. As a doctor, he was a trained observer but he was not the travel writer that Taylor was. Taylor knew that to get the attention of his audience, he needed to be specific, to report details that would make scenes come alive.
Talor describes the Reykjavik of 1874 this way. “As soon as our steamer was fairly moored last evening we got into the boats and went ashore. There is a beach three or four hundred yards long, with several wooden jetties running down into the water, the rise of the tide here being seventeen feet. There was quite a little crowd waiting to receive us, and our friend Magnusson no sooner landed than he was recognized and heartily embraced by both ladies and gentlemen.”
Travellers in the past had often described Reykjavik as dirty, smelly and unimpressive. Whether the city had gradually improved or a great effort had been made to clean it up, Taylor has nothing but praise for it.
“Smooth, tolerably Broad streets of volcanic sand and gravel, with flagged sidewalks ; square wooden houses, which seemed stately in comparison with those of Thorshavn ; merchant’s store-houses, without signs, yet generally thronged with people ; little gardens of cauliflower, radishes, and turnips; white curtains, pots of geranium, mignonnette, and roses in the windows.
“Flags floated from all the larger buildings, and a new jetty, with a crimson canopy, was in preparation for the royal landing.
“Finding that I had a letter to the Danish Governor, Finsen, Mr. Thomsen accompanied me to the Government House, a white mansion on a knoll which slopes down bright and green to a little canal, connecting the harbor with a lake behind the town. In the official chamber I found a courteous gentleman in uniform, who regretted that his Majesty’s coming would lessen his power to show the desirable amount of attention to our party. He volunteered, however, to secure us good places for the services in the Cathedral, next Sunday; and this was really all we needed. Coming forth from the presence, I followed the tracks of my friends, and presently found them
at the house of Dr. Jon Hjaltalin, editor of the Saemundur Frodi, a strong, ruddy-cheeked, gray-haired son of the North, in whose welcome there was no uncertain sound. He spoke English readily, gave evidence of much and various knowledge, and seemed rejoiced to meet his journalistic brethren of other lands. We had a most agreeable visit of half an hour, and then returned through the main street, seeking the house of Sheriff Thorshenson. I asked a man who was mending the street whether he spoke Danish; he shook his head but called another workman,
who at once guided us to the Sheriffs door, and when I offered him a piece of money, laughed as if it were a good joke, and ran away.
“The royal pier sloped down to a platform, between a double row of Danish flags hung with green garlands. The gentlemen stood on this platform, and none of their addresses or the replies
There to were audible at a distance of thirty feet. A small crowd of people, gathered on the sand at the edge of the water, cheered with some heartiness, but the main body of the people, about two thousand in number, kept silent, as they heard nothing. In ten minutes all was over: the Governor came up the pier, followed by the King and Prince, -both walking rapidly and looking very cheerful and amiable. They were received with a cheer which was evidently genuine.
“After the King’s suite came the chief officials, the bishop in velvet and satin, a snowy Elizabethan ruff, and a high hat, the clergyman, and the members of the native committee—the latter strong, ruddy, farmer looking men, whose white gloves did not harmonize with their heavy brown coats. There were about forty persons in all, and the whole crowd fell in behind them as they advanced toward the Governor’s residence.
“The door of the Governor’s house opened and Madame Finsen appeared, dressed in a simple black silk, without any ornaments. She descended the steps of the first garden terrace, curtsied at the right moment to the royal guest, a little less deeply to the Prince, and accompanied them to
the door. This sounds like a very simple matter ; but not many ladies would have accomplished it with such admirable grace, tact, and self-possession.
“All Rejkiavik was looking on ; the sun flashed out as if on purpose to light up this little episode, and thus the first landing of a Danish king on the soil of Iceland came to an end.”
(Notes and quotes from Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874, Bayard Taylor)

1874 The King of Denmark Visits

Bayard Taylor was a famous American travel writer and lecturer. He was in Egypt when he received notice from his employer that he should immediately go to Iceland to cover the visit of Christian IX. The king’s visit and Iceland receiving its constitution was that important.
Look at the illustration accompanying this article. Imagine the contrast between Egypt in 1874–palm trees, sand, heat, blue skies, warm ocean—and then Iceland. In this five part series, you’ll read about Taylor and his journey to join the Icelanders as the king of Denmark gives them their constitution.
 He first travels to London, England. He finds London much changed since he visited six years previously.  There is so little coal smoke that “the dome of St. Paul’s can be seen six miles away, with new thoroughfares cut through the narrow and tangled old alleys, and gay suburbs planted wherever you remember a field or common, the city seems to have become a soberer Paris. The embankment along the Thames, with its spacious drive, its trees and gardens.”
In Iceland, conditions are dire. It’s 1874 and Iceland is still suffering the effects of disastrous weather, volcanic calamity, oppressive Danish trade laws and its own rigid adherence to the past.
Meanwhile, Taylor says, he travelled four hundred and one miles from England to Scotland in less than ten hours by rail but complains that there are no sleeping cars and baggage isn’t checked in.
In Edinburgh he is joined by his travelling companions and Herr Hjaltalin. The Edinburgh and London Shipping Company has offered the use of their steam yacht, the Albion, to make this historic journey.
On the Albion, they first make their way to the Orkneys, then the Shetlands and, finally, the Faroes (the sheep islands).
“On approaching Thorshavn, two Danish men-of-war showed themselves through the mist. The royal standard floating at the stern showed that we had overtaken His Majesty Christian IX., on his way to Iceland. It was nearly nine o’clock, and cloud and twilight combined dimmed the picture of the town; yet its roofs of grassy turf were so bespangled with the white cross of Denmark on its red field, that the effect was something like that of an illumination. Our boats were lowered as soon as the anchor held, and we made for the shore. There are one or two small and rude landing-places, and at one of them a group of friendly
Faroese assisted us to get ashore.
“There are no streets, properly speaking, but a multitude of irregular lines, winding and climbing among the houses, some roughly paved, some leading over the natural rock. The buildings are all of wood, tarred for better preservation, with roofs of birch bark, upon which is a sod a foot thick, always kept green and luxuriant by this moist, temperate air. The poorer dwellings, into which I glanced as we passed, are often but a single room, in which the whole family cooks, eats, and sleeps.
“Fields of grass, oats and potatoes, inclosed by stone walls, stretched for a mile or two back of the town.
“At eleven we went to church, a neat white building, large enough to accommodate five hundred persons. The people flocked in until all the seats were taken—sturdy, sun-burnt frames, women apparently as hardy as men.
“The bells chimed, not very musically ; the front door of the church—the portal of state—was unbolted, and finally Gov. Finsen, in full uniform, holding a white-plumed chapeau on his arm, entered, preceding the King. Christian IX. and Prince Waldemar followed, the latter in a plain morning suit of gray. The King must be near sixty years of age, but looks considerably younger. He has a good nose and chin, wears a heavy mustache, and would be quite handsome but for a lack of expression in the eyes. He walked quickly up the aisle, nodding to the right and left, and took his place near the altar, whereon (as is customary in the Lutheran Church of Denmark and Sweden) large wax candles were burning. Prince Waldemar is a ruddy, gray-eyed, stout young man of twenty-one. The Minister of Justice, Klein, a chamberlain or two, naval officers, Carl Andersen the poet, and others, about twenty in all, followed the royal personages, took their seats, and the service began.
“The people, I noticed, all saluted the King very respectfully, but with a simple, quiet dignity of their own. There was no running after him, no pressing to get near, no cheering, or any other token of special enthusiasm. Personally, I believe be is liked; but he represents a dynasty almost new, and possesses no traditions of loyalty. The Faroese have always been more liberally treated by Denmark than the Icelanders, and they have no important favors to ask at this season. This is, it is true, the first time a King of Denmark has visited the islands ; but it hardly has a further significance.
“Stromoe has a length of fifteen or twenty miles, but very little of the soil can be cultivated, and the population is mostly centered in the little coves where fishing boats can find shelter.
“There were many visitors to the royal frigate Jylland during the afternoon, including a number
of Faroese ladies, and, to judge from the tunes played by the band, there must have been much and lively dancing on deck. A dozen boat-loads of exceedingly merry human freight were carried to shore, and then the King followed, to pass another night at the Governor’s house.
“Their (the Faroese) lives are rude and hard, for high waves and furious currents in the fiords,
and windy hurricanes on the hills, limit even their possible labor, and the best fortune barely gives them enough barley, fish, and milk to live upon.
“Thorshavn lies in latitude 62° north, yet the Winter temperature never falls below 14 , rarely below 20 , and the sheep continue to pasture in the valleys. There were formerly forests of birch trees in sheltered parts, but they have long since been exterminated, and peat is used for fuel. A vein of coal has been discovered on one of the islands. Barley grows tolerably well, up to a height of about three hundred feet above the sea : beyond that line it will not ripen.
“The summits of the mountains, which are broad, flat table-lands from one to three thousand feet high, are swept by such furious gusts of wind that no vegetation can exist there. The earth and hardy herbage are torn from the rock, rolled up like a sheet of paper, and hurled far into the valleys.
“For the sum of three English shillings the obliging postmaster sent off a boat, at two in the morning, for our last letters, and then we got up steam for departure.
“The two frigates were to sail in the afternoon, and it was necessary that we should get the start
of them, in order to secure the simplest accommodations in Iceland. “
(With notes and quotes from Bayard Taylor’s Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874. A slightly different version of this series appeared in Logberg-Heimskringla. If you don’t have a subscription, you miss out on some good stuff.)

Intergalactic Resurrection



The title of this edition which is called Under the Glacier instead of Christianity Under Glacier offends me.
It offends me in the same way that the White House calling a Christmas tree a holiday tree offends me. The titles of books are usually chosen by marketing departments. The author has little, or even, no say in the title. Nor do his descendants. I assume that Kristanhald Under Jökli was renamed with the idea that dropping the word, Christian, from the title would increase sales. Since the entire book, from the first word to the last, is about the condition of Christianity in Glacier and, by implication, in Iceland, leaving Christian out is both misleading and absurd. Like, we´ll leave Christian out of the title and trick people into buying this book because they´ll think its about glaciers.
As for the book itself, I often found the satire hilarious. As a Lutheran with an Icelandic background, I frequently recognized the foibles and pretensions of myself and my community.
But there´s the rub. A satire, to be appreciated, needs readers who know intimately what is being satirized. Unlike previous novels of Laxness´s that I have read, that contain within them all the necessary information for understanding and appreciation, this novel does not.
The novel begins with Embi, a not particularly committed theology student who isn´t much interested in becoming ordained, being chosen to investigate the state of Christianity at Glacier. With Embi being chosen for a task that should rightly belong to a devout theologian, the satire has begun.
What has sparked the investigation are rumours of odd happenings at Glacier. Burials are often delayed, baptisms and confirmations not performed, and there supposedly has been a strange burial on the glacier instead of in hallowed ground. The church building itself is reported to be in disrepair and a much larger secular building has been built next to the church so the church is overshadowed.
Embi travels to Glacier. On his arrival, he notices a sign that says ‚ “PIMUSES REPAIRED HERE.” Embi discovers that the local pastor, called Jón Primus, has a stellar reputation, not as a theologian, but as a repairer of primus stoves.
The irony and satire of Jón Primus and his many technical skills would be lost on a non-Icelandic audience. The wry smile and laughter would come from the knowledgeable reader who knew how they needed to raise sheep and go fishing to survive. Religious duties for such men had to come second to getting in the hay for without hay their sheep would die and without sheep, the pastor would die. Although there were tithes of sheep and fish for the pastor at some times, by some people, many pastors depended on their secular skills to survive. It is no wonder that it is their secular skills for which they are named and appreciated. 
Henderson, when he traveled in Iceland in 1814-15 distributing and selling Bibles, commented extensively on the condition of the clergy.  “The total number of parishes in Iceland amounts to 184; but as many of them occupy a great space of ground, it has been found necessary to build in some parts two or three churches in a parish, which has increased the number of churches to 305.” The ministers are “all natives of the island, and are maintained partly from certain tithes raised among the peasants. The provision made for their support is exceedingly scanty. The richest living on the island does not produce 200 rix-dollars; twenty and thirty rix-dollars are the whole of the stipend annexed to many of the parishes; and there are some in which it is even as low as five.
Ministers needed, also, to perform many other duties. Henderson says that “besides attending to the spiritual wants of his people, Sira Jon (Jón Jónson of Audabrecka) devotes a considerable portion of his time to the healing of their bodies, and is celebrated all over the north for his skill in medicine. Since last new year, he has had more than two hundred cases.”
In 1872 when Burton is in Iceland, conditions hadn’t changed much.  He says in Ultima Thule that while the bishop’s salary is $3416.33 Danish dollars, thirty-nine ministers make only about 300 rigs dollars a year. This is a very small amount of money and while he says the ministers have some other sources of income, he admits that the clergy are “compelled to be farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen.”
The naming of Jón Primus is an occasion for a smile or a laugh for the tradition of naming people according to their work was so strong that it survived the emigration to Ameríka. In Gimli, Manitoba, and elsewhere in New Iceland, there were many Valdis and Helgis and so the butcher became Valdi Butch and the garage man, Helgi Highway. Much of the naming was, and still is, ironic.
When Embi asks Tumi Jónsen for the whereabouts of the pastor, Tumi says that he has gone to Ness to shoe a herd of horses. Jón Primus also does electrical work. He´s handy to have around. However, when Embi asks about the pastor´s doctrine, Tumi says, “We’ve never been aware that Pastor Jón had any particular doctrine.
Poor Embi, hopeless, hapless, making notes and tape recordings, he tries to make sense of Christianity at Glacier. The answers to even his simplest questions are convoluted and evasive. The rumour that a burial has taken place on the glacier turns out to be true. 
A local Icelander, Gudmundur Sigmundsson, has made a great deal of money abroad, and is the owner of the secular building on church property, a building much larger than the church. He returns. He now calls himself Godman Singmann. 
Although this book was published in 1968, the Occupy protesters would recognize someone who thinks he’s Godman and belongs to the one percent. Today, he would definitely be an Icelandic banker. Godman espouses a new religion that believes in biotelekinesis and intergaltic communication and intergalactic resurrection. Pastor Jón, in spite of his secular activities, has literally nailed the doors of the church shut against such things and refuses its use for an experiment in secular resurrection.
Jón Primus, in reply to Godman´s theories, replies , “That water is good.” He sticks to simple truths instead of bafflegab mixed together from an assortment of religions.
Great fun is made with the stereotypes in the novel, with the theories and fads, with the quirks of Icelandic society. This novel contains the famous scenes of Embi never being offered anything but cakes instead of meals. Many a host both in Iceland and North America has said “There are good treats here but not seventeen cakes.” Icelanders and Icelandic North Americans alike know that it is Pestle-Thóra , Jón Primus´s housekeeper and her many cakes that is being referred to .
I would put this book under the Christmas tree but only for someone who knows Iceland and some Icelandic history. Otherwise, the reader is likely to stop reading among the conversations Embi has with people when he first arrives at Glacier. It would also help if the reader cared about Christianity in Iceland (and elsewhere) for beyond the irony and satire there are serious points made and questions raised. For the knowledgeable reader, this book is as relevant today as it was when it was first published.

Icelandic hospitality

In 1872, Robert Francis Burton spent a summer in Iceland. He was a famous world traveler. During his travels, he took great risks. He was the only non-Muslim to participate in the hajj, traveling to Mecca in disguise at risk of his life. He learned twenty-eight languages plus the customs of many cultures. He came to Iceland obsessed with the idea of re-starting the sulfur mines as he saw them as a way to create employment in Europe’s poorest country. He was a keen observer, highly educated, an experienced traveller who was interested in everything about the countries he visited. His two volume book, Ultima Thule, describes, in great detail, the Iceland that our ancestors were shortly to leave. The first volume is crammed with statistics about Iceland. The second volume is an expanded diary about his travels around Iceland by horse.

When we travel, we all must stay somewhere and, in the Iceland of 1872, there were few commercial places to stay. Reykjavik was the size of a small town. Travelers went from farm to farm and church to church for churches served as storehouses and places of shelter.

Here are three descriptions by Burton of the places he stayed.

“We sat, after reaching Hruni, amongst the graves, which had just been utilized by mowing. Seeing our forlorn plight, the Prófastr, Síra Johann Brím or Briem, came out of his house, kindly greeted us in Latin and did the honours of his little church. On the right of the entrance was a small library, containing the oldest Icelandic translation of the New Testament…Better still, he led us to his home and, enlarging on the mal paso before us, he adhibited a most copious feed of Hvíta salmon, smoked beef, cheese, biscuits and white bread, with golden sherry and sundry cups of cafe au lait. And as we mounted with many vales and gratias agimus, he insisted upon a final Hesta-skál (stirrup cup) of distilled waters. I afterwards learned that we were not the only travellers the good Prófaster has sent on their way rejoicing, he extends a similar hospitality to all strangers.”

“At half-past nine P.M. we entered the Thingvellir church: the altar-piece, a Last Supper, is old: the pulpit dates from 1683; and the loft is not, as usual, a store-room for the farm, but a sleeping apartment for travellers, provided with pillows and mattresses, decently clean. Prófaster Bech was happily absent: his wife sent us forelles and Kaka, thin rye cakes, but Icelandic modesty did not admit of our seeing the lady.”

“Returning to our horses, we descended one of those staircases of earth and stone now so familiar, and fell into the valley of a northern Laxá, called for distinction, “of Reynivellir“ (the sorb-apple plains). The surface, so fair to sight, is swampy, despite its main-drain, and must be traversed by earthen dykes. The lower part is protected to the north by the Reynivallaháls (neck of Reynivellir), and to the south by the Miðfell (mid-mount) and other outliers of the Esja. Here many houses are scattered about; we recognize the sweet scent of hay; and the dock-fringed plots of potatoes and cabbages look exceptionally flourishing. In winter all freezes, but as the grass never protrudes from the ice, however, shallow, the neighbouring farmers visit one another on skates, which are those of Europe generally.

“At eleven P.M. we reached the parsonage, which showed three gables pointing southwards and a fourth to the east. A cart and a wheel-jack gave signs that improvements were not unknown. The hour was unusual for calling, but Iceland knows nothing of these fine distinctions: the house dogs bayed the alarm; the host awoke the household; and, before turning in, we supped comfortably at the parsonage.

“On the next day Síra Thorvaldr could not accompany us, having service to read. The only son of a widow, he entered the Church at her desire, but his heart is book-hunting at Copenhagen…He kindly gave me a copy of the Reykholtskirkumáldagi, the Authentic Inventory of the Reykholt Kirk, facsimile’d by the Icelandic Literary Society: the three specimens bear no date, but the Sagas fix the time between A.D. 1143 and A.D. 1222.”

Burton travelled to Iceland and around Iceland with great difficulty. S On the way to Iceland travellers often encountered storms so violent that ships pitched and rolled violently, so much so that people were thrown out of their bunks, were plagued with seasickness, were often in danger of their lives.The trip from England to Iceland could take a week or more. Today, we get on IcelandAir or Iceland Express and are in Iceland in a matter of hours. In Burton’s day there were n o roads, no country inns. He travelled everywhere on horseback, often in pouring rain and high winds. After riding a horse all day, soaking wet, cold, hungry, Burton found farmhouses where he could rest, dry his clothes, be fed, be given a hot cup of coffee, be given a place to sleep. Some farmers took payment. Others refused it. They all shared that most precious commodity of all: grass for the horses.

The kindness to visitors Burton describes is in 1872. That was a long time ago, just before our ancestors emigrated. That kindness is still evident today. People returning from visiting Iceland praise their relatives, many of whom have just been discovered. Generations have passed, the distances in miles are great, but whatever our physical destination in Iceland, to the North, South, East or West, we come home not just with our luggage full of Icelandic souvenirs, but with memories of how kindly we’ve been treated. It’s a long tradition and may we have many opportunities to reciprocate.

(This article in slightly different form appeared originally in Logberg-Heimskringla. LH is 125 years old this year. Consider giving her a birthday gift and buying a subscription.)