On To Oddi, Waller, 1874

S. E. Waller is a young English artist. He doesn’t have much money but is determined to go to Iceland to sketch and paint the scenes of Njal’s Saga. He has had some hard riding before he reached Eyrarbakki but he finds there wonderful accommodation and kind hosts.
With his three horses and his guide, Bjarni, he leaves for Oddi which is thirty miles away. However, because of the bogs and heaths, the need to cross a river, the distance they have to travel is sixty miles. It becomes the hardest journey they have had so far. Bjarni nearly is killed when he rides into some quicksand. However, his horse manages to thrash his way out of it.
The river Thjórsá is in flood. It is so wide at this time of year that it takes them more than an hour to cross it. It is hard to imagine today what it must have been like to travel where there were no roads, only trails, over land so treacherous, filled with hidden dangers, that, time and again, a local guide had to be hired to show the traveler how to cross a river.
They start the crossing of the Thjórsá by going from sandbank to sandbank. To make matters more dangerous, most of the sandbanks are under two or three feet of water. The horses wade and even swim for twenty minutes to get to the middle of the river. Here they stop on a gravel bank that feels like it could suddenly disintegrate. They are now surrounded by water. Ahead of them is deep water, a half-mile wide.   
The melting snow in the interior has turned the river into a torrent.
In the distance, they can see a boat coming toward them. Some drovers are bringing over a herd of horses. As the boat and horses come closer, he can hear how frightened the horses are as they swim across the current.
Once the boat arrives, they put their saddles and baggage. They tie ropes to the horses and Bjarni takes two ropes and Waller takes the other. Waller’s self-confidence is not increased by Bjarni saying that horses are often lost while crossing a river.
They reach the other side, after which they have to cross two smaller rivers on their own. They left Eyrarbakki at half-past twelve in the morning and don’t reach Oddi until half-past eight at night. Waller is delighted that the priest has some good pasture and allows the three horses to graze there.
Waller says, “The little house at Oddi was exceedingly comfortable, the food good, the bed clean, our host kindness itself. All this we were very grateful for; but to make the evening complete, I found, to my intense joy, a Shakespeare lying in a dusty corner. I had brought no books with me, fearing they might tend to idleness, so that, on discovering this treasure, my delight was great.”
Rain pours down during the night. He hopes that the morning will bring clear skies but, instead, it is still pouring rain. Since there is little he can do, he tries to learn some Icelandic. Bjarni helps him learn some Icelandic words. He says, “I made desperate efforts to talk with the son of our host, who was physician to the district and had spent some years in Copenhagen. He was exceedingly good natured over my blunders, and produced a Danish-English phrase-book, which helped us along considerably.
“I shall always remember the kindness of both father and son. They begged me to stay a week with them, an invitation I was very sorry to refuse. When leaving on the Friday morning, Sr. Jonson positively refused to allow me to give compensation to any member of his household.”
On Friday, the weather is good so Waller decides to stay at Oddi all day and travel at night. All morning he works on a sketch of their white horse, then a view of Thryhriningr.
Their next destination is Kross, on the extreme south coast.
The hardship, the danger, the weather, the dangerous river crossing, are nothing exceptional in Iceland in 1874. These were the conditions everyone encountered. People buying and selling horses or sheep experienced these difficulties. Farmers and their families, t heir workers, faced these conditions on a daily basis.
In Independent People, Bjartur of Summerhouses, goes searching for sheep. He gets caught in a blizzard. “but still the blizzard assailed him with undiminished fury when he reached the next ridge, clawed at his eyes and the roots of his beard, howled vindictively in his ears, and tried to hurl him to the ground….he forced his way at first with lowered  head against the storm, but when he reached the ridge above the gully, he could no longer make any headway in this fashion, so he slumped forward on to  his hands and knees and made his way through the blizzard on all fours.”
In Indridason’s novels, the main character Erlender is obsessed with the loss of his younger brother in a storm. He realizes that with the bogs and quicksand that his brother could simply have disappeared and his body would never be found.

In 1810, Mackenzie says that he had begun to ascend near several craters larger than any we had yet seen. “While examining some of the fissures, we found the remains of a woman who had been lost about a year before, and of whom there had hitherto been no tiding. Her clothes and bones were lying scatttered about; the bones of one leg remained in the stocking. It is probably that she had missed the path during a thick shower of snow, and had fallen over the precipice, where her body was torn to pieces by eagles and foxes.It’s astonishing how the Icelanders find their way during winter across these trackless deserts.”

The weather, in every traveler’s book, is front and centre. It determines what can and can’t be done. It brings good grass or no grass, a full belly or starvation. There is no escaping it. Even if people are at a farm, it imprisons them just as it imprisons Waller. Once a journey has begun, it can, as with Bjartur, bring the traveler close to death or to death itself.
A ten day journey, sleeping in churches, farmhouses, tents, even in good weather , was demanding. As Waller discovers, as-the-crow-flies meant nothing in terms of the distance to be covered for bogs had to be skirted, rivers crossed where there were ferries or fords.
No wonder Icelandic families were used to getting up at any time during the night to provide refuge for a traveler. Their farm may have been the only place of shelter in the area. When Bjartur finally makes it to Brun, it is night, everyone is in bed, but the farm wife hears someone groaning, hammering on the door. They go to the door with a light and Bjartur topples in. He’s covered in ice.
This is later in the season but the weather that Waller and many others describe during June, July, August, can be a deadly. That makes the welcome that Waller has had at Eyrarbakki and Oddi all the warmer, all the more appreciated, all the more remembered. What feels better than to be safe in a warm house as a storm rages outside
(Quotes from Six Weeks in the Saddle, S. E. Waller, 1874)
Waller gives the priest’s name as Sr. Jonson but there are many Jonsons. Nor does he give the name of the priest’s son who is the doctor for the district. If anyone reading this knows who these two were, would you please write to let me know.  If they are relatives, I’d like to hear about that.

Riðum, Riðum

SUMMER TRAVELLING IN ICELAND;

 by John M. Coles, Edward Delmar Morgan

BEING THE NARRATIVE OF

TWO JOURNEYS ACROSS THE ISLAND BY UNFREQUENTED ROUTES

1882

Two young men, John Coles and Edward Morgan left the docks at Leith in the Danish mail steamer “Valdemar” on the afternoon of July 28th, 1881. The ship first stopped at the Faröe Islands to discharge a large cargo of flour. Their first experience of Iceland is before they reach Iceland for the steward had put a large package of hákarl in their cabin.

It took thirty-eight hours to go from the Faröes to their first sight of Iceland. They arrive at Reykjavik at midnight, the weather is perfect, not a cloud in the sky and the water as smooth as glass. They make the obligatory visit to his Excellency the Governor and the Principal of the College. They hire guides and horses and start for the interior.

They visit the geysers and Gulfoss, then tackle the lava desert.

„We had now reached the highest point of the Sprengisandr, and, starting afresh, began to descend gradually towards the north….sand and lava dust varied at times by thickly-strewn blocks of lava. Soon after leaving our halting-place, a considerable breeze sprang up, and the dust raised by the pack-train was most disagreeable. In spite of this, however, our guides began to sing a song which has special reference to this journey. I had often heard them singing it since we left Hagaey, and had managed to catch the air and some of the words; they sang it slowly, and the commander-in-chief, forgetting for the time his exalted position, joined in with an energy, so catching, that in a short time we were all at it.”

The song, of course, is that which is the favorite of every gathering of Icelanders of North American descent. It is so loved that when Peter John (PJ) Buchan, an instructor from the Department of Icelandic at the University of Manitoba, performed it at an INL conference, he had to sing it not once, not twice, but thrice. The crowd joined in, just as John Coles and Edward Morgan joined the Icelandic guides in 1881.

 Riðum, riðum, rekum yfir sadinn,

Rökkr fer að siga yfir Herðubreið

Alfadrottning fer að beizla grandinn

Ekki er að vera á hennar leið.

Vænsta klárinn vildi eg gefa til

Að vera kominn o‘ni Kiðagil.

„The effect of this song when sung by several voices is by no means unpleasing. Our people certainly performed in a manner that was highly creditable to the power of their lungs; Evandr‘s whole heart seemed to be in it.“

Oh, to have been there with them, in the heart of the Sprengisandr, riding Icelandic horses, singing Riðum, Riðum at the top of our lungs. What greater moment could there be than that?

Glass in Uzgorod, Ukraine, episode 3

Ruins of Nevytsky Castle

The hills were gently rolling. There were patches of snow in the woods. In the open, the snow had melted and the grass was the yellow of old ivory. Just after it started to become light we crossed a stream and the sound of the train changed, becoming momentarily deeper. While we’d been traveling, I’d grown used to the steady clicking of the rails, the creaking of the car, the slight chatter of the metal parts underneath us.
The water was running green with the melt, faster and higher than normal. I could tell this because the water poured white like thick, twisting cords over and around obstructions. If it had run at that height for a long time the obstructions would have been worn down or carried away and surface wouldn’t have been so turbulent.
We’d left Kiev the night before. We had fallen asleep right after having left and now Ivan, who usually stayed awake taking care of details, checking and rechecking our travel plans a minimum of three times, was still not awake. In Kiev, Natasha, the Intourist guide, had called him Vanya and fussed a little over him, scolding him gently, explaining to me that I never had to worry, that Ivan was known for endlessly checking details, for never letting anything go wrong. He had blushed and looked away but it was easy to see that he was pleased. Now he was asleep in that utterly exhausted way one usually sees only in children. He was sprawled on his back, his mouth open, the muscles in his face loose and relaxed.
During the night, I had wakened when the train stopped at Chop. There was a great deal of coming and going and I thought it might be more soldiers getting on but when I raised the blind and looked out, it was skiers. They were lining up with their equipment before getting onto the train. Daily life goes on, I thought, remembering the displays in the Museum of the great Patriotic War, the tables of medals and letters and personal effects and the pictures of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Ivan whispering “Only since Gorbachev. Before that nothing. Not even to ask.” Later, outside the museum, he said “Soon it will be over,” but it wasn’t over yet.
As the skiers were getting onto the train, someone else far away was being shot at or shooting at someone, or lying in a hospital or being buried. It had been like that in the USA during Vietnam and it made people crazy. Soldiers in a fire fight, all around them people being wounded, killed, and then they’d get on a plane and a day later they’d be walking down the street in Dallas or Los Angles or Boston and the war didn’t exist. Everybody was shopping or eating burgers or getting laid or doing drugs. At the same time the soldiers knew their buddies were in the jungle trying to stay alive.
In the first pale light, we passed houses that might have been from my childhood in Manitoba. Wooden houses plastered with mud and whitewashed. When the track was higher than the houses, I saw that woodpiles and outbuildings enclosed a muddy courtyard with chickens and the occasional pig. With the melting snow, the roads had turned to mud. I remembered mud like that in the Interlake, mud clinging to my boots, mud on my mittens, mud underfoot as I slipped and slid. We’d lived like that, before the roads were paved and everyone could afford a car.
Outside a small woods, I saw a father and son who had been cutting hay in a ditch. They’d piled the loose hay into a sheet which lay on the ground, had pulled the four corners together, and, as I watched, the father expertly flipped the load onto his back. The son was carrying two hand sickles. I was glad Ivan was asleep. He wouldn’t have wanted me to see this father and son. He’d be embarrassed. He wants everything to be the best, the newest, the way we did when Formica and polyester were the touchstones of progress.
In Kiev, Ivan had been proudest of the new apartment blocks. The hills had been scraped clear and the red earth looked flayed. The blocks were narrow, anonymous buildings. Beyond the buildings there were untouched hills, hills covered in trees, and then a cluster of houses from old Kiev, houses with tile roofs and patchwork fences and fruit trees. I’d recognized them as surely as if I’d lived in t hem. I’d felt I could get off the streetcar we were riding and walk to them, certain that when I opened a gate and entered a yard and said dobra dene, the face and the hand turned toward me would be a hand and face I knew.
“New homes,” Ivan had said proudly of the apartment blocks. “For the people.” When I asked him about the cutting down of the trees, about the ecology of the area, he looked confused. “We have just started to think about that,” he said. “There is much discussion.”
It doesn’t matter where you go, communist, capitalist, developers are all the same. If you put them in the same room, they’d share all the same complaints, the same problems–councils who made too many restrictions, people who protested change, fools who didn’t understand the need for housing–and they’d discover that they were not enemies but that they had a common enemy, the public, the unappreciative blockheads for whom they were trying to do so much.
Natasha had told me that I was lucky to be going to Uzgorod. The best coffee in the USSR was served there. It was true. The Turks had conquered here and though they were gone, the taste for strong coffee lingered. We drank it in the hotel and it was better than any I had drunk in a long time. I was staying in a hotel which had been built by Finns and Hungarians. My table had a Canadian flag. The first night when we had supper, the Canadian flag was there again. I wondered if it was to warn others off or if it was a matter of pride, an expression of solidarity.
Early in the day, I visited a Pioneer Palace. One of the instructors had lingered in the hall, inviting me to visit him after supper. The three of us, Irena, the president of the committee for foreign visitors, and Ivan and I had strolled through the dark, walking to a concrete apartment like the ones in Kiev. We were met at the doorway by Gregory.
“No lights yet,” he said in Ukrainian and Ivan translated automatically. Gregory opened the outer door. “No glass for windows either.” The windows were covered with pieces of plywood. He clenched his fist as if grasping something. “Peristroika,” he said. “Then we’ll be able to order glass from anywhere we want. No more ordering and waiting. With peristroika we can do anything.”
Gregory’s wife was dressed in pink and his daughter was in a white party dress. On the table were cream filled pastries and a dish of walnuts and a sliced orange. I gave them chocolates I’d brought from Canada. Gregory and his wife were engineers but that was not where their hearts were.  His wife was a poet and he was an artist. His art was not well understood, Ivan said. We went to look at Gregory’s art. He made pictures from copper. There were fifteen or twenty pieces on the wall. They were carefully done and beautifully framed. Gregory had thought up the idea himself, made the tools, developed his technique, used his engineering skills to gild the surface with touches of silver. He had become so involved with his art that he’d given up his engineering job and taken a teaching position. Once Peristroika was complete he thought there’d be a chance of tourists coming to Uzgorod and buying his work.
We drank Red Rooster. We made toasts of friendship, of brotherly love. The raspberry liqueur was so strong that it paralyzed my mouth. Gregory’s wife turned off the lights and lit a candle and read her poetry. For once, Ivan didn’t translate. She had a manuscript in front of her but she didn’t need it. She knew her poems by heart. Her voice, passionate, pleading, demanding as the lights on the New Year’s tree glowed and reflected off the gifts underneath. All the time she read, I kept thinking about the copper pictures, the tools and the techniques and the dedication which had produced them and the years it had taken and the fact that all these were known, had been known for years in North America and was regarded not as art but as a craft, a hobby, and when peristroika came to Uzgorod it wouldn’t all be glass or tourists but, perhaps, shock and disappointment.