viking vs dairy farmer

 Here’s Kirk, baby, brave, ruthless, handsome, read to fight against great odds for fame and fortune.
“I agree that the emigration to North America is a much more pro-social saga than the viking tales, so we should ask ourselves why it is that these ancestors are given short shrift in our history books and other media.” Eric Swanson
 Here’s my great grandfather, Ketill, with my great grandmother. Now, who would you want to fantasize about being? Kirk, baby, or Ketill the dairy owner and farmer?
Eric is one of the regulars on Facebook. He is knowledgeable and astute. His question is in response to my post about Embracing our heritage (3) and comparing my great grandfather and Kirk Douglas in the movie, The Viking.
The Viking Age was from the late  8th to the 11th  century. Some historians say the Viking age began in 793 and ended in 1030. 1030 is a long time ago. It is now 2012. If you even count the ragged end of the Viking era and extend it to 1100,we’re over nine centuries, count them, 9 centuries and a bit away from the end of the Viking era. That’s 900+ years ago.
So, we say we want to embrace our heritage and we skip over 900+ years, ignore all the generations who lived in Iceland since the year 1100. Doesn’t seem like much embracing to me. What are we saying when we do that? That all those generations who lived in Iceland, who farmed, who raised sheep and cattle, who fished, who made the best lives they could, don’t matter?
The odd thing about this is that the Vikings of the Viking age were Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and others. Iceland’s population meant that it was only a small part of the Viking raiding and expansion. Yup, we were there but it’s not like Iceland had the population of all these other countries combined and was conquering the known world.
Nine hundred plus years have passed. Why, as Eric asks, are our ancestors given short shrift? I’m sure there are complicated sociological and psychological reasons but, for me, it’s quite straightforward.
Vikings are far away in time. The reality of their lives can be conveniently ignored and romanticized. It’s the same with stock market scams. The further away the mining property, the easier to run the scam. The further away the property, the greater the fantasy about untold riches.
The closer in time, the harder it is to get rid of reality and replace it with fantasy. It’s pretty hard to glorify and romanticize war when the war is going on or even for the next generation or two when the participants are still alive. My grandfather who fought in WWI and was both gassed and wounded didn’t think there was anything romantic about life and death in the trenches.
No one thinks the pirates off the coast of Somalia are romantic. They’re a bunch of ruthless, nasty criminals. Nine hundred years from now, their descendants may be romanticising the attacking of freighters and cruise ships and making the pirates out to be heroic figures. It’s amazing what the passage of time allows.
Also, for the past 900+ years, Iceland and Icelanders have been about raising sheep and dairy cows, about fishing in open boats, in making the most of their isolated lives in a hostile environment. To me, they are the heroes. However, it’s hard to make adventure filled movies about raising sheep or milking cows, about scything grass or catching fish. Adventure requires constant conflict and action.
Kirk Douglas having adventures is much more exciting than my great grandfather milking cows or cutting hay. If you have a boring job, an uneventful life, who do you want to fantasize about? Kirk and Tony in the midst of battle or my great grandfather delivering milk and feeding cows? The truth is that nearly everyone, like 99.99 percent of us choose safe, steady lives. I know some individuals who can actually call themselves explorers or who chose dangerous jobs in dangerous places. Me, I chose being a teacher. I had no desire to go to Africa to become a mercenary or to join rebels in South America.
I wanted to live my life like my great grandfather and fantasize about adventuring with Kirk for an hour or so in the theatre and then go home to a warm, comfortable bed.
But, I know who the real heroes in my life are and they’re not the ones created by Hollywood.

Going Viking Maybe?

Guy Maddin made a film called My Winnipeg. Not your Winnipeg, My Winnipeg. Winnipeg from his point of view. None of this, Our Collective Winnipeg, the kind of boring, everybody agrees on Winnipeg and offends no one. Tough on his mom maybe. Might not be great to be one of his sibs since only Guy gets to tell the story. But, it is an eccentric act of genius, because it is his Winnipeg and no one else’s, except, of course, that all of us from Winnipeg, recognize ourselves.
That’s what I was thinking about as I stared out the window today at the relentless rain. Guy Maddin and his point of view and I was thinking about it because I was pondering the question about My Iceland and My Icelandic Canada. My eccentric point of view about my Icelandic heritage. My Icelandic Heritage has a sort of fuzzy edge to it. The fuzzy edge is made up of My Icelandic United States but if I got into that, it really would be a kind of surreal because I don’t really know much about Point Roberts or Boundary Bay or the shenanigans in Chicago.
This is where, on a rainy day, statements like, “I’m a proud Icelander,” lead. Especially when they force me to think about what it is I’m proud about. Once I’ve eaten the vinarterta and the rullupylsa and the plate is empty, what’s left?
I’m not proud of Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. I know they looked great as Vikings, although Tony Curtis looked pretty wimpy. Kirk looked more like someone who might strike terror into the hearts of helpless English or Irish villagers who had no way of protecting themselves. Curtis looked more like the kind of guy who’d be filling up a sack with the local abbot’s silver while Kirk, baby, was sticking his sword into an abbot who wouldn’t know what to do with a sword even if he had one.
That’s the problem with Vikings. Viking means pirate. If someone says, let’s go Viking, he means, let’s get a bunch of the guys together and go steal, kill and rape. It’s interesting, in the many lectures I’ve attended over the years, the archeologists, anthropologists, historians, and others, when asked by audience members who are doing heavy breathing at the word Vikings, to tell them all about the Vikings, the archeologists, anthropologists, historians, and others, describe them as a bunch of young gangsters, criminals, juvenile delinquents. If there’d been motorcycles, they’d have been characters in the movie, The Wild One. Except Marlon Brando just wouldn’t have cut it as a Viking.
There are always some people who want to reach back to when their ancestors were pirates. The conveniently forget that there are about eight hundred years of their ancestors being sheep farmers who couldn’t defend themselves when some Turkish pirates turned up in 1627 and did the killing, raping and enslaving. Tending sheep doesn’t exactly turn out hard bitten commandos.
It’s true that in places in Europe, the Vikings settled down, had kids, planted crops, raised animals, produced beautiful artifacts. There is a whole academic industry that studies and writes about it. There are massive coffee table books showing stuff made by Vikings. There’s also an entire sub culture that creates a romanticized version of Viking life. In fact, not much is really known about Viking culture. It’s mostly deduced from stuff dug out of graves and reading the sagas. That doesn’t stop people from adding in their versions of idealized Viking life. If you can be Sigurd, warrior princess on weekends, it helps make selling shoes or being a barista bearable.
Think about what it must have been like after people had been killed, their houses burned down, and you sailed into the harbour in front of your Icelandic farm (there were no villages). You pull your boat onto the shore and said, proudly, “Hey, babe, look at all the good stuff that I managed to steal.”

The problem is that settling down in these various coastal areas in Europe, having kids, ploughing fields, raising sheep doesn’t produce fierce warriors so when the Barbary pirates appeared and killed, raped and pillaged, there wasn’t much opposition. They cleared out whole villages in Holland, Ireland, England, all along the coat. It was payback time. Bad karma being acted out. Where were Kirk and Tony when they were needed?
It’s fun to put on fake fur and a helmet and wave a sword around at Islindingadagurinn. Especially after an Icelandic beer or two. The Viking village on the hill in Gimli is great. The people who set up the village and populate it go to tremendous lengths to make it authentic. They make chain mail and cook meat on a spit over an open fire. They give demonstration battles. Except they’re rather clean, have good teeth and credit cards. They’re not going to suddenly start slaughtering the spectators. Thank goodness.
I admire the sagas but those were written long after the Viking age was over. I admire the sagas as pieces of literature. They are a major part of world literature. Thank goodness not all those vellum pages were cut up to make patterns for dresses. However, I can’t say that I admire the behaviour of most of the characters in the sagas. I wouldn’t have wanted most of them for neighbours.
So, when I say I’m proud of My Icelandic Heritage, Vikings don’t rank very high. They did when I was a little kid and I and my friends ran around the yard having sword fights but that was a while ago.

Some of us aren’t Vikings


He peed on my shirt. When I fell into bed the night before,  I left my shirt lying on the bedroom floor and in the morning, he came upstairs, lifted his leg, and peed on my good shirt. Just like that. I bought that shirt at British Importers. It was the most expensive shirt I owned. I lay there too stunned to say anything. He put his leg down, turned his head to give me a that’ll-teach-you look and went back downstairs.
“Chico,” I yelled. “When I catch you, I’ll kill you.” Except I wasn’t wearing anything and the idea of running around the house nude trying to catch a very quick and agile Chihuahua didn’t really appeal to me. The curtains weren’t drawn. My neighbors are tolerant but not that tolerant.
I went downstairs and Chico was lying in his felt doghouse with his head over the edge. No apology. He didn’t even have the decency to look abject or get out of the doghouse and roll onto his back in submission.
“You’ve got a new girlfriend,” my daughter said. “And she’s allergic to dogs. He’s had  the run of the house for three years. You’ve locked him in the kitchen.  He escaped and let you know what he thinks of the new arrangement.” I’d thought my daughter would  be sympathetic. I thought it was an inborn trait of daughters. Coddle the old codger kind of thing.
“Do that again and you’ll go back to the pound,” I said as I shoveled corn flakes into my mouth. He hated it when I had corn flakes for breakfast. If he had his way, I’d have bacon and eggs every morning. Every lunch and supper. Unless I was having meat with a bone in it that he could hunker down over.  Cholesterol? He didn’t care if I had a heart attack just so long as he got one strip of bacon and a piece of fried egg. 
He walked with his tail in the air and his ears up. He was a babe magnet. Everywhere I took him beautiful women came up and patted him. I’d tie him up outside the grocery store or the bank and when I’d get back there’d be a magnificent brunette or two (why brunettes and never blondes, I don’t know) patting him, cuddling him close, cooing in his ear. When I’d appear, they’d leave. No patting me, no cuddling me, no cooing in my ear. He was cute but I’m not that bad looking.
The wonderful thing about him was that everywhere I took him people talked to me. Because I live alone, that was a blessing. It meant that I wasn’t reduced to telling my life story to bored grocery checkout clerks. I’d sit  on a bench on the Dallas Road walkway and within moments someone else with a dog would sit down and ask me what breed he was. You see, although he was supposed to be a pure bred  five hundred dollar chihauhau, I think his mother slipped out of the kennel one night and went partying. He wasn’t a trembling, fragile, timid mouse. He was barrel chested, strong and with a set of teeth when bared would stop most people in their tracks.
He joined me on West Coast trails. It took him a few attempts to figure out wooden boardwalks, but he plowed through water filled holes, over huge tree roots, down and up slopes, along beaches and over sea wrack. His limit seemed to be ten kilometers. Then he sat down and wouldn’t budge. It was like he was saying if you’re crazy enough to keep walking, you’re crazy enough to walk and carry me.
Threatening to send him to the pound was serious business. He’d been there before. He knew what it was like to be thrown in the clink, the slammer, the cage. One rainy afternoon . he’d slipped out the back door. I didn’t worry about it because I knew he always came back when he got hungry and thirsty /. He usually hooked up with Angel, my neighbor’s dog and they roamed around the yards on our dead-end lane. When he didn’t turn up, I went searching with a flashlight. I called in help. We all searched. No luck. I went up and down the main throughway, Richmond, looking for squashed chihauhau. Nothing. I got a friend to print up posters to put on telephone poles. It had a picture of him with his teeth baered and a statement saying if whoever found him returned him, I’d take him back if they gave me  five dollars. I figured if he peed on their best shirt, they’d be glad to get rid of him.
The following day I called the various pounds. “Yup”, the warden said,  “Chihauhau cross, red collar, no tags, pay his fine and we’ll release him.”
When I got to the pound, I was led along the walkway between the prison cells. It was a heartbreaking moment. He saw me. I saw him. It was just like in the movies. He scrabbled at the wire. I held out my arms. But I hadn’t paid his fine so I had to go back to the front office and shell out for his being picked up and transported (a well meaning neighbor had been the stoolie who turned him in), for his not having a dog tag and for a new tag. One hundred and thirty dollars. I could have done a lot of things with those one hundred and thirty dollars.
Then one of the guards brought him out and put him on the counter. He climbed up my left arm onto the back of my neck and then onto my head where he perched, his nails digging into my scalp.
“Nice Daniel Boone cap”, the guard said as I turned to leave.
Most people like to think their dog is supernaturally smart, smarter than other people’s dogs. I didn’t think that about Chico. He learned early on that being cute beat being smart any day of the week.
He’d been my friend Valerie Kline’s dog. Valerie and I had been friends for twenty years. She was born in Kampala, Uganda and spent her first years in an internment camp. Her father was Austrian, her mother, Hungarian. At the end of the war, the family went back to Europe, then came to Canada. A long time after we met, she became ill. She got Chico to keep her company. Later, when Valerie was dying of cancer, she was more afraid of what would happen to Chico than she was about dying. That’s when I promised I’d take him. I’d known him from the day she’d bought him. Chico and I had established a close relationship right away. If I fell asleep on Valerie’s chesterfield, he’d sneak up and stick his tongue in my ear. It was a gotcha kind of thing. I’d come in and play with him. I’d throw a ball and he’d look at it. I’d chase him around and around the coffee table until he got tired of being chased and would lie down under the table and let me run around it. He’d bark to encourage me.
When I said I’d take him, I only made one condition. He wasn’t sleeping on my bed. He slept on Valerie’s bed and on the couch with her. There was dog hair everywhere. I wasn’t having dog hair on my bed. No sir. Not under any conditions. A week after Valerie’s funeral, her eldest daughter brought Chico over, along with a large box of toys,,his felt dog house.and enough food for a Great Dane. Night came. I explained to him that this is where he slept from now on. I put him in his dog house with his special blanket. I gave him his stuffed lamb to cuddle. I went to bed.
I was just falling asleep when I heard a noise. It was very quiet. Not a whine. It was a whimper. A heartbreaking whimper. It was so quiet I could just barely hear it. It was filled with tragedy. It said I’m lonely. I’m sad.
I leaned over the bed. It’s hard to see a black and tan dog in a dark room but I saw him. Sitting there, looking up at me. “Go downstairs,” I said. “You’ve got a very nice bed downstairs.”
Whimper. Silence. Whimper.
I knew then, in that moment, in spite of my Viking fantasies when I was a kid running around with a wooden sword in my parents’ yard at Gimli, I could never have been a Viking. Vikings are strong. They endure pain without a whimper.  When they are fatally wounded, they make pithy statements about life. Maybe it’s the sentimental Irish blood. If I’d been a true Viking,  I’d have had an Icelandic sheepdog, not a Chihuahua, he’d have slept in front of the door protecting me from marauders. In spite of having read Havamal many times, when the crunch came I forgot all about being on my guard going through doorways and slaying my enemies. Can you see any Viking going into battle with a Chihuahua at his side? 
“Okay,” I said sternly “but just tonight. “ I reached down,picked him up and  put him at the foot of the bed. He was very good. He lay right down and fell asleep. And so did I, but he must have moved sometime during the night because in the morning, he woke me with his snoring. He was nestled in the crook of my arm.
He’s back with Valerie’s daughter now. She and her husband have moved to the country so they can have three dogs. Although the other dogs are large, he’s established himself as dog number two. He gets to play all day long and to go for country walks instead of sitting on my lap while I’m working on the computer. My shirts are stain free. But he’s everywhere around the house with me. I often think I hear him and see him even though he’s not here anymore. I’m going to visit him shortly. I’ll take him a treat. I hope he remembers me.