1987: Iceland trip

Ketil and Sophia. He may have come to Canada with nothing but he became a dairyman, a farmer, a general merchant. He prospered.


In 1987 I made my first trip to Iceland. Like most events in my life, it was not planned. I went not knowing what to expect. When I returned I wrote an article for Books in Canada. Much has happened in Iceland over the last 25 years.


From Field Notes

My trip to Iceland

‘Steam rises on the horizon and I, coming from a world away, mistake it for smoke. It is only the first of many assumptions that will be wrong.”


It is still dark when the phone rings. I stumble to the study, pick up the receiver expecting the worst (I have survived my children’s adolescence but not without scars) only to hear the operator say, “Hold the line please. I have a call from Iceland.”

“Mr. Valgardson,” a voice says form somewhere so distant it was once known as Ultima Thule, the end of the inhabitable earth, “I’m calling to invite you to Iceland.”

“What do you want me to do?” I ask.

“Nothing,” she replies. “We know all about  you. We now want to show you Iceland. Will you come?”

“Yes, of course,” I reply.

Outside my window, the apple tree is drenched in bloom and Victoria is soft green beneath the rising sun, but inside me there is heavy surf, the waves breaking over jagged, dark lava and a stark landscape of rock and ice. It is as if I am caught momentarily in a double exposure.

“Someone will write,” she adds. “Send you the details. Everything will be paid for.”

And then she is gone and I’m alone, staring, stupid with sleep and surprise, at the telephone.

My great-great-grand father, Valgardur Jonson, and 18-year-old son, Ketil Valgardsson, left Iceland in 1878. Driven away by erupting volcanoes that covered wide portions of the country with lava and ash, widespread hunger, and a political system that placed all power in the hands of the Danes, Ketil. Keteel. My great-grandfather, splitting wood in his backyard. An old man with a handlebar moustache. In this basement, his coffin prudently bought years before his death and set on two saw horses. In his kitchen a drawer that always held peppermints.

I was raised in Nya Island, New Iceland, an area in Manitoba once exclusively reserved for Icelandic immigrants. For days after the telephone call, the images of Gimli flood me. The people, the boats, the fishing, the houses, the Icelandic Celebration. It is like watching a dozen slide shows all at once, hearing a dozen competing voices in Icelandic and English. An Icelandic-Canadian friend tells me I’ve received a great compliment, that no one has been invited to Iceland in this manner since Stephan G. Stephansson.

However, nothing, as every ethnic writer knows, is as simple as it looks. Ethnic communities are filled with conflict, secrets, loyalties, unspoken rules. I take a young Icelandic woman to supper and ply her not with liquor but with questions. Some of what I hear I already know, but other things are new.

“Talking about yourself is worse than being the whore of the district,” she says. On an island with a total population of 250,000, with everyone related, no one is a stranger. It is not necessary to talk about yourself. Everyone else will do that for you.

“How curious will they be about me?”

“They will discuss even the hair in your ears,” she answers.

She has other warnings. As I eat, I shift my knife from hand to hand. She explains that Icelanders consider such ta le manners to be crude (they eat European-style with fork held firmly in left and knife in right), but it is the North American habit of eating things with one’s hands that appals them. I begin practicing keeping my fork in my left h and. Even my morning toast, I eat with a knife and fork.

Others tell me to buy liquor in the duty-free and take it as a gift. Liquor is so expensive that it is a generous way of returning a favour. Buy duty-free liquor in Winnipeg, then another two bottles in Keflavik (you can buy duty-free in Iceland before you enter the country). This is illegal, but I’m assured that no one will check.

If someone makes a toast, look him in the eye before he drinks or he will think you don’t like him. Take plenty of headache tablets for hangovers. Everyone mentions the drinking. I tell someone I don’t drink and he says, “They’ll assume you’re a reformed alcoholic. That’s the only reason for not drinking.”

Take long underwear (I find myself searching for long underwear in Selkirk, Man., the week before I leave) because even in July it can be cold.

The don’ts are formidable. If you’re offered salad, treat it like a condiment. It’s so expensive that they don’t eat it the way we do. If you are offered salmon, don’t eat more than one piece. If you are offered lamb, don’t take a second helping. Both are very expensive. Don’t say anything critical about what you see or hear. Take suits and ties, not blue jeans.

I leave Winnipeg on Icelandair on July 14 and fly into the midnight sun. It is impossible to sleep. Five hours later and a five-hour time change and we’re dropping onto the tarmac at Keflavik at 8:30 a.m. My first sight of Iceland is rows of American long-range bombers, AWAC spy planes, American fighters. Keflavik is a U.S. controlled military base and, secondly, a civilian airport. This the front line of the American cold war against the Russians.

Between Keflavik and Reykjavik, the land is barren. ON these shattered lava fields, nothing grows except moss, and that, often as not, is grey rather than green. My hosts, the national Librarian and a Lutheran minister, point out landmarks. The most striking one is a cone-shaped mountain called Keil. Steam rises on the horizon and I, coming from a world away, mistake it for smoke. It is only the first of many assumptions that, during the coming two weeks, will be wrong.

My lodging is the married-student quarters at the University of Reykjavik. The apartment is like a nicely appointed motel room with kitchenette.

I try to sleep but these are the days of the midnight sun. The sunlight floods through the drapes. I toss restlessly, give up, and return to my balcony. Below me, children are working in communal gardens.

I and my host, Finnbogi (Finn boy-ya) Gudmundson, are to leave the next day to visit my great-great-grandfather’s farm. I still have no idea what to expect. When I get up in the morning, I dress in blue jeans, then a warning I have been given earlier begins to sound. I take off my jeans, put on my tweed suit and knitted vest. When Finnbogi comes to the door, I realize I am suitably attired for I am nearly his double. Together, like two English gentlemen at the turn of the century, we face unknown impeccably attired.

It is to be a memorable trip. It is my first look at the hot-water mains that snake across the country bringing geothermal water to heat the city. Finnbogi points out Haldor Laxness’s  house (he won the Nobel Prize in literature). My host is a marvel. He knows stories about every rock, every farm. He tells me one anecdote after another. At first, I try to remember it all but, finally, sit back and let it wash over me.

Soon we leave paved highway and ride on roads similar to those in Manitoba during the 1940s – washboard gravel strewn with rocks the size of fists. We follow the ocean. In this country of fire and ice, of geysers and active volcanoes, the interior is still so dangerous that there is a tourist brochure called “How to Travel in the Interior of Iceland.” Among other things it says, “Wade across the ford before attempting to drive over, and check the condition of the river bed. Look out for quicksand. The man who wades across the ford should wear a life jacket and be attached to a life line. The cold water in Iceland can cause cramp in those who fall in and even death.” I face this in a tweed suit and $40 silk tie.

“We’ll know if they got a whale at the whaling station,” my host says. He opens the window and sniffs. The air is fresh, clear. He rolls up the window. Shortly, he rolls down the window again. This time there is a bitter, sickening smell, as if something has been left in the sun to rot. At the whaling station, we stop. Here, the smell is overpowering, making the air heavy, greasy, so that if feels like a soiled towel.

Behind a low wall, tourists are taking photographs. Immediately before us, an Icelander and a Japanese are cutting up long strips of blubber. The blubber is thick, gelatinous, flecked with red meat. The Icelander sinks a long hook into the flesh and pulls. The Japanese, with what looks like a long, heavy field-hockey stick the foot of which is razor –sharp steel, makes precise cuts, splitting the blubber into segments. The blubber must be heavy, for the Icelander, large, thickly muscled, strains to pull the strips aside. Behind the blubber is the carcass. It is massive, the red flesh dark and bloody. Another Icelander with a curved knife is splitting the carcass in half. As he cuts, a winch separates the two halves. Below me, the Japanese takes a whetstone from a leather holder fixed to a belt in the small of  his back. He is squat, as heavily muscled as a professional weightlifter. As he expertly sharpens the curved blade I think, “Samurai.”

We stop for lunch at a hotel. It could be any CPR hotel in small-town Canada. Heavy, solid, a room of nearly empty tables covered in white cloths. I am in for a shock. Soup is $5 a bowl. Fish fillets and the ubiquitous small boiled potatoes are $15. I make my first faux pas. I comment on the prices, then express a curiosity about cost unbecoming to a guest. When I realize that my host is offended, I start a discussion about something else. The food is good, solid, well cooked, but even though I am not paying for it, the prices stick in my throat like a fish bone.

As we drive along, Finnbogi points out a volcanic crater. Here, he says was a farm. One evening the farmer came in and said that a fissure was beginning at his gate. Where the farm stood is exactly where the volcano now stands. The cliffs are alive with millions of birds, and in one set of dark and brooding cliffs, an outlaw lived. We pass a s hallow salmon river where the water runs over and around bare rock in endless small waterfalls. Though there are no trees and the landscape is as barren as the moon, every turn in the road reveals startling shapes and colours.

That evening we stop at Borganes. The hotel is open for tourists, but its real purpose is to house young fishermen. Signs on the door say “Out of your shoes.” Rows of shoes line the foyer. These young men work long hours at hard labour. Set meals are prepared for them. I, although I know I shouldn’t be, am difficult, insist that I cannot eat another large meal. My host, emphasizing to the kitchen staff that I’m skald (a writer, that most precious of title in a land where every child knows the sagas the way our children know Saturday cartoons), manages to get me a toasted cheese sandwich.

Later, he brings out a copy of a book written by one of my great-great-uncles. As we sit in his room, he translates for me. My ancestor, it turns out, is more notorious than famous., “Did he ever drink so much that he fell off his horse?” I ask.

Breakfast is a buffet of cold sliced meats and cheese, salt and sugar-cured herring, marmalade (everywhere I will go for two weeks, there will be marmalade; it is the national jam of Iceland), bread, coffee.

We drive until we arrive at Adabol, my great-great-grandfather’s farm. There is still a farmhouse here. The land is still farmed. The farmer does not speak English. There is not much to see: a simple farm house, a shed, a lagoon, the homefield with its rich hay, the grey, shingle beach, the mountains behind. The sparseness, the beauty, turn and shift within me. It is as though never having been here, I yet know the colour and shape of every object. I want to touch everything. I pluck a daisy and press it in my diary I pick up a rock and put it in my pocket. When I walk on the beach and the farmer says that my great-great-grandfather used to walk along this stretch of beach when he need to think, I am overwhelmed, for I, too, do this on Vancouver Island on a similar beach. Again and again he mentions some habit or trait of my ancestors and it is as if he were writing a character sketch of me.

Although it is a warm day and he should be in the field drying hay, the farmer asks us in for coffee. It is a great compliment, for good weather is precious and is not to be wasted. Of everything there is to see in the house, my attention is drawn inexorably to four eagles’ feet hanging from the mantelpiece. These, the farmer tells me, he took out of my ancestor’s house before it was torn down. The feet were preserved by smoke because, for decades, they hung beside the fireplace.

When we have finished our coffee and go outside, the air is dense with ghosts, indefinable forms that turn the air thick, white, palpable. (Eighty percent of Icelanders report extra-sensory experiences. Those who don’t have them are psychically retarded.) As we begin to drive away, the unexpected happens,. Until this moment, I am distant, holding myself back. All at once, it is as if something I have carried all my life inside me leaves, and I, bereft of that something that has always been there, not me but with me, sit, tears running down my cheeks. I turn to the widow so my host won’t see. I have been brought up in a culture where to express any emotion but anger is a sign of weakness. My throat hurts so much that I feel I will choke. Back over the fence, over the homefield to the house, it is as though who, or what, has left me, slips through thick air. I want to ask the driver to stop, to let me out, so that I can run back as far as the fence, but I cannot speak for the pain and sense of loss, and the car carries me relentlessly away. This must be what they felt when they left, I think, leaving this beach this lagoon this field this ocean these mountains. Then the road turns and the farm is wrenched from sight.


Twenty-five years have passed since that visit and, in those twenty-five years, much has changed. The Americans have left. The Cold War is over, replaced by small hot wars in the Middle East. Planes don’t need to stop to refuel. The great economic boom has turned into the kreppa. Whaling has mostly stopped. Iceland is no longer a distant, exotic place. It is flooded with tourists to the point that it may not be able to handle anymore. Icelanders, once a rare sight in New Iceland, come by the plane load. The countryside has moved to Reykjavik. There are now 320,000 Icelanders.

The internet means that there is constant daily interaction. Endless photographs uploaded to personal websites and Facebook mean that no waterfall, no fjord, no glacier is a surprise.

As for me, I’m a little bit more knowledgeable about Icelandic immigration history. Adabol wasn’t my great-great grandfather’s farm. He and his son, Ketil, were laborers, indentured servants and may have been hreppsomagur, welfare cases. Valgardur was seriously ill when he emigrated. He died shortly after arriving in Canada and is buried in an unmarked grave, a grave long ago eroded by the waves of Lake Winnipeg.

None of it matters. A land made of fire and ice is a hard land. Many died of disease and hunger. I’m glad Valgardur and Ketil emigrated. They created a new life in a new place so that I can greet the descendants of those who stayed. Blood and history unite us.