Strange, the things we care about. Some people care about the fate of the timber wolf or the prairie gopher or the red legged wombat. Others care about historic events, are fixated on Napoleon and the battle of Waterloo. Others are passionate about Mediterranean frescoes. There’s no accounting for taste.
Me, I care about Iceland. If someone asked me why, I’d have a difficult time explaining the reason.
My mother was born of northern Irish parents. That makes me half Irish. And the family tree goes back to Scotland. If family lore is accurate, two brothers came with Cromwell. One stayed, one went back to Scotland and disappeared in the fog and heather. The one who stayed is an ancestor of mine.
My father, in spite of his Icelandic name, was a quarter English. One of his grandfathers was a Bristow. There are in and around Oxford, lots of graves with stones that say Bristow.
So, that leaves me three eighths Icelandic. That’s not much to hang a passion on. Of course, there’s genetic folding in. Icelanders have a lot of Celtic background. The people who settled Iceland weren’t just Norwegians or Danes. However, that strengthens the Irish background, not the Norwegian.
A big part of that involvement in things Icelandic came from growing up in Gimli, Manitoba. Gimli was the centre for Icelandic immigration to Canada in the 1870s on. A lot of people came, stayed for a while among people who spoke the same language, who were relatives and friends, then moved on to places with better land and more opportunities. However, a core remained in Gimli and the neighbouring villages of New Iceland. There was Hnausa, Arnes, Ness, Riverton, Arborg, and, although it fell slightly outside the New Iceland boundary, Lundar. To the south there was Selkirk and, of course, Winnipeg, with its concentration in the West End that was known affectionately as Gooli town.
In the 1940s Gimli was still very Icelandic. People spoke the language at home and in conducting business. Church services were in Icelandic. However, my mother didn’t speak Icelandic so my father didn’t speak it at home and when I was an adult, I was surprised when I heard him talk to someone in Icelandic. So, it wasn’t the language that made me interested in all things Icelandic. It’s not like I knew the secret code. I couldn’t smugly talk to some of my friends and classmates in a language others couldn’t understand. I did learn pig latin but it didn’t make me identify with pigs or latin.
The defining event in Gimli every year was Islendingadagurinn, the annual Icelandic Celebration. There were official events. A woman was chosen Fjallkona, the Maid of the Mountains, dressed in regal robes, laid a wreath at the foot of a memorial cairn that, at that time, was across the street from our house. An elegant car would turn up, there’d be a bit of a cortege behind. The Maid would be led to the cairn, people from the cars would descend and gather. The Maid would dedicate the wreath to the pioneers, get back in her car and go to the Gimli Park. There, she would be led to a stage where she would preside over a toast to Iceland, a toast to Canada, numerous speeches, many of which were in Icelandic and were listened to raptly by an older crowd.
We’d have run the two blocks to the park to watch the formalities, then leave for the far corner of the park to compete in foot races in hope of winning enough for a hot dog and coke. From a kid’s perspective, the day was mostly about hotdogs slathered in mustard and relish. In the evening, we’d go with our parents to the park pavilion to watch adults dance to old time music. The Icelandic part of the day was eating Icelandic pancakes, prune tort, donuts, pickled lamb flank on brown bread.
There were a lot of Icelandic flags. Mostly, however, we hung around our parents’ house because relatives dropped by from far and near. There was a lot of eating, drinking and talking. The talking sometimes went on all night.
The town was very Lutheran and, at one time, services were in Icelandic. However, I don’t remember that. I’d have been at the Sunday School which was in English. We did have some ministers from Iceland. I don’t remember that having any effect on us.
When I was in grade three, Icelandic lessons were offered after school or on Saturdays. However, the first thing we were told was that in order to learn Icelandic you had to be exceptionally intelligent. I didn’t have any reason to believe I was exceptionally intelligent so I didn’t go back.
There was the Sunrise Lutheran camp. I went there a couple of summers. The only thing Icelandic I remember about it is the sago pudding. Icelanders consumed a lot of sago pudding. Someone said it was frog’s eggs and, after that, none of us would eat it.
There was, of course, the visible existence that the town was Icelandic. There was Tergesen’s general store with a drugstore and soda bar on the south side. Nowadays, it is mostly clothes, many of which are Icelandic and a bookstore. It’s the one place where you can go to get books by Icelanders and Icelandic North American writers.
There was Bjarnason’s store that was a mainstay of the town. It was half grocery store and half dry goods. There was Arnason’s dairy bar. Arnason’s had a dairy and delivered milk that was so rich that, in winter, the milk froze, popped the cardboard lids off and the cylinder that rose up was pure cream. We ate it. You could hear Icelandic being spoken in any of those places.
I don’t remember Gimli as being particularly Icelandic. I never heard of rotted shark or brenevin, nothing of Iceland’s history except that, at one time, there were Vikings there and not much was made of that. I never heard rimur, no toneless, tuneless chanting of rhymed verses. I don’t remember anyone quoting Havamal to me to get me to behave myself.
I was a voracious reader but I read the Hardy Boys and Robin Hood, not the sagas.
When I went to university, I met some students my age who were from the West End of Winnipeg. I don’t remember them talking Icelandic or any discussions we had being about Icelandic subjects. However, a process began to draw us into the Icelandic community. There were coffees at Walter Lindal’s and, if I remember correctly, I found myself discussing the Icelandic Canadian Magazine. Somehow, I got involved in the local Icelandic club. There may have been meetings at Will Kristjanson’s. Caroline Gunnarson became part of my life. These were stalwarts, promoters of all things Icelandic. Walter and Will both wrote important books about the Icelandic communities. Caroline was an editor.
Somewhere in there was Professor Besseson, the head of the Icelandic department at the University of Manitoba. He was offering a non-credit course in the evenings. It was the sagas in translation. My wife and I took it. The Icelandic department and the Icelandic library had begun to play their part.
Terry and Lorna Tergesen drew me into creating a literary event at the Icelandic Celebration.
And there is where it all starts to break down. You see, my Gimli experience wasn’t all that Icelandic. I loved perogis fried with onions and served with sour cream, hollopchi baked in tomato sauce, bowls of bright red borscht made with beets straight from the garden, turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, pickerel fillets, sweet and sour pickerel, Cantonese food from Sam Toy’s café.
I loved going to Ukrainian weddings and dancing the polka and the butterfly. Add to that, the airport two miles from town with air force personnel from all over Canada and, eventually, from all over the world meant I was used to hearing French being spoken in Olsen’s bakery or Bjarnason’s general store.
There were, of course, Icelandic elements. Local women knitted sweaters made from Icelandic wool. There was Betel, the Icelandic old folk’s home. Tergesen’s store was an anchor for all things Icelandic. There were women who, on special occasions, wore the Icelandic dresses that women wore during the time of immigration. There were a lot of Icelandic books around because Icelanders are great readers and writers. However, if any of my classmates could read Icelandic, I didn’t know about it.
But the Gimli experience was skating and hockey, curling, eating pickerel fillets, stuffed whitefish, smoked goldeye, not cod, fresh or dried, although some people did still make hardfish. We didn’t practice glima, Icelandic wrestling. Instead, we played soccer on snow covered fields. We hunted rabbits and deer, geese and ducks. Some of us had trap lines for rabbits and muskrats.
In Iceland, the Little Ice Age put an end to growing grain because the fall in temperature meant that grain would not ripen. Icelanders did not farm. They grazed sheep and milk cows.
In Gimli the settlers had to become farmers and fresh water fishermen. Farmers broke land, learned to plow, to seed, to harvest grain, rye, oats, wheat, barley. I grew up with my father fishing through four to six feet of ice with nets created for Lake Winnipeg.
In Iceland there were no forests. Gimli was surrounded by forests. Wood in Iceland was rare and expensive. In Gimli, we built with wood, heated our houses with wood, cooked our food with wood. One of my childhood tasks was throwing stove wood into the basement in the fall. We lived in a wood economy.
In Iceland there was a homogeneous population. In one of the travel books I’ve read, an Icelandic farmer says to a visiting Englishman that he is the only foreigner he’s ever seen in his lifetime and he expects that he will never see another. In Gimli, we dealt with “foreigners” every day. My mother and her parents were foreigners, so were all the Ukrainians, Germans, and Poles. There were the summer cottagers, many originally from the UK but many Jewish immigrants from Europe. There were the local aboriginals.
There were few “real” Icelanders, that is Icelanders who came from Iceland during the time that I was a child. There were a couple of ministers and a fellow called Ragnar.
The only person I knew who went to Iceland to visit was my great aunt, Stina. She was going to come back and tell us about all the bishops and poets and rich farmers who were our ancestors. When she came back, she never said a word about her trip. Our ancestors were indentured servants, farm laborers and, in some cases, had children out of wedlock or were married numerous times because their wives died in childbirth. Her dream of a past filled with prestige and glory died like the grass in a cold Icelandic summer. We can’t claim to be related to Snorri Sturluson or any Viking heroes.
Stina’s belief in a golden past when our ancestors weren’t poverty stricken share croppers or indentured servants wasn’t so strange. A characteristic of Icelanders is an abiding belief in a glorious, golden past during the Viking age.
The fact that hundreds upon hundreds of years of poverty, of domination first by Norway, then Denmark, makes no difference. Icelanders, in their heart of hearts, know that not too long ago their ancestors were raiding and pillaging, driving their foes before them, risking everything on endurance, bravery and good luck. Never mind all those hundreds of years of sheep farmers.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like Icelanders. They are, on the surface, restrained. So much so that there are discussions and speeches about whether or not Icelanders actually have a sense of humour. However, scratch the surface or have a couple of drinks with them and a romantic streak is revealed. They don’t see themselves as bus drivers, fishermen, dentists, caretakers, stock brokers. No siree, beneath those daily facades, they are Vikings. That suit, white coat, overalls, covers up a Viking heart ready on a moment’s notice to row a longship into the North Sea in search of wealth and fame.
Even those of us who have only three eighths Icelandic blood share those distant dreams and memories. That belief in a golden age survived centuries of oppression, dire poverty, devastating epidemics, starvation, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, fjords filled with ice. Generation after generation said, well, things are pretty bad right now but there was a time when we ruled the seas, when we were honored guests at the king’s table, when no one spun greater stories than us.
That attitude served us well during the time of emigration. Faced with starvation and oppression people emigrated to North America. In the early years New World hardship replaced Old World hardship. People went hungry, died from everything it was possible to die from, struggled to survive, sometimes failed, but they still had those memories of the ancient past to comfort them.
Maybe part of my interest in all things Icelandic is that I’m linked to this difficult past. We celebrate and honour the people who died and those who survived the trip from Iceland to the New World, who survived Kinmount, who survived the cold and poor food and small pox at New Iceland. Hardship and overcoming it shapes people, determines what they believe, how they behave, creates an identity separate from those who did not share the experience.
So, who am I? Where did I come from? How can anyone know who they are without knowing their past? Without kings and queens, without wealth, without great cathedrals or mansions, Icelanders chose to determine their worth on their behaviour.
Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, —
fair fame of one who has earned. –from Havamal
Not everyone lived by the advice in Havamal. Not everyone lived like a proud Viking warrior but there, in the background, was an understanding of what behaviour should be like. The sagas, those replacements for the great cathedrals, the castles, the elegance of Europe, gave everyone a history of the golden age.
Much of this was lost by the time a fourth generation, that’s me, appeared. There was intermarriage, the desire to integrate so that better jobs, greater opportunities existed. Yet, there was enough retained to hold firm to an identity. The Icelandic Department at the University of Manitoba was funded, the Icelandic library, for a time, the Jon Bjarnason Academy, the Icelandic Canadian magazine, the newspapers, Logberg and Heimskringla, the various clubs that were formed, the INL. A lot of it is based on nostalgia for a past that is romanticized, not just that distant Viking past but the past of immigration, but it doesn’t matter. What immigrant past isn’t romanticized and idealized?
With the internet, publications and documents that before were hidden away in distant libraries have become available at little or no cost. It is possible, today, to read about what life was like for our great grandparents and great great grandparents, to read back, to the times beyond them, to know ourselves.
Maybe that’s why I identify with Iceland and Icelanders. The dream of a golden age infuses everything, is always there, Gunnar and Njal and dozens of other characters, so that while I’m caught up in the mundane, cutting the grass, washing dishes, buying groceries, there is the world beyond that, the world of bravery, excitement, daring, strength, adventure. It rises closer to the surface during the Thorrablots, the INL conference, the club events, the Icelandic Celebration, the Beck lectures, August the Deuce, Icelandic summer camp, the Snorri program.
What causes me to identify with Icelanders and Iceland is not just a personal question. It is a critical question for the continuing relationship between people of Icelandic descent in North America and the people of Iceland. Canada is a multi-cultural society. Intermarriage is the norm. History appears to have been abandoned by the educational system. I’m three eighths Icelandic. My children are three sixteenth. My grandchildren are three thirty seconds. How will we infuse them with a belief in the Golden Age, make them proud of their Icelandic history, make them feel it is their history?