Blanche in one of her plays.

Have you ever asked your parents or your grand parents what their dreams were when they were young? What was it they hoped for? Listen while you get a chance. My mother had to quit school after grade ten. I never realized how much she felt the loss of not finishing high school until I took her to see the movie Educating Rita and I realized that she was crying as Rita struggled to get an education.

I knew a woman who had to drop out of school because of illness. Smart, talented, ambitious but there was no money to pay for her to go back to school. She had to go to work as a servant. Often, as I had coffee with her, I thought how sad fate can sometimes be.

Most of us adjust to the reality of our lives, accept what can’t be changed, make the best of what is available. Nowadays, there are evening school courses, summer courses, education of many kinds is available electronically. You Tube provides short instructional courses on just about everything one can imagine. Yesterday, I watched a short video on how to use a carpenter’s tape measure. I didn’t know three of the four tips.

When I was growing up there was no library in town (a tragedy), no learning to use a library, no books that would create knowledge of the world out there. For adults there were few paths forward. It still wasn’t common for adults to return to school. One exception were the courses for the airmen on the Gimli airbase. The math teacher at our school wasn’t working out to well so I took the course on the airbase to supplement the teaching in the public school. This was an exceptional opportunity. Extension courses were few and far between.

Even with improvements over the decades, access to knowledge and skills can still be hard to come by. College and university are expensive. And can be intimidating.

Yet, most people, if not all, have dreams. If the resources had been available, what would your mother or father like to have done? Your grandmothers and grandfathers? Grandma, you can ask, what was your dream when you were young?

My Icelandic grandmother, Blanche, whom I never me–she died when my father was twelve–wanted to be a successful playwright, actress, director, poet, fiction writer. And she wanted to write song lyrics. Living in a small town, she did all of these, writing her plays, acting in them, directing them, writing poetry, fiction and song lyrics. She knew an actor in Hollywood who was Icelandic and corresponded with him and sent him some of her plays. The family has at least one of his replies.

With four children, living in a small, rural town, she still had big dreams. Even in such circumstances people can still hope to do something exceptional with their life.

I think of this because I was sorting and filing papers over the last few days and I came across an envelope with a copy of one of her published songs.

I wondered as I studied the piece of sheet music what her dream was, did she hope to go to Hollywood? It seems like an impossible dream but there were quite a few Icelanders did go to Hollywood, including Halldor Laxnes, in pursuit of fame and fortune. Laxness stayed in an apartment provided by a successful Icelandic developer. And I wondered how many women in small towns, on farms, in prairie cities harboured dreams of greater things?

Rose Petals

Keeping Our Dream Alive

How do you keep a dream alive? A dream that is impossible, that is guaranteed to shatter against hard reality?

When the Iceland emigrants left for North America, they had little knowledge of the continent and what they thought they knew was often wrong. This was no different from any of the other ethnic groups streaming across the Atlantic.

In Michael Ewanchuk’s book,Pioneer Profiles he says that when the first Ukrainian settlers came to the New Iceland region, they went west where there was still land available, waded in swamps up to t heir waists, and when they came back to their wives and families, they cried. The information enticing emigrants exaggerated the benefits, the quality of the land, and living conditions.

The Icelanders came earlier, arriving in New Iceland in 1875, and instead of finding streets paved with gold, or even decent farm land, found bush and swamp. The marginal land in New Iceland defeated the dream of an exclusive Icelandic community. Faced with harsh conditions many left for Winnipeg or land further to the west.

In spite of this turn of events, they survived and for a hundred and forty years the Icelandic North American community has found ways to preserve its identity.

Although religion divided the community, the various churches provided a community where people could hear a service in Icelandic, could speak Icelandic and could receive help in dealing with the problems of being new immigrants. During my childhood and teenage years, the church still had a lot of authority. It taught religion and morals, a bit of history and provided solace in times of tragedy.

Few people today understand how religious the original immigrants were.The Icelandic immigrants who arrived in Manitoba were devout, intolerant, argumentative and wasted energy and resources in arguments which had little actual purpose. As usual, the religion was a vessel for containing differing views on social behaviour. Should the settlers isolate themselves, create a society that was exclusively Icelandic, that would exclude non-Icelanders, or should they attempt to integrate as quickly as possible? That question split the community.

The church services, once in Icelandic, gradually changed to English. Language is the centre of identity and it was being lost. The church, always a conservative institution loyal to the past, held on as long as it could but, finally, had to face the fact that many of its parishioners only understood English. At the same time, urbanization meant rural communities died, leaving behind graveyards and empty church buildings. The conservative forces of rural life and rural religion largely disappeared.

The Icelanders in Winnipeg created the Jon Bjarnason Academy. It was to be a Lutheran and Icelandic school. Icelandic was taught.
At first, it drew students with Icelandic backgrounds. Over time, the school drew non-Icelandic students because it was allowed to teach the equivalent of first year university. When that right was extended to other schools, the need for people to pay for their children’s education disappeared and the school closed.

Not one but two Icelandic papers were created: Logberg and Heimskringla. One Lutheran and liberal and the other Unitarian and conservative. Once again, time, resources, money were wasted in fierce, bitter battles. Looking back at things that were written by Icelanders about other Icelanders, one is tempted to say shame on them.

When the Icelandic immigrants left Iceland, their leaving was often regarded as treason. Iceland was on the cusp of getting its independence from Denmark. Some people felt that people were leaving who were needed in the struggle for independence. Others, the wealthy farmers, for example, were opposed to emigration because they were losing cheap labour. Ordinary farm workers had been exploited, some so badly that they thought that black slaves in America were better off. The leaving created a lot of hard feelings on both sides.

Somehow, even though lack of experience and knowledge meant that the immigrants went to areas where there was little or no opportunity such as Nova Scotia where all the good land was already taken, to Kinmount, where the land was not suitable for farming, to New Iceland in Manitoba where the land was so marginal that it guaranteed poverty for most people, they survived. Not just survived, but over time, prospered and with absolute determination, kept hold of their Icelandic heritage.

It took time for society to become secular and more tolerant. In the interim, the churches did provide cohesion, education, and direction. Bringing people together for services and various celebrations and events, helped to create community, helped to provide assistance to those in need, helped people deal with all too frequent tragedies. They were a stabilizing force in a changing society. First formally, then informally, they helped preserve the Icelandic language.

Although the Jon Bjarnason Academy closed, the department of Icelandic was created at the University of Manitoba. It became one of the pillars of the community, providing instruction in Icelandic and in Icelandic literature and culture. The Icelandic library became a repository for historical documents and literature.

The two papers, Logberg and Heimskringla, faced with the reality of people moving away from New Iceland and Winnipeg, with fewer people reading Icelandic, joined and became a single paper. Survival required that differences had to be set aside. The compromise created the rules that there would be no sex, no politics, and no religion. No sex was so as not to offend the ammas and aunties, no choosing sides in politics to get over the divide between the Liberal and Conservative ranting and raving, and no religion to stop the feuding between the Lutherans and Unitarians.

The paper, in spite of complaints about it not being just what any individual wants, is essential to the continuing survival of the Icelandic North American community. It is the second pillar of the community. Just saying North American is controversial. When I was editor, I had people threaten to cancel their subscription because I used North American instead of Canadian. As if all those people of Icelandic descent in Minnesota, North Dakota, Washington State, etc. don’t exist or don’t matter. We are a small group. Gathered together, we would hardly be noticed in the population in most major cities. We need every one of us. LH needs every subscription it can get.

LH is critical to the community because it tells us, or should tell us, about each other. It should entertain us but it should also inform and educate us. Without it, I wouldn’t have known about the descendants of the Icelanders in Nova Scotia. I wouldn’t have known about the descendants in Washington State. Our greatest danger is that we will lose touch with each other. We will stop knowing who we are. Outposts that are forgotten die.

In support and recognition of our ethnic identity, an Islendingadagurinn was created in Winnipeg in 1890. It was moved to Gimli in 1932. This celebration is the third pillar of our identity.

This Icelandic Celebration has helped to give the community cohesiveness. Once a year on the first weekend in August, people travel from all over North America and from Iceland to join together. VIPs from Iceland, including the Prime Minister, the President, have come to join the party. Women put on traditional dresses from the time of emigration. Plastic Viking helmets are ubiquitous. There are speeches extolling our virtues and the virtues of our visitors. There is Icelandic Canadian food. There are displays of Icelandic goods and Icelandic Canadian memorabilia. What is important, though, is that the community congregates, renews friendships, re-enforces its ethnic identity.

Sometimes in the not too distant past, some say 1971, others say, 1975, there was a rapprochement between the Icelanders in Iceland and the descendants of the settlers. My great grandfather had so little use for the Iceland he left behind at the age of eighteen that he wouldn’t even walk half a block to the site of the annual celebration. He wasn’t alone. The emigration left a lot of bitterness on both sides of the Atlantic. The schools in Iceland taught that the people who emigrated were traitors, running away when they were needed. The people who left often harboured dark memories. A lot of people on both sides of the Atlantic have worked hard at changing that and turning old enmity into friendship.

Air travel has meant that people could go to Iceland and Icelanders could come to North America. As usual, when people get to know each other, they find their prejudices against others don’t have much foundation. Now, with a tremendous effort by people like Pam Furstenau with her Icelandic Roots project, families are re-uniting. The Icelandic government has also made tremendous efforts to help the community rediscover its Icelandic identity.

We, as a community, need to provide support for Logberg-Heimskringla, the Icelandic Department at the  U. of Manitoba and Islendingadagurinn. We have a history in North America and in Iceland that is worth preserving and celebrating.

Making Laufabrauð

There´s Laufabrauð, Leafbread, like Kladia Robertsdottir´s meticulous leafbread, and Trish Baer´s creative, personalized leaf bread, and then there´s my leaf bread.

Decorating a thin pastry round by cutting a pattern into it is, I tell myself, a matter of small muscle control and we know that women have much better small muscle control than men. That’s my excuse.

The hot shots in the Laufrabruað world do their decorating freehand. However, there is equipment that makes the task easier. They are small brass rollers in different sizes. You run the roller over the pastry and it cuts a line of Vs. You are supposed to have the pointy end of the V on the roller pointed away from you, I discovered. Then you are supposed to turn the pastry so that the point of the pattern is toward you.

Bill desperately trying to get the pattern cut into his Lauafabrauð

You use a small, sharp, pointed knife to tip the first point over, then pass the next V and raise the one after that. You pull it over so that the end can be put under the initial piece. I didn´t know that. When my leaf breads went into the hot fat, the points of the Vs stood up and the thin pastry round , instead of staying flat curled and twisted.

This, I thought, is going to take a lot of practice.

Kladia doing it the way it should be done.

Some people don´t use the rollers. They cut all the patterns with a knife. I was content to just make straight lines with the rollers and then try to get the pastry not to tear and to flip over without breaking. I worked too slowly and the pastry dried out and the arms of the Vs broke.

In the meantime, Trish was creating Leafbread with her family´s initials on them. Spiffy leaf breads that had R and T on them. They were the kind of leaf breads anyone would be proud to give as a gift. My leafbreads, not so much. I think all except three looked like they´d been made by a demented dwarf..

Then, so they don´t bubble,  you have to prick them with a tool like none I´ve seen before. It´s sort of like a curry comb that only goes part way across the handle. The points are sharp. You prick the pastry all over.

Trish punching  holes in the Laufbrauð before it is fried.

When the leaf breads all had a pattern cut into them, Kladia filled a fryer with two bottles of corn oil and turned the heat up to 400 degrees. Then, carefully, remember these pastries are very thin, like really thin, and having had patterns cut in them, really fragile, she put them into the hot oil.

Kladia frying leafbread

She used two long metal knitting needles to delicately push them down so they were immersed. She said, “You watch for the bubbles.”, then, using the needles, lifted a leafbread up and turned it over. She slipped a needle through one of the holes and  put the leaf bread onto a wad of paper towel. Trish then, gently, pressed a paper towel down on the leaf bread to get off any excess oil.

The finished, golden leaf breads were set on edge in a dish drainer that had been lined with paper towel. Golden, crisp, ready to be eaten with butter, cheese or hangikjöt. Except by me, of course. The pastries are made from wheat flour and I can’t eat gluten. Didn’t matter, we had lunch together (this is a long process, it took us from around ten a.m. to five o’clock in the afternoon). We talked. We took pictures. We discussed many Icelandic things.

Kladia’s background is in history and she is a fount of all things Icelandic and is fluent in the language. She can answer questions both on the Vikings and the banking crises and anything in between. Trish is completing a Ph.d. on images in the Eddas.

My knowledge of Icelandic history and of the Eddas is similar to my Laufabrauð, somewhat haphazard. I know who Snorri was, I know what the Eddas are, but there are a lot of blanks in between, the historic connections aren´t any more secure than my Laufabrauð connections.

However, I take heart. I had a fine day with friends. Richard, Trish´s husband, came by to take some pictures and join us for a lunch of curried lamb with sprouted rice. We shared one of those days where the doing is every bit as important as the outcome. Crumpled Laufabrauð, ragged Laufabrauð, eat just was well as works of art, particularly when they´re slathered in butter or topped with smoked mutton.

I´ve read somewhere that Laufabruð came about because flour was so rare and expensive in Iceland, no grain would ripen so flour had to be imported, that these paper thin discs fried in sheep fat were created so that everyone could have a piece of bread at Christmas. I´m sure it didn´t take long before people were cutting patterns into them, turning them into culinary art.

P.S. To the revisionists among us. I never saw or heard about Laufabrauð when I was growing up in Gimli. Kleinur, yes, vinarterta, yes, rullupylsa, yes, pönnukökur, yes. Even Loftkökur. Laufabrauð, no. Otherwise, I´d know how to make them. They´d be in my genes.