A Vínarterta Icelander No More

I hate to admit it but I’m no longer a vínarterta Icelander.

You know the kind. I love going to Íslendingadagurinn, the celebration of our Icelandic heritage, that takes place in Gimli every summer. I do the rounds. The Viking village on Bill’s Hill. The Viking demonstrations of fighting with swords and spears.

At the harbour, I visit the tents with one million earrings made by hand somewhere east of Dauphin or imported from India. There is an entire village of tents filled with wooden toys, pottery gnomes, scarves from the Far East, fake shrunken heads, sweaters from Korea.

I never miss the sand sculptures. Or the bathing beauties playing volleyball. At the dock there’s the Something-Dunk where people sit on a slippery pole out over the harbour water and flail at each other with pillows until someone falls off.

The big event of the weekend is the parade. One thousand and sixty-seven Shriners, some Knights of Columbus, people dressed up like Vikings, the local potentates riding in convertibles, some Scots bagpipers (I think they are Shriners, too), a large farm wagon loaded with real Icelanders who often are members of a visiting choir and who regale us with songs, the words of which no one understands.

The parade is so popular that people start setting up chairs along the parade route two hours before the parade. By the time the parade starts, the crowd is three deep on the sidewalks.

There’s the Gimli park. This is the centre of the universe. It’s a block square, has a large heritage hall, a stage with backdrops painted with scenes from Iceland, plus the pioneer cairn that was moved from third avenue. The parade starts outside of town because all the floats need a large space to assemble. There are a lot of floats.

Often families are having reunions and when they do, they make up a float and march in the parade to let everyone know they are having a reunion. Just to be sure everyone understands why they are in the parade, they carry a sign made from a bed sheet that says something like VALGARDSON REUNION. They often come after a group of clowns on miniscule tricycles and in front of Shriners in glossy costumes with yellow shoes that turn up at the toes.

Interspersed are local politicians reminding the local voters who to vote for in the coming election.

Clowns used to throw away three and a half tons of candy but at the last parade I attended, I didn’t get to collect any candy. Some kid in New York dashed out for free candy at one of their parades and got run over by motor cycle cop and since that happened, no free candy for anyone. I didn’t think it was a real problem. When the candy wasn’t thrown far enough and landed on the road, I always just pushed the kids out of the way and said, “That’s dangerous. Stay where you are, I’ll get it.” I used to collect all the candy I needed to give out at Halloween.

At the Gimli park, at the head of the parade, the Mounties whose faces have turned redder than their uniforms from marching in the heat stop and stand in a respectful manner while sweat spills over the tops of their boots. The Fjallkona, that is, the Maid of the Mountains, the woman chosen in an enclave more secret than that which selects popes, descends regally from the car with her two princesses to place a wreath at the pioneer cairn. The Fjallkona is our queen for the year and wears a royal outfit, a headdress, a green robe with ermine trim and, of course, other things. For whatever reason, an older woman is always chosen. Someone said that she is supposed to represent dignity and wisdom. I’ve always thought the Fjallkona should be the current Miss Iceland. It would improve the male attendance at the ceremonies.

The dance hall is converted to a cultural centre for the weekend. Tables are set up to display those things that are culturally connected to the Icelandic community. Bags of Icelandic coffee (kaffi) are for sale. Historic pictures are for sale. Books–antique ones are sold by Jim Anderson, modern ones by Lorna Tergesen of Tergesen’s bookstore. Not just any books. Books by Icelandic and Icelandic Canadian authors like me.

Logberg-Heimskringla, the oldest ethnic newspaper in Canada, has a table where members of the board and volunteers encourage the circulating crowd to subscribe. It’s a hard sell. I may be biased because I was editor of LH for a short time when it was desperate for someone to check spelling, punctuation and grammar but in spite of my having been editor, I tell people it is worth purchasing a subscription.

There’s a kitchen that has Icelandic food and coffee (kaffi). I don’t go there anymore since I’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease. It’s too painful not to be able to eat vínarterta ( a six layer prune tort with cookie layers between the mashed prunes), kleinur (Icelandic donuts), pönnukökur (crepes spread with brown sugar and rolled), brúnt brauð og rúllupylsa (pickled lamb flank on brown bread), rosettes (originally Swedish, they are thin, crisp shells often served with a dab of whipped cream and strawberry jam). I can eat skyr (Icelandic yogurt) but a dish of skyr, as good as it is with local strawberries, doesn’t assuage my grief.

When it isn’t Íslendingadagurinn, I go to the Reykjavik bakery for coffee. The baker, Birgir, is from Iceland. I ignore the displays of Icelandic pastries. I particularly resent not being able to eat the cookies shaped like Viking helmets with horns. Which brings us to the subject of Viking helmets. Historically accurate Viking helmets are not adorned with cow’s horns. It’s too bad because the truth is authentic Viking helmets are boring. I’d never choose one over a helmet with horns. A helmet with horns is much more useful. In a pinch it can be wielded as a weapon or used to roast two wieners at once over an open fire.

Next to the Betel nursing home there is a large statue of a Viking with horns. I take a picture of it every summer. I’m not sure why. It looks the same every year. Thousands of people take their picture with it. They stand in front of it, sit on it, climb on it. Bus loads of people descend to have their picture taken in front of it. I don’t just take its picture. I also rub its knee for good luck.

A lot of the fun of being an Icelandic Canadian (American) is food. You get to try svið (cooked sheep’s heads), hakarl (deep sea shark that is rotted), mutton soup, dried cod with butter, seaweed and horsemeat. I can eat all of those. No gluten in any of them. But what is the point of cleaning your plate if there is no dessert as a reward? If you’re brave enough to eat deep sea shark that has been buried in the sand for six months, then dug up for your pleasure, you should be rewarded with all the vínarterta (iced) you can eat.

You can now get Icelandic beer in Gimli but I can’t drink that either (gluten).

It’s enough to make me embrace the Irish side of my family. I can eat all the potatoes I want. No gluten. And Irish stew. And tea. Maybe I’ll become a potato Irishman and go to celebrations of the spud and dance to the penny whistle. My father used to put a thick coat of clay on potatoes and pop them into a bed of coals in our back yard. They were delicious. Although he was Icelandic, I thought he baked potatoes this way because my mother was Irish and he was acknowledging her ethnicity.

Maybe I’ll go half-way and eat Icelandic mutton soup with baked potatoes. It won’t be the same, though. Nothing beats a plate of pönnukökur, vínarterta, kleinar, and rúllupylsa on brown bread with a pot of Icelandic coffee made in a poki (an old sock).

I’ll do my best. I’ll hang onto the sagas, onto Havamal, onto LH, onto an Icelandic helmet with horns. It won’t be the same, though. Someone who can’t eat vínarterta will have a hard time convincing anyone he has Icelandic genes.

Thor’s hammer:Icelandic Celebration, 2012


That Thor was raging about was first noticeable during the Gimli Film Festival. During the showing of the  movie, Bob Marley, on the screen in the lake, the sky to the north lit up with lightening flashing through dark clouds. It ran in great flashes of horizontal flame. Gradually, it spread to the East side of the lake and started moving westward toward us. The movie was shut down before the electrical storm got too close. There were well over a thousand people on the beach.

The Icelandic Celebration was coming a few days later. Those of us who have spent a lifetime in Manitoba sniffed the air, kept an eye on the barometer, watched the sky. The heat became oppressive, the air muggy.

Friday, all hell broke loose, lightening and thunder and with a resounding crash, the thunder announced a downpour. Not a few drops, not a drizzle, not a light rain. Water was pouring off my roof in rivers. Water filled every low spot in the roads, filled the ditches, water poured down relentlessly.

During a break, I went out. There wasn’t a single person on the beach, no one on first avenue, all the food vans that had come to town were shuttered and dark.

It’s high summer and two brave customers in jackets order BBQ.

Saturday, the barometer started rising but the rain came again, not as bad. Some people braved the rain. There were a group of young women in front of the Credit Union selling tickets from under a bevy of umbrellas but there was no one to sell them to. I went to the harbour. There was hot dog vendor open and a couple were standing in front of it. All else was shuttered.

Even the Vikings from the hill abandoned camp for a breakfast at the white hotel. They came double file down the sidewalk, eight of them, one holding a recently born baby.

Sidewalk vendors are a determined lot. Some were trying to get their tents up in spite of the wind and rain but others left. There was no one to sell jewelry to, model airplanes to, no one to give henna tattoos to or read horoscopes for. One brave soul was setting up odd looking candles. I went to the pancake breakfast at the New Horizons Centre. Where, normally, there would be a line through the building and out the door onto the parking lot, there were empty tables and about six people lined up for sausages, pancakes, eggs, coffee.

The shot put, the sand castle building, the volleyball had to be delayed until the next day.

The weather report said sunny for Sunday and Monday. But later it said cloudy for Sunday. All eyes were fixed on Monday, the day of the parade. A year’s work goes into the parade. Normally, the streets are lined many deep as people come from all over to watch and listen as the bands, the floats, the dignitaries, go by.  The parade is where the distinguished guests are presented to the community, where the local politicians ride or walk to demonstrate their solidarity with the people. The Fjallkona, in her costume representing Iceland, flanked by her princesses, leads the way, first to the shrine to the first settlers, then to the stage to oversee the formal program with its speeches about the bonds between New Iceland and Old Iceland.

To make matters worse, the Kvennakór Akureyrar (Akureyri Ladies Choir), would be on a large float. They had come from Iceland to sing, not to be drowned traveling down Centre Street.

Sunday morning there were clouds, even a slight sprinkle of rain, but no thunderheads. If there had been, it would have been time to make a sacrifice of a bull calf to Thor. The weather improved enough that a viking need for donuts asserted itself.

The clouds dissipated. The road races were on. A great gust of wind appeared. It was the vendors sighing with relief. The cultural and heritage pavilion opened. The Vikings had dried out and in the afternoon were ready to put on an entertaining example of Viking warfare. The Wondershow Midway and Rides was operating.

But all eyes were on the weather report for Monday. The day dawned bright and clear. When I walked down Centre Street to the staging area, optimism had returned. The sidewalks were already lined with chairs.

The Kvennakór Akureyrar (The Akreyri Laies Choir) ready to roll.

The parade was a great success. There were cheers and hand waving, candy throwing, blown kisses, wonderful Icelandic costumes, enthusiastic floats with people playing music and singing. The laying of the wreath by Fjallkona Connie Magnusson-Schimnowski was heartfelt. The speeches were passionate expressions of pride and love.

On the hill, the Vikings gathered for one last battle.

In the pavilion people slurped up Icelandic dainties and coffee in Amma’s kitchen, then came out to buy Icelandic coffee from Nelson Gerrard and Harley Jonasson, books from Lorna Tergesen and historic Icelandic books from Jim Anderson. Conversation was everything.

Oli Narfason talking to Þruður Helgadóttir and Þóra Margrét Baldvinsdóttir. You can be sure he´s speaking Icelandic. He not only speaks Icelandic but sings in it as well.

There were historic photos for sale, a new Icelandic alphabet book, vinartera. You could subscribe to Logberg-Heimskringla and purchase an Icelandic National League calendar.

And then it was over, the weather had held, friends and relatives had been reunited, visitors had been reminded of our Icelandic heritage, the Reykjavik Bakery had gone through rivers of kaffi and mountains of kleinur.

Now, it was time to take down the tents, stack up the chairs, sweep the floors and put everything away for when we meet again next year.