Atli at Arborg

SONY DSCAtli and Þruður receiving a gift of appreciation at the Arborg Thorrablot.

There is a measuring cup of water on the table. I’m a pessimist by nature and when I look at it I automatically think, that glass is half empty. However, Atli, our Consul General, is by nature an optimist and when he looks at that same glass he automatically thinks, that glass is half full.

I have embarked on what I call an archeological search for my Icelandic heritage. Not in Iceland but here, in Canada. From Coast to Coast. What is that heritage and what evidence of it exists?

Atli in his farewell speech at the Arborg Thorrablot gave me places to search. They are not all graveyards.

Atli believes, and is very persuasive in his belief, that the Icelandic community in Canada is alive and well. He so firmly believes this after nine years in Winnipeg that when he and þruður return to Iceland, it is their intent to travel around the country, speaking in every village and town, telling them about us, about these Western Icelanders. These Western Icelanders he calls “These good people.”

He is going to tell Icelanders that some of us still speak and sing Icelandic.

He is going to tell them that we have Icelandic clubs.

He is going to tell them that we have Thorrablots.

He is going to tell them that we still eat Icelandic food.

He is going to tell them that we have proven our devotion to the Icelandic department at the University of Manitoba.

He is going to tell them what wonderful people we are and how we have welcomed them and many other Icelanders into our communities.

He had more evidence of our Icelandic culture. However, I was writing by hand and couldn’t keep up with all of his points. I’m sure he will add those that I’ve missed.

I will use his points to dig for evidence of our Icelandic heritage. I will ask about how many people still speak and sing in Icelandic. I hope that it is many and that those people are spread across Canada.

I’m going to pay attention to what Icelandic clubs there are and what they are up to.

I’ll read LH for evidence of the vitality of our Thorrablots.

I’ll dig around to see how many people still make and eat Icelandic food.

I’ll have to talk to Birna and PJ and Sigrid about the Icelandic department and the Icelandic library.

I’ll have to see what I can learn about all the Icelandic visitors that come to Canada.

These, and institutions like Logberg-Heimskringla, are our living identity.

Pessimist that I am, I’m still heartened by the work that has been done in Riverton and the work that is going to be done.

I’m greatly heartened by the work being done in Arborg on the heritage village.

I’m heartened when I see the bookshelves in Tergesen’s bookstore that hold Icelandic books and books by authors with an Icelandic background.

I’m heartened when I go into the Reykjavik Bakery and see Icelandic brown bread for sale.

I’m heartened every time I see another book by an Icelandic North American author or authors published.

So, there are reasons for hope. At the same time, when I go home to Gimli and I see so little evidence of things Icelandic in daily life, when I go to the West End of Winnipeg and see that it no longer has an Icelandic identity, when I go by the building that used to house the Jon Bjarnason academy, when I see that there is no longer any demand for the books that were so precious that our ancestors brought them in their trunks, I feel that the glass is half empty.

However, Atli gives this pessimist hope. After I talk to him, I can say, that glass is half full. I’m probably being unreasonable but I guess what I want is for the glass to be not half-full but full.

For me, the pillars of the community are Logberg-Heimskringla/The Icelandic Connection, the Icelandic Department and Library, and the INL. They are major archeological sites. They are major proof of our existence past and present.

I do not mean to ignore or dismiss our American compatriots. I have not included them because I don’t know enough about them to comment. For that we need someone in the US to write us and tell us what evidence there is of our existence.


The Arborg Thorrablot


It was cold.  Not a little cold. The kind of cold that if your car breaks down on the highway, fifteen minutes later you’ve become an ice sculpture.

There was drifting snow swirling across the highway. The only evidence of life were four ravens on the white wasteland. Four ravens waiting for us to turn into ice sculptures. I could hear them muttering “We’ll start with their eyes. That’s the tastiest part.”

Three Ravens in snow

There was snow, snow all the way to the horizon. Snow drifts you could sink into up to your waist.

However, Arborg was having a Thorrablot and being there was worth any risk. Arborg knows how to put on a Thorrablot to die for.


Our MC for the evening.

Avery Simundsson was the Master of Ceremonies and she kept the evening organized and under control. I’d recommend  her as an MC for Thorrablot’s everywhere.

The highlight of a Thorrablot is always the food. The greatest compliment I heard was “This is just like a really good Lundar dinner.” No greater praise has any meal ever received. People left the buffet table with towering plates of hungikjot, roast beef, mashed turnip and potatoes, peas, cole slaw, green salad, gravy. The desserts glowed like jewels but since I have celiac disease I couldn’t eat any of the slices and pies. Instead, I helped myself to skyr. There was the biggest bowl skyr I’ve ever seen. With a platter of fruit beside it to assuage one’s conscience. I told Helga Malis who was sitting beside me as I gorged myself, the fresh pineapple, melon, strawberries, and grapes had negative calories so I shouldn’t put on any weight.

Our table was the Gimli table. People from the different communities gather at their own tables. It’s an ancient instinct, totally tribal. However, there was visiting among the tribes and visiting is second only to food. I was the only male at our table so I modestly claimed the other members of the table as my harem.  It was that kind of evening. Oh to be a teenager again. Me and ten beautiful women.

If you don’t go to Thorrablots, you won’t understand the importance of the visiting. I got to see Birna and PJ from the Icelandic department. Birna is the chair. Peter is a professor in the department. I got to see David Thomasson. His dad and my dad were good friends. They’re both now fishing on the big lake up yonder. Atli and Þruður were there. This will be one of their last events before Atli retires and they go back to Iceland after nine years among us. We all think the Icelandic government should just appoint him Consul General for Life. I met some Facebook friends, particularly Joel Fridfinnson. He promised to take us for a tour of the heritage property at Riverton. I look forward to it.


Rosalind and Einar Vigfusson

I got to talk to talk to the well-known carver, Einar Vigfusson. He  has been to Iceland five times to teach wood carving. I also got to talk to the translator, Borga Jakobson.

There was a program, the kind of program that it is worth travelling through the Arctic Chill to hear and see.

Pall Bjornsson and  his wife came from Iceland to join us in celebrating our survival of the winter. (Except, of course, the day after, a blizzard hit. I returned to Victoria that next day, not to escape six feet of snow and temperatures that would make a polar bear happy but because I had business to attend to.)

Pall gave a speech and slide show about the Legacy of Jon Sigurdson. He had an interesting talk on Jon. He showed us a picture of stacked up books written about this father of Icelandic independence. It is just slightly shorter than the Alps. He talked about Jon’s life after death. There is a museum about Jon, an annual celebration in his honour (for which Western Icelanders, that’s us, can take the credit), a statue in Reykjavik and a duplicate in Winnipeg, numerous commemorative plates with his picture on them, a gay bar named after him, pictures on Icelandic currency. He’s more alive now that he’s dead than he was when he was alive. No one has reported seeing him in Laundromats but like Elvis and Diana, or, more accurately, they, like him, have vigorous lives after death.

Atli gave a farewell speech. But I’ll talk about that separately because what Atli has to say to us takes some telling.

The amazing Rosiland Vigfusson, although she no longer trains and conducts a children’s Icelandic choir, organized a choir to sing for us. They only had a chance to practice five times and, in spite of that, entertained us admirably.


The choir

David Gislason, poet, translator, singer, introduced each of the songs. Havð er svo glatt (Jonas Hallgrimsson); Minni Íslands (Bövar Jakobsson, text, music Rosalind Vigfusson); The Wayfarer (Stefán G. Stefánsson); Vas við hofið (Hákon Aðalsteinsson, music Rosalind Vigfusson); Nú er su stund (traditional).


The women singing to the men

The highlight of the evening, though, was when the men got up to sing Fasturlandins Freyja  to the women and then the women got up to sing Táp og fjör og friskir menn to the men. (The spelling may not be exact as I’m in Victoria reading David’s handwritten notes. I hope I got it right and that the last two words of the women’s song shouldn’t read frisky men.)

There was music after the event but hardly anyone danced. That’s partly our age. I think, though, it  might be our Lutheranism lurking in the background. When I was a teenager, the church elders lived in fear of our having sex because it might lead to dancing. Instead, we did what Icelanders love to do, visit, talk, discuss genealogy, discover cousins of various sorts, renew acquaintances. Have a second helping of skyr.

By the time we left the hall, the cold had come down like iron. However, the wind had dropped. The snow ghosts had stopped scurrying across the highway. The road was good but there were icy patches. I drove very carefully. The ravens had given up hope of a meal of frozen eyeballs and had retreated to wherever ravens go at night.

It was a Thorrablot to remember.




The Lazy LInguist



Learning to read, write and speak a language other than your own, unless you are a natural polyglot, is hard work. Learning all those grammar rules, vocabulary, how to say the words properly, getting just the right accent. However, I’ve found a way around it. It’s fun and it’s easy. I like fun and easy.

Instead of learning the language, I just learn the accent and speak English with that accent.

I learned this from some of my Icelandic Canadian friends. They consider being able to talk English with the same ringing and dinging cadence as Icelandic is every bit as good as speaking Icelandic and absolutely,  completely confirms their identity as Icelandic.  Practice an Icelandic accent and eat vinarterta and Icelandic citizenship is guaranteed.

I love curry. I really love curry. When I have people over for a curry supper, then we all do our best to speak with an East Indian accent. To get ready for such suppers, some of us seek out East Indian taxi drivers, especially for long drives to the airport and we ask them endless questions, doing our best to get the accent just right. It doesn’t matter what they say, it’s the way they say it. Never mind all that history and political and cultural stuff. We also make it a rule that every dinner guest brings with them the names of six common objects from that language like roti, bazaar, chili, chutney, curry, dhoti,  hubble bubble, madras, jodhpurs and find ways to fit them into the conversation. The more words someone fits into the conversation, the more points. It´s very competitive.

Sometimes, we have Greek evenings. I think Greek food divine. Succulent lamb, Greek salad, yogurt.  And everyone brings a Greek accent. If you’ve been to Greece, you get bonus points.  Spanakopita, feta, salata, calamari,  ouzo, baklava, opa (but not with my good china). They’ve got this crazy alphabet but if you’re just learning the accent so you can speak English as if you are Greek, you don’t need to worry about that. It´s sort of like the Icelandic alphabet with its weird letters. If you get the accent right when you are speaking Icelandic English, you don’t have to worry about things like  þ and ð and ö.  Who needs them anyway? Th,  d and oo do just fine.

I always look forward to going to Vancouver. I love Chinese food and I love having authentic Chinese dinners. Chow Mein. I love Chow Mein. Sometimes, though, we mix it up and also have Swedish meat balls. When I go to Vancouver, I try to overhear Chinese conversations. I go to the Chinese stores and while I’m looking at brightly colored fans and dragons and chopsticks I might use for decore for the supper, I listen as closely as I can to how Chinese people speak English. I want to get that accent just right.

International evenings are fun. Sometimes, we have an international potluck night and each person brings food from a different ethnic group and they also speak with that accent for the evening and try to use some specific words from that culture.  You might have someone with a Swedish accent, next to a Russian accent, next to an Irish accent, next to a Texan accent, next to Japanese accent, next to an Italian accent, next to a German accent. Fantastic! It is really international and really multi-cultural. And all those different tastes! Of course, we always have someone who has an Icelandic accent.

When I was a kid, everyone was trying to get rid of their accents. They all wanted to talk like the announcers on the BBC. It was incredibly boring. Plummy voices and plum pudding. We needed Spanish accents full of sunshine during the winter.

Our club’s annual Thorrablot is coming up soon. I’m so looking forward to it. I’m practicing my Icelander-speaking -English accent. I’m practicing my vocabulary so I can sprinkle in some authentic Icelandic words: faktori, farmari, fón,  harvista, jarður,  kabits, balari, bif, bonkhús. My grandfather built a bonkhús for unemployed men in his back yard. They had very little money so they ate a lot of kabits and bins. Sometimes a farmari would give them work making a fens. None of them  had a fón. If they wanted to shop at the hósil in Vinnipeg, they had to take the bus.

I’m going to eat dried cod, rotten shark , boiled lamb flank and vinartera. I might even have a drink of black death, a vodka like drink made from potatoes and spiced with caraway. Three black death  and my accent will be perfect.

If the honorary consul is there, I’m going to demand an Icelandic passport.