Heima

An essay I wrote exploring my feelings of Iceland as home.

 Originally published 15 September 2012 in the Lögberg-Heimskringlaa Winnipeg-based newspaper serving the greater North American Icelandic community.

Is it possible to be homesick for a place you haven’t even left yet? I was walking down Aðalstræti in Patreksfjörður one July afternoon, watching the sun sparkling on the deep blue water of the fjord. Everything about my life in this little corner of the world was perfect, yet I felt a looming sense of restlessness, even sadness. Suddenly, I realized what I was feeling: homesickness – but not for Washington, for Iceland.

Home is a strange concept, really, and perhaps not as simple as we might think. Is home something innate, or is it made? Is it coincidence, choice, or some combination of both? Is home where we are or where we came from? I won’t pretend to know the answers, but I do know my recent trip to Iceland allowed me to explore these questions and ultimately to expand my definition of home.

One day in Patró, I was working at Oddi, a fish factory where I volunteered, with a 15-year-old girl named Edda. We stood side-by-side, packing boxes of cod in a constant rhythm, talking over the factory noise.

“So why did you want to come to Iceland?” she asked. I told her I’ve always wanted to see where my ancestors came from, to gain a fuller understanding of my own story.

“And how do you like it here?” she continued. I told her it was amazing; I love the country, the people, the language; if I could stay longer I absolutely would. She considered this, then said, “I never understand what people see in Iceland… I can’t wait to leave.

“Have you ever been to New York?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I answered, “just once. I actually went when I was your age.” Edda told me of an upcoming trip to New York to celebrate her confirmation, then explained that she hopes to become a film director. I asked if she’s considering college in the States, then, perhaps LA. “Maybe,” she said, “but I don’t want to be too far away from home.”

A couple days later, I had another interesting conversation, this time at the Stúkuhúsið, my favorite kaffihús (well, okay, the only one) in Patró. I was drinking a Swiss Mocha and working on my blog when a dreadlocked, 20-something Icelandic man sat down near me. I recognized him; he had been at a concert at the same coffee shop a couple nights before. He said something in Icelandic and I realized he was talking to me. “Ég tala bara smá íslensku” (“I speak only a little Icelandic”), I told him. That didn’t deter him; he sat across from me rolling cigarettes, asking me questions in Icelandic, and I did my best to keep up. When I had exhausted my limited vocabulary, he smoothly switched to English.

I explained the Snorri Program and told him that “langafi minn var frá Barðaströnd” (“my great-grandfather was from Barðaströnd). We talked about genealogy and Icelandic bloodlines and determined that we were likely related. He expressed outrage that I’m not allowed to access Íslendingabók, the Icelandic genealogical database – “But you have Icelandic blood! You are Icelandic!” he said. I shrugged.

“How does it feel?” he asked.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“To be Icelandic, but grow up away from Iceland. To only be coming here for the first time now.” I tried to absorb this. He truly considered me a fellow Icelander. It was as if he was saying, welcome home.

As our conversation was winding down, he asked me a question I’ve been thinking about ever since. “Why are you going back to the US? Why would anyone ever leave Iceland?”

As I was talking with Edda and my dreadlocked frændi, I didn’t have the answers on the tip of my tongue, but time and distance have allowed me to explore their questions.

What do I see in Iceland? I see a country of otherworldly natural beauty, a people of incredible strength and heart. I see the roots of my family tree. I see a place that is part of my past, my present and hopefully my future.

So why would I ever leave? Because although Washington is a home that was chosen for me, it doesn’t mean I cherish it any less. And because I believe a true home is a place you’re always drawn back to. So even as I am drawn back to the States, I have faith that I will also be drawn back to Iceland again, sooner or later. Hopefully sooner. Until then, sjáumst, Ísland. Takk fyrir mig.

 

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uppskrift fyrir rúgbrauð/recipe for sweet icelandic rye bread

After my last post, I had a couple requests for my rúgbrauð recipe, so here it is, with the disclaimer that I’ve only made it once and there is undoubtedly room for improvement.  If you try it, make sure you leave a comment and let me know how it turned out!

Rúgbrauð

Adapted from Almar Grímsson’s recipe,

with help from Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir’s Icelandic Food and Cookery

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Ingredients:

2 cups rye flour

2 cups whole wheat flour

2 cups white flour

3 tsp. active dry yeast

2 tsp. salt

2 tsp. baking soda

1 ½ cups molasses

4 cups buttermilk

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Directions:

Preheat oven to 350-375 (I did about 360).

Proof the yeast by adding it to 1/3 cup warm water and 1 tsp. white sugar. Stir until dissolved, then let sit about 10 minutes or until frothy.

Stir together flours, salt, and baking soda; set aside.

Blend together molasses and buttermilk; add yeast mixture and stir.

Gradually add dry ingredients to the buttermilk mixture, blending well by hand or with a stand mixer. Mixture will be fairly thin, more like a cake batter than a bread dough.

Pour batter into lightly greased pan(s). Find a large baking dish with sides at least 2 inches high that your pans will fit in (I used a 9×13). Place your pans in the large baking dish and put it in the oven. Use a pitcher or measuring glass to fill the baking dish about half full of water.

Bake, uncovered, for about an hour or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean. Run a knife around the edges to loosen, let sit for just a couple minutes, then turn over onto a cooling rack.

 —

Note: this is the first time I made rúgbrauð, and it was a bit of an experiment, having to combine ingredients from one recipe with directions from another, but what I’ve written here is what I did and it turned out quite well. Playing around with the baking method and temperature may improve the results. I cut the above recipe in half and ended up with two short loaves (I filled two large loaf pans half-full); a full recipe would probably make 4 short loaves or 2 full ones.

rúgbrauð

One of my favorite Icelandic foods is rúgbrauð, a dense, dark rye bread sweetened with molasses (actually very similar to Boston brown bread).  Nothing better than a big slice smeared with smjör.  Mmm.  A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine gave me a recipe – but it was in Icelandic.  With the help of an Icelandic dictionary, I translated the ingredients, as well as enough of the directions to realize they weren’t going to work for me.  See, traditionally, rúgbrauð is baked by placing the dough in a covered container and burying it in the ground near a hot spring.  Unfortunately, my neighborhood is running low on hot springs, and since I didn’t feel like taking a road trip to Yellowstone just to make a loaf of bread, I decided to improvise.  I mixed up the dough more or less according to directions (substituting buttermilk for súrmjólk, a thin yogurt-like product unavailable here).  Then I poured it into two loaf pans, set those in a 9 x 13 casserole dish, and filled it halfway with water (I’ve heard that a water bath can help recreate the steaming process).  I totally guessed at the oven temperature and baking time, but miracle of miracles, it turned out, and it was actually really good!

I’d call that a success… notice the already half-eaten loaf in the background…

What Icelandic recipe should I tackle next?

Talarðu Canadian?

When I was in Iceland, I learned how to be Canadian.  Okay, maybe not how to be Canadian, but how to sound Canadian.  The majority of this year’s Snorris were Canadian, so those of us from the stars and stripes got a crash course in Canadianisms.  Some of my favorites:

  • keener – Canadian term for a teacher’s pet, an overly eager goody-two-shoes, etc.  Confession: I was called a keener on multiple occasions.
  • pictogram – a pictorial sign or symbol, like this:

 The Americans agreed that we know these are technically called pictograms, but we would never use that term in casual conversation.  Ironically, it seems many people have discovered my blog by searching for ‘pictogram.’  You win, Canadians.

  • ketchup chips – These might be available in the States now, but I think they originated in Canada.  I seem to remember eating them on the ferries as a child, though, so they must be imported…
  • garburator – a garbage disposal (either a literal one or a person who acts like a garbage disposal…).  The American consensus was that we would either call it a garbage disposal or an in-sink-erator (which is actually a brand name).
  • zed – Some Canadians use this term for the last letter of the alphabet, but others are rebels and just call it plain old zee.
  • washroom – If you want to sound Canadian when you go overseas, always ask, ‘where is the washroom?’  Never utter the b-word.
  • Smarties – The Canadian equivalent of M and M’s.  Most of the Canadians insist that they are far superior to M and M’s.  I tried some (they’re imported to Iceland) and they’re good, but I can’t say I found them terribly magical.
  • Kinder Eggs – Americans, remember Nestlé Wonder Balls?  That’s basically what these are, but they are egg-shaped, with milk chocolate on the outside, white chocolate on the inside, and a nifty little prizey in the middle.  They’re made in Germany and are sold all over the world, it would seem, but they are illegal in the States.  The Canadians mentioned this to us and we scoffed, thinking it couldn’t be true, but while we were in Iceland, an American couple crossing the border in Washington was fined for trying to bring 6 Kinder Eggs back into the States.

  • toonie – a $2 coin.  Canadians have these, but they no longer have pennies.  Well, that’s not entirely accurate; they just passed a law to stop the production of pennies, but of course pennies will continue to be in circulation for quite some time.
  • toque – A snugly-fitting, warm, often knitted hat.  When the Americans expressed skepticism of this term, Kayli was incredulous.  ‘What else would you call it?’ she asked.  ‘A soft warm fuzzy hat?’  We decided we would probably just call it a hat, or perhaps a beanie.  This led to arguments about hats versus caps, and it spiraled downhill from there.
  • Tim Bits – A doughnut-like confection from Tim Horton’s.  Anywhere but Canada, this would just sound dirty.
  • Man Tracker – Kind of like the Bear Grylls of Canada, but instead of being a survivalist, he is, as his name suggests, a man tracker.

Of course, if you truly want to sound Canadian, you can’t just talk about Canadian things.  You must pronounce things Canadian-ly.  The stereotype popular in the States is that Canadians say ‘aboot’ instead of about, but this is not true.  They definitely do strange things with their vowels; my best explanation is that they elongate and round their vowels, especially o’s.  ‘About’ ends up more like a cross between ‘aboat’ and ‘about.’  We all decided that Jolene had the most quintessentially Canadian accent of everyone.  When she says ‘house,’ it sounds more like ‘heh-ouse.’

My fellow Americans and I may not sound Canadian, but at least some of us had semi-Canadian childhoods.  The night we stayed in Hvolsvöllur, we sat out on the porch in the light of the midnight sun, discussing Americanisms vs. Canadianisms and reminiscing about childhood on both sides of the border.  Turns out Amöndu and I, being so close to Canadia, enjoyed a lot of Canadian entertainment as children, such as the show Skinnamarink TV (Sharon, Lois, and Bram!) and the catchy tunes of Raffi (baby beluga in the deep blue sea, swim so wild and you swim so free).

Well, maybe I’ll go watch an episode of Man Tracker, knit a toque, or scheme about how I can smuggle some Kinder Eggs across the border…

að leita: the strangest search terms so far

Okay, it’s time for that classic blogger rite of passage – exploring the funny, interesting, and downright bizarre search terms people have used to find my blog.  Let’s break them down by category:

FOOD

I guess I write about food a lot…

  • vinartorta with strawberry jelly – Quite a few people have found my blog by searching for vínarterta, which is just fine and dandy.  What’s not so fine is the idea of someone making “vinartorta with strawberry jelly.”  Prunes or bust, in this Icelander’s opinion.
  • candied puffin eggs iceland – Hmm.  Now there’s something I didn’t try.
  • iceland moss pancake – Never heard of this either.  Icelandic moss soup, Icelandic moss tea, and Icelandic moss bread, yes, but pancakes?  Not so sure about that.
  • bourdain gag – Haha.  If you use these search terms, my blog is on the first page of results.

PICTOGRAMS

Blame it on the Canadians…

  • pictograms of nationalities – Do these even exist?  Sounds racist…
  • grow up pictogram – Peter Pan would not approve.
  • essence of pictogram – Wow, getting philosophical.
  • paranoia pictogram – Creepy.
  • free sandwich pictogram – Now, there’s a pictogram I could get behind.

CELEBRITIES

Iceland.  It’s so hot right now.

  • katie holmes iceland – Yep, she was there.
  • tom cruise iceland – Yep, he was there.
  • ben stiller iceland – Him too.
  • katie holmes bound – Now this is a little disturbing.
  • mel gibson – Mel Gibson?  What???
  • katie holems reykjavik
  • jonsi saetur
  • celebrities who speak icelandic

RANDOM

A selective sampling of disparate search terms…

  • iceland people proud of pirate – my blog is the #1 result for this search.  Try it and be amazed.
  • how to explain why going to iceland – If your supposed friend requires you to give him an explanation of why you’re going to Iceland, he probably shouldn’t be your friend.
  • hello kitty reykjavik – This is all Jolene’s fault.
  • nei! icelandic kids book – Never heard of this book, but it’s probably right about at my reading level.
  • indoor fleemarket icelanders – only amusing because of the spelling error
  • work in fish factory, I smell – I particularly appreciate the syntax of this search.
  • funny girl dish washing – Um, why would anyone search for this?

SAVE THE BEST FOR LAST

Why oh why were people searching for these things?

  • ég tala kaka íslensku t-shirt – For the record, kaka and ekki are not synonyms…
  • twitter tasting cream – Not sure I even want to know what this is about.
  • thai lottery chat boun – Of course.
  • care bears natural wonder – Pretty sure care bears are not indigenous to Iceland.
  • gran bar asland/green knight/gays – Uhhhh what?
  • icelandic words for “this savage knows our ways”? – Speechless.