Just a couple Iceland-related adventures I had during my absence from the blog earlier this year…
Icelandic Exiles Rugby
Back in February, I somehow learned that an Icelandic rugby club was heading to a tournament in Vegas and was playing friendly games in several cities along the way. One of those cities happened to be Portland. I know absolutely nothing about rugby. Neither does my sister. But we decided if our kinsfolk were coming all this way from the homeland, they should probably have a couple fans rooting for them.
So one evening in February, we bundled up and went to watch the Icelandic Exiles play the Oregon Sports Union Rugby Club. It was cold. It was dark. We didn’t know anyone and really had no clue what was going on. We felt a little silly standing there with our chattering teeth and our Icelandic flag. I wanted to be brave and strike up a conversation with someone from the team but I guess my bravery was frozen by the winter weather. But it was an experience. And the ref’s Michael Bolton hair and teeny short shorts just about made it all worthwhile (unfortunately I have no clear photographic evidence; it was dark and he ran very, very fast). It was interesting to note that a great number of the Icelandic players/coaches/entourage were not in fact Icelandic at all, but British or Irish, which makes sense when you consider the origins of rugby.
Seven weeks before Easter, on the Monday before Ash Wednesday, Icelanders celebrate Bolludagur (Bun Day). “Bun” refers to cream puffs topped with chocolate. Traditionally, the morning of Bolludagur, children would wake early and creep into their parents’ room armed with a wand. They’d yell “Bolla!” and spank their parents with the wand, and the number of spanks delivered before the parents got out of bed determined the number of cream puffs the child would get to eat.
The good news for parents is that the tradition these days is to skip the spanking and get right to the cream puff eating. This year, I decided Bolludagur sounded like quite a delicious holiday and I wanted to celebrate. I used a combination of recipes for my attempt at bolludagsbollur – a couple from the Internet and one from our Icelandic cookbook. The dough I made was very similar to a French choux pastry – mixed up in a pot on the stove, then dropped by spoonfuls onto a baking sheet and split in half when cool. I filled mine with freshly whipped cream, although some people also put jam in theirs. And of course I topped mine with melted dark chocolate. The verdict? There’s room for improvement, but they were quite delicious and I intend to use this holiday as an excuse to eat copious amounts of cream puffs for years to come.
Saturday morning opened with a beautiful vignette from our fearless organizer himself, David Johnson, then a fascinating lecture by Dr. Fred Woods of BYU. I was looking forward to this talk but it far exceeded my expectations. Dr. Woods told the story of Icelandic converts to the Mormon faith who left their families and homeland and emigrated to Utah. I had no idea there was any connection between Iceland and Mormonism until early last year. While I was waiting to find out if I had been accepted to the program, I came across the blog of a 2011 participant, a girl from Utah who is descended from some of those Mormon Icelandic pioneers. The topic was of particular interest to me since many of my close high school friends were LDS.
Dr. Woods was swarmed by a crowd after his talk, but later that day I finally caught him and thanked him for sharing with us. He recognized me from my presentation the day before and told me to “never lose my spark.”
After a short break, we enjoyed what was hands-down the most entertaining presentation all weekend. Dr. Donald Gislason, a Canadian musicologist, shared his impressions of Iceland Airwaves, which he dubbed “the hippest event on the planet.” His dry sense of humor and his proper, articulate speech had the audience captivated and amused. One of the most interesting points he made is that because music education is available to all students in Iceland (lessons are subsidized by the government), Icelandic kids feel freer to experiment and don’t particularly fear failure, resulting in a richly creative and prolific music culture. I can’t even begin to do justice to Dr. Gislason’s presentation, but thankfully you can watch it in its entirety here.
Saturday afternoon was wide open free time. My mom, aunt, and cousin Holly met me and our relatives Lyle and Audrey, who were also attending the Convention, at the hotel restaurant for lunch, then we walked downtown for a couple hours and did some shopping. After we parted ways, I explored the library some more, admiring its neon green elevator and eerie red hallway.
Saturday evening was the formal gala dinner. Amanda stayed home, but Sacha, Nonni and I sat together (that is, after Nonni finally convinced the hotel staff to add another place setting to our table). Dinner was quite tasty – fish, potatoes, salad, veggies, chocolate cake of some particularly rich and mousse-y variety. I’d give the entertainment mixed reviews – singer-songwriter Kevin Brown was just okay. Soprano Guðrun Ingimarsdóttir was fantastic, performing a medley of traditional Icelandic tunes, operatic arias, and American standards. She also led the crowd in singing a couple Icelandic folk songs, including “Á Sprengisandi,” which we learned at our kvöldvaka in Hofsós last year.
Raffle winners were announced, and the woman who won the grand prize of two tickets to Iceland actually fell down when she heard her name (she was fine!).
When the festivities in the meeting room subsided, the party moved upstairs to the bar, where people from all over North American and Iceland of all ages and life experience reveled in each other’s company until the wee hours of the morning.
By the time I made it downstairs for breakfast, all the food was gone (due to some sort of miscommunication, I think), but thankfully there was still coffee. There wasn’t much on the agenda for Sunday as people needed to start heading home and many had already left. Everett mayor Ray Stephanson said a few words, David said some thank yous, then opened it up for people to share their thoughts about the weekend. Many people were emotional, all were grateful for a memorable weekend.
After many a farewell, Sacha and I headed to Amanda’s apartment on Capitol Hill to meet up with her and Sean. The four of us had coffee at Liberty while we waited for a table at Coastal Kitchen, then tucked in for a cozy brunch. It was bittersweet – wonderful to be reunited, sad to know we had to part ways again. And of course it felt like something was missing – not only the rest of our group, but the land where we met and lived together and forged memories that will forever connect us.
“Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Most of the presentations from the 2013 INL Convention can be viewed here.
This April, the annual convention of the Icelandic National League of North America was held in Seattle. It was the first time Seattle has ever hosted and only the second time the convention has been in a U.S. city in 94 years of conventions. Ninety-four years!
Each convention has a theme, and this year’s was “There’s No Place Like Heima,” playing off the Seattle/Emerald City/Wizard of Oz connection and the Icelandic word for home.
Many months ago, my friend David, a member of the Icelandic Club of Greater Seattle and head of the Convention planning committee, asked me to help with some writing, editing, promotion, name-tag-making, music-mix-burning and other miscellaneous tasks in preparation for the big weekend, and I was more than happy to help out. Most of the time, that is. Perhaps I was a little less than happy when I spent the greater part of an entire weekend trying to get the name tags to print out with the proper margins and color. Þetta reddast.
I have so much to say about this incredible weekend that I think I may need a couple posts to cover everything. We begin with…
I left work early Thursday afternoon, finished packing, then headed north. Did you know procrastination is an Icelandic trait? Way back in January, David explained to me his idea of having a few people give very brief speeches, little vignettes almost, ruminating on the theme of heima/home, and he asked me to do one of them. I had more than enough time to plan and practice it, but I am not a fan of public speaking and I didn’t know how to condense my thoughts down to just 5 minutes so as of Thursday afternoon I still hadn’t quite figured out what I was going to say. I had a general outline, and as I drove north on I-5 I practiced and tried to work out the kinks. Eventually I got to a point where the speech was more or less coherent and I was feeling more confident. The problem was, every time I got to a certain part, a lump would form in my throat and I’d have to stop to fight off tears. It was an emotional topic magnified by my absolute exhaustion (I had been working extra hours to make up for the day and a half I took off, as I couldn’t yet use my vacation time).
As I neared Seattle, I decided to rest my voice and my emotions for awhile. After I conquered the maze of one-way streets downtown and finally found the Crowne Plaza, I went to check in. As I was standing at the desk, I saw someone out of the corner of my eye, a guy about my age, long hair, orange sweatshirt. “Julie?” he called. I turned to face him and discovered it was Johnathan, or Nonni as he is known by many, a 2009 Snorri I had chatted with on Facebook but never met before. “Hi!” I said. He gave me a big hug and we started talking like we were old friends. And that was the first of many moments that combined to create a remarkably warm, moving, joyous weekend that I will not soon forget.
After I lugged my bags up to my room, I joined the crowd mulling about in the hospitality suite. And I do mean crowd. Those who know me well undoubtedly know that I am not much for crowds. I get overwhelmed rather easily. And this crowd was definitely overwhelming, but in the best way imaginable. First I saw Helgi, a former Snorri who was actually in Iceland during my trip last year and had dinner with our group one night at KEX Hostel. That was the only time we’d ever met, but of course he too gave me a big, warm, lopapeysa-wooly hug. Within a couple minutes, I had spotted David, Amanda, Sacha, Ásta Sól, Halldór, Kent, Sunna, and so many more. It felt like a homecoming. These are my people. This is where I belong.
Helgi introduced me to his girlfriend Friðný and another friend, Signý, and I chatted with them for a little bit. We spoke a little Icelandic together and I was encouraged by Friðný’s kind and generous assertion that my pronunciation is very good.
I stepped out to escape the crowd for a bit and ran into Judy, an associate editor for the Lögberg-Heimskringla with whom I have exchanged many an email over the past several months. She was heading up to the bar and Signý and I decided to join her. The three of us took a small round table, sat back, and, away from the happy chaos downstairs, realized we were starving. Before we had even ordered dinner, we were joined by a couple more Icelanders, then a few more. One by one more tables were added until there were probably 20 people, 6 tables, four people sharing two extra chairs. The non-Icelandic people in the bar grew more bewildered as our group grew larger and more boisterous.
Eventually, dizzy and exhausted, I said goodbye to the (still quite large) bar crowd and went back to my room. I spent a half hour or so staring at my speech, made a few minor changes, then decided it would have to take care of itself in the morning.
She sprinkled a few quotes throughout, all relating to the theme of home, and I was struck by this one, which was overlaid on a photo she took while our group was at Hofsós:
“Home is not where you live, but where they understand you.”
– Christian Morgenstern
In that instant, my nerves were calmed and I knew I would make it through my speech. I was surrounded by people who understood me, and they would understand what I was trying to convey even if I wasn’t the most eloquent or engaging speaker.
David introduced me and I gave my speech, which I called “Home as a Place of Belonging.” It went so much better than I could have hoped. I didn’t trip over my words too much, I remembered to make eye contact, the audience laughed when they were supposed to. Someone even came up to me afterward and said, “You’re such a natural speaker!” (ha!) [You can watch it here, if you’re so inclined.]
When I finished, I introduced Sunna from North Dakota, who shared a presentation she gave all around Iceland last fall as part of the International Visits Program titled “The Love of Iceland in America.” As you can likely deduce from the title, it’s about how people of Icelandic descent in America have kept Iceland in their hearts over the years. It was an emotional presentation for many. Some in attendance were born in Iceland, some, like me, were born in North America, descendants of those who left their homeland and their families behind in search of a better life. In many cases, their departure left a rift of bitterness behind. And in a sense, it’s only in relatively recent history that there’s been a fuller reconciliation between the families of those who stayed and the families of those who left. But there we were, a group of people diverse in many ways but tied together by this obscure, out-of-the-way island in the North Atlantic and touched by the stories Sunna shared. Eyes watery, hearts full, we broke for a brief intermission.
A lady I had never met before, several inches shorter than me, her pale blonde hair pulled up to one side in an elegant braided chignon, came up to me, introduced herself as Sigrid, and thanked me for sharing my story. I don’t remember our exact conversation, except that at one point she said something about how it’s people like me who are keeping the Icelandic heritage alive in North America.
How do you follow all that emotion? With sugar, of course. The crowd meandered back upstairs to the hospitality suite for kleinur (a traditional Icelandic doughnut) and some kind of layered cake that looked like it’s related to vínarterta.
Reinforced by sugar, the tremendous energy of that morning continued throughout the rest of the day. The afternoon brought a brief presentation by Amöndu about her family’s tradition of making vínarterta every year, and a presentation by Ásta Sól about the Snorri Program. Dr. Steve Guttormsson, a retired Minnesota doctor who started a nonprofit foundation to support American Snorri participants, presented Ásta with a check to cover $2000 for each of three 2013 participants. Amanda and I were the recipients of the first two Guttormsson Family Foundation scholarships last year, and we finally got to meet Dr. Guttormsson and thank him for his part in getting us to Iceland last year.
The main event of the afternoon was a lecture by Alene Moris entitled “Women in Iceland are Unusual and Happy.” Moris co-founded the Women’s Center at the University of Washington and is an outspoken advocate for male/female balance, especially in the workplace. She’s an absolute powerhouse and it was a privilege to hear her.
Friday afternoon brought some much-needed free time. I think I did some more visiting, wandered over to the Seattle Public Library, then met up with Sacha and Amanda. We walked to Pike Place Market, watched a little fish throwing, then headed downstairs to Pike Brewing for dinner. Sacha ordered a pitcher of Naughty Nellie Ale to share, mostly, I think, because she just wanted to say “Naughty Nellie Ale,” but it turned out to be delicious, as were the fish and chips. When our waiter checked our IDs, he noticed Amanda had just had a birthday, so he brought her a little molten chocolate birthday cake treat. After a bite, Amanda realized it contained walnuts, to which she is mildly allergic. She ate more of it but said her mouth felt rather itchy. We helped her out by removing some of the temptation.
We lingered over our beers a little too long and missed the first part of Friday night’s program, but made it in time for remarks by Halldór Árnasson of Þjóðræknisfélag Íslendinga (INL – Iceland) and the keynote speech by Ambassador Þórður Ægir Óskarsson of Canada.
[Speaking of ambassadors, I can’t recall when exactly this happened, and this won’t make sense unless you’ve listened to my presentation, but some time after I gave my speech, the Icelandic Ambassador from D.C., Guðmundur Stefánsson, came up to me and said, “So that guy you were talking about, at the coffee shop, was he hitting on you?” It was hilarious and embarrassing and I had to explain that actually, the guy was with his girlfriend but I hadn’t mentioned her in the interest of keeping the story short and simple. I got the feeling Mr. Ambassador didn’t entirely believe me, and then I made the huge mistake of saying that his hometown of Hafnarfjörður is basically a big suburb of Reykjavík, but anyway.]
Friday evening, former Snorris (and friends of Snorris) gathered together for a casual time of conversation and reminiscing. Many different years were represented, ranging from 1999 (the very first year!) to 2012. Ásta Sól said a few words and told us about a documentary she made telling the story of three Snorris from several years ago. She was going to show it but we couldn’t find a projector, so instead we talked. And drank. And laughed. And talked and talked and talked. Oh and at one point some people started singing Icelandic folk songs.
I spent most of the evening chatting with Matthew, an alum from the Seattle area. He participated in the program 12 years before me, but we had so many of the same experiences and feelings. I don’t think anyone but a fellow Snorri can truly understand the joy and fear and awe and magic of the trip and the way you feel like a little piece of your heart has been ruined forever and nothing else will ever satisfy it and you have to go back, you just have to.
Most presentations from the 2013 INL Convention can be viewed here.
Over Memorial Day weekend, my sister and I took a road trip to Central Oregon to see Sigur Rós. Neither one of us is really more than a casual fan at this point, but we figured they’d put on a good show and it was a great excuse for a road trip. We were correct on both counts.
We started out Sunday morning and headed up the Gorge. It was sunny and breezy when we made our first stop in Hood River for a little bookstore shopping and café snacking. A little further east, then it was more or less a straight shot south to Bend. The scenery along US 97 is lonely and striking, the deep greens and tall trees of the Gorge quickly giving way to the muted greens and browns of the high desert. The quaint town of Maupin, sitting on a ridge overlooking the Deschutes River, was the only sign of civilization for a stretch of many miles. Just south of Maupin, 97 winds back and forth sharply, clinging to the edge of the steep canyon wall. Did I mention there are no guardrails?
We reached Bend mid-afternoon, checked into our hotel, and listened to the clerk’s glowing and lengthy description of the complimentary continental breakfast, then headed to the amphitheatre. While walking from our car to the gate, the wind carried our tickets away and it may have taken me a minute or two to realize they were gone… Luckily, there was a kindly security guard with good reflexes who caught them and, after a bit of teasing, returned them to us.
Despite a forecast of thunderstorms, it was sunny and warm. We staked out a spot on the grass, got some grub from the row of food carts (definitely not the alligator meat, however), and waited. And waited. And waited.
Eventually, the opening act took the stage. Julianna Barwick has a wispy, ethereal voice, and I’d like to say the performance was captivating, but… it was really just boring. I honestly don’t know if there were lyrics to any of the songs. In fact, I don’t know how many different songs she performed, because they all sounded the same. That’s not to say they weren’t lovely, but they would have been a lot lovelier in a small, cozy venue rather than a huge outdoor amphitheatre.
During the intermission, we met up with cousin Davey. Remember, I met him for the first time last autumn before his trip to Iceland? He and my sister met for the first time, we met his girlfriend and a couple other friends, and we reminisced about our respective trips to Iceland.
After another long (but sunny) wait, Jónsi and co. finally took the stage. Now, to be honest, I really didn’t know what to expect with this show. I’ve never seen any artists remotely like Sigur Rós in concert. In fact, I can’t even name any artists remotely like Sigur Rós. If you’ve heard their music, you’ll know what I mean – it’s not exactly sing-along music (especially because it is entirely in Icelandic), and it’s not clap along music, and it’s certainly not mosh pit music. It’s more like sit-back-and-let-it-wash-over-you music.
Several songs in, the sun was sinking and the temperature dropping and I decided to venture up front and shove my way into the standing-room crowd to get a closer look. I squeezed through and found a little spot to stand, close enough to see the stripes on Jónsi’s signature jacket. Whether it was the stage lights or just collective body heat, it was a lot warmer up there, which was nice, except that it also reeked of pot, which is not exactly my thing. It was worth the shoving and the stink, though, because I happened to be up there when they played Hoppípolla, one of my favorite songs (and definitely one of their most well-known, as the opening elicited quite an enthusiastic response from the audience).
In an effort to spare my nose, lungs, and brain cells, I returned to my seat after Hoppípolla. At one point Jónsi commented, “It’s so cold… it’s just like being in Iceland.” And those were the only words he spoke all evening, save for a couple “takk fyrirs.”
I should probably mention the people sitting in front of us. There was a couple, likely husband and wife, 30ish, and then a separate group of 5-6 adults. They arrived separately, that is, but after discovering that a couple of them were from the same area of Nevada, they quickly became best friends. Their friendship was further cemented by a shared bottle of red wine… and then five more. About halfway through the concert, the young woman had become quite noisily drunk, prompting some other nearby concertgoers to shush her, which didn’t bother her in the least considering her euphoric state of mind. She and one of the women from the other group became more and more demonstrative as the night went on, swaying to the music, intertwining their arms and holding cups of red wine to each other’s lips. But perhaps my favorite moment was when the older lady asked the young man, in a loud drunk-whisper, “Do you think he’s singing in HIS NATIVE TOGUE? Or is he just MAKING UP WORDS?”
The evening ended with the slow-building, sweeping Popplagið, a bow and a final “takk fyrir.”
Overall, I feel like I would have enjoyed the show more had I been more well-versed in the band’s discography; however, I also feel like it would be impossible not to enjoy a Sigur Rós concert. Their music is haunting, Jónsi’s piercing voice is just as strong and pure live as it is recorded, and the band just has a strong but laid-back stage presence that draws you in and holds your attention. As many a journalist has pointed out, it seems impossible to separate Sigur Rós from their homeland. And it’s not just about the language. There’s something about Iceland’s harsh, striking, bold, haunting beauty that seems to settle into every phrase. Beauty that transcends language barriers and makes six hours in the car and numb fingers more than worth it.
postscript: The continental breakfast consisted of canned biscuits and gluey sausage gravy. We declined.
(I apologize for the lack of photos; I posted quite a few to Instagram but I can’t figure out how to transfer those here.)
Back in January, I had the privilege of meeting Les Swanson, a Portland lawyer who serves as Iceland’s honorary consul for Oregon and Southwest Washington. He and his wife Kris generously invited me into their beautiful home and served up delicious food and enjoyable conversation. After a long delay (which was entirely my fault), my interview was published in the most recent edition of the Lögberg-Heimskringla. I am reprinting it here for those who may not have access to the L-H. Enjoy!
Les Swanson: Iceland’s Honorary Consul in Portland
How does a lawyer of Swedish descent become a representative of Iceland on U.S. soil? It was something of an accident, said Les Swanson, the man in question who has served as Iceland’s honorary consul in Portland for the past twelve years. He was initially approached about serving as Sweden’s honorary consul, but when it turned out that position wasn’t available, he was offered the Icelandic position, which had been vacant for several years. Swanson took some time to consider and talk it over with his wife Kris, also a lawyer who just happens to love Icelandic horses, and said yes.
After a year-long process including extensive background checks and approval by both the Icelandic Foreign Office and the U.S. State Department, Swanson was officially appointed.
An honorary consul, Swanson explained, is an unpaid diplomat representing a foreign country in the U.S. Iceland has about 25 honorary consuls in the States. Swanson’s duties include issuing emergency passports, helping Icelanders in the area participate in Icelandic elections, assisting Icelanders who run into trouble with the law (although Swanson said he’s never had to do this), and generally representing Iceland with regard to culture, trade, politics and education.
Based in Portland, Swanson’s jurisdiction extends to all of Oregon as well as Southwest Washington. The most recent Oregon census shows around 1000 Icelanders or people with Icelandic ancestry living in the state, but Swanson estimates he has only met between 50 and 75 Icelanders during his tenure. His consul duties tend to be sporadic. “I might get three calls in a week about extending passports, [then] I might go for several weeks and not hear from anyone,” he said.
Swanson is often called upon to represent Iceland at Nordic seminars or present lectures on Icelandic history, literature, and politics for local organizations.
“I don’t claim expertise in any of these areas,” said Swanson, “but I’m widely read in literature and politics and political theory and history,” adding that his knowledge of Iceland has developed over the years and he continues to learn.
Since accepting the consul position, Swanson has traveled to Iceland several times. He remembers being struck by the “lonely, stark beauty” of the landscape on his first trip in September 2001. “It seemed magical to me,” he said. On the same trip, he met Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, who was mayor of Reykjavík at the time. Sólrún expressed interest in Portland’s progressive city government and later contacted Swanson to arrange a visit. The Swansons became good friends with Sólrún and spent time with her on subsequent trips to Iceland.
Swanson holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Literature, a Master’s in Philosophy, and a law degree. In his law career, he has primarily focused on trial work, particularly product liability and medical malpractice cases. Recently, he has been splitting his time between practicing law and teaching law classes at the University of Oregon and philosophy classes at Portland State University.
About eight years ago, Swanson began a scholarship program on behalf of the Oregon Consular Corps, of which he is a member. The Corps awards eight scholarships annually to junior and senior international affairs majors at four Oregon colleges. Swanson intends to continue supporting this program.
When Swanson turns 75, he must contact the Foreign Office and they will decide whether to extend his term or accept his resignation. In the meantime, Swanson said, he intends to visit Iceland a couple more times and continue discovering the magic of the land and culture he has grown to love.
Originally published in the June 1 edition of the Lögberg-Heimskringla. Text is mine. Photo courtesy of Les Swanson.