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.
Breakfast and a couple cups of good strong kaffi, then welcoming remarks from our fearless organizer David, Seattle City Councilman Tom Rasmussen, the Executive Director of the Nordic Heritage Museum, and a representative of the Seattle-Reykjavík Sister City Association. While listening to these speakers, I was also thumbing through the beautiful program that Amanda designed.
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.