Interview: Tales of Iceland author has more stories to tell

When Chicago author Stephen Markley hopped an Icelandair flight to Reykjavík last summer, he had no idea that a year later, he would be promoting his book about the trip and longing for authentic blueberry skyr. In April, Markley released Tales of Iceland, or, Running with the Huldufólk Through the Permanent Daylight, through his fellow traveler Matthew Trinetti’s indie publishing and lifestyle company GiveLiveExplore.

Iceland was a catalyst for the development of GiveLiveExplore and its foray into publishing, explained Trinetti via email. “Before our trip … Steve and I had no intention of working together … But our experience together in Iceland inspired us to give this a shot.” The guys enlisted award-winning Icelandic artist Sigga Rún to round out the book with a handful of illustrations. Markley credits Trinetti’s social networking savvy for the connection, but Trinetti said they “serendipitously stumbled upon each other over Twitter.”

Contacted via email, Markley explained that in his opinion, Iceland’s appeal is a combination of the personal connections possible in such a small country and the stunning nature he admits he had a difficult time describing. “Reykjavík on any given weekend feels like the most exciting small town on the planet,” he said, adding, “and I mean that in an extremely complimentary way.”

Living in the city, Markley said, he doesn’t “have a lot of opportunities to get out and see vistas that don’t contain glass, concrete, and steel.” Iceland’s nature made such an impression on the guys, in fact, that they decided to donate a portion of Tales‘ proceeds to SEEDS, an Icelandic nonprofit dedicated to humanitarian and environmental projects in Iceland and around the world.

Just months after Tales of Iceland was published, Markley and Trinetti are about to head off to Ecuador, where Markley hopes to find inspiration to write Tales of Ecuador. In fact, if all goes well, the plan is to create an entire series of anti-guidebooks that Markley hopes can “serve either as a companion when visiting a place or as inspiration to get there someday.”

And what advice would Markley give to someone who is inspired to visit Iceland after reading his book? “It’s more universal: actually take some time to understand the place you’re heading to. I’m very pro-travel, but I feel like it has also become commodified in many ways… Americans and other Western people vacuum it up like any other consumer product. Learning about Iceland’s history, its politics, its environmental challenges, and its recent banking crisis was actually one of my favorite parts of the whole trip. It made me far more appreciative of the experience.”

Originally published in the Lögberg-Heimskringla, 15 July 2013.

Many thanks to Stephen, Matt, and the L-H team.

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Book Review: Tales of Iceland

One of the things I get to do as a volunteer associate editor for the Lögberg-Heimskringla is write the occasional book review.  A couple months ago, I heard some chatter about a new book called Tales of Iceland, or, Running with the Huldufólk in the Permanent Daylight, by Chicago journalist Stephen Markley.  I connected with the author and his best friend-turned-publisher Matthew Trinetti via, what else, social media, and pretty soon I had a copy of the book in my hands.  Within the first few pages, I realized this was a book about Iceland unlike any book about Iceland I’ve ever seen before.  I was laughing aloud so often and so suddenly that my family kept staring at me and wondering what was going on.  Needless to say, finishing the book and writing up a review was a breeze.  Here’s my review, originally printed in the Lögberg-Heimskringla.  And after you read it, be sure to check out talesoficeland.com.

Book cover.  Image courtesy of Matthew Trinetti
Book cover. Image courtesy of Matthew Trinetti

Some people go to Iceland in search of family roots, wild landscapes, the midnight sun or the Northern Lights. Others go to confirm the rumor spread by director Quentin Tarantino that it is a magical land filled with “supermodels working at McDonald’s.” Stephen Markley falls under the latter category.

In early 2012, two of Markley’s friends, referred to by the not-so-pseudo pseudonyms Bojo and Trin (Mike Bojanowski and Matthew Trinetti), quit their jobs and bought tickets to Iceland. Markley, a columnist, blogger, and author coasting along after the surprising success of his first book, was eager to investigate Tarantino’s claim and decided to tag along.

Less than a year later, Markley turned their brief summer journey into Tales of Iceland, or, Running with the Huldufólk in the Permanent Daylight, an entertaining work that blurs the lines between travel memoir, humor essays, and guidebook.

In early June, Markley, Bojo, and Trin meet up at KEX Hostel and spend a few days (and long, sun-soaked nights) in Reykjavík, then rent a car and set out to explore the country. The book mostly follows their journey chronologically, with plenty of bracketed commentary and interjected explorations of Iceland’s wildlife, geology, and economic crash. The tales told are pretty much what you’d expect from three twenty-something males: mountain hiking, glacier walking, and other tourist musts, plus a preoccupation with chatting up Icelandic women (to be fair, they also spend time with some French-Canadian women). What sets this journey apart is the distinct, hilariously candid voice in which it is told. Indeed, the book is often laugh-out-loud funny. Quite a few of those laughs depend on four-letter words and crude humor, though, which some readers may find tiresome.

Despite some frat-boy hijinks, the trio’s sincere awe for their surroundings is clear. “The problem with driving around Iceland,” writes Markley, “is that you’re basically confronted by a new soul-enriching, breath-taking, life-affirming sight every five goddamn minutes.” Those sights include volcanic craters south of Mývatn, the roaring power of Dettifoss, the dramatic beauty of Seyðisfjörður, and the imposing majesty of Snæfellsjökull, or “Snuffelufagus” as the guys call it. “It’s difficult to describe the grandeur of all these sights, but there’s something enormous about Iceland,” muses Markley. Toward the end of the book, the humor feels a bit worn, but an interview with Reykjavík Mayor Jón Gnarr is a highlight.

Tales of Iceland touts itself as “the fastest, funniest memoir of an American experience in Iceland,” and that isn’t too far off the mark. Readers who are easily offended might want to choose another route, but those who appreciate Markley’s brand of irreverent humor will enjoy tagging along on this whirlwind road trip.

Tales is available as an ebook from online retailers and Icelandic ebook startup emma.is. The paperback edition is available from Amazon and will also soon be found in Eymundsson bookstores across Iceland.

Originally published 1 August 2013, Lögberg-Heimskringla.

Manitoba Musings: Winnipeg and Gimli

When I wrote my last post, I was enjoying the last restful afternoon of my trip.  From that point forward, it was pretty much go-go-go, which is why I am just now, after coming home Sunday night and working all week, sitting down to write about my time in Manitoba and North Dakota.

Tuesday

I flew from Edmonton to Winnipeg on Tuesday afternoon.  My hosts in the Peg were Lindsey and Cara, first cousins and best friends who were born four days apart and are a few years older than I am.  They were both working Tuesday, so Lindsey’s father Scott picked me up from the airport and drove me back to the house he and his wife Debbie share with Lindsey (oh, and with their two dogs – Molly the rescued golden retriever and Bailey the adorably decrepit black lab).  I had a few hours to enjoy some peace and quiet in their beautiful backyard before Cara and Lindsey got home from work.  Then we went to the Forks, a big walking/shopping/dining/outdoor space located at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers.  This was a must not only because it is one of Winnipeg’s most well-known attractions, but because Len, who was partially responsible for my being in Winnipeg and entirely responsible for my being with Cara and Lindsey, was a city planner in Winnipeg when the Forks was constructed and helped make it happen.  Unfortunately I neglected to get any photos.  We walked through the marketplace, which was pretty quiet since it was getting late, and I resisted buying every overpriced Iceland-themed souvenir I saw, then we went up to a viewpoint where you could see the river and the city, then enjoyed an outdoor dinner (well, Cara and I enjoyed ours, anyway, but Lindsey’s turned out to be poisoned with evil mushrooms, so that was a bummer).

Wednesday

A few months ago, Cara and I were emailing back and forth and she gave me a bunch of options for things we could do on Wednesday.  The one that stood out to me was visiting Gimli, a small town on the shores of Lake Winnipeg known for hosting Íslendingadagurinn (the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba) every year.  Sadly, I had to miss the festival because it runs the same weekend as August the Deuce, but I was eager to see the town anyway.  Before we left the Peg, though, we had a couple stops to make.  First, we found the Lögberg-Heimskringla office.

Ég og Cara
Ég og Cara
L-H ladies
L-H ladies

I’ve been writing for L-H since I got back from Iceland, and I’ve officially been an associate editor since June, so I was excited to have the chance to finally see the office and meet some of the staff I’ve been emailing for months now.  There are two entrances to the office and we didn’t realize this, so after some staring and some pounding on windows, we got in and enjoyed a lovely visit with Audrey and Linda.  The office is quite a large, open space, and there are a couple beautiful collections of Icelandic books as well as scrapbooks with photos and mementos related to the paper over the years.  We happened to be there on publication day, so I got a copy of the 1 August edition, which happened to contain my introduction as an associate editor as well as a book review I wrote.  I would have loved to spend more time there, but we had to get on the road.  Before we left, though, Audrey insisted that we try some Brennivín.  Now, I never did try Brennivín in Iceland, partly because it smelled rather awful (although clearly that didn’t stop me from trying several putrid edibles) and partly because I didn’t want to spend money on alcohol.  But here was someone holding out a shot glass and telling me I had to try it, so I gave in and downed it.  It was pretty terrible.  It’s a super strong schnapps made from potatoes and nicknamed “black death” for good reason.  I know it’s traditional to take a shot of Brennivín after eating hákarl, but honestly, having tasted Brennivín now, I think chasing the shark with the liquor would just make things worse.  The shark is much more potent.

Bottoms up!
Bottoms up!

Skál!
Skál!

The other stop we had to make before heading north was at Parlour Coffee.  I was lamenting the seeming lack of independent coffee shops in Edmonton and Winnipeg (the ubiquitous coffee options were Tim Hortons, Starbucks, and Second Cup), so Cara wanted me to try Parlour.  It was definitely not Tim Hortons or Starbucks.  There were about eight drinks to choose from and only one size and I got the feeling that if you were to ask for a flavour you’d be kicked out.  So in that sense it was really somewhat Portland-esque.  In any case, it was definitely tasty coffee.

So, coffee in hand to give me energy and drown out the remnants of the Brennivín flavour, we hit the road.  Gimli is only about an hour up the road, and the scenery got more rural and lovely as we drove north.  Around Gimli, there’s sign after sign for various camps and there are also a lot of little summer cabin communities.  When we arrived, we stopped by Cara’s family’s summer cabin first, then went to Camp Veselka to try and meet up with the Icelandic Camp group (I know a couple of the counselors).  We happened to catch them just as they were heading out for a little Icelandic history lesson, so we accompanied them to the nearby monument dedicated to arctic explorer Vilhjálmur Stefánsson.

"I know what I have experienced and I know what it has meant to me."
“I know what I have experienced and I know what it has meant to me.”
Vilhjálmur Stefánsson monument
Vilhjálmur Stefánsson monument

It would have been fun to spend more time with the group and to see the camp itself, but we had more to see, so we said bless bless and headed into the town of Gimli.

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but Gimli is larger than I thought it would be, and it reminded me very much of Seaside or other little towns on the Oregon coast – just on a lake instead of the ocean.  Oh, and much more Icelandic.  Seriously.  This town is all about Iceland.  There are roads and local farms in the area with Icelandic names, there’s a Reykjavík Bakery, there are Icelandic flags everywhere (although most of them are just put up for the festival, I’ve been told), and there’s a restaurant called Amma’s Kitchen.  We went to Amma’s Kitchen for lunch (Lake Winnipeg pickerel) and vínarterta (not bad, but mine is better!), then explored the town.

Vínarterta at Amma's Kitchen.  Notice there is frosting.  Also, the pieces are not cut correctly.
Vínarterta at Amma’s Kitchen. Notice there is frosting. Also, the pieces are not cut correctly.

We visited Tergesen’s, which is kind of like an old-fashioned general store, except they sell an interesting mix of expensive surfer and skater brand clothing, Iceland-themed items, and souvenirs.  They also have the largest collection of Iceland-related books I’ve seen anywhere outside Iceland.  It’s like 20 times the size of Powell’s pathetic Icelandic section.

Cara showed me Gimli Unitarian Church, where her uncle is the minister, we visited the Gimli Viking statue, we saw the beginnings of the Viking encampment for the festival, we walked down to the lake and enjoyed the gallery of paintings by local artists on the seawall, and I learned about fish flies.  Fish flies hatch on the water, then swarm the town but only live for about a week.  When they die, they smell like rotting fish.  It’s bizarre.  They’re completely harmless as far as I know, but they are everywhere.  The live ones land all over walls and benches and trees and people and the dead ones form these crunchy, stinky cakes on the ground.  As disgusting as that sounds, they’re actually kind of cute:

Meet Mr. Fish Fly
Meet Mr. Fish Fly
Gimli Seawall Gallery.  This painting depicts the húldufólk!
Gimli Seawall Gallery. This painting depicts the húldufólk!
The "Gimli Glider," an Air Canada Boeing 767 traveling from Ottawa to Edmonton in 1983 that ran out of fuel and made an emergency landing at an old RCAF Air Force base in Gimli.
The “Gimli Glider,” an Air Canada Boeing 767 traveling from Ottawa to Edmonton in 1983 that ran out of fuel and made an emergency landing at an old RCAF base in Gimli.

All in all, it was a fantastic day in Gimli.  I definitely want to spend more time there, and I plan to attend Íslendingadagurinn in the next couple years.

When we got back to the Peg, we decided to take it easy for the rest of the evening.  We snacked on cheese and crackers and veggies and talked and sort of watched TV and Lindsey brought out some leftover Macedonian treats from her engagement party and they were amazingly delicious and I met Lindsey’s fiancée and I gave Cara and Lindsey some Northwest gifts to thank them for being such kind hosts.

I decided not to rent a car, so I was at the mercy of my cousin from North Dakota to come pick me up from Winnipeg and take me back to North Dakota for the family reunion, which started Friday.  I called him Wednesday night to find out when it would work for him to come pick me up, expecting Thursday afternoon.  As it turns out, my cousin is a morning person and said he would be there between 9 and 10 Thursday morning, so I figured I wouldn’t get a chance to do the last thing I really wanted to do in Winnipeg, which was meet up with Kimberly.  Kimberly is a Snorri alum from 2005 who I had never met before in person, but we’ve chatted via Skype and email a lot the past few months as we worked together to revive the Snorri Alumni Association newsletter.  She’s from BC and had actually been out west visiting her family and was just returning to the Peg late that night, so I figured we would just miss each other.  I sent her a message to let her know, threw my things back in my suitcase, and went to sleep.

I happened to wake up around 6:00 or so, which is ridiculously early for me, and I glanced at my phone to see a message from Kim.  She wanted to meet up for breakfast.  So I dragged myself out of bed, got dressed, and waited for Kim to come pick me up.  We went and got some Timmy’s for breakfast, brought it back to the house, and sat outside in the backyard chatting until my cousin arrived.  Kim and I did the program seven years apart, but it almost feels like we went together, we were such fast and easy friends.

Ég og Kimberly
Ég og Kimberly

And thus ended my first visit to the Peg.

Next time: Family, festivals, and very flat fields south of the border