We arrived in Patreksfjörður with the hope of seeing relatives but with no actual plan. It is not really the Icelandic way to plan ahead. I’ve often heard the theory that Icelanders’ inability or unwillingness to plan ahead is tied to the uncertainty of the weather, and that even now, when modern technologies and conveniences can mitigate the harshness of weather to some extent, it’s still in their blood to wait until the last minute. But as the Icelanders say, “þetta reddast,” it will work itself out. And it did.
Our first morning in Patró, we had breakfast at the guesthouse and then set out for a little walking tour of town. We peeked in to Albína, the grocery store where I did the first week of my work experience, and I chatted with Inga, who I worked with in 2012. She was so kind and helpful and remarkably patient with me despite the fact that she was eight months pregnant at the time.
As we walked through town, I pointed out relatives’ homes, my favorite coffee shop, the place where this happened, the place where that happened. Eventually we ended up at our cousin Björg’s home for kaffitími.
Björg is the eldest of my host parents’ four children and she lives on the far end of town with a lovely view of the fjord and surrounding mountains. Coffee was poured, vínarbrauð and kleinur set out, and we started catching up in a blend of Icelandic and English. Names and places and family news swirled through our conversation like milk in our cups of strong Icelandic coffee.
My host mamma Hrafnhildur was out of town, but Sæmundur took a break from his work day to drop by and say hello. When I last saw him, in 2012, my Icelandic was so limited that we could barely communicate. There was definitely a solid language barrier between us. We would chip away at it steadily and eventually managed to make some cracks that let communication shine through, but it was labored. So I cannot adequately explain my joy at discovering that the barrier is all but gone now. From the moment he walked in and began speaking to me, I understood probably 90% of what he said (compared to maybe 10% three years ago), and, what’s more, I could express my own opinions, feelings, and questions with so much more clarity and detail than before.
My mother listened and waited with grace and patience as we chatted in Icelandic. To no one’s great surprise, Sæmundur insisted that she try his harðfiskur (Icelandic dried fish). And to no one’s great surprise, she was not a huge fan (the dog, however, loves it!).
Sæmundur headed back to work and Björg took us to see her sister Jenný on the other side of town (for the sake of perspective, please realize that this means a four-minute drive). Jenný’s daughter Auður was fearlessly friendly in 2012 but not so sure about me this time around. Still, we had a nice visit before Björg drove us back to our guesthouse to rest.
That evening, Björg took us to Tálknafjörður (one town over) to partake of the most beloved of Icelandic pastimes: hot pot sitting. If you follow the main road through Tálknafjörður and continue past the kernel of homes and the school and the swimming pool, you will soon come across a trio of hot pots nestled into the hillside overlooking the fjord. They are natural and rustic (which sometimes means they are rather slimy, but hey, it’s natural slime!) and two of them are painfully hot, but sitting in the not-too-hot pot and watching the sun sparkle on the fjord and dance on the mountains is glorious.
After a nice long soak, we met the family at a restaurant called Hópinn for a sort of family reunion dinner. We were quite a large group: Mom and I; Björg and her son Stefán; Björg’s daughter Sædís, her boyfriend Davíð, their toddler Sæmundur and newborn baby boy; Jenný and her husband and their daughter Auður; Guðmundur and Eygló and their two youngest daughters, Berglind and Dagbjört; and their second daughter Ástrós was working at the restaurant.
As I was perusing the menu, I noticed that one of the dinner offerings was hrefnusteik (minke whale steak) and I commented that I had never tasted whale. Before I knew it, Guðmundur had convinced Ástrós to bring a sample.
Sorry, people who walk around Reykjavík in plastic whale suits trying to get people to promise not to eat whale meat – I tasted it, and I liked it. But it was mostly something I felt I had to do once; I don’t think I’ll feel compelled to order a meal of minke whale any time soon.
Anyway, wonderful food and good company. Mom especially enjoyed bright-eyed little Sæmundur, who is two years old and incredibly vocal. He kept pointing to his mamma (Sædís) and saying, “Þetta er mamma mín!” (“That’s my mom!”) I pointed to Sædís and said, “Þetta er mamma þín,” then pointed to my mom and told him, “Og þetta er mamma mín!” “Nei!” he exclaimed emphatically. “Mamma mín!” By the end of the night, I’m pretty sure my mother had learned the word “nei.”
After dinner, Björg drove us back to Patreksfjörður and we dropped by to say goodbye to Sæmundur and thank him for dinner (it was his very generous treat, even though he was working late and couldn’t come). He asked me which way my mom and I were driving to Ísafjörður the following day and pointed out the route with the shortest distance of gravel roads, cautioning me to drive slowly and carefully. And he insisted on paying to fill up our gas tank before we left, despite my protests that it was unnecessary. Sæmundur hasn’t changed much in the past three years as far as I can tell; he still works nonstop (his children say he can never retire because if he does he will die), and he still has a generous spirit.
The next morning, after we checked out of our guesthouse, we drove over to Björg’s house again. She had offered to drive us to Rauðasandur, one of my absolute favorite places in Iceland. But first we stopped at the pharmacy so I could pick up some earplugs, anticipating another battle against my mother’s snoring that evening. There was exactly one person working at the pharmacy, and about three people ahead of me, so it was a bit of a wait. When it was my turn, I had to ask for earplugs, because I hadn’t seen them anywhere. I didn’t remember the Icelandic word for earplugs, though, which means I outed myself as a foreigner immediately. “Hvaðan ertu?” asked the pharmacist. I told him I was from the States and the conversational floodgates opened. Turns out Ramón (as I should have known when I saw his name tag, not to mention when he started making conversation with a stranger – definitely not an Icelandic trait) is a fellow útlendingur, having moved to Iceland from Spain a number of years ago. We chatted about learning Icelandic and adjusting to life on this weird and beautiful rock. He told me he’d been learning Icelandic for however many years but “byrjaði að lifa á íslensku” (began living in Icelandic) a few years ago. Að lifa á íslensku… what a lovely turn of phrase.
Anyway, eventually I realized that Björg and my mom had been waiting for at least 10 or 15 minutes by now, so I excused myself from the conversation. When I got back in the car, I apologized and explained what had happened. Björg must have assumed that I was flirting with this guy (which I wasn’t, truly) because she immediately said something like, “Því miður er hann hommi… he’s a gay.”
The road to Rauðasandur is one of the more terrifying in the region and I was very happy that I was not driving. We parked by the camping area and took our time meandering over the expansive stretches of sand. Words can’t capture the magic of this place, so I will stop forcing them together and instead let the photos speak for themselves.
Back in town, we had lunch at Stúkuhúsið, the café where I spent entirely too much time and money in 2012. To my surprise, the owner, Steina, remembered me.
And sadly it was then time to say goodbye to Patreksfjörður, as we had quite a long stretch of (not always paved) road ahead of us to Ísafjörður.
Our time in Patreksfjörður was filled with family, just as I hoped it would be, and it was filled with little moments of affirmation that I made the right decision in choosing to move to Iceland and study Icelandic.
Language learning can feel like an uphill battle and all it takes is one difficult conversation to make you question your progress. At home, speaking with Ásta and the family, I can tell I’ve improved, but it’s less dramatic because I see them and speak with them every day. Seeing Sæmundur (and my other relatives in Patró and Tálknó) gave me the opportunity to see clearly how far I’ve come. It was a joyful and encouraging discovery.
Before I left Patró three years ago, I told Sæmundur and Hrafnhildur that I hoped to return to Iceland to study the language. Sæmundur was fully supportive of this, and as a parting gift gave me the money to buy the Icelandic-English dictionary I wanted. I hope that seeing how far I’ve come helped him understand how much their investment of time and hospitality has meant to me.
To all our relatives in Patreksfjörður and Tálknafjörður – takk kærlega fyrir okkur! <3