While in my Northwest home, I got to experience a bit of my Iceland home in the form of seeing two Icelandic bands in concert. I had known about one for months, and the other was a serendipitous happening.
The band Árstíðir has been on their first US tour, and several months ago I found out they’d be playing a show at the new Nordia House cultural center while I’d be stateside. The new home of the Scandinavian Heritage Foundation (SHF), Nordia House is a beautiful 10,000 square-foot building that includes office space, an outpost of the Swedish Broder restaurant (which has two Portland locations), and of course a large multipurpose auditorium.
I went by myself but almost immediately ran into my Icelandic friend Edda. She introduced me to the only other Icelandic person there, a woman name Kristrún, and with the two of them I enjoyed my only opportunity in five weeks to speak Icelandic.
Anyway, the band played a long set, and even indulged the crowd with an a cappella version of the hymn “Heyr himna smiður,” popularly known as “that song everyone on the internet has seen them perform in a German train station” (I must admit that I prefer Eivør’s version).
I feel like listening to Árstíðir’s music takes a bit more focus and attention than a lot of popular music, which is certainly not a bad thing, it just makes for a different sort of listening experience. In any case, the Portland audience, despite the fact that I think many were hearing the band for the first time, was completely attentive, seemed to be absolutely smitten and insisted on an encore.
Shortly after my Snorri trip in 2012, I got connected to SHF and quickly learned than while it purports to be a pan-Nordic organization, there really has been very little Icelandic representation, the primary reason being that Portland boasts much larger populations of Norwegians, Danes, Swedes, and Finns. But I would of course love to see more Icelandic participation in SHF, and it was absolutely encouraging to see that one of their first big events at Nordia House was this concert – and, moreover, that it was so well received.
Kaleo is a four-piece bluesy rock band formed in Mosfellsbær but now based in the great state of Texas. I actually started listening to them fairly recently and wanted to attend one of their two Reykjavík shows this summer, but the first was while my mom was visiting and ticket prices were quite steep, and the second was while I’d be in Washington. I’d been home for a week or so when my sister told me that she’d heard something on the radio about a Kaleo concert, but she couldn’t find any information about it online. After some sleuthing, I figured out that they were playing a free show in collaboration with Portland radio station KINK.FM. Tickets were free, but in order to get them, you had to download the radio station’s app, listen at certain times for the Magic Word, and then enter the Magic Word into the app. In other words, you had to jump through some ridiculous hoops. But I decided to try it once, and that’s all it took – I won two tickets!
So on a ridiculously hot Saturday, after a long day at my high school reunion, I forced myself to get back in my car and drive down to Portland. The show was at Mississippi Studios, a cozy venue on Mississippi Avenue and coincidentally the place where I saw Ólafur Arnalds a couple years ago.
There was a good crowd, but not so many that I felt in danger of suffocating. The band played a fairly short (maybe an hour?) but great set. Their style really lends itself well to live performance. They were full of energy and I think they definitely won over some new fans in the audience.
Jökull, the lead singer (whose name literally translates to Glacier, Son of Júlíus, a fact which endlessly entertains me), mentioned that the band had just briefly returned to Iceland to shoot a music video inside a volcano for their new single “Way Down We Go.” About a week after the concert, the single and video were released. They filmed inside Þríhnúkagígur, a dormant volcano in the south less than thirty minutes from Reykjavík. (Anyone willing to part with 39.000 ISK/302 USD/399 CAD can enjoy the Inside a Volcano experience, although it is limited to the summer months.)
It’s always a strange and wonderful experience to experience a melding of my Northwest and Iceland worlds, and I’m especially thrilled to see more of Iceland popping up in Portland. Here’s hoping that trend continues.
I forgot to mention in my previous post that on Friday evening, I went with Ásta Sól to a reception for the current Snorri Plus group. Relatives of each participant were invited, plus supporters of the Snorri programs, and it was a very full house (well, office). I got to see Kent, tour guide and bus driver extraordinaire, who informed me that I get to be an honourary Canuck for Canadian Thanksgiving this year; Halldór, who I first met while on the Snorri Program; and Rúnar, a professor, author and translator I met at Þorrablót in Seattle earlier this year. The crowd was rather overwhelming, but watching people connect with their long-lost relatives, hugging and taking photos and poring over genealogy together, was an impressive and moving sight to behold.
laugardagur / saturday
Saturday was Menningarnótt, or Reykjavík Culture Night. Officially, Menningarnótt is intended to celebrate the start of a new year of cultural events, or something like that. Unofficially, it’s a good excuse for a city-wide party, including free events and food!
Before I partook in any Menningarnótt festivities, however, I went to Café Babalú to meet Kelsey, a fellow Icelandic as a Second Language student and Árni Magnússon grant recipient. Kelsey had found me on Facebook somehow and we thought it would be fun to meet each other and postulate about what to expect on the looming stöðupróf, the placement test we had to take to determine if we could begin the BA program. Kelsey is from California via British Columbia and if she wasn’t so great, she would be incredibly intimidating, on account of being fluent or near-fluent in at least 3 (?) non-native languages. We sat chatting over cups of coffee long enough that we were kindly asked to leave due to the encroaching Menningarnótt hordes.
So back to that whole Menningarnótt thing. There were events going on all around the city throughout the day. I studied the schedule and saw a few events I would have liked to go to (including “Free Hugs” on Laugavegur from 2:00-3:00), but ultimately decided to meet up with a couple new friends and just wander around and see what we found. I met up with Daniela and Harry in the afternoon (see: fimmtudagur here) at KEX and we set out to see what Menningarnótt might hold for us. Before long, we found our first stop: vöfflukaffi! There were several places around the city that were offering free waffles and coffee to visitors. We happened to stop at a little house that is a resource/community center for people living with HIV. We sat and enjoyed some fresh vöfflur með sultu og rjóma, then continued on our merry way.
For lunch, we went to a little pizza place tucked away on Hverfisgata, and I was introduced to the phenomenon of pizza that comes with a salad on top. Apparently this is considered normal by many people who are not Americans.
I went home to escape the crowd for a few hours, then set out again to meet up with Kimberly. She was with her frændi Helgi and his girlfriend Sóley, and they were bouncing back and forth to different venues to watch friends playing in bands (because, Iceland). I followed them around like a little duckling for an hour or so, and then decided I had to escape the crowds again.
There were fireworks by Harpa starting at eleven, but after I fought my way home through the crowd and settled in on the couch, I wasn’t terribly excited about venturing back out into the insanity. So I joined Ásta Sól’s family in watching the festivities on TV, which was kind of strange during the fireworks as we could see flashes out the window and hear the explosions.
To summarize: Menningarnótt is quite a spectacle to behold. There are endless options for how to spend the day, and the city is buzzing with energy wherever you go. But the crowds definitely got to me after a while. If I am here for Menningarnótt next year, I might try to plan out my day a bit more and compare that sort of experience to the wandering experience. I’m sure both are enjoyable in their own way.
sunnudagur / sunday
After a lazy Sunday morning, I went with Ásta Sól in the afternoon to Þjóðræknisþing – the annual convention of Þjóðræknisfélag Íslendinga, the sister organization to the Icelandic National League of North America. We arrived a bit late (Iceland may be a rather large island, but I think “island time” still applies) but still got to see most of the program, which was, no surprise, almost entirely in Icelandic. I understood a very teeny tiny fraction of what was going on, but it was still interesting.
I think my favorite presentation was from a University of Iceland researcher who has been studying so-called “Western Icelandic,” the distinct dialect of Icelandic that developed among Icelandic settlers in North America and in some cases has been passed down several generations now. From what I understood, part of her project was that when she met with speakers of Western Icelandic, she brought an illustrated, wordless book. The pictures clearly tell a story, but the experiment was in hearing how these people chose to tell the story. Because there were pictures, and because it was a children’s story, it was much easier for me to follow.
There was another Icelandic-language presentation of which I understood very little, but Ásta Sól explained it to me a bit later on. It was about the concepts of “blóðtaka” and “blóðgjöf.” The words don’t translate directly into English very well, but “blóðtaka” would be something like bloodletting and “blóðgjöf” is like a gift of blood of gift by blood. Since I couldn’t understand the presentation, I don’t remember the details of the story very well, but it was something about an Icelandic woman who emigrated to Canada, had one child and then died, and her family in Iceland completely lost track of her. As it turns out, her child has many descendants, including a very prominent family in the Winnipeg area. I think the overall idea is that the emigration of so many Icelanders to North America was a painful loss, a hugely significant event that tore families apart, but had that blood not been taken from the body of Icelanders, fewer would have survived overall (due to a stark lack of resources), and people would never have known the joy of reconnecting with long-lost relatives from across the ocean.
That is a very inarticulate summary, but I have to say that the presentation struck a chord even with as little of it as I could understand.
Other presentations included:
A recap of the 2014 Snorri West experience (which made me homesick for my own Snorri experience, especially since none other than fellow 2012 Snorri and overall fabulous human being Sacha made an appearance in the video)
A brief speech about Icelandic settlers in Utah by Dr. Fred Woods, a BYU professor and researcher who gave a wonderful presentation at the INL Convention in Seattle last year
A beautiful presentation by the always-sunny Sunna Furstenau about her Icelandic Roots organization
A presentation by Egill Helgason, whose TV show Veturfarar finds him traveling to North America to explore the areas of settlement, stories of immigrants, and the Icelandic heritage in North America today (it’s a 10-part series that will run on RÚV on Sunday evenings; you can watch the first episode here but note that it’s all in Icelandic).
After the program, I got to chat with a few people I know and meet some of this year’s Snorri Plus participants, including one with the fabulous name of Julie.
I also got to give a quick hug and hello to Sunna mín. Sunna has been a tremendous example and encouragement to me and was kind enough to write me a recommendation for my Fulbright grant, so I literally would not be where I am today without her.
Áfram Jóð Té!
You may have heard that Justin Timberlake was in Iceland last weekend. It was a Big Deal. He had never performed in Iceland before, and although Iceland has an incredible amount of talented musicians, many of whom are internationally known, they do not often attract útlendingar with names as big as Justin Timberlake. Earlier in the week, there was a two-page guide in Fréttatíminn with information about the JT concert, including the ridiculously complicated parking/carpooling/public transportation rules. Apparently people who live in the neighborhood of the venue had to have special passes to even get to their own homes. So not everyone was thrilled about JT’s presence here.
Anyway, the powers that be decided that the Official Hashtag for this magnificent event should be #JTKorinn (Kórinn being the name of the venue). Before the concert started, one of the Icelandic TV channels was showing a feed of Twitter posts and photos with the #JTKorinn hashtag. Iceland being Iceland, Ásta Sól and Addi kept pointing out people they knew in the photos. Something went wrong with the licensing or the technology, though, because the channel just kept cycling through the same 12 or so Tweets, which was awkward.
At the appointed hour, The Event began, and because it was live streamed on Yahoo, we got to experience it almost as if we were actually there with the rest of the country. JT got himself in a bit of trouble, arguably, by addressing the crowd as “Reykjavík,” when in fact Kórinn is in neighboring Kópavogur. Úbs. But Kópavogur not exactly being a booming metropolis, and Reykjavík being home to two-thirds of Iceland’s population, it is entirely likely that the majority of the crowd was from Reykjavík.
The media coverage of #JTKorinn was quite a sight to behold. I say “media” rather than “news,” because it very quickly devolved from things that are actually news (the occurrence of the concert itself, the traffic jam it caused) to things that could only loosely be considered news (an interview with the first two people in line for the concert, two women who traveled from Denmark just to see JT) to things that might as well be BuzzFeed articles, so little do they resemble actual news (e.g., an article about the long bathroom lines at the concert; although I will say that this one was educational as it taught me the Icelandic phrase “að kasta af sér vatni,” which means “to make water” or more colloquially, “to take a leak”).
I think the volcano could have erupted and the media might not have noticed, so focused were they on JT. And the obsession did not end with the concert. The next day there were articles dissecting the show, making fun of JT’s Reykjavík mistake, predicting that other big international stars will come to Iceland soon, telling the story of a girl who fainted at the concert and a bartender who gave JT’s drummer a cigarette and got drumsticks from the show in return, etc. It was nonstop, it was ridiculous, and it was entertaining.
Well, I have finally recapped one full week, which only leaves one more week to go until I am caught up. Writing about JT was exhausting, though, so I shall stop here for now. Until my next post is up, you can entertain yourself by reading Vísir articles about JT or perhaps listening to N*Sync’s new hit album (yes, you read that correctly, and no, it is not 2001).
Well hello there, blog! Long time no see. We have a lot to catch up on, but I figured I would start with the most recent happenings and work my way backward.
This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend my first Þorrablót celebration. Þorrablót, for the uninitiated, is not just a really odd-sounding word, but also an Icelandic mid-winter feast usually celebrated with large quantities of traditional (and mostly disgusting) Icelandic foods, drink, dancing, and general merriment. The Icelandic Club of Greater Seattle hosted this year’s event at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard.
I drove up to Seattle on Saturday afternoon, and despite my GPS system’s best efforts to thwart me, safely arrived at the museum with plenty of time to spare. I sat at a table you could call “Snorris and Friends,” if you felt the need to give the table a dorky name (which I kind of do). Our company included myself; my fellow 2012 Snorri Amanda and her mom, who was visiting from Hawaii; my Snorri Plus friend David; Greg, an Iceland Airwaves enthusiast/addict and KEXP volunteer; Crys, aspiring 2014 Snorri, and her friend Annea; and Rúnar and Guðrún, an Icelandic couple visiting Seattle for the first time. Greg and I chatted about Icelandic music and discovered we had been at a couple of the same concerts last year (Sigur Rós in Bend and Ólafur Arnalds in PDX). I also spent a lot of time talking to Rúnar, who is an author, translator, and professor of creative writing at the University of Iceland. He and Guðrún are both from the Westfjords. Áfram Vestfirðir!
As mentioned previously, the vast Þorramatur spread included a number of foods that are really best described as disgusting, many of which I tried in Iceland, including hrútspungar (those tasty soured ram’s testicles), hákarl (the infamous fermented shark), and sviðasulta (sheep’s head jam). Having tried these foods once, and having a distinct memory of walking up and down Óðinsgata after our Taste of Iceland dinner feeling extremely unwell, I felt no inclination to partake in the soured-meat-eating portion of the evening. I maintained a vegetarian (read: safe and non-stinky) plate, including salad, veggies, potatoes, mashed rutabagas, rúgbrauð með smjör, and pickled red cabbage.
Those who tried the hákarl reported that it really wasn’t bad at all. This leads me to conclude that all rotten sharks are not rotted alike, because I am still a bit haunted by the sheer strength of the smell that emanated from our little container of hákarl cubes in Iceland.
Dessert was much safer – pönnukökur með rjóma and skyr with blueberries. And coffee – of course, coffee.
But the part of the evening I was most excited about was the music. Several months ago, I got an email from David telling me about some of the plans for Þorrablót. I was reading this email in my car (I was at a red light, promise!) and I just barely glanced at a sentence that said something about a hip Icelandic band coming to play at Þorrablót. The thought immediately flashed into my mind – wouldn’t that be crazy if it was Ylja coming to Seattle? Ylja is the band I saw play at my beloved kaffihús in Patreksfjörður. After I returned from Iceland, they released an album and rapidly gained popularity. Well, what do you know, when I had safely parked my car and could finish reading the email, I was surprised and excited to see that it really was Ylja coming to play at Þorrablót!
The first song Ylja played was my very favorite song (Á Rauðum Sandi) about one of my very favorite places in Iceland (Rauðasandur). It took me right back to July 2012 and made me so incredibly homesick for that time and place.
Ylja played a great (if a bit short) set of songs from their album, plus a cover and one or two new tunes. Then they led the crowd in a singalong of a few traditional Icelandic songs (only one of which I vaguely knew – Ó María, Mig Langar Heim, which one of the locals sang at our kvöldvaka in Hofsós).
After that, the DJ started spinning some classic dance tunes (Billie Jean, Love Shack, Dancing Queen – you get the picture) and a couple dozen attendees, inhibitions loosened by the Brennivín, perhaps, took the action to the dance floor. What surprised and entertained me the most was that the dancing crowd was not exactly composed of the younger adults in attendance. Hey, more power to them!
Anyway, it is always a joy to spend time with my Icelandic family, friends new and old who love Iceland as much as I do. Big thanks to the Icelandic Club of Greater Seattle for throwing a great event, to my tablemates for the great conversation, to Chef Kristín Ósk Gestsdóttir for the food, and to Ylja for a beautiful glimpse back at a time and place I miss so much and cherish so dearly.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
And thus ended my first visit to the Peg.
Next time: Family, festivals, and very flat fields south of the border
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.
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.
The powers that be (AKA a slew of Facebook posts by similarly Iceland-obsessed friends) inform me that today is Icelandic Music Day. I have no idea who began this tradition or for what purpose, but apparently the national radio stations played three songs simultaneously at 11:15 local time and Icelanders were encouraged to sing along (to one, or two, or all three? I don’t know). The three songs were:
I learned (er, attempted to mumble-sing) Á Sprengisandi during our kvöldvaka at Hofsós this summer. Anyway, Icelandic Music Day seems like a good excuse to celebrate some of my favorite Icelandic artists. Some are well-known and predictable choices, others (at least I hope) are lesser-known gems:
Of Monsters and Men
We might as well start it off with something highly predictable. If you haven’t heard about Of Monsters and Men, you have probably been living under a rock (or you are an amenities-shunning, turtle-catching hermit who lives in a shack in the Kentucky backcountry and showers in a barrel of rainwater). Arguably Iceland’s biggest crossover success since Sigur Rós. They sing almost entirely in English, but watch or listen to an interview and you’ll know without a doubt that they are Icelandic. Incidentally, lead singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir is my ninth cousin, a fact of which I’m sure she is acutely aware.
A young, up-and-coming singer-songwriter. I first heard about him because he performed at A Taste of Iceland in Seattle back in October. I didn’t get to see him then, but I’ve spent hours listening to his music on YouTube.
Favorite song: Dýrð í dauðaþögn (translates roughly to “Glory in Stillness” or something like that).
A folksy band that I had the pleasure of seeing in concert at the Stúkuhúsið in Patreksfjörður this summer (at least one of the members is from Patró). Just saw that their single Út is #11 on the RÁS 2 charts. Til hamingju!
Favorite songs: Dúmdaralara, Á Rauðum Sandi (this one is about Rauðisandur, a beautiful red sand beach near Patró and one of my favorite places in Iceland)
A wonderfully friendly and talented fellow who writes his own songs and also brings old Icelandic folk songs to life with new musical settings – basically a troubadour in a lopapeysa. He played a few songs for the Snorri group and taught us a little about Icelandic music history.
Favorite songs: Yfir hóla og yfir hæðir, While the World Burns (both of which he played for us); Baby Will You Marry Me (a duet with Marketa Irglova, of “Once” fame).