INL Convention, Days 3 & 4

laugardagur

(saturday)

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.

Ég og Nonni
Ég og Nonni

sunnudagur

(sunday)

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.
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adventure tour, day 5: drangey, or, the day i met my future icelandic husband

Ferðaáætlun: Hofsós to Drangey to Hvammstangi

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Wednesday morning we said goodbye to Hofsós and piled into the van once again.  First on the itinerary: a trip to Drangey, an island famous as the one-time refuge of the outlawed Grettir the Strong.  Rising straight out of the waters of Skagafjörður, Drangey is a stark, imposing figure on the horizon.  The sheer cliffs, standing 180 meters (590 feet, Americans) high, are composed of volcanic tuff.  Even from a distance, you can tell that this is not the most hospitable place.  We knew we were in for an adventure.

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Although Drangey is clearly visible from Hofsós, we had to drive around the fjord and up the other side to catch the tour boat.  Drangeyarferðir (Drangey Tours) depart from Reykir, a little outpost north of Sauðarkrókur.  We arrived a bit early, so we had plenty of time to stare at the (seemingly) tiny boat in the harbour and contemplate our impending ascent up the formidable cliffs of Drangey.

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báturinn

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Overall, the weather on our trip was perfect, but it seems like every time we had a lengthy outdoor excursion on the itinerary, the sun was replaced by clouds and rain.  This day was no exception.  The sky was grey and the air misty as we waited for our tour to begin.  I must admit, I wasn’t terribly excited by the prospect of cramming onto that tiny boat, getting wet and cold, and possibly risking life and limb climbing up ropes and ladders.  But then I saw our tour guide, and suddenly the day was looking up…

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Meet Helgi (better pictures to come)

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Our group of 17, plus 2 Swiss tourists, boarded the aforementioned tiny boat, and miraculously we all fit.  We learned that our guide’s name was Helgi, and his father Viggo was our captain.  The ride takes about half an hour.  There’s only one place to (relatively) safely dock and climb to the top, a little bay called Uppgönguvík.  The dock got a little smashed last winter when heavy snow caused a large rock to fall from the island.

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brú… kannski…

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fjaðrar

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There’s a fairly narrow path leading from the bridge all the way to the top of the island.  It’s steep and slippery with loose dirt and rocks, so there are ropes to hold on to most of the way.  My camera was in Jolene’s backpack when we were climbing up, and even if I had had it, I probably would have been too scared to relinquish my grip on the rope to take any pictures, but luckily some of the others were braver than me and snapped a few photos:

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The beginning of the ‘path’

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the final ascent – trust me, coming down that ladder is a LOT scarier than climbing up

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Almost all the way to the top, before the final ascent begins, there’s a plaque inscribed with the Lord’s Prayer.  People heading up to hunt and gather are supposed to stop and say a prayer for safety.  Despite this ominous warning, Helgi told us no one has died on Drangey since 1912.  Thankfully, we all made it to the top safely.  The only things on the island are rocks, vegetation, birds, birds, and more birds, and this little hut built to shelter hunters:

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Drangeyarskáli

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We went inside to check it out but sadly I forgot to take photos.  There are four bunks, a little kitchen, a guestbook, some cookies (Jolene and Kayli, ahem!), and this fantastic Snorri mug:

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Helgi made some comment about needing a woman to stay with him in the cabin during hunting season, and I’m pretty sure any one of the 12 girls in our group would have gladly volunteered.

We ate our picnic lunches while enjoying the view, then we followed Helgi on a walk around the island.  We saw a couple dead puffins, and he explained that they sometimes fall prey to falcons.

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hann er svooooo sætur! (even whilst holding a puffin carcass)

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We came to a little corner of the island and Helgi told us this is where Grettir’s home used to be.  You can, in fact, see a little alcove of sorts carved into the hillside.  Helgi invited us to sit for storytime, then proceeded to tell us all about Grettir the Strong, a story which is detailed in Grettis Saga.  I won’t pretend to know the details, but here are the basics as I remember them:

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Um Grettir

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Grettir was an incredibly strong (and headstrong) young man, and after he killed several people in Norway and Iceland, he was outlawed.  Drangey became his home, and with the company of a good friend and a slave, he was able to survive.  The saga tells us that at one point, Grettir’s fire went out, so he had to swim to the mainland (a distance of over 7 km).  When he made it to the other side, he was (understandably) a bit chilled, so he warmed up in the natural hot spring now known at Grettislaug (Grettir’s Pool).  Then he swam back, one arm holding a lit torch above the water.  No big deal.

Apparently there was some rule that if an outlaw survived for 20 years, he would be free, so when the people realized that Grettir was nearing the 20-year mark and was still alive and kicking, they decided to take matters into their own hands.  Several attempts were made on his life, one of which eventually succeeded.  They say Grettir’s grip on his sword was so strong that his enemies had to cut off his hand in order to take it away from him.

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While we listened to Helgi, we were supposed to be scanning the surrounding waters in hopes of seeing a whale, but I have to say, I completely forgot to look.  My eyes were fixed on the storyteller.  I was particularly charmed by his odd grammer; he would say things like, ‘then Grettir swam there over’ and ‘then he had to climb there down.’

Helgi also shared some interesting facts about puffins.  Did you know, for instance, that puffins mate for life?  If a male puffin fails to return to his partner, she may take a new ‘husband,’ but should her original mate return, the new guy has to leave.

We had realized, by this point, that Helgi was not merely a puffin ‘caretaker,’ but a puffin hunter.  He, his father, and a small group of locals maintain the island and in exchange get to hunt there (that was my understanding, anyway).  He explained that they hunt using nets attached to long handles.  Someone asked, ‘well, what do you do with the puffin once you’ve trapped it?  Club it over the head like a seal?’  In response, Helgi held up both of his (large, strong, manly) hands and mimed a twisting motion.  He kills puffins by wringing their adorable little necks.  And somehow he’s still attractive.  How is that even possible?

I believe Helgi said they kill about 4000 puffins on Drangey each year.  According to him, hunting puffins is essential in order to maintain the balance between humans, birds, and fish (humans and birds are both vying for the fish).  He, like many Icelanders, believes it’s the same case with whales.  The Swiss tourists with us didn’t seem so convinced about that.  Honestly, I haven’t done enough research to have a truly informed opinion on the whole whaling/puffin hunting debate, but I do know that a lot of the most vocal opponents are sadly ill-informed.

Helgi also told us that several swimmers, both Icelanders and foreigners, have recreated Grettir’s swim between Drangey and Reykir.  Can’t say I feel the need to experience history in that way.

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Puffin hole

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Helgi told us there are no birds on this nearby island because it is actually connected to the mainland by a thin strip of land, so predators (such as arctic foxes) can get out there.

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Oh, I almost forgot – yes, the island was covered with puffins.

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íslenskur lundi

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I saw my fill of puffins at Látrabjarg, so I wasn’t as excited about seeing them here and didn’t feel the need to risk my life to get close-up photos…

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Next we walked to the highest point of the island.  The walk was a bit treacherous, because the grassy ground is rendered spongy by all the puffin holes tunneling underneath, but the view was worth it.

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Helgi let us try this edible plant. I can’t remember the name, but it grows well on Drangey because it’s fertilized by all the puffin droppings. Yum yum. Actually, it was pretty good – rather sweet.

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hópurinn

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As with Mt. Esja and Eldfell, the trip down was much scarier and more difficult than the trip up.  I quickly realized it was easier to walk backward.  At one point, Katie was going around a corner and ended up basically doing the splits.  Anyway, we all made it down, dirty and dusty but otherwise unscathed, said goodbye to our puffin friends, and headed back to the mainland.

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Ásta Sól snapped this photo down on the dock while we were waiting to head back. Wonder who she was REALLY taking a picture of…

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The lone column of rock on the right is called Kerling (the old woman). She is said to have been a troll, turned to rock by sunlight. There used to be an old man too, but he has long since crumbled into the sea.

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Sjáumst, Drangey!

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Back on the mainland, we warmed up with a quick soak in Grettislaug.

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Grettislaug

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Back on the road, we stopped in Sauðarkrókur for groceries, and we ended up also visiting Sútarinn, a tannery that produces, among other things, fish leather.

fiskar

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Alex checks out the lax (salmon) leather.

I bought a couple pieces of fish leather.  I chose þorskur (cod), which seemed strangely fitting since that’s the type of fish I spent 2 weeks packing.  I have no idea what I’ll use it for, but I’m sure I’ll think of something.

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Finally we were heading to our accommodations for the night, and on the way Ásta Sól pointed out the place where two polar bears were spotted and killed a couple years ago.

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ekki ísbjarnar núna

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Dæli

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We arrived at our home for the night, a place called Dæli which seemed like it was in the middle of nowhere (although Google tells me it’s actually in Hvammstangi).  We settled into our cute little cabins, checked out the playground, played card games, and ate a delicious dinner prepared by Amanda and Patrick.  It was a quiet, relaxing evening.  Our last day on the road had come to an end, and the next day we’d be making our way back to Reykjavík.  I think our exhaustion was catching up with us, and there was a looming sense that our journey was almost at a close.  We just enjoyed each other’s company, relived the day’s adventures, and got a good night’s sleep.

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Our cabin. Jolene is in the window being krípí.

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kvöldmatur – I took a picture because it looked so pretty. Only later did I find out that the sausage contained horse meat. Oh well, add it to the list of edible oddities I consumed in Iceland.

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Ásta Sól teaches Jolene proper pönnukökur sugaring technique, while Kayli takes over the pan. North Dakota made her very first pönnukökur that night and did quite a lovely job.  Til hamingju, Bethany!

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á morgun: Horseback Riding, Goodbye to Reykjavík, Graduation, Bláa Lónið

adventure tour, day 3: natural wonders and bumpy roads

Ferðaáætlun, dagur 3: Golden Circle, Kjölur, Arrival at Hofsós

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Golden Circle

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Monday morning we said goodbye to Heimaey and took the ferry back to the mainland (fries and kókómjólk – breakfast of champions).  Our first stop was Haukadalur, famous geothermally active valley and home to Geysir – the original Geysir, from which we derived the English word geyser.  Unfortunately, Geysir is a bit shy these days and does not erupt regularly, so the bigger draw is Strokkur, another geyser which erupts on average every 4-8 minutes.  There’s a sort of ceremony one must participate in with all the other tourists: find a spot around the perimeter, hold camera at eye level, wait in silence.

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THE Geysir

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I don’t have to translate this into Fahrenheit to know that it’s hot.

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Biddu, biddu…

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Strokkur

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Yes, the steam is very hot and sulphur-stinky.

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Litli Geysir. Just bubbles and steams and looks cute.

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There are a number of other hot pools and mud pots in the area.  It’s like Yellowstone, minus the bears and moose and trees.

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fallegur blár

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cairns

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We stopped in at the super fancy visitors’ center (AKA giant tourist trap) but I managed to resist the t-shirts, magnets and wool products and my krónur survived to see another day and another tourist trap.

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Gullfoss

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Next stop: Gullfoss (‘golden falls’).  Apparently once upon a time (early 20th century) it was threatened by people who wanted to use it to generate electricity.  Near the falls there’s a monument dedicated to a woman named Sigriður Tómasdóttir, whose determined efforts to protect the falls supposedly saved it from development.  The Intranet tells me this is not actually true, although it is widely believed.  Whatever the whole truth might be, I’m sure she deserves some credit, so þakka þér, Sigriður, for helping preserve this incredible sight.

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Sigríður Tómasdóttir

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After Gullfoss, we stopped for a picnic at a picturesque little spot along the Hvítá River.  One of the sheep across the river was bleating very loudly.  I think it was upset that its companions were leaving it behind.  Understandable, little lamb.

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strákar

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Hvítá

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Kjölur

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Full and happy, we waved goodbye to Suðurland and headed northward on Kjölur, a road that traverses the highlands between two glaciers, Langjökull and Hofsjökull.  I remember seeing the road sign indicating the imminent beginning of the gravel road:

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We hit the gravel road, bump bump bump, and someone asked, ‘Is it going to be like this the rest of the way?’  Indeed, it was just like that.  Sometimes worse.  At one point we forded a little creek.  It was like the Oregon Trail, but on a different continent, with a van instead of a wagon, and no oxen or rattlesnakes or threat of death by cholera.

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I believe this is Hvítárvatn, a glacial lake and the source of Hvítá.  Landscapes like this make it easy to imagine why parts of the Icelandic highlands were used as training spots for the Apollo mission.

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You don’t have to get very far out of the city to realize that Iceland is primarily a land of vast, beautiful emptiness, and traveling through the highlands drives the point home.  I soaked in the view of vast emptiness dotted with glacial lakes and looming mountains until all the rocks started blending together into a dusty blur.

We stopped at Hveravellir, a natural hot spring, for a quick dip in the middle of nowhere, then we forged ahead on the dusty trail toward Hofsós.  The road stretched on and on, bump bump bump, and we amused ourselves by playing Mad Libs and I Spy (difficult when there’s nothing outside) and coloring Care Bears and Skill Rex (go Alex!).

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Hveravellir

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Hofsós

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Hours later, brains slightly addled from all the jostling, our tires rolled onto a real road once again, and soon that road led us to Hofsós, our home base for the next two nights.  We dusted off our luggage (even though it was in the trailer, it was covered by a thick layer of highland dust).  Most of the group checked into Prestbakki, the old parsonage right next to the kirkja, but Amöndu, Jolene and I got our very own little garage-turned-apartment across town.  The way Ásta Sól described it, I was getting a bit nervous, but it actually turned out to be nicer than the house, I think.  Cute and quaint and comfortable.  The only minor problem?  There was no TP, so I pillaged some from the other house.  Problem solved.

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Kirkja og Prestbakki

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home sweet garage

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Hofsós, like so many Icelandic towns, is little more than a village, settled along the coast in the shadows of bare mountains.  But what a beautiful village.  There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the arrangement of homes; they dot the landscape this way and that, and the colors are equally random.  The three buildings of the Emigration Center sit right next to the harbour.  A river flows down from the mountains and rushes into the sea.  Add in the bright evening sun and you have a scene of Icelandic perfection.

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We had dinner at the restaurant, Sólvík (in towns of this size there is simply THE restaurant): fish and chips, meatballs and rhubarb jam, green salad, peas, rolls.  While we were eating a dessert of blueberry skyr with cream, a man named Nelson who works at the Emigration Center joined us and I enjoyed chatting with him and Kent, our bus driver.  I mentioned that I would love to study Icelandic at the University, and Nelson told me about some available scholarships and said that my English degree is the perfect background.  Maybe not such a far-fetched dream after all?

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á morgun: a visit to Vesturfarasetrið, the Icelandic Emigration Center