Translation: Great-grandfather’s obituary

This summer, I spent some time poking around timarit.is, a searchable archive of hundreds of Icelandic, Faroese and Greenlandic publications. I found dozens of articles about or mentioning my ancestors, and unlike when I searched this website a couple years ago, this time I could actually read the article reasonably well. The best find was an obituary for my great-grandfather. I was sitting at the kitchen table one evening when I came across it. I called my mom over and showed her, then started roughly translating it aloud for her. I was concentrating so hard that I didn’t look up for a while, but when I did, I saw that she had tears in her eyes. It was one of those beautiful little moments of affirmation when I know that I made the right choice to come here and study Icelandic, even if it doesn’t always make sense on paper.

Anyway, after I read through the article, I searched through our genealogy notebooks and found no English translation (although portions of the article were taken from almanacs and other publications, so paragraphs here and there were familiar), so I decided to try my hand at translating it.

The challenges were many – for instance, old-fashioned language and terminology specific to farming and church life – but the process was rewarding. Not only did I learn more about the Icelandic language, but I learned about the life of my remarkable great-grandfather, who unfortunately was gone more than twenty years before my birth.

I might write a bit more later about the process of translating this article and some of the specific questions and challenges I faced, but for now, I’ll just post my translation along with a link to the original text. I am absolutely an amateur, so if anyone has corrections or suggestions, by all means share them. Many thanks to Páll Baldursson for his assistance with some of the more difficult parts.

Original text (á íslensku): Merkur Íslendingur látinn

Distinguished Icelander has passed away

Originally published in the Lögberg-Heimskringla, Thursday, July 20, 1961

As previously reported in the Lögberg-Heimskringla, the distinguished Sveinn Einarsson Westford passed away at a hospital in Bellingham, Washington on Friday, May 12, 1961, at the age of 86 years, five months and seven days. He was born December 5, 1874 at the farm Miðhlíð in Brjánslækur Parish and was christened the 25th of the same month. 

Sveinn’s parents were Einar Magnússon Vestfjörð from Skáleyjar in Breiðafjörður and Kristín Jónsdóttir Magnússonar from Tindar in Geiradal, both of good Icelandic stock.

In 1884, at the age of 10, Sveinn came to North America alongside his parents. They settled first in Gardar, North Dakota, then in 1892 moved to the Mouse River area.

It was written about Sveinn’s father, Einar Magnússon, that he was a diligent and practical worker, a great farmer, and a strong figure to behold. The couple quickly prospered, and their home was known as a place of help and benevolence for the less fortunate and a safe refuge for helpless new immigrants. Sveinn and his late brother Jakob grew up in this charitable home, alongside their foster sister Anna, now Mrs. Svanson, assistant housekeeper at Stafholt in Blaine, Washington. Many years ago, something to this effect was written about the brothers: Einar’s sons are Jakob and Sveinn, the most stately of men, of calm temperament, popular, and well-respected by all.

In 1907, Sveinn married the beautiful Helga Þórðardóttir Benediktsson from Dalhús. She passed away several years ago. The young couple settled in the northern part of the Mouse River area among people of another nationality, but when Sveinn got the opportunity, he sold that land and bought a great farm that encompassed forest, meadow and fields.

In those days, many could not imagine taking on a debt of many thousands of dollars, but Sveinn Westford was full of optimism and unwavering faith and was certain that he would have great success in this undertaking. And that’s exactly what happened. Sveinn immediately got down to business cultivating the land and plowing that vast meadow, and experience proved that the work yielded rich fruit. Sveinn became one of the first men to show others what this good, rich earth could produce. He also raised cattle, which proved to be profitable. After just a few years, he had paid for the great land, and the ranch was one of the most beautiful in the area and one of the most flourishing farms in the countryside.

Sveinn the good farmer lived on this land until the government decided to put a large portion of it under water. A number of farmers, including Sveinn Westford, were forced to give up their land. Sveinn showed outstanding diligence in his farming at the Mouse River settlement and earned a wonderful reputation among the residents there.

Sveinn and Helga had eleven children, seven boys and four girls. The sons are:

  1. Victor, a resident of Seattle, Washington
  2. Einar, New Port, Pennsylania
  3. Grímur, Oakland, California
  4. Oscar, Seattle, Washington
  5. Fredrick, San Lorenzo, California
  6. John, Ferndale, Washington
  7. Sveinn, Bellingham, Washington

Their daughters are:

  1. Mrs. Christine M. Turnipseed, Newton, Illinois
  2. Mrs. Jakobina Paulina Hillman, Mountain, North Dakota
  3. Mrs. Ellen Lunde, Upham, North Dakota
  4. Mrs. Lillian Cairns, Seattle, Washington

All the children survive their parents and they are, without exception, the most promising people, intelligent, cultured and highly regarded by all who know them. They are all good church folk, raised to be god-fearing and good-mannered.

Within the Icelandic community, Sveinn Westford was among the most pleasant individuals. Alongside his beloved wife, he was involved in anything related to the church. He was a faithful member and for a long time chairman of the Icelandic congregation in Upham, North Dakota.

Twenty-six years ago, Sveinn and his wife and most of their children moved west and settled in the Blaine area, just south of the town. They purchased a beautiful farm and lived there for several years. They immediately joined the Blaine congregation, as did all the children who had accompanied them west. Within the Blaine congregation, Sveinn and Helga proved themselves to be some of the most faithful congregants. In all efforts, Sveinn was encouraging and always willing to give of his time, money and energy.

Sveinn Westford was a strapping man and decided in all that he put his mind to. I, who am writing these few words in his memory, knew Sveinn Westford, his wife and their children very well. The entire family was involved in the church those seven years that I was their priest, and I had the honor of performing church rites for these pleasant folk.

I’ll give one example of Sveinn’s work ethic. In 1940, the church had fallen into disrepair and the interior needed to be painted as soon as possible. Sveinn was on the congregational board as he always was in those years. Sveinn was one of those who took on the most work. We did not have to wait long until the project was completed, because a few days after the repairs were approved at a congregational meeting, Sveinn came with a large group of church members and the work was completed within a few days.

In the parish council, Sveinn always had a lot to say. Everyone trusted him and appreciated his advice, which always proved to be wise.

The Westfords were known for their Icelandic hospitality, both in the Mouse River area and also after they moved to Blaine. The couple were extremely likeable and had many friends, and there were often many at their good and cheerful home. Young people also often gathered there together.

A few years ago, Sveinn sold his farm in Blaine and bought a modest home in Bellingham. It suited the couple well, until their health started to decline, and after a few years in Bellingham Sveinn lost his good wife. Shortly after her death, Sveinn began to lose his sight and eventually he became completely blind. After that point, he lived with several of his children, including his son Victor in Seattle. Sveinn’s daughter, the schoolteacher Mrs. Jakobina Hillman, moved to Seattle and supported her father with her presence, so he was as happy as could be expected. Sveinn was grateful to his children for graciously aiding their helpless father when he most needed it. The last two years of his life, Sveinn lived with his son John, who is married to an American woman. They live in Ferndale, not far from Blaine, and while living there with them, Sveinn’s condition deteriorated and he even became bedridden. His daughter-in-law was extremely kind to him, nursing him and doing all in her power to help him. Sveinn was later moved to the medical wing of Stafholt in Blaine, Washington. After a few days he was moved to the hospital in Bellingham, and there, after just a few hours, he passed away. Thus ended a long and prosperous life.

Sveinn was, in truth, a fortunate man. He was lucky to have such a wonderful wife, who was his anchor in life, and to have so many practical children, who honored their parents and will always honor their memory.

With many friends and family present, Sveinn was laid to rest in Bay View Cemetery on Friday, May 19. Arrangements were taken care of by the John Westford Funeral Home in Bellingham and Guðmundur P. Johnson presided over the funeral.

The death of Sveinn Einarsson Westford is the loss of a distinguished Icelander, who will long be remembered by those who knew him. 

May the Lord bless the memory of this good man.

G.P.J.

Original Icelandic text by Guðmundur P. Johnson, 20 July 1961

English translation by Julie Summers, October 2015

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Pam on the Map [1/2]: A conversation with Pam Stucky

Last time I posted, we were still in the frosty grip of winter.  Today, the sun was shining warm and bright for about the sixth day straight.  Spring has definitely come to the Northwest, and it is a beautiful, hopeful thing.

I know I’ve been terribly neglectful of this blog, but I have been busy busy busy.  One of the many things that keeps me busy is writing for the Lögberg-Heimskringla and managing the paper’s social media.  Last fall, while working on the L-H Twitter page, I connected with a Seattle author named Pam Stucky.  Pam was just about to publish a book based on her summer travels in Iceland a couple months previous.  I sent her a message, introduced myself, and asked if she might be willing to meet up for an interview since we’re both in the Northwest.  She kindly agreed, and we met at a coffee shop near Olympia and had a lovely conversation about Iceland and writing and why the northwest part of the country is always the best.

Below is my writeup of our interview as it appears in the April 15 issue of the Lögberg-Heimskringla.  Sincere thanks to Pam for agreeing to meet with me, for sharing her Iceland experiences with me and with the world, and especially for having a saintly amount of patience as she waited for these articles to be published.

Seattleite puts herself on the map with new travel series

[A conversation with Pam Stucky]

Pam Stucky is a self-declared “author, traveler, backseat philosopher, and a person who is intensely curious about people and the world.” But she never intended to become a travel writer. A Seattle native, Stucky worked in web design, marketing, and fundraising before deciding to pursue writing full time. It was the unexpected death of a coworker that finally spurred her to action. “I didn’t want to leave a ‘what if,'” explained Stucky in an interview last November. So she quit her job, determined that her savings would last about a year, and started writing. In 2010, she completed her first book, Letters from Wishing Rock, a novel about a small island community in Puget Sound. After shopping the book around to traditional publishers and being “very nicely rejected” by a number of agents, Stucky turned to self publishing. It was the right decision, Stucky said, although self publishing is not without its challenges. “Discoverability is the biggest problem,” said Stucky, who currently manages all her own marketing.

The transition from fiction writing to travel writing happened organically. In 2005, while traveling around Ireland by herself, Stucky went to internet cafés and composed long emails detailing her travels for friends and family back home. She eventually adapted those emails, as well as recollections from a family trip to Switzerland, into the first two “retrospective” Pam on the Map installments. But she wanted to plan a trip to a new destination with the specific purpose of adding another volume to the series. Iceland had interested Stucky since she read Pico Ayer’s Falling Off the Map, a collection of essays about lonely, off-the-beaten-path destinations. In early 2012, the timing seemed perfect: Icelandair’s direct flights from Seattle to Reykjavík made the journey easy, and a friend of Stucky’s living in Reykjavík extended an open invitation for friends to visit.

Stucky spent a few months planning her itinerary, less than two weeks traveling the Ring Road, and a mere three months turning her journey into a book. Asked about the quick turnaround time, Stucky said she didn’t want to forget the details of her trip, and she was eager to get the book out by the end of the year. “But it was hard – I wouldn’t recommend it!” she said with a laugh.

In the book and in conversation with Stucky, it’s clear that her interview with Jón Gnarr was a highlight of the trip. Describing Gnarr, Stucky said, “He’s so compassionate. I was struck by his humanity. [He’s] so caring, so very concerned with doing what is right.”

Stucky’s primary complaint about her time in Iceland was the surprising “lack of infrastructure” she encountered around the much-traveled and much-promoted Ring Road. “I do think Iceland needs to focus more on quality than quantity of experience,” said Stucky, voicing concerns over Iceland’s ability to keep up with the ever-increasing flood of tourists.

Stucky knows she still has much to see and do if she ever returns to Iceland. She said she regrets not taking the extra time needed to explore the Westfjords region, and she didn’t get into the Highlands at all. Stucky said her biggest mistake with her itinerary was probably trying to fit too much into a short period of time. “I think people think, ‘[Iceland] is so small, I can do it in X days,'” she said. Next time, Stucky said, she would try focusing on one region at a time. And her number one piece of advice for people visiting Iceland? “It’s important to give yourself time to be surprised.”

Moving forward, Stucky plans to continue with the Pam on the Map series. At the top of her wish list for future installments are Croatia, Australia, and New Zealand. Besides international destinations, Stucky also plans to focus on some places a bit closer to home, such as Wisconsin and Victoria. But no matter how many destinations she visits for the Pam on the Map series, she hopes her writing will continue to give her readers “a sense of appreciation and wonder for all the amazing things in our world.”

This article was originally published in the Lögberg-Heimskringla, 15 April 2014

Book Review: Iceland, Defrosted

I’ve only reviewed a few books for the Lögberg-Heimskringla, but I think each one has been better than the last.  I recently finished Iceland, Defrosted by first-time author from across the pond, Edward Hancox.  Let’s just say Icelandair should be paying Hancox, because the book brought me this close to buying a ticket to Iceland.  Here is my review:

Iceland, Defrosted a warm read

Image courtesy of Edward Hancox
Image courtesy of Edward Hancox

Edward Hancox, like many of his fellow Englishmen, used to know very little about Iceland, assuming it was all about “polar bears and penguins… deep snow year round and the Northern Lights arching over frozen landscapes.” But with his first trip to Iceland eight years ago, and countless visits since, Hancox has developed an obsession with the people, places, and music of the island nation. And with the recent release of Iceland, Defrosted, Hancox has shared that obsession – and the real Iceland he discovered beyond the stereotypes – with readers across the globe.

The narrative roughly follows a path around the Ring Road, but incorporates stories from a number of different trips to Iceland, as well as stories of encounters with Icelanders abroad. Hancox weaves together anecdotes, trivia, history, a lot of music, and a continuous search for the Northern Lights and binds it all with contagious passion and an understated British humor. To those well-acquainted with Iceland, the book offers little new material; but Hancox’s genuine enthusiasm makes even well-worn topics readable.

Indeed, Hancox covers a fair amount of expected material – the vibrant Reykjavík nightlife scene, Iceland Airwaves, the best and worst of Icelandic cuisine, the surreal experience of visiting the phallological museum, curiosities of the patronymic naming system. But Hancox recognizes that what makes Iceland so unique is not the fact that it is home to Europe’s most powerful waterfall or that 10% of the country’s population once attended a free Sigur Rós concert (although he clearly enjoys sharing such facts). Rather, Hancox understands that Iceland’s greatest natural resource is its people: “I’ve spent time trying to get to know the people and places of Iceland; to experience more than just what is available to the average tourist on a weekend trip,” he writes. Hancox doesn’t just write about tasting hákarl – he writes about meeting a farmer who produces it and learning the ins and outs of the process behind the infamous foodstuff. And he doesn’t just explain who the húldufólk are – he writes about searching for them in Hafnarfjörður with a true húldufólk believer. These experiences and many more give the book an authenticity that elevates it from a mere tourist tale.

The author’s love of Icelandic music radiates throughout the book. Hancox includes snippets of interviews with Snorri Helgason, Sóley, Hafdís Huld and Lay Low, and admits that the one Icelandic musician who has rendered him completely starstruck is Jónsi. Meeting Jónsi backstage at a Sigur Rós concert in the U.K., the only question Hancox could think to ask is, “Can I have your photo?” Readers looking to include more Iceland in their music collections will appreciate Hancox’s list of “further listening” suggestions in the back of the book.

For Hancox, discovering writing went hand-in-hand with discovering Iceland. As he began exploring Iceland, he said in an interview, he needed a way to record his experiences and found photography lacking. A friend suggested writing. Before long, Hancox had written a few articles for the Reykjavík Grapevine and Iceland Review. The latter asked him to become a regular columnist. Writing Iceland, Defrosted was a natural progression.

Frustrated by the state of traditional publishing and bolstered by encouragement from supporters on Twitter and Facebook (even Reykjavík Mayor Jón Gnarr tweeted in his support), Hancox used the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to finance the book’s publication. Within days of listing his project, his funding target was met. Ultimately, Hancox raised 179% of his initial goal.

Response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive, with supportive reviews, a recent mention in National Geographic Traveller magazine, and continual reader interaction via social media. Readers have taken to sending in photos of the book set against an impressive array of backdrops across the world, including the Colosseum, Niagara Falls, and Lake Louise. Hancox said he is constantly surprised by the book, which he described as having a life of its own. Hancox spent six years writing Iceland, Defrosted and has no current plans for a follow-up, although he said he has contemplated writing a novel set in Iceland.

Whether he ever sees a pod of spouting whales or catches the elusive Northern Lights, Hancox has discovered a plethora of Iceland’s gifts, and his ability to effortlessly, humorously, and sincerely share those discoveries will make any reader warm up to Iceland, Defrosted.

Iceland, Defrosted is available in paperback and ebook formats from Amazon. To connect with Hancox, visit icelanddefrosted.com, find Iceland, Defrosted on Facebook, or follow @EdHancox on Twitter.

Originally published in the Lögberg-Heimskringla, November 1, 2013

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.

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

margir Íslendingar í Seattle: INL Convention, Days 1 & 2

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.

Program photos/design by Amanda Allen
Program photos/design by Amanda Allen

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…

fimmtudagskvöld

(thursday night)

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.

föstudagur

(friday)

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

Amanda's handiwork
Amanda’s handiwork

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.

Ég og Sigrid
Ég og Sigrid

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.

Me, Steve, Amanda
Me, Steve, Amanda

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.

makríll
makríll

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.

Matthew og Julie 2
Matthew og ég

Sacha og Amöndu
Sacha og Amanda

góður hópur
góður hópur

Most presentations from the 2013 INL Convention can be viewed here.

Interview: Les Swanson, Iceland’s Honorary Consul in PDX

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.

Les Swanson and his three sons.
Les Swanson and his three sons.

Originally published in the June 1 edition of the Lögberg-Heimskringla.  Text is mine.  Photo courtesy of Les Swanson.

Heima

An essay I wrote exploring my feelings of Iceland as home.

 Originally published 15 September 2012 in the Lögberg-Heimskringlaa Winnipeg-based newspaper serving the greater North American Icelandic community.

Is it possible to be homesick for a place you haven’t even left yet? I was walking down Aðalstræti in Patreksfjörður one July afternoon, watching the sun sparkling on the deep blue water of the fjord. Everything about my life in this little corner of the world was perfect, yet I felt a looming sense of restlessness, even sadness. Suddenly, I realized what I was feeling: homesickness – but not for Washington, for Iceland.

Home is a strange concept, really, and perhaps not as simple as we might think. Is home something innate, or is it made? Is it coincidence, choice, or some combination of both? Is home where we are or where we came from? I won’t pretend to know the answers, but I do know my recent trip to Iceland allowed me to explore these questions and ultimately to expand my definition of home.

One day in Patró, I was working at Oddi, a fish factory where I volunteered, with a 15-year-old girl named Edda. We stood side-by-side, packing boxes of cod in a constant rhythm, talking over the factory noise.

“So why did you want to come to Iceland?” she asked. I told her I’ve always wanted to see where my ancestors came from, to gain a fuller understanding of my own story.

“And how do you like it here?” she continued. I told her it was amazing; I love the country, the people, the language; if I could stay longer I absolutely would. She considered this, then said, “I never understand what people see in Iceland… I can’t wait to leave.

“Have you ever been to New York?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I answered, “just once. I actually went when I was your age.” Edda told me of an upcoming trip to New York to celebrate her confirmation, then explained that she hopes to become a film director. I asked if she’s considering college in the States, then, perhaps LA. “Maybe,” she said, “but I don’t want to be too far away from home.”

A couple days later, I had another interesting conversation, this time at the Stúkuhúsið, my favorite kaffihús (well, okay, the only one) in Patró. I was drinking a Swiss Mocha and working on my blog when a dreadlocked, 20-something Icelandic man sat down near me. I recognized him; he had been at a concert at the same coffee shop a couple nights before. He said something in Icelandic and I realized he was talking to me. “Ég tala bara smá íslensku” (“I speak only a little Icelandic”), I told him. That didn’t deter him; he sat across from me rolling cigarettes, asking me questions in Icelandic, and I did my best to keep up. When I had exhausted my limited vocabulary, he smoothly switched to English.

I explained the Snorri Program and told him that “langafi minn var frá Barðaströnd” (“my great-grandfather was from Barðaströnd). We talked about genealogy and Icelandic bloodlines and determined that we were likely related. He expressed outrage that I’m not allowed to access Íslendingabók, the Icelandic genealogical database – “But you have Icelandic blood! You are Icelandic!” he said. I shrugged.

“How does it feel?” he asked.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“To be Icelandic, but grow up away from Iceland. To only be coming here for the first time now.” I tried to absorb this. He truly considered me a fellow Icelander. It was as if he was saying, welcome home.

As our conversation was winding down, he asked me a question I’ve been thinking about ever since. “Why are you going back to the US? Why would anyone ever leave Iceland?”

As I was talking with Edda and my dreadlocked frændi, I didn’t have the answers on the tip of my tongue, but time and distance have allowed me to explore their questions.

What do I see in Iceland? I see a country of otherworldly natural beauty, a people of incredible strength and heart. I see the roots of my family tree. I see a place that is part of my past, my present and hopefully my future.

So why would I ever leave? Because although Washington is a home that was chosen for me, it doesn’t mean I cherish it any less. And because I believe a true home is a place you’re always drawn back to. So even as I am drawn back to the States, I have faith that I will also be drawn back to Iceland again, sooner or later. Hopefully sooner. Until then, sjáumst, Ísland. Takk fyrir mig.