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The Iceland Diaries, Part Five

It was difficult, perhaps the most difficult thing, to be without a common language. I have always said that being in Iceland gave me perspective and I think that related to many aspects of life. I could easily relate now to the many who travel to a new country, looking for work, unable to speak the native language. I sat through many meals not understanding anything that was being said. At times, I enjoyed listening, waiting to hear a word I knew or trying to string more than two words together to make sense. Other times, I completely withdrew and felt the deepest, saddest loneliness I ever recall.

Writing in my journal was not a task but a necessity. It was at least one conversation I would have during the day. Jane eventually found a bit of work at a farm at the other end of the valley. We learned to use the “simi” – the telephone which was of the most ancient kind: like the kind they had on Lassie, a box on the wall with a mouthpiece attached to the box and a receiver you held to your ear. Crank one ring and then two rings for Jane’s farm. I had no idea if making phone calls was expensive. I knew that they were on a party line because I might sometimes pick up the receiver and hear voices on the other end. I recall that Unnur liked to listen sometimes. I was not unfamiliar with all of that as it wasn’t that long ago that that was a common practice in America as well. I loved watching Unnur’s expression as she listened in. So when or if I called Jane, we tried to make it short and understood that someone else might be listening in. Still, it was a treat to speak English. We were able, at times, to make plans to get together. Unnur and Daniel would take me to visit there or her family would bring her to Frodastadir. It wasn’t very often but it was a much anticipated event. Otherwise, we could write letters to each other and send them via the milk truck.

The milk truck came every third day to pick up the milk and also to deliver mail or take it away. This was another event that I looked forward to: the arrival of the milk truck and perhaps some mail from home. Now that we have instant communication, I notice my friends’ children are in constant touch, e-mailing or texting no matter how far they travel. I realize how hard it must have been for my parents to have to wait and wonder where I was, how I was. As soon as I arrived in Reykjavik, after changing American dollars into Icelandic kronur, I bought postage stamps. And wrote letters. I wanted to let my parents know where I was and what the news was. I hoped, too, to hear from them. I mailed off a letter to them almost the same day as my arrival so I had no way of knowing but it was weeks before they even knew I had landed safely. After about three weeks of silence, my mother called the Icelandic Consul in New York and asked him to go look for me. That was so like my mother, kind of innocent and hopeful about things. But, apparently, he was able to track me down, I have no idea how, and, after while, he was able to let her know that I was fine. I wish now that she were alive so I could ask her how that went. On the other hand, my parents were both in the service during World War II, in true harm’s way, and their parents didn’t know from one day to the next where their children were or if they were safe. My grandparents all lived with that, day to day, year to year, throughout the war. So I guess you could say my parents were somewhat used to not knowing.

In any case, the mail came in batches. I recall once coming in from our work in the field and Unnur coming out from the kitchen holding a big packet of letters for me, the biggest smile on her face as if she herself had written them. According to my journal, there were 22 letters in her hand that day. That is because there was a log jam, somewhere, letters from friends and family accumulating somewhere and coming to me all at once, via milk truck. I am sure I had a bigger smile than Unnur when I took them from her. I feasted on the letters that night and the next day and felt comforted for days to know how things were at home. My grandmother wrote about the progress of the roses in her garden as well as her amazement at where her granddaughter was. “Edie!” she wrote in her flowery, Victorian script. “You are going to write a book about Iceland!” She seemed to know that I would be a writer before I did. My mother wrote about happenings in the neighborhood and at church. I devoured every crumb of news from home. And wrote back. I think back on it now and wonder what Unnur and Daniel thought of the time I spent writing, either in my journal or on aerogrammes to be sent to Bandariki.

Another great void was news, news of the world. I remember that once, somehow, Jane came into possession of a recent issue of Time magazine. When she was finished reading it, she sent it down to me via milk truck. I wrote in my journal of the thrill of reading the news, even if it was a few weeks old. It was a lot more than I had known for a long time. There was a young man about my age who came to stay on the farm and work from time to time. He came especially during haying season. Steini was a cousin of Imba’s. He spoke some English and was very kind to me, sometimes reading the newspaper to me out loud – reading of course from the Icelandic daily newspaper, Morgunbladid (Morgan-blah-theeth or Morning News). Though he spoke English, it was not perfect so the reading of the news was halting and sometimes implausible. I recall feeling impatient, which embarrasses me now when I think of his generous efforts but this came because I was so hungry and hearing the news filtered twice – through Icelandic and then back into English, by way of a less-than-confident translator – was not enough for me. It was like trying to hear a conversation through a thick wall, a few words clear and then just mumbling.

I know that 1969 was the summer of Woodstock and the summer of the Charles Manson murders, but I only read about all that much later. It was also the summer we first walked on the moon but that was one event about which I had practically first-hand knowledge. At that time, I was in Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city, up in the north country. I had taken time away from the farm when they did not really need me and did some roaming about the country. I remember an almost surrealistic experience of standing in a man’s living room (it was a kind of bed and breakfast), watching a small black and white television broadcast those first steps and the strange voice that accompanied the action, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." It was especially of interest to the Icelandic people because these astronauts had come to Iceland to train, so they felt part of the drama. I never totally understood it but apparently they came to walk about in their space suits on the vast wasteland near the resort town of Myvatn which is surrounded by fields of lava that resemble the surface of the moon. Maybe the reason the experience of standing in this living room, almost at the Arctic Circle, watching this historic event on television, felt so strange was that it blended these two worlds for me and I was only prepared to be in one world or the other. Whatever the reason, it stuck in my mind as otherworldly, being in this ancient culture and absorbing its mysterious ways and at the same time watching what we all considered to be the future of mankind.

Having Steini read the news to me gave me somewhat the same vertiginous feeling, as if the two things were at odds with each other, like the wrong side of the magnet repelling instead of attracting. I never felt that way as I did my milking chores or worked in the hay field. That was the clear reality into which I had disappeared.
(To be continued)
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The Iceland Diaries, Part Four

I had hitchhiked out there with Jane. We had started in Reykjavik, looking for work, but we were told there were no jobs to be found at all. The herring had gone and Iceland was in a depression as a result. My only contact, Peter Knuttson, a Brit who lived marginally in Reykjavik and somehow knew my cousin Mac, had suggested the only work available might be on farms. He gave us the name of a farmer, Gudlaugur Torfasson, out near Reyholt. It was a hard name to remember so we made up a song that ended with the refrain, Gooth-l-ow-gur Torfa-son! If we were going to keep our hope of staying in the country alive, we had little choice. So we hitched through the pouring rain – it rained most of the time that summer. We made our way to Reyholt, getting a couple of short rides but mostly walking. Through the rain, we saw a church. My heart lifted and I said, "A church is a sanctuary, let’s go in!" And we took shelter in the church, settling in the back pew. We were exhausted, soaked and hungry. Jane burrowed into her pack to find our loaf of bread. I took the wedge of cheese from my backpack and started to unwrap it when the minister walked in. That night, I wrote in my journal: "I was mortified when the minister walked in to find us opening up the cheese and tearing hunks off our loaves of bread." He was kind, though, and invited us in for tea. When we explained our mission, he said he knew Gudlaugur (at first we were amazed that the very first person we encountered knew the man we were looking for but we later learned that Iceland is a small community where everyone knows everyone) and kindly offered to drive us to his farm, about ten miles from the church. And so he did, leaving us off in the driveway, the rain still coming down in torrents.

The farm seemed alone in the vast valley, what we could see of it through the rain and fog. We went to the door and knocked. A big blonde sober-looking man opened the door to the compact farmhouse, tucked, as it was, against the big hill that rose above it. I asked if he spoke English and he said, "Yes, I love to speak English."

He was delighted to find that we were "Bandarikins" – Americans – and invited us inside with a generous gesture of his hand. Still soaked, we entered his farmhouse, warm and cozy. We set our wet backpacks down in his hallway, removed our rain jackets and boots there as well. I sat down on his comfortable couch with relief, as if I had arrived home after a long journey. His wife, Steinum, seemed to appear out of nowhere with a tray of pastries and a pot of hot coffee as we explained to Gudlaugur that we were looking for work. He listened carefully. He had the demeanor of a professor, completely in command and yet curious and open to new information. He told us that we were the first Americans he had ever met. He got out the map and showed his children the distance we had traveled. (He neglected to mention that the longest distance we had traveled to date was from Reykjavik to his farm.) "I have five children," he said, "so I don't need any help here but maybe one of my neighbors might. If you will stay here and teach my children some English words, I will go see if I can find work for you."

The children were shyly peeking from around the corners. Smiles seemed to be part of their natural demeanor. We happily agreed to his proposition. The oldest were daughters who, as I recall were 10 and 12. The youngest, Torvi, a little elf of a towhead, was four. In time, Gudlaugur started up his Land Rover (one of the most common cars in Iceland at that time) and rumbled out into the rain and down the rough lava road. He was gone for hours. It was June, when day never turns to night, rendering time irrelevant, so I don't remember how long he was gone but for some reason eighteen hours sticks in my mind. We stayed and helped with the children and with the chores on the farm, of which there was never a shortage. Steinum kept the meals coming and the house immaculate. She proudly showed us her modern kitchen, which, to our surprise, was every bit as up to date as any American kitchen and nicer than many. Her pride and joy was her Kitchen-Aid dishwasher.

We explored the farm with the children and they showed us how to milk the cows. We traded words with sign language, pointing to the cow, "cow" and then to us came back the word, "kyr." Milk; "mjolk." And so on. (Unfortunately, Icelandic is hardly that simple. But it was a start.)

My earliest impressions of the Icelandic people were formed on this farm as I observed these children so happy in their tasks. They didn't have toys. They worked on the farm along with everyone else, milking the cows and herding sheep, cleaning up, and taking care of what needed to be done. I remember especially the two youngest were set to work on the task of taking apart wooden crates. I watched them remove the nails from each corner and then, using the hammer quite skillfully, even the four-year-old, straightened the nails and set them in a small pile. I was amazed at their strength and dexterity. The wood, of course, was precious -- Iceland at that time had no trees, hardly a one. So each panel of wood was stacked carefully and it would be reused creatively. The straightened nails were similarly safeguarded. As these children worked, they talked happily and laughed. This was my introduction to the Icelandic work ethic, cheerful, exacting, and ongoing, even in the children.

Although I grew up in an affluent suburb of New York City, I did have some background for my work in Iceland. One summer, I had worked on a farm which gave me a bit of a head start on some of the work I’d be doing in the coming months. I knew how to milk a cow and shoveling manure was old hat as I had had a donkey while growing up and cleaning the stable was a weekly chore. I had cared for many children all through my teenage years. I'd started out at the age of eleven, taking care of two very young and very mischievous boys. They were always into something, including running naked through the neighborhood. In fact, babysitting was what I'd done almost fulltime, to earn money, so I could go to Iceland. So I was familiar with how children were, or so I thought. Children, I'd come to see, needed to be entertained, especially in an educational way. My task as a babysitter was to steer them in a good direction but overall, to keep them happy. That seemed to be what most of the mothers I worked for wanted of me. Keep them content and relatively quiet, play games with them, take them places, give them the attention and care that they needed in the absence of their parents.

These Icelandic children seemed to need no such direction. They were apparently born launched in that direction and found the humblest of tasks satisfying. Disobedience or naughtiness seemed not to have reached these arctic shores as yet. In addition, they roamed about the farm at will, there didn't seem to be any anxiety about their safety, much like the herds of sheep kept by each farm – there were no fences. The sheep were branded and grazed across the vast countryside until it was time to bring them in to be clipped, which was to be one of the more exciting parts of my adventure. But I wasn't there yet. I was still here, on Gudlaugur's farm, waiting to know if there would be work or if, in disappointment, I would have to return to the United States, for lack of work.

When he returned from his long visits with all of his, I believe, fourteen farming neighbors, which I know now, were scattered around this wide and vast Hvitarsidu valley, he had news. He had work found just one job. It was up to us to decide which one of us would take the job. We deliberated and eventually decided I would take the job. Jane would stay on with Gudlaugur and perhaps another job would open up in the valley. He said that, in the morning, he would take me to my farm. That night, after a beautiful meal provided by Steinum, we talked about "Bandariki." He brought out a map of the United States, which was, he explained, the literal translation for "Bandariki," or "band of states." He listened eagerly to our stories of home. The children sat by, listening, though I can only assume they understood nothing of what we were saying. Our surprise visit was apparently of keen interest even without the narrative.

I learned years later that Gudlaugur was a schoolteacher -- he taught history in the local school. Knowing that, I understood even better his generous welcome to these two American vagabonds. He made up for our discouraging entry into the country, being informed on our arrival in Reykjavik that the herring had "gone away" and that subsequently, Iceland had sunk into a depression. There were no jobs available, unless we could find work on a farm. The prospect of having to return home after all this preparation wasn't something I'd even considered. Gudlaugur Torfasson opened the door to this world, and helped us over the threshold.

And so in the morning, another cold and rainy day, I hefted my backpack into the back of his Land Rover, said goodbye to all, including my friend Jane, and left for Frodastadir (Froe-tha-stah-theer), a farm a couple of miles down the rough, rutted road. They were there waiting for me, it seemed, with anticipation. Unnur was a slight but beautiful older woman, her straight gray hair caught girlishly back in barrettes. She welcomed me as warmly as she could as did Daniel, who was rugged with bushy grey eyebrows overhanging his penetrating blue eyes. He reached out his big rough, working hands and clasped mine in welcome. Ingibjorg (Imba, pronounced Impa) lingered behind them. She was fifteen, strong, blonde, and with a happy smile. She was the only child left on the farm. Hence their need for my help. There was one thing Gudlaugur had failed to tell me: no one on this farm spoke a word of English. My Icelandic was limited to a few necessary words that I had picked up since my arrival, words mostly from reading public signs: snyrtting (toilet), simi (telephone), brod (bread), and, of course, godin dag (good day)and goda not (good night). As I stood there in the hallway of their little house, the reality of this hard-to-fathom fact sank to the pit of my stomach.

To be continued....
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The Iceland Diaries, Part Three

Returning after so long, I found that life on the farm had changed dramatically and yet it is the same. Imba and Steini no longer keep cows (I discovered this is true of many farms) but they still have sheep and also she has many more horses than before. She has always loved the horses. I recall there were four or five on the farm back in 1969. Now she has about fifteen of them. Some, she says, are for meat. "But these ones, I don't get to know them," she told me, meaning, I'm sure, that they are the young ones, sent off to slaughter after six or eight months. That she would eat her horses surprised me but I had heard that horse meat was now somewhat common in Iceland, like beef, which is rare. Horses are simply what they have, which counts for a lot in this island nation, so dependent on imports. And on the farm, they will do most anything to stay profitable. Frodastadir has been in their family for many generations.

Just like farms in the U.S., and probably all over the world, they are doing what they can to subsidize their existence. One of the new enterprises there was the growth and sale of sod. Steini was out in the field cutting sod when we arrived. This must have been quite profitable when the economy was booming and there were so many wealthy residents of Reykjavik, building lovely homes at the edge of town. I don't know but assume that, since the economic downturn, the need for this ready-made lawn has plummeted. Another, perhaps more resilient, effort is hosting tourists. Many farms have built what amounts to motels on their farms and provide lodging and breakfast -- some even provide dinner. Undoubtedly, during these lovely summer months, this provides new and necessary income, especially in these troubled economic times. We stayed at several of these farms and found them superior. In any case, the effort here to keep these small family farms afloat seemed quite creative.

The only car on the farm when I was there in 1969 was an old Russian jeep, open in the back. Daniel and Unnar sometimes took me with them to Borgannes, a coastal town about thirty miles west of the farm, to shop for groceries. It was a day-long excursion, across rough, rutted roads. I loved the chance to get out and see other places but it was cold, riding in the open back of the jeep. Now, we all piled into Imba's relatively new Toyota Land Cruiser and she took us on a tour of the valley, which I was so looking forward to. The valley, when I was there, felt like a great range, a place that was the only place, so far from anything else. The farms were widely spaced and the valley was divided by the river. I don't remember any bridges but I do remember the horses that ran free on the other side.

Our first stop was the church at the end of the road. Imba wanted to show me Unnur and Daniel's graves. We walked together to the corner of the churchyard and together looked down at her parents' place, what looked like a single wide grave, with a single wooden cross to mark both graves, even though they died many years apart. I studied the brass marker and realized that Daniel was born in the same year as my father and he died in 1994, the same year both my parents died. When I looked a little closer, I noticed that Daniel and I had the same birthday. I wish I had known that years ago.

I remember the inside of the church was bright and colorful, unlike any church I had ever been in. The pews, like benches, are wooden, painted a soft pink. All the churches in Iceland are Lutheran -- at least they were at the time that I was there and now, they tell me, it is about 90% Lutheran. This church, of course, was no exception. From a distance, it looks like a church on the prairie and on the inside, the sternness made me think of the work of Grant Wood. I could picture the people he would paint in here, hardworking, sinewy, sober. Mainstays.

From there, we went to a boiling spring which she told us was the largest spring in the world -- like many such Icelandic attractions, there was barely a sign at the entrance and, as a safeguard, only a low wooden fence between these bubbling waters and ourselves. The spring was more like a brook, the surface of the running water leaping up with the explosion of heat. In some places, the waters burst three or more feet into the air. The waters steamed like any boiling pot would. We stood in the steam and took photos of each other beside this natural wonder. Nearby, there was a pipeline, stout like the Alaska oil pipeline, which carried the hot water into Akranes, for their heating purposes. It was as simple as that. No oil rigs. No wars.

In the little dirt parking lot, a woman, a friend of Imba's, had parked a big old city bus which she had converted into a shop. Board the bus and there were her wares, hand-knitted sweaters, hats, small trinkets, and in the back, used paperbacks. Outside, she had a table loaded with fresh produce for sale, including red tomatoes. Forty years ago, you could not have paid enough to get a fresh tomato at this time of year. None grew and no one could afford what it would cost to import them. This woman had a greenhouse and was growing good produce inside the glass enclosed space, heated with the water from the hot springs that bubbled up from underground. I bought a hat from her for 4,000 kronur--that's about $30. A bit pricey, but I would pay that in a store after it had changed from many hands so I might as well pay this lovely, enterprising woman directly. She had knit it herself, out of the wool of the Icelandic sheep and knitted into the pattern, across the front, was the word, Island, in a beautiful blue -- Island, pronounced *eeslant*, is the Icelandic word for Iceland, possibly where the original word for island originated. And possibly responsible for the confusing fact that Iceland is not a land of ice but a land of green and surprisingly moderate temperatures. They may never live down this unfortunate name.

Imba then took us to some amazing waterfalls, which emerged from a field of lava and included a frightening story about lost children. (In Iceland, there is always a story, often a frightening one.) This was so much like the little tours I remember from my time there in 1969. When work on the farm slowed, they would take me to a fantastic waterfall or lava caves or a geyser, nothing marking the attraction, no one else there, just an amazing natural wonder out there for God to see and maybe someone passing by.

When we returned to the house, the aroma of the roasting lamb filled the house. Imba pulled the oven door open and the big leg crackled and spat. Steini joined us for dinner. He speaks not a word of English and so he sat silently at the table, big Viking head, hair gone white from the earlier photos I had seen, short soft feathery beard, white also. Watching him watch us, I remembered so well sitting at the table with the family, not understanding anything that they were saying, just a kind of music going on all around me. When I thought of it as music, I was in a happy place. Otherwise it was the most intensely isolated feeling I had ever had. With the platter of lamb were potatoes, of course, and salad and the amazing red cabbage slaw that I recalled with great pleasure when I sampled it. Sweet, just pickled red cabbage, jarred. I recall that we had that sometimes at the table. "Unnur's recipe?" I asked Imba. I don't think she understood the word 'recipe.' She just smiled. I almost ate the whole jar. She put the platter with the partially consumed lamb leg on the table and, as we scraped our plates, we all picked over the bone like little savages, cutting off hunks at a time.

My companions decided it was time to go to their accommodations, a place about ten miles down the road. Imba and I led them there, to what turned out to be a little cottage off by itself in the tundra. We left them there and headed back to Frodastadir. The valley was so familiar, Imba and I talked about the times we would ride out to meet her friends for a Sunday ride, or sometimes we'd race our horses along the river, which usually turned my blood to ice. Once, I just deliberately fell off Blessa as she was going way too fast for me and I was hanging onto her mane as hard as I could but was slipping anyway. I didn't quite know what else to do. The Icelandic earth is soft and the ponies were low to the ground so I just eased myself off and rolled, walking home a bit sheepishly. "But Bless was winning!" Imba said, clearly, even all these years later, confused as to why I had chosen to do that.

Another time, riding on the road, an enormous Mercedes truck came barreling at us. Blessa reared up and tossed me into the gutter and ran home. Another sheepish walk back to the farm. Imba remembered it all as well.

As we drove, she slowed and pointed to farms that I had known or visited. They looked remarkably the same, though some had a new house near the old one, like Imba's. At Hvammur, she slowed, "Do you want to go in?" This was the first farm we had gone to, looking for work. I had hitchhiked out there with Jane. For me, it was a very special place. It was, in a sense, where it all began. I knew that Gudlaugur had passed away and wasn't sure that any of the children would remember me. They were very young then and many years had passed. With a bit of hesitation, I said, "Yes, yes, let's go in."

To be continued...
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The Iceland Diaries, Part Two

On June 15, 2010, at 6 a.m., our Boeing 757 touched down on a long runway and taxied toward what I could see was an elegant new airport. Same place, different building. I had, of course, expected the airport to be modern and updated. The rocks were still there but now covered with a deep layer of light green moss, giving a puffy, unearthly appearance, like a landscape from a sci-fi movie. No longer that forlorn and desolate place of endless rocks, Iceland was a busy place. Would there be Walmart’s? Would there be McDonald’s? I was praying against hope that there would not be. More than anything, I wanted Iceland to still be Iceland.

My traveling companions, Gretchen, Tom, and Enid, did not have a frame of reference. For them, Iceland was a mysterious place about which they had read a few things, seen photos, especially recently since the volcanic eruption in the south of the country. Gretchen had brought face masks in case we ran into clouds of ash. Overall, they were anxious to see a new place.

Our bags packed into the back of our rented Ford Focus station wagon, we set forth, on a road that was smoothly paved and well marked. New roads, roundabouts, bright yellow directional signs led us north, toward Frodastodir. The road passed by shops and mini-malls, the kind of commerce seen worldwide. Once, I spotted the familiar KFC sign and my heart sank. I couldn’t help but think about the lonely lava road of the not-so-distant past, the way the little city of Reykjavik released so suddenly and completely to the farmland and steep green hills that comprised the rest of the country. Soon, we descended into a five-mile-long, beautifully constructed two-lane tunnel. A completely different route, now called the Ring Road, the old lightly traveled lava road had been paved and re-routed beneath a wide fjord. Traffic moved along just as it would in New Hampshire or Vermont. I later learned that the tunnel through which we were passing, carved out of bedrock, had been constructed in three years’ time. I thought about Boston’s eternal project called the Big Dig. We passed by towns I had never seen or remembered, all of them grown up and prosperous looking. Though I had expected change, it was hard to believe this was the same place.

Before long, we were driving through the wide and beautiful Hvitarsidu valley, to which I have often returned in my dreams. Here, little seemed changed. When we reached the simple white church at the end of the road, its stark steeple reaching up into the milky Icelandic sky, I knew I was home. Frodastadir is within sight of the church, where Unnur used to take me to services on Sunday. As we turned up the long driveway, I saw the old farmhouse, just as it always had been, but beside it was a new building and from an elegant modern glass door, Imba emerged, waving, smiling. It was almost an out-of-body experience, to be there, after all that time, to see Imba, all grown up and at the helm now of this dear farm. Daniel and Unnur have passed away and Imba runs the farm with her husband, Steini. They have two daughters who are grown up and on their own. She welcomed us inside for a tour and explanations. Five years ago, Imba and Steini built this new house, next to the old farmhouse where I had lived with them in 1969.

Walking into this beautiful modern home, all on one floor, I felt disoriented and yet thrilled. Big plate glass windows looked out on the vast green valley. In the kitchen, everything was as beautiful and modern as the finest of homes. I thought of Unnur, who was so hardworking and capable. She loved to learn new English words and that summer, she learned from me the word “refrigerator” – in the morning, she would point to the ice box and ask me to say the word, and then she would repeat it, in excruciatingly slow and difficult syllables and then smile and laugh – we all joined her! After my time there, when I was preparing to leave for home, I asked what I could send them. And Unnur said, “Refrigerator!” I was a little shocked, trying to imagine how I could ship that to her. I said I didn’t think I could do that, so then she said, “Maybe dishwasher?” These kinds of things were of great interest to the Icelanders who, in general, were much more advanced than I would have imagined. Frodastodir was not as up to date but many of the others farmers had dishwashers and other gadgets in their homes. I imagined that this kitchen of Imba’s would have been a dream come true for Unnur. I can just see her eyes light up.

Beyond the kitchen, there were beautiful bedrooms. The bathroom had heated tile floors, a beautifully appointed shower stall and a door that led out to their porch where they had a hot tub filled with water from hot springs. The walls were decorated with oil paintings, many of them by Steini’s brother Pall, who she told us, has art and stone carvings on display in Reykjavik. A feeling of enlightenment, beauty, and tranquility ran through the house like the cool breezes blowing in through the open kitchen windows. Right next to the new house was the old house. A modest Cape with a red corrugated metal roof and siding of the same material, painted light yellow, it looked the same as when I was there. Imba explained that a farm hand lives in the old house now. I wanted to go in but Imba cautioned it is “messy” so I decided that my memory of it was all I needed.

At first, I saw all the newness but then there was recognition. I saw that the treasures from the old house had been brought to the new house and were displayed as if in a museum. In the living room, Imba had the oak breakfront that I remembered from their old living room as well as the beautiful antique chairs with the needlepoint seats, back and arms, all hand done by Unnur. On the floor beside the breakfront was the spinning wheel that Unnur used when I was there. I sometimes sat with her in the living room in the evenings and wound skeins while she spun. Those were the times that were most pleasant to me. There was always a feeling of harmony and tranquility at Frodastodir, a feeling of love and the acceptance of harsh realities. On the walls, in an alcove, old tools and horse shoes, an intricately woven saddle cinch, a miniature saddle with a handwritten inscription that I remembered had hung near the telephone, old tools – all proudly covered the walls.

Aside from its white, Scandinavian beauty, the new farmhouse seemed almost a shrine to Daniel. Outside the front door, Pall, Steini’s artist brother, had carved a life-sized likeness of Daniel’s head into a beautiful red stone. The carving is affixed onto another, monument-sized stone which stands up against the stark landscape. As well, inside the house were hanging two dramatic portraits Pall had painted of Daniel, of whom I was so fond. I remember thinking when I was living there that Daniel was very old but I now calculate that he was 58 – younger than I am now. I was astonished to realize that. It is a unique experience in my life to be with people I loved and yet with whom I never really had a conversation. Because of the language, or lack of it, there was a huge gap between us. Their kindnesses to me were in their eyes and their gestures as well as my own observations of their interactions with each other and with their animals. Daniel appeared gruff and did not smile that often. It was harder to warm to him than to Unnur, who had immediately embraced me on my arrival. At first, he and I rarely interacted – Unnur assigned me tasks and Imba often showed me what to do as well, sign language in full force.

I was not very good at milking the cows, as I recall, and I think Daniel was sometimes impatient with me (with good reason). Or maybe it was his countenance: he had big bushy eyebrows that shielded his eyes. His denim jacket was tattered at the cuffs and, in general, he was all about the work on the farm. He was stern but not unkind. I especially liked the way he and Imba lingered at the table after the meal was over, talking about things that needed doing on the farm. Even though I didn’t speak the language, it was clear to me that he was teaching her and she was his eager student. But with me, he remained aloof but then one day after I’d been on the farm a while, I wrote this in my journal: “I’ve decided I really like Daniel. This afternoon, when we were trying to get one of the cows across the bridge, he was so gentle with her, it was really neat to watch. She was scared – cows don’t like bridges and I’ve seen farmers in the past speak harshly, slap them and push them around to get them to go through gates or over bridges, but he was so nice to this cow. At dinner tonight he said his first words to me. He asked me if I would like some mysingur on my cheese. He thinks it’s pretty funny that I put the rhubarb on the cheese with my bread in the morning. He even tries to say a few English words to me now and then, with a little smile.”

One of the two portraits of Daniel hanging now on Imba’s walls is just his face, a flowing beard, eyes downcast but, more than anything else, the portrait is one of kindness. The other is almost life-size, probably six feet or more, monopolizing one entire wall. There is Daniel in actual old age (as opposed to the old age I had given him at his relatively young age of 58!). He has a long, full white beard like Methuselah, and his white hair is like a mane. Imba explained that he had Parkinson’s and his hands were no longer steady enough to hold the razor so he just stopped shaving and the beard grew the full, luxuriant length. His eyebrows were longer, bushier, and grayer than ever. It was wonderful to reacquaint myself with him at that time. Imba and I stood together and looked at the portrait. “I think I see fear in his eyes,” she said. “Like he is afraid. He died soon after this.”

I felt so badly I had never seen him again, never visited again until now. I wished for a portrait of Unnur as well but I could understand how the artist was drawn to Daniel's mysterious presence. There were photos, of course, hanging on the walls. I had not forgotten how they looked, in any case. I brought with me a copy of my own album, remade into an album for Imba, for her to keep. In the intervening years, she had never seen the photos I had taken so long ago, the photos to which I sometimes returned. One, of Daniel and Unnur working together up in the hayloft was among my favorites. How very much I would have enjoyed seeing both him and Unnur once more – although our considerable language barrier would likely have been greater than ever. Still, in the interim, Imba’s English had improved greatly and I was amazed that we could actually have a conversation and ask each other the questions that we had wanted to ask for so long.
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The Iceland Diaries

In June of 1969, when I was twenty years old, I traveled to Iceland and found work on a farm called Frodastadir (Froe-tha-stah-theer) herding sheep on horseback, milking cows, shoveling manure, scrubbing floors, bringing in the hay, painting the silo, whatever needed doing. I traded my work for room and board, a room in the dormer of the farmhouse, looking out on the wide and green Hvitarsidu (Kvee-tar-see-thu) valley, divided by the Hvita (Hvita means white in Icelandic) River, a glacial river that ran off from Langjokull, Iceland’s second largest glacier. On rare clear days, I would pause in the driveway on my way from the house to the barn, to admire the glacier, a long white line that rose with a slight crest above the horizon. Meals were taken in the narrow dining room, just big enough to fit a table and benches – enough to accommodate a big family or many farmhands but at that point in the farm’s long history, it was just the four of us. We ate mostly fish (pulled from the Hvita – it was called white because of the run-off from the glacier, which gave it a milky look) and potatoes and rhubarb, the two crops grown in the garden that grew beneath my window. At each meal, mysterious things such as blood pudding and mysingur appeared on the table.
Conditions were simple: no bathtub or shower, I bathed with a washcloth at the tiny bathroom sink. We flushed the toilet with a bucket. I washed the dishes in cold water, swishing a scrap of bar soap housed in a small screened basket to provide suds. Each day, I wrote in my journal and at the end of each entry, I recorded the temperature and conditions. Many of my entries ended with “40 degrees F. Rain.” Twice during that summer, I was blown over by the wind, which hardly ever stopped. In spite of these conditions, I loved it there and did not want to go home. I stayed until October, when I decided to return home and finish college. My plan then was to return to Iceland right after graduation, get an apartment in Reykjavik, and write a book about this harsh yet fascinating country. Life, as they say, got in the way of that plan. But I have never stopped wanting to return to Iceland.
Last March, I was sitting at my desk, writing, when, out of the blue, friends called to say they were planning a trip to Iceland in June and wondered if I would like to go too. I didn’t even stop to think, I simply said “Yes!” I thought of the green cliffs, the black sand beaches, the shaggy sheep that roamed at will, the glaciers flowing through the valleys and the steep headlands that rose up off the flatness of vast deserts. And the people from whom I’d been separated for so long.
We booked our flight and soon after I wrote to Imba, who had been 15 when I lived with her and her parents, Unnur and Daniel at Frodastadir, to tell her I was coming. We had kept in touch, loosely, all these years, Christmas cards, occasional letters and now, even more randomly, e-mail. I was always promising to come back. The closest I came was in 1986 when my husband, Paul, and I decided to go together. He came from a farming family and was intrigued to experience this country I spoke about so often. I asked for and received a two-month leave of absence from Yankee and we bought our tickets, for June, for the solstice. We outfitted ourselves and read guide books. However, in April of that year, Paul was diagnosed with cancer and all plans were scrapped. The next four years were spent on a completely different journey. And, further, his resultant death sent me on what became a relentless quest to earn a living, one which became harder rather than easier as I aged. This trip was to last only eight days, not the return I had dreamed of for so long but it was a return, nonetheless.
Because I knew the country and had contacts there, I was given the task of mapping out our journey and booking the accommodations. We wanted to drive the circumference of Iceland, which I knew was do-able but I was uncertain about much of the rest. When I was there, the only pavement in the entire country was in Reykjavik. At the city limits, the tar road ended, making for a rough transition onto a lava road, which ringed the country. Well, almost. In order to complete the circle, you had to pass beneath the glacier. The area below Vatnajokull, the biggest glacier in all of Europe, was striated with multiple streams and rivers running through the sands of past eruptions. In the time I had spent in Iceland I had also worked for a while at the Hotel Kirkjubaejarklaustur, which mostly accommodated climbers who were either waiting to go up onto the glacier or those who had just returned from expeditions. I had hitchhiked to the hotel and wished dearly to continue on to the east side of the country but there was no road through that area under the glacier, notorious for quicksand. Only skilled horsemen could navigate these treacherous sands. If you wanted to go from, say, Kirkjubaejarklaustur to Hofn, which is about ninety miles east, you had to reverse direction and go hundreds of miles, all the way round the entire country, to get back to that near point. I had heard the road, known as the “ring road,” had been paved. And that a bridge had been built over the quicksand. Other than that, I didn’t know what conditions were like. I remembered only the dirt (lava) roads which were sometimes death-defying in the way in which they wrapped themselves around mountains and crossed raging rivers, sans guard rails. The only gas stations I remembered were in Reykjavik and Akureyri. And would there be any rest stops? In the treeless landscape of 1969, it seemed immodest to simply squat on the roadside but there was so little traffic and so little alternative, this was how it went. But now, surely there was more traffic. As I planned our route, these were some of the things I worried about.
More than that, I realized, I worried about returning. Forty-one years is a long time, a time during which memories can be reshaped into fantasy. I recall that when I left Iceland, I regarded the place as something of a utopia, where houses are heated with the hot springs that run beneath the ground; where there was so little crime, the only prison in the country sat empty; where a kind of socialism existed that meant that neighbors helped neighbors, with an eye on the overall welfare of the whole, rather than the bottom line for the individual; where residents enjoyed the highest standard of living in the world and where, as well, literacy was the highest in the world; and, finally, a place with a well-functioning democracy, the oldest in the world, where women were equal to men.
During the 1970s, my first husband and I lived back to the land and I often proselytized about Iceland, suggesting not only to my husband but to our neighbors that this would be the most logical place to buy a farm and live. Yes, it was a cold climate with long dark winters but, aside from all the assets already listed, Iceland did not have an army and did not engage in warfare, with anyone. Taxes went not to support wars but to schools, social security, and the roads and bridges, the infrastructure of the country as a whole. In my view, this beat Canada as the alternative.
But now, as I researched hotels and routes, I realized I had spent so much time in my past heralding Iceland’s virtues, I suspected I was sadly out of touch with its reality. I had seen a few movies recently (“101 Reykjavik,” and “Reykjavik-Rotterdam”) which gave me pause. And there was this economic backslide they’d been plunged into. I didn’t know what was what, had no way of really knowing but, right or wrong, I was convinced that Icelanders, relative newcomers to the world of finance, had been caught in the trap of wily investors who drained them. I read an article in Vanity Fair wherein the author noted that, since the crash, many of the nouveau riche in Reykjavik had driven their expensive Range Rovers out onto the tundra and blown them up, unable to make payments or restitution. This filled me with sadness. Maybe the updated Iceland was not something I wanted to encounter, perhaps I was better off with my memories.
As March turned to April, there was something else: Eyafjallajokull, the word no broadcast announcer seemed able to pronounce but the consequences of which soon enough brought all of Europe and beyond to a sudden standstill. My response, when I first heard about this volcanic eruption heard round the world was: “They heard I was coming!” It seemed funny to me, and, beyond, profound, that little Iceland, a place I knew very well was much more sophisticated than the world leaders appeared to understand, was able to bring the world to a halt. Surely the great writers of the Icelandic sagas, and, especially, the great Icelandic novelist, Halldor Laxness, would have made hay from this truly earth-shattering event. My traveling companions got cold feet and suggested perhaps we should travel to Iceland another time. I told them that my friends in Iceland had assured me that Iceland was not affected, only European air traffic. They had misgivings but time marched on, the flight had been booked and I had already secured several of our overnight accommodations. June loomed.
In June of 1969, the Icelandic Airlines prop jet droned its way across the North Atlantic all night long. Shortly after take-off from New York at midnight, the stewardesses served us an elegant Icelandic meal of salmon, potatoes, and peas, accompanied by a small bottle of wine. I savored what I expected might be the last bit of civilization. Most everyone on board was on their way to Luxembourg. Back then Icelandic had the cheapest flights to Europe. They stopped in Iceland to refuel and passengers were free to get off and stay a day or two in Reykjavik before continuing on. If anyone had ever been to Iceland, that was how. Even the ticket agents had expressed surprise when I told them my final destination was Iceland.
I have never been able to come up with a very good answer to the question people still ask me: Why Iceland? I was finishing my junior year in college and was going through an extended period of confusion. I felt like there must be more to be experienced than the staid all-girls college where I was enrolled. My cousin Mac had served six years in the Peace Corps in Nepal. I posed the question to him: where would be a good place to go, if I could? He suggested Iceland. I had hardly heard of it and thought perhaps he was joking with me. But he explained that it was a beautiful country, green pastures and fine people. “You could get a job in Reykjavik,” he assured me. “Everyone in Reykjavik speaks English so you wouldn’t have to worry about the language.” I followed that up with some research of my own, mostly how much the plane would cost. I would have to earn enough money not only for the plane fare but for whatever needs I might have once I got there. Once I settled on Iceland, I suggested to a college friend, Jane, that she might like to come with me. She did not immediately embrace the idea. I didn’t want to push too hard because I didn’t really know what I was selling but I did want to have a traveling companion. She eventually decided to come, though we left at different times, on different flights.
My parents had driven me to the new airport, JFK, on Long Island for the flight. They were apprehensive about my trip, to say the least. I was wearing a dark blue dress that my sister had made for me for the trip, stockings, and low heeled pumps. I had no idea, really, what my circumstances would be once I got there. But I was prepared, or so I thought.
In the cargo hold was my new frame backpack, which I had purchased again on the advice of my Peace Corps-seasoned cousin. The pack was carefully layered with what I thought I might need: two pairs of jeans, two sweaters, two t-shirts, socks, three pairs of underwear, a Primus (a tiny gasoline campstove), a folding cup, a folding fry pan that could also serve as a plate, utensils, and a jackknife. In my toiletries kit, aside from toothbrush and paste, I had a small sewing kit and all-purpose remedies such as aspirin, antibiotics, antacids, moleskin (to cushion blisters), and alcohol. In the bottom of the bag were matches, six packs of cigarettes (I was a smoker in college and brought a week’s supply, assuming of course there would be cigarettes to be purchased once I arrived, one more thing about which I was wrong), a black, nicely bound blank book that I would use for a journal, writing paper, airmail envelopes, and several pens. In the side pocket, I had a Brownie camera and three rolls of film, one color and two black and white. On top, I had stuffed a brand new, ripstop nylon sleeping bag filled with 3 pounds of goose down, which would keep me warm even in temps of 20 below zero. After much research, I’d purchased this from a little place in Seattle called Eddie Bauer, a boutique that catered to mountaineers. This item was recommended to me by Bob Bates, an early mountaineer, cold weather outfitter, and friend of Mac’s from Nepal. (He had also asked me to bring him an Icelandic hat, which he claimed were “the best.”) I was not expecting to climb any mountains but the question of staying warm was one that was much discussed. The dress I was wearing pleased my mother and seemed proper to wear aboard a plane. It also might be handy for any occasions where jeans might not be suitable. I was also carrying, in a special money belt, $450 in cash and, since I was expecting to find work right away, I hoped, very much, that I would return home with most, if not all, of that amount. I turned out that two of the most important items I would need were not on my list: rain slicker and hiking boots. These had to be purchased very soon after my arrival. Onto the front flap of the olive drab backpack, I had stitched an American flag.
The plane set down on the rough runway to the Keflavik military base. It was eight o’clock in the morning and rain was falling. With the exception of the runway, everything I could see, near and far, was just a big pile of rocks. I had been told Iceland was green and beautiful. This looked anything but. “What have I done?” I thought. We deplaned onto the tarmac and, shouldering my forty pounds of self-sufficiency, I walked into the Quonset hut that served as an airport. A polite Icelandic officer, dressed in a crisp uniform, greeted me: “Welcome to Iceland,” he said, as I handed him my passport
(to be continued)
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