The Iceland Diaries, Part Six

Learning Icelandic was not anything like my French or Latin classes at school. There was no text, no patient kindly instructor to assist me over the inevitable confusion of la and le, de and da. And on the farm, there were no road signs or public signs to read and learn from. I had two […]

By Edie Clark

Aug 03 2010

Learning Icelandic was not anything like my French or Latin classes at school. There was no text, no patient kindly instructor to assist me over the inevitable confusion of la and le, de and da. And on the farm, there were no road signs or public signs to read and learn from. I had two Icelandic language books with me, one with grammar and sentences and the other simply a small pocket dictionary, translating English words into Icelandic and vice versa. These books never seemed to help me at all, I suppose mostly because what language I used was spoken, rarely, if ever, written. But there was one great aid that came soon after my arrival. Iceland, at that time, did have television. It was on for two hours at night. Period. On the farm, we all gathered around the small set in the evening after dinner. They featured reruns of familiar American shows such as Bonanza and I Love Lucy. There were Icelandic subtitles which were a great help to me in learning certain words and expressions. (One of the many charming aspects of the Icelandic culture was that, during the month of August, the national television station, which came out of Reykjavik, was closed for the month. Everyone just went on vacation. This was true of most businesses as well — in August, many Icelanders took off and went camping for their vacations — but the fact that they would shut down the television station cheered me.) By the time I left, I could hold up my end of the conversation, providing it wasn’t too complicated. But when I returned forty-two years later, I realized, I remembered little or nothing.

And so in the morning after my first night spent in Iceland after such a long absence, I emerged from the darkened bedroom into the broad sunlight of the endless day. Imba was already at work in the kitchen. Delicious smells filled the house. I remember being embarrassed that the Icelanders were the ones to come to me with their English, rather than me coming to them with my Icelandic. I felt it was impolite to go into a country and expect someone to communicate in my way rather than I in theirs. It was a fine hope but impractical. Most were way ahead of me, as they teach English in the schools and,in the city anyway, most people can switch back and forth between the two languages with ease. Many speak several languages. But Imba’s family could not. They were of the farm and rarely ventured forth. Imba spoke a few words back then but mostly she would come to me and crook her finger deliberately, saying, “Vil pu kom?” Will you come? Of course. And I would be shown my tasks for the day in sign language. Now, she spoke well enough so that we could converse, well enough so that we could get to know each other in a new way.

“I read your book last night!” she said, with a happy smile. I was amazed. When I arrived the day before, I gave her a copy of each of my books, sure that she would not be able to read them but hoping she would like to just have these, from her friend of so long ago. I not only didn’t think she could read them, I didn’t think she could read it so fast, nor did I think she would be able to understand it completely. “Yes,” she said. “It was easy. You write so I can understand and now it is easy for me to picture where you are, what your life is like.”

I was overwhelmed to know that she had read the book. I didn’t quite know what to say. It was the second time in two days that I had been stunned into silence.

The day before, we had stopped at Hvammur, Gudlaugur’s old farm, where Jane and I had first arrived, soaked to the skin, strangers on the doorstep, asking for work. I knew that Gudlaugur had passed away so when Imba suggested we go in for a visit, I hesitated. I did not think the children would remember me, should they still be on the farm. But she drove in and I could see a man haying the back pasture on a blue Ford tractor. The sight of the house gave me a pang of confused emotions. This was where it all began, I thought to myself. When he saw us, he stopped the tractor, got out and strode down toward us, leaving his tractor running behind him. He was a big, handsome Viking, surely one of Gudlaugur’s sons. He was smiling broadly. This was Torvi, Imba explained, Torvi who had been four when Jane and I arrived in the pouring rain, seeking work.

“Torvi!” I said as if facing an old friend, but he was a man, not the tiny blonde elf I had known as Torvi. He had been an adorable, curious little boy who apparently followed us everywhere. I didn’t quite remember it that way but when I looked in my photo album when I got home — he was somewhere, in just about every photo.

I started to say, “You probably don’t remember me?” but he countered with a look of amazement. “Of course I remember you!” he thundered, “You look same. I see it! Every year, we get out the pictures and talk about you and Jane!” It was my turn to look amazed. We went inside. I glanced quickly in every direction, taking it all in. Forty-two years and an entire generation later, everything looked much the same. The living room where we had sat and became acquainted, where Steinum had brought the miraculous tray of pastries and the unusual coffee that I later learned was chicory, the room was unchanged, spare, immaculate, the outlook on the valley. Everything was unchanged except that it was now dominated by a large-screen television set. I had spent only a couple of days in that house but it had the feeling of being a place of importance in my life. I could easily picture Gudlaugur sitting on the ottoman, opening the maps, searching for Pennsylvania and New Jersey, our home states. We were complete strangers, coming to him as we did, vagabonds or children of the world, and yet he instantly took us in, cared for us, fed us, gave us beds, wanted to come to know us, looked upon us as conduits to another place, there on this isolated farm in this isolated country at the end of the 1960s.

And so it was, that short visit to Hvammur, bringing Torvi off his tractor on that fair day in June in 2010 brought to conclusion many questions I have had over the years. I had not, ever, until that moment, imagined what it was like for them to receive us. I was young, a bit confused but eager to explore the world beyond the confines of the New Jersey suburb where I had grown up and Gudlaugur and his beautiful farm, Hvammur, had connected with that past. Being that so young and self-absorbed, I had never once thought what it must have been like for that family, living their quiet lives in that broad, beautiful, but isolated valley, to swing open their front door and have a link to America walk in. (We were told by Gudlaugur and many others subsequently that we were the first Americans they had ever met. This had seemed like quite a responsibility to me at that time.) I never thought what it might have been like from their point of view. Thinking about it now, I can easily imagine that we made a memorable impression on many in that valley at that time. And so, after thinking it over in that light, I’m not surprised Torvi remembered me, even though he was just four at that time.

At the time, I had written in my journal my concerns about the future of Iceland’s farms, mostly because the children, I was told, did not want to stay on the farms but many of them not only left and went to Reykjavik but, further, they went abroad. Thus Iceland experienced a decline in the population, which, at the time of my visit was 250,000 — in the whole country. And now? 350,000. But right there, on that farm and at Imba’s, I had the answer to my question of so long. Both Imba and Torvi are the youngest in their families and both of them are now running their family farms, both of them proud and happy in their work. So, at least two of the farms were still in the same family. Beyond that, I don’t know — I’m sure I can find that out, at another time. I have many unresolved questions, for another time, another visit. Meanwhile, I know that both Daniel and Gudlaugur must be happily at rest, knowing their farms live on.

I would love to have talked with them now. Imba, by contrast, was more about now than then. She was living in her updated present, and happily so. She had always had a bright smile and it had not faded with the world. In winter, for many years, she has been a schoolteacher to the younger students at the local boarding school, Varmalandskola. It is where I addressed my letters to her for years. (Gudlaugur taught history there, at that same school.) She must be a wonderful teacher. Even at fifteen, she was confident and capable. She could mend a fence or ride her beloved horses bareback at high speed. But she was never boastful. Just extremely capable. And happy. And kind. Her white-blonde hair was gray now, and cut short but her beauty shown like a diamond.

The fragrance of pancakes and the hot griddle filled her new kitchen. She worked swiftly, stacking the cakes on a plate as she went. She asked questions as she worked. I had brought her a photocopy of my Iceland album, all the photos of my time spent here. When I was getting ready to come, I realized that, of course, she had never seen these photos of long ago. I made it into a scrapbook and included photos of my home. I had also brought Hershey bars and Vermont cheddar. And my books and a Yankee magazine. I remembered how they loved American things. She had mentioned the day before that she had traveled to Cuba and to Africa, two very interesting choices in my opinion. In the 1970s, I had tried to convince her to come to visit me. I even once offered to pay her way, though I didn’t really have the money for that but I really wanted to have her come. Now she chose Cuba and Africa, two hot places. I asked why. Cuba, she said, sounded warm and interesting and she had had a lovely time, enjoyed it very much. Africa? She has a friend who speaks Swahili (there are so many surprises in Iceland!) who invited her to go with her to Kenya. “I thought if I were going to go, I should go with someone who spoke the language,” she explained. “I would get so much more out of it.”

I wondered if her experience living with me had any influence on that observation. She was finishing the pancakes. My friends had not yet arrived from their night’s lodging. She came over to the table and sat down with me.

“Tell me, what is slavery?” she asked.

Certainly not a question I had ever been asked before. Certainly not a question that I welcomed. I told her about the cotton mills and the large plantations and the need for labor inside and outside the house. As I spoke, I realized, for the first time, that there are countries where one does not have to explain the reason for the existence of something called slavery. There are countries that don’t even know the word. But Imba had visited places in Africa where she had been shown places where children were taken on ships to America. Nothing like that had ever come ashore in Iceland. Labor here, now and in the past, was done by the people of Iceland or not done at all. I explained that it was tied to the system of capitalism, the need to make a profit, keeping production costs low. I felt like I was digging a ditch into which I would have liked to disappear.

She followed this up with a question about the Indians, delivered in the same earnestly curious way. Who were these people who once lived on our land and now were gone? Where did they go? And were they really bad people? I remembered that some of the television shows we once watched together so long ago had stories of cowboys and Indians. And the Indians were not portrayed very favorably. Oh, how tied we all are to our past, even if it is not our own or the result of our intentions. This is our national heritage. It reminded me of the black man who had wanted to sue us all for having owned slaves, even if we or any of our ancestors had never owned one. But we are all responsible for that past, in some unnameable way. Now Imba was gently seeking answers to these simple questions. And I had none. Only to say that the Indians, for the most part, were good people, peaceful souls who were only defending their own territory, which any one of us would have done. And in so doing, acquiring a reputation for being savages.

And what about these places called reservations, she wanted to know. They were not on good land, she said, why did they do that? I could see she was not going to allow me to escape. I had never before been asked to account for the ways of my country in quite this way. Just then Gretchen and Tom and Enid drove in.

Imba put everything I loved for breakfast on the table. Could she possibly remember? The custard made from the milk of a cow that had just given birth, which has an indescribable flavor. Unnur often made it for me, with a special smile. Hard boiled eggs. A brown bread unique to Iceland. A big wedge of cheese. So much it was hard to choose what to eat. We ate until we were satisfied.

We had only been in the country for two days and already I had seen and heard all that I had hoped for. Frodastadir. Imba. Torvi. Hvammur. Hvitarsidu. More than I had hoped for. And I had tasted the custard, the lamb, the red cabbage, the potatoes. But this was just the beginning of the trip and we had 800 miles to cover before flying home again. My friends were anxious to set forth. I would have been happy to stay there with Imba for the duration, even if it meant explaining why America had slaves and what on earth they did to the Indians.