(This was written by my spouse unit, Denise Warren, a quarter century ago and bears posting as an unusual example of travel writing. You need not be interested in knitting to enjoy this, though veteran knitters will be delighted. FYI: Kaffe Fasset is some hoity toity expert on knitting, and “colorways” is a style invented by him. Unfortunately, all the sweaters referred to in the piece no longer exist, but the very first illustration is an example of “colorways” knitting. The others are just to demonstrate what a world class knitter my woman is.)
We arrived in Reykjavik safe and in time for brunch. I had had no sleep, all the way from Albuquerque. I sat on three planes, with:
1. A beautiful young blond skinny Swedish boy who’d spent a year at Santa Fe Prep School in New Mexico. I said was going to Iceland, but only for four weeks. He said: “Four weeks is enough for Iceland.” Swedish snobbery?
2. A woman who worked in Saudi Arabia for five years and was going back for another five. They couldn’t have any pork products there and Miss Piggy is censored out of the Muppets. I was really impressed at not getting to see Miss Piggy.
3. An Icelandic family returning after three years in Birmingham, Alabama, where the father was studying dentistry. They spoke wonderful English with sort of Southern/ Icelandic accents.
About Iceland: one can eat Harþfiskur there. Haddock is usually used. The fish is dressed, cleaned, and washed carefully, and hung up in airy sheds where it dries until it is very hard and brittle. The best results: when the fish freezes slightly early in the drying process. It can be kept for years in a good dry storage area. Dried fish is not boiled before it is eaten but hammered until it is soft and crumbly. Torn from the skin into strips, it is served with butter. When halibut is used, it is called riklingur.
When I first began “color knitting,” a la Kaffe Fassett’s books, I had lots and lots of failures. Disasters, actually. I re-read all his books in a frantic kind of sortition, going to that purplish, Vergilian prose to see if I couldn’t just find some word or phrase which would correct all my errors (and it is Vergilian, as Fassett is the only living person I know who actually talks in dactylic hexameters: “Just a shot of magenta enlivens the other colours.” And all that talk about getting ideas from the colors of nature.
Remember the bit in one of the glorii about the leopard’s pelt? The close scrutiny convinced him it had blue in it? Well, a friend and I each read that during the same week and each went down to the zoo on the same weekend, although separately. She even took binoculars. I remember standing forever squinting at the leopards trying to find some blue in their pelts somewhere. Finally I thought I had. I asked an attendant, who had been standing nearby, watching me, chewing on a match. “That’s a touch of the color blue there down on his flank, isn’t it?”
He came back with a one-word riposte: “dung.” “Dung?” I asked. “He rolls in his dung,” said the attendant. Of course, what Fassett is usually talking about is the havoc wreaked by nature on some manmade object such as a wooden fence, an old stone wall, a painted doorway with paint peeling off. What he calls “unattended objects.” I always thought of nature as something that belonged best on picture postcards. I thought the whole meaning of civilization was to keep nature at bay. I was minded of our French guide (“geed”) in the Sahara, turning ’round on his camel, looking back at me on my camel, and singing out something that sounded like: “Le experience spirituale, eh, Denise? Eh? Eh?” as he swept his hands grandly over the landscape. But, as I finally said to him, “Jean Paul, I really don’t think myself to have been so constituted as to have “le experience spirituale—I’m an Episcopalian.”
So if it had to be nature for my ideas, what about Iceland, then? For, if there is one thing that Iceland has plenty of, it’s nature. And while around its perimeter it is really rather stunningly attractive, interiorly, it will sport some of the more astonishingly unprepossessing colors I’ve ever seen. So, I thought to myself, as I stomped around the house Rumplestiltskin-like, I’ll just knit up a conflated Krusivik/ SprengiSandur colorway.
I’ll do the Persian poppy waistcoat of Fassett in those Krusivik/ SprengiSandur colors. All those boiling mud pools, bubbling sinisterly away, with the big signs in English reading don’t step off these planks whatever you do or the hotness of the boiling mud will burn your feet clean off at the ankle leaving a bloody stump before bob’s your uncle (or something like that).
Yellow would be good—sort of a mustard yellow with green-grey streaks, not entirely unlike the stool of a newborn infant. And all that springy green mossy stuff you have to walk over to get to the caves and sink in that ominous fashion which suggests that the ground is not solid after all. Green, like, well, like bile, actually. And then the ropy lava—like wrinkled elephants’ skins—liverish-colored. And in all that lovely nature, of course, a wildflower or two will pop up in wouldn’t you-know magenta. A slightly anemic magenta, but magenta all the same. Now, a touch of magenta may enliven the other colors but when all the other colors are quite poisonous . . .
So I knit it. Well, of course, it didn’t quite come off the way I had imagined it would. I couldn’t find yarns in colors quite as poisonous as I had wanted. Stupid vest came out almost gladsome. I call it Krusivik/SpengiSandur, rather a big name for such a small vest.
The following sweater was suggested by a place I visited on my first trip to Iceland when I was all on my own and didn’t have much money. I spent a couple of satisfying days exploring Reykjavik and swimming and then, on my last day but one, I thought what a shame it would be to leave Iceland having seen nothing but Reykjavik, and so I went to the tour guide place in the Loftleiðer Hotel and asked what tours they had going, and he showed me one to Greenland.
(This was in the early eighties and I was poorer then. That seemed like a fortune.)
And I said thank you very much but had he anything nearer? And he showed me Heimeay.
And I said thank you very much but had he anything closer? We worked our way down down down the list ’til I saw a pamphlet down at the very bottom that clearly said $28.50. And I pointed to it and said I’ll take that one and he said Don’t you want to know where you’ll be going? and I said no, that would be fine, so he sold me the ticket and pointed to the bus just leaving and off we went for about maybe 40 minutes and then the bus driver stopped and opened the doors of the bus and said, “Thirty minutes.”
We all got out and stood around by the bus door in the rain trying to light up our cigarettes, and then we took off to see miles and miles of grey-brown wooden poles holding up miles and miles of grey-brown wooden clotheslines holding billions and billions (as Carl Sagan would have said) of little dead fish hanging out on the lines, like little socks, to dry, in the rain.
I can’t describe to you how very difficult it is to maintain, for thirty minutes, a countenance which manifests interest, and admiration, and intellectual curiosity in such a milieu.
Grinidivik. Where they dry fish. Which they export and sell to Nigeria. So knit up a little sweater, all greys and browns, in diamond-toothed stripes. Grinidivik. It didn’t quite come off as I had hoped. Not grim enough. Not grey enough. Not damp enough. Sweater has almost a quirky charm.
Akureyri (in the north)
I have now walked Akureyri and have found here as everywhere else in Iceland what I call competitive lace curtains. Never knew there were so many white lace patterns, and even different ones in the windows of the same house. Each outdoes the other, neighbor topping neighbor with oriental “blue willow” designs, Greek key designs, gulls, flowers, quiet understated elegant patterns, rich tropical fulsome patterns, all sparkling clean and white. It reminds me of Anna Russell’s Wagner’s Ring, with Brunhilde and Siegfried doing their competitive singing. Anything you can do, I can do better.
(Following section on food taken from an Icelandic pamphlet handed out to tourists.)
Another word on food: on Lamb. Smoked lamb meat has always been a favorite dish in Iceland and generally used on festive occasions. It is still the traditional main course for dinner on Christmas Eve. Only recently a new light smoke cure has been developed and the product is called “London Lamb.” This delicious dish is now being featured as a special attraction in several leading restaurants in America and Europe.
On Hakarl: This unusual Icelandic food, cured shark meat, belongs to the group of edibles that one has to acquire a taste for. Fresh shark meat is not edible and has to be cured, or rather ripened, before it can be eaten. The shark is cut into strips which are placed on a clean gravel bed and covered up with stones. There it stays for several weeks; it is then removed, washed, and hung up in airy sheds to dry. This curing is a difficult process, and only men with long experience can turn out a first class product. Like all ripened foods, hakarl has a rather pungent odor, and it has been said that the most ticklish operation when eating it is to get it past your nose. To obtain maximum gastronomical enjoyment, one should was it down with a liberal schnapps of ice cold Icelandic BRENNIVIN [burnt wine—actually, burnt throat].
On Skyr: Skyr is the national dish of Iceland and one that they are justly proud of. It has been a major item in their diet ever since their forefathers, the first settlers, brought it with them from their Scandinavian homelands. Through the centuries, it was made on every farm and gradually the process was improved upon and refined. Now most of it is made in modern dairies under rigid sanitary conditions. Skyr is very perishable and does not keep for any length of time. Fresh supplies must be delivered to the stores and other outlets every day; what you are being served today was processed yesterday or the day before.
Skyr belongs to the soft cheese group. It is made from skim milk which is pasteurized and then cooled down to about body temperature. Then a special fermenting agent is added to it which curdles the milk, and when that has taken place, the curds are separated from the whey. The curds are the skyr but the whey is not thrown away; it is used to preserve food. The whole process of skyr-making demands great care and attention to the details, such as the temperature and moisture level in the processing rooms. The skyr has a high nutritive value but is low in fats. It is easily digestible and extensively used as infant food. Sprinkle your helping to taste with granulated sugar and use the mixture of milk and cream like sauce on a pudding.
Vatnajokel (big mother glacier in the center)
A fourteen-hour bus ride, driving north across the uninhabited interior, where no one lives, no one can pass through, save during the two months of summer, and there is nothing to see on the left, and Vatnajokel on the right. Hour after hour, there it still is, peeking out over up and behind the blue and purple mountains—lurking in that same minatory fashion as some of Thurber’s figures.
One pit stop the whole long day, at noon. One toilet—chick sales. One cold lunch. Back on the bus to be jiggled and bounced for several more hours. And Vatnajokel still there on the right. We share the bus with tourists from all over the world (an air traffic controller from Oman was one fellow whom I remember, as he held forth on beautiful Icelandic women for many of those hours). And of course, some indigenes, with their Icelandic version of beef jerky—cured shark. I don’t really know of a more noisome snack. And the windows of the bus did not open.
Hence, I knit a Jack’s back vest in purples and blues like the mountains. With a touch of the white glacier. Not a result I really like. I forgot that I never use white when knitting colorways. This is because among all the other colors white is very aggressive. It elbows its way forward and shouts out at viewers like a Willy Loman “I’m white. I’m pure. Attend! Attend!” and one does attend and then one doesn’t see anything else.
Well, of course, this Vatnajokel (big mother glacier) is very very white, so what could I do?
Stikkishomar (west coast)
My spellings are medieval: that is to say, one time one way, another time another. Please forgive. We arrived at Stikkishomar about 11:30 at night. There was no smoking on the bus, and someone brought on some cured shark and ate it and we all practiced exhaling without inhaling. I guess it’s kind of like beef jerky. Very beautiful country— isolated farms, each with a dog who barks at the bus in Icelandic: arð, arð. We saw seals, cattle, sheep, and a complete double rain bow. Mountains were covered with dark green velvet. We were there only briefly and my main impression is of the colors wheat and grey. There was a lovely rather Eastern church with golden onion domes. I decided to make me a vest called Stikkishomar, because it is such fun to say. Stikkishomar. Stikkishomar.
(Again, from the pamphlet handed out.)
A note again about the food: Blodðmor. This remarkable food formerly took the place of bread in the nation’s diet, at any rate to a large extent. The sheep’s blood is salted and then thinned out with equal amounts of water. Then, a thick mixture is made with barley and rue flour and suet from the innards of the sheep, cut into small bags, usually fashioned from the larger intestines of the sheep, carefully cleaned and boiled for about three hours. In the old days, large amounts of this food were made in the fall during the slaughtering season and preserved in sour whey throughout the winter. Another variety can be made with ground sheep liver instead of blood and is called lifrarpylsa or livarpylsa (liver sausage). This food is very nourishing and has been one of the staples of Icelandic diet for centuries.
Borganess is a tiny little hamlet that for reasons mysterious to us you have to go to to get to anyplace else. It is a bus hub or something. Tiny. Two streets. Well, the first time we got there we all got out of the bus and dashed into the hotel and got drinks and sat down and started to play cards and our tour guide got riled with us and chased us out to walk about and see Borganess. So, we walked down one street and up the other and really saw Borganess. We returned to Borganess several times more and each time we made a point of disembarking and marching straight up one street and down the other, walked, just in case anything in Borganess had radically changed in the last day or two. By which you can tell we were getting really fatigued and quite testy, as Borganess is quite lovely.
The last time we visited Borganess we were approaching it by bus, and I had taken a bit of a nap in the back seat, and our tour guide came and woke me up, poking me and saying:
“Denise! Denise! You must wake up now, because we are coming in to Borganess!”
And I said, “I’ve seen Borganess,” and went back to sleep and this tour guide poked and poked me again and said:
“But Denise! You really must wake up now, because this time we are coming into Borganess from another direction!”
So I knit a little vest of carpet pattern (Kilim) in Borganess colors and I think I really brought it off, even though I got to enjoying working the carpet pattern so much that on the front I quite forgot myself and zagged when I should have zigged and so it looks a bit like a cat with asymmetrical face markings. I tried oversewing it or Swiss darning it and even in broad daylight it looks OK. The camera, however, finds these little imperfections and exposes them to the world. I call this sweater “Borganess from another direction.”
Thingvellir (a little east of Reykjavik)
We took another bus trip today to see Thingvellir. This is where the althing and the law rock are. And geysers: Gullfoss, etc. Then we went to the steam cabins in bathing suits where we sat in a little room with a lot of people, got steamed with sulfuric steam up through the floor—new to me, very soothing, except for when the drunks came in. They were here to do a performance like an SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) thing. We went from there to Skaholt where we heard a concert of baroque music on baroque instruments—Bach, Handel—very classy.
More Reykjavik (west coast)
One can quickly become starved for spicy food here, especially if one is from New Mexico. We walked to the Loftleiður for breakfast, and had American/English style breakfast with eggs. Breakfast in Iceland is apt to be cheese, salty salami, cucumbers, tomatoes, cereal, and skyr. The swimming pools, however, are plenteous and wonderful. One tries to see everything and do everything and easily becomes a bit balithð, as the Icelanders say when they mean “out of order” (and put signs on their machines and cash registers saying, in English, “out of control”). One may be informed, in English, that their Coca-Cola is “finished” ’til Monday. The swimming is perhaps all the more wonderful because of the gale force winds. One gets in the warm water, steaming so vigorously that one cannot see two feet before one, and feels like little Thord—only one’s fingers feel burned with the extreme cold; the rest is snug and warm in the water. Then one makes a mad freezing shivering dash to the hot tubs at the sides of the pools. Very invigorating. Lunch is apt to be rolls and cream-of-something soup, all very pale, all very good, but, to New Mexicans, not very colorful or exciting. There is a brand new bowling alley right here in Reykjavik, called a Keiluspil. I think Keilu must be the shape of the bowling pin and spil the playing. I think that by analogy with the German spielfigur or play figure. I, on behalf of old friends in the Big Chief Truck Terminal team, had to check it out. I bowled one line by myself—no one would go with me to a bowling alley. Intellectual snobs! I can report that bowling alleys are pretty much the same anywhere.
There is no formal gambling here, except occasional state lotteries. Can’t find any tattoo parlors, although I have been told what they are called: Some say tattovering and some say hudðflur (skin decoration). The only one I did find was shut, because of some “trouble.” That could mean anything. There are no prestidigitators (magicians) that I can find. But all the lodges (Masonic, Elks, Shriner types) are the most magnificent architectural structures in town, saving the churches.
I have been pony trekking on Icelandic horses which are small and five-gaited—the tölt. Is this the same as a rack? Again, I went alone, being bon-voyaged cheerfully by one fellow who said ominously, “You can’t trot a rack,” whatever that meant. I did lots of bouncing until I got into it. When I arrived, the wrangler, very like other wranglers I have met, especially the one taking the mules down the Grand Canyon, who didn’t want me to go down the canyon on the mule in my high heels (once you’ve seen one wrangler, you’ve seen them all), began talking very loudly and indignantly in Icelandic. “Zama zama zama zama zama kona [woman] zama zama zama zama pils [skirt]!” he shouted ferociously at us. I recognized two words. Oh oh. Nevertheless, he kindly provided me with the appropriate vestments, a little oversized and manurey, and off I tölted. I have a horseshoe as a token or certificate of having done it. English type saddles, no horn to hold onto, and all the while I was wondering how I’d get a horseshoe through the metal detector at the airport going home. Finally, I did have a lovely smooth ride.
I did a Reykjavik sweater, Kaffe Fassett’s houses, with grey concrete sides and roofs in those particularly piercing colors of the northern palette: pea greens and barn reds and mustard yellows and French electric blues. It is a very different palette from Mediterranean colors.
A Coda to Isafjordur
There is one thing now which I have not mentioned that must be told and that is about saga, þattr, the Icelandic storytelling tradition. On all of our bus tours were guides with microphones. With these they discussed for us geology, geography, the history of the districts through which we were being taken, and most especially, the names of every farmstead, or in the interior, where there were no farms of people or steads, the names of every mountain and hill, every rock and rill. And with each, whether farm or hill or mountain or waterfall or whatever, came: “Now there is a little old Icelandic story connected with this. Once upon a time was a home sitter (spinster) and she went to the waterfall, and her lover who lived on the farm across the waterfall went to his side of the waterfall and called to Inge and asked her to marry him and she said she would if he would cross the waterfall to her and so he started out across the waterfall and he drowned in the attempt.” we call them Icelandic endingless stories. I don’t know whether we are off balance because they end on a rising inflection or pitch, or because with us stories are constructed differently, Aristotelian-like, with beginnings and middles and ends, but . . . we hang there, waiting to hear the end, an “and, therefore . . . “, and it never comes. There are hundreds of little Icelandic stories like this and that is how they end. Of course, it may be leg-pulling again . . . so, you remember now our first big adventure up in the north when we flew up to Isafjordur and took the lovely Fagrenes ferry boat which turned out to heading north into the Arctic Ocean not south and we were on it for ten hours and sick and inside stretched out like corpses on benches many of those hours and I went to have a smoke in the captain’s cabin?
Well, right at this very moment we are sure that there is a bus full of foreign tourists from all over, passing through Isafjordur and down by the harbor, and the tour guide is clicking on his little microphone and pointing out the beautiful Fagranes ferry boat and saying:
“Now, there is a little Icelandic story connected with this ferry boat. Once upon a time there were six American student sightseers here, and they took this boat to see the fjords where events in our great sagas took place. And they became seasick and all fell asleep.”
And foreign tourists, will, as we have done many times, lean forward attentively awaiting the ending of the story, and after a little while of silence, and then a little while more of silence, shrug, and with sad puzzled expressions, turn their weary faces to the windows once again.
About Isafjordur I forgot to mention that the museum had hair dryers, like I used a couple of decades ago, as artifacts, which made me feel really really old, and in addition to the museum we were taken to see the shark curing industry—puuuuuey—a very funny, very different sort of tour. We also saw knitting needles of wood in cases like my own Cornish grandmother used to tuck up underneath her harm, like Anne Boleyn’s head.
(More from the tourist pamphlet.)
SVIÐ: singed sheep heads have been used for food in Iceland from earliest times and are always very popular. The heads can be processed in several ways, but many like them best as “svidasulta” (head cheese), preserved in sour whey. Many other food items have been treated the same way as the Blodmör and the Svið, by using sour whey as a preservative. Bristle of Lamb, Lamb Fries, and Whale Meat fall in this category.
Flatey Isle (off west coast)
This is a developing country with high tech plumbing and super buses, if you dig buses. Last night after the long bus ride we played hearts in the bar. On the fourteen-hour bus ride the radio played Lutheran hymns all morning and then Icelandic lieder in the afternoon and then Icelandic hard rock at night, very loud. Bus drivers love their radios. Today we are having breakfast and gearing up for another ferry boat ride (to Flatey Isle) this time in Briedafjord (the fjord where nearly everyone in the sagas who drowns drowns— well, except one of Egil’s sons). It is cold and windy and we keep asking ourselves why we are doing this, but it is beautiful. We spend four hours on Flatey Island, where Flateybok was written in the middle ages (on an island about as big as your yard and the next-door neighbor’s together, looking at every sheep turd and being dive bombed by terns when we inadvertently stepped through the grass where they had their little nests)—a gorgeous view, and a lovely trip out by ferry, just to keep a fair balance, ferryboat-wise. So here we sit on our luggage trying to keep awake and doing our postcard duty—like Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Vespers, Postcards.
In Iceland, by the way, if a driver kills a sheep on the road, he must stop at the next farmhouse and pay for it—or so we are told. If it is a black sheep, he pays more. In Great Britain, a black sheep is an economic disaster—nobody wants that wool—too bristly—they dye other, lighter wool black. Hence a black sheep in the family means worthless, not criminal, as we have been using it to mean. Words always perjorate, they never elevate or ameliorate. Here in Iceland, knitting is called ropi, I think. But my language ability is so nil, I get patterns by charading knitting with my hands.
Flatey Isle is so small, you can walk all round it and through it in half an hour. Leaving no tern unstoned. Some monkish sorts wrote out this important book on this island in about the 1300s when writing was done the hard way—they earned it. We had to take another ferry to get there because Flatey Isle is in the middle of Breidafjord and right off I thought how really plucky we must all be to chance another ferryboat ride after Isafjordur. Or how really stupid. Then as I stood on deck I looked down at the slatted floor and at that which I could see little bits of beneath and between the slats and I realized it could have been worse—we could have been traveling with stock!
Well, we had some hours to spend on Flatey Isle and after inspecting every square inch, when the ferry was not yet there to escort us back, we sat and appreciated nature. We couldn’t keep walking round and round and round because some terns had their eggs there in the grass where we couldn’t see them since the grass was rather high but when we walked anywhere near those terns would dive bomb us until we all felt like little Tippy Hedrons.
I thought the place ever so confining, so I thought I’d just work up a little vest of postage stamp squares in the perfectly nice colors I remembered from Flatey Isle—purples and lavenders and yellows and greens, but I thought all those neurotic little postage stamps all squeezed together would give it that confined feel.
So I did, and I called it Flatey Isle, but it didn’t quite come off because I tend to make my knit things rather huge, and so I ended up with a sort of barrel dress vest and that rather killed the confined idea.
We went on the next day to Surtsellir (a long bus ride to and from, a long two-mile walk across the moor, which is lava rock, all deep pile carpet moss on it into which your feet sometimes step way way way down), and then these caves (we went through two caves), deep, pitch dark, the access all sharp pointy jiggly rocks about 2’ x 3’, which I went over on all fours, very tiring, and then across ice lakes (I needed a walker—I’m too old for this exercising and activity), and then down some more cave slopes covered in snow, very steep, which I went down on my bum, (much easier that way, and fun, and several little Icelandic children cried out, “Leita, Pappi, Leita, Pappi!” [Look, Pop, look!] and followed by example—I bring light and laughter wherever I go. Every group needs a class clown. Some in Albuquerque will remember my running across the corn field to catch the balloon ride before the balloon lifted off in the air again, and some of them thinking of the Berlin Wall and imagining me being shot at and calling out to me, “You can make it Denise, you can make it, Denise” as though shots were ringing out all around me and my life hung in the balance. It was like that. Sort of.)
On another day we took a thirteen-hour bus ride in which bus there were signs saying: “vid rykium ekke her (no smoking)!!!” —very hard on us three-pack-a-dayers, as many of us were at that time, a decade ago and before being healthy had become the Eleventh Commandment. No smoking, no toilets, practically no stops up through the uninhabited interior, Arnavatnmoor past Vatnjokull (it is midnight and my spelling is my own). We went past the big glacier all the day-long-day, with mountains on our right (east of us) blue and varied, peaking and dipping, but always that little Casper-the- Ghost-shaped glacier peeking out at us between the peaks. We went to Altafoss and Godafoss waterfalls and finally Myvatn. Myvatn is named from the myvs which inhabit it. Which are what I believe people in Britain call midges and we call mosquitoes or gnats or something, sort of a cross between mosquitoes and midges. In Myvatn I learned some important Icelandic vocabulary: hamburgarari, fraskar, omiletta, kaffi, cocacola, and formkaka. Formkaka— say it with a straight face, pronounced just as you would suppose, and you get a piece of marble cake! Delicious! And . . . did you know arctic foxes were indigenous there? But the polar bear came on an ice drift. Go figure!
Myvatn is where one ends up after that excruciating punishing bus ride through the uninhabited wasteland to view Vatnjokel, still there after all those hours.
Myvatn is very green. And very wet. And very rainy. And very swampy. And very green. A perfect riot of greens, many of which had no business at the same table with many of the other greens. Pea greens and sea greens and bottle greens and yellow greens and blue greens and khaki greens and turtle greens and Irish greens and grass greens and all together screaming at each other. Except of course in nature that sort of thing always works, somehow.
Of course, we were very tired when we got to Myvatn and just possibly a wee bit testy, so we may have viewed it with a jaundiced eye. Still, it really was a smite-the-eye-green medley. So I thought I’d just knit up a little cardigan in tumbling blocks in that murder of greens and that would demonstrate my ability to get my “colorways” from nature. So I did. It almost came off, but not quite, I think, because the greens next each other which shouldn’t be next each other don’t seem to shout as much as I’d have liked them to. And really, it just isn’t quite green enough. And it isn’t at all wet enough.
Reykjuvikr (east coast)
My expedition to the Cathedral, Halgrimskirkja, to “mess” (mass), Lutheran, but high enough and near enough that I could follow the service, outstandingly enjoyable. This is the church the spire of which looks like a prick with venereal warts—an optical illusion, since when one gets up close one discovers that the warts are really rectangular. The priest wore a great vestment with a huge white ruff, so that he looked a little like a dog with a don’t-scratch collar, but I loved the effect! I recognized the Kyrie, the Lord’s Prayer, the Agnus Dei, the “we do not presume to come to this thy table, O Lord,” and most of the hymns, even though everything was in Icelandic. Including the “predican” (predicare? Latin?—the sermon). The stations of the cross were on grained wood, only just severe outlines of Christ’s passion— very very beautiful. They don’t have much wood here in Iceland, but what wood they do use they treat with love and respect; you should see the high-polished hardwood floors in the Gamli Garður, the hotel where we are staying. I sang the hymns lustily, knowing already the tunes, and finding, much to my surprise, that somehow figuring out and managing the pronunciation was no problem when singing. I amazed myself. I kept thinking of Anna Russell’s Ring(almost as amusing as the original): you can get away with anything, so long as you sing it!
I bought cassettes of Icelandic folk music here and the Icelandic National Anthem and I got a recording of the only Icelandic punk-rock band that recorded in Icelandic. I’m trying to get a tape of a man who sings or chants the old rimur. The rock album has selections like Billiard blus, Einhver tima, and one called Ung og Riki (young and rich). The other has the Pjodsongor Islands and things called “a springisandi” (the name of the wasteland we went through near the caves). They are examples of Icelandic Femtasongur (not sure of the spelling of this); a kind of five-note interval harmony. It is very haunting.
Modern Icelandic I find tougher to learn than ancient Greek, and we in our group have just three weeks to learn it! The people teaching the classes, however, are young, attractive, charming, and very very kind. We get rather hysterically giggly about our efforts. The beautiful man in charge of the language lab, named Veddi, breaks into our earphones with remarks like: “Daneeze . . . more pre-aspiration. Through the nose. nhhh not hhhhn. Like you laugh. nh nh nh nh nh” (giving this evil, Bela Lugosi laughter). I say, “but Veddi, Americans don’t laugh like that.” “Oh,” he says, very crestfallen. I asked him once if it didn’t distress him to hear how we Americans were butchering his language and he assured me that we weren’t doing any worse than all the other students (Swiss, Dutch, Scandinavians, Germans, who all sound so Icelandic to us). He said they make mistakes too, just different mistakes from American mistakes. And, he said, the Danes don’t do their vowels right at all! (The bitterness from the Danish hegemony still lingers.)
One night I watched Dallas on the TV, three-year-old shows in English (or American, or Texan), with Icelandic subtitles. Cliff had just tried to off himself. Icelandic sort of glomerates, like German. The word for attempted suicide went clear across the screen and off the side. Lucy was pregnant. The word for that which they used was ofriskar. That means unwell. I later learned that Icelanders don’t any longer approve of that word. At least, the women don’t. On the other hand, þung, which means heavy, is too coarse. But it does have its onomatopoeia, doesn’t it?
There is a lot of golden age thinking among the academics here. They think Iceland is going to the dogs. Literally, as well as figuratively. They now (this was written in the ’80s) have a few hours of one channel of TV daily except Thursdays. And we heard things like this: Lecturer: “In 1944 we demanded home rule and we got it! In 1972 we demanded more fishing space and we got it! In 1980 we demanded the right to have dirty little puppy dogs in Reykjavik and we got it! And in 1982 we demanded Dallas . . . and we got it!
This was in response to a question from the audience about what Icelanders had had against cute little doggies. The tone, facial expression, and body language with the last two examples made it perfectly clear that the lecturer felt the world was going to hell in a pooper scooper.
Cleanness means something here. The statues have no guano. How do they manage that? And the lecturer’s attitude was one of total bewilderment, as if he couldn’t understand why anyone would want a dog in a city!
Yesterday, I went to a book store, making a big mistake—I was looking for a used, inexpensive copy of Egilssaga. “People don’t let go of their sogur!” I was told, very indignantly. “Oh,” I said, feeling very much like an ugly American—Cornelia Otis Skinner viewing Notre Dame and wondering why it was so dirty. Then I asked for a novel by an Icelandic writer of detective fiction, set in Iceland and written in Icelandic—at the time, I hadn’t yet discovered that there were as yet no good English/Icelandic, Icelandic/English dictionaries. The proprietor turned to the five or six Icelandic men in the shop—all middle-aged and looking very tough and dangerous. He bellowed something to them in Icelandic. I thought perhaps I had asked another ridiculous or offensive question. No—not a bit of it. All the customers began combing the shelves for me, pulling out a book here, there, arguing bitterly with each other as to whether this one or that one was really detective fiction or too much a spy novel or too much a horror novel—or whether or not it were a really good novel. Finally they found me one used mystery story which they all proclaimed very good. Þetta lika er Islands (This Also is Iceland).
One Sunday morning, since I had already been to the Lutheran church twice (where, I guess because it is a state church, they don’t take up collection), I went to the Catholic church. It is sort of 1950s Gothic, rather unprepossessing after Halgrimskirkja, ordinary colored glass windows, a footpath that goes around the entrance gate rather than through it, no incense, mass in the vernacular of course, but the Catholics do take up collection. Mutatis mutandis or whatever. Then I went to brunch at a local cafeteria (Kokkhusið), where, Lutheran “mess” being held after Catholic “mess,” I got to hear Mass all over again over the cafeteria radio, and all the diners not talking much over coffee and breakfast, but listening critically to the “predican” (sermon, homily), and occasionally making critical comments on the text. Icelanders nowadays may not be great churchgoers, but the words of a “predican” are still words, saga-like, and this is a serious business.
All the students and faculty at the Haskoli Islands here were very nice and we’ve had two delightful lectures from Icelandic Professors, one on sociology (our UNM Dick Tomasson’s book was cited), and one on regionalisms in the language, both lectures very witty. I know a lot about the fishing industry now and the cod wars. What there is now, since those wars are over, is a cod peace, I suppose.
What about Isafjordur, then? A tiny little harbor town on the northwest coast. Rather pretty in an ordinary small town sort of way. A pal and I walked the whole of it, the whole of it, in twenty minutes. Then our group was given a conducted tour by bus of every single street (there weren’t many) in this tiny little town. Our local tour guide was called Snorri—very fat-cheeked and young and sweet and enthusiastic with deep deep dimples, and we were given a wonderful tour. Two hours. And we fetched up in the end at the local museum, upstairs over the local town hall.
There were embroidered samplers on the walls, quite old for Iceland. Made of hair for embroidery floss. Mousy brown hair for floss—or does all hair, cats’, dogs’, people’s, turn mousy brown when taken from its owner? And next to those was a pair of mittens under glass, each with two thumbs. I asked Snorri, “Snorri, why do these mittens each one have two thumbs?” He said that that was because in the old days during the Danish hegemony, Iceland was very very very very (actually, werry, werry, werry, werry) poor. So mittens were made so that when the palms became worn they could be turned round and worn for longer backwards. Of course, all the meanwhile, one had one empty thumb flapping in the breeze, but . . .
The whole of the times I’ve been in Iceland (in Albuquerque, anyone who travels to Iceland for vacation, voluntarily, is thought a bit dotty. I’ve been twice. Voluntarily.) I was well aware that about 70% of the time my leg was being pulled. I just never got to where I knew which 70%. Or which leg.
Well, after the bus tour we rushed to the harbor to catch a ferry we’d been booked for. The idea was to poke in and out of a couple of fjords and view the beautiful coastline to get an even better feel for the landscape—where those feet had trod stuff. We were serious tourists, we’d read the sagas. We’d be back in time for tea.
Hours later, as the ferry was still heading north in a gale in a grey churning sea in a grey foggy rain and wind in a storm and we couldn’t see any fjords or anything much beyond our noses and all my friends had retired to the benches in the hold after having taken every last one of my Dramamine tablets and had lain down on the their backs, falling into the relief of snoring slumber, I discovered that we were heading up to the farthest northern tip of Iceland to pick up two plucky German skiiers (a bit of extra money for the skipper, or shipper as they say there). I didn’t like it inside the hold—it smelled of fuel and carried a big sign with the only bit of the Icelandic language I both learned and have, more or less, retained to this day:
VIÞ REKIUM EKKI HER!!!!No smoking. At that time I smoked. A lot. Well, at least they were straightforward about it—none of that minging American thank you for not smoking, or lungs at work (pseudo-lumpenproletariat).
I smoked out on the deck, lurching and staggering as I tried in vain to light a cigarette, in a high wind in wet sea spray, and keep it lit. I went below. I passed a small room at the bottom of the stairs down. With a table. With an ashtray in the middle of it. And four grim stern men sitting in silence on either side. Vikingr. Smoking. And swaying. I mimed, might I join them? They swayed. In silence. They kept swaying with the motion of the boat. In silence. Finally, they moved over and made room for me. We smoked a long while in silence. At last the shipper said to me, in a loud stern voice, while swaying:
Vy you her?
Uh oh, I thought, but it was OK, he went on:
So I told him all about how we had come here all the way from Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, near Dallas, because we had read the sagas and wanted to see the beautiful land in which the sagas had taken place.
They swayed. We all swayed. Silence. For a long time.
I said, very loud and clear, sagas. Your sagas.
More swaying and more silence. So I said,
“Grettissaga Asmundarsonr, Njalssaga, Gislissaga, Laxdaelasaga, Egilssagaskallagrimsonr . . .”
Oh! they said. Sögur!
And then he looked sternly at me, smoking and swaying all together like Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, and said:
But, you all asleepingas!
So we were, save me. I was the only cigarette smoker in the group, an urge more powerful than seasickness or Dramamine. Wonderful, how broadening travel can be, for the addicted.
So I thought I’d knit up an Isafjordur sweater in small steps in all grey for the grey day and the cold rain and the sea, so I did.