My trip in Iceland filled me with knowledge and unforgettable experiences.
I have seen sheep grazing on cliffs high above the ocean in the Arctic Circle.
I have played on playground equipment which would most likely be banned in the United States. I know that a layer of ash will quicken the melting of snow if the layer is thin but prevent melting once the ash becomes too thick. I have experienced the unpleasant taste of black licorice coated in salt but been pleasantly surprised by the taste of foal and puffin. I now know that a cold spring and summer makes a bad year for farmers but a good year for fisherman, and that both oppose Iceland entering the European Union.
I know that, unlike most of its poultry relatives, Puffin is a red meat. I have learned that my body rebels on a diet of primarily meat and dairy. I can now correctly estimate temperatures to the nearest degree Celsius. I have walked out of darkened bars into the bright midnight sun. I have learned why the grass in Iceland is bumpy. I now have the compulsion to pick any weed I see. Most importantly, however, I learned who made a small wooden chest, painted with small flowers and inscribed with the name “Auður” in traditional Icelandic lettering, sitting in my room at home in Michigan.
The story of my Icelandic heritage is slightly scandalous (or at least not as traditional as the stories of families moving to escape volcanoes and the harsh conditions of northeast Iceland in the 1870s). My langamma, Auður Kristjánsdóttir, left Ytri-Tjarnir in Eyjafjörður to go on vacation to exotic Canada in 1928 when she was 23; she never planned on staying. Fortunately for my existence she met Adolf Holm, another vesturíslenskur whom she married just shy of four months before my amma was born. In leaving Ytri-Tjarnir, Auður left many siblings behind, including the youngest, Friðrik a two-year-old who had been primarily in her care before she left. Though she met him only once again, when she came back to visit in the 1950s, Auður still remained a very important person to Friðrik, who would guard her prior belongings from the use or misuse of others.
Today, Friðrik is the only member of my langamma’s generation still alive, the last of her siblings and only five years my amma’s senior. He and his wife Gerður live in Eyjafjörður just across the river from Ytri-Tjarnir and close to most of their own children who primarily live in Akureyri. One of their sons, Snæbjörn, graciously acted as one of my hosts around Eyjafjörður, taking me on some day trips including an attempt to see the midnight sun in Siglufjörður which was botched by fog. On the Tuesday evening of my last week in Akureyri, Snæbjörn took me to meet his parents. I was immediately impressed by their home. Books and art line the walls, antique bric-a-brac decorates the windowsills, and – in characteristic Icelandic style – lace curtains cover the windows. Apart from an embarrassing attempt to use a contraption that wound up spraying whipped cream across the dining room table, my visit was pleasant.
In the last five minutes of my visit, while I was putting on my coat and getting ready to walk out the door, I caught sight of a dried seahorse hanging from the ceiling. I glanced to my right and noticed a small wooden chest, painted with delicate flowers, sitting on a shelf. I commented that it looked very much like one I had at home and asked Snæbjörn if his parents would know where theirs had come from. Since my chest is a family heirloom I thought that the odds were good that each one, given their similarities, had the same origin.
Without even needing his son to translate what I had said Friðrik became visibly excited and began talking more than he had during the entire visit. Snæbjörn relayed to me that the chest in question had been made by Friðrik for my langamma and that he had often wondered what had become of that chest he made for his sister. Friðrik and I both left that exchange feeling very pleased, I imagine. A mystery in each of our lives had been solved and we were connected as family through an heirloom and memories, rather than the mere fact that we share common ancestors in Kristján Benjaminson and Fanney Friðriksdóttir or have the “family look.” When I left for the night we all gave each other big hugs reserved for the closest of friends and family and it felt totally natural. Though Gerður’s memory is fading, much like my amma’s and Friðrik cannot speak English, there was communication made beyond conversation which, for the first time I had been in Iceland, really made me feel a real connection to my Icelandic family.
Alison Auður Mroz, a 2011 Snorri Program graduate, is from Farmington, Michigan