Photo: Hrafnhildur Sigmarsdóttir
We Icelanders are a weird little nation. Not weird as in unapproachable or arrogant. No, not in the negative meaning of the word at all. More weird as in eccentric.
Like my old uncle who used to swear only on Sundays, because he said he got a kick out of messing with God on his busiest day. Or my old auntie who always used to bark at cows, yet she maintained an approprate manner and very ladylike demeanour on every other occasion. In fact, she was so graceful except when confronted by cows that no one ever mentioned the barking.
I didn’t even notice that we Icelanders seem to be utterly unable to stand in a well-formed line in public places until a foreign friend pointed it out to me. We tend to scatter all sideways. But I think we’re ok with all this. I think we actually like that. I do. It sets us apart. It’s a part of our culture, and when you belong to a country of only about 320,000 people like us here in Iceland, I think we get a little kick out of being somewhat eccentric. We have these cultural customs and specific days where we celibrate the oddest things.
We have our Sprengidagur, where we overdose on a specific type of boiled and severely salted meat and bean soup that makes our fingers quadruple and leaves us farting for a week. We actually celebrate this day quite proudly. Another day is Bolludagur, were we eat huge pasty buns filled with cream and jam. As children, we were supposed to sneak up on our moms and hit them in the bum with a specific wand and demand a Bolla.
Those who don’t know Icelanders and have not seen this custom in action will probably easily think that as children we are encouraged to scare the living daylights out of our moms, slam a wand on their rear and scream for sweets. Then we are rewarded with huge obesity-sized pastry buns ... Actually when I think about it, that is exactly what it is. Weird eh? And then we have our Þorri food. I once invited a Canadian friend over for a traditional Icelandic dinner.
I think she still hasn’t fully recovered. We laid on the table the traditional boiled sheep’s head and while my dad started to pick out its eyes, I very proudly offered her a ram’s testicle. The poor thing looked at me with a certain unease and severe fear in her eyes. She whispered to me very seriously, yet very ashamed, that she didn’t believe she could suffer this ordeal I had laid on the table in front of her. In other words, she respectfully declined the testicles I put on her plate. On my travels in Canada,
I have noticed a pickle is a common garnish with food at restuarants. I even bought a pickle to serve with the testicles but that unfortunately didn’t work either. My old uncle was there and laughed and laughed and slammed his hand on the table and said, “Dear, this is not for everyone.“ I could hear a certain sense of pride in his voice. At the same time that my friend felt safe from what I gather could have been the most horrific experience in her life, the Icelanders at the table felt pride at being able to eat this food without blinking an eye.
I guess from one point of view, it must be weird for a person to see a person sitting down with another person and sharing a pair of balls with pride and joy. Weird eh?Another thing is our Christmas customs. We have 13 Santa Clauses, more accurately named Jule lads.
They have nothing in common with the traditonal version of the jolly old Santa who climbs down the chimney and brings presents and joy to children. No, our yule lads live in the mountains with their horrible mother, distant father and judging from pictures, what seems to be a severely emotionally disturbed cat.
They start coming to town 13 days before Christmas, one by one, and usually tend to bother us by slamming doors and stealing our meat, candles and sausages. I fear they might be affected by their upbringing. Despite all this, they’re not all bad.
During those 13 days, children put their shoe in the window and the yule lads leave a treat in the shoe. However if a child has behaved badly they get a potato. I heard once as a kid that if you behave very badly you could put yourself in the position of possibly receiving a rotten potato. My friend once got mashed potatoes in his mom’s fancy bowl.
To this day we still ponder the meaning of the mashing. I have to admit it’s only been a few years ago that I stopped putting my shoe in the window. One day, I forgot to empty the dishwasher, something my mom had asked me to do probably 10 times during the day. The next morning there was a potato in my shoe with a note saying “You shouldn’t have forgotten about the dishwasher.” I felt uneasy, seeing Santa had made things this personal with an alarming note. That was the last time I put my shoe in the window. Weird eh?
I’ve been going to Manitoba every year for about five years now and consider it as my second home. I have close friends and family there and always look forward to returning to my peaceful prairie. I noticed early on that everyone who defines themselves by their Icelandic heritage do so by upholding many Icelandic customs – travelling there frequently, speaking the language or being involved in the Icelandic-Canadian community.
What I find most defining and gives me the most sense of Canadian-Icelandic culture is the existence of the Pönnukaka pan in that community. You see, when I was young and my amma was alive, she used to come visit us from up north and stay for a long time. She made the best pönnukökur you could ever try.
I used to come home from school with a flock of friends because everyone knew as soon as my amma was in town there would be a stack of pönnukökur on the table waiting for us when we came home from school. As mentioned before, we could not for the life of us stand in line and wait like civilized and well-mannered humans to recieve our pönnukökur.
We all stormed in the house, throwing the schoolbags and parkas into the air to fall where they pleased and attacked the stack of pönnukökur amma had laid on the table. Instead of telling us off and giving us heck for acting like unfed wild animals, she just started flipping the pankakes on douple speed, stacking them up on triple speed. I remember being full of awe and admiration, but yet being a little scared because she had this mad look in her eye. We dared not utter a word to her while flipping the pancakes – her concentration was at stake, a steady stare into the pan.
The second time I was staying with my family in Manitoba I woke up to serious noise coming from the kitchen. I hesitantly walked towards the kitchen and opened the door. There they were, a flock of them. The neighbourhood ladies over at my relatives’ house, flipping the pancakes on double speed. No one talked; their focus and concentration was evident and serious.
They came there to achieve and produce. The seriousness of the matter filled the air and I was just about to walk away and leave them in their zone when I caught a glimpse at the look in their eyes. It was amma’s mad eye, filled with focus and concentration. I did what I had always done while confronted with this situation before. I dared not utter a word; those women’s concentration was not to be challenged. I walked away slowly, a little scared but with joy in my heart. I was home.