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124 years after Bjarni Olafson left Iceland, grandson Eric Olafson carries Bjarni’s great great-granddaughter Freyja onto the soil of Iceland; right: Freyja Knight checking it out

The grandchildren of Bjarni Olafson and Olgeirina Kjarval have been having random cousin reunions for a number of years. Sometimes they coincide with a specific event but most times the phone rings and a cousin says, “It’s time to meet at xyz and how many can come?” So, when in the middle of a trip to Iceland that I planned for Eric and me, your editor, and her niece Jill Eyolfson, Eric said, “We should do a cousin reunion here and I’ll organize it.” I just shook my head and rolled my eyes.

The call went out to the cousins in the fall of 2008 with a possibility of 23 adults setting out for Iceland in August 2010. There were many emails and phone calls. Thank heavens we had a long distance ‘bundle.’ Finally, in May 2011 our tally was 14 adults and five children ranging from the ages of 16 down to six months. We had four men, and 15 females, we had a brother, sisters, cousins, granddaughters, afis and ammas, mothers and fathers, aunts & uncles and in-laws. We had three groups of three generations in that group of 19 people who climbed aboard an Iceland Express flight from Winnipeg in August 2011.

Some of the things we learned from this endeavour were:
1. Our Travel Agenda was very general. For example: “August 10th, arrive in Akureyri.”

It needed to read: “August 10th, arrive in Akureyri and the descendants of Jon from Myri  in Akureyri will take over. Brenda, Tara, Tori, Barb and Myrna, you are not related but don’t worry. You will be looked after like you are, so just go with the flow.”

But even when we discussed ‘the plan’ in a group setting, some were on their own agenda and were half a step behind. Eric did a very good job, but gained a lot of respect for the professional Tour Guides who are worth their weight in gold and have the patience of Job.

2. If there are more women than men, does it mean we need to visit every tourist shop attached to the WC? The answer is “Yes”. Eric likened it to trying to herd cats.

3. We stayed in HI (Hosteling International) Hostels – very reasonably priced, clean, and friendly, which left money for point #2. The hostels need to be booked at least six months in advance but there were changes made two months before arrival. The lady  who did our booking had never done one so complicated. We all had private rooms that most of the time came with private WC but there were enough of us that we were only sharing with family. You do have the option of paying for the breakfast and the bedding. It is worth doing both. There are fully equipped kitchens in all the hostels so you can purchase your own groceries ahead of time and make a meal. Most hostels do have the basics that people have left behind – salt, pepper, cooking oil. Laundry facilities are available.

Purchase the Phone Card – it’s a very cheap way to call back home when an email won’t do for a homesick child travelling with amma and afi. You may also purchase bus passes that will get you around Reykavík and also offer discounts for entrance to museums and the city pools. With your HI membership you can purchase a cheap cell phone to use while you are there, which is good if you need to call the car rental to find out if there are English instructions hidden somewhere in your Hyundai Van, telling you where the tools are to change a flat tire.

4. Car rental (Reykavík Car Rental) was excellent. We rented two nine-person vans with two car seats and had two designated drivers for each. This enabled people to move between vehicles, necessary when needed to split up sisters, young or old.

5. We arrived in Reykavík on August 8th, travelled to Akureyri on August12th leaving for Reðarfjörður on the 15th. August16th was an overnight in Hvoll and back to Reykavík until August 21st. We visited the farm that Bjarni Olafson was born on at Núpsdalstunga, Jon Jonsson from Myri, and Thorstein Gauti at Gautland Olgeirina Kjarval at Efri Ey. We realized we had been travelling too long when Freyja asked on the morning of the 16th where her bed was going to be today

5. Ipods/DSLs with earphones to keep kids entertained while driving were a godsend. Our longest drive was to Akureyri but that was the first day. After that it was short drives of four or five hours. It still took most of the day to do it because of the many stops for picture taking, pit stops with visits to tourist shops, and picnic stops. Buy groceries when you see a decent size town. There are picnic tables all along the highway. We also carried walkie talkies so that if the two youngest were sleeping we could let the other vehicle know we weren’t stopping. They came in very handy.
The hospitality and friendliness is never ending. Now we know why Amma Nanna Olafson even welcomed strangers into her house. The scenery is breathtaking.

You really can’t be in a hurry. You need to stop and smell the roses or, in this case, walk on the spongy moss, or pet a sheep or wash your face in the mist of the next foss.

The former Icelandic Canadian Club of Toronto Yuletide Lad, Ladle Licker, AKA Kaj Sullivan, has exchanged his Icelandic wooly wear and sausage for a Scottish kilt and sporran.

After many years of playing saxophone and flute in Toronto’s Humberside Collegiate band and orchestra, as well as playing flute in Queens University‘s marching band, Kaj requested a practice chanter for Christmas in 2009.

Kaj Sullivan and his mother, Brenda Bjarnason

A practice chanter is similar to a recorder in looks, but sounds more like an East Indian pungi, more commonly called a snake charmer’s flute. The Scottish practice chanter is what all aspiring bagpipers start on prior to graduating to the pipes. All pipers continue to practice on the chanter when perfecting or learning a song.

In March 2010, Kaj got his first bagpipes and after hundreds of hours of practice, Kaj started competing in 2011. He travelled all around Ontario last summer, competing at eight Highland Games, placing 1st or 2nd at most of them.

Pipers must compete at a minimum of six Highland Games in order to qualify for Champion Supreme. Whoever merits the highest number of points (points awarded are based on placement, i.e. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.) wins the title. After playing the bagpipes for only a year and a half, Kaj was honoured at the PPBSO (Pipers’ and Pipe Band Society of Ontario) annual Highland Gala. Kaj Sullivan is the PPBSO Novice Champion Supreme in both novice categories – March and Piobaireachd.

Kaj continues to play in the Queen’s Pipe Band and will be travelling with them to perform in the Calgary Stampede parade in July 2012. He also plays with Kingston’s Rob Roy Pipe Band and studies privately with Ross Brown. Last May, Kaj had the honour of piping Winston Churchill’s great-grandson, Randolph Churchill, to the podium to speak at the annual Winston Churchill dinner at the Albany Club in Toronto. Kaj also played bagpipes at a wedding in December 2011, at an autumn 2011 ribbon cutting in Kingston presided over by The Honorable James Flaherty, Canada’s Minister of Finance, and at the ceremony commemorating John A. McDonald’s birthday in 2010.

When Kaj first started playing the bagpipes, he asked his mother, Brenda Bjarnason, if she was certain that he didn’t have any Scottish ancestry. He was disappointed when she first replied, “No.”  However, Brenda later recalled their family‘s visit to the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavík. There was a display with a plaque outlining recent DNA analysis of Icelanders during the age of settlement (874 to 930 A.D.). During that period, 60% of Iceland’s female population was of Celtic ancestry from Ireland and Scotland. So, Kaj, each of us with Icelandic heritage can claim having a wee dram of Scottish heritage as well.

Kaj is studying Geology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
Courtesy the ICCT newsletter, Fálkinn, used with permission from ICCT

The M.S. Goldfield at harbour on Lake Winnipeg
In 1950 our family became the operators of the Booth Fisheries Whitefish Station on George Island, in the north basin of Lake Winnipeg. (Although the charts list it as George Island, it was always called George’s Island.) After high school was finished for the year, I was to board the M.S. Goldfield for the 200 mile trip to George’s to work as a junior shore-hand. My first time making the trip on my own.

With a stop at Rabbit Point, it would normally take a day and a night to reach the island, so the trip was like a relaxing cruise. Captain Albertson and the crew of eight knew my family well and they weren’t above playing a little trick on me. Shortly after boarding, The Captain called me over and said very seriously that the “Key to the Keelson” was missing. As the crew was busy at their various tasks, would I help them find this important item? Being young and eager to please, I readily agreed.

The Captain dead-panned that some member of the crew must have The Key. So off I went looking.  But the whole ship, save for me, was in on the game. They had played this stunt many times on green horns before me and they had their acting parts down to a science. One by one I dutifully searched out all the crew members, asking if they knew the whereabouts of this missing key. Each one shook their heads solemnly.

Seeing my frustration and fearing I would give up after searching for so long, one of the crew said that the Engineer must have it. The problem was he was off watch and sleeping in his room. But on the ship, the Captain’s word was law and so I gingerly opened the door to the Engineer’s room.

As quietly as possible, I explained my mission. Grumpily he arose from his bunk and with a stream of complaints about the frequent disappearance of the key, he searched his cabin while a 14-year-old boy stood shaking at attention. Sadly, no key could be found. In despair I made my way to the wheel house to report to the Captain my inability to find the elusive key. By now it was almost suppertime and the crew had gathered for the meal. The smiles on their faces should have tipped me off. As I approached, they all said in unison, “Gotcha!”

I love this time of year in Iceland. It’s the time of year where it is culturally acceptable to stray from the norm both when it comes to eating as well as behaving.

For an anthropologist it’s a cultural treasure box filled with activities and customs to research and explore. This cultural celebration starts with the month we call Þorri. Þorri is personified in old Icelandic saga’s as the guardian of winter and, as such, respected and celebrated. Þorri starts in the 13th week of winter and marks the fourth month of winter according to the old Icelandic timetable.

The beginning of Þorri means that winter is half way over. First day of Þorri is dedicated to husbands and referred to as Bóndadagur (Husband’s day). Women made sure their men are well provided with food that day and he was supposed to do well with his household instead. Today we celebrate Þorrablót to remember the old times, the old gods, to sing old songs and eat sour and fermented food.

This custom is practiced all over the country as well as in foreign places where Icelanders live and amongst people of Icelandic descent.Konudagur (Wife’s day) is on the first day of the month Góa. Góa is the last month of winter and personified in old Icelandic sagas as Þorri’s daughter. Like her father, she is also regarded as the guardian of winter. Konudagur is similar to the North American Valentine’s day and in recent years the presence of St. Valentine has become more and more evident in Icelandic culture.

It was believed that if Góa was stormy the summer would be good. Today it is a custom to give flowers to your beloved wife on this day and husbands are encouraged not to annoy their wives ... well, at least to try to keep it to a minimum.Bolludagur (Bun day) is the Monday in the 7th week before Easter. I am a big fan of this day.

Personally I feel privileged to belong to a culture that dedicates a whole day every year to over indulge in pastry. Every bakery in the country is filled with this specific type of buns on this day and people stand in long lines to get their hands on them. This tradition is said to have arrived here from Denmark in the late 18th century. The old tradition was that children made specific colourful wands and they were supposed to sneak up on their family members and neighbors, especially while they were still laying in bed, and hit them on the rear with the wand.

The ones that hit the most rears gained a prestige reputation and were rewarded with a bolla (bun).Sprengidagur is by far my favourite. It’s literal translation is bomb day, but it refers to eating until you’re more than full, pretty much til you’re ready to explode. All over the country, specific type of salted meat and bean soup is had for supper or/and lunch. Sprengidagur is also the day where respectable women stay in doors due to the possibility of unexpected acute gas release, commonly referred to as farting or Prumpa in Icelandic.

Those who have tried the bean soup know what I’m talking about. Bolludagur and Sprengidagur mark the last two days before Lent which then ends on Easter Sunday so I guess no wonder people ate, eh?Öskudagur (Ash day) is the Wednesday in the 7th week before Easter and marks the first day of Lent. The name of the day derives from the fact that on this day ash was distributed on the heads of sinners in Catholic cultures.

The ash was believed to have spiritual and cleansing abilities. Ironically, smokers today, who distribute ash with cigarettes, are frowned upon. I guess it makes a difference who is doing the ashing, eh?Around 1650 it was a popular custom for women to try to sneak little bags full of ash onto men and men tried to sneak little bags full of stones on women. The ash bag custom was very popular and practiced in the 18th century. Still to this day young children make them at school.

Today we celebrate this day in a way that is similar to North American Halloween. We dress up and go downtown to sing and get candy in factories and stores. I’m having a big Ash day celebration at work at the Senior Centre and I told everyone that I would dress up. However, as the day gets closer my options for a costume seems to consist of a pig or what can only be described as a nurse in severe danger of getting a cold.

After consulting with my mother I have decided that I’m going with the pig, seeing the nurse costume could possibly produce heart attacks instead of preventing them.The 1st of April is an international fool’s day and we celebrate it. Every year on this day you can find stories in the newspaper about this and that which turns out to be false and what I love is that we Icelanders always seem to be somewhat surprised and puzzled about the stories in question. I used to take this day very seriously and started pulling pranks on my parents at an early age. They were very innocent pranks at first but they gradually escalated into serious pranks.

I was 18 when I snuck into my parents’ bedroom in the early morning and on my mother’s bedside I put a letter where I told her that I had found love online, he was from Lithuania, had asked me to marry him and I had accepted and when she would be reading the letter I would be well on my way to the airport. In the meantime I hid in the closet by the front door. My mom woke up and I could hear her upstairs running around frantically. She called my phone about 13 times but I never answered.

It was just about when she was leaving the house, rushing to save me from disaster and heading to the airport to get me, that I jumped out from the closet, laughing hysterically, yelling: Fyrsti Apríl (April’s Fool). My mom did not laugh nor did she speak to me for the rest of the day. Needless to say I have not pulled any pranks after that. The prankster still lies in me, I won’t lie, and every April 1st I get this almost uncontrollable urge to pull a prank but I know my place now and that is in the good graces of my mother.


Photo: Karl Torfason

As part of the Leif Eiriksson Icelandic Club of Calgary Distinguished Speaker’s Series, Mooréa Gray presented an interesting talk on the translation of poetry from one language to another.

She used an English translation of Stephan G. Stephansson’s poetry from its original Icelandic.
                                                                                                                                                               Mooréa Gray
Highlights of Stephansson’s life helped put his poetry into perspective. Mooréa is a graduate student at the University of Calgary in 18th century English literature and has edited a book on Rosa Benediktson, Stephan’s daughter.

The well known poem “Árferði ì Alberta” (1891) was read in Icelandic by Guðrún Jörundsdóttir. Her reading illustrated clearly the complexity of the sound of the poem.  The question is how to translate these effects into another language. This challenge is illustrated by the translations of Kristjana Gunnars (“Seasons in Alberta”) which was read in English by Ed McCullough and Bernard Scudder (“The Climate in Alberta”) read by Carol Blyth. Gunnar’s translation follows the original Icelandic text but not the rhyme scheme, whereas Scudder opted for the original rhyme scheme .

Using an example of the Stephansson poem “Frá nýju nágrenni (1904), two translations – “My New Neighbourhood” by Watson Kirkconell and “From a New Neighourhood” by Helgi Hornford, were shown, side by side on screen, for comparison. While both translations used the original rhyme form, Kirkconnell diligently tried to emulate alliteration of the original.

The inference was that it was extremely difficult to translate all of the content as well as the poetic beauty of the original poem. Because these translated poems are very similar, they illustrate and confirm Stephansson’s skill at irony, tone, and imagery. As Kristjana Gunnars once wrote, “A skilled ironist, [Stephansson] played with tone until the poem could be read in opposition to itself.”

At the end of the formal presentation, Mooréa answered many questions from the audience and there was further discussion during the social event which followed.                  

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