Monument honouring Stephan G. Stephansson
The word “serendipity” has always held an odd fascination for me. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”
Photo: Winn Thompson
Our trip to Greenland/Iceland was serendipitous from beginning to end. All four of my grandparents were born in Iceland as was my husband Bob’s paternal grandmother. As we were making plans for our trip to Iceland, scheduled for the summer of 2006, we received information about a cruise leaving from Reykjavík to explore parts of the eastern shore of Greenland and Scoresby Sound, dates coinciding with the land tour we had booked in Iceland.
We could not turn down the opportunity. The day following our arrival in Reykjavík, we boarded the M.S. Explorer, a small vessel built for challenging marine environments (including ice) and were off on our cruising adventure.The first evening on board, we gathered in the library/lounge area for general information sharing and getting acquainted.
Our “resource” staff introduced themselves and imagine our surprise when the meteorological/ice expert, Thor Jakobsson from Reykjavík, told us he was born in Wynyard, Saskatchewan in 1935 when his father was minister of the Unitarian Church there. The family returned to Iceland in 1940 and his father became the first minister of the Reykjavík landmark, Hallgrímskirkja. When the cruise “filmmaker” introduced himself, Bob and I exchanged glances which said “I don’t believe this.”
His name, Sveinn Sveinsson, was my father’s name and this Sveinn had even done some filming with the Icelandic community in Mountain, North Dakota where my father was born and lived until his family moved to Alberta when he was ten. During our amazing and exciting days on the Explorer, the trips by Zodiac to explore Greenland’s shores and the informal visiting times on board ship, we became better acquainted with Thor and his wife, Johanna Johannesdottir. It was almost eerie how much Thor resembled my Grandpa Sigurdsson in stature and mannerisms.
We discovered later as we toured Iceland, he is known throughout the country as “our TV weatherman”. We also had many interesting conversations with the other Icelanders on board, Sveinn and his filming assistant, Ludvik Blondal.
The next serendipitous discovery was that Thor was well acquainted with Bjorn Sigurdsson whose great-grandfather was my grandfather’s brother. In fact, he phoned Bjorn from aboard ship to set up a time when we could meet and Ludvik offered to drive us to Bjorn’s farm the day after we docked back at Reykjavík.
That day was certainly one to remember. It happened to be Ludvik’s 40th birthday, he had borrowed his sister’s car for the journey (he actually lived in Blönduós in northern Iceland), and we were off on a beautiful, sunny morning. On the way to Bjorn’s farm (Úthlið) we drove past Svínavatn, the farm where my maternal grandfather, Ofeigur Sigurdsson, was born.
The sign was still at the side of the road. Úthlið is just off the highway on the way to the famous Gullfoss and Geysir. Bjorn and his two daughters, Disa and Ena, were awaiting our arrival and we were thrilled to discover that we were also going to meet Bjorn’s brother, Jon, sisters Sigrun and Kristin and her husband, Werner. Fortunately for us, all spoke English! Bjorn’s wife, Augustu, died a couple of years before our visit.
The extended family members were staying at their summer cottages located on Bjorn’s property which includes many cabins for rent, hot pool, horseback riding and other attractions for vacation fun. We visited over good strong coffee and Icelandic goodies. What an enriching experience, connecting with cousins on their home turf. The following morning we began our nine-day bus tour of the island and the serendipity continued. We spent a night along the way in Höfn and our tour guide, Unnur, mentioned that the former Prime Minister, Halldór Ásgrímsson, had come from a family influential in the fishing industry in that area.
My ears pricked up because I knew that his great-grandmother and my great-grandmother were sisters, making us third cousins. I told Unnur about this connection and a couple of days later she informed me that the newspaper, Morgunblaðið, had a two-page article about him. I was able to purchase a copy.Through Canadian cousins who had visited Iceland, I knew of another third cousin (this time on my father’s side) in Egilsstaðir, a town on our route and a planned morning coffee/gas stop.
I phoned Silla a couple of days in advance and she and her seven-year-old daughter met us at the Esso Service station where we had a very brief but memorable visit. Egilsstaðir is only a few kilometres from the birthplace of my paternal grandfather, Johann Sveinsson. A few days later, not far from Akureyri, we stopped at Arnarstapi to view the monument to the acclaimed Icelandic poet, Stephan G. Stephansson.
Again, we could hardly believe our good fortune in visiting this place. My grandfather, Ofeigur, and the poet farmer both homesteaded near Markerville, Alberta and became great friends. Ofeigur spear-headed the movement to have the Stephansson Memorial at Markerville built and dedicated in 1950.
The thrill of visiting Þingvellir, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the location of the first Icelandic Parliament, was enough in itself but as we travelled from there toward Reykjavík we passed a farm with the sign Karastaðir, the birthplace of my maternal grandmother, Astridur Tomasdottir.
Our driver stopped the bus to let us take a picture to add to our serendipitous album. (Unable to create our own route, on our bus tour we did not visit areas where my paternal grandmother, Steinunn Jasonardottir, and Bob’s paternal grandmother, Margret Eiriksdottir, were born. Another time. )Back in Reykjavík, we contacted our cruise friends, Thor and Johanna, who invited us to their home for dinner on our last evening in the Land of Fire and Ice.
They rejoiced with us in the wonderful events of our trip and provided the perfect ending to our adventure. Thor showed us the computer program tracing ancestry and showing relationships. Entering his own name and names of our nearest ancestors, we learned that we are related – going back eight to ten generations.
One of our favorite souvenirs is a book, Iceland, Magic and Mystery, a beautiful collection of photographs and commentary by another relative of mine, Gisli Sigurdsson, brother of the afore-mentioned Bjorn. Unfortunately, we did not get to meet Gisli who is also noted as an artist in oils. Our CD of The Arnesinga Choir is another precious keepsake, made more special by the fact that our tour bus driver, Bragi, his wife and two of their daughters are members of the choir.
So ended our serendipitous time on the fascinating island which was home to our grandparents. We continue to make interesting connections and unearth stories from the past, hoping we might have yet another opportunity to visit.