The Icelandic language has developed colorful phrases, at least according to Eliza Reid, a Canadian who is married to the President of Iceland. In her recent book Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World, she gives us: “A guest’s eyes see more clearly.” “On with the butter.” (Keep going, get a move on.) “Give it under the foot.” (To flirt.) “Never peed in a salty sea.” (Inexperienced.) “There lies the buried dog.” (The crux of the matter. Getting to the point.) “I come from the mountains.” (Out of touch.) “It lies in the eyes upstairs.” (Obvious.) “The raisin at the end of the hot dog.” (A pleasant surprise.) (Our guide insisted that that last phrase did not exist. A raisin might be said to indicate a pleasant surprise, but never in conjunction with a hot dog. Icelanders eat a lot of hot dogs. They come with many toppings. I tried to order one with everything in Icelandic, but, not surprisingly, my language skills failed. The couple hot dogs I had were very good. I was told that Icelandic hot dogs are different from ballpark franks because in addition to beef and pork, they also incorporate lamb.)
Although a comparatively small group has ever spoken, read, or written Icelandic, the world owes a huge debt to the language. Throughout history, much of literature has been oral and has disappeared. However, in the thirteenth century, Icelander Snorri Sturuluson, and probably others, began to record the sagas, myths, and legends in the Icelandic vernacular. Five centuries later Árni Magnússon collected and assembled as much of the medieval manuscripts as he could lay his hands on. These Old Norse writings, which I gather can be read relatively easily by a modern Icelander, have told us much about history from 900 to 1200 because many of the sagas were family chronicles of the contemporary world. They also preserved legendary figures that otherwise would have been lost. You might think of Thor or Odin as Scandinavian, but we know of them and other Norse figures because of the ancient Icelandic writings.
Icelanders continue to value reading and writing. (Giving a book at Christmas is expected.) A sign in the airport said, in English, that one in ten Icelanders writes a book. Before the trip, I remembered that I had read an Icelandic mystery story and thought it might be interesting to read another, but I did not remember the author’s name. I googled for Icelandic mystery series, and to my surprise found that there were a half dozen or so all with good marks from reviewers. Remember: This in a country with 370,000 people. I read and enjoyed a few of them and learned something about Iceland from each. I also read a modern Icelandic novel and found it, too, to be very good. Some of the characters in that book wrote poetry and others of my readings indicated that the land produces many poets. I began to think that everyone in Iceland wrote verse. I asked the guide if she did. She said that she did not but quickly added that her brother was quite a good poet. (Later I learned that the guide owned a share in a Reykjavik art gallery and was an accomplished painter with a one-woman show coming up in a northern city.)
And in these endeavors, I learned about a major writer I had not heard of before: Halldór Laxness, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. (He was born with an Icelandic name but adopted Laxness from the place where he was raised.) His most famous book, Independent People, was so rich I could only read it in small doses to make sure that I would not miss too much. Touching, heartbreaking, filled with sly wit, it is a major work of literature. Almost as good is his Iceland’s Bell, which incorporates real events and figures, including Árni Magnússon.
When I returned home, I was asked if I would go back to Iceland or even consider living there. My first reaction was that my days are dwindling. There are many places I have not been, and they will take precedence over a return to the island. On the other hand, if I could be guaranteed to see the northern lights, I would go back, but I also realized that there are many other reasons to spend more time in Iceland. For example, I did not see a single McDonalds, but they do have a Costco. A roadside stop offered a panino. The stores displayed the same clothes in June that they must offer in January. It is the home of skyr. Iceland does not have mosquitos. I did not go to the Blue Lagoon, and it is worth plunging in. And a very good reason to go back are the Icelandic women.
Ah, Icelandic women. They all seemed to be between six feet and six feet three, but not with a model’s body. They had ample bottoms, reasonable, but not overlarge busts, and a definable waist. Most had great smiles (from those we met, Icelanders laugh a lot) and a clear complexion that looks as if it were scrubbed moments ago. They did not need makeup to have rosy peach cheeks. While a lot of the small girls had almost snow-white hair, women’s hair generally has darkened into a light brunette with copious blonde streaks that the spouse said Americans would pay a hairdresser $400 monthly to achieve. And the Icelandic women all looked as if they could beat the crap out you. What was not to fantasize about?