“I sometimes think of the Supreme Court oral arguments in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt on March 2, 2016, as the last truly great day for women and the legal system in America.” Dahlia Lithwick, Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America.
“I hear the crack of his skull before the spattering of blood reaches me.” Colleen Hoover, Verity.
“No one knows where America’s Northern Border begins.” Porter Fox, Northland: A 4,000 Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border.
“The coastal steamer attends faithfully to its course, slipping down the middle of the fjord between the mountains, taking its bearings from the stars and peaks and arriving on schedule at Óseyri in Axlarfjörður, its horn blasting through the blowing snow. In the first-class smokers’ lounge, two smartly dressed travelers from Reykjavík are discussing the village’s faint gleams of light.” Halldór Laxness, Salka Valka.
“In this soundless film, it is winter in Arkansas.” Sridhar Pappu, The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age.
“In the weeks following the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, a group of Chinese executives traveled to Los Angeles for a crash course in influence.” Erich Schwartzell, Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy.
“When Cal comes out of the house, the rooks have got hold of something.” Tana French, The Searcher.
“As a little boy, lying in his bed, my father would hear the planes overhead.” Malcolm Gladwell, The Bomber Mafia.
“It was an unmarked car, just some nondescript American sedan a few years old, but the blackwall tires and the three men inside gave it away for what it was.” Stephen King, The Outsider.
“The results of Wisconsin’s 2018 election had to be seen to be believed.” Nick Seabrook, One Person, One Vote: A Surprising History of Gerrymandering in America.
“Brown Dog drifted away thinking of the village in the forest where the red-haired girl lived.” Jim Harrison, Brown Dog Redux.
“The sun that rose for the rest of the world that morning was not the one that rose for Lanah Sawyer.” John Wood Sweet, The Sewing Girl’s Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America.
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?
Iceland may not have much industry, but it does have tourism. Pre-Covid, the country had 2.2 million visitors and this year it expects 1.5 million. Remember: this is a country with a population of only 370,000. At least by my restaurant experiences, many of those serving all those tourists come from eastern Europe. I met people from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, Poland, and Ukraine. Many planned to be in the country only for a season, but some had been in Iceland for years. This may be changing Iceland. The first settlers came to the island in 874 (there were no indigenous peoples), and Celts and Scandinavians populated the land. Iceland’s isolation led to a homogeneous population where almost any two Icelanders going back several generations could find that they had common ancestors. That might now change. Two decades ago, only two percent of the country were not “Icelanders.” Now it is up to fifteen percent.
Before tourism, the main drivers of the Icelandic economy were fishing and sheep, with a few cattle thrown in. Fishing, of course, has been a treacherous life, and most of the Icelandic books I have read record deaths of fisherman. It has also been an economically precarious life as fishing stocks have waned or moved and as factory ships have taken over. World War II, however, was good for Icelandic fishing. Most of the British fishing fleet was converted to military uses, and Icelandic fisherman supplied the UK with fish during the war.
WWII was good for Iceland in other ways. At the beginning of the war, Iceland, while having some autonomy, was under Danish rule, but when Germany occupied Denmark, the British, concerned about Iceland’s strategic position in the North Atlantic and worried it would fall under Axis domination, “invaded” the island. (Iceland did not have a military and did nothing to resist the British occupation.) After a year, the American military replaced the Brits in occupying the county. The Americans constructed bases, airfields, and housing and paid local workers in dollars. The American military built new roads that helped unify the island and made the transport of goods for locals easier than it had ever been. Perhaps taking advantage of Denmark’s travails during the war, Iceland wrested complete independence in 1944. As Mark Kurlansky writes in Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (1997), Iceland, as a result of World War II, moved from a fifteenth century colonial society to a modern country. Today, even though it still does not have a military, Iceland is a member of NATO, which means that other NATO countries take turns defending the island. Iceland is not a member of the EU, and several conversations with Icelanders indicated that the populace is sharply divided on whether it should be.
I got an idea of the primitive Icelandic life in the twentieth century from Glaumber, a museum preserving a farmhouse mostly made of turf and driftwood. It is a complex of separate one-room buildings united by a central passageway, and the museum’s brochure says that “this style of turf construction was universal in rural areas of Iceland up until 1910-1930.” Even on a sunny day with long daylight, the rooms were dank and dark, and when inhabited, probably smoky. The house we visited was upscale for the time with multiple rooms for various daily activities. A more typical picture of Icelandic crofter homes is presented in Halldór Laxness’s Independent People.
After WWII other nations resumed fishing near Iceland, and the country realized that fish supplies were dwindling. In 1822, international law proclaimed that a country’s boundaries extended three miles into the seas bordering the country. However, in 1945, the United States proclaimed it had exclusive rights to the minerals in the continental shelf off its shores. A few years later, Iceland extended the three-mile territorial limit to four miles. In 1958, the country extended it to twelve miles and then to fifty in 1972. and then three years later to two hundred miles, a territorial limit most countries now maintain.
A man who owned several fishing boats told me that the supply of cod off Iceland’s shores is now bountiful both because of the 200-mile limit and because of quotas enforced by the country. He said that poaching was not a severe problem because drones had made it much easier to spot any law breakers.
We visited this man’s salt cod operation, which he proudly told us was the only such cod plant left in Iceland using traditional hand methods. The cod are dried and preserved with Portuguese sea salt. Most of the finished product is exported as bacalao back to Portugal and other Mediterranean countries. The heads are shipped to Nigeria for use in a local soup. The guts are ground up and used as fertilizer. The salt is used twice, and then transformed into salt licks for grazing sheep and cattle. Nothing is thrown away.
At this place I got to try one of Iceland’s (in)famous foods. On occasion, the cod fishermen catch one of the huge sharks that live in the deep waters around Iceland. The fish cannot survive being brought to the surface, and the law requires that the sharks be used and not thrown back to die. Without going into the unseemly details of why, the shark meat is, in essence, fermented. What we were offered looked like little cubes of tofu. To say that it did not taste appetizing would be an understatement; to say that it was awful would also be an understatement. However, the owner passed out cards with his signature to those who stomached it, and I am now a member of The Rotten Shark Club.
Liquor has an illogical history in Iceland: Although hard stuff was readily available, beer was banned in Iceland until 1986. (The guide opined, “Many Icelandic rules make no sense.”) She claimed that Icelanders are now sophisticated drinkers, apparently because they drink wine. We also learned about Brennivin, an aquavit, another famous Icelandic foodstuff. The name translates to burnt or burning wine. Some said it was flavored with cumin, but I think it has caraway. Just as I met no Icelander who confessed to eating the shark, none said that they drank or even liked Brennevin. I tried it. The first time, the restaurant server said that the bartender expressed admiration for my courage in ordering it. The server remained to watch incredulously as our party drank it. Perhaps it says something about me that I should not reveal, but it was far from the worst thing I have ever drunk—grappas are way worse. My usual tourist practice is to buy a local alcohol at the duty-free store on the way home. This invariably makes its way to the back of the liquor cabinet after one drink has been consumed. This time, however, an unopened bottle of Brennivin has taken residence in the freezer. Will we ever drink it???