On June 15, 2010, at 6 a.m., our Boeing 757 touched down on a long runway and taxied toward what I could see was an elegant new airport. Same place, different building. I had, of course, expected the airport to be modern and updated. And I expected the rocks would still be there but they were now covered with a deep layer of light green moss, giving a puffy, unearthly appearance, like a landscape from a sci-fi movie. No longer that forlorn and desolate place of endless rocks, Iceland was a busy place. Would there be Walmart’s? Would there be McDonald’s? I was praying against hope that there would not be. More than anything, I wanted Iceland to still be Iceland.
My traveling companions, Gretchen, Tom, and Enid, did not have a frame of reference. For them, Iceland was a mysterious place about which they had read a few things, seen photos, especially recently since the volcanic eruption in the south of the country. Gretchen had brought face masks in case we ran into clouds of ash. Overall, they were anxious to see a new place. And looked forward, with me, to my reunion with old friends.
Our bags packed into the back of our rented Ford Focus station wagon, we set forth, on a road that was smoothly paved and well marked. New roads, roundabouts, bright yellow directional signs led us north, toward Frodastadir. The road passed by shops and mini-malls, the kind of commerce seen worldwide. Once, I spotted the familiar KFC sign and my heart sank. I couldn’t help but think about the lonely lava road of the not-so-distant past, the way the little city of Reykjavik released so suddenly and completely to the farmland and steep green hills that comprised the rest of the country. Soon, we descended into a five-mile-long, beautifully constructed two-lane tunnel. A completely different route, now called the Ring Road, the old lightly traveled lava road had been paved and re-routed beneath a wide fjord. Traffic moved along just as it would in New Hampshire or Vermont. I later learned that the tunnel through which we were passing, carved out of bedrock, had been constructed in three years’ time. I thought about Boston’s eternal project called the Big Dig. Jobs in Iceland are completed with dispatch. We passed by towns I had never seen or remembered, all of them grown up and prosperous looking. Though I had expected change, it was hard to believe this was the same place.
Before long, we were driving through the wide and beautiful Hvitarsidu valley, to which I have often returned in my dreams. Here, little seemed changed. When we reached the simple white church at the end of the road, its stark steeple reaching up into the milky Icelandic sky, I knew I was home. Frodastadir is within sight of the church, where Unnur used to take me to services on Sunday. As we turned up the long driveway, I saw the old farmhouse, just as it always had been, but beside it was a new building and from an elegant modern glass door, Imba emerged, waving, smiling. It was almost an out-of-body experience, to be there, after all that time, to see Imba, all grown up and at the helm now of this dear farm. Daniel and Unnur have passed away and Imba runs the farm with her husband, Steini. They have two daughters who are grown up and on their own. She welcomed us inside for a tour and explanations. Five years ago, Imba and Steini built this new house, next to the old farmhouse where I had lived with them in 1969.
Walking into this beautiful modern home, all on one floor, I felt disoriented and yet thrilled. Big plate glass windows looked out on the vast green valley. In the kitchen, everything was as beautiful and modern as the finest of homes. I thought of Unnur, who was so hardworking and capable. She loved to learn new English words and that summer, she learned from me the word “refrigerator” — in the morning, she would point to the ice box and ask me to say the word, and then she would repeat it, in excruciatingly slow and difficult syllables and then smile and laugh — we all joined her! After my time there, when I was preparing to leave for home, I asked what I could send them. And Unnur said, “Refrigerator!” I was a little shocked, trying to imagine how I could ship that to her. I said I didn’t think I could do that, so then she said, “Maybe dishwasher?” These kinds of things were of great interest to the Icelanders who, in general, were much more advanced than I would have imagined. Frodastadir was not as up to date but many of the others farmers had dishwashers and other gadgets in their homes. I imagined that this kitchen of Imba’s would have been a dream come true for Unnur. I can just see her eyes light up.
Beyond the kitchen, there were beautiful bedrooms. The bathroom had heated tile floors, a beautifully appointed shower stall and a door that led out to their porch where they had a hot tub filled with water from hot springs. The walls were decorated with oil paintings, many of them by Steini’s brother Pall, who she told us, has art and stone carvings on display in Reykjavik. A feeling of enlightenment, beauty, and tranquility ran through the house like the cool breezes blowing in through the open kitchen windows. Right next to the new house was the old house. A modest Cape with a red corrugated metal roof and siding of the same material, painted light yellow, it looked the same as when I was there. Imba explained that a farm hand lives in the old house now. I wanted to go in but Imba cautioned it is “messy” so I decided that my memory of it was all I needed.
At first, I saw all the newness but then there was recognition. I saw that the treasures from the old house had been brought to the new house and were displayed as if in a museum. In the living room, Imba had the oak breakfront that I remembered from their old living room as well as the beautiful antique chairs with the needlepoint seats, back and arms, all hand done by Unnur. On the floor beside the breakfront was the spinning wheel that Unnur used when I was there. In the evenings, I sometimes sat with her in the living room and wound skeins while she spun. Those were the times that were most pleasant to me. There was always a feeling of harmony and tranquility at Frodastadir, a feeling of love and the acceptance of harsh realities. On the walls, in an alcove, old tools and horse shoes, an intricately woven saddle cinch, a miniature saddle with a handwritten inscription that I remembered had hung near the telephone, old tools — all proudly covered the walls.
Aside from its white, Scandinavian beauty, the new farmhouse seemed almost a shrine to Daniel. Outside the front door, Pall, Steini’s artist brother, had carved a life-sized likeness of Daniel’s head into a beautiful red stone. The carving is affixed onto another, monument-sized stone which stands up against the stark landscape. As well, inside the house were hanging two dramatic portraits Pall had painted of Daniel, of whom I was so fond. I remember thinking when I was living there that Daniel was very old but I now calculate that he was 58 — younger than I am now. I was astonished to realize that. It is a unique experience in my life to be with people I loved and yet with whom I never really had a conversation. Because of the language, or lack of it, there was a huge gap between us. Their kindnesses to me were in their eyes and their gestures as well as my own observations of their interactions with each other and with their animals. Daniel appeared gruff and did not smile that often. It was harder to warm to him than to Unnur, who had immediately embraced me on my arrival. At first, he and I rarely interacted — Unnur assigned me tasks and Imba often showed me what to do as well, sign language in full force.
I was not very good at milking the cows, as I recall, and I think Daniel was sometimes impatient with me (with good reason). Or maybe it was his countenance: he had big bushy eyebrows that shielded his eyes. His denim jacket was tattered at the cuffs and, in general, he was all about the work on the farm. He was stern but not unkind. I especially liked the way he and Imba lingered at the table after the meal was over, talking about things that needed doing on the farm. Even though I didn’t speak the language, it was clear to me that he was teaching her and she was his eager student. But with me, he remained aloof but then one day after I’d been on the farm a while, I wrote this in my journal: “I’ve decided I really like Daniel. This afternoon, when we were trying to get one of the cows across the bridge, he was so gentle with her, it was really neat to watch. She was scared — cows don’t like bridges and I’ve seen farmers in the past speak harshly, slap them and push them around to get them to go through gates or over bridges, but he was so nice to this cow. At dinner tonight he said his first words to me. He asked me if I would like some mysingur on my cheese. He thinks it’s pretty funny that I put the rhubarb jam on the cheese with my bread in the morning. He even tries to say a few English words to me now and then, with a little smile.”
One of the two portraits of Daniel hanging now on Imba’s walls is just his face, a flowing beard, eyes downcast. More than anything else, the portrait is one of kindness. The other is almost life-size, probably six feet or more, monopolizing one entire wall. There is Daniel in actual old age (as opposed to the old age I had given him at his relatively young age of 58!). He has a long, full, white beard like Methuselah, and his white hair is like a mane. Imba explained that he had Parkinson’s and his hands were no longer steady enough to hold the razor so he just stopped shaving and the beard grew the full, luxuriant length. His eyebrows were longer, bushier, and grayer than ever. It was wonderful to reacquaint myself with him at that time. Imba and I stood together and looked at the portrait. “I think I see fear in his eyes,” she said. “Like he is afraid. He died soon after this.”
I felt so badly I had never seen him again, never visited again until now. How very much I would have enjoyed seeing Daniel and Unnur once more — although our considerable language barrier would likely have been greater than ever. Still, in the interim, Imba’s English had improved greatly and I was amazed that we could actually have a conversation and ask each other the questions that we had wanted to ask for so long.