The Iceland Diaries, Part Four

I had hitchhiked out there with Jane. We had started in Reykjavik, looking for work, but we were told there were no jobs to be found at all. The herring had gone and Iceland was in a depression as a result. My only contact, Peter Knuttson, a Brit who lived marginally in Reykjavik and somehow […]

By Edie Clark

Jul 23 2010

I had hitchhiked out there with Jane. We had started in Reykjavik, looking for work, but we were told there were no jobs to be found at all. The herring had gone and Iceland was in a depression as a result. My only contact, Peter Knuttson, a Brit who lived marginally in Reykjavik and somehow knew my cousin Mac, had suggested the only work available might be on farms. He gave us the name of a farmer, Gudlaugur Torfasson, out near Reyholt. It was a hard name to remember so we made up a song that ended with the refrain, Gooth-low-gur Torfa-son! If we were going to keep our hope of staying in the country alive, we had little choice. So we hitched through the pouring rain — it rained most of the time that summer. We made our way to Reyholt, getting a couple of short rides but mostly walking. Through the rain, we saw a church. My heart lifted and I said, “A church is a sanctuary, let’s go in!” And we took shelter in the church, settling in the back pew. We were exhausted, soaked and hungry. Jane burrowed into her pack to find our loaf of bread. I took the wedge of cheese from my backpack and started to unwrap it when the minister walked in. That night, I wrote in my journal: “I was mortified when the minister walked in to find us opening up the cheese and tearing hunks off our loaves of bread.” He was kind, though, and invited us in for tea. When we explained our mission, he said he knew Gudlaugur (at first we were amazed that the very first person we encountered knew the man we were looking for but we later learned that Iceland is a small community where everyone knows everyone) and kindly offered to drive us to his farm, about ten miles from the church. And so he did, leaving us off in the driveway, the rain still coming down in torrents.

The farm seemed alone in the vast valley, what we could see of it through the rain and fog. We went to the door and knocked. A big blonde sober-looking man opened the door to the compact farmhouse, tucked, as it was, against the big hill that rose above it. I asked if he spoke English and he said, “Yes, I love to speak English.”

He was delighted to find that we were “Bandarikins” — Americans — and invited us inside with a generous gesture of his hand. Still soaked, we entered his farmhouse, warm and cozy. We set our wet backpacks down in his hallway, removed our rain jackets and boots there as well. I sat down on his comfortable couch with relief, as if I had arrived home after a long journey. His wife, Steinum, seemed to appear out of nowhere with a tray of pastries and a pot of hot coffee as we explained to Gudlaugur (gooth-lou-gur) that we were looking for work. He listened carefully. He had the demeanor of a professor, completely in command and yet curious and open to new information. He told us that we were the first Americans he had ever met. He got out the map and showed his children the distance we had traveled. (He neglected to mention that the longest distance we had traveled to date was from Reykjavik to his farm.) “I have five children,” he said, “so I don’t need any help here but maybe one of my neighbors might. If you will stay here and teach my children some English words, I will go see if I can find work for you.”

The children were shyly peeking from around the corners. Smiles seemed to be part of their natural demeanor. We happily agreed to his proposition. The oldest were daughters who, as I recall were 10 and 12. The youngest, Torvi, a little elf of a towhead, was four. In time, Gudlaugur started up his Land Rover (one of the most common cars in Iceland at that time) and rumbled out into the rain and down the rough lava road. He was gone for hours. It was June, when day never turns to night, rendering time irrelevant, so I don’t remember how long he was gone but for some reason eighteen hours sticks in my mind. We stayed and helped with the children and with the chores on the farm, of which there was never a shortage. Steinum kept the meals coming and the house immaculate. She proudly showed us her modern kitchen, which, to our surprise, was every bit as up to date as any American kitchen and nicer than many. Her pride and joy was her Kitchen-Aid dishwasher.

We explored the farm with the children and they showed us how to milk the cows. We traded words with sign language, pointing to the cow, “cow” and then to us came back the word, “kyr.” Milk; “mjolk.” And so on. (Unfortunately, Icelandic is hardly that simple. But it was a start.)

My earliest impressions of the Icelandic people were formed on this farm as I observed these children so happy in their tasks. They didn’t have toys. They worked on the farm along with everyone else, milking the cows and herding sheep, cleaning up, and taking care of what needed to be done. I remember especially the two youngest were set to work on the task of taking apart wooden crates. I watched them remove the nails from each corner and then, using the hammer quite skillfully, even the four-year-old, straightened the nails and set them in a small pile. I was amazed at their strength and dexterity. The wood, of course, was precious — Iceland at that time had no trees, hardly a one. So each panel of wood was stacked carefully and it would be reused creatively. The straightened nails were similarly safeguarded. As these children worked, they talked happily and laughed. This was my introduction to the Icelandic work ethic, cheerful, exacting, and ongoing, even in the children.

Although I grew up in an affluent suburb of New York City, I did have some background for my work in Iceland. One summer, I had worked on a farm which gave me a bit of a head start on some of the work I’d be doing in the coming months. I knew how to milk a cow and shoveling manure was old hat as I had had a donkey while growing up and cleaning the stable was a weekly chore. I had cared for many children all through my teenage years. I’d started out at the age of eleven, taking care of two very young and very mischievous boys. They were always into something, including running naked through the neighborhood. In fact, babysitting was what I’d done almost fulltime, to earn money, so I could go to Iceland. So I was familiar with how children were, or so I thought. Children, I’d come to see, needed to be entertained, especially in an educational way. My task as a babysitter was to steer them in a good direction but overall, to keep them happy. That seemed to be what most of the mothers I worked for wanted of me. Keep them content and relatively quiet, play games with them, take them places, give them the attention and care that they needed in the absence of their parents.

These Icelandic children seemed to need no such direction. They were apparently born launched in that direction and found the humblest of tasks satisfying. Disobedience or naughtiness seemed not to have reached these arctic shores as yet. In addition, they roamed about the farm at will, there didn’t seem to be any anxiety about their safety, much like the herds of sheep kept by each farm — there were no fences. The sheep were branded and grazed across the vast countryside until it was time to bring them in to be clipped, which was to be one of the more exciting parts of my adventure. But I wasn’t there yet. I was still here, on Gudlaugur’s farm, waiting to know if there would be work or if, in disappointment, I would have to return to the United States, for lack of work. When he returned from his long visits with all of his, I believe, fourteen farming neighbors, which I know now, were scattered around this wide and vast Hvitarsidu valley, he had news. He had found just one job. It was up to us to decide which one of us would take the job. We deliberated and eventually decided I would take the job. Jane would stay on with Gudlaugur and perhaps another job would open up in the valley. He said that, in the morning, he would take me to my farm. That night, after a beautiful meal provided by Steinum, we talked about “Bandariki.” He brought out a map of the United States, which was, he explained, the literal translation for “Bandariki,” or “band of states.” He listened eagerly to our stories of home. The children sat by, listening, though I can only assume they understood nothing of what we were saying. Our surprise visit was apparently of keen interest even without the narrative.

I learned years later that Gudlaugur was a schoolteacher — he taught history in the local school. Knowing that, I understood even better his generous welcome to these two American vagabonds. He made up for our discouraging entry into the country, being informed on our arrival in Reykjavik that the herring had “gone away” and that subsequently, Iceland had sunk into a depression. There were no jobs available, unless we could find work on a farm. The prospect of having to return home after all this preparation wasn’t something I’d even considered. Gudlaugur Torfasson opened the door to this world, and helped us over the threshold.

And so in the morning, another cold and rainy day, I hefted my backpack into the back of his Land Rover, said goodbye to all, including my friend Jane, and left for Frodastadir (Froe-tha-stah-theer), a farm a couple of miles down the rough, rutted road. They were there waiting for me, it seemed, with anticipation. Unnur was a slight but beautiful older woman, her straight gray hair caught girlishly back in barrettes. She welcomed me as warmly as she could as did Daniel, who was rugged with bushy grey eyebrows overhanging his penetrating blue eyes. He reached out his big rough, working hands and clasped mine in welcome. Ingibjorg (Imba, pronounced Impa) lingered behind them. She was fifteen, strong, blonde, and with a happy smile. She was the only child left on the farm. Hence their need for my help. There was one thing Gudlaugur had failed to tell me: no one on this farm spoke a word of English. My Icelandic was limited to a few necessary words that I had picked up since my arrival, words mostly from reading public signs: snyrtting (toilet), simi (telephone), brod (bread), and, of course, godin dag (good day)and goda not (good night). As I stood there in the hallway of their little house, the reality of this hard-to-fathom fact sank to the pit of my stomach.

To be continued….