The Iceland Diaries, Part Five

It was difficult, perhaps the most difficult thing, to be without a common language. I have always said that being in Iceland gave me perspective and I think that related to many aspects of life. I could easily relate now to the […]

By Edie Clark

Jul 28 2010

It was difficult, perhaps the most difficult thing, to be without a common language. I have always said that being in Iceland gave me perspective and I think that related to many aspects of life. I could easily relate now to the many who travel to a new country, looking for work, unable to speak the native language. I sat through many meals not understanding anything that was being said. At times, I enjoyed listening, waiting to hear a word I knew or trying to string more than two words together to make sense. Other times, I completely withdrew and felt the deepest, saddest loneliness I ever recall. Writing in my journal was not a task but a necessity. It was at least one conversation I would have during the day.

Jane eventually found a bit of work at a farm at the other end of the valley. We learned to use the “simi” — the telephone which was of the most ancient kind: like the kind they had on Lassie, a box on the wall with a mouthpiece attached to the box and a receiver you held to your ear. Crank one ring and then two rings for Jane’s farm. I had no idea if making phone calls was expensive. I knew that they were on a party line because I might sometimes pick up the receiver and hear voices on the other end. I recall that Unnur liked to listen sometimes. I was not unfamiliar with all of that as it wasn’t that long ago that that was a common practice in America as well. I loved watching Unnur’s expression as she listened in. So when or if I called Jane, we tried to make it short and understood that someone else might be listening in. Still, it was a treat to speak English. We were able, at times, to make plans to get together. Unnur and Daniel would take me to visit there or her family would bring her to Frodastadir. It wasn’t very often but it was a much anticipated event. Otherwise, we could write letters to each other and send them via the milk truck.

The milk truck came every third day to pick up the milk and also to deliver mail or take it away. This was another event that I looked forward to: the arrival of the milk truck and perhaps some mail from home. Now that we have instant communication, I notice my friends’ children are in constant touch, e-mailing or texting no matter how far they travel. I realize how hard it must have been for my parents to have to wait and wonder where I was, how I was. As soon as I arrived in Reykjavik, after changing American dollars into Icelandic kronur, I bought postage stamps. And wrote letters. I wanted to let my parents know where I was and what the news was. I hoped, too, to hear from them. I mailed off a letter to them almost the same day as my arrival so I had no way of knowing but it was weeks before they even knew I had landed safely. After about three weeks of silence, my mother called the Icelandic Consul in New York and asked him to go look for me. That was so like my mother, kind of innocent and hopeful about things. It was also quite manageable in Iceland, such a small country. Apparently, he was able to track me down, I have no idea how, and, after while, he was able to let her know that I was fine. I wish now that she were alive so I could ask her how that went. On the other hand, my parents were both in the service during World War II, in true harm’s way, and their parents didn’t know from one day to the next where their children were or if they were safe. My grandparents all lived with that, day to day, year to year, throughout the war. So I guess you could say my parents were somewhat used to not knowing.

In any case, the mail came in batches. I recall once coming in from our work in the field and Unnur coming out from the kitchen holding a big packet of letters for me, the biggest smile on her face as if she herself had written them. According to my journal, there were twenty-two letters in her hand that day. That is because there was a log jam, somewhere, letters from friends and family accumulating somewhere and coming to me all at once, via milk truck. I am sure I had a bigger smile than Unnur when I took them from her. I feasted on the letters that night and the next day and felt comforted for days to know how things were at home. My grandmother wrote about the progress of the roses in her garden as well as her amazement at where her granddaughter was, and amazed at what I had written to her in my last letter about the farm life I was experiencing. “Edie!” she wrote in her flowery, Victorian script. “You are going to write a book about Iceland!” She often said things like that to me, seemed to know even before I did that I would be a writer. My mother wrote about happenings in the neighborhood and at church. I devoured every crumb of news from home. And wrote back. I think back on it now and wonder what Unnur and Daniel thought of the time I spent in my room, writing, either in my journal or on aerogrammes to be sent to Bandariki.

Another great void was news, news of the world. I remember that once, somehow, Jane came into possession of a recent issue of Time magazine. When she was finished reading it, she sent it down to me via milk truck. I wrote in my journal of the thrill of reading the news, even if it was a few weeks old. It was a lot more than I had known for a long time. I saved that magazine for years, for no reason other than it meant so much to me at the time.

There was a young man about my age who came to stay on the farm and work from time to time. He came especially during haying season. Steini was a cousin of Imba’s. He spoke some English and was very kind to me. We played chess in the evenings and sometimes, in the morning, he read the newspaper to me out loud — reading of course from the Icelandic daily newspaper, Morgunbladid (Morgan-blathith or Morning News). Though he spoke English, it was not perfect so the reading of the news was halting and sometimes implausible. I recall feeling impatient, which embarrasses me now when I think of his generous efforts but this came because I was so hungry and hearing the news filtered twice — through Icelandic and then back into English, by way of a less-than-confident translator — was not enough for me. It was like trying to hear a conversation through a thick wall, a few words clear and then just mumbling.

1969 was the summer of Woodstock and the summer of the Charles Manson murders, but I only read about all that much later. It was also the summer we first walked on the moon but that was one event about which I had practically first-hand knowledge. At the time of the moonwalk, I was in Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city, up in the north country. I had taken time away from the farm when they did not really need me and did some roaming about the country. I remember an almost surrealistic experience of standing in a man’s living room (it was a kind of bed and breakfast), watching a small black and white television broadcast those first steps and the strange voice that accompanied the action, One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. It was especially of interest to the Icelandic people because these astronauts had come to Iceland to train, so they felt part of the drama. I never totally understood it but apparently they came to walk about in their space suits on the vast wasteland near the resort town of Myvatn which is surrounded by fields of lava that resemble the surface of the moon. Maybe the reason the experience of standing in this living room, almost at the Arctic Circle, watching this historic event on television, felt so strange was that it blended these two worlds for me and I was only prepared to be in one world or the other. Whatever the reason, it stuck in my mind as otherworldly, being in this ancient culture and absorbing its mysterious ways and at the same time watching what we all considered to be the future of mankind, reported on that television in Icelandic, a strange filter. Having Steini read the news to me gave me somewhat the same vertiginous feeling, as if the two things were at odds with each other, like the wrong side of the magnet repelling instead of attracting. I never felt that way as I did my milking chores or worked in the hay field. That was the clear reality into which I had disappeared.