Notes from Iceland 2009

I have just completed two years of research in Korea, Taiwan, and in Shandong, China. This summer I returned to my hometown Stavanger for a few weeks and then made my way to the US with a cheap ticket from Iceland Air. Just as I did once before, I made a two day stop in Iceland in order to explore that magical place a little more. I wrote a little about my previous stay here, but this time I managed to get out of Reykjavík and explore the southwest quarter of Iceland by car.

In order to keep things to a reasonable budget, both of my trips to Iceland left me with a choice between paying a few nights in a hostel and renting a bicycle, or renting a car and forgoing a place to stay. On my first trip I chose the former, but this time I decided to rent a car and sleep two nights in the vehicle.

As I suspected, the biggest problem with sleeping two nights in a car in Iceland is that it gets very cold, even in early August. Having recently come from the sweltering heat of Taiwan and Korea, I had no coats and little more than a few t-shirts packed with me and forgot to bring an extra sweater I had put aside to bring from my stash of possessions in my mother’s apartment in Norway. My first attempt at a solution to this problem was to “borrow” a blanket from Iceland Air, slipping one of their nice fleece blankets into my backpack upon boarding the aircraft. Given how cold I got, I should have stolen two of them. Since I’m not really the thieving type, I returned my blanket on my flight out of Iceland, but the experience sparked an idea: Iceland Air ought to consider providing a cheap – or ideally free with deposit – “blanket rental” service for poor backpackers like me who are sleeping in the expensive rental cars to be had in Iceland. Here is how it could work: pick up a blanket or two on disembarkation at Kevlavik airport, leaving a deposit, and return it when boarding your plane out of the country. Who should I contact about this idea?

The first afternoon I headed into Reykjavík and walked around the main street Laugavegur again. The bankruptcy of the country in the current economic crisis is immediately visible. Perhaps the most common word I was to see in Iceland in the two days I was there this time was “Útsala” (sale; clearance sale) plastered on hastily computer printouts on almost half the stores along the main street, a significant contrast from the chic shopping street I saw on my previous trip. At the airport, there is a sign in the duty free section which asks foreign shoppers something along the lines, “Should you feel guilty about taking advantage of the current circumstances? We at Kevlavik airport think you shouldn’t.”1 To be honest, though, Iceland still didn’t feel like it got a lot cheaper since my last trip. That may be because inflation has stolen some of the best bargains to be had when the currency crisis initially hit.

I spent a few relaxing hours of reading and eating at a great, and apparently famous, coffee shop on Laugavegur called Hljómalind, where I enjoyed a wonderful and reasonably priced vegetarian lasagna and great coffee. It seems to be a regular hangout for foreign travelers, and is also popular among Iceland’s Couchsurfers.

I picked up some groceries and was surprised to find grocery stores open on Sunday, a shock coming from Norway where the only thing open on Sunday’s are Chinese take-out, gas stations, and a few very small stores, mostly run by immigrants in the downtown area. As on my last trip to Iceland I was very underwhelmed by the selection and quality of bread, which I found to be very sub-Scandinavian par. There is more selection than one might expect, however. One cannot noticing a strange mix of Scandinavian and American consumer products. Maarud paprika potato screws and Lucky charms cereal could be seen in the same aisle of a grocery store. At the ubiquitous N1 gas stations small Taco Bell booths are found alongside familiar Scandinavian sites like soft ice cream stands and racks of beautiful woolen sweaters. It was almost as if Iceland were located half way between Scandinavia and the United States. Oh wait…

After feeding myself and picking up some supplies I was eager to hit the road. Although it was late afternoon by the time I got out, I hopped back in the rental and drove north of the city, aiming for the peninsula leading to Ólavsvik. I drove as far as I could towards its western edge until the sun hit the horizon and I turned back to the city.

DSCF2487.JPGOn this first drive, I immediately discovered how dangerous driving could be in Iceland. Let us call it, “Death by Beauty.” Since the landscape is so unfamiliar and its mountains so breathtaking, it invites close inspection by the traveler. The contrast between the light of a sinking sun and the shadows created by the clouds produce an especially beautiful effect as intermittent patches of orange light illuminate the bare hills. I often saw clouds just barely spilling over distant peaks, as if the valley beyond could not quite consume their volume. There is so much to stop and admire, even along the main highway, but the roads rarely have enough of a shoulder to come slowly to a stop along the edge in order to take in the scenery without blocking fast moving cars that might approach from behind. There are small gravel roads that shoot off the edge here and there, but these are easily missed when one is driving 90kph and not always available at points where one wishes to stop. DSCF2508.JPGOver a dozen times during my trip, I found myself glancing off to the right or left in order to take in a view, and then nearly driving off the road into a field of hardened lava, moss covered rocks, or grass plains. My technique improved with time: slowing down, taking shorter glances, and making more frequent stops at nearby gravel turnoffs, but I often found myself envying the exhausted looking travelers who could be seen pedaling overloaded travel bikes through the vast wilderness. For the benefit and safety of both bicyclists and drivers, I suggest Iceland give its construction industry a surely much needed boost by adding a generous shoulder to both sides of the entire stretch of highway 1 around the island, then later label further roads as targets for shoulders based on a cost-benefit analysis of the “Death by Beauty” risk of any given stretch. Who should I contact about this idea?

DSCF2570.JPGPerhaps the next most important observation was really the confirmation of a hypothesis I had. I’m a big fan of Sigur Rós and soon began blasting their music on my first drive. I can now say, with some confidence, that their music is such a perfect fit for driving through the Icelandic countryside that rental car companies in Iceland should consider including CDs with the band’s complete works in the glove compartment of every rented car. Who should I contact about this idea? I especially recommend some of their strange but progressively building songs such as Hafsól, Di Do, Saeglópur, Staralfur, and softer but eerie songs like Kafari, O Fridur and Refur.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the landscape of Iceland is simply amazing. As I drove through the countryside, even in the most “populated” – to the extent one can call any part of this massive island anything of the kind – southwestern quarter of Iceland, I kept find myself thinking two similar thoughts:

“You know, I don’t think humans belong here.”

“Umm….I don’t think this island is done yet. Shouldn’t we come back in a few thousand years?”

DSCF2603.JPGYet, somehow, a few hundred thousand people make their home here. Every hour I spent outside of Reykjavík I felt a strange and deep loneliness, but the kind of productive loneliness that is a wellspring of cultural inspiration and cleansing introspection. How else can one explain the amazing wealth of Icelandic contemporary music, photography, literature, and design? They might name their streets after vikings and play up their old sagas to tourists but the people on this island clearly have no need to embrace an illustrious but distant past. The island is itself so visibly alive, that there is no need for its culture to rest on the achievements of the dead.

I particularly like one of the advertisements for 66º North depicting the cool stare of a young pale faced girl holding a fishing pole:

I can’t remember the exact wording but it said something along the lines of, “Somewhere there is a girl in a warm house playing with her barbie dolls. I figure I’m the lucky one.”

DSCF2520.JPGObviously, this bold defiance in the face of harsh nature is a common theme found throughout Nordic nationalisms, and the seemingly endless expanse of stoney plateaus suspended above the lush forested valleys and the dark blue fjords of Norway may also inspire in the traveler a feeling of icy isolation. Yet, in southern Norway especially, it is precisely the promise of embrace in those rainy valley forests, the comforting smell of vegetation and the older more tamed appearance of the southern Norwegian landscape which sets it apart from Iceland. With perhaps the exception of the bare sharp but short peaks and the tundra of Northern Norway, the rest of Scandinavia simply cannot generate the same sense of complete nakedness one is faced with when they confront the mountains of Iceland, or its strange rock and lava fields. Even the bright green of a field of moss surrounding a lake might share the horizon with steam emerging from some mouth the earth has yet to close. And the smell…everywhere in the country a mix of strange and unfamiliar smells, perhaps sulfur? Perhaps some other product of subterranean fires?

DSCF2586.JPGThe Icelandic language too continues to fascinate me. I am still intrigued by the strange sense of familiarity the language has when spoken. I feel like I should be able to understand what is spoken (given its close connection to the Norwegian idiom) and everytime someone mistakes me for a local and I am able to guess the meaning, I sometimes catch myself responding in Norwegian, as would be the perfectly natural thing to do in Sweden or Denmark. I feel a deep frustration at having to respond in English. I know many Icelanders can speak Danish or some other dialect of what many of them rightly call the “Scandinavian” language but I cannot assume this. The written language, with its prolific use of those beautiful and ancient letters ð and þ, is almost completely unreadable to me but when spoken, it sounds so bizarrely familiar, and occasionally whole phrases come through only to descend into what seems like playful gibberish. Learning a language that only a few hundred thousand living and perhaps a few million dead people can speak seems unpractical, but if I found myself living in the island at some point, I would eagerly take up the challenge.

On my first night I stayed in the city, parking my car in a quiet neighborhood and sleeping in the back of my car. I woke frozen in the morning and decided early August was a great time to buy a nice warm winter fleece and promptly went shopping for one. After this early morning shopping spree, I decided to visit a thermal pool. I avoided the one I was told was most favored by tourists and instead visited a thermal pool deep in a residential area. Already by my second day I was beginning to wonder if there were openings for historian of East Asian history at one of Iceland’s few institutions of higher education that I might apply for and began imagining what life would be like here if I could spend a decade on the island. I loved the thermal pool, which warmed me right up in a quiet and relaxed local environment. It resembled some of the smaller scale sento public baths or hot springs in rural Japan I’ve been to. Old men exchange gossip in the shower room, and local neighborhood residents bathe and swim together in a steaming outdoor pool and collection of other hot pools and steam rooms.

DSCF2539.JPGMy full day of driving (see the map linked to below for the GPS track of my travels) following my morning bath took me to heavily touristed sites like the rich historical þingvellir, the Geysir, and Gullfoss. As I suspected, however, I far more enjoyed my own slow wandering on the roads (many of them rough gravel) south from these sites towards the southern coast, which was nothing short of spectacular. The glaciers of the south were hidden far above the clouds with only an arm extending into view here and there. The best clue of their presence were the hundreds of waterfalls that descended like so many white ropes descending from the clouds.

DSCF2600.JPGBy early evening I had reached Vik on the southern tip of Iceland, and spent some time watching the waves crash against the cliffs at nearby Dyrhólaey before driving late into the night all along the southern coast until I reached the lighthouse at Iceland’s southwestern tip, west of Grindavik.

DSCF2639.JPGMy late night trip on a long and bouncy gravel road through black lava fields was dimly light by the sun, already rising – or was it still setting – at one in the morning. I could just make out the strange shapes of the terrain around me and I hope some day I can make the same drive again by day. I finally parked along the coast and lay down in the back to sleep while strong winds coming up from the coast rocked my car and sang me to sleep.

DSCF2643.JPGI awoke at five, freezing, despite my new fleece, and walked out to a nearby cliff beyond the lighthouse for a last moment of reflection before heading to the airport.

Later, on arriving in the US my dear friend Sayaka showed me a Sigur Rós video she thought I might like. The video concludes at the same cliff of that last morning:

Sigur Rós – Glósóli from on Vimeo.

More of my pictures from the trip here. GPS track of my trip and map below:

2009.8 Southwest Iceland at EveryTrail

Map created by EveryTrail: GPS Trail Maps

  1. anyone see this sign? I think this is pretty close to the original. [] Voyage Record Images Project

I have already had occasion to mention my mother’s online historical project but I wanted to write a short post to congratulate her on the completion of a remarkable achievement.

My mother’s ship lists contains detailed information on hundreds of Norwegian merchant marine vessels from World War II that played a key role in supplying the allies in Britain and elsewhere during the war. She also contains information on many of the ships in the home fleet under German control.

In addition to reference information about the ships such as the years they were built, tonnage, and their fate during or after the war, she has assembled an incredible collection of anecdotes, crew lists, prisoner of war information, and other valuable information about the ships that are useful not only to historians but also the thousands of descendants of sailors who served and in many cases died on these ships.

The primary task she has dedicated herself over the past months is to organize, process, and upload thousands of images of voyage lists of these vessels taken from the Norwegian national archives and post the images as links from the various ships where they can be viewed directly and compared to similar voyage records compiled and already available online by an Arnold Hague for fact checking purposes.

I have picked a ship completely at random, M/T Dageid, which shows you the kind of pages that have grown out of her years of work. I’m sure she has other ship entries that she is particularly proud of, but this random entry is already impressive. The ships now contain up to a dozen or so links to pages of the voyage records so, for example, descendants can determine where their merchant marine, or at least his ship, was at a given time during the war.

Although the links to these images are small and may go unnoticed, they represent many hundreds of hours of work by my mother. She now returns to her previous task of meticulously assembling and organizing information about the hundreds of convoys these ships sailed in. You can see her considerable progress so far on her convoys page.

An “Englishman” Visits the Cabin

I spent some time going through entries in a “hyttebok” (literally cabin bok) or “dagbok” (diary) for a small cabin owned by the family of my great-grandfather some two hours hike into the forest from my mother’s hometown Hegra. These cabin guestbooks are a wonderfully fun source to read through as well as being of special interest to my family since some of the entries are written by my grandfather, great-grandfather and other relatives.

Like many such cabins in the region, anyone passing through the forest was free to stay (one entry shows four men, probably loggers, stayed for three months) as long as they cut wood to replace what they used, cleaned the floors, made the beds, and any money visitors left in the cabin was used for upkeep. Some of the entries are simply hilarious. Some contain poems, some have drawings, and others scold previous visitors for not chopping up wood to leave for the next visitor. Some reveal interesting customs from decades past or talk about the activities of the inhabitants. August entries almost all refer to picking tyttebær, and in one 1932 entry we learn that my great-grandfather and grandfather had a father and son stay in the cabin that involved the recreational, “firing of revolvers.”

One entry I came across from 1935 was, alone among all the entries, written in English. The entry was signed, “From an Englishman” but I think some careful textual analysis might furnish some reasons to doubt the nationality of the writer:

Trönderheimen 17/4-35

We was coming here about one o’clock, and we like this småll hous very good. Åsta is gon and fiks the bed now, and she want me to go too and I hope she will get an good bed friend. Olav and Marie shall altso go to bed, but I think they do something rong, because Olav is like an young horse. Marie says kiss me but I don’t want it because Olav don’t want it.

The best wishes to every body.
From an Englishman

Notes from Iceland

On my way back to Boston I’m staying two nights in Reykjavík. I’ll takes some notes while I’m here and post them when I get back in town:

Sept 6

– In only a few hours this island has really caught my interest. However, I clearly need to come back with a whole lot more money. Unless you just want to hit the “blue lagoon” heating swimming area on the way from the airport, be prepared to rent a car or spend serious money to get to any of the beautiful areas on all the postcards. Come to think of it, the same is true for Norway.

– Even in the short fifty or so kilometers from the airport to Reykjavík and the view from the edges of town I’m already fascinated by the Icelandic landscape. In some areas it looks like the tundra of Northern Norway, in others the rocky but bright green grassland of Jæren south of my hometown. In some places along the coast it is all rocks covered with lichen and mosses of many colors. Barren and pointed hills rise out of nowhere, and you can catch glimpses of massive asteroid crater like pits of dark sand, or shaded black fields dotted with bright white pillars of steam. From the town’s harbor you can see a towering mountain hanging over the waters edge off to the North. That mountain looks so familiar, as if it were a cliff along one of the fjords back in my own Rogaland county. However, it seems darker and somehow more impressive. When I returned to my room after an early evening walk I caught a glimpse of it again in the distance, but only as a completely black background to the city, disappearing into a soft blanket of white clouds above. Everything contributes to a kind of desperate but somehow empowering feeling of loneliness, which I really find moving. Like I said, I really need to return with more money so I can visit the many different areas of the island and perhaps hike some of its hills. As for a place to live though, I think I would miss the forests too much.

Reykjavík, or at least the center of it, doesn’t feel any bigger than any medium-sized Scandinavian fishing town, but imagine if you will a medium-sized fishing town where everyone dresses way cooler than you.

Laugavegur The “Main shopping street” (which they kindly announce in English on signs at either end) Laugavegur reminds me a lot of the main shopping street in Sandnes outside my hometown. It’s cute, but not exactly impressive. There are, however, a number of cute coffee shops, fancy clothes stores, and delicious smelling Thai restaurants.

Internet The “Kaffi vín” towards the eastern end of Laugavegur has an unprotected open wireless network, you can download your email here from the pavement outside. There are lots of internet cafes around but why pay?

Gothic Is it the “desperate but somehow empowering feeling of loneliness” I was talking about the reason Reykjavík seems to be a mini-gothic capital of the world? Or is there just some kind of gothic get-together going on this week?

Food Icelandic bread isn’t the greatest, but otherwise the stores are stocked with many if not most of the same things (and in many cases even brands). Lots of yoghurt products…yummm… Prices in the grocery store ranges from (Norwegian prices +10%) to (Norwegian Prices +100%), that is to say, expensive.

Icelandic, with its close connection to Old Norse, is easily one of the most bad-ass languages in the world. I also feel like I’m in some kind of weird drugged dream whenever I hear it spoken. Often times I catch the beginning or end of a sentence or a conversation and I could swear they are speaking regular Norwegian. Then when I tune in for the rest, their perfectly understandable speech degenerates into complete nonsensical combinations of familiar sounds, which just adds to my fascination. Add to this the fact that Icelandic gains instant sexiness from its frequent use of the letter ∂, with a slash through it. Oh ya, the funky p (which I can’t figure out how to type on this keyboard) is also kind of neat but ∂ is still my favorite and I think we should all reintroduce it into our own alphabets.

Sept 7

Bicycle Rentals and Hitler You can rent a bicycle at Hverfisgata 50, which runs parallel to Laugavegur. They rent out mountain bikes with a lock included for 2000kr per 24 hours which I found to be great if you want to bike around the town’s back streets and visit its parks and museums. I would have used it for a day ride out of the city but today the weather was terrible in the morning. The door to the mountain bike store had strange yellow index cards wedged into various posters hanging there. If my Icelandic-guessing engine is functioning, each card posed strange open-ended questions like, “Is Israel part of Europe?” and the more bizarre, “Was Hitler evil?” (Var Hitler vondur?). This reminds me of the kind of tactic used by any cause trying to problematize some widespread idea, e.g. “Did evolution happen?”

Back-streets and Houses I spent the morning biking around the west and northwestern areas of Reykjavík. The older houses often have a pretty normal scandinavian color and design found in other towns, but as to be expected there is much less wood. Instead, what looks like wooden boards from a distance on closer examination turns out to be sheets of metal siding. Newer houses and larger structures in the town mostly seem to be made of stone. There is a surprising amount of graffiti in a town of this size, both downtown and in the neighborhoods. There is much the same in many places in Stavanger, Oslo and other Scandinavian areas but I somehow expected there to be less here. There quite a high density of schools and lutheran (the state religion) churches in the city given its small size. They also have quite a few parks, both in the interior of the city and along its coastline.

The Culture House The Culture House can be found at Hverfisgata 15. It houses an exhibit of Iceland’s prize medieval manuscripts, information on the history of the Sagas, and an area dedicated to the history of book writing. There are also temporary exhibits on the 2nd and 3rd floors, a gift shop and a small cafe.

The “Medieval Manuscripts: Eddas and Sagas through the ages” on the 1st floor was wonderful. It gave an interesting overview of the history of the sagas, and had many of the rare manuscripts on display, but at least half of the exhibit was historiographical. There were sections on the role of these various texts in the romanticism and nationalism of Iceland and the North, their appropriation by the Nazis for its Aryan crusade, role in pop culture, and even a description of how the street names and layout in Reykjavík were structured to mirror the sagas and nordic myths (see separate posting). Translations of captions into English were available throughout with Danish also in the manuscript display rooms (many of these manuscripts were returned by Denmark in the early 1970s). Most of the manuscripts on display are early 13c and almost all in Old Norse. Latin works were quite rare in Iceland, which probably has to do with the particular relationship between Christianity and society on the island and perhaps the generally non-Latin educated nature of much of the writing class.

I really think the exhibit was great for several reasons: 1) It had a tight narrative which combined history and historiography in a way that the visitor never felt patronized. 2) It combined informational captions, maps, displays, lighting and artifacts skillfully. However, it also made good use of documentaries shown by TVs, the occasional iMac set up for visitors to check out online resources (For example: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi (If you understand Icelandic, check out their online section of Folklore recordings here and their Digital Manuscript Collection) and a flash story site called “Europe of Tales“). Perhaps the only thing I could complain about was the use of some images without providing context. For example, when describing the medieval parliament, they used a painting depicting it made during romanticist movement of the 1800s. That would have been nice to include for context, because the image and the way it portrays the parliament are useful in understanding the nationalist idealization of Iceland’s independent commonwealth period prior to its subordination to the Norwegian (late 13c) and later the Danish crown (14c).

Currently the 2nd floor has a fantastic exhibit “Reflections on Iceland” which I really enjoyed. It had put maps and travel literature about Iceland on display from throughout the centuries. It was interested in giving the visitor glimpses about what others had to say about the island and its people throughout the ages, both good and bad. The descriptive captions were in Icelandic but along the wall was a packet of laminated sheets with English translations of everything. What made the displays especially effective was that they lined up the works roughly chronologically and put works which referred to each other in juxtaposition. For example, one caption would describe how one writer, who may never have actually been to Iceland, said this, that or the other, then next to it we would find the next publication by some author determined to refute the slanderous writings of his predecessor. I only wish that much of this display’s information and captions were available online, something I will have to check when I post this and get online.

The 2nd floor also had an interesting exhibit dedicated to the Mormons of Iceland and, in particular, the migration of over 400 Icelandic Mormons to Utah. It followed their history from conversion to their long and troubled journey via England to the United States.

Outdoor Picture Exhibit Throughout the downtown area there is currently an outdoor picture exhibit. These are a great way to give visitors and residents a feeling of connection to the past. The pictures dated from around 1905 through to the 1970s and offered scenes of importance and the every day often with interesting trivia added about the development of a particular sector of the city, and important events that had left their mark by pointing out things in the background.

During World War II Britain invaded Iceland and would have done the same to Norway if the Germans hadn’t gotten there first. They later turned control over to the US, which became the only military defense for the island until this year (the American Icelandic Defense force is shutting down completely this month, I believe). In one picture around the time of the 1944 declaration of an Icelandic republic, which finally severed the final tie that the island had to the Danish crown, I was surprised to learn that the Danish king, then in his own German-occupied Denmark, actually sent a letter of congratulations to the Icelandic people. It is not the benevolence of the king which surprises me, there isn’t much he could have done about it, but rather that he could do such a think while he was in a post-1943 (when German control strengthened in Denmark) occupied Denmark sending congratulations to the inhabitants of an island occupied by his occupier’s enemy.

Kaffitár The rain compelled me twice to seek the comfort of coffee shops. I spent a few hours today continuing my reading the second volume of Ingar Sletten Kolloen’s biography of Knut Hamsun. In one very nice coffee shop on Laugavegur, Kaffitár (a chain I also saw at the airport and shopping mall, unless it just means generic cafe), I was surrounded by Macintosh users downloading their internet from the cafe’s free internet connection. If you buy coffee, and you are faced with several options, the one starting with “Sel…” something is “Dark Roast”

The National Museum After more biking around in the early afternoon I paid a good 3 hour visit to Iceland’s National Museum. My notes on this got long enough for a separate posting which I’ll upload separately.

– See some pictures from my two days in iceland via the picture page, or directly here.

UPDATE: Nathanael of the Rhine River blog has a few notes on the Gothic architecture of Reykjavik.

Iceland Wins The Viking Wars

Img 2514-1– These first two street signs are to be found in my hometown of Stavanger, Norway while going for a walk in my neighborhood last week. I wanted to start a little collection of pictures showing how Norway is crazy about its viking past. However, I just have to concede that Icelandic national identity has completely out-done all the other Scandinavian countries in their endless use of viking images, words, and symbols. There is everything from Viking beer to Viking hotels, and every other thing seems to have the words Saga, Edda, famous vikings, or one of the Norse gods in it.

IMG_2608.JPG IMG_2605.JPG If you want street signs examples, there are plenty of them. I’m sure the whole Nordic pantheon must be represented within just a few blocks of the downtown area of Reykjavík. I’m not always familiar with the spellings, but I’m pretty sure they are the same guys. It would actually be great fun to teach kids some of the old myths, and then drag them through the town to look at signs and have them identify things. For example, “Hey kids, what is the name of this health food store from?”


Then you could cruise up on the hill to that funky Lutheran church and point at the massive statue in front and say, “Hey kids, who is this big hunk of a viking? I’ll give you a clue, he wasn’t no Lutheran, and he sold a map to Columbus…Hey no cheating…nobody is allowed to look at the names on any of the streets connected to this roundabout or the name of that bed & breakfast across the street…Hey Jón, I didn’t say you could read the inscription on the back…”

 Users Fool Library Application-Support Ecto Attachments Img 2604

The Culture House (which I mention in my posting on my “Notes from Iceland”) had a great little section talking about just this phenomenon in its great historiographical section:

“In the first half of the 20th century, street names in Reykjavík drew heavily upon the sagas, and the layout was even intended to reflect their plots. Skarphé∂insgata (“Skarphedin’s street”) lies east and south of streets named after his parents, Bergpórugata and Njálsgata and between the couple is Barónsborg kindergarten, recalling their fate when they lay down to die in their burning farmhouse with their grandchild Thord Karason between them.”

Ok, so imagine working at the kindergarten and giving some new parents the tour, “Oh ya, did I mention that our kindergarten is conveniently located in such away to remind everyone of the burning corpses of Bergpóru (sp?) and Njál?” Above the caption was a map to show some of the examples:

Reykjavik Saga Streets

Iceland’s National Museum

Yesterday afternoon, I paid a visit to Iceland’s National Museum, located just next to its largest university, the University of Iceland. The museum is in nicely designed church-shaped concrete structure with three floors, a gift shop and cafe. The upper two floors are the permanent exhibit with temporary exhibits on the first floor.

Like many nationalist historical museums, the permanent exhibit tries to describe the centuries needed to accomplish “The Birth of the Nation” which, appropriately, was the title of the exhibit. The structure of the Icelandic national historical narrative is very similar to that of the Norwegian one (and dozens of other national narratives around the world). There is a glorious, if violent golden age which is celebrated as the source of national virtues, symbols, and heroes. This is followed by a decline and corruption of this noble tradition, followed by a long dark domination by a foreign power when the culture and independence of the nation are suppressed. The nation then emerges once again from the darkness as its glorious past is remembered and the national spirit awakens during its struggle for freedom from its oppressor.

In the Norwegian case, the Viking age, when we raped, burned, and pillaged Western Europe are the “good old days.” Mongolian nationalists know exactly what I’m talking about when they think of their own “good old days.” I mean, this was the period when we showed the world what it really meant to be Norwegian. This is the age from which the national symbols, stories, and heroes are taken. This is followed by the “500 years of night” when we were under the control of the Danes and our language and culture were suppressed by those evil Danish overlords. Apparently nothing of any real consequence happened at night, except that Reformation thingy. We then have a century of a kind of pre-dawn frost under Swedish domination, during which Norwegian nationalists rediscover their pure language and culture and rant about those horrible centuries of damaging Danish dominion and followed by full independence in 1905.

The Icelandic case shares much of this story but with less raping and pillaging, more democracy, and Norway gets to play a brief role as the bad guy. The roots of the Icelandic nation, if I have absorbed the narrative correctly, is to be found in the democratic and individualistic glory of the Commonwealth period, dating from the settlement of Iceland in the late 800s until it finally came to an end with Norwegian domination in the mid 1200s. The democratic legislative/judicial role of a kind of parliament (the althingi-mabob, can’t remember how to spell it) is a central source of pride. The next great source of pride is the incredibly rich production of literature – which all of Scandinavia and Germany have shown their great respect for. This glorious age was followed by the dark ages of domination first by Norwegians and then the Danes. Lots of nastiness ensued, granted, not all of it Danish. The Black death came late in the early 1400s and carried off half the population. The Reformation thingy went really bad. A Danish monopoly on trade for two centuries begins in early 1600s. Volcanoes erupt in late 1780s, including one under a glacier which all caused a terrible mess. Then, by a series of steps towards independence beginning in the late 1800s and later in 1905, 1918, the nation finally completed its lengthy birthing with the founding of the republic in 1944 while, perhaps a bit ironically, under US wartime occupation.

The museum was wonderful, especially since the population of the entire country is smaller than the last Tokyo suburb I lived in. Like the Cultural House, they did a fantastic job of presenting the materials with lots of little subject-specific areas. They also had about two dozen short documentaries available for viewing at screens place throughout the museum. Each screen had 1 to 3 mini-documentaries, which in turn were divided into 2-5 chapters. Each chapter in turn had supplementary pictures and texts covering aspects that were mentioned during the documentary chapter. It was interesting, effective, and in case someone is hogging a screen with documentaries you want to see, at the end of the 2nd floor there is a “Reading Room” with half a dozen computers that have all the documentaries viewable (unfortunately, all the books in the Reading room were in Icelandic, and thus, unreadable). They also had “touch and feel it” rooms with various clothing and other items. They had little telephones you could pick up which would tell about the daily life and stories of one particular individual (such as a fisherman). They had examples of their four kinds of national dress.

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I was also impressed that the visitor was not treated like an idiot (although the little cartoon-like figures in the documentaries were slightly cheesy they helped the viewer recognize and identify players in the sometimes complicated power struggles described). I’ll give one cute example. One of the mini-documentaries surrounded the theme of Christianization of Iceland around 1000. The documentary faithfully described the process as it is recorded in the sagas (I can’t remember which, but every documentary had a “references” button with a full Icelandic language bibliography). It basically says that the entire country converted together (allowing pagan worship in private) because that was the reasonable thing to do. “An unlikely story,” I thought to myself. Then I noticed the title of the last chapter was, “Is the story true?” When it started playing, the English language voice started, “An unlikely story?” It then confesses that we cannot always trust the stories handed down but that overall, the process of Christianization did proceed quickly and with relatively little violence. How many Korean, Chinese, and Japanese museums have I visited where I wish I could push the “Is the story true?” button…

The only disappointing thing about the museum is perhaps partly due to the fact that the theme of the exhibit was “the birth of the nation.” You see, once the nation is born, there isn’t much else to say, is there? This means that the 20th century, as in the case of many other historical museums got very little space. I get the feeling that the museum’s designers just took all their 20th century material, put it in a pile and said, “What should we do with all this stuff?” Then, after a few desperate moments of silence, perhaps someone piped up with the idea, “Hey let’s put all this stuff on a kind of revolving conveyor belt, kind of like in the airport baggage claim or like one of those sushi restaurants!” Apparently everyone thought that was a good idea because that is what happened to Iceland’s history in the 20th century. I was a bit depressed to see a little pile of items labeled “World War II” as its place on the conveyor belt creaked slowly by me. There was a little more than just the conveyor belt, but considering the huge changes on the island in the last hundred years, a lot more space could have been given over to it.

Losing Your Language

Another book I looked through today was a fascinating memoir by a Osvald Harjo Moskva kjenner ingen tårer (Moscow knows no tears). Harjo was raised a Communist in northern Norway. Even before World War II his family often housed Russian intelligence officers and helped them transmit intelligence back to the Soviet Union.

During the war Harjo, who spoke both Norwegian and Finnish, worked with anti-German communist partisans in the north and continued to help Russian radio operatives and other spies get their intelligence back to the Soviets. Another captured partisan gave up Harjo and his father’s name to the Germans. He was arrested, tortured and interrogated for weeks by the Gestapo before finally escaping thanks to the help of a sympathetic Norwegian policeman. Harjo then fled to the East with partisans and eventually crossed into Soviet controlled territory.

This is where the tragedy of Harjo’s memoirs begin. He had the audacity to send Stalin a letter early in 1943 with some minor complaints about the conditions in the North, suggesting that there were perhaps some administrative problems he might want to look into. Very soon after Harjo was arrested and accused of being a German spy. Later charges were brought against him for leading the Germans to a Russian radio operative, which Harjo claims in his memoir was impossible since he had not worked with the operative he was supposed to have given up.

The rest of the book traces the more than a decade Harjo spent in Soviet camps until December, 1955. It seems as though pressure from the Norwegian government, including pleas from labor party prime minister Einar Gerhardsen during his visit to Moscow in 1955 were instrumental in his release. He tells of his final meeting with a Russian officer who asks him if he was “dissatisfied with his experience in the Soviet Union.” Harjo writes that he replied, “I have sat in prison camps for 13 years, convicted of crimes I did not commit.” The officer says that upon review of his papers, he realizes that the conviction was a mistake but that Harjo should never have admitted to the Gestapo (under torture) that he had spied for the Soviet Union and that he hoped that Harjo would only tell the truth about the Soviet Union upon his return to Norway.

The book was unique among the Norwegian war memoirs I looked through but was nowhere near as eloquent or powerful a work as some of the other memoirs of Soviet gulag experiences I have read. Clearly the horrors of the experience gave him deeply bitter feelings about the cause he dedicated his life for until he was imprisoned and this does come through clearly. Harjo notes in his final chapter how, in contrast to the active support he received from the anti-Communist labor party in power then (as now), the Norwegian Communist Party had no interest in helping him.

There was one short passage in the book that interested me more than anything else and it doesn’t really have anything to do with the books main themes. Harjo writes that one day in the “grey monotony of camp number 14″ he suddenly met with a surprise:

Jeg våknet og satte meg opp i køya. På gulvet framfor meg sto det en kortvokst, lubben kar. Han spurte på russisk hvem jeg var. “Jeg er nordmann,” svarte jeg. Da kom det på syngende Finnmarksdialekt: “Æ e’ også fra Norge, æ e’ fra Kiberg”. Det var Otto Larsen. Jeg hadde ikke sett en nordmann siden 1944. Vi snakket litt sammen på norsk, men vi hadde vanskeligheter med vårt eget språk, så vi gikk over til russisk…”

Harjo had woken up one day to find himself face to face with a new cellmate. The man asked him, in Russian, who he was.

Horjo answered, “I am a Norwegian.” Then he replied in a singing Finnmark dialect “I am also from Norway, I’m from Kiberg.” It was Otto Larsen. I had not seen a Norwegian since 1944. We spoke together a little in Norwegian, but we had difficulty with our own language and switched over into Russian.”

I have posted previously about my fascinating with code-switching, or switching between several languages in daily communication, not the least because I do it frequently myself. What is described in the above passage, the loss of full command and comfort in the use of one’s native language is another phenomenon I’m interested in. I first encountered it with my first girlfriend in college. I met her upon her return from several years of living with a German family in Germany, and for a number of weeks she had trouble putting her thoughts into normal English sentences, even though English was her native tongue. My mother, who is a native Norwegian speaker also sometimes switches into English when we speak Norwegian together either because she feels more comfortable with English or finds speaking Norwegian tiring.

Here we have another example of this phenomenon. Two Norwegians from northern Norway meet in a Russian prison camp and after briefly speaking to each other in their native tongue switch into Russian because of “difficulties” with their native tongue.

Unfulfilled Expectations

This afternoon, my last in Stavanger before I leave for Iceland and soon after Boston, I have been skimming through some old Norwegian memoirs from World War II. One interesting book entitled Med Guds ord i fiendeland: Fra Sjømannskirken i Hamburg 1940-45 (With God’s Word in an enemy land: From the seaman’s church in Hamburg 1940-45) by Conrad Vogt-Svendson, focuses a lot on Norwegian prisoners in camps and prisons in Germany and their eventual release, much thanks to (neutral) Swedish intervention. However, the book also has a fascinating chapter on daily life in Hamburg during the war.

In one passage he discusses the frequent visits of Norwegian women who had married or wanted to marry Germans:

Ikke sjelden ble vi oppsøkt av norske piker som var gift eller skulle gifte seg med tyskere. Noen kom innom på gjennomsrreise fra Norge. De var temmelig kjepphøye. Enkelte av dem og atskillige andre kom innom etter å ha vært i Tyskland en tid. Da var overlegenheten gjerne sporløst forsvuunnet. Bare den dypeste tragedie var igjen. Hva de hadde ventet seg da de reiste ned til Tyskland, vet jeg ikke, men hva de fant der nede fikk vi tydelig rede på. Hvis de ikke ble presset til arbeid i krigsindustrien, sørget den tyske svigermoren eller svigerinnen for at de ikke var uvirksomme. Forholdene de levde under var også på andre måter helt forskjellige fra dem ektemannen hadde forespeilet dem. Og det verste av alt for dem var at deres Hans eller Otto ikke var den romantiske krigeren de hadde truffet i Norge. Temmelig typisk er historien til en som kom fra en Østersjøby for å søke tilflukt og hjelp hos oss. Hun var over den første ungdommen og den andre med, og da hun traff sin tysker, tok hun ham som sin siste sjanse. De ble gift, og hun fulgte med ham ned til hjemmet hans. Det viste seg å være delvis i ruiner. Svigermoren var en slavedriver. Og da hun og ektemannen hadde solgt stakkarens klær og eiendeler, fikk hun en grundig omgang juling og ble jagd på gaten. Så kom hun til oss, met et blått øye, flere tenner slått ut, og blå og gule merker langt oppover arrmene. Det kan sies om henne som om så mange andre at det gale hun hadde gjort var hun blitt straffet grundig nok for. Og når det var mulig, hjalp vi dem til å komme hjem. (132-133)

Essentially this passage reports that these Norwegian women, who would be ostracized and abused in the aftermath of the war for their treasonous liaisons if they returned or stayed in Norway, often met with tragedy in Germany when they followed their husbands back. They would have all their expectations shattered, both those related to life in Germany and for their “romantic warrior” husbands. He brings up as a typical example a Norwegian woman who married a German when she was getting up in years, “as a last chance.” She followed him to his home in Germany and found it partly in ruins. Her mother-in-law was a slave driver, sold her clothes and other belongings, beat her and threw her out onto the streets after which she went to the Norwegian seaman’s church with a black eye and several teeth knocked out. Vogt-Svendson concludes that her beating and treatment served as sufficient punishment for her wrongs, presumably referring to her nuptial treason. However, as in so many other countries, for thousands of Norwegian women who associated with or had relationships with German soldiers however, the worst would come when the war was over…


Ølberg I was well on my way to spending a lazy Saturday reading on the couch but the wonderful weather outside convinced me I should hop on my uncle’s bicycle and go for an afternoon ride. I have blogged a little bit about some of these delightful afternoon rides that I took to Mosterøy and Rennesøy last summer. Today I rode along the western coast, passed the airport and Sola beach to the area known as Ølberg, now perhaps best known as the location of a small beach, harbor, cafe, and a few recreational cabins.

My hometown, Stavanger, is on a peninsula, north of which are to be found countless islands and the thousand meter tall cliffs that hang over the deep fjords such as Lysefjorden. To its south until one reaches the town of Egersund there is a stretch of land known as Jæren. The land south of Ølberg already resembles the larger region of Jæren and the terrain, which is mostly farmland up this point, is dominated by rolling hills and very rocky grassland, dotted with the occasional grazing grounds for sheep. The coastline is also very rocky, and one can occasionally find fascinating layered rock formations there.

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After basking in the sun on the rocks near Ølberg, I rode a few kilometers south to the village of Tjelta before turning back towards Stavanger. Tjelta is a strange place and along the coast there I found a number of huge houses that I could only describe as decadent. Apparently some rich construction magnate lives here. He may have been the old man I saw driving an antique automobile back and forth along the road I passed. He may have been related to the child I passed who was driving a full-sized golf cart down the hill towards another house (the kid could not have been more than eight or nine years old, his head barely reached over the golf cart’s steering wheel. I almost fell off my bike staring at him in wonder).

Bunker at Tjelta One thing I thought about as I rode was how the landscape of Norway’s coastline still bears the scars of World War II. I must have passed at least half a dozen German bunkers on ride today. The thing which stands out the most at the small harbar at Ølberg is the bunker on top of the hill. Throughout Stavanger and the entire region (probably most of the more strategically important coastline of Norway) the empty shells of these bunkers can be found along the beaches, coastal cliffs, and embedded in the hills near the coast. Some of them have been filled in by local farmers, others serve as hangouts for local youths and gangs and are filled with graffiti and trash. Bunker at ØlbergThe remains of the bunker at Ølberg was somewhat more elaborate than most, as a number of passageways and the concrete base of what may have once mounted a coastal cannon or other structure also remains (some more pictures here, here, and here) They are a constant reminder of the fact that German forces once occupied the country and peered across the water on the lookout for any potential British invasion force.

I’m sure these bunker remains and other similar sites are to be found in many places around Europe and these visual reminders of the war must invoke complex memories for many. For children, however, these sites are often just exciting or mysterious locations to play games or engage in mischief. In my own case, the German bunker in my grandmother’s neighborhood where I played every summer as a child (on the hillside less than 60 meters from where I now type this blog entry) was filled in by a local farmer. That didn’t stop me and another childhood friend from trying to pry loose a large rusted piece of something (it was a long tube of some kind) from the rocks in the bunker. We imagined it was part of some wartime weapon. As I lifted the piece and my friend tried to remove some of the rocks under it. However, I lost my grip and the rough edge of the rusted metal badly tore the skin from the back of my friend’s hand as he tried to remove it. I took it at the time as a sign that such things are best left undisturbed.

Dagbladet and Wikipedia

There are many complaints about how students these days are increasingly using Wikipedia as a source in their papers and other writings. There have been some cases where the media has been caught using them. However, I was surprised to find out how openly Norway’s Dagbladet newspaper would reveal the fact they had used the only user-maintained encyclopedia.

In today’s issue of Dagbladet there is an interesting article («Hvem skriver jeg for?») about the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. The article touched on the relationship between the rise of the novel and the rise of the nation. Pamuk optimistically claims that, “The art of the novel is no longer connected to the nation-state in the same way it was before.”

Above the article was a separate column with some biographical information about the Orhan Pamuk, including information about a 2005 case brought against him for his «fornærmelser mot det tyrkiske folk» after he made some comments about the Turkish mass killings of Armenians.

At the bottom of the article, the source (“kilde”) was listed:

Kilde: Wikipedia

This is kind of disturbing. Wikipedia is a wonderful experiment and I use it all the time for casual searches. However, it cannot be the final source for either academic research, or I would hope, media articles. It should serve as a first or casual check – to be followed by confirming information independently. I’m almost as surprised that Dagbladet would openly admit that they have simply listed some Wikipedia entry data for his biography than that they used the material itself.