Posted by: scribe9 | November 30, 2009

Guests from the North

We invited a family of Icelanders to Thanksgiving dinner. The mother had spent a year in New Jersey as a nanny, so she’d had one before, but the others had only seen one on the screen. We’d been on a plane that touched down in Rekjavik on its way to or from Europe once, but that was uninformative. Over the course of dinner, we learned a lot more about Iceland than they learned about Thanksgiving.

 The apple pie and whipped cream went over well, but I’m not sure how much the children enjoyed the rest of dinner. The youngest mentioned how much she loves dried fish. All the kids learn English in school (Danish was formerly the second language); they know that no one outside Iceland is going to learn a language that is the native tongue of only 320,000 people.

The family lives on an island of five thousand people and a large volcano, south of the mainland. One of their big holidays celebrates the day in 1973 when, after six months of eruptions which covered a third of the island, the volcano quit spewing. Now the government pays young people, like the seventeen-year-old son, to dig out the houses (which of course have all been incinerated) to make the area a tourist attraction, as a modern Pompeii.

The island is a three-hour ferry trip from the mainland; one can rent a room with twin beds in it, and nap on the way over. The trip is so long not because the island is so far off shore—only twenty minutes—but because that side of the mainland is just sandy beaches, with no harbor.

Living on the island certainly doesn’t mean being cut off from the world. They’ve been to various countries in Europe, and took a car tour of south and east Africa. The seventeen-year-old’s tattoo, piercings, and taste in movies seemed quite up to date, and he and his younger sisters complained that the Internet in their house here is far slower than it was in Iceland. The mother mentioned that she hears the same songs being played in the stores here that she did there—and they’re the same I heard in the US.

They brought a bottle of a nice merlot from New Zealand’s oldest winery. The bottle had a cork. Most wines here come with screw tops, but we’d brought our Swiss army knives, so we had a corkscrew on hand. They also brought a New Zealand Christmas ornament—a Kiwi in a Santa hat and sunglasses, a beer in one hand and a barbecue flipper in the other—to get us in the holiday mood.

Icelandic Christmas is not just one or twelve days, but thirteen which one prepares for by leaving shoes out in hopes of gifts. In cases of misbehavior, a potato appears. The son put out boots rather than shoes once, but there was no increase in gifts.

Some of their names are easy to pronounce, and some are difficult. I’ve become quite conscious of how flat most American vowels are, and how speaking them so long has made it difficult for me to make more complex sounds. Icelandic surnames are still (as were the names of other Scandinavians in the past, such as my Norwegian forebears) the first name of the father with “son” or “dottir” tacked on the end. The father’s first name is challenging enough for English speakers that he just uses Kris, the first part of his last name, Kristjansson (which means his father’s name was Kristjan)—I looked up the spelling, because I doubted that I guessed right, just from hearing it, with Christianson.

Mea culpa–In my post on making Thanksgiving dinner, I said I couldn’t find corn syrup or anything else corny at the supermarket besides frozen ears. Today I noticed not only light corn syrup (which I didn’t recognize behind its Glucose label), but also canned corn–both regular and creamed. Old El Paso also offers tortilla shells in kits, and small oval things it labels as corn tortillas, but which I won’t be buying.

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