The sea salt smell, the buzzing sounds of tourists, the rainbow of docked vessels; this is Reykjavík's old harbour.
I couldn't be happier spending the majority of my days working by the water. Perhaps because it reminds me of my native port city Halifax. Or maybe it's the flutter of excited tourists which in turn inspires me. Whatever the case may be I've found a new love for the Harbour working at the Elding whale watching company.
My day starts at the cozy boardwalk kiosk, selling tickets and answering questions about the company's tours. Elding offers a variety of activities for those eager to enjoy the ocean. From puffin and whale tours, to sea angling and trips to Viðey island. I then make my way onto one of the tour vessels working as cabin crew - a job which delightfully combines whale spotting on the upper deck and coffee-slinging down in the saloon. The cetaceans we see are plentiful, most commonly the Minke Whale, the Humpback Whale, the White-Beaked Dolphin and the Harbour Porpoise. And of course a special shout-out to the Atlantic Puffin of which the majority of the world's species comes to Iceland to get "jiggy with it". Folks here are really into puffins. I'm still not sure why.
I often take living by the sea for granted. I'll rarely go the boardwalk back home, complaining that it smells bad and there are too many tourists. However having spent the last three weeks immersed in this environment I can say I've rethought my stance. I can see now why would-be land-locked tourists are so in awe of the ocean. I can't ever imagine living away from it.
-Hannah Goodman from Halifax, NS
I am in Höfn for my work experience part of the Snorri 2013 program. Höfn is a small fishing town in the south east part of Iceland. It's surrounded by the ocean on 3 sides , the population including the surrounding country is around 2,400 people. I'm a city girl so I haven't experienced small town life nor have I lived close to the ocean so these are new experiences for me. Höfn has shown me that a small town has lots to offer, just different things than a city would. Here I am able to look out my bedroom window and see the mountains.
I have enjoyed my time here, it's very relaxing, has great landscape and the people are very friendly. I like that I can walk to most places in town, where as at home I have to drive everywhere. I was taught to drive a standard car though. It was a little scary but also something I never thought I would learn. I've have spent time with my family and they have shown me the old family farm, we have driven to the mountains and gone to the glacier lagoon.
Living on the ocean is a lot different from my home in Alberta, the weather in Höfn can change quickly and there is more rain than I thought. The scenery is beautiful, with the ocean, mountains and the glacier Vatnajokull, which is the largest glacier in Europe. I have enjoyed going for walks and taking pictures of the town and surrounding area.
Life in a small coastal town has been a great experience and I have learned a lot. I have a better understanding and appreciation of life in a small town. I'm enjoying my time here but I'm also looking forward to seeing the city back at home!
-Eden Lane from St. Albert, Alberta
"I'm from Chicago, a city whose metropolitan area has a population of about 10 million people. Now, that's a big city by anybody's standards. But for Iceland, it's absolutely massive. The biggest city in Iceland is Reykjavik, with a population of a bit over 200,000. The second biggest is Akureyri, with only 17,000! And then there's me, in Hvammstangi, the biggest town in the county of Húnaþing-vestra, with a population of 580.
It's definitely a different way of life here. Things just move a bit slower, there's much less hustle and bustle. For my volunteer job, I'm working at Selasetur Íslands, the Icelandic Seal Center. It's a museum dedicated to seal research in Iceland, and it's also the tourist office of the county. It's considered a busy day when 150 people come in. It's nice though, the lower volume of people means that you get to spend more time speaking with everybody. People come and visit from all over the world, from the US and Canada all the way to Hong Kong.
I don't spend much time away from cities but it's not that I've never spent ANY time in a small town. When my family moved to the States from Iceland, they settled on a little island in Lake Michigan, with a year round population of 600. I visited there most summers but I could never understand why they wanted to live in the middle of nowhere. Now I understand why they settled somewhere so remote.
I went on a road trip with my host family to North Iceland to visit one of my cousins and the farm where my great-great-great-grandmother was born in 1849. It's a very beautiful part of the country, there's so much open space. Everything just goes from farm to farm. It was great to get this insight into where my family lived before coming to America. I'm looking forward to sharing this all with my family when I get back!"
There was something that made me feel the slightest bit uncomfortable about spending my birthday away from home. The normal routine of a family dinner and going out with friends became something I thought I would long for, but my host relatives welcomed me with open arms and gave me a birthday that I will never forget.
I woke up to a delicious breakfast where my family was eagerly waiting to inform me on the adventures ahead of us. They were kind enough to give me a beautiful illustrated book by Halldór Laxness along with some Icelandic music, both of which will serve as wonderful keepsakes from my trip.
Later that day we took off into the gorgeous countryside and began our journey. It seemed like there was no end to the amazing sights that Iceland has to offer. Among our stops included Hraunfossar, a series of waterfalls formed by rivulets through the lava field. This was one of the most beautiful and unique geographical features I have ever seen
We ate lunch along the river beside my families’ summerhouse, listening to the birds whistle as we sat and enjoyed the perfect weather. On our way back we stopped at the Icelandic goat farm, possibly the high point of my day. Icelandic goats neared the brink of extinction during the late 19th century and the country has been trying to maintain a healthy population ever since. It was for that reason that I decided to sponsor a baby goat named lucky as a bit of a present to myself. He is the cutest little thing on the planet and I look forward to getting updates on his wellbeing.
After I ate dinner that night, roast lamb and salad fresh from their garden, I reflected upon the day. I couldn’t believe all that my host family had done to make my time so special. I have nothing but gratitude for how comfortable and welcome my family has made me feel these past couple of weeks. I am going to miss them dearly. Nothing would make me happier than for them to visit Canada so I can show them the same level of hospitality.
-Jake Halliday from Toronto, Ontario
It was only two words, and was probably grammatically incorrect, but I got a big laugh out of it. And for a hot second I felt like myself; like I was in a place where people could understand me. It was a proud moment.
My relatives live in Selfoss and run an engineering firm, but the other half of their life is at Grund, a dairy farm near Akureyri, that they fortuitously bought as an investment in 2007. When I first arrived at their Selfoss home, the tour curiously included many notable cow memorabilia tucked throughout the house. “We get so many cow gifts ever since we bought the farm,” Gudrun explained when I noticed the cow cookie jar in the kitchen.
One evening, shortly after I had arrived, the daughters were wrapping their mother’s birthday gift. “What did you get her?” I asked. “A shirt and one of those,” they responded, pointing vaguely to a shelf containing a collection of random vases, ceramic birds, and books. When Gudrun opened her gift, she proudly held up her t-shirt and reached into the gift bag again to pull out a small rooster statue.
“Ekki kýr?” I chimed in, and pointed to the bird. Everyone burst out laughing. Unsophisticated as it was, the words meaning “not cow” were a turning point for me. Between the language barrier and cultural differences, it can be hard to communicate even the most basic things on a daily basis. Sticking with the simplest thing I could have possibly said ensured that I knew they were laughing with me and not at me. I consider that a cross-cultural win.
On Friday June 21, with the help of Ásta Sól Kristjánsdóttir and the rest of the Snorri Foundation, I was thrilled to be introduced to my distant family from Eskifjorður, Iceland. Ragna Hreinsdóttir, who is my third cousin once removed and her husband Frissi Þorvaldsson picked me up in Reykjavik. They have three daughters named Kristín, Vala, Sóley and a granddaughter named Blædís Vala. From the moment we met, the whole family was very welcoming and embraced me as part of their family. They have been helpful in teaching me new Icelandic words as well as sharing the history of our family and the places we visit.
We stayed with Kristín in Reykjavik for Vala’s graduation, then headed to Laugarvatn and stayed with Ragna’s parents for a couple days. On our way to Eskifjorður we stopped at Þingvellir, where Iceland’s Parliament was first established in the year 930 AD. In Skálholt, we visited the church where Jón Arason was the last Catholic Bishop and where the first school in Iceland was established. Our travels also took us to Geysir, where boiling water shoots 25 meters in the air every five minutes and also drove past Vatnajökull, which is the largest glacier in Europe. We have experienced diverse landscapes with beautiful mountains, lava fields and majestic waterfalls including Gullfoss, Dettifoss and Skógafoss.
We arrived in Eskifjorður on the evening of Tuesday June 26. I volunteered at the local swimming pool for the remainder of the week. Working at the swimming pool was great for getting to know the locals, because most of the small children participated in swimming lessons every day. I was gardening last week and I will be volunteering at the Fire Department in Reyðarfjörður this upcoming week. Gardening was a lot more tedious compared to the swimming pool, but I met some interesting people who were closer in age and shared similar interests. I don’t know what to expect at the Fire Department but I know that it will be interesting.
The second weekend I was with my family, we went to an off-roading competition outside of Egilsstaðir where 4x4 Jeep’s drove uphill through a specified course. Some of the routes were impossible for the Jeep’s to complete without flipping down the slope. Last week, the family and I went fishing off the docks and caught many small pollock, cod and even a couple seagulls! We have been to a few Icelandic concerts since I’ve arrived, including a hip hop group named XXX Rottweiler Hundar, and two local women that sang traditional Icelandic songs. This past weekend we watched Mugison, Jónas Sigurðsson, Lára Rúnars, Ómar Guðjónsson, Guðni Finnsson and Arnar Gíslason perform from a boat docked in the Reyðarfjörður harbor. They played folk music in Icelandic and English, even though it was cold and raining, 500 people showed up and we had an incredible time. This past weekend we also set out on a road trip to Akureyri and Húsavík, where our family’s ancestors are from. Along the way we found a hot spring inside a cave, at the bottom of a gorge near Mývatn. It was so amazing, yet terrifying, swimming inside the cave with massive rocks carefully situated above our heads.
I have found a lot of similarities in my Icelandic family’s characteristics compared to my family back in Canada. Some of the shared qualities are family values, the love of laughter, compassion for others and the love of nature. I am so grateful to be a part of this loving family. The opportunity of travelling to Iceland with the Snorri program has been an unbelievable experience that I am very appreciative to be a part of.
-Freyja Laxdal from Calgary, Alberta, Canada
,,I may forget what my family’s house in Hvammstangi looks like as I grow older- I may not remember the creaky wooden floors, or the hand knit sheep scattered across the shelves. I may not remember the faded black and white pictures on the walls, and I may even one day forget about the two lovable dogs that I have grown so attached to over the days I have been here. But the two things I will never forget are the ocean, and Ayanna.
Hvammstangi is on the west side of Miðfjörður, in an area called Húnaþing vestra. The town is just shy of 600 inhabitants and is trapped between the ocean and a wild mountain range, directly in between Iceland‘s two largest cities, Reykjavik and Akureyri. The mountains to the west of the town are peppered with horse stables, farms, and historical sites that have withstood the tests of both Mother Nature and modernization. The town has a shrimp factory, fueled by the sea, which in turn fueled the town, but is now due to close any day now. My family lives about as close to the ocean as one can get, the waves touching the land only a few feet beyond our back door.
As a prairie girl from Canada I have only seen the ocean twice, both times on vacation and only for a few fleeting moments. But here, it roars to great me at my bedroom window every morning. This is not the tame sea from typical North American vacation pictures- this is the wild sea. Most often the water is charming, blue-grey lapping at the rocks I sit on as I stare off into the great unknown that is the Icelandic Sea (Íslandshaf). But today it is angry, tearing at the shore, scaring the birds and their babies that usually float serenely on the water far away into the hills. The books from my childhood always referred to the ocean as a ‘she‘, and I never understood why until now. She is a force to be reckoned with, can sweep you away in an instant and change tempo without you ever knowing why- a true Icelandic woman. She seems lonely and empty some days, while others docile and welcoming. The whispers of her travels are in the sounds of her waves, daring me to come with her and finish the story, the smell of opportunity and change on her breath. A line of stones placed in the backyard, I assume by Ayanna‘s amma, keep the children from coming to close, and for good reason.
Ayanna herself is a force to be reckoned with, not unlike her mother. My cousin‘s youngest, she is small for her age, nearing three years and her head coming to just above my knees. Her skin is the color of varnished wood, her eyes and untameable hair the color of chocolate. She is at the age where her fingers must touch everything, hands must pick up everything, and feet must go everywhere. I often wake up to the scampering of her feet on the floor boards, and an often greeted by a waving blue shoe in one hand and a red in the other, a signal that it’s time to play the ‘help Ayanna change shoes’ game, one which can go on for hours with only three pairs of shoes. This is one of the only things I have found she asks for assistance with-otherwise she is fiercely independent, rejecting help when climbing onto the couch or onto my bed, reaching only for a hand when feeling sleepy or in an unfamiliar situation. Her most commonly used phrase is “Mig líka“, meaning ‘me too‘, as she wants to be a part of everything her family members do, from where we are going to what we are eating. At dinner time one of her absolute favorite things becomes apparent- sósa, sauce. She protests when asked to eat something without a large helping of it, often larger than the food she is eating, the majority of it often ending up on her face rather than in her stomach.
Ayanna has taught me many things, more than I expected to learn from a tiny girl of two and a half years. She has dared me to try new things without knowing, especially food- I too have grown to love kocktailsosa she smothers on everything, and have gone out of my comfort zone to eat the meats that are never served at home, but are a regular meal in her household. She has taught me various Icelandic phrases, the few she knows, through constant repetition and exasperated looks. And she has taught me a world of patience- I have had little experience with children in my life, especially not ones that speak a different language. But somehow, with persistence I never thought I had, and never expected from a child, we have learned to communicate in a way all our own. Despite the differences that separate us- our language, our culture, the ways we were raised, the ocean- she is still my family. Just the same, despite my separation from this place my entire life - these mountains, this ocean, this country- it is still my heritage, still my home, something I am so proud to share with my young cousin."
-Jennifer Kahler from Gimli
"Yesterday my cousins, Jóhanna and Ragnhildur, took me to a special place in the forest behind their house where they practiced the art of 'Gullabú' or as I understand it, 'playing house'. Their mother grew up nearby and played in the same 'Gullabú' when she was younger. Here they made mudpies (sandkökur or moldarkökur á íslensku), drank tea or maybe just water depending on the day, and pretended to be parents.
Funny, I did the same thing back home. Even though I grew up thousands of miles away from here, I realized this week that the games I played as a child are essentially the same games children play here in Iceland. Take for example the classic 'Up high! To the side! Down low! OH! Too slow!!' high five game. When I told Ragnhildur about it, she showed me an Icelandic version: 'Gimme five, upp á hæð, niður í hús, stubba knús!' Stubba means Teletubbies in Icelandic. Knús means hug. And then she gave me a Teletubby hug. I think Iceland wins on this one.
So my life lesson from this week is that even though we may grow up with vastly different languages, schools, currency, television shows, etc., we can always find similarities that tie us together. Those similarities for me were: the desire to create things like mudpies, the eagerness to pretend we are parents for an hour (then realize that growing up is hard and go back to being kids), and the need for human interaction... especially with a Teletubby hug. As I continue on my family stay, I am excited to find other similarities between the United States and Iceland, to learn more about the differences we have, and ultimately build lifelong connections to the country of my ancestors."
- Erin Mae Johnson from Iowa, living in Minneapolis, MN.
Erin Mae is currently in Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland.