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