by wjw on June 16, 2019

IMG_3522I should make the point that my Iceland posts aren’t made in any particular order, but dictated by what I feel like writing about and how much time I have available.

So if you’re familiar with Icelandic geography, you may suspect that I’m teleporting randomly about the landscape.  Whereas to those of you who don’t know Iceland, it won’t matter.

What we have here is a turf-roofed house similar to those inhabited by most Icelanders throughout history, a style used well into the 20th century— except the this one is nicer than most, belonging to a family that was well-off.  Most families probably lived in one or two rooms, but this had seven or eight.

Yes, this is a single building, comprised of rooms branching left and right off a single corridor.  Each room is walled with turf laid out in a herringbone pattern, and turf also provides the roof.  The floor is dirt.  There are internal walls and doors made from sawn driftwood.

There is no fireplace or chimney.  Most people would have lived without a kitchen, because apparently these houses burn down very easily.  There was no indoor heat except for that provided by human bodies.

Remember, this is a home for well-off people.

The family would have spent its day outdoors, working.  At the end of the day, they’d gather in a single room and continue to work, making rope or weaving or whatever.  The husband and wife had box beds in a kind of alcove, behind a door for privacy.  Everyone else slept in box beds, usually two or three to a bed in order to keep warm.

They might have had some poor people living with them.  Poor and homeless people were auctioned off every year to wealthier people.  The low bidder won, because the low figure was paid by the county to the bidder for the poor folks’ upkeep.  If there was a kitchen, the poor people would sleep there, and would be the first to burn to death in case of accident. Poor people tended not to live very long.

IMG_3536This is a turf church of a type once common in the countryside.  Many churches were built on private land, not because the owners were particularly pious, but because they could make money.  Church revenues were divided with one-quarter going each to the householder, the priest, the bishop, and (supposedly) the poor.  The householder was also supposed to donate his stipend to the poor, but because he was in it for the money, this rarely happened.

Inside the church, seating was based on a class system.  The householder and his family sat in the choir, nearest the altar.  The poor folk sat farthest away, the men on one side, the women on the other.  Single women of marriageable age sat in the middle, in box pews walled off by screens, so the men wouldn’t spend the service staring at them.  Nevertheless the church became the center of social life, with everyone sitting and chatting after the service.  It was the only time you saw your neighbors.

The iron fence near the door is a grave, a married man who got involved up with a lot of the local ladies. When he died his wife buried him, built a fence, locked the fence, and threw away the key.  It’s been locked for all the generations since.  Grudges are long held in the Land of the Midnight Sun.

Iceland remained the poorest European country until the Second World War, when they were occupied by the British and then the Americans.  (The US actually occupied Iceland before we were at war with anybody.)  Once Iceland threw off the last of its ties to the King of Denmark, they could start earning money for themselves instead of the crown, and have been doing well ever since, with the occasional setback like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and the financial crisis of 2007, which resulted in banks going bankrupt and bankers going to jail, a progressive policy I’d like to recommend elsewhere.

The 2007 crisis may have spelled the end for the Icelandic people, because so many emigrated, mostly to Norway, where enlightened economic policies have made them the most stable economy in the world.  Immigrants now hold key roles in the Icelandic economy, particularly the service economy.  The hotel staff, airport staff, and often restaurant staff are from outside the country, and most don’t speak Icelandic.  When our friend Arni calls a hotel, he asks “May I speak Icelandic?”, and the answer is often no.

Arni has been recommending sagas to me.  I get to tell him I’ve already read them.  It’s one of the few advantages given me by my Minnesota upbringing, where Burnt Njal was available in my junior high school library.  I wonder if it’s still there?



by wjw on June 15, 2019

Version 2


Tölt and Snæfellsjökul

by wjw on June 13, 2019

IMG_3398Behold the stratovolcano Snæfellsjökull, used by Jules Verne to send Professor Lidenbrock & Company toward (but not to) the Center of the Earth.

Unfortunately M Verne never actually went to Iceland, else he might have learned that Snæfellsjökull’s crater is completely sealed by ice.

(Do your research! I tell my students.)

IMG_3453Here we see one of Iceland’s celebrated horses performing its singular four-beat gait, the tölt, in which either one or two feet meet the ground at each stride.  (There is no translation of  tölt, apparently, because other horses can’t do this.)

There is a slow tölt, and a fast tölt.  The fast one is really quite speedy.  The tölt is also extremely smooth, as the rider demonstrated by tölting at full tölt while holding a glass of beer and not spilling it.  When she switched to a trot, the beer went all over both her and the horse.  I hope she gets hazard pay.

The Icelandic horse is an ancient breed, and I wonder if it is related to the medieval palfrey, which was also known for its smooth, speedy gait, and which is now extinct.  I’m guessing all those medieval jongleurs could dash around and drink all the wine they wanted without spilling any, which may have something to do with the whole extinction issue.

The Icelandic horse is quite small, and it was amusing to see them dashing around, legs furiously pumping, while their big lanky riders sat calmly atop.

Warning: You may not call an Icelandic horse a pony, or the Icelanders might decide to get all medieval on your ass.

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The Harp

by wjw on June 12, 2019

Version 2This is a photo of the Harpa (Harp), Reykjavik’s astounding concert hall.  The irregular glass panels are each colored differently, or are designed to reflect different colors in a changing environment, or both.  At any rate the colors shift and change and move with the environment, and in full daylight (which we don’t see here) the effect is magical.

We didn’t get inside, because a visit from the President of Germany, Herr Steinmeier, was under way, and there was a police presence.  This also accounts for the German flags on display out front.

Herr Steinmeier is becoming quite a nuisance, because earlier in the day he kept us from meeting Iceland’s president, or at any rate peering into his house.  Steinmeier is being protected here by the Viking Squad, Iceland’s only unit of armed police, who train in Florida and are presumably used to being under fire.



by wjw on June 9, 2019

I am off to an Undisclosed Location for ten days or so, so within this harmless karaoke video I have inserted a few clues as to my destination.

And no, I have no plans to kiss any sheep while I’m there.



It All Comes Down to Luck

June 9, 2019

So after forty years earning a living in the creative arts, I have one primary insight to offer: It all comes down to luck. Luck matters more than talent.  I know any number of extremely gifted writers who just had shitty luck, and whose careers failed on takeoff or blew up in midair.  Likewise I […]

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It’s Huge!

June 8, 2019

My biggest book— both in terms of length and in terms of ebook sales— is now a very, very long audio book! Just in time for filling all those long hours during your summer vacation!

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Pop-Up Concert

June 8, 2019

Tonight we took a short drive up State Highway 314 to attend a baroque concert.  This was by Antigua y Moderna, a group of professional musicians who do pop-up concerts in people’s homes.  So on a mere 48 hours’ notice we drove to a lovely, large passive solar home, partook of snacks and wine, and […]

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The Land of 10,000 Cute Lakes

May 31, 2019

So there’s something call MinnRoast, which I’m guessing is a kind of charity event in the Twin Cities.  This year Emily Larson, the mayor of my home town of Duluth, had a little something to say about the contrast between Duluth and Minneapolis/St. Paul. Y’know, I think she could have a career in standup if […]

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Hellooo, South China!

May 30, 2019

So it’s not every day that I find myself mentioned in the South China Morning Post. Of course the article’s mostly about George RR Martin and the talented Terran Prize winner, Zhou Wen, but then if I’m going to end up as a footnote in the career of another writer, I could do a lot […]

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