Iceland: Winter is Coming

Iceland: Winter is Coming
Orvar A.. Thorgeirsson.Used with permission

 

It was eight degrees in Chicago when I started writing this post. How appropriate to be writing of Iceland.

Winter is coming.

A Special Connection 

My love affair with Iceland started long before the popularity of Game of Thrones. It is a very personal connection. I have my father to thank for that.

During WWII, Dad (Navy photomate Fred Melull) served in Iceland from 1942-1943. He flew surveillance missions, searching through his camera’s eye for downed aircraft, torpedoed ships, and Nazi U-boats. He took portraits of generals and admirals. Captured shots of his fellow photomates hamming it up in Photo Lab Quonset hut.

1942-1943 Iceland. Dad (third from left)

1942-1943 Iceland. Dad (third from left)

 

Dad (left) in Iceland

Dad (left) in Iceland

After Dad died, I sifted through a box of his war photographs, trying to piece together his Icelandic experience. I wrote to the government for his military records. Through a veterans’ site, I found Ragnar, an Icelandic historian. With Ragnar’s help, Dad's time in Iceland finally took shape.

Inspired by Dad's story, I started work on a novel and went to Iceland to do research. Ragnar took me (and my husband) on a tour of the island.  I stepped over ruts in the grass where Dad’s old Quonset hut camp once stood. I saw the airstrip where Dad took off in PBYs on his missions. From the banks of a peaceful fjord, Ragnar pointed out to me the spot where Dad's ship was once anchored.

On the banks of the fjord where Dad's ship was anchored during the war.

On the banks of the fjord where Dad's ship was anchored during the war.

American Memorial

American Memorial

Two years later, in July 2008. I returned to Iceland to attend a conference called The Arctic Convoys: A Lifeline Across the Atlantic. Hosted by Iceland and Russia, the conference honored veterans who participated in the Arctic convoys to and from Iceland during WWII. Attendees included authors, historians, academics, and veterans from Norway, Denmark, Russia, Australia, England, Wales, Canada, and the United States.

IMG_1534

With the Icelandic (left) and Russian (right) conference organizers. July 2008

And me.

Upon entering the University of Iceland, I saw my father’s photographs on display just outside the conference room. I swelled with pride, honored to be a small part of that conference.

IMG_1547

Dad's photos on exhibit in Iceland. With English, Icelandic, and Russian captions.

(Many thanks to author and conference presenter Michael G. Walling (Forgotten Sacrifice: The Arctic Convoys of WWII) for telling me about the conference and suggesting I attend)

That night, I walked the streets alone, taking photos in the ethereal Icelandic light of the midnight sun. I have never felt closer to nature. Or my father.

House in Reykjavik, near midnight

House in Reykjavik, near midnight

Message written on a parking stump in downtown Reykjavik

Message written on a parking stump in downtown Reykjavik

Iceland, however, is unpredictable. From Ragnar and others, I heard stories of glacial floods, volcanic eruptions, and the Icelandic wind. Wasn't that unsettling, I asked.

“No. God is not finished with Iceland,” was their reply.

Godafoss

Godafoss

Icelandic mudpot

Icelandic mudpot

But there is more to Iceland than its landscape. Over shots of Brennavin and samples of marinated shark, whale, and puffin, Ragnar exposed me to his Icelandic spirit, wit, and humor. Ella, another friend, gave me lessons in the Icelandic naming system – a post in itself. Besides the purity of Iceland's air and water, I was told about the purity of its gene pool which includes the five-gaited Icelandic Horse. On my own, I  discovered the artistry of Icelandic musicians. Here are some of my favorites:  Olafur Arnalds with Arnor Dan and Mugison and Petur Ben.

 

Icelandic music store

Icelandic music store

Icelandic humor

Icelandic humor

Herd of Icelandic horses

Herd of Icelandic horses

Icelanders also love and respect the written word. It is said every single Icelander receives a book for Christmas each year. To say you are a writer in Iceland is a bit like saying you're a drinker in Ireland. Most Icelanders claim to be writers, as well.

My love for Iceland runs deep.

About Ragnihildur

Sadly, Ragnar passed away a couple years ago. In his place, Ragnihildur, his daughter, graciously agreed to be the voice of Iceland. A young mother and graphic designer, she lives in Kopavogur, the second biggest city next to Reykjavik.

My Conversation With Ragnihildur

Describe the scene outside your window.

Mountains, the sea, trees, football stadium, mall, park, kids playing, and people with their dogs.

What is your favorite food?

Raw food – I just love it! I treat myself to it when having lunch or dinner with friends. Over the weekend, for our special time, my daughter and I go out and have some.

What do you want Americans to know about Iceland?

We have lots of hot pots and lots of volcanoes – about 130. Holuhraun, in the Northeast of Iceland, is erupting right now. Its lava field currently measures 70 square km (27 square miles). Pollution from the volcano can be pretty bad. Sometimes we even feel it here in Reykjavik, on the Southwest coast.

But how beautiful and magnificent it is!

Orvar A.. Thorgeirsson.Used with permission

Orvar A.. Thorgeirsson.Used with permission

What do Americans get wrong about Iceland?

 The image that it is all about ice when it is actually quite green.

We do not and have never lived in snow houses. But we love ice cream, even in winter :)

Church where Ragnilhildur's parents were married.

Church where Ragnilhildur's parents were married.

Front door of Icelandic home

Front door of Icelandic home

 

A house in Reykjavik

A house in Reykjavik

What is your impression of the United States?

Love and… kind of less love:

I love the people.

I love the atmosphere.

I love the kindness.

I love the culture.

I love NY and Santa Fe (NM)!

But…

It is the land of freedom but still you cannot know if your food is genetically modified or not.

It is the land of freedom if you have good health and money they say.

In the land of freedom, I have the feeling that people do not actually get the time to feel the freedom…

What is your greatest fear?

To fail and to fly.

Who or what gives you hope?

My soul. Honest people.

Who or what inspires you?

People, nature, music, books, love, light, and laughter.

What do you do to relax?

Generally, it´s about having time with family and friends. I also make bracelets --- it's very good meditation.

And of course, I read.

 

Ragnihildur's books

Ragnihildur's books

Your father said the best thing about being Icelandic was living in Iceland.  What do you think is the best thing about Iceland?

To leave and come back home:)

Lastly, have you seen any Game of Thrones filming?

I saw them shooting in Thingvellir (a national forest) last summer (2013). I have not seen any celebrities.

If you come to Iceland, you can go on a tour of the show’s sites. Here is some information:

Iceland Game of Thrones tour

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