In one week I board the plane for Iceland. My personal countdown is nearing its end. So how can you read my excitement? Am I bouncing around unable to sit still? Speed talking to everyone I encounter about my plans, including the grocery checkout lady and the stranger on the bus? Annoying my husband with my unbridled energy and obsessive packing and repacking?
You have to really know me to see the signs that I am tingling with energy, barely able to contain my excitement and impatient for time to speed into August.
The telltale clue?
I am constantly glued to the faint glow of the computer screen or immersed in a pile of books and National Geographics, my pen scratching furiously in my notebooks.
You see, I am a research junkie. I latch onto a subject, region of the world, or hobby and I obsessively learn everything I can about it, with a single mindedness that frustrates my husband when he desires a social interaction including more than one word answers. My voyage to the old Norse world is no different. It is my current obsession. And like my hermit college days of old, I have succumbed to the seductive allure of knowledge. I want to learn everything I can about Iceland and Greenland, about the Icelandic sagas and volatile geography of the island’s constantly shifting forces, of the hardy Inuit who outlasted the arrogant Norse in the harsh fringes of Greenland’s climate. One topic leads to another and another and another.
This is a thirst that is unquenchable.
Every trip the pattern is the same. In preparation, I have dug up old National Geographic articles on Iceland, especially the prolific volcanoes that actively shape the island. The numerous articles on the formation of a new volcano almost overnight on the island of Vestmannaeyjar in 1973 spurred me to include the island on my itinerary. I pour over the travel journals of centuries of European explorers and whalers who scoured the Arctic waters of Greenland in the hopes of finding the NW Passage and in pursuit of whale oil riches. I read and reread Jared Diamond’s account of the mysterious disappearance of the Norse from southern Greenland, pondering the question of why the Inuit culture survived the shifting climate and the Norse did not. When I stand among the ruins of Erik the Red’s Greenland settlement in two weeks, I will ponder this question again, made more poignant as I gaze out over the iceberg-strewn waters.
My two most ambitious research projects have been months of Icelandic language study and a close reading of the Icelandic sagas. I love the insight language lends to its culture. Words shape how we view the world and to truly understand a culture’s character, one need only look at their language. How they describe beauty and the landscape. The numerous (or lack of) words to identify objects, ideas, feelings, expression, actions. Icelandic is tough to learn. A strange lethargy often seizes my mouth and tongue as I work to shape sounds in combinations alien to my vocabulary. If I can carry on a simple conversation in Icelandic while traveling, the effort will be more than worth it.
A culture’s myths, stories, and legends are another gateway into cultural insight. Iceland and the Faeroe Islands were founded by the Vikings, best known today as violent thieves who plundered and raped as they descended on Europe. But reading the sagas has opened up a more complex reality about who the Vikings were. Did they plunder and rape? Absolutely. But Viking culture was so much more than this stereotype.
They had a code of morals and social structure that informed everything they did. Young men made names and wealth for themselves by buying shares of a ship and sailing around the northern European world of Norway, Denmark, England, Scotland, Ireland, the Faeroes, Iceland, and Greenland, trading everywhere they went, networking with other high status men and often serving the kings of Norway, Denmark, or England. Along the way they got into scrapes, as young men do, making both good and bad decisions, kidnapping wives and taking slaves, making enemies and challenging other men to fights over slights to their honor. In Iceland, a complex justice system developed. If a man murdered another, the wronged family would prosecute their case against the killer at the local governmental assembly (þing) of the region’s highest status men, asking either for compensation in the form of payment or the outlawing of the killer. Eric the Red only went off in search of the rumors of Greenland because of his own outlawing for killing a man.
In short, to cut off this history lecture, the Vikings are more than their stereotypical image. Today’s Iceland and Faeroe Islands grew out of that society. An understanding of the sagas, a medieval body of work that is a tantalizing mix of historical fact, genealogy, and myth, is vital to understanding Iceland. At least, I think so.
So call me a bookish intellectual. But I can’t imagine any other way to channel my enthusiasm for travel. I want to be immersed, to drink everything in. There is no half-hearted, superficial travel in my world. I’m all in and when I gaze out over the ancient outdoor meeting place of the Alþing, the world’s first parliament, I will be listening for the whispers of the saga’s ghosts.
One week to go.