Experiencing Iceland with Elder – Iceland

Experiencing Iceland with Elder

Before I visited Iceland (which was the first stop on a several month trip around Europe), my old boss and friend, Eirikur, had asked me if I would like to visit his father. If Eirikur’s father was anything like his son, I knew it would be an amazing and insightful part of my trip. I agreed, excited at the chance to spend time with a local. Before my trip, Eirikur made me a large map (a combination of various maps he printed from the Internet and taped together), showing me exactly where his father’s house was. He also pointed out strategic places like where the bus station was, where his favorite pool was, and where he was born. Armed with my map, I was ready for Iceland.

My first day, I set off to visit Baldurs, Eirikur’s father. After some difficulty locating his retirement complex, I knocked on the appropriate door.

After several moments, I hoped I wasn’t imaging the shuffling feet I thought I heard. The door slowly opened, revealing an older man.
“Hi, I’m Cheryl. I used to work for your son.”
He blinked.
“I worked for Eirikur.”
He said nothing, but let me in. I put my bag down by the narrow hospital bed and he shuffled slowly, clearly limping, holding onto the wall for support.
“Would you like tea?” He sounded as if he had not spoken in a while, and I hoped I wasn’t bothering him.
“Yes, please.”

I watched him start the electric tea kettle. He dropped half of a box of teabags on the floor; I helped him pick them up.
He put one lemon tea bag and one blackberry currant tea bag in a teapot. When the water boiled, Baldurs poured the water. The two of us carried the teapot, the saucers and teacups to the table. We sat in silence-something many Icelanders have perfected-waiting for the teabags to steep.

He finally spoke, slowly. “Write down your name.” He took his time handing me a piece of paper and a pen.
I thought it was a strange request, but wrote my first and last name. He stared at the paper for nearly a minute, a puzzled expression on his face.
Baldurs finally spoke. “I do not remember you.”

Had Eirikur not told him I was visiting? I did not know what to say, and thought perhaps my fast American talking had confused him. Baldurs slowly poured tea into each of the delicate cups.
I spoke slowly. “My name is Cheryl. I worked for your son-Eirikur-at the library. He told me to visit you when I came to Iceland.”
He said nothing at first, and sipped his tea. I sipped mine slowly, letting the hot tea warm my mouth.
“You are traveling around Europe, for months, all over?”
I nodded.
I was amazed at how an 85 year old man would let a stranger into his home so readily; make them a cup of tea, demanding nothing. I tried to imagine a similar situation back in New York City, but couldn’t. I realized I was already very far from home, in a world so different.

After the Symphony
After the Symphony
We spent the rest of the afternoon sipping tea and talking. I tried to speak slowly. Long silences punctuated our conversations. At many points during the day, I had to repeat myself multiple times. Growing up in New York means I speak too fast for most non-native American English speakers (even too fast for some Americans). Most Europeans know British English, and many of the American colloquialisms, as well as the American manner of speaking, can be confusing. Starting in Iceland, I learned to chose my words carefully (an essential when speaking to a non-native English speaker) and speak slowly.

During my time in Iceland, I spoke in a low and even voice, as Icelanders generally speak softly. Screaming and raised voices were not heard by me in Iceland. People generally appear to be serious and polite, from the bus drivers to the people on the streets. Shouting vendors, the norm in many parts of the world, were never once heard. Eirikur once told me a story of an Icelandic bus ride where one American person was obviously out of place: “Everyone was sitting there, staring straight ahead, quietly. The one American man sat hogging two seats, legs spread, map wide open, loudly talking.” I feared being a loud American, and was quieter than normal during my Icelandic trip.
Baldurs and I spoke a lot about words. Although he was retired, he still worked as a translator occasionally. He spoke Icelandic, German, Swiss-German, medieval German, Faroeese, English, Swedish, Italian, Spanish, French, Danish, Norwegian, and knew Russian grammar. He told me how Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic were very similar languages, and once you knew one, you could speak them all. Finnish, however, was more similar to Estonian than any of the Scandinavian languages.

He showed me books-dictionaries (in various languages), dictionaries in two languages for translation purposes, books in various languages, and books he translated from one language to another. Seeing all of Baldurs’s books excited me-there is much more to learn when you know more than one language. As a librarian, the idea of reading books in multiple languages is thrilling.

Less than 24 hours after leaving the USA, I learned how much I actually don’t know. The importance of knowing multiple languages is not stressed in the states, making Americans a laughing matter. Meeting Baldurs has convinced me how important it is to know multiple languages.

There’s the joke:
What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
What do you call a person who speaks three languages?
What do you call a person who speaks one language?
After feeling like I was overstaying my visit, I gathered my bag. Baldurs asked me to visit again.

I went back the next day, and the day after that as well. I found myself looking forward to our time together. I spent several hours each day there, worried I was an unwanted guest, but he would assure me I was not. We talked for long periods of time, and sat silent for other periods, but I was not alarmed by silence. Americans often avoid silence in conversation, sometimes talking about anything of trivial importance, with small talk opening and closing (and sometimes filling in) conversations. With Baldurs and other Icelandic people I spoke with, they only talked when they had something to say.

We talked about books-he showed me many books, and I admired their bindings, acid-free paper, languages, and typefaces. Baldurs told me about the different countries he had lived in, and I grew eager to go to Switzerland and Germany. He showed me photos of his family, and told me stories about Eirikur. He asked me to sign his guestbook, which is a notion that was unfamiliar to me previously. In America, guestbooks are used at weddings. I signed Baldurs’s, adding my name and address.

My final day there, he took me to see the Icelandic Symphony with an extra ticket he had. Being a backpacker, I scrounged up the nicest outfit I could find. I wore a long-sleeved blue shirt, black skirt, black tights, sandals, and borrowed a shawl from my roommate at my hostel. I put some barrettes in my hair and applied makeup, hoping it made me look dressier.

The orchestra was brilliant. I was surrounded by Icelandic people of all ages. Nearly all Icelandic people speak English, so I had no problem chatting with people. Everyone I met was friendly, and I felt welcomed. People seemed interested that I included Iceland in my Europe trip (not a common thing, as it is off the traditional travelers’ circuit).

Baldurs seemed sad when I told him I was leaving. He hugged me goodbye, and I promised to send him the photos when I got back. During the rest of my trip, when things seemed crazy, crowded, or ugly, I thought back to Iceland: a beautiful country, without crowds, quiet, and full of welcoming, friendly people. Iceland was one of my favorite places to visit.