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The power of language, the power of remembering

Photo: Stefan Jonasson Author: Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, Former President of Iceland

The former President of Iceland, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, was the featured speaker at the annual Samkoma of the Icelandic Hekla Club, which was held in conjunction with the annual convention of the Icelandic National League of North America at Bloomington, Minnesota on May 16, 2015. This is Madame Vigdís’s address from that occasion.
 
Distinguished guests, ambassadors, consuls – honorary and general – dear friends … and especially my Hekla sisters,
A Moveable Feast was the name the great writer Ernest Hemingway gave to his book about his travels on the other side of the wide, wet Atlantic Ocean. The title was translated into Icelandic as Veisla í farangrinum. “A Feast in the Luggage” occurs to me as an English translation of the Icelandic translation. But I’m sure an English translator would find a better English translation of the Icelandic translation of the title.
That is what is first and foremost in my mind, here in the Twin cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) at the convention of the Icelandic National League of North America – a veritable feast for mind and memory, with so many lucid presentations, remembering the past and illuminating the present.
Thank you very much for offering me the opportunity to be here, to listen and to learn: to listen to observations about the present time and – what I like best – memories from past times. There is hardly a family in Iceland who are not aware of the emigration from our country to the New World in the last decades of the 19th century, during times of hardship and volcanic eruptions – ironically enough at a time when the Icelanders, as a nation, were beginning to see signs of independence on the horizon. And in fact that was little consolation: freedom in itself cannot, unfortunately, nourish people physically, nor provide warmth and shelter in hard times.

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From the pages of the Norrøna: The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike

Photo: Selma Parsons Author: Katelin Parsons, Reykjavík, Iceland

There exists a cautionary Icelandic tale – known as The Saga of Conrad the Emperor’s Son and Rodbert the Traitor (Sagan af Konráð keisarasyni og Róðbert svikara) – on the importance of learning languages.
The hero, Conrad of Saxland, is a great athlete and at the top of his class, but he trustingly leaves the field of foreign languages entirely to his foster-brother Rodbert, who has promised Conrad that he will interpret for him. As the title of the saga suggests, this proves to be a very bad idea. When Conrad and Rodbert go abroad together, Rodbert cunningly represents himself as the true prince and attempts to win the hand of the King of Greece’s daughter, claiming that Conrad is a shady, untrustworthy character who’s tagging along because of a scandal at home. Rodbert only puts up with him because he’s an old family friend. Fortunately, Princess Matthildur has better prince-recognition skills than her father the king. With Matthildur’s help, Conrad is able to prove his identity to the court through a series of knightly quests. Rodbert is defeated, and there is a happy ending for the hero and Princess Matthildur.
Even though this saga dates from the fourteenth century and is set in a world of knights and princesses and castles, anyone who has ever travelled to a country where the words you speak get you nothing but a blank stare will probably find it easy to sympathize with Conrad. He goes from being the beloved and talented heir to the throne in his home country to a good-for-nothing peasant. As Conrad discovers, actions may speak louder than words, but words are faster. His identity is abruptly taken from him in a language in which he’s unable to defend himself. His side of the story gets stuck behind a linguistic barrier more powerful than trolls and dragons.

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Kristinn Stefánsson, the carpenter poet

Photo: Stefan Jonasson Author: Stefan Jonasson

In one of the older sections of Winnipeg’s Brookside Cemetery, canopied by trees, stands a grand memorial that one might imagine marked the final resting place of some important statesman or military hero. What a surprise, then, to discover that it marks the grave of a simple carpenter, until one learns that this workingman was also one of the finest poets to ever call Winnipeg home.
Kristinn Stefánsson was born on an isolated farm, Egilsá, in the Skagafjörður region of northern Iceland, on July 9, 1856. He was the son of Stefán Tómasson, a farmer and physician who was known for his outstanding intellect and poetic gifts, and Vigdís Magnúsdóttir. Immigrating to Canada in the summer of 1873, as part of the first large group to leave Iceland, he settled first in Rosseau, Ontario before moving west to Winnipeg in 1881. After establishing himself in his adopted homeland, he married Guðrún Jónsdóttir in the summer of 1884.

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