Insight Trip to Iceland: August 2021

Insight Trip to Iceland: August 2021

The Fulbright Association Travel Program, after being “on hold” for over a year because of the pandemic (Covid-19), resumed with the second journey to Iceland, created in cooperation with the Fulbright Commission in Iceland (Fulbright Stofnun), through its Executive Director, Belinda Theriault, and Fulbright Association Representative (FAR) Mary Ellen Heian Schmider.

The first Icelandic trip, in 2019, had been created in partnership with MUNDO, the Travel Agency headed by Margret Jonsdottir Njarthvik, a Fulbright alumna from Princeton University where she received the Ph. D. In Spanish Language and Culture. She became Rector of one of Iceland’s seven universities a year ago. She had asked Belinda Theriault to use her vacation time to travel with the group in 2019.

When approached by the FAR, Schmider, Theriault not only agreed to partner in the planning of the second journey, but suggested that the Fulbright Commission itself could be the partner agency, given her involvement in 2019 as well as the timing: the trip was to begin a few weeks following the intensive Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar for Teachers her office had managed in June 2021.

One of the many advantages of connecting with the office was that the work prepared for the American Teachers could be utilized as preparation materials for anyone wanting to read, watch, listen, or otherwise prepare for the August trip. The second was, of course, that Belinda had just completed a month of touring with the teachers, so she knew every nook and cranny of the areas we planned to explore and had access to appropriate restaurants and hotels. She was able to put the logistics in place fairly quickly—important since the planning had begun in May when Iceland opened up to American tourists. She and the FA took the gamble that a second Iceland Tour for the FA alums and friends would “fill” and be possible on short notice.

As it turned out, the trip was both highly successful and fortunate in that the resurgence of Covid-19 was building in the few days before the trip began and the listing of Iceland on the “do not travel list” occurred just as the journey ended. The good news is that no one on the trip became infected; all were tested both before leaving for Iceland and before returning to the USA. Further, even with the “masking requirement” in Iceland, the ten people on the small van traveling together into territory not so populated nor touristy as the area around Reykjavik could relax without masks most of the time: we were our own small “pod.”

Evaluations have been received from nearly all of the traveling group. The consensus was consistent with the informal conversations and exchanges of photos on WhatsApp both during and after the trip: it was a spectacular, in depth experience of the country with a great group of traveling companions, and a superb leader in Belinda Theriault.

The Itinerary for the trip was detailed both in the FA website marketing the trip and in the booklet prepared for travelers, as is usual practice in the Travel Program, so it need not be repeated in this report.

What should be acknowledged formally is that the two significant “adventures” that were added to the 2021 journey were especially praised: one was a “walk” 500 meters into the second largest glacier in the country. The other was a morning on a small boat to experience whale watching from the “Whaling Capital of the World, Husavik.” The group enjoyed 72 degree F. sunny weather, the opportunity to observe Puffins on their island and flying close to the boat, and a Minke whale who seemed to want to become friends with the boat—it stayed around, checking out the vessel and us for about an hour. It was an unusual enough encounter that one of the two guides took a “selfie” with the whale on one of its turns around the boat.

These two events replaced the 2019 descent into a “dead” volcano with a guide whose education and life were involved with preservation of the natural history of the country. We also learned that no volcano is ever really dead; the eruption of the 800-year old “dead” volcano about 20 KM from Reykjavik was ongoing during our visit. We did not go out to walk around on the hot earth, but the rising smoke was visible from miles away, looking like a small atomic blast.

At least two other changes in the itinerary from 2019 were also important additions: the trip began with an afternoon at Thingvellir, the first National Park in the country, and the site of the world’s oldest Parliament. Founded in 930 CE, the democratic basis of Icelandic life began with a “law speaker” at the annual gathering of the entire country. It was the place where the law speaker decided the country should convert to Christianity, but people were allowed to continue to practice their pagan religion in private. Of course, the physical landscape also lies on one of the earth’s major fault lines, one that is still moving; the tectonic plates separating the Americas from the Eur/Asian land masses.

On an interesting note, the Director of Thingvellir National Park: Einar Á. E. Sæmundsen, is a Fulbright alumnus who studied natural history in Minnesota, starting with a trip to the headwaters of the Mississippi at Itasca National Park where John Tester spent summers creating the essential study of the Natural History of Minnesota. Tester’s widow, Joyce, was part of our group. The second edition, revised, of Tester’s work was completed with three younger scholars working with Tester until a week before his death at 90 two years ago.

The trip concluded with the focus on democratic institutions in Iceland through a talk with the public representative of the Athingi, the current Parliament of the country. Covid concerns made it impossible to visit inside the iconic building, but the young woman who met with the group was knowledgeable and willing to respond to the typical variety of questions a Fulbright group would ask!

Rounding out the religious/cultural journey into Iceland’s history were two other events: one was an hour with an historian at the Snorri Sturlson Center at Reykholt—the research site for study of Icelandic literature and language, centered in the ancient Sagas. The other was in Holar, the oldest ecclesiastical center in the country. Here we had the opportunity to attend a full Lutheran (the Icelandic State Church) service in Icelandic, a summer event for local citizens and visitors, followed by a concert by four young musicians recently returned from major studies in Europe. Between the rector at the university, who hosted us once more, and one of three Bishops in the country, both women, we learned a lot about the emerging leadership of educated women in the country. In fact, one of our travel group was so struck by the work being done to revitalize the educational and religious culture in this historic place in the North of the country that she is working to have a Specialist Award to return to Holar.

Those of us who spent time in the National Museum in Reykjavik on our last day learned more about the importance of Holar. The Bishop who took over when the Reformation came to Iceland spent fifty years in office, translating the Bible into Icelandic. He knew that the preservation of the language was essential, and his work made that possible. All the Sagas can still be read in the original by Icelanders. This first Bible in Icelandic is more popularly known as ‘Guðbrands Biblia’, after its translator and editor Guðbrandur Þorláksson (1541/2-1627), Bishop of Hólar. Guðbrandur studied at the cathedral school at Hólar in the north of Iceland before enrolling at the University of Copenhagen. In 1571 he was appointed Bishop of Hólar, a position he held until his death in 1627.

As a way to summarize the group cohesion and pleasure in one another’s company, a word about “food.” Everyone arrived a day early to be ready for the week together. With What’s APP, we all found our way to Caruso, a fine restaurant in the heart of “old” Reykjavik. We had a private room and glorious versions of every sort of fish we ordered. It was so good that everyone chose to return there after our tour ended for our last night in the country. The tour days themselves featured exceptional food every time: Belinda knew her restaurants, including a Moroccan meal in Siglufjorder with individual Tagines serving local Lamb. One of the Icelanders who is working on revitalization of the small sea-side towns in the North had traveled to Morocco where he so enjoyed the work of the chef that he invited him to come North to cook. The result: a restaurant worth traveling to the top of the country just to eat!

In summary, the trip “exceeded expectations” in every way!

–Mary Ellen Heian Schmider

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