By Sverrir Sigurdsson (Guest Blogger)
When I told stories of my travel adventures to friends, their reaction was often, “Why don’t you write your memoir?” I never thought I was important enough to do that. At the same time, I did have many fond and exciting memories of growing up in Iceland and later traveling the world for both work and pleasure. So, I started jotting down memorable recollections and saving them in a folder called Episodes on my hard drive.
In my retirement, after I’d done everything I ever wanted to do, including designing and building a house with my own hands, I got more serious about writing down my memories. I also got curious about my genealogy. Fortunately my dad had dug into the National Archives of Iceland and traced the family tree back to Norway around the year 800, the time of the Viking era. My ancestral pantheon included Erik the Red and his son, Leif Eriksson the explorer. No wonder I love to travel so much!
These revelations whetted my appetite for more information about my family. I now live in the U.S. and am watching my all-American grandchildren grow up with little knowledge of their heritage. The desire to leave them a cultural legacy became more urgent. I started to do more research on my parents and grandparents. Thanks to the internet, I was able to find links to valuable information. It came to my attention that the Icelandic National Library had interviewed my uncle Óli for a cultural heritage project. I emailed the librarian, who promptly sent me the audio files. I clicked on one, and there was my long-dead uncle Óli speaking to me in his gravelly voice, telling me about life as a fisherman in the rough seas around Iceland. In another search, I found a link that took me to the logbook of my maternal grandfather’s sailing ship, and in a third search I came across an article in a Canadian newspaper about a heroic rescue of the livestock at my paternal grandfather’s farm during the calamitous winter of 1880-1881. I hadn’t been so excited in a long time.
My commitment to the project was complete, although I still wasn’t sure what the end product was going to be. I showed a few of my “episodes” to my wife for feedback. Veronica is a former journalist and published author who had taken a “Glad he has something to occupy him in his retirement” attitude toward my project. But one day, she looked up from reading one of my episodes and said, “Sverrir, you’ve really had an interesting life.” From then on, my project became hers too.
We researched into the English-language literature on Iceland and found that the publications were mostly picture books on Icelandic scenery or academic books on its history. Given Iceland’s status as the latest tourism hotspot, we decided there would be an audience for a human interest story that also tells people about Iceland. We decided a lively way to do that was to introduce readers to my family, our history, way of life, and outward looking Viking spirit.
My “episodes” are now a book named Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir. It’s in two parts. Part One (Icelandic Roots) begins with the family’s struggle to eke out a living on the island. Born just before the Second World War, I watched Allied forces occupy the strategic island and turn it into a fortress against Hitler’s advance toward America. I also saw my dirt-poor nation grow into an advanced country after the war. Part Two (Viking Adventures) covers my travels around the world to seek fame and fortune (without the looting and plundering). I started as a teenager studying architecture in Finland and later launched an international career that took me to thirty some countries on five continents. This Viking has found his fortune, not in gold and silver, but the experiences that have enriched his heart and mind.
This vivacious personal story captures the heart and soul of modern Iceland. Born in Reykjavik on the eve of the Second World War, Sverrir Sigurdsson watched Allied troops invade his country and turn it into a bulwark against Hitler’s advance toward North America. The country’s post-war transformation from an obscure, dirt-poor nation to a prosperous one became every Icelander’s success. Spurred by this favorable wind, Sverrir answered the call of his Viking forefathers, setting off on a voyage that took him around the world.
My maternal grandfather, Þorkell Magnússon, was the captain of a fishing vessel called Gyða. In early April 1910, he and his seven-man crew, including his eldest son, set sail from Bíldudalur, a small town in northwest Iceland. Their destination was the rich fishing grounds beyond the fjord. April was the beginning of the fishing season, which lasted until September. These were the “mild” months. In reality, the weather was often stormy and below freezing, pushing both the boat and men to the limit of their endurance. Three weeks later, on April 23, Gyða headed for home, her hull laden with cod, the valuable cash fish many fishermen had died for. Nearing their home fjord, the men’s hearts must have lifted. A hot meal, a warm bed, and the family’s embrace were within a day’s reach.
That night, a furious northerly gale pounded the region with snow and sleet, whipping the sea into a deadly cauldron of crashing waves. All hands would have scrambled on deck to wrestle with the wind, jibing and tacking to keep the gusts from capsizing the boat. The battle went on all night. The next morning, Gyða was still upright and staggering closer to home. Einar, my grandfather’s neighbor and a former crew member, attested to seeing her from shore during a visit to his family’s farm on the outer reaches of Arnarfjörður (Eagle Fjord). The wind was still howling, pummeling the boat from left and right. But Einar was confident the boat could hold herself together. After all, Gyða was a sturdy oceangoing vessel, one of the first to be built in Iceland with state-of-the art technology. In just a few more hours, she would reach the safety of the harbor.
About the Authors
Sverrir Sigurdsson grew up in Iceland and graduated as an architect from Finland in 1966. He pursued an international career that took him to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the U.S. His assignments focused on school construction and improving education in developing countries. He has worked for private companies, as well as UNESCO and the World Bank. He is now retired and lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and coauthor, Veronica.
Veronica Li emigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong as a teenager. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and her master’s degree in International Affairs from Johns Hopkins University. She has worked as a journalist and for the World Bank, and is currently a writer. Her three previously published titles are: Nightfall in Mogadishu, Journey across the Four Seas: A Chinese Woman’s Search for Home, and Confucius Says: A Novel. Her website is www.veronicali.com.
Amazon author pages
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