It’s amazing how a relatively short plane ride can take you a world away from home.
But what’s even more amazing is thinking about how long the journey from that place was a century ago, and how brave our forefathers were for leaving everything they knew and heading to a place that took months to reach, knowing they would likely never see home again.
That really hit home for me as I stood in an isolated valley in northern Iceland two weeks ago.
I was standing on the spot where a house once stood; a house that my great-grandmother, Gudrun Jakobsdottir, grew up in. In the near distance was a river, and just on the other side, the farm where my great-grandfather, Johann Bjornson, grew up.
Ahead of me was the north Atlantic, just a few miles south of the Arctic Circle. Behind me were mountains, including the one my ancestors had to walk over just to get to the nearest town.
It was a beautiful spot. The grass was green, and away in the distance were the sheep that are ever-present in Iceland’s open spaces. The mountains were magnificent, still capped with snow in June. And the ocean was so blue, so clear, it almost hurt my eyes.
But in Iceland, such beauty can hide deadly things.
Listening to my cousins, the descendants of my great-grandmother’s younger brother, talk about life in Dalabae, the valley in which we were standing, it wasn’t so surprising that my great-grandparents picked up stakes and left after they were married.
For instance, at my great-grandmother’s farm, they had to chain their house to the ground, to be sure it wouldn’t blow away. Their barn actually did blow away once, animals and all. Because they have wind in Iceland; wind that I’ve never experienced before, and I’m a born and raised Prairie girl. It’s an icy wind, and a strong one; one that makes you believe in the elves and trolls that many Icelanders swear inhabit places on the island.
And though the valley of Dalabae is a lovely place in June, with a tunnel through a mountain connecting it to the nearest town, no one is allowed to live there over the winter anymore; the threat of avalanche is just too ever-present.
Canada seemed far away when I stood on that spot. And I was just nine hours by plane and a few hours by car from home in Saskatchewan. I cannot imagine how far away home felt when my great-grandparents finally arrived in the Dafoe district just over 99 years ago. It had taken them weeks to get to Canada by sea; then weeks more to get to Saskatchewan. And when they got here, there wasn’t much in the way of civilization.
But they dug in. They worked hard. They stayed. They farmed. They had 10 children who lived past childhood.
They never went back home. They never went back to Iceland, to Dalabae, though they used part of the name to create their new Canadian name of Dalman — a family name, something that does not exist, for the most part, in Iceland even today. When they left Iceland, we were told, there was nothing for them there. People were starving. In Canada, there was hope. That’s why they left.
I’m not sure why they never went back. My grandfather, their oldest son, never went back, either.
But my father now has.
And it’s funny — though he had never laid eyes on our cousins there before; in fact, he had no idea they even existed until 2008, one of them looked at him and said, “You, you are from Dalabae.” And I looked at some of them and saw my grandfather peeking out at me, not just in looks, but in actions and interests as well.
It was so strange. In our modern world, these people were just a few hours away; less than a day of travelling. And we are fairly closely related. Yet we’d never met. They speak a different language; have this other culture; follow soccer, not hockey; and the farms grow sheep, not crops. Yet we have so much in common. We laugh at the same things, like the same things, tell stories the same way.
Now that I’ve been there, Iceland and Dalabae still seems far away; it’s difficult to believe I was actually there, now that I’m home. But it does feel a little closer, as do the family of ours that it holds.
As one of them said to us: “Isn’t it funny how we just love each other?”
Blood, it seems, is thicker than even the ocean that divides us.