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Iceland – Part I …International travel with a fifteen year old

August 10, 2019

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This trip was a culmination. When grand-daughter, Erika, was eleven, we took our first trip away from home – a Road Scholar Inter-Generational (grandparent and grandchild) vacation at a dude ranch in Arizona. As the years passed, we took other trips: another Road Scholar trip in Oregon, a trip up the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Then, two years ago, we went to Canada; people still spoke English, but the money, road signs, accents and words were different. Erika was gradually assuming more and more responsibility: keeping a journal and currency and expenses straight, dealing with packing and laundry, making decisions about attitudes towards other kids and activities she didn’t like or understand and learning patience when things went awry.

By 2019, she was ready – for a Road Scholar trip to Iceland – a place neither one of us had been to or knew anything about. Her reason for going: Islandic horses; Mine: Viking history and folklore. The trick: to satisfy both these desires and support one another in the process… and we did it.

We landed at Keflavik Airport, a day ahead of all the other participants. It was a good chance to rest and deal with jet lag before they arrived. Keflavik, formerly a US base (when we took over the country as peaceful “invaders” during WWII), was flat windswept prairie with low ridges of lava everywhere; I thought this was what all of Iceland was going to look like… how wrong I was.

Day 2 did not begin well. We went to the airport, waited for the others…no show. Sensing that something was wrong, I contacted one of the group leaders. They had already left for Arnbjargarlaekur, our home stay, two hours away. The issue: miscommunication between the home office and the program site: a classic problem encountered many times by any conference co-ordinator (as I had been). A taxi ride brought us all together. But Day 2 ended splendidly, because Erika found two soul-mates: Lorien from Virginia and Ella from Massachusetts.

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For the next ten days, they were in-separable – and gradually, they merged with the other kids aged 11 – 15 until they were just one big happy noisy mob. No cliquey clusters; no one left out; it was one of the highlights of the trip.

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Arnbjargarlaekur… I still can’t pronounce it and the kids never really grasped it’s importance… but we adults did. We had landed in one of the most unique home stays I have ever experienced.

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The owners, David and Gudrun, are the fourth generation to raise sheep in this place. But they are so much more than that. David had been a member of the Icelandic Parliament. Gudrun has held several important positions in local and regional government. They have a library filled with beautiful books – oxblood leather with gold lettering – on Icelandic history, the sagas, literature, politics, and government. Their entire house is filled with art: reproductions of Picasso and Monet, beautiful still life paintings, portraits, a vast narrative painting of the disastrous 1783 Laki eruption which killed 9000 people and caused global temperatures to drop, and on and on.

Gudrun is an excellent chef and all of our meals were made from scratch: barbecued lamb, broiled cod, and luscious desserts. They have five children; one is an ambassador, another a CEO, another a college professor. Yet they are warm and friendly, straightforward and down to earth. It was a privilege to be their guests and share – however briefly- their home and amazing family history.

Horses, horses, horses

“Oma…LOOK!!!” Erika was wriggling with excitement. We were in the taxi on the way to our home stay – and there were horses in the pasture alongside the road. For the next ten days, Erika’s enthusiasm never wavered; she took dozens of pictures – horses close up, far away, it didn’t matter. Some were wonderful (a mare with a new foal), but others were, well, ordinary. She refused to edit any of them. Her first chance to get up close and personal was at the Agricultural University in Hvanneyri. A rider and three Islandic horses appeared – and everything stopped.

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But the finale came at the stables in Ovaldsstadir.

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The Icelandic horse has five unique gaits: walk, trot, tolt (a smooth, running trot), quick pace (a fast pacing gait), and gallop. Erika DESPERATELY wanted to tolt. But, as I explained gently on the way to the stables, with a group of over 25 riders, that might not be possible…don’t get your hopes up. But my hopes went up as I watched the short, square stable manager quietly evaluate the riders. Maybe, I thought… maybe. I didn’t go on the ride (my riding days are over), so I didn’t see what happened. But I got a blow by blow description afterwards. Ten minutes into the ride, one of the riding assistants quietly separated Erika and her friend, Lorien, from the others. What followed was almost an hour of tolting, quick pacing, and galloping along the Hvita River in glorious sunshine. Erika returned to the stable, her face suffused with joy. After a quick hug, she calmly helped the assistants put saddles away. But the picture that is burned into my brain is this one.

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Eighteen months ago, I saw her leaving the ring at her first horse show, weeping tears of frustration and rage because she couldn’t get her horse to obey. Now, I watched as she proudly led three horses out of the barn and through a crowd of people and horses into the pasture. I didn’t even get the shot; I was in the wrong position. But, Julie, Lorien’s “Mimi” did and sent it to me….

Farms – and Baby Animals

This trip visited six Icelandic farms: everything from a completely computerized greenhouse tomato farm, to sheep and dairy farms (one of which included a talking raven), to the only farm in the country raising Icelandic goats. With care and attention, Haafell Farm has brought this breed back from near extinction. We adults learned about herding techniques and farming life; the kids played with the baby animals: calves, rabbits, lambs, and goats. For a grandchild who has wanted to be a vet since age 6, this was heaven.

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As our bus traveled through Western Iceland and the Snaefellsnes peninsula, the terrain was constantly changing. Sometimes the changes were subtle: hillocks which gradually turned into grassy ridges and sometimes they were stark: mountains of absolutely smooth basalt and ash – and nothing else – and behind them, higher craggy peaks capped by glaciers. The valleys are carved into fields by deep crevices, worn down by creeks in the ashy soil. Some areas were deep green and gold; haying season was in full swing. Others looked like the scrub areas of the Western US. I was really surprised at the number of trees, carefully planted in the lee of ridges to protect them from the wind. We participated in a tree planting program which, in the uneven soil, was harder than it looked! Some of the adults in the program felt the terrain was boringly similar; I couldn’t understand how they could “see” it so differently than I did.

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