In 2021, when Cathy and I made our first ‘Pandemic Escape’ back to Iceland, I sent pictures to my then 82-year-old aunt, Edna. Her mother is our grandmother, so she too is Icelandic. I wanted to share with Edna some of our favorite places in Iceland and give her the feeling of ‘home’ like Cathy and I have felt both times we have been there. We love Iceland and we love our heritage.
When I returned home Edna told me that she’d never wanted to leave the United States until I shared the pictures of Iceland. She told me that it looked beautiful and just through pictures, she felt some sense of belonging.
My husband Bob said I should take her to Iceland, travelling first class like we do. I laughed and said, ‘she’s 82 years old and she’d be 83 by the time we could take a trip! There’s no way she’d actually go! She’s never even been on a plane before!’ I sent the text — ‘Aunt Edna, would you like to go to Iceland with me?’
To my shock, less than 2 minutes after I sent the text, she replied, ‘yes.’ I couldn’t believe it and I continued not to believe it for several weeks. Edna’s travel experience is minimal. Her last big trip was in 1956 when she drove with her parents from California to Pennsylvania.
Planning the trip was a lot of fun – Cathy and I travel 1st class. We hire private tour guides. We eat in Michelin restaurants when we can and eat in fine dining restaurants when there’s no Michelin’s available. We make every experience the best it can be and when we leave a country, our goal is to take unforgettable memories with us. This is what I wanted for Edna — a trip of a lifetime.
My cousin and Edna’s nephew, Matthew came from Utah to take care of Edna’s disabled husband so she could go on the trip. While Earl told me that Matthew could be a lot to handle (very funny to me!), I quite openly thanked Matthew for ‘taking the arrow for the team’ so Edna could take this trip. I know who is ‘a lot to handle.’
I was nervous about how she’d manage not just the flight, but navigating busy airports like LAX and Denver, as well as how she’d manage the significant walking. We walk a lot! We get up early, go out to sightsee, come in to eat dinner and try to be in bed by 9 and then do it all again the next day, day after day, until it’s time to go home. No grass grows under my feet; there’s too much to see and too much to do.
Our tours included the first-time tourist basics such as the Golden Circle, the South Coast, Reykjavik and the city area, and then there’s the fact we have ancestral ties to Iceland. So I wanted to personalize it by visiting areas where our family was from, including Vestmannaeyjar on Heimaey Island.
She filled out her passport form and took the ugliest picture of her life and within 6 weeks was the proud owner of a passport. I’d post her passport picture but if she found out, she’d probably kill me because it is so ugly.
Her courage to travel internationally at her age of 83 was amazing. Her attitude of ‘I’ll do whatever you say we are going to do’ was equally astonishing.
It was a smart idea to have wheelchair support at the airports, not only to help her with the long walks but also because we were sped through security faster than my Global Traveler/TSA Precheck could do it. Watching this tiny 4’9” 83-year-old woman go through security systems for the first time in her life was a wonder! She took it all in stride, including the pat down at Denver International Airport, which was ridiculous, but whatever.
We arrived in Iceland at 7 am and our private driver took us straight to the Hilton Konsulat Hotel where we stowed our suitcases in the storage room and headed out for our first day in Iceland. Edna didn’t waste anytime getting out her camera and enjoying the sights.
As we walked toward downtown, our first stop was at the Prime Minister’s house and then on up to Skolavordustigur street towards Hallgrimskirkja Church. While some people think Hallgrimskirkja is ugly, I actually love it. I love the sleek lines, I love the giant beautiful doors, and I love the long lead up to the front of the church. Named after the Icelandic poet and clergyman, Hallgrimur Petursson, the ‘idea’ of the church took over 40 years to start construction and took over another 46 years to completion. So, for over 80 years, the vision of this church was in existence. Patience, Icelanders, patience. Egads.
When Edna and I visited (twice!) the church was closed, which has been the case every single time I’ve visited Iceland. I’m not sure why I can’t get inside – it’s not like I haven’t tried!
In front of the church is the statue of Leif Eiricsson, our ancestor as well as the ancestor of every Icelander. Edna told me she studied the Explorers, including Leif when she was in grade school. She started school in 1945, so that’s a clue as to how long ago she learned about Leif but at that time she had no idea we were related.
Being a genealogist for more than 45 years, I have always had a great interest in my heritage. My grandma Mae used to talk to me about being Icelandic and shared with me the little she knew about our heritage. Her mother divorced when she was young, and she had a very distant relationship with her father and his family. I reached out to one of my cousins, Amy, who also loves genealogy, and she provided a name of a very distant cousin in Iceland, Ingrid.
Edna and I met Ingrid at one of my favorite restaurants, Messinn, where we enjoyed the best fish stew of the trip and had the opportunity to meet our first living relative in Iceland. While we knew we were related, we weren’t quite sure how, so we poured over my documentation trying to find our link. After a long lunch, we agreed to meet Ingrid at her home on a later day to try and pinpoint our exact connection.
After saying goodbye to Ingrid, we headed to the Settlement Museum. The museum is an excavated Viking long house dating to approx 871 and is one of my favorite places to visit in Reykjavik probably because I embrace my inner Viking. And I also love history! The diagrams and information provided in the Settlement Museum is excellent and truly helps you understand the way of life at that time.
The Parliament House, built in 1880 out of Icelandic stone is where the Althingi has met since that time. Over four of the windows are the Icelandic guardians – a giant, a bird, a ball, and a dragon. The Althingi is one of the oldest surviving parliaments in the world. Founded in 930 at Thingvellir, it was an important annual meeting of the clans do address politics, laws, address problems, as well as an annual gathering that included feasts and dancing.
We took a walk to the Sun Voyager, which is a modern take on a Viking ship, and even thought I was ‘slow walking’ best I could, Edna fell behind. I would turn to wait, and she would yell, “I’m coming! Keep going!” When we stopped to give her a rest, she told me that she was determined to do everything we wanted to do, and she would just figure out how to keep up. It was beyond impressive — it was ICELANDIC. She’s a Viking girl!
It was a long day overall and Edna seemed to enjoy everything we did. Tomorrow we head towards West Iceland, Borgarfjodur and waterfalls.