When I complained to my niece that I never had a chance to use my dresses, she suggested I come visit her and go with her to a þorrablót. The old Icelandic month of þorri, which begins in mid-January, is traditionally celebrated by going to a gathering called þorrablót, held in every community, where traditional Icelandic food is served. The idea of going to such a gathering sounded tempting, since I only had a vague idea of what a þorrablót was, never having been to one. The only problem was that to go see her, I’d have to travel for four and a half hours by bus. It didn’t take me long, though, to decide it would be worth it. Once my friends found out I’d be going, they said I couldn’t return to town until I had tried the sour ram’s testicles, always served at such a feast. I promised I would.
Svið (heads of lamb). Photos: Vala Hafstad
So off I went, determined to enjoy every minute. Of course I couldn’t make up my mind which dress to wear, so I took a few along, as well as some thick clothes for cold weather, beer for my hosts, as well as red wine, my computer, several books (since I couldn’t decide which one I’d be in the mood to read), notebooks (in case I couldn’t use my computer), makeup (one lipstick for every potential dress), and dressy shoes. Altogether, this filled up one large suitcase and two backpacks.
There was a long line of people getting ready to board the bus as I arrived at the station. They all spoke English with an accent, so they had to be of several different nationalities, and were so full of energy and enthusiasm that it was practically contagious. As the bus rolled out of the station, I found out that the girls sitting closest to me were from Naples, recently arrived in Iceland as exchange students at Reykjavík University. The rest were from all over the world. They got off in the town of Hveragerði, ready to go hiking, leaving only a few people on the bus, all of us sitting so far from one another that conversation was out of the question.
Therefore, I had no option but to start listening to the radio. It instantly grabbed my attention. A man was talking about how much time a human being spends in the bathroom during a lifetime and maintained it was on average between three and four years. Then he gave another shocking piece of information. He said that every year, seven million cell phones drop into the toilet. Instantly, I grabbed my iPhone and removed it from my back pocket, determined never to store it there again. I simply couldn’t engage in such risky behavior.
Pressed heads of lamb and what I came to have: sour ram’s testicles.
An old, skinny man with silver-grey hair down to his waist got on the bus in Selfoss. He sat down right behind the driver and began talking to him. They clearly knew each other fairly well. The man, I figured, was either homeless, or an artist who had stayed behind in the hippie era, where he had obviously lost his comb. They kept talking and it was clear the old man knew the area well, because from what he said, I could tell he knew the road like the palm of his hand.
I knew I’d have to switch buses in Vík í Mýrdal, and was told there would be a half hour wait. A man who had noticed how much luggage I had brought along offered to take my suitacase inside the gas station building. We took a seat by the window. He told me he worked in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, but traveled to Reykjavík in between shifts. Then he looked at my luggage and said, “I suppose you’re coming here to work.” I admitted that my luggage might give the impression I was about to move to the area, but confessed I was coming just for the þorrablót that same night and would be going back to town the next day. I didn’t see any reason to explain to him that my indecisiveness was to blame for the size of the suitcase.
It was time to get on the bus to Kirkjubæjarklaustur. To my surprise, the long-haired, old man sat down in the driver’s seat. My first thought was that not only had he lost his comb, but his wits, too, pretending to be in charge, but then I had my doubts. I whispered to the man who again had helped me with the suitcase, “Is he the driver?” and he nodded. “They come in all different looks,” he said. Reluctantly, I boarded the bus and reminded myself that you can’t jugde a book by its cover.
I picked up one of the books I had brought along to read—A Collection of Poems (Ljóðasafn) by Ingunn Snædal. That book always opens up on the same page, as if it has come to know my taste. (The following is my translation of the original):
Going to Fjörður
—half way there
Subaru Forester makes it anywhere
but it sure would have been smart
to get gas
The old man safely brought us to Klaustur and I was glad to see my niece there waiting for me.
Cruel comedy in action.
Fast forward now to the þorrablót. As we walked into the community center in which it was held, I understood that the amount of perfume you shower yourself with prior to entering, or even the kind of perfume you pick, becomes totally irrelevant the minute you enter a þorrablót. Another smell drowns any attempt at smelling good. The only way to survive the overpowering stench that greets you is to go right to its source and ingest it. On a tray, right by the door, were cubes of putrefied shark, ready for consumption. I quickly helped myself to a bite, then another, and another, and instantly thought of my childhood when my father taught me to appreciate this taste. As soon as you start chewing the shark, its taste explodes in your mouth and moves at record speed straight to your brain at an intoxicating level, giving you the most intense patriotric high imaginable.
Once we were inside the hall, my niece began introducing me to every person we ran into. For some inexplicable reason, everyone present turned out to be related to her boyfriend in one way or another, if not by blood, then by being married to one of his relatives. A very close-knit community, indeed. The only people she didn’t manage to hang on his family tree were the Brazilian shop keeper, the Hungarian waiter from the hotel, the Hungarian massage therapist, and the girls from the Czech Republic, who simply hadn’t been there long enough to find boyfriends related to my niece’s.
She also introduced me to the librarian, who, she said, had to close the library from time to time to keep the liquor store open, which she happened to manage, too. (Who said liquor and literature don’t go together?). Then, she introduced me to a woman, who was eight years her husband’s senior. That detail had created a slight confusion when the woman was pregnant with their first child. A man saw the pair together, came up to her and asked, “Are you with child,” and she had to ask him to repeat the question, not sure whether he had asked, “Are you with child?” or “Are you with a child?”
But that was a digression. Once I had been introduced to everyone, we sat down at an assigned table and the entertainment commenced. A group of about ten people had been given the task a year earlier to entertain that evening, and so they did with style. This was a comedy show where the subject was the community and the characters the people who reside there. To the visitor, only a fraction of the puns and remarks was understandable, but what was evident was that no one was spared. Every gaffe made that year, every misunderstanding, no matter how embarrassing, and every stupid mistake made perfect material for the show. But even the adversities were dressed up as comical events, such as the glacial outburst flood and the cutting of public funds that forced the closure of the post office, making it next to impossible to find a way to send a letter.
The beautiful buffet.
Once we had applauded the actors, it was time to open the doors to the þorri buffet. Again, I took a step back in time, remembering all the different tastes from my childhood, as I gulped down marinated herring, blood and liver sausages, pressed meat from the head of lamb, and smoked lamb. I had never tried sour ram’s testicles, and frankly, I had imagined them lying in heaps, wrinkled, grey, overused and unappetizing, but to my surprise, they looked just like average golf balls, surrounded by jelly. I had no problem getting them down, soft as they turned out to be, and the only taste I detected was that of the whey they had been stored in.
Once all these old traditions had been ingested, it was time to start dancing. A band had been hired from the Westman Islands—one that likely had gained some weight since its heyday, but that turned out to be surprisingly well preserved when it came to performing. They played one hit after the other, all of which I was able to sing along with, because all of them were already popular thirty years ago, when I last went dancing. The later it got in the night, the more careful you had to be on the dance floor, because some of the people were now dancing well above the speed limit, the men swirling the women around so suddenly that you risked injury if you wandered into their orbit.
The band was still playing at 2:30 in the morning when we decided to go home. On the way back, my niece and her boyfriend gave me a quick interpretation of the comedy parts I had missed. They themselves had just found out it would be their turn to entertain next year. Of course I won’t miss that for anything. I just hope they won’t be making fun of people who come to the area loaded with luggage, including at least three dresses and equally many lipsticks, even though they’re there for only a night. This year, I came to have the balls. Next year, I may not have the balls to come.