Yesterday in the early evening, racing alongside the beautiful Lagarfljót River to get to Egilsstaðir before the airport closes to pick up the suitcase we accidentally left behind at my cousin Hrefna's in Reykjavík and which she kindly put on a plane to Egilsstaðir that morning...
... suddenly I see a sign whiz past that says GISLASTAÐIR!
Each farm in Iceland has its own name, many of them unchanged for hundreds of years, and any detailed map of Iceland always shows all the farm names. Which can make Iceland seem very crowded on a map, or at least well populated, if you mistakenly assumed these individual farm names are the names of towns or even villages.
I shout out "Gislastaðir!" to Oliver, who says, "Great" and keeps speeding along. (It is his clothes that are in the suitcase we left behind.)
"It's my grandfather's farm!"
Now Oliver stops the car and turns around and we take a good look at the farm from the road. I had been here once before, in 1998. Back then, a young man came to the door of the red-roofed yellow farmhouse you see here. He spoke hardly any English, and I was only on my fifth day of my first trip to Iceland, but I managed to explain that this was the farm where my grandfather was born.
The young man told me, "I remember your mother coming here. I was just a little boy. In the 1970s."
I ask his name and he says, Saemundur. And that is how I got the name of Saemundur as a character in my novel... He took me to the ruins of my grandfather's old turf-roofed stone farmhouse, out in a field, covered over in grass and wildflowers, with sheep grazing amongst the ruins.
The farm of Gíslastaðir today. My grandfather was born on this same site in 1869.
I have always felt sad not to have ever met this grandfather, born in a distant century on a remote island, never to have heard his stories with my own ears. But I was lucky enough to hear them from mother, and from the few pages of his life story he wrote down before he died.
So we have now entered the territory of those my mother referred to all my life as "Our People." I have spent quite a bit of time in this part of Iceland, more than anywhere else. As we get back in the car and speed on to Egilsstaðdir to retrieve our suitcase before the airport closes, I rattle on to Oliver all my memories, the place names of the farms from a hundred years ago and today, names of people from then and now, until he is hopelessly confused about who or what we might visit on this trip and who has been already been gone for a hundred years.
This is always how it has been for me when I come to Iceland, the past and the present living side by side. At the glacial lagoon earlier in the day, we sucked on pieces of glacial icicles formed with water over a thousand years old. Thousand-year-old glacial icicles are unbelievably delicious!