Published October 14, 2015
If you happen to find yourself in Winchester, Connecticut at just the right time this month, you can observe some bona fide Icelandic horses grazing below the autumnal foliage as you chew on a strip of authentic harðfiskur while taking in the sounds of some of Iceland’s premier musicians. Yes, Winchester, Connecticut, Of all places. Why would Icelandic horses, harðfiskur and musicians converge upon Winchester, Connecticut? Who is responsible for this surprising turn of events? Why, it’s none other than noted traffic anchor, wildlife rehabilitator, nature conservation advocate, erstwhile travel guide, “bat lady” and total badass Gerakdine “Gerri” Griswold, The horses, harðfiskur and musicians are all making the trip to rural Connecticut so they can join Gerri for her annual Iceland-celebrating party, which she calls Iceland Affair and is happening for the sixth time this year.
That name is apt, too, because Gerri’s relationship with Iceland is as sincere and intense as any romantic dalliance.
That fateful layover
Gerri says she first came to Iceland in 2002 on a layover. She promptly fell in love, she tells me, and hasn’t been able to stay away since. As we make ourselves comfortable to talk at Tíu dropar, I learn that she is on her 39th trip to the country. Since 2002.
An avid wildlife conservator, Gerri works part time as such, dedicating most of her efforts to bats. She says her affinity for issues of nature and sustainability is one of the reasons why she loves Iceland so much, and perhaps why she wanted to bring some of what she experienced here back to New England, to share with friends and family.
“I decided to take my little passion for this country and turn it into a Saturday programme at White Memorial Conservation Center, where I work. I just called it an ‘Affair with Iceland,’” Gerri says, recounting her party’s humble beginnings. “It started off small—I screened a couple of videos, one on the gyrfalcon, and one on the 1996 Grímsvötn eruption, along with a travelogue. I also served some hot dogs, which I had hoisted over from Reykjavík. By the end, everyone kept asking, ‘Well, what are you doing next year?’”
Folks seemed to like it, so she kept going.
Elves, flora, fauna, hot dogs
As the party has grown in prominence and popularity, the programme has mushroomed. During the daylight part of the feast, you can take in talks from numerous experts, often specially imported, who present on various topics. Step outside, and you can mingle with Icelandic horses, goats, sheepdogs, and observe a live presentation of a gyrfalcon.
This year’s speakers include Hidden People/elf expert Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir, ICE-SAR volunteer Svanur Sævar Lárusson, arctic fox expert Ester Rut Unnsteinsdóttir, geologist and meterologist Tom Alena (presenting the works of aurora borealis photographer Olgeir Andrésson), and Icelandic flora and fauna illustrator Jón Baldur Hlíðberg. After learning all kinds of fascinating Iceland-related stuff, attendees are welcome to visit the food section to taste all the classics (hot dogs, smoked and dried fish, butter, chocolate, skyr, and the ever-so-fresh Icelandic water), and the vendors’ booths, where all kinds of North American Iceland enthusiasts (they come from all over the continent!) offer stuff like Icelandic sweaters, jewelry, and other miscellany for a small fee.
More Hidden People
After a long day of learning, grubbing and hobnobbing, the Iceland Affair peaks with the event’s closing concert: the Fire and Ice Music Festival, featuring inspired performances from specially imported Icelandic music greats.
The first musician to make the trek was folkie Svavar Knútur, who performed at the second Iceland Affair and has been coming back ever since. “Svavar is the reason Iceland Affair and the Fire and Ice Music Festival happen. If he had said no to my wacky idea of bringing him to Connecticut to perform at my party back when, we certainly wouldn’t be sitting here today,” says Gerri. She tells me how the singer/songwriter has been a pivotal part of the event almost since the beginning, his continued support, infectious enthusiasm and joy providing constant inspiration.
She also credits him with convincing other musicians to take the chance and travel across the Atlantic to be a part of her tribute to their home country. Many have heeded the call, with folks like Myrra Rós, Björn Thoroddsen, sóley and Kristjana Stefánsdóttir making the trek to appear alongside Svavar and Lay Low, who are regulars at the affair.
“Every person at Fire and Ice has some sort of investment in Iceland. Whether they’ve just travelled there, or are a follower of the music, there’s an energy in that hall because the music is so good, so world class, and the vibe is so intense. It’s gotta be the Hidden People. Maybe I was brought up here to bring Iceland back to the United States.”
As a whole, Iceland Affair offers a pretty comprehensive taste for those who’ve yet to make it over to the barren rock. At the same time, Icelandic expats, West Icelanders and dedicated Icelandophiles get a warming reminder and a chance to bond over their shared passion.
When asked what kind of people typically patronize the party, Gerri laughs. “It attracts the prize pigs who just want free hot dogs. It attracts just curious people. ‘What is this weird woman doing, taking this little country and plunking it in the middle of nowhere?’ There are a myriad of reasons people come.”
In a sense, Gerri could be described as a sort of ridiculously effective one-woman tourist board. Because, by now, plenty of folks have booked their first trip to Iceland after partaking in the Affair, developing an insatiable thirst for more as a result of that first bite back in Connecticut. Gerri reflects: “I’ve fallen in love with the people, the nature, the food, the culture, I’ve fallen in love with all of it. I guess in a way I’m a circus barker and I love sharing.”
Read about Dr. Gunni’s rendezvous with Iceland Affair here:
Last fall, I was fortunate enough to go on a fun trip to New England. This is the story of that journey. My trip was facilitated by a woman named Gerri Griswold. Some people are more prolific than others. And Gerri Griswold is certainly one of the hardest working folks you’ll ever meet.