Somewhere between Selfoss and a Springsteen song lies the town of Gimli, Manitoba. If any town can be said to be more Icelandic than Iceland itself it is this, the heart of New Iceland (a title also claimed by the neighbouring towns of Árborg, Hecla and Riverton).
When people here graduate from high school, they often go to work at the Seagram’s factory or become fishermen. In the weekends, they go to the Viking Bar where everyone knows each other. The main difference between Gimli and Thunder Road, New Jersey, is that no one here wants to leave. And why should they? The winters may be cold, but the summers are hot, there’s a beach nearby and plenty of big yards for barbecuing. The bright lights of Winnipeg are just an hour’s drive away, but no one seems to want to move there unless they’re attending the Uni. Here, by the shores of the eleventh largest lake in the world, you can enjoy the best of both worlds.
Around 30 percent of the town’s 3,000 inhabitants claim Icelandic heritage and this is apparent everywhere, from Amma’s coffeeshop next to the New Icelandic Heritage Museum, the flags flying everywhere next to the Maple Leaf and even the houses have names like Keflavik, with the word “Velkomin” posted on the door. The older people, even though born here, are still fluent in their ancestral tongue and the townsmen hold a huge celebration in early August called “Iceland Day.”
If it wasn’t for the nice weather, the Icelandic visitor might be forgiven for thinking he is back home, whether he goes for a slice at Brennivin’s Pizza or buys a six-pack of Egil’s Gull at the liquor store. But nevertheless there are subtle cultural differences. Unlike Iceland, everyone here still gets married and this shows in the social life. On Friday evening, there is consternation at The Viking as a group of bachelorettes, all dressed in plaid, show up. The day after, those who still have the energy congregate at The Social.
This is a Manitoba institution, wherein a hall is rented and entry is sold at ten bucks a pop. Drink tickets are three dollars each, and one can also buy raffle tickets. My host Sveinn is driving, so he unloads 20 dollars on the raffle. I head for the bar. We observe the line dancing for a while, there is food (there is food everywhere in this country, partly because it is not permitted to sell alcohol without it), and finally the winners are drawn. Sveinn wins a bottle of champagne and a couple of glasses. I leave empty handed, but it’s all for a good cause. All proceeds are donated to pay for the prospective wedding.
Afterwards, everyone heads for The Viking again. Perhaps inevitably, I run into a young couple from Selfoss. The girl’s father moved to Gimli years ago, where she grew up and is now back for a visit with a boyfriend from Hella in tow. She doesn’t seem to want to leave Gimli again. Who would?
Grapevine’s founding editor Valur Gunnarsson has been hanging out with some Western-Icelanders in North America lately. You should read about his attempts to celebrate June 17 in Toronto.