12 April 2010

Dönskumaður?...Hvar? (A Dane?...Where?)

Returned missionaries from Iceland always feel kind of like a much younger, adopted brother when someone from Denmark is around. The historical record states that Iceland was settled during a 60 year period starting in 874 A.D. But in the year 1262, Iceland finally gave in to pressure from Denmark and became a territory of Denmark. For the next 500 years or so, Iceland was at the whims of the Danish State and was at times, well looked after, and at others, not so much. Denmark set rules about who could trade with the Icelanders, who could stay over during the winters and who Icelanders could sell their goods to. In the late 1700's, Reykjavík was a thriving metropolis of just over 300 people. Before that time, individual farms were the rule, without a city center to be had anywhere. But eventually, trade centers became necessary for the Danish rulers and Reykjavík became the primary trade center. Of the tradesmen of that day who had set up shop in town, six of the seven (total) were Danes, only one being Icelandic. All trade was done in a half mile area in what was then and is now called "Torgið" or the town square.

Danish trade ships were larger and more advanced than Icelanders were used to. The Danish tradesmen were more traveled and used to dealing with a wide variety of international trading partners. The Icelanders had to take a set price for their fish goods, regardless of changes in the international markets. This and many other situational factors contributed to the Icelanders feeling like the less-important younger sibling in the Scandinavian family. Immature, backward, inexperienced.

On Thursday last week, the Danish Ambassador to the U.S. came to BYU for a visit as part of BYU's Ambassador Visits program. His name and title are, "His Excellency Friis Arne Petersen". On Sunday he attended the "Music and the Spoken Word" performance in the Conference Center in Salt Lake along with the morning session of General Conference right after. On Monday and Tuesday he toured the state by seeing Zions National Park, the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon with the Honorary Danish Consul, Niels Valentiner, and his wife, Char, along with other Danish hosts from BYU. On Wednesday he met with the First Presidency and toured Temple Square and the Conference Center. He also visited the U of U campus and gave a lecture at the Hinckley Institute of Politics there. Other highlights of the day were visiting the Humanitarian Center, Welfare Square and the Family History Library.

Thursday was the day he came to BYU and I was able to interact with him. He met with the Governor of Utah in the morning, but then came down to BYU to meet with President Samuelson and then give a lecture. His lecture was on the Danish-American relationship and its challenges. He did not use notes but spoke about the issues from long practice. Danish students had been invited as well as any other interested students. Notable Danes from the area were also invited along with a number of those with Danish ancestry or connections within the Danish community. I was invited because I am the Director of the BYU International Admissions office, but also because I teach Icelandic on campus. A previous Honorary Consul to Iceland, Clark Thorstenson, and his wife, Colleen, were there. I had met them at Þorrablót a few months before. Dee and Kay Jacobs were there. Dee was a mission president and temple president in Denmark just a few years back. Even my old Danish supervising teacher from my days of teaching Icelandic at the MTC back in the 80's was there, Sonja Despain. I had difficulty grasping the full import of the lecture, but then, what do you expect from an immature, backward and inexperienced younger brother in the Scandinavian family.

After the lecture about 60 people were invited to the luncheon with the ambassador. I got to sit with his U.S. and campus security detail, learning a lot about the rules for protecting important people. Everyone introducted themselves to the ambassador as we entered the room for the luncheon. As always, when an RM who served in Iceland introduces himself to a Dane or other Scandinavian, the Dane will act very surprised to meet someone who had lived there and spoke the language. Their surprise still surprises me since we are really part of the same family.

The luncheon eventually wound down with a smaller version of BYU's jazz band, Synthesis, performing two numbers. They will be touring Denmark and a number of other countries next year, so that was fitting. Eventually, His Excellency was off to the MTC to visit a Danish district of missionaries and to tour the facility. He later met with Scandinavian language instructors at BYU, toured our campus museum, had dinner and was on his way.

The most interesting thing he said during his lecture was when he said that as the ambassador of a small country, he had to always remember that being deferential at the right times was an important part of the job, since his country was a small one with little military and comparative clout in the world. I thought that interesting, especially since I am connected with Iceland, an even smaller country with no military. Remembering his place seemed to be an important part of being effective.

One other thing he said was quite interesting. He said that, in all the years he had been in this position, this visit to Utah had been the most memorable. He said that the kindness and genuine interest that had been shown to him while in Utah had dwarfed anything he had experienced elsewhere. Quite a compliment. So even though Icelanders and Western Icelanders in America are many fewer than the Danes in the world, we can hold our heads up that we took care of the Danish representative who came calling, just like Icelanders have done for over 6 centuries.


Hera said...

The closest Iceland has to any sort of defense(military) from other countries is the Coast Guard.
My grandfather´s brother Eiríkur Kristófersson Skipherra is the most famous Icelander who has been in the Coast Guard. His story is fascinating. The British Navy kidnapped him when he was doing his duty defending the Icelandic fishing areas. They took him to England to have him charged by the British government. Eiríkur was well known in fishing ports in England. The British people were outraged that the Navy had kidnapped him.
As I said his story is fascinating. My brother Karl served on one the ships in the coast guard.
He did get medals from the British Royal House for rescuing British sailors on the sea.

Darron said...

Hera, is your grandfather's brother's story written down or published anywhere?

kh said...

I have been reading this post for sometime and have enjoyed it very much. My name is Ken Horton. I served in Iceland from April 1978 to April 1980. I was Eric Kristjansson's last companion and Mike Deyoung was mine. Brother Clark Thorstensen and his wife Colleen were there in Iceland (I flew home with them from Iceland to New York City). He spoke at a fireside just before we flew back to the US and interestingly in the middle of his talk he said,"I am so impressed with the missionaries in front of me that the Holy Ghost is testifying to me that a future member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles will come from this group of elders present." Not quite something someone normally hears at a mission fireside. Of course, it isn't where one serves in the church but the valiancy each person gives to that calling. Every elder there could fulfill that prophesy. These were all valiant servants of God. Unfortunately, Elder Brian Beck has passed on. I was very close to him throughout our missions together. He and Elder Barton came out together one month after I and Elders Erdmann, Geitz and Stoddard arrived at the LTM (now the MTC) in April of 1978. I would love to attend the reunion and these other gatherings but work and family keep me busy in California. Thanks again. If you choose to contact me you can email me at Swellguy123@aol.com

Darron said...

Ken,tried to email you back at the email you provided, but it comes back undeliverable. Is the email you gave me correct?

Unknown said...

try KenHorton8888@aol.com that should work as well. thanks