Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Icelandic Wonderland

Gimli offers a strong sense of community and culture not found in large cities

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GIMLI - When you live in a small town, everyone knows your name, says Carmen Arnason, who grew up in this Icelandic community 90 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

"Not only does everyone know you, but it's hard to misbehave without your parents finding out, especially when your dad's the deputy fire chief, your uncle is the school principal, and teachers are your neighbours," she says.

But Arnason, 21, says she wouldn't trade her formative years in Gimli for all the gold in Valhalla – the Hall of Heroes in Norse mythology built of walls of pure gold.

"Growing up in Gimli was like living in a wonderland dominated by water, sand, and sun," she says.

Indeed, in translation Gimli means Heaven or Home of the Gods.

Arnason says some of her earliest memories are of collecting lucky stones on the long, crescent beach that sweeps north from the Gimli harbour.

Lucky stones, she explains, are pebbles with a hole in the middle, much like a candy Lifesaver, but not as symmetrical.

"People from Winnipeg don't know what lucky stones are," Arnason says. "They are truly a Gimli phenomenon, a small but important symbol that defines us from the big city."

The pebbles are strung on lengths of rawhide and made into necklaces that are worn by children and adults alike to ward off bad spirits and to bring the wearer good fortune, she says.

Yearly influx of fish flies okay

Another beach phenomenon that is not experienced by city slickers is the yearly summer influx of fish flies (also called mayflies), large-winged, soft bodied insects that land on outdoor walls and screens, covering them like a plague of locusts.

"My city friends are grossed out by them," Arnason says. "But I've learned to live with them. They don't bite, only live for a few days, and then they're gone."

Well, not completely gone. Their corpses get washed up on the beach, forming a thick band of squishy insect goo that is not for the faint of heart to step in.

Yet another phenomenon that defines life in Gimli is the smell of the Seagram's Distillery.

"When people first visit they compare the smell to fresh baked donuts and they really like it," she says.

The locals, however, sometimes have a different olfactory take on the matter.

"When I was in high school, I went on a morning tour of the distillery. Later in the day I could still smell fermented yeast on my clothes and food. It took a couple of hours to get it out of my system."

Be this as it may, the smell of fresh baking remains a trigger that unleashes memories of Gimli for Arnason when she is out of town and living in Winnipeg.

Having just completed her Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Manitoba with a double major in mathematics and

English, she is preparing to follow a family tradition by entering the Faculty of Education this fall.

"It seems like my whole family is comprised of educators," Arnason says. "I guess it must have rubbed off on me growing up in Gimli."

She has four aunts who are teachers, two uncles who are principals and two cousins who recently graduated from the Faculty of Education.

"I was encouraged to get a post-secondary education. Iceland itself has a 100 per cent literacy rate, the highest of any nation in the world.

"When the settlers moved here from their mother country in 1875, they brought with them their love of learning and it continues today," she says, adding that their steamer trunks were loaded with books.

Indeed, aside from many educators, the Arnason family also boasts at least two well known writers of fiction – novelist David Arnason, and children's writer Kathy Arnason.

As well, Raegan Arnason, Carmen's 23-year-old sister, is in her third year of dentistry at Dalhousie University in Halifax. She is the first Gimli resident to seek a medical degree in more than 20 years.

Ken Arnason, Carmen's father, owns Tip Top Foods on First Avenue, a 52-year-old family business famous for meats and Icelandic specialty foods shipped all over Manitoba and Canada.

"One of my favourite dishes is rullupylsa, lamb flanks rolled in spices and served on Icelandic brown bread," Arnason says. "It looks like sheep's brains, but it tastes great."

Songs made an impression

While she was winning medals for academics and sports in school, Arnason also found time to sing in the Icelandic Choir and to study the Ukrainian language.

"I can still remember the Icelandic songs. They made a strong impression on me," she says.

Arnason's desire to speak Ukrainian was fostered by her mother Judy, whose maiden name was Gretchen, and her maternal grandmother, affectionately known as Baba.

"I'm fortunate to have grown up with two cultures, Icelandic and Ukrainian," she says.

Her paternal grandmother is known as Amma, Icelandic for granny or grandma.

"With help from my Amma and my Baba, I'll never starve to death," Arnason says.

When she is attending university in Winnipeg, she receives care packages of perogies and holubtsi from her Baba, and of rullupylsa and vinarterta from her Amma.

"One of the biggest advantages of growing up in a small town is the home cooked food," she says. "Many city people are hustling so fast to make a buck, they have forgotten how to cook traditional meals. They're really missing out."

On the August long weekend, Arnason and her family will reunite in Gimli for the Icelandic Festival, an international event that draws people from North America, Europe and, of course, Iceland.

"My sister and I recently became parade chairpersons," she says, adding that the parade was previously run by uncles, cousins, and Afis (grandfathers) from the Arnason clan.

Arnason says when she marries she would like her children to grow up in Gimli because of the strong sense of community and culture not found in the city.

"After all," she says, "in a small town, everyone knows your name."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 25, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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