ArticleOut Of The Cold
While the Icelandic tour guide's jokes were rather trite, there was - as always - a grain of joke in them, everything else being the unadorned truth. Probably, even now, it does take a special breed to live in Iceland – and it was a much tougher challenge many (or even not so many) centuries ago. The Open Air Museum in Reykjavik proves it with a degree of certainty.
From outside, it looks like a fairly attractive house: not too modern but reasonably spacious (in particular, if we take into consideration adjacent structures) and potentially comfortable. The ground floor is occupied by auxiliary rooms that are pretty typical for the second half of the 19th century – a rustic kitchen with an iron stove and a wooden cupboard for the cutlery; a storage room full of heavy containers, hewn devices, massive chests and scattered instruments;
a now empty cowshed…
That’s where the story takes a rather dramatic turn. As it turned out, the cowshed was used by the family members for bathing purposes, because it happened to be by far the warmest area in the whole house! The cows’ body heat was responsible for the effect, and the temperature was high enough that even babies could be bathed without risking to catch pneumonia. On the other hand, that was the only warm room in the whole house – apart from the cooking corner which could be easily called _A Smokey Hell_. It was isolated from the rest of the house because otherwise the smoke would poison the nearby quarters and render them uninhabitable. Under the circumstances, it was hard to refrain from asking “How on Earth did they survive the cold?!”. The answer was to be found on the second floor.
A rather big room with slant sidewalls and about 6 beds – some of them are rather primitive.
It would look like a cheap modern hostel if it weren’t for a couple of spinning wheels, several chests on the floor, and a book-shelf. It was the latter that struck me most because the life routine of the inhabitants didn’t seem to be particularly conducive to reading.
To start with, that was the room where all the family members would spend all the time they were not directly engaged in house chores like cooking or milking cows. Hence the spinning wheels – women would use them for many hours a day while supervising children, trading news/gossips or berating slaves. When tired, they would relax by sewing slippers, mittens or equally light objects – and they would sign their work by weaving in a unique pattern they had created and claimed as their own. Men would join them to make rope, harness or saddle; slaves would toil through the day doing whatever they were told to, and kids would amuse themselves in a number of ways that only kids can think of. In other words, up to ten people were present in the room at almost any given time – and that’s how they kept themselves warm! That’s why they would balk to leave, even if to sate their appetite – food would be consumed right where they sat, be it on a chair or on a bed. Unsurprisingly, meals were considered the highlights of one’s day, and there was an aura of extreme importance about everything related to them. So much so that everyone in the family had a personal food container – even slaves, who were entitled to no other possessions, would possess one. Moreover, they would be buried with it! This phenomenon could be possibly explained by the fact that the containers themselves were fairly unique – a combination of a pot and a plate. The latter was made from an attached cover with a deep dent made into it.
Quite often the plate would hold butter that was considered the best match for the prevalent meal ingredient, fish.