Written and Lived by Doug Lang
The drive from Reykjavik to Snussy, the summer home, takes about two hours, eastward over a mountain pass. That was the easy part, Disa assured me.
First we had to stop to visit Disa´s father, Gudmundur, at his place outside Reykjavik. Aagot, his wife, was at work, so Gudmundur had us all to himself. He was ready and waiting for me.
After looking at some photos and paintings of fishing boats that he´d worked on, and explaining how he came to have a Salvador Dali painting on his living room wall, Gudmundur began to bring little bowls of food to the table in the living room. There were also glasses, and bottles of beer and schnapps. To eat from the delicacies in the little china bowls, we were to use two-pronged miniature forks. No beating around the bush here, I could tell that I was being asked to walk the gauntlet. This was a good-natured test of my ability to be a good guest and worthy suitor.
In the first bowl was the putrefied shark, the idea being, if the Canadian can´t handle the shark, we´ll just stop right there. It was explained to me, as my sleeve glass was being filled with beer and my tiny shot glass with schnapps, that the longer you chewed the shark the more flavor the shark released. This was said with a devilish chuckle, which Gudmundur’s daughter echoed.
I chewed four or five times and, as the so-called flavour hit the roof of my sinuses like a geyser of poisonous horse radish distilled in rattlesnake venom. I near-fainted. A rifle shot of lager and a throat-wash of schnapps allowed me to catch my breath.
After daubing my eyes with tissue, I was ready to continue. Second up, as Disa translated, was the “sheep feces.” Feces?, I asked, wanting to be sure of the spelling. Yes, feces. After a minute of discussion, I was able to ascertain that it was “faces” not “feces”, as if that was any consolation. These morsels seemed like roast lamb in comparison. I had another hit of beer and schnapps to clear the palate for phase three.
The third delicacy was, if I understood correctly, made from the innards of the sheep, an intestinal pate of sorts, very sour and with bits that didn´t seem to break down with chewing. Very suspicious, but I chomped away, swallowed the rock bits. More beer, more schnapps, my head seesawing now, the Dali painting beginning to take on extra dimensions, reach toward me.
Okay, Gudmundur, I said through Disa, what have you got left? Why, the testicles of a ram, of course! Give me a spoon, Disa, I said, as Gudmundur filled my glasses once again. While we paused, I quietly placed the lid on the bowl with the putrefied shark in it, as I was beginning to grow slightly nauseous.
In a soup spoon, I took three of four of the tender ram bits and threw them like chunks of coal into the furnace of my mouth. With each bite they exploded with flavor. Friends, it could have been the beer and schnapps – and also the previous items the ram testicle tidbits had to be compared against – but I found them delicious. I chewed, then swallowed down with great aplomb. My rosy-cheeked face was lit up now. Gudmundur raised his glass, skol!, and we downed another half-glass of beer and a full shot of schnapps.
Victory! I´d passed the test. Gudmundur sat back now, pulled a long slim silver pack of Icelandic cigarettes from his shirt pocket and offered me one. They were thin as wire, these cigarettes, reminiscent of Indian ones, more ceremonial than tobacco-related.
Gudmundur spoke is hushed tones to Disa. They spoke a few minutes in Icelandic. I half-expected that I was the first male suitor ever to pass this test, and that Gudmundur was surprised. Then Disa turned to me and translated to English what they’d been saying. Seems that I´d impressed her old man a little, and that he could now begin to consider offering his blessing, allowing his daughter to go up into the mountains together. We finished smoking.
I believed it was time to go, but just as we were about to rise to our feet, the old fisherman brought out a new jar. This one had pieces floating in it, bubbling to the top of a grey-white goo.
Oh, God, Disa…what pray tell are these?
She takes a confessional tone as she turns to explain.
“He is saying that the shark you ate was kindergarten shark. Not difficult at all, He says that if you eat what is in this final jar, you will have gone to university and gotten your degree.”
She turns to smile at her father. He is standing now, smirking slightly. Gudmundur opens the jar and, deftly, spears two morsels with his fork, then buries them in his mouth, shrugging calmly as he chews, as if to say, “It´s nothing, nothing at all.”
He then lifts the jar and waves its contents under my nose. I almost pass out from the fumes.
“How long was this shark buried?,” I ask, figuring for sure they´d lost it and not found this shark for years, maybe after they´d dug out from the last volcanic eruption. Gudmundur answers, Disa translates.
“Eight months,” Gudmundur said.
Okay, let´s do her. Get the beer and schnapps. Squinting, I fork my Master’s thesis of shark and jam it deep toward my tonsils, quickly flooding the area with stinging lager beer and then a detonation of schnapps. Mucous is coming out of my eyes! Or, is it lava? Tears are pouring from my ears. Gudmundur is red-faced, slapping his knees. Disa is beside me, appearing ready to apply artificial respiration at any moment. I take another honk of beer, let loose with a word or two not printable here, then take another wash of lager, and I am through to the other side, I’ve made it!
Gudmundur gives me a mighty hug as we leave, his eyes turned to slivers of delight. He waves to us as we pull out of his driveway and head toward Snussy and the glacial mountains, where the threats – earthquakes, volcanoes, avalanches – will seem minor by comparison.
All text and photos by Doug Lang©