Friday Night Drinks with… Sverrir Sigurdsson

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Tonight, my guest for Friday Night Drinks is currently on a trip to his home country of Iceland. However, as these drinks are virtual, and thanks to the wonders of technology, he is still able to join me for our chat. Welcome to the blog, author… Sverrir Sigurdsson.

authorsSverrir Sigurdsson and his wife and coauthor, Veronica Li, in front of an Icelandic volcano

Sverrir, thank you for joining me for drinks this evening. First things first, what are you drinking?

I’m drinking red wine. It’s good for the heart. They say one glass of red wine is worth an hour at the gym. So now I’m having my hour at the gym.

If we weren’t here in my virtual bar tonight, but were meeting in real life, where would you be taking me for a night out?

I live in the Washington, DC area, but right now, I’m visiting Iceland. By the way, there’s no “night” out in the land of the midnight sun.

I’ll take you to a place called Perlan, which is on a hilltop in the capital, Reykjavik. This is a restaurant inside a glass dome that gives visitors a panoramic view of the city. Aside from being a tourist attraction, the site also serves a practical purpose. The glass dome sits on top of six hot water tanks. The geothermal water in these tanks is piped into homes for heating.

PerlanA trip to Iceland is high on my bucket list. If you could invite two famous people, one male and one female, alive or dead, along on our night out, who would we be drinking with?

I’d like to invite Winston Churchill, so I can ask him how he decided to invade Iceland back in 1941. What went on in his head?  Although Icelanders eventually welcomed the occupiers as their saviors from the Germans, it was a shock to the nation when British warships arrived in Reykjavik harbor without warning. British soldiers poured out of them and took over the country.

The second person is Hedy Lamar. Her gorgeous looks aside, I want to discuss her inventions with her. I, too, love to concoct new gadgets, though nothing as noteworthy as hers. During World War II, she and a coworker in the film industry invented a remote-control system for torpedoes. It’s still an important part of what we today call WiFi.

So, now we’re settled, tell me what you are up to at the moment. How and why did you start it and where do you want it to go?

I’m now in Iceland to promote my book, Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir. The English edition was published in the U.S. in November 2020. The Icelandic edition, which I translated myself, will be out in the fall of this year. 

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The book is my memoir and starts with my memories of growing up in Iceland. They say Iceland was discovered twice, the first time by Norwegian Vikings who settled on the island in 874 A.D., and the second time by the Allies during the Second World War. As German troops pushed west, Britain, Canada, and the U.S. realized the strategic importance of Iceland, located right in the middle of the North Atlantic. They invaded the country to pre-empt the Germans from using it as a stepping stone to North America.

As the Second World War raged on at my doorstep, I became very aware of a larger world out there. With my Viking heritage goading me on, my heart was set on traveling the world from a young age. At nineteen, I left Iceland to study architecture in Finland, and from thereon I set out to conquer the world. I pursued an international career that took me to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, North and South Americas, and Europe (including Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union).

What has been your proudest moment since you started writing and what has been your biggest challenge?

My proudest moment was holding a copy of my book in my hands. Since there wasn’t much else to do during the pandemic lockdown, I dedicated myself to finishing the book with my co-author and wife, Veronica. Advance copies arrived at our home in June 2020, and the quality of the layout and graphics was everything we’d hoped for. We were very happy to receive a prize from the Wishing Shelf Book Awards in January, 2021. 

The biggest challenge has been the pandemic. Our plan was to carry the advance copies to Iceland. A few days before our trip in July, 2020, Iceland closed its door to Americans. I had to put back in the closet the box of books I’d packed for the trip. The local public library canceled the book launch event it had scheduled for me. Instead of book-signing in person, I met readers online. My book tour went virtual.

But a crisis also creates opportunities. My adventures on the internet have yielded a number of book blogger friends, such as yourself, Julie. I’ve made friends with readers in places as far away as India and Australia. The literary world is truly borderless. 

That’s the great thing about books! What is the one big thing you’d like to achieve in your chosen arena? Be as ambitious as you like, it’s just us talking after all!

I’d love to see my Viking Voyager rise to bestseller rank!  I believe it has appeal to both the old and the young. My story is a reminder of how far the human race has progressed in the twentieth century. From the ashes of the Second World War, the world’s nations went through a period of reconstruction and renaissance. The advancements we enjoy today are fruits of the hard work and resilience of that era. This should instil present and future generations with hope that they too can deal with their challenges. 

I also hope my book will inspire young people to travel, not just as a tourist, but to live and work for a spell in a foreign country. They’ll be surprised what kind of opportunities they’ll find. Most of all, they’ll be surprised to find out who they are and what they’re capable of. 

What have you planned that you are really excited about? 

I’ve traveled to 60 countries during my international career, but my favorite place is still Iceland. 

As I said, I’m there right now. Assuming the volcanic eruption is still ongoing and open to the public in the next weeks, I hope to hike over and watch molten lava spew out and flow down the valley. Eruptions are usually dangerous, but this kind is what Icelanders call a “tourist eruption.”  Instead of explosions, this flare-up is as safe as fireworks and as dramatic. Spectators have been able to walk up to the sizzling lava and cook hot dogs in it.

I’m also excited about my trip to south Iceland, where I spent summers working on a farm from age nine to fourteen. This is part of the volcano belt that gave Iceland its nickname, “land of fire and ice.”  Here, glaciers lie atop volcanoes gurgling and biding their time to erupt. My book cover shows the scenery of this area: a mountain that was once an island, a cliff with a doorway carved by the sea, and in the background the volcano that erupted in 2010 and shut down trans-Atlantic flights for a week. 

The Icelandic landscape is the wild and wonderful creations of violent volcanic activity. Each of the outcroppings mentioned above once sat on a fissure and was formed when fire met ice or seawater, causing the rapidly cooling lava to turn into a rock formation called “tuff” or palagonite. Iceland is full of such fantastic landscape, and despite the many times I toured the country, I haven’t seen them all.

I love to travel, and I’m currently drawing up a bucket list of things I’d like to do in the future. Where is your favourite place that you’ve been and what do you have at the top of your bucket list?

The place I rave about (aside from Iceland) is the Chesapeake Bay in the U.S., about 120 miles from Washington, DC. This is the largest estuary in North America, where more than a hundred rivers and streams meet the tide of the Atlantic Ocean. The bay branches into hundreds of creeks. They’re like fingers gouging into the land and turning them into long and narrow strips, like chicken necks. On one of these necks sits my cottage, which I designed and built with my own two hands. This was my retirement project, a culmination of a lifetime of experience as an architect, builder, and carpenter. It’s a humble cottage designed to give people a comfortable place to enjoy the spectacular view of sky, water, and birdlife. I enjoy it so much I go there every weekend. 

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House on the Chesapeake Bay designed and built by Sverrir

High on my bucket list of places to visit is the Shetland Islands off the north coast of Great Britain. I’ve read about them in the sagas. About 1000 years ago, a Viking chief tended to his farm in Iceland during the summer, and in the fall, when his farm work was done, he and his men sailed to the Shetlands and on to Ireland to rape and plunder. They returned home as heroes. I’d love to see the archeological sites on the islands that show Viking dwellings and longboats, and meet the people who are my relatives. Genetically, Shetlanders and Icelanders have much in common.

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Tell me one interesting/surprising/secret fact about yourself.

Readers would be surprised that I didn’t become fluent in English until well into my twenties. I was well-versed in several Scandinavian languages—Icelandic, Danish, Swedish, and Finnish—and my German was passable. But I’d always viewed English as a scrappy, undisciplined language that jumbled bits and pieces from the Romance and Germanic schools, with neither the ardor of one nor the structure of the other. I didn’t take English seriously until my last years in Finland, when I realized English was the lingua franca of the twentieth century. To prepare for my travels around the world, I gave myself a crash course by consuming every Agatha Christie mystery. It worked!

Books are my big passion and central to my blog and I’m always looking for recommendations. What one book would you give me and recommend as a ‘must-read’?  

Since I’m in Iceland and can’t take my mind off it, I’d recommend Independent People by Halldór Laxness, the Icelandic Nobel Laureate for literature. Veronica says she never understood why I was so strange until she read the book. The main character, an Icelandic farmer, is so stubbornly self-sufficient that it’s comical. He’d rather let himself and his family starve than ask a neighboring farm for help. When he’s out in the frigid wilderness looking for a lost sheep, he pushes a boulder around until he warms up and catches a few hours of sleep. When he’s freezing again, he goes back to pushing the boulder. That about sums up the Icelandic character.

Laxness’s writing is concise, sharp witted, sometimes outright funny, and his characters are so vivid they remind me of people I know. His books have been translated into many languages.

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Bjartus is a sheep farmer determined to eke a living from a blighted patch of land. Nothing, not merciless weather, nor the First World War, nor his family will come between him and his goal of financial independence. Only Asta Solillja, the child he brings up as his daughter, can pierce his stubborn heart. As she grows up, keen to make her own way in the world, Bjartus’ obstinacy threatens to estrange them forever.

So, we’ve been drinking all evening. What is your failsafe plan to avoid a hangover and your go-to cure if you do end up with one?

Drink lots and lots of water! Stay hydrated. It works for me.

After our fabulous night out, what would be your ideal way to spend the rest of a perfect weekend?

My cousin Agnar has organized a family reunion for me. It would be like old times. We were six boys who terrorized the neighborhood: my brother and I and my uncle’s four sons. We lived in the same apartment building, played hide and seek in our neighbors’ yards, and held stone-throwing contests, sometimes with disastrous results. It’s most satisfying to see we’re all grandfathers now and comfortably retired. Except for me and one of my cousins who lives in Norway, they’ve all returned home after a stint studying and working overseas. That seems to be the Icelandic pattern since the old Viking days. 

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Sverrir is second from right

Sverrir, thank you for joining me, this has been an entertaining and informative chat and has increased my desire to visit Iceland soon.

 Sverrir’s book, Viking Voyager won a prize at the Wishing Shelf Book Awards. You can buy a copy here.

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This vivacious personal story captures the heart and soul of modern Iceland. Born in Reykjavik on the eve of the Second World War, Sverrir Sigurdsson watched Allied troops invade his country and turn it into a bulwark against Hitler’s advance toward North America. The country’s post-war transformation from an obscure, dirt-poor nation to a prosperous one became every Icelander’s success. Spurred by this favorable wind, Sverrir answered the call of his Viking forefathers, setting off on a voyage that took him around the world. Join him on his roaring adventures!

From Rosie Amber’s review site: “Until we are once again able to travel as freely as we did before the advent of Covid 19, we have the joy of books like Viking Voyager to entertain and inform us.”

Sverrir Sigurdsson grew up in Iceland and graduated as an architect from Finland in 1966. He pursued an international career that took him to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the U.S. His assignments focused on school construction and improving education in developing countries. He has worked for private companies, as well as UNESCO and the World Bank. He is now retired and lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and coauthor, Veronica.

You can connect with Sverrir via Facebook and Twitter.

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