You are about to meet a courageous young woman. Her family moved her from one culture, climate and language to a new home where everything was suddenly different. She has endured a painful illness while trying to get an education and raise her two beautiful daughters during her country's economic upheaval. Yet her grace and positive attitude make her as beautiful inwardly as she is outwardly.
NP: I'm pretty excited to be doing this interview with you, Rann. I have visited your cubit and seen your fabulous photos. I'm intrigued by what I've seen of Iceland, even by it's very serious volcanic eruption. So what can you tell me about growing up there?
Rann: I grew up in the town of Hafnarfjörður just outside the capital Reykjavík. Although it would be considered a small town in most countries, it is the third largest town in Iceland. I had a happy, carefree childhood, enjoying the freedom that goes along with growing up here.
My love for gardening started early, both my grandparents had beautiful gardens. We didn’t have our own garden since we lived in an apartment building , but I wanted one of my own so badly. My maternal grandparents lived in Húsavík, a small town on the north coast. I have many fond memories from there. I loved helping out in my grandmother’s garden, raking grass and pulling weeds. My grandfather even made a small rake that was just the right size for me. My paternal grandparents lived in my hometown so I had a chance to visit them more often. My grandfather had a beautiful garden that I had much admiration for. There were so many beautiful flowers in his garden; among them some columbines which I thought were the most wonderful flowers there ever were. One of my fondest memories is a bouquet he gave me for my birthday one year with columbines, white bachelor buttons (Ranunculus aconitifolius) and globeflowers (Trollius x cultorum), my three favorite flowers at that time. He passed away before I had a garden of my own, so I never really got a chance to talk some serious gardening with him. I miss that, I think it would have been really great.
My hometown is situated in a lava field and there are pockets of lava dotted around town that for some reason were left undeveloped. It could have something to do with our belief in elves and hidden people. Destroying an elf rock brings incredibly bad luck. ( Since I mentioned elves, I want to mention that a movie was just released here on that exact subject. A family father in grave financial trouble is offered a huge sum of money for a rock in his garden that his wife believes is inhabited by elves. He's desperate so he sells the rock. Needless to say all sorts of troubles follow ..... )
I spent a lot of my time playing in one of those undeveloped lava pockets close to my house. There I found quite a few plants that had been thrown out by the owners of the surrounding gardens. So I decided to make a garden of my own. I went outside armed with a kitchen knife and cut out a small square in the grass by the garden wall. I also got a few pansies from my grandfather, that to me were the jewels of the garden. I was really pleased with how it turned out. I actually started a trend because a lot of the other kids in the building started their own gardens although most of them got bored and gave up before finishing them. Cutting out a garden in the grass with a dull kitchen knife is hard work!
When I was eleven, I moved with my family to Florida. Although I hated the thought of leaving all my friends behind, I was a bit excited about it at first. It sounded so exotic and the only thing I could picture was palm trees and orange juice.
NP: Not only a change of friends, but also a change of lifestyle, climate, language, everything! How did it work out for you?
Rann: When we moved to the US I didn’t speak a word of English. That certainly didn’t make the adjustment any easier; I was totally lost for the first few months. It took me the first school year to learn English and while I was learning I hardly spoke a word. I’m a perfectionist and I wasn’t speaking until I could do it right! When I finally did, close to the end of the school year, my English teacher was totally stunned. I’ll never forget the look on her face.
Starting school in the US was a culture shock if there ever was one. Icelandic schools are so cotton padded; the American school was like boot camp in comparison. After the first day I declared I was never going back. But back I went the next day and spent the next six years of my life hating school and counting the days until I could go home. The school breaks were nice though. We traveled around Florida and visited many wonderful places and for those experiences I’ll be forever grateful.
NP: You made reference to the "cotton-padded" schools in Iceland. Could you please tell me a little more about the educational system there? I'm wondering why there was such a difference. Is it because life in general is simpler, less hectic? Are the courses the same?
Rann: The schools here have more of a relaxed, home-like atmosphere. The teachers go by their first names; they're friendlier and not as strict as the teachers in the US. There's more leniency. If you forget your homework, you just turn it in the next day, for example. The curriculum is similar I think, although there's much less emphasis on tests.
NP: So did you manage to become acclimated to your new life?
Rann: No I didn’t. I was horribly homesick and really felt like a fish out of water. I could not stand the Florida heat. I can’t tell you how miserable I was six months of the year. The summers were the worst of course. Three years after we moved to Florida, the summer of ’85, I got to visit home for a few weeks and I can still remember how good that incredibly cool breath of fresh air felt when I got out of the airplane. It was so good to be home, if only for a short while. I returned the next two summers and I’m forever grateful I was given the chance to do that.
I moved back to Iceland when I was 17. I returned a year before my parents to start school here. After finishing the Icelandic equivalent of High School/College I went to the University of Iceland and studied Pharmacy. During the five years it took to finish the pharmacy degree my health started failing me. By the time I graduated I was pretty sick. I thought it was just the result of too much stress and that I’d be fine once I graduated and started working. I was wrong. A little over a year after graduation I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. Soon after my diagnosis I had to cut my hours to 50%. When my older daughter was two years old I was forced to surrender to the fact that I couldn’t do it all and for the past 10 years I’ve been a stay-at-home mom.
NP: For those of us who don't know much about the disease, would you please explain what it's like?
Rann: Fibromyalgia has varied symptoms, but in general the three main elements are pain, fatigue and sleeping problems. The diagnostic criteria are tender points at certain locations that all fibromyalgia patients have, but the level of pain and fatigue can vary. Some have less pain, more fatigue or vice-versa. Another common symptom is what's often called fibro-fog, a lack of concentration and clear thinking. In my case most days are pretty foggy, the pain is tolerable and the fatigue very limiting.
We moved to our current home in 2003 and since then I’ve been transforming the garden into my own little slice of paradise. Working in the garden is an escape from the stress of daily life and the ever present pain. I can totally forget all about it until I return inside again. It’s just amazingly wonderful. I’m a hopeless plant collector and my garden is testimony to that.
Two years ago I started working on my gardening website which is still a work in progress. My dream was to make an Icelandic gardening site with information and photos of the plants that can grow here. My hope was to get people here to contribute information and photos, but so far, the majority of photos are still from my own garden. It’s been slow going but I’m still hoping people will eventually catch on.
My two girls have been studying music according to the Suzuki method from a very young age. My older one studied violin and my younger one piano. When my older one started her violin studies, just before she turned 4 years old, I wanted to make a cute little notebook for her to write down her assignments and for her to collect her award stickers in. The book has been evolving as she grew and last year my younger daughter’s piano teacher encouraged me to start selling the books at their music school. I did and am slowly getting a wider distribution in more schools. I’m still making them myself, but my goal is to one day get them published.
NP: I can tell you that at this moment there is no other place in the world I would rather visit than your incredible, spectacular homeland! The beauty in Iceland is so breath-taking! It almost makes me teary just imagining how it would be to experience the quiet, open magnitude of the land and mountains and springs. I am dead serious about wishing I could be there. I guess this isn't really a question. Just a longing to know what you know about it. Midnight sun, daybreak in the wee hours, beautiful flora, horses, fresh clean air.......
Rann: I'm very biased but I think there's something magical about the Icelandic nature. It's hard to explain. It's just something you have to experience.
Iceland during the summertime is amazing. My favorite time of year is June and the first weeks in July, when it doesn't get dark at all. The summer nights are pure magic. As wonderful as it is to travel around the country and experience the beautiful nature, it's even more magical in the evenings. There's often a welcome break from the wind at night and the air is filled with the delicious scent of birch and wild thyme (Thymus praecox ssp. arcticus) and the sound of birdsong. There's an amazing calm, quiet energy that totally recharges your batteries. I get really restless if I don't get out of the "city" at least once during the summer. But you don't really have to go far to enjoy the summer nights, being outside in the garden is pretty wonderful as well. And finally, here are two video clips to give you a small glimpse of those summer nights I keep raving about. ;-)s Midnight Sunset and Night Garden (1 AM)
NP: You once mentioned in your cubit that most crime is drug related, but that the crime rate itself is low in Iceland. I think you even said the police don't even really need guns. Is that pretty accurate? Is Iceland really that safe?
Rann: Yes, it's true that police here don't carry guns. There is a special force that is armed if needed, but that rarely happens. According to the website of the Icelandic police, over 70% of recorded offenses are traffic violations. (NP: I have looked through this link and found it to be very interesting. History buffs will love it.)
NP: Yet, Iceland is not without its problems. You haven't mentioned the volcano.
Rann: There are quite a number of active volcanoes here and some of them erupt on a regular basis, but none have managed to get the world's attention in such a spectacular way as our now infamous Eyjafjallajökull. It was a case of a number of rare factors that together made a real mess of things: unusually fine ash particles that stayed airborne for a really long time and an unusually strong and persistent wind from the west that blew it all across Europe. The farmlands in the vicinity of the volcano recovered better than expected this summer. The ash is a good fertilizer so the fields have turned green again and some farmers report the best grass crop in years. But there are still tons of fine ash covering the glacier and surrounding mountains that's easily carried by the wind when it's dry and is also washed down into the rivers which is causing trouble in a newly built harbor on the south coast, close to the affected area. There is so much silt carried out to sea that a sand reef has formed and closed the harbor. Here's a link to the eruption update threads:
I didn't mention the financial crash and its aftermath, but it has touched our lives like so many others in a drastic way. Our seemingly perfect world came crashing down last year and I'm now a single mother trying my best to support my two daughters. How that part of the story will turn out remains to be seen.... we're hoping for the best :-)
NP: Yes, we are ALL hoping for the best for you, Rann. You are a truly inspirational individual and you have won the hearts of many people here at Cubits. I am privileged to have had this conversation with you today. Thank you from my heart!
(Rann has written descriptions of her photos, which you can read if you hold your mouse over each image. Clicking on the images will enlarge them so you can more clearly enjoy the view. Be sure to visit the comment area below.)