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Local Icelanders’ pride ignited

Times Staff Writer

The president will be in town this weekend, but Angelenos needn’t worry about his motorcade sweeping other vehicles off the freeways, or binding traffic on surface streets.

Oh, there will be the obligatory photo ops, and even a rare news conference, but a jostling horde of media monkeys will be nowhere in sight.

And a portion of Southern California’s populace will swell with patriotic pride.

A very, very small portion.

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Not that the president isn’t a popular figure. He’s handsome, distinguished, articulate and highly educated.

As their homeland’s head of state, his fellow Icelanders wouldn’t have him any other way.

The visit of the Honorable Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, to formally open the headquarters of an Icelandic-American geothermal energy company today and to confer with executives of other energy firms, is sure to be a low-decibel affair. He’s flying in via commercial airliner from Hong Kong, after attending the 2007 Special Olympics World Games in Shanghai. His entourage numbers two.

For local Icelanders, who, at perhaps 200 souls, might constitute the smallest ethnicity in ultra-polyglot L.A., Grimsson’s sojourn summons an easily roused delight in their unique history, language and national character.

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Local immigrants, many of whom work in the music and film industries, say they constantly feel the visceral tug of their sparse, volcanic, moody island.

“The connection to the old country is incredibly strong among Icelandic people,” said Atli Orvarsson, a film composer who has a studio in Santa Monica. “When I was in Boston for three years going to college, all of my Icelandic friends couldn’t wait to go back home. Most of them were counting down the days.”

Icelanders here tend to make frequent visits home. Many families put a premium on preserving kinship ties and ensuring their children learn Icelandic. Husband and wife Veigar Margeirsson and Sigridur Jonasdottir of Westchester have been in the U.S. since 1993, but return to Iceland at least twice a year.

They and their children, 13-year-old daughter Ragnhildur (nicknamed “Rocky”) and 4-year-old son Viktor, are heading there next week. On Thursday, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra is premiering a concerto by Margeirsson, who composes for television and film.

“It’s a priority for us,” said Margeirsson, who, like his wife (called “Sirry”), is 35. “We always keep one foot there.”

Not that Southern California’s charms are lost on him. Sitting at his dining room table on a recent afternoon, he grandly gestured toward the window, where sunlight danced on the vegetation outside and the temperature was in the low 70s. “Come on, it’s October and it’s sunny,” he said with a laugh. “In Iceland, this weather today, it would be the best day in July.”

Local Icelanders’ homesickness is assuaged three times a year, when the Icelandic American Assn. of Southern California holds festivities, marking the country’s 63 years of independence from Danish rule with a barbecue on June 17, Christmas with a dinner dance, and Thorrablot with a celebration of native foods.

Thorrablot, Orvarsson said, is “sort of a rite of spring, Icelandic version. In December we have four or five hours of daylight, and it’s really more like dusk. Thorrablot marks when the days start getting longer, and in the middle of winter in Iceland, you could not be happier than noticing the days are getting longer.”

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The occasion is marked by the consumption of the sort of fare -- dried fish and meats, and fermented shark -- that traditionally got Icelanders through the long, dark winters. A special delicacy for the occasion, Margeirsson said, is dried rams’ testicles. “They’re basically sour and dry, so you can store them for months,” he said, “but, man, they don’t taste good.”

Iceland was first settled in 874, when Viking raiders and Norse chieftains, principally from western Norway, arrived with their families and Celtic (mostly Irish) slaves and servants. The country’s remoteness and forbidding landscape -- not to mention its history of plague and famine -- kept the population’s genetic strains largely unaltered by outsiders.

The history of Icelanders, said Magnus Johannesson, chief executive of Iceland America Energy, whose L.A. headquarters Grimsson is christening, has made them “a tougher breed. We’re go-getters, very energetic and view obstacles as challenges. We’re survivors, and as a fishing nation, we understand taking risks.”

Alongside those traits, however, Icelanders treasure music, dancing, writing and, Orvarsson said, “taking life not too seriously, in a way” -- traits some attribute to the Irish genetic influence.

Icelanders’ language is the closest of any tongue to Old Norse. It has changed so little that its speakers can read 900-year-old Icelandic sagas in the original version.

Icelanders have tried to keep it free of words from other languages, looking to traditional words to construct terms for modern phenomena. For example, tolva, the Icelandic word for computer, combines the Icelandic for digit (tala) with that of seeress (volva).

Clinging to a tradition abandoned by other Scandinavians, Icelanders tend not to have typical surnames. Instead, their last names stem from their fathers’ first names. Thus, Veigar Margeirsson’s children are Ragnhildur Veigarsdottir (daughter of Veigar) and Viktor Veigarsson (son of Veigar).

Because of this, Iceland’s phone book -- there is only one -- lists the 300,000 or so residents by their first names, and Icelanders typically address one another that way.

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Thanks to decade-old reforms in their old socialist-style economy, Icelanders have one of the highest standards of living in the world, and their country is tolva-ized to the maximum.

Immigrant job seekers, mostly from the former Soviet bloc, have poured onto the island. “I got together with my buddies and we went to pubs, and we had to go to five of them before I found a bartender who spoke Icelandic,” Margeirsson said.

Now privatized, Icelandic banks have been acquiring other European banks right and left.

“In the U.K., they’re saying, ‘The Vikings are back,’ ” Johannesson said. “Before, we pillaged on the beaches. Now we’re buying up their financial institutions.”

james.ricci@latimes.com


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