Days 51–58, September 14th–21st: libraries, ego-trips and elves

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,335 kilos (STILL working on it…)
Sigurðar saga fóts: 252/252

Victoria! The furthest from home I have ever been! (Or intend to be for a good while to come.)

I’ve been kept pretty occupied here by the groovy denizens of the University of Victoria, meaning that I haven’t kept up with blogging at all well. So this is a monster post, of bits of thoughts from the capital of British Columbia.

Library tourism

Ahh, the university library. I haven’t done work in a library since back in Iceland! It was nice to visit the Dictionary of Old English of course, and I could have cadged my way into spending more time in Toronto’s Robarts Library, except that pretty much everything I needed this summer was on the web, so the effort seemed undue. Which is basically a good thing. I won’t weep for the end of the hard copy book, which seems to be approaching more swiftly by the day.

But I do like libraries. Lots of people I know prefer to borrow books and take them home or to their offices (if they have one) to work there. Whereas I like to go to libraries, get online, and get working. I like that air of quiet, shared industry that libraries have. UVic’s is a pretty 1960s kind of building, but good of its kind: reasonably airy, perfectly navigable, enough plug sockets. UVic has some annual some teaching award, right—looks like they award two staff every year—and they put photos of all the winners up the staircases in a kind of teaching hall of fame. Admittedly these awards are fundamentally just a sop for the fact that the higher education sector has for eight hundred years failed to develop any sensible ways of assessing quality of teaching and rewarding it systematically. And I’m not quite sure how I’d feel about the hall of fame if I were in it—or for that matter if I thought I should be in it but wasn’t! But it certainly gave a good impression to the visitor.

In fact, the UVic campus has a good vibe generally. I wasn’t quite sold on the UofT’s. Part of my thing about expecting the new world to look new was that I expected its universities to look basically like 1960s universities in the UK—York or Stirling say. UofT, on the contrary, looks like someone’s taken the ‘Nineteenth Century to the Present’ Cambridge University architectural assortment box, found a few football pitches, and shaken the box out onto them. (And, this being Canada, they then made sure all the buildings were at right angles to each other.) Which, you know, is fair enough, I mean, why shouldn’t they have nineteenth-century buildings? And some are very nice, and there was lots to be impressed about about the place generally; but it definitely felt a bit peculiar. And, you know, if you choose to remind me of Cambridge you have to pick your way quite carefully because there’s a 67% chance you’ll accidentally step into a startlingly unabated pool of RAGE. But UVic had an attractive coherence; it does look like York or Stirling, but like how they’d have looked if they were done by a humanist rather than a brutalist. It feels unpretentious but not unprepossessing; functional but not functionary; plenty of trees.

Being on the ego trip

I’ve done this ‘visiting speaker’ thing a few times now, in one context or another—though never so long or so far from home! People are always so embarrassingly nice to you! You get treated like royalty, only without the burden of knowing that you’re an unelected sponger-cum-prisoner-of-circumstance. Albeit with the concomitant worry that the people who chose you might at some point realise their mistake, and the game will be up. One way or another, though, so far it’s always gone okay, and people have been fabulously polite and welcoming and generous—and Victoria has been a pre-eminent example of the form.

Not that you’ll trust me to tell the truth, of course, because they paid me to go to Canada and back! Woo! This aspect of UVic’s generosity was facilitated by the late Margaret and Richard Beck, who on their deaths left their house to the University to endow an Icelandic lecture series—by which time, it turned out, it was worth a small fortune. Good move! Funny how philanthropists are generally at their best when they’re dead; but then I guess that’s how orðstír works.

So yeah, the Becks put me up in this proper flash hotel, Laurel Point Inn. Slightly confusingly, the booking email they sent me said, at the bottom, ‘Inn at Laurel Point is proudly smoke free and British Columbia’s first Carbon Neutral hotel’, but when I hunted for information on their website, there was no information about carbon neutrality at all. Clearly not that proud then! So I asked about this at the desk, expecting the standard look of confusion followed by a domino-fall of different staff members with no idea what I was talking about. Like that time that I commended someone at Brill for the statement on their website saying that authors could make their Brill publications available online free-access, at which point everyone there was, like, what, do we say that?! Arrrgh! And took it down. But the lass at the desk gave a very articulate account of how the hotel’s kind of old so they couldn’t do very much to make it ecotastic so mostly just paid for offsetting. As diligent readers will know I think offsetting is basically (and in some cases definitely) a rip-off. But at the same time, I was kind of impressed with the answer I got; and in a back-to-front sort of way, I sort of feel that the hotel’s silence on the website might hint at their underlying sincerity with the enterprise. A bit confusing that one. Anyway, I quite liked the place.

apple pie

Apple pie. And metal sausage-dog.

And I had lots of free lunches and dinners, including one cooked by one of my hosts, with, like, actual home-made apple pie and everything! I’ve been in North America a long time without getting stuck in to this famed local confection (erm, though I guess it’s less famed in Canada than the USA, but still). It was great! And people gave me free books. And I got to talk to some of these infamous Vestur-Íslendingar, (descendants of) Icelanders who, like Richard Beck himself, emigrated west. That was really interesting. And the people who were charged to look after me all did amazing jobs. And I met lots of interesting people at UVic generally, including three people I had met before, but only one of whom I actually remembered on first sight :-/ (Sorry forgotten people! You were very nice about it! And it was very nice to meet you, er, again.)


Whenever, over the last nine months or so, I’ve mentioned to anyone—in Britain, Iceland, or Canada—that I was going to Victoria, they’ve gone weak at the knees and have been, like, ‘Oh, Victoria’s LOVELY! You’re so lucky to be going! You’ll love it there!’

A few, with what to my ears sounds like a sting in the tail, add ‘It’s JUST like England!’

Undeniably, on my first evening there, I saw this guy standing on the pavement videoing something with his digital camera, and I look round to see what the source of excitement is and it’s… a bus. After a moment, it dawned on me that the point was that it was a double-decker. I was interested enough in this guy’s interest in the bus that I was tempted to video him videoing it… But didn’t. I guess they are quite British.

And, yeah, one of the people who’d I’d met before but forgotten was trying to convince me that the reason why downtown Victoria is so sleepy is that the town is basically like Leeds (not realising that this wasn’t going to be much of a selling point to yours truly): it’s more a bunch of little towns or villages, each with their own shops and stuff, that have got stuck together.

But Victoria doesn’t look much like Leeds really. It looks like the sort of place that was never touched by smog. The old coastal suburbs really do look like English suburbs, but Platonic ideal suburbs, the suburbs of which all English suburbs are but a shadow on the wall.

You couldn’t deny for a moment that it’s a really nice place. It has sea; it has islands; it has friendly bus-drivers; it has cool trees (more in the trees post); it has the best book-shop interior I can remember seeing; it has Canadians. But I felt like I couldn’t find the pulse of the place, while getting the sense that the was a pulse there somewhere waiting to be found. Curious spot.

Munro's bookshop, Government Street

Munro's bookshop, Government Street

Mind you, by the time I left Victoria, I’d bumped into three of my various audience members in town, who were all really friendly. I like it when you move to a place and get to the point where you start bumping into people you know by accident: looks in Victoria like it happens pretty quickly!


And I gave these three lectures of course, all kind of about medieval Icelandic romance, one through the medium of Low German language-contact, one through the medium of elves, and one through the medium, of course, of Bjarni Harðarson’s Sigurðar saga fóts. Each, it must be said, was rather heavily indebted in its way to Bike Guy: thanks! In the unlikely event that you want to know more about these, they’re all going to turn up online eventually at the Beck site. I think what was most interesting for me about the whole process were the kinds of questions I got after the elves paper. A nice diverse audience, from medieval academics to random members of the public. Some of the questions were very helpful, but not much different qualitatively from what I’m used to back in Europe, either in universities or in public lectures. What was quite startling to me was the audience’s enthusiasm for recounting friends’ and relatives’ own encounters with elves and similar characters. You get a bit of that when you give papers in Europe, but not much. I think there must be these interlinked factors of Canadians both having access to stories like that, and then being willing to bring them up in a public forum. Of course, maybe Europeans have as much access to narratives like these, but wouldn’t express them in an academic context (maybe I get stories of elf-encounters in Europe more after the questions are over, when people come up to you to say what was in their mind afterwards). But at the same time you could imagine how Canadians’ greater willingness to talk about the stuff is, in turn, the reason why they have access to the stories.

Of course, it’s totally anecdotal evidence. But I’m intrigued. Maybe it’s to do with the search for an identity based on ancestors’ ethnicity; maybe it’s to do with the greater religiosity of North Americans generally—if you believe in God, why not believe in elves?—but I’m not sure whether Canadians as a nation are more like the northern states of the USA or more like north-west Europe in that respect; maybe it’s just to do with these Pacific Coast hippies. It looks they’re quite theologically sophisticated up here.

Sign at Church of Our Lord: WELL YOU DID ASK FOR A SIGN --GOD

A sign!


About alarichall
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1 Response to Days 51–58, September 14th–21st: libraries, ego-trips and elves

  1. Shamsi Modarai says:

    Ooh, I think I’ve been to that book shop! Victoria is indeed beautiful. My sister recently lived in Vancouver for a few years, and a friend of hers lived on Vancouver Island so I’ve been there numerous times. I too love the trees there! And I had some interesting encounters with various First Nations artists selling beautiful works on the street. Anyway, as a North American who grew up in the US but with a Canadian mum and extended family but is now living in the UK, I found your musings in this post quite fascinating. They were lucky to have you as a guest speaker. 🙂

    ~ Shamsi

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