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If this is your first visit, welcome to my blog of memories and observations. If you wish to be notified of new posts, enter an e-mail address above, and click on "Submit." As we move through a sixth year of this venture, I thank all who have made regular visits, as well as fellow bloggers who have found Stomp Off worth linking to. Doing this sort of thing is time-consuming, but I try to post fresh material at least once a week—let me know what you think. There is a Commentary option at the end of each post and a Guest Book can be reached by scrolling down and clicking on the quill image. I welcome your observations, reaction and/or suggestions in either spot—or both. As for blog content, the most current posts are on the home page, starting at the top. Earlier items are listed by month, year and title in the archive index. To zero in on a particular key word or subject, use the search option that is located directly beneath the blog's masthead. Most images can be enlarged with a mouse click, and there are links to some of my favorite blogs, etc. Since visitors have come from 150 countries, a translator with numerous languages is located below. You can at any time revert to English with a click at the top left of this page:

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6/29/10

Frankfurt experience - Part 2 (Hannover)



This recollection continues an earlier post. If you wish to read it from the beginning, here is a link that will take you to square one.

The emergency landing shook us all up, but it was more of an inconvenience than anything else. There were professional skiers aboard whose destination had been Oslo, a city we simply flew over, but there were also passengers who saw our unscheduled landing in Hamburg as a blessing in disguise, albeit a slightly bumpy one. One of these beneficiaries was, of course, Carl-Heinz, the former U-boat officer whom Hanne and I befriended when our unorthodox touchdown remixed a passenger list into a social club. He was able to head for Hannover as soon as his luggage had been retrieved, but before leaving, he handed me his address and phone number, and made me promise to visit him on my way to Frankfurt.

We had been assigned rooms at an airport hotel and many of us continued partying, raising our bathroom glasses of duty free liquor and feeling quite special. The morning brought hangovers, new airline tickets, goodbyes, and Christmas wishes.

To me—although an avowed atheist—no holiday celebration can compare to a real old-fashioned Danish Christmas. The atmosphere is warm and the spirit special—we have a word for it, "hyggeligt," but you won't find an adequate translation in any language that I know of. "Cozy" is close, but it doesn't quite make it. Our 1954 Christmas  with family and friends lived up to the word. Hanne's relative loved the hideous junk we brought from a Times Square hole-in-the-wall, and she found the painted poodles ever so cute. When we told Bengt, Hanne's brother-in-law, that his gift had rolled out of sight aboard the aircraft, he seemed disappointed, but when we revealed that it had been a shrunken human head, he looked visibly relieved. At this point, Hanne and I still naïvely thought that the head was the genuine article and that it would have appealed to Bengt's artistic sense—we were wrong.

We greeted 1955 with some of our old friends and, three days later, Hanne accompanied me to the main railway station, where I boarded the Scandinavian-Italian Express for Frankfurt. It just so happened that on that day, January 4th, a severe cold spell hit the northern part of Europe. Not since the "Big Freeze" of 1947 had the Continent been hit so hard—it was colder than any weather I had ever experience in Iceland. 


Carl Heinz was at the Hannover station to meet my train. He was in a good mood and told me that his daughter had prepared a special dinner for us, but that we first had to make a stop at the House of a Thousand Schnapps. There, over a fine brew, Carl-Heinz told me that he was having some of his old U-boat buddies over after dinner. They felt like celebrating, because Germany was once again going to have its own military. This had been in all the papers for several months, generating much controversy, but it was finally a done deal and it was now said that former officers would be given back the rank they held under Hitler—whoopee! This is what we were going to celebrate that night—the man who had told me and Hanne how awful the war years had been, how he had agonized over having to shoot down U.S. Liberty ships, and how he would rather forget than remember the ordeal of military life, was now getting goose bumps at the mere thought of hopping into a uniform again!

When we got to his home, I was still wondering how it could be that someone who went through the war and saw it up close did not want to distance themselves from all of that. What was it about a uniform that made them blind to reason? My thoughts were interrupted by a whiff of something delicious coming from the kitchen, which is what Carl Heinz's daughter also did. She was in her teens, shy and quite lovely with a warm smile. She made a curtsy as she extended her hand and gestured for me to take a seat. I felt welcomed and silly for having had critical thoughts, but they returned as I was left alone just long enough to have a good look around me. There, on a small table were three framed photographs, one showed a young couple with a little girl, another a lady with braided hair who I presumed, was Carl-Heinz's wife. She had passed away during the war, the victim of a British bomber attack. The third and largest photo showed a smiling Carl-Heinz, proudly posing in his uniform. My eyes were drawn to the immaculately polished Iron Cross on his chest—it appeared to be the photo's raison d'etre.

I adopted a comic book mindset
Clicking on any image will enlarge all.
I began thinking of my own war years, the two I spent as a boy in Forest Hills, New York. I remembered parading around in my Army uniform, the one from Woolworth's on Austin Street, and standing at attention before Mrs. Gertrude Lutz, our Principal at P.S. 101. We sang Over There, Anchors Aweigh, and From the Halls of Montezuma as we waved the 48-star flag. We, too had something pinned to our chests, buttons depicting Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo with their heads in a noose that could be activated with the pull of a string. I also recall making regular runs to Mr. Mensch's little hole-in-the-wall shop, to pick up penny candy and the latest issues of comic books in which my super heroes triumphed over the evil Axis. I even made my own comics, highly caught up in the prevailing patriotic atmosphere. Even though I was going through hell at home, with Stella drinking herself into an unbearable state and my father leaving me and Kanda to endure it all, my memories of that time are not all bad. Well, so here I was, ten years later—my spirit of patriotism all but dissipated, but ready to be re-lit with proper papers. Here I was, a guest  in the home of a former Nazi who was ready and eager to do a little deja vu number. I was about to find myself in the midst of a surreal celebration—what would Mrs. Gertrude Lutz think?

As we enjoyed a hearty, unpretentious dinner, I finally asked Carl-Heinz why he and his military buddies were celebrating the return of something they should wish to put behind them. He told me that this would be an entirely different military force, more American, and just the fact that everybody would get their old rank back was an incentive to enlist. It still didn't make sense to me, but I nodded my head and dug into another potato. German efficiency being what it is, the table was cleared, the stove fed fresh briquettes, and Carl-Heinz's daughter bid us goodnight just as there was a knock on the door. Carl-Heinz checked his watch, mumbled some word of approval and let his guests in.

There were about five of them, still young and and obviously a close-knit group. They brought with them their own beer and enthusiasm. No heels were clicked, no salutes were made—that sort of thing was all in my overly imaginative mind. In fact, this was a bunch of pretty ordinary guys and it wasn't long before the beer was flowing, glasses were clinking, and laughter filled the room. Many stories of Nazi life in the service were told in English, for my benefit. They were for the most part horror stories of overly regimented life and unbelievable disciplinary measures, all meant to give me a picture of the awful life they so eagerly wished to resume. Special events at the officers' club were costly and attendance was mandatory, I was told. Some commanding generals held so many of these events that it was difficult for younger officers to keep up with them, so they would get behind on their club dues. This often resulted in their being given an alternate solution in the form of a side arm. I had a feeling that they weren't exaggerating.

The next morning, I slapped some Old Spice on my face and stepped out into the chilly winter air. My head still reeled from all these stories, boosted slightly by a hangover, and an otherworldly feeling that wouldn't go away. Carl-Heinz's daughter handed me a small brown paper bag as I was about to enter the cab and head for the station. It contained a sandwich and a hardboiled egg. I appreciated that a lot.

I never heard from Carl-Heinz after that, nor he from me, but I have often wondered how he was doing back in his old role and a new uniform. Of course, as it turned out, the new German military was not a throwback, but, even so, I remain puzzled as to what that little rearmament get-together was all about.

So now I was railing towards Frankfurt and a very uncertain future there.  Had I only known what I was getting myself into...

You will have the answer to that when post the continuation of this recollection.




6/25/10

Carlos Gardel

June 24, 2010 marked the 75th anniversary of the death of Carlos Gardel, an Argentinian film star and one of the most compelling singers I have heard. Like two other favorites of mine, Bessie Smith and Edith Piaf, Gardel sang from the heart. I never understood the words to his songs, I didn't have to. Here is a link that will give you details of Carlos Gardel's life and a sample of his artistry, Por Una Cabeza, a sing he composed for his last film, in 1935.

6/7/10

Frankfurt experience - Part 1 (New York)


We landed in New York and went straight to the Capital Hotel which was recommended by one of our American friends at Keflavík. A nice, reasonably priced hotel, it was located on Eighth Avenue at 49th Street, almost across the street from Madison Square Garden, an unimposing, grimy building in whose arena historic events had taken place since 1925. It should have been declared a landmark, but it became a parking lot in 1968.

I don't recall what the room rate was at the Capital, not much by today's standards, still—having spent our first night there, Hanne and I decided that we should find a cheaper place and spend more money on Christmas gifts. The place we found was right around the corner, the "Newly Renovated Madison Square Hotel." Well, it turned out that the only thing they had newly renovated was the front door, but that was okay—a small room for a small price.


There was no TV, but it had a radio that worked when you fed it quarters. Hanne discovered that it also liked Icelandic five aura pieces, which were worth less than a cent, so it practically stayed on all the time and there was good jazz coming out of it.

The hotel was an old brick building back then, and far more pleasing to the eye than it became when the renovation went  beyond the front door. Now it has an odd faux 3d bathroom tile look (see photo).

Some of our American friends at Keflavík had asked us to look up their parents, which led to two dinner invitations in Brooklyn and  broadened our knowledge of cultures. We were, for example, introduced to Jewish food by Mrs. Lefkowitz, whose son, Marvin, was in the Army and lived off base with his wife, Marsha. They had become our good friends and they happened to live next to our fabulous home (pictured on the left). When the food lacked salt, Hanne and I wrongly concluded that salt was something Jewish people did not use. It would not have surprised us if Marvin's mother had served pork chops, because we were quite ignorant when it came to other ethnicities. In Denmark—back then, at least—it was not important to know another person's religion. Victor Borge performed under his birth name, Børge Rosenbaum, because that is how he had established himself before the war. It was only when he came to the U.S. that he needed to adapt the veil of a pseudonym. When I later started working at WHAT-FM in Philadelphia, I discovered that all my fellow disc jockeys on the stations white (i.e. FM) side were working under assumed names that made their Jewish origin less apparent. I found it quite amazing that there was a need for that. I think Marvin and Marsha probably mentioned to us that they were Jewish, but they did not make us aware of ethnic differences—I'm sure we served them eggs and bacon. Of course, I knew that Jewish people existed and I was fully aware of the collective effort by non-Jewish Danish citizens that in 1943 resulted in rescuing over seven thousand Danish Jews from being sent to Nazi camps. I just didn't know why there was this ethnic division. As far as I know, there were no Jewish areas of town and I never picked up a disparaging word. Perhaps I was just super uninformed and naïve. It was when I came to live in the U.S. that my eyes really opened to the fact that American ethnic discrimination was not just aimed at black people. As for Jewish food. I was already familiar with much of it—I grew up with much of it, but we called it German food and it was often prepared by people with German names. Life is a constant learning experience and some of us are just slower than others.

Our other dinner invitation was to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Melady, a middle-aged couple whose son, Jack, was a trombone player in the Air Force band. Jack had also become a good friend and I admired his eclectic musical taste and, of course, shared his more than casual love for jazz. He also played the harp—the Lyon and Healy kind—and was very good at it. Jack liked to play jazz on his harp and he knew that he would face less competition if he focused on that rather than the trombone, so, upon his release from the Service, he used the GI Bill to study harp at the Royal Conservatory in Copenhagen. When we renewed contact, in the Sixties, he had his own album out on the Sue label, had appeared on a 1965 Lucky Thompson Prestige date, and worked intermittently with the Clancy Brothers. I don't know what became of Jack, but I still recall vividly the evening Hanne and I spent at his parents' house on the last evening of our trip. They were Irish-Catholic and Mrs. Melady was a very devoted one, as we discovered when, after a wonderful home-cooked meal, she poured coffee and, with dramatic flourish, produced a small brown bottle of holy water. "This," she said dropping a dash into our cups, "will give you a safe journey home." Then, as we enjoyed an after dinner drink in the living room, she brought out a small wood carving of a saint, held it up for all to see, and handed it to Hanne. "That's very beautiful," Hanne remarked, giving the little statue a  turn. "I know," said Jack's mother, "and tomorrow I am going to have it blessed."

"Oh," exclaimed Hanne, "I think it looks wonderful the way it is, I wouldn't have anything done to it."

Before we left Iceland, Mr. Roger, the chief OSI agent (that's Office of Special Investigations) told me that his cousin was the head of NBC's scenic department and suggested that I look him up. I did, and he turned out to be a delightful man who greatly appreciated receiving a personal message from his far away cousin. He apologized for not being able to see us or take us to dinner, but they were deeply immersed in a rather elaborate set design, so he couldn't get away. "But would you like a tour of the NBC TV studios?," he asked. Of course we would and that proved to be far more interesting than we anticipated. No ordinary tourist tour, but a behind-the-scenes experience that almost made us feel like VIPs. We were introduced to many of the network's biggest personalities and visiting stars, but the high point for me came when Steve Allen gave us tickets to the Tonight Show, which he hosted. The Benny Goodman Story was to open after the New Year and Steve (then still Mr. Allen to me) was devoting the entire show to the man he had portrayed. Benny himself would be there with some of his star sidemen and it promised to be an evening of great music. As I recall, it was. I suppose there exists some footage of it, at least a blurry kinescope, but I haven't seen or heard of any. (See update at bottom)






So, contacting Mr. Rogers' cousin turned out well. More about that in a later segment of this story. I also had another number to dial, SUsquehanna 7-5690. I was about to hang up when, after about five rings, I heard phone fumbling followed by a slow, slurred "hello." It was Timme Rosenkrantz, the Danish jazz baron whom I had met in Copenhagen a couple of years earlier. He was the one who took me to Lionel Hampton's 17th wedding anniversary party in Copenhagen and helped me get Hamp and the band to an all-night Storyville Club jam session. See  The Night I Taped Brownie). Timme and I would share an apartment five years later, but I really didn't know him all that well at this point. When I mentioned that Hanne and I wanted to hit some jazz spots, he perked up and told me to meet him at Stuyvesant Casino, on Second Avenue and 9th Street. "And bring plenty of money," he added.

When we walked into the Stuyvesant's corridor-like front room, the sound of Coleman Hawkins greeted us from a room beyond. A hat check lady with flirty eyes and a Pepsodent smile asked us each for a quarter and pointed us in the direction of the music. At the entrance to the room, an elderly man relieved us of a couple of bucks, the price of admission, then he handed us over to a smiley waiter who seated us and took our order. Timme was nowhere to be seen, but the mention of his name brought a glimpse of recognition to the waiter's eyes "He'll be here," he said with assurance. I ordered a large pitcher of beer for a dollar and wondered what Timme had meant when he told me to bring plenty of money. Probably a joke, humor was a big part of Timme's personality.

A click on this will enlarge it


Stuyvesant Casino was where Bunk Johnson, Jim Robinson and George Lewis had introduced New Yorkers to New Orleans jazz nine years earlier. The big city crowd was fed all those stories about Bunk's new teeth and how he was a rice field discovery; they also loved to hear that George Lewis was a dock worker and that the music they played was the essence of jazz in a state of resurrection. It was wonderfully primitive, they had been told. There was nothing primitive about the band we were hearing. It may not have been as glorious as I would like to recall, yet—given the cast—it probably was. A Coleman Hawkins band du jour, with Sonny Greer in full command of a percussion setup that looked like his old Ellington drum kit in the buff. Max Kaminsky, Vic Dickenson, and Cecil Scott were there, too, and the pianist was Frank Signorelli, a historic veteran of the Original Dixieland Jass Band. After about an hour, there still was no sign of Timme. Hawkins and company had left the stage to make room for a dixieland group, the Red Onion Jazz Band. They were gearing up when Hawkins passed by our table and was stopped by our helpful waiter, who asked him if he had seen the Danish Baron. Hawkins said Timme might be across the street, at the Central Plaza. We decided to take a look.



The Central Plaza's main course was a no holds barred jam session. The room was larger, the crowd was louder and rowdier, the music faster and earthier. As we entered, Buck Clayton had them dancing between the tables, fueled by the music and, again, one dollar pitchers of beer, but here there were also bottles of the hard stuff all over the place and as I scanned the room for a sign of Timme, I counted eighteen watchful cops—this joint was jumpin'. We hadn't seen or heard anything, yet. Suddenly, a young trombone player made an agile move to the top of the piano and the rhythmic frenzy boiled over—it was as if someone had hit a fast-forward button. The trombonist was a not-yet-thirty Conrad Janis. Already an accomplished actor, he will forever be remembered as Mindy's father in the Mork and Mindy sitcom. His mother, Harriet Janis co-wrote, with Rudi Blesh, the definitive book on ragtime, They All Played Ragtime, and he was probably the busiest musician in all of New York. He had his own band at The Central Plaza and he was a regular at other spots, including the Metropole Café, our next stop. As you can see here, I got to know the Metropole better in 1957, when I returned on an immigration visa, exchanged my cursed blue button of Keflavík for a green card of hope, and had my initial encounter with roaches! It was a learning experience that I would not wish to repeat.

Hanne and I had just purchased a shrunken head for Bengt, her brother-in-law and some truly cheap looking, esthetically offensive initialed hand towels for another relative who would find them beautiful, never use them for anything but display, and thus preserve the adornment of glittery initials and poodles. Sure, we had bought them with a twinge of guilt, but a gift for another relative was even uglier and just as useless. It looked like a half lampshade and it was supposed to go on the foyer wall where it could hold gloves. Even thinking about these things over half a century later gives me chills. You might wonder why we didn't get them something really nice—I think it's because we were catering to their poor taste, and the fact that they probably expected something a la canine pool players on black velvet. At that time, the mention of America conjured up in European minds gaudy things made of plastic. Now, the head was another matter, it was something we felt certain Bengt, an artist, would love. We will never really know, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, so there we were on our last day in New York, standing amid the Christmas bustle of Times Square, with the sound of Tennessee Ernie's Sixteen Tons clashing with that of bell-ringing Santas and  Mr. Sandman. We were taking it all in when we heard a male voice behind ask what language we were speaking. "Danish," we replied, almost in unison. This seemed to please him, he whipped out a business card and asked if we would care to be contestants on a TV show. We were tempted when he added that we could win a large sum of money, but reason prevailed, it would be impossible to find another flight that would get us to Copenhagen by Christmas Eve. We thanked the man and crossed the street, each wondering whether we had just turned down a fortune.

As we exited for the last time through the newly renovated door of the Madison Square Hotel, with one head in a shopping bag and eyesores filling the others, Hanne and I began looking forward to having a traditional Danish Christmas with her parents. "I hope that holy water hasn't worn off," said Hanne, jokingly, as our cab slowly made it through midtown traffic and turned towards Idlewild.

The Icelandic airline was using Douglas DC 6 propeller machines that had been sawed in two and put back together with an extra piece of fuselage. The plane's body was thus quite long and one could see two seams that looked like a soldering job. As we approached the plane and began climbing the steps, which is what one had to do in those days, I pointed to the seams and said "Thank god for Mrs. Melady's holy water."

There was an early morning stopover in Reykjavík, a small airport situated as near to the center of town as any I have ever seen. You came in right over the rooftops. On this December day, the runway was icy and it looked like it had just stopped snowing. We felt an enormous jolt as the plane was about to touch down, stuff came flying from the overhead compartments and we felt the aircraft sliding at a slight angle, but it came to a stop and limped into its parking space. My mother had seen it all, the plane approached too low and its wheels struck a fence, dragging it along. But Mr. Melady's dash of holy water seemed to have worked, we were a bit shook up, but—compared to my mother—relatively calm. We had about an hour on the ground, so there was good time for a breakfast—things were lax in those days.

An hour later, we were off again, but we probably should not have been—some things were too lax. We found that out when we reached the air space over Oslo, our next scheduled stop before Copenhagen. The pilot announced that we would not be able to land in the Norwegian capitol, because there was a "minor" problem with our wheels. It didn't seem so minor us when we heard that the wheels had been damaged by that Reykjavík bump and now refused to come down. We were told that there was nothing to worry about and that we would land as soon as we had used up the bulk of our fuel.

As the flight continued, the drinks became plentiful and on the house. People were now oddly quiet and the stewardesses were all but mum, except when they tried to get us to drink more. Finally, we were told that we would be landing on foam and that it was almost normal, because such landings were, somehow, commonplace. We were to remove all sharp objects from our pockets, place a pillow on our lap, and remain calm until the aircraft came to a stop and we received further instructions. Hanne was not in the mood for drinks, so I had more than my share, but nobody was panicking. Icelandic Airlines had an excellent safety record and its pilots performed a remarkable feat each time they had to hit the runway rather than a Reykjavík street. I, therefore, had full confidence in the pilot, but I did share Hanne's worry about family members possibly being at the airport and seeing us crash.



We needn't have worried, for this turned out to be a smoother landing than some of the regular wheels-in-place ones I had experienced. As for the family, nobody had informed us, but we weren't even near Copenhagen. Looking out the window, we saw a big red neon sign welcoming us to Hamburg.

"Ach," said the young man seated across the aisle from me, "das ist gut!." We had spent hours seated next to each other without exchanging a single word, but shared danger has a way of breaking a silence. By the time we and our fellow passengers had deplaned and were seated in one of the terminal's waiting rooms, Hanne, Carl Heinz and I had become old friends, exchanging stories of our respective trips to America. He, it turned out, was born in Chicago, which explained why he spoke English so well. He lived in Hannover, a city hit hard by Allied bombing (see photo) and was returning home from a visit with his parents. Had he spent the war in Germany? I asked. Yes, he had been sent to an engineering school in Berlin just before the war broke out, a school his father had graduated from before immigrating to America. Nice idea, but nobody could have known that the timing was the worst. Carl Heinz hadn't been at the school for long before war fever grabbed Berlin and he saw all his classmates signing up for military duty. The peer pressure was too strong to resist, so he followed suit. "What was a young man to do?," he said.  What he did was join the submarine corps.

An airport rep approached us with a clipboard and pen poised for action. We were each asked to give him our seat number and a description of our carry-on luggage. "There's a paper bag," said Hanne, "with a head in it."

"A head?"

"Yes, a human head, very small," Hanne replied.

The man wrote something down and turned to Carl Heinz, who said he only had a small black leather valise, then continued his story.

"It was a terrible time," he said, "and I got caught up in it." When I asked him if he had served on a U-Boat, he nodded, "We spent much time off the coast of Baltimore, sinking Liberty ships and such. I am not proud of that, but war is a strange thing." I wondered if I should tell him about my two U-boat encounters, but decided against it—one of those U-boats might have been his, I thought. He went on to explain how he was captured and interned by the Americans at the end of the war, and how he one day had a surprise visit from an American army colonel who turned out to be his brother-in-law. That's how he gained an early release. Eager to visit his parents in Chicago, he applied for a visitor's visa, but was turned down for two reasons: volunteering for military service and having come within three miles of the U.S. coast during the war. It apparently did not make any difference that he was born in the States.



To get around those pesky rules, his father pulled a few strings and contacted his Congressman. Carl Heinz got his visa.

During the two or three hours we had to spend in the waiting room, our hand luggage was brought off the plane and returned to us. Soon, bottles of duty-free liquor were opened and a boring wait became a lively party. When we received our hand luggage and shopping bags, Hanne noticed that something was missing: we had lost our head!  Was it a real one? I doubt it, but we'll never know, it probably rolled under a seat and scared the maintenance crew. Anyway, we never heard more about it.

When I told Carl Heinz that I would be traveling to Frankfurt in search of a job after the New Year, he insisted that I stop off in Hannover for a day and visit with him and his daughter. Hanne thought that was a good idea. We both almost felt sorry for the guy, the Nazi experience had obviously been a traumatic one and he seemed to be a very nice person. Perhaps, if I had spent the war years in Nazi occupied Denmark rather than in Forest Hills and Iceland, I might have been less willing to start a friendship, less naïve. As things went, my sympathy took a nose dive when I visited Carl Heinz a couple of weeks later. Yes, you guessed right: he was the Nazi on the plane. More about my awakening and adventures in Frankfurt, when this story continues.

6/8/10 Update: I made some additions and edits (my English is a work in progress). Also happy to report that the Goodman/Allen Tonight Show segment was, indeed, captured for posterity —thanks to my good friend John F. for that info.



6/3/10

Not my father's Iceland, but...

If you think the country of my birth is just this drab somewhere-up-there island that every 200 years does something spectacular to attract worldwide attention, think again!


Inspired by Iceland Video from Inspired By Iceland on Vimeo.