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Gathering of Good Friends

One of the nice things about North Dakota is that you can drive three hours across the state to see a parade in a town of less than 100 population, and when you get there, you find people you know everywhere.

I’m talking about Mountain, North Dakota, site of the annual August the Deuce festival. We had just settled in alongside some old friends in one of the grandstands when here came Ashley Thornberg of Prairie Public radio, recounting her plot - eventually successful - to score an interview with the prime minister of Iceland, Katrín Jakobsdóttir. Her Excellency the prime minister, I confess, was the chief reason we had come to Mountain, but as usual with such expeditions, so many interesting things turned up.

Parade time approached, as did the procession, when into the middle of the street strode a middle-aged guy wearing a red T-shirt and carrying a trumpet. His was the most stirring rendition of our national anthem I have heard in a long time.

The parade was full of all the kitchy stuff you would expect, your tractors and your politicians and your faux Vikings. The crowd favorite was the Kem Shriners Model T Unit, with its two full-size Tin Lizzies chased by a fleet of madcap miniatures.

By mid-afternoon the crowd was gravitating to the community center, where Prime Minister Jakobsdóttir was the featured speaker. We had some of our state politicians on the stage, which slowed things down, but master of ceremonies Curtis Olafson owned the podium, and Ryan Taylor jollied up the crowd with some rope tricks.

When Her Excellency rose to speak, she received a standing ovation. When she concluded, there was another standing ovation! Twice the full house rose to its feet, and I mean with enthusiasm.

So what did she say? If our own dignitaries onstage listened closely, they heard themselves gently critiqued. Jakobsdóttir spoke pointedly about the virtues of consensus government, the need to subsume partisanship and serve the public interest. She spoke with pride of her nation’s record in human rights and gender equality. She boasted of her administration’s efforts toward conservation and of her people’s environmental consciousness.

Prime Minister Jakobsdóttir invoked her own scholarly study of crime fiction in Icelandic literature, thus posing the ideal of a learned leadership. And she warmed to the subject of our common cultural ties across the North Atlantic, ties of immigration, and of immigrants maintaining sympathies and culture from the old country.

As if to emphasize her point, following the speeches, a gentleman brought the piano to life and led the crowd in a stirring rendition of a favorite Icelandic anthem, “Vísur Íslendinga,” by Jónas Hallgrímsson: “Hvað er svo glatt sem góðra vina fundur” (“What is so joyful as a gathering of good friends”). I know I butchered that line, but give me credit for trying, and for sensing what was happening at the time. The air was electric.

The pianist swung right into two additional, unannounced songs, which took Her Excellency by surprise, but she responded with vigor - she knew the words and delivered them. What is so joyful as a gathering of good friends? Perhaps a gathering of good friends reunited, old friends who still know the words.

~Tom Isern

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