Part I

At this point in my life I was still used to always getting what I wanted. Although “getting” is not the right word. Perhaps “acquiring”? The way I went about things was to identify what I needed to learn, buy, understand, practice, then do it. More often than not I discovered that I got bored five minutes after paying for the expensive course, or buying that electric guitar. But I kept trying new things, often failing at them, despite having been burned (hoho) before. I was still young enough to believe I had no limitations, physical or mental, that could stop me. And I felt strangely secure in my knowledge that I wouldn’t be giving up or getting bored with forging.

I looked at available options. There weren’t many. The last Dutch blacksmithing school shut down twenty years later, replaced by a restaurant. There was a short course in the Netherlands, group classes stretched over two weekends. It cost approx. 1.5 kidneys – if I got a good price on eBay. A course in Poland, where I was born, was available to join every year. In July. It was December. I did not feel like waiting seven months, but I also couldn’t afford to – I would run out of money before then. So I did the only sensible thing – found out who the head of Polish Blacksmithing Guild was, called him, and convinced him over the phone that he should give me a private course. He named what he imagined was very high price. He had no clue what the prices in the Netherlands were. I accepted, and never regretted.

My private course lasted eight days, with a weekend inbetween. I mostly worked with his apprentice, who was a very cool bloke, and had enough time and patience to explain things to me – I was one of his assigned jobs. It couldn’t have been better. I was allowed to continue working when the forge was already officially closed. Nothing could stop me, including the weather. Before travelling I looked at the forecasts, and Accuweather (it’s never been particularly Accu, to be honest) told me to expect a low of -6 Celsius (21 Fahrenheit). The temperature duly dropped to -6, then continued until reaching -24 Celsius (-11 Fahrenheit). I worked wrapped in literally all clothes I brought… okay, not literally, as I couldn’t quite bring myself to put on all underwear I brought. Thermal longjohns, winter boots, sweater, multiple t-shirts, thick gloves, jacket, winter hat, scarf… I found that after a few hours of work I felt warm enough to take off the hat and scarf, and if I really put all my energy into it I sometimes managed without the jacket, too!

An illustration for a clichè that makes me grind my teeth: “gleaming horseshoe”. Horseshoes gleam in two situations. 1) When they’ve been used long enough (by a horse) for sand and rocks to “polish” the horseshoe. 2) When you used a grinder or a metal brush to polish them all purdy, then painted with special oil or lacquer to ensure no oxygen and humidity could reach the metal, as it would then rust. On this picture, I am painting the horseshoe with matte black paint.

Forges are, generally, not heated. Instead, they are very well ventilated. The fire requires lots of oxygen, but also produces toxic gases, not all of which are kind enough to escape through the air vent. As much as I love the smell of very hot iron, the forging process itself produces toxic fumes as well. Therefore no matter how low the temperature gets, as many windows as possible must be kept open. Most people think that a smithy must be a very hot place, and it often is – in the summer. On a cold day the fire heats up your hands really well, it’s also pretty good at making your face warm, but doesn’t warm up anything else. Especially feet…

Mmm, warm face. The water bowl on the right was frozen every morning, and remained frozen until we put hot iron in it. 

Mmm, warm… uh, nothing really, except the iron. (By the way, blademaking is mind-numbingly boring.)

The small water tank by the fire remained frozen until hot iron was placed on top. The water in the toilet bowl froze as well. And in the sewage pipes. In order to do a number two I had to return to the master smith’s house (TMI? sorry) where I was renting a room. It was all a bit scary, somewhat strange, very alien, absolutely amazing. It was heaven. (No, not the number two. All the rest.)

I hope you don’t mind me not putting up a photo of the toilet for historical accuracy.

Blacksmithing is a very easy job. You start by learning all the basic techniques (that’s what I did within those eight days). Then you practice them for a decade or two, and you’re ready to conquer the world. I found out how to shape the metal, cut it, decorate, upset, taper, split, twist (this was weirdly disappointing, because it felt too easy), add variously shaped rivets, sharpen, soften, bend, round… Armed with those abilities I now only needed to find a place to practice upon my return to Amsterdam, as I had a feeling that the neighbours wouldn’t be pleased if I built a forge on my patio. I loved making nails and horseshoes – the first year of forging was largely me being super excited about the fact I’m doing anything – but the most exciting part for me was making roses.

Started on a rose.

One of the first things I knew about blacksmithing was that it was possible to make iron plants. I didn’t care about swords (good – few things are more boring than that), or horseshoes. I wanted to make roses. Both the master smith and his apprentice were helpful and encouraging – the only part I didn’t get to do myself was electric welding. I told them what my real motive was, other than just wanting to create magic – a flower made of iron, and they were both glad to help me fulfil that wish.

My mom, upon finding out I now wanted to be a blacksmith, cried a bit. Then she said two things. “You had such a great job with a computer!” (which almost killed me) and “But you are way too gentle to do something like that!”. When I returned from the course I handed her the rose you see below. The foot has the words “For mom” and the date stamped on. “If there is something I want to do,” I said, “nothing is going to stop me”. I still firmly believed it was true, and mom believed me too. I thought – if you ever tell me there’s something I can’t do, I’ll tell you to look at the rose. But she never tried to undermine me again, nor did she ever attempt to tell me I was making a wrong choice. Since the day I gave it to her, the rose remained the centerpiece of her small collection of photos and family knick-knacks, proudly displayed in the living room, eternal. This was one of the reasons I wanted to work with metal: there is a good chance my entire family will die, and this rose will still look the same as it did the day I made it.

Mom’s rose.

I’ve made horseshoes, nails, hinges, two roses, iron hearts, fireplace tools… and I’ve made my first sale. A family came by to visit – among other things, this forge was a tourist attraction – and wanted to buy something small as a little keepsake. The picked one of my nails, and asked about the price. The apprentice said nothing, pointing towards me. I had no clue how much a forged nail should cost. I named my price – around $1.50 – and got paid. I later framed those coins together with the diploma I received. The top photo plus the one below are selections from those eight days. (I have no clue what those sharpened chunks were for…)

I ruined my iPhone camera by leaving the phone uncovered at the forge.
I learned my lesson, and never bought a non-dustproof phone since.

A few of my Polish friends came over to visit me, and stayed overnight. While at one point it did get somewhat warmer outside, our last morning was hell frozen over. We waited for a bus to town, then we waited some more, and then another hour… We ended up looking like this:

Artur, Cristi, yours truly. As you can easily tell, I’m the one on the right.

Now I just had to find a place to practice forging in Amsterdam, a small, densely populated, definitely non-industrial town. I knew it wouldn’t be a piece of cake. But I had unshakeable faith in what I was doing, and the Gods were on my side. I knew I would, again, get what I wanted, and I was right. I mean – I was an arrogant prick, of course. But I was right. There was no limit to the amount of time and work I was willing to put into it, or to the amount of burns I was willing to sustain. This was something I learned from mom, too. When working on something I either put 100% of my energy and resources into it, or stop. There was no way I would stop forging. It was just a matter of finding out how to continue. When I handed her that rose, she must have seen her own determination in my eyes. She might not have said it, but she, too, knew I would fight as long as necessary. I had a confirmation: this was it. There was no way I would have given up a dream I didn’t even know I had.

To be continued…

Two of the biggest changes in my life took place within two days from each other. In fact – within less than 40 hours from each other. On December 8, 2011 I met my future husband. It took me an hour to fall in love (he was faster). On December 10, 2011 I met my first forge that I got to work at.

This is, or was back then, the inside of Sven de Lang Smederij.

The events that led to me hitting hot iron with a hammer for the first time were not pleasant. I suffered a burnout. At that time I was working as a graphic designer…except I actually wasn’t, because just looking at Photoshop made me nauseous. I was attending both regular therapy and seeing a work psychologist, who worked with me on figuring what else I can do. It was both terrifying – I have never had a job that wasn’t graphic design, from assistant to art director – and liberating. Because when you don’t know anything, that means you can pick whatever comes to mind, and you’ll suck at it. Whether it’s a sensible job or following a dream, you’re going to be equally terrible. In this frame of mind I bumped into another graphic designer with a burnout, and while browsing his portfolio I saw a fence he designed for, if I recall correctly, Westin or Sheraton hotel. (Coincidentally I used to work for both as a designer.)

“How interesting,” I said. “So you designed this and a blacksmith made it? I didn’t know blacksmiths existed outside of open air museums.”

“Oh yes,” said the other designer. “He gives short courses, why not try it?”

This was how I found myself on a train to Kampen, over two hours away from where I lived, shaking in excitement and anxiety, on my way to meet a Real Blacksmith.

We worked for six hours, with a lunch break. I was worried whether I would prove to be physically strong enough. That was not a problem. My pink, gentle hands were. First I got blisters. Then the blisters burst. Then the skin came off, replaced by coal dust. To finish things off, I hit my right hand with a hammer I was holding in the aforementioned right hand. I have no clue how exactly I managed that, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. I fell in love for the second time in three days. My hands hurt as hell, even though I didn’t get a single burn (that would change many times in the years to come), I was dirty as hell, my – ahem – work wasn’t top notch. I almost died when Sven handed me a gas torch as if it couldn’t explode any second. But I also knew this was it. Same as with my future husband. It wasn’t me wondering whether the choice would be right. I had firm, unshakeable knowledge that it was. I was right in both instances.

This is not the most brutal photo of my pain and suffering. I’m proud of it.

When I returned home, I was nearly unconscious from excitement. I placed my three works on the sofa next to me, stared at them longingly, then fired up YouTube to look at forging videos. Sound carried in the building where I lived, and my upstairs neighbour was home. I could only imagine what he thought about the bang-bang-bang-clang-clang sounds penetrating through his floor. But I had no time for imagining that, because I was watching the process of forging a rose.

I only wanted one thing: to go back. Immediately. The tiredness, the blisters didn’t count. One of the reasons for my burnout was producing materials that would stop being useless a few days later, or simply files. My computer looked the same before and after. When talking to the work psychologist I said that I loved working on my own, I loved fire, I loved working with my hands, I wanted to produce tangible objects, ones that would last, I wanted to use my muscles. We considered cage fighting, architecture, painting, but it just wasn’t it. Blacksmithing wasn’t even a dream. I seriously had no idea it was possible to do it in the 21st century, and similarly to every other guest at Sven’s forge I asked about shoeing horses. (Answer: very few blacksmiths shoe horses at all. In rare cases when it’s necessary a farrier takes care of that. And indeed, in the 4.5 years that I spent learning, then working I have only seen a horse being shod once. At a blacksmithing convention. All of us crowded around the master smith to see such curiosity. The horse was not happy.)

This proved to be very difficult to reproduce on my own later. So I tried until I made it.

There were two problems on my way to working with Sven. 1) He lived two hours away. Which would be quite a lot of commute. 2) He already had an apprentice. I begged anyway until he got a restraining order against me. Kidding! He just bought a taser. But even as I pleaded to be allowed to ruin my pretty hands and set myself on fire at his forge I knew that there had to be an easier way to do it. I just had to find that way. Every (half-burnt) cell of my body wanted to do this. The work psychologist was delighted – I made her job so much easier when we simply skipped the last four appointments. I found out what I wanted to do. I still received unemployment benefits. It was the perfect time to start learning my future job – in my head there was no way around it, this was it and there was no option I wouldn’t be pursuing that track.

Some of my ex-colleagues met me for drinks, and they confessed they were quite envious, because they had no idea what their dream job would have been. They just did their job because, well, money is nice, mortgages don’t pay themselves, plus it was the time of crisis, when jobs were scarce. This worked both for me (not a lot of people competed to become professional blacksmiths) and against me (not a lot of people had money to spend on handmade ironwork). But both the work psychologist and me agreed there was no point in me trying to do Reasonable Things – too many people were busy trying and failing to do the same Reasonable Things, but they had experience and knowledge I didn’t have. And forging was something I wanted to pursue so much that it seemed very unlikely I’d lose motivation.

There was just one problem. In the course of my life until then I already decided to become a guitarist (when I discovered I had to practice a lot I gave up), photographer (I discovered that I liked snapping a pic or two, but having to actually work on assignments bored me off my tits), painter, writer (I have quite a lot of first halves of first drafts, let me tell you), love and sex coach, and most probably things that I got over so fast I forgot I even tried them in the first place. But none of those things came with a warning I might stop enjoying them two days later. There was a non-zero chance I would get over forging, the same as I got over the idea of being a guitarist and a painter…and there was only one way to find out.

Power hammers are awesome.

To be continued…

I am currently in Reykjavík, Iceland. The sky is fully covered by clouds, which doesn’t stop us from hoping to see Northern lights just one more time before we depart. Yes. I’m greedy like that.

 

But how did all this happen?

It all started with a dream I had many years ago. I dreamt of a fishing village, where three brothers – one of whom was a pastor – fell in love with the same woman. There was more to the dream, of course. Blood, gore, fire, drama, and that final scene where the pastor confesses his sins to all the parishioners, and gets chased out of town, as the church burns in the distance.

It was the most cinematic dream I’ve ever had. It was also, frankly, quite ridiculous. Entertaining, but ridiculous. So I thought I would forget about it, same as all my dreams before, but I didn’t. I carried it in my head for years. Every now and then I would see or hear something, and then be reminded of the dream. My writer’s mind – I’ve been writing since I was 7, blogging for 15+ years with thousands of readers who followed me when I moved on – kept on adding and removing details. Expanding on them. It became one of my multiple “yeah this might become a novel one day, I mean look at those horrible books that get published nowadays lulz I could do so much better if I only tried”. But I never tried. Who’s got time for that?

A few years ago I had enough to do. I was working at the forge aiming to become a full-time professional blacksmith, I was renovating and selling an apartment, getting married…and somewhere in the middle of all this I lifted a piece of IKEA furniture, something snapped in my back, and that was the moment my blacksmithing career was over, although I didn’t know it yet.

 

Enter Ásgeir

 

Someone sent me this video. There are two people who could have sent me this song. Both insist they heard about it from me. I listened, then again, and fell in love with the song, but didn’t like anything about the album. I dismissed it as muzak. Then, a while later, I noticed husby was playing something really beautiful. I asked “what’s that?” and he answered, “oh, it’s this Ásgeir guy”. My jaw dropped, and I listened. And listened.

In The Silence would later become my album of the year for both 2014 and 2015 (nothing better came out). I’d buy the regular CD, Icelandic version (Dýrð í dauðaþögn), the vinyl, the 3CD special edition, acquire (thanks Jens!) the 7″ picture disc for Nú hann blæs, cry my eyes out during the concert in Amsterdam – the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

Once I realised who translated Einar Georg Einarsson’s – Ásgeir’s father’s – lyrics into a language I understood, I fell hard for John Grant. A little book called “Bad/Good sides of Iceland” lists John Grant as the only celebrity who moved to Iceland and bothered to learn the language. (Which didn’t stop him from singing “I hate this fucking town” about Reykjavík, but that’s a different story.) I listened to the music, the dream marinated quietly in my head, until one day something in my brain sort of clicked.

A thought appeared: “I wonder if they used to have fishing villages like ‘mine’ in Iceland?” Had I known the timing of this thought would prove to be important, I would have written it down. But back at that point all I knew was that Ásgeir’s Dýrð í dauðaþögn sounded divine, the English translations were beautiful, and everything about the music largely describing freezing cold felt like home and warmth. Which was something I needed a lot at that time…

 

2016

I spent most of 2016 in horrible pain from the back injuries. I tried, and failed, and tried, and failed to return to the forge. 30 minutes of work would result in three weeks of pain. I started dreading going to the forge, already wary before leaving the house of the pain that it would cause. Finally, I gave up. (And tried again, and gave up again, because that’s how I roll.) I missed – still do – the smell of hot iron and burning coal more than anything in the world, but still not enough to voluntarily cause myself massive suffering.

I survived this year because of the love of my husby and friends; music; sheer stubbornness. But it got close, very uncomfortably close. Maybe that was why on January 1, 2017, I opened the laptop and started typing in my story of three brothers in a fishing village. The date wasn’t a symbolic gesture. I was mildly depressed, in a bit less pain than usual, had nothing better to do. People with spine injuries don’t party too hard on New Year’s Eve. So I sat on my profiled pillows, and typed. For two weeks. Averaging 12 hours a day. I finished the first draft, 180 pages of text, in two weeks.

 

2017

When you write a story down, you start seeing the problems with it. The weaknesses, parts that simply make no sense at all, but also the research and problems you’ve just placed in front of yourself. To begin with, I didn’t actually know if villages like the one I needed existed at all. I couldn’t place it right in time – it had to be historical-ish, but I never really read much about this period. I hated things that had to do with war, shooting each other (what’s wrong with a good ol’ axe???), digging trenches, throwing grenades, and writing letters to your beloved one back at home. I had a story about people, and this story required the right timing, place, backdrop… and Ásgeir continued providing the sonic landscape.

I did not do a bit of research until this first draft was finished. I didn’t even check whether Iceland would work for me at all. But when I bought ‘Wasteland with words’ by Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon it felt like magic. I received answers to questions I didn’t even know I had. Mostly, though, I was shown very clearly that Iceland was the right setting for my novel to take place. Better than right. Perfect. Reading ‘Wasteland with words’ resolved problems I didn’t notice I had. Sigurður Gylfi’s book allowed me to write down a list of all research questions I needed to do before proceeding.

Research

I read a lot and I started work on the second draft in March. At this point I was already trying to contact historians and church officials in Iceland, asking on my Polish blog whether somebody could perhaps help me with some things (my blog readers are magical). I talked husby and my dear friend Ulf into going together for a few days in June. But no blacksmiths or historians responded to my queries, and I gave up on the idea I would get to talk to anybody. Weeks before our departure I heard from Helga Maureen at Árbæjarsafn – yes, she would be happy to meet up and help me find answers to my questions. Bart the Leatherman, whom I met through my blog, helped me figure out where to go and what to see. In disbelief, I watched my dream coming true.

 

 

This first trip in June 2017 would give me new friends, new adventures, and turn Iceland from a place suitable for my novel into a full-blown obsessive love that began as the plane was landing, and I saw the shape of the island.

More to follow…