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How's Bayou?: Deep South meets deep freeze

 The light side of Reykjavik. Photo: Keith Marshall

The light side of Reykjavik. Photo: Keith Marshall

Awash in darkness and mystical radiance from softly-hued luminescent tubes that mimicked the Northern Lights, we swirled glasses of wine in the vertigo-inducing interior of Reykjavik's award-winning Harpa Concert Hall, as the sound of a traditional Icelandic Harmonik accordion, accompanying angelic-voiced female members of the popular trio Harmony, filled the stories-tall foyer.

Suddenly, without realizing it, I heard myself quietly singing words familiar from my childhood, "I'm comin' -- I'm comin' -- for my head is bendin' low. I hear the gentle voices calling, 'Old Black Joe'."

Yes, that was it. Sung in Icelandic. I was certain. I hummed along with the sweet, rising voices of the three singers, then mouthed the words softly to a companion -- hesitantly, as by the time I went to college, the Stephen Foster classic was dismissed as a questionable remnant of a glorified but unsavory past. Still, I choked up and couldn't finish the stanza.

In my mind, I was 10 years old again, sitting at the Cable Nelson spinet in the living room, preparing for a recital at the house of my piano teacher, Charlotte Felt, wife of then Times-Picayune managing editor Buddy Felt, who a dozen or so years later would hire my wife, Millie, to be the newspaper's "Aunt Jane."

Yes, it was "Old Black Joe" that Mrs. Felt, a staunch conservative, had selected for me to show off my burgeoning, but never-to-be-realized keyboard dexterity. That was to be followed by Foster's "Camptown Races" and his "Beautiful Dreamer," if the audience of attentive parents and fellow students demanded more. They didn't.

And here I was, 57 years later -- in a hall, in a city, in a country where even wait staff is universally lily white -- almost weeping over a song that was, depending on your views, either regrettably patronizing or quaintly nostalgic. The leader of the group was thrilled that someone recognized the song when sung in a different language.

"Oh, yes. We love it and all of Stephen Foster, especially 'Beautiful Dreamer'," one of the Nordic beauties enthused. "We perform these all the time, to very good reception."

I was so moved and confused by my response to the music that I barely was able to finish the Anise-cured Arctic char with kumquat and fennel espuma, Ragula-stuffed rack of lamb and creme brûlée and chocolate truffle cake at the dinner that followed, Icelandic haute cuisine that would have mystified Foster's weary slave.

On the way back to our hotel, I pondered the eccentricities and contradictions of this country I'd just encountered. Older residents scrupulously maintain foot-tall wooden "houses" in their gardens for the elves, while the main street of the capital's version of Wall Street is an imperfect but exemplary realization of French 20th-century Modernist architect Le Corbusier's vision of La Ville Radieuse, a linear procession of flat-roofed purist/minimalist structures, surrounded by green spaces, along a swiftly-moving vehicular corridor.

When I looked out the window the first day, I thought I was in a scene from Toy Story or a gigantic Lego showroom: Rectilinear buildings with minimal adornment, Helvetica Medium lettering everywhere and large cartoon images discreetly displaying products in tall expanses of glass. And nearby, a brightly-hued warehouse emblazoned in red letters on one side: BAUHAUS.

There was the house museum of 20th-century Icelandic sculptor Asmundur Sveinsson, who championed spheres, pyramids and crescents as the shapes houses should take in this near-treeless country.

Ventures outside Reykjavik brought vistas of exquisite waterfalls; expansive, flat lunar landscapes of matte-black glacial sand, spanned by bridges rebuilt after Katrina-like surges of water from rapidly-melting glaciers wrecked them in 1996; and some great pizza.

But I couldn't get Stephen Foster off my mind. Icelanders are courteous, and I felt guilty if a drop of my hand sanitizer fell to the sidewalk in the immaculate streets of Reykjavik. But it was in the cold, desolate landscapes of the countryside that my thoughts migrated to a sweltering landscape of cotton and sugarcane fields, the reality of a past the composer had idealized.

R.I.P., Joe. Your story moved me and touches others in a faraway land. R.I.P.

How’s Bayou? the secrets of remaining sane while running an upscale B&B on Bayou Lafourche, is written weekly for NolaVie by Keith Marshall, a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale and Oxford universities who now runs Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville.