Aaron Young on his Icelandic roots, Lindsay’s bittersweet growth and becoming a different human being
Lunch with: Conversations with interesting people in Kawartha Lakes
If you happened to be in Hafnarfjordur, Iceland, in the 1970s (and really, who wasn’t?), you might have caught glimpse of a tall boy playing with other kids among the lava fields.
That’s where Aaron Young spent many summers as a kid, an effort on his family’s part to ensure he got time in his ancestral homeland.
Young, 55, was born in Toronto but moved to Iceland when he was a young child for the first few years of his life, up until about age six. His parents were both Icelandic so the 20th century Viking blood is for real. But his dad was born to an American father during the Second World War.
“My granddad was over there, my grandmother got pregnant and then my grandfather came back to the U.S. while my father stayed in Iceland. When the time was right, they immigrated to Canada,” says Young.
As we settle down at Lindsay’s Boston Pizza for this interview, I can easily see the Viking persona within the large-framed 6’ 2’’ Lindsay resident, as he talks about his heritage. Is this also the persona, I wonder, that some in the community seem to take issue with?
Young opts for a Thai wrap and is good with water. I choose a chicken breast sandwich on a baguette with a salad and, shocker, a green tea.
“I used to go back almost every summer,” he recalls. “My parents would send me back to stay with my grandparents,” who lived in Hafnarfjordur, just south of the capital, Reykjavik.
Young carries an Icelandic passport as well as a Canadian one. He doesn’t read or write Icelandic, but he does speak it “phonetical and old school,” as he puts it. “It’s a really tough language to learn.”
(As someone who visited the Nordic nation a few years ago and attempted to speak some phrases, I think this might be an understatement.)
However, when Young visits the northern island everyone seems to want to show off their English, since it’s their second language but he tries to keep it Icelandic as much as possible.
“My grandparents have passed away, but I keep in contact with my (cousins).” In fact, he had just sent a cousin six packages of good old Canadian ketchup chips since they can’t get that flavour there.
They live in Akureyri, the fourth- largest city, which is a bit smaller than Lindsay with about 17,000 people. It’s located in the northern reaches of Iceland, a country famed for its pristine landscapes and commitment to equality.
When Young spent his childhood summers in the Nordic nation, what he remembers most is playing outside.
“They had these little parks where you could build forts. The wood was all supplied (by the local government) and we’d just play and build things.”
Ubiquitous gulls would lay their eggs among the lava rocks in the fields, says Young. “But if you’re playing in those fields,” as he did with his friends then, “they’ll dive-bomb you because they assume you’re after their young.”
He also remembers going down to the pier and watching the big fishing boats come in. The fishers would take the catch-of-the-day cod fillets and hang them from wooden racks to dry in the sun and wind.
“When I was a kid they only had a couple channels on TV there,” says Young. “There was no internet of course. There was just a belief that fresh air was best.” Back then, and even today, Icelandic babies are parked outside in their prams to take in as much outside time as possible.
As the Icelandic chatter fades, I ask him how he thinks he is perceived by others here.
He gives a Viking laugh, but not in a village-plundering way. More like a laugh you’d share with your mates while sprucing up your longboat.
“I know lots of people who think they know me, or what makes me tick,” says Young. “I think the people who see me in a negative light don’t know me and don’t realize that a lot of what I do is for the benefit of the community.”
He brings up The Pie Eyed Monk.
“Jen (Boksman, his wife) and I worked really hard there. That was three years of my life getting the Monk up.”
He says the C.L. Baker building was borderline decrepit and their concern was that it was going to get knocked down. “That’s why we initially took it on. Regardless of what people might think, we really wanted to do that for the community — not just to save the building but to provide a destination like the Monk for everyone. The community needed it.”
The Monk is owned by five investors, including Young.
He also points to Ribfest, something they took on for 11 consecutive years at one point. “We didn’t make money at that — we did it for the community. We ponied up our own money and a lot of great local people supported it too.”
To this day people ask about Ribfest and whether it is still running, a question that persists on local social media message boards.
When he left the Monk just before COVID hit, Young admits it wasn’t easy.
“Thinking back to those early days I would have liked to stick it out there long term. But having partners can be trying. Being a Type A personality, it’s hard to be micromanaged. Would I have liked to have worked out the rest of my days working there? Sure. But it wasn’t realistic.”
Feeling the pressure to do so, Young stepped away from the day-to-day management of the restaurant and brewery before the pandemic began.
“You go from 150 emails a day . . . to nothing overnight, and then COVID. For my personality, that was really humbling.”
Young says he’s a “different human being” since the pandemic. He gave up drinking, cold turkey, just before going in for a knee replacement. “I quit the day before I went in. Lost a much needed 55 pounds in a month and a half. I cut out all sugars. I’m a black-and-white guy. It’s one of my strengths and my weaknesses.”
About four months ago he got his real estate licence. “That would have shocked my high school teachers, that I stuck with it, because my marks were horrible in school,” says Young, who has owned many businesses in the area.
Young thinks the town needs to do a better job in creating development that will hold people here when they come down the river by boat, or even when they’re considering making this area a destination.
“Why don’t we have a draw along the river? Why isn’t there a place to rent kayaks or canoes in Lindsay?”
I ask him how he sees Lindsay’s development over the next five years.
“Bittersweet,” he says after a long pause.
“I think we’re going to grow and I fear we’re going to lose a sense of who we are. It’s inevitable and yet it’s long overdue,” he says, pointing to the proximity of the area to the GTA.
“People are coming up here, they’re looking around, and they love what we have and who we are. But will we be who we are when they all get here in the end? I hope so.”
He pauses and thinks about what else might be ideal for these potential new citizens of the area.
“Will they join a 100 Men, will they join the local Chamber . . . will they try and do things to make positive change?”
Young thinks of the “great mom-and-pop shops downtown,” that have already been hit hard by the pandemic and hopes they will be okay with all the expected growth.
“There’s a lot of good people downtown who work really hard.”
While he fears an increasing amount of online shopping more than he does Walmart, if everybody commits to doing as much of their business as they can downtown, “our town would be epic,” Young says.
I ask him what the sweet part is of his bittersweet statement.
“It will be awesome to watch us grow. Jennifer and I live on the river,” in Lindsay. “We go out in a boat almost every morning and she does photo shoots. Blue herons, turtles and ospreys. I don’t want to lose that — but I know others want to share in that, too.”