Published July 23, 2004
The last time I was in the Faroes, five years ago, there was only one fast food place in the capital, Tórshavn. Not a McDonalds or a Burger King, but Icelandic franchise Pizza 67. There were two bars, one of them appropriately titled Kaffi Natúr, which had (and still has) a grass roof. The other one, Mímir, may well be the least advertised bar in the world. Having no sign and a perpetually locked door you need to knock on, you really need to know it to find it. Now they have 7 other bars, with names like Manhattan and Cleopatra, and they have a Burger King as well as pizzerias and kebab places.
We arrived at the airport in Vágar just before midnight. From there it´s a 45 minute drive to the capital, but even in the near dark you can´t help but be impressed by the stunning cliffs. No matter where you are in the Faroe Islands, you´re never more than 5km from the sea. The Faroes, as I said, are more Iceland than Iceland. For every connoisseur of wind and rain who doesn´t feel he´s getting his money’s worth round here, the Faroes are the must-see destination.
How much is that in real money? But saying that the islands resemble Iceland is displaying the same arrogance that Icelanders usually express to Faroese, it being one of the few nations on earth smaller than ours. An Icelander can go there, speak his own language expecting everyone to understand, try the Pizza 67 to see if they taste like they do at home and say that everything is bigger in Iceland. And Faroese girls, man, are really the most. It´s not often that an Icelander gets to be in the shoes of an American abroad, so many go for the whole experience. Even when the Faroese people banded together to collect money for survivors when snowfloods devastated villages here in the mid 90s, giving far more relief than any other nation, they received little gratitude from many people in Iceland too busy trying to be cool.
The Faroese language is similar enough to Icelandic to be read, but they have an accent almost impenetrable to the Icelandic ear. Even though still a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, they have a culture all their own. Faroese music has recently been making it off the island, and it´s about time. Artists like Týr and Eivor have had hits in Iceland, and perhaps before too long they´ll have their own Björk who will finally bring the Faroese music scene international attention.
We checked in at the Sailor´s Home, formerly just that and set up by a missionary who had a very strong anti-alcohol policy. Now it’s a fairly nice hotel, and fairly priced, too. At the nearest bar, a not too bad blues band was playing The Doors´ Roadhouse Blues. I asked a local about the music scene. He told me the only Faroese musician he liked was Kári P., a sort of Faroese Bubbi who plays sailors songs. I asked him whether he liked Bubbi, and he told me he did.
The next man I talked to told me he had been living in Iceland and that he had moved back when his father had promised him a horse. Back home he found out he had been tricked, the horse in question is actually living on Suðuröy, the southernmost of the Faroe Islands, and he had still not gotten to see it.
The bars in the Faroes close at four, and everyone still standing gathers on the mainstreet. A couple of girls sit on a bench and wave people over to a bench, next to which a crate of beer sits open to all. They proceed to sing some Irish folk songs, rightly renowned for their brilliance but seem in the process of exterminating folk songs everywhere else. When I complain about this, a ringdance is started for my benefit, but then falls apart as inebriation and stepping in time don´t mix. As this afterparty peters out, the last survivors make their way to the old town, where we stand by the harbour and enjoy the morning sun in which I am later told is the first good weather day of the year.
Yet another Jón
After a couple of hours sleep in the Sailor’s Home, we head out for Gata on the neighbouring island of Eysturöy. We were turned away by police on our way out of Tórshavn, as a city marathon was in progress and the road was closed. We therefore had to take the long road over the ridge out of town.
Gata is best known in history as the home of Þrándur, who successfully opposed Christianity and the Norwegian king until his death in the 1030s. The Islands were incorporated into the Norwegian kingdom after his death, from whence it was passed to Denmark when the crowns of Norway and Denmark were unified. Þrándur í Götu remains an expression for someone getting in your way in the Icelandic language.
These days, an annual music festival is held in Gata, the G-festival. Among the guests playing there this year were the Swedish Lisa Ekdal, the Norwegian Kashmir and Gata´s own Eivor Pálsdóttir. The band playing when we arrived was Hoffman from the Westman Islands. It turned out that Heimaey on the Westmans is Gata´s friendship town in Iceland, and so Hoffman were asked to play. They made references to drinking and told the audience they like the Faroes, doing their best to impersonate rock stars from the large country up north, and doing fairly well while seagulls flopped about in the background. A larger stage was situated down by the sea, and past that you could see people rowing a pocket sized Viking boat and hotshots giving girls rides on Jetskis.
Half the town is closed down for the festival, which is growing every year. Last year, 150 inhabitants of the town´s roughly 1000 inhabitants bought tickets. Now, the number was 700 with an estimated 3000 attendants in all. The man organising the festival is called Jón, an even more common name in the islands than here, and the festival headquarters are set up in his ex-girlfriends house, who was away for the weekend.
God, incest and alcohol
On the larger stage, the Christian band I Am are playing, and are pretty much what the name suggests, sadly. In a tent between the stages a makeshift church has been set up where smaller Christian acts perform. God is never far away in the Faroes. On the smaller stage a bored looking aging blonde in a long black coat is running through folk numbers. Her name is Annika Hoydal, and her main claim to fame is having participated in the Danish Eurovision contest in 1979 with the song Aldan. After a while she picks up, and so does the crowd.
As the night wears on and the drunkenness gets more apparent, Páll Finnur Páll take the stage. They introduce a song about incest, a popular pastime in isolated communities. This gets the crowd going. Apparently, they have some of the same social problems as we do. The same sense of humour as well.
As the festival winds down I remember that I have no place to stay. I bump into a couple of girls from the Westman Islands, here with the band Hoffman. One of them, Hafdís, is a performer in her own right. The other one asks me what I do back home. I tell her I edit a paper. She tells me she doesn´t like to read, but she watches a lot of TV. Hoffman, Hafdís and hangers-on take a taxi back to the Boy Scout home, where they have been quartered. The remaining beer in the fridge is disposed of. The girl who likes to watch television tells me I am very tall. People sometimes point this out to me. It´s not until two days later that I realise she may have been coming onto me.
I wake up to the sound of streams running, seagulls screeching and sheep doing whatever it is that sheep do. The day after, we make it back to Vágar airport. The remaining hour is spent examining the ruins of a British WW2 military base (they were there a month earlier than they came here). The airport chicken, however, is probably the worst in the North Atlantic area and should be avoided at all costs.
Thanks to Atlantic Airways, the Faroese Airline and their new jets, the distance to Reykjavík has been shortened to just over an hour. The idyllic islands are still down there. Enjoy them while you can.