Two days before our Friday departure to the Faroe Islands, my photographer asked, “Did you book a room yet?”
“It is January,” I replied. “And we are going to the Faroe Islands man, I don’t think we will have trouble finding a place to stay in the Faroe Islands in January.” Of course I did not realise it at the time, but that cocky attitude would come back to haunt me, much like it usually does.
From Reykjavík Airport it takes about an hour and 15 minutes to fly to the Faroe Islands International Airport, on the island Vágar, which is next to the island Streymoy where the capital town of Tórshavn is located.
After collecting our bags inside the terminal we discover that the next bus for Tórshavn will not be leaving for an hour. After short deliberation, we decide that renting a car is our best option, allowing us easy access to Tórshavn and means to travel around the islands.
As we prepare to leave, another passenger from the flight asks us if the bus is leaving. Not wanting to leave a fellow countryman stranded on foreign ground, we promptly offer him a ride into town. Fitting the luggage and the three of us in a tiny Suzuki Alto proves to be a small logistical problem, considering that the passenger we have picked up is actually a former prize-fighter from the light-heavyweight division.
The 25-minute drive into Tórshavn is a scenic route. We drive through a few small towns, but it is the view of the distinctive cliffs that mostly catches the eye. The land steeply slopes upwards towards the ocean, until all of a sudden it just stops and there is a menacing cliff that goes straight down. It looks very much like the Enron profit chart must have looked.
Our passenger turns out to be an agreeable fellow. This is not his first visit to the islands, so he is able to explain a few of the oddities to us. In Tórshavn, his friend welcomes us. He turns out to be another nice fellow and offers to help us find a place to stay for the weekend.
All in the Family
Icelanders often refer to their neighbouring countries in terms of relatives. Particularly other Nordic Countries, such as Sweden, Norway or Denmark; which are usually referred to as our cousin nations. This is perhaps understandable, given the historical relations, a common cultural background and similar values between the Nordic Countries.
In line with this terminology, the Faroe Islands are more akin to a kid brother. There is a relationship between these two countries that stretches beyond whatever kinship we may have with our other neighbouring countries.
Norse Vikings settled both countries around AD 900. The two languages have developed in isolation from Old Norse but remain very similar. Both countries were under Danish rule since 1380 with the origin of the Kalmar Union. Iceland received independence in 1944, while the Faroe Islands are now working towards that goal. There is the commonality of surviving on cold, desolate islands in the North Atlantic by whatever means necessary, through hardship and cold winters, and having to rely on the sea for livelihood.
In some ways, coming from Iceland to the Faroe Islands is not so much like travelling between countries: it is more like travelling to an alternate reality. There is an uncanny feeling of familiarity, whether it is the nature, the people, the towns, or the way of life, and yet, it is so different.
Hans Beck, the local connection we meet through our pick-up passenger, has been dialling different hotels on his mobile phone for about 15-minutes. It seems as if there is not a single bed available for rent in town. We follow him to Hótel Tórshavn, the biggest hotel in town, but it is undergoing renovations and will not accept guests for another month. It seems every hotel or guesthouse is booked up.
After making a few more calls, he jumps in his car and tells us to follow him to a guesthouse at the other end of town. It turns out to be a dead end as well. In the parking lot, he makes a few more calls. Meanwhile, he offers us beer from a case in his trunk. A few calls later, he tells us that he has probably found a room. We follow him to the offices of the Smyril Line company, where we are told we can get a room in an elderly couple’s home that the company uses as a summer bed and breakfast, located on the outskirts of town. It has taken the better part of two hours and probably close to 15 phone calls, but we finally have a place to stay for the night.
We all decide to go out to dinner together, heading to the Rio Bravo, a local steakhouse where we are served with fine steaks at a good price. Meanwhile, Hans Beck explains some of the local rituals to us: “The Faroese People drink like swine,” he says, “12-15 years ago, there was no alcohol sold in the islands. It had to be ordered from Denmark and this had to happen before Wednesday if you wanted it to be here for the weekend. It was very expensive to order just one bottle, so everyone would order a 12-bottle box. Then people would have 12 bottles of booze lying around, and they would just keep on drinking. So there is always this box-mentality when we are drinking. The Faroese people drink like swine.”
But rigorous drinking habits are not all the Faroes are known for. They have a reputation for a strong work ethic, and, as the old saying goes, they work hard and they play hard. Beck, a carpenter by trade, tells us that there is much demand for work force in the islands, especially in the building industry. At the moment, there are about 850 new apartments and houses being built in Tórshavn, a very high number for a town of less than 20,000. As Hans Beck puts it, “Every carpenter in town has projects lined up for the next three years.”
After suffering a severe economic depression in the 1990s, the last few years have been prosperous in the islands and the unemployment rate is now below 3%, one of the lowest figures in Europe. According to Terji Nielsen, editor of the weekly Vikublaðið, the private sector is screaming for employees, and there are plans to loosen regulations regarding foreign workforce, which should take effect this April.
Around 90% of the Faroes’ export revenue is tied to the fishing industry, although that figure is decreasing with the addition of high-tech companies and a growing tourist industry. In the last few years, the Faroese people have collectively been waiting for positive results from experimental oil drillings in the Faroese Continental Shelf. If the results are positive, it will most likely put even more strain on both the expanding real estate market and the employment market, with even more demand for foreign workforce.
Tórshavn is the biggest town in the Faroe Islands, home to nearly 20,000 of the islands’ 50,000 inhabitants. Like most fishing towns, it was originally built around the harbour and expanded outwards, away from the waterfront and up to the hills.
The old town is a beautiful place. From the harbour stretches Tinghúsvegur and above that, Niels Finsens Gøta, the two main streets in town, one being the shopping street and the parliamentary building standing by the other. The houses are small, mostly made of wood, but encased in corrugated iron, much like the old town in Reykjavík. The distinctive difference is the common grass roof, an old Viking heritage that is really only kept alive in the Faroe Islands today.
A beautiful example of the grass-roof tradition is the Nordic House, a cultural centre for Faroese and Nordic culture in Tórshavn. Designed by Norwegian and Icelandic architects, the building is inspired by folklore and intended to resemble an “enchanting hill of elves.” Made from natural wood, grass and stone, with large windows that let in the daylight, it is a beautiful building, and well worth the visit.
There is a very friendly atmosphere in Tórshavn. Even if it is a rather small town, where everyone knows everyone else, the locals are open and friendly towards guests. By the end of our three-day stay, we had gotten to know an incredible amount of locals, and people invariably waved to us on the streets or came up to us for a friendly hello.
There is a wide variety of bars in Tórhavn’s centre. There is the Café Natur, a cosy coffeehouse/bar by the harbour where young people congregate over a cup of coffee or, more likely, beer, before heading out to other bars, such as Manhattan or Cleopatra. There is also Eclipse, a place that has generated a small reputation for its lively atmosphere and wild nights. Right next to it is Rex, a club that is mostly for members of the older generations. Sadly, there was not time to sample the rest.
The Language Barrier
Icelandic and Faroese are two of the three insular Scandinavian languages descended from Old Norse, spoken in Scandinavia during the Viking Age.
There are great similarities between the two languages, to the point where they sometimes sound like different dialects of the same language (which they are in a sense) although the differences are often more than subtle. To an Icelander, the words invariably tend to start off in good Icelandic, before they end up completely different. At times, it is more like you are trying to decipher the drunken ramblings of an Icelander, rather than listening to a foreign language.
This resemblance makes it possible for us to talk to the locals in our own tongue, but it does not necessarily make conversations easier between us. The same words are often used with a different meaning, and the time it usually takes to figure what the other one is saying slows every conversation down to the pace of a conversation with your deaf grandmother. We usually end up talking in English, a more efficient mode of communication under the circumstances, however shameful that may be.
The Faroe Islands are rapidly changing from a simple society revolving around the fishing industry and the availability of fish, to a more modern society revolving around trade and technology. In the last 10-15 years, the Faroes have built one of the best transportation systems in Northern Europe, with all the islands now interconnected, either through sub-sea tunnels, bridges or ferries.
The financial sector has been deregulated to allow banks and investment companies more freedom, while publicly owned companies, such as banks, insurance and energy companies have been, or are in the process of being, privatised. The fishing industry is also being deregulated to allow foreign investors, which has spurred much interest from Icelandic companies that have become very apparent in the Faroese fishing industry lately.
Recently, a fishing quota system was introduced in the Faroe Islands, similar to the one employed in Iceland. As a result, fishing quotas are being bought and sold like other commodities, and in the process, for the first time in Faroese history, creating a class of super wealthy individuals.
The Faroe Islands are divided on the issue of independence from Denmark. The population is almost evenly split between those who favour independence and those who prefer to continue as a part of the Kingdom of Denmark. There are different opinions among both camps: those who favour independence are split between those in favour of an immediate unilateral declaration and those who see it as something to be attained gradually and with the full consent of the Danish government and the Danish nation. In the unionist camp, many foresee and welcome a gradual increase in autonomy even as strong ties to Denmark are maintained.
My host at the guesthouse, an older and considerate gentleman puts it well when we discuss the issue over breakfast one morning. “When you move away from home, you don’t stop talking to your parents,” he says. “After you move out, you still want to be able to have a good relationship with your parents, and maybe come by for dinner once in a while.” Like much else in the islands, the answer to this question is inevitably tied to oil.