...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Friday, May 04, 2012

The Faroe islands, mid-April

The tourist brochures say that the first thing you'll notice upon arriving in the Faroe islands is the clean, crisp air. For my part – I arrived by plane on a cloudy, cool and damp April afternoon with some colleagues – the first thing I remember noticing was not the air but the feeling of isolation. I didn't know quite what to expect when we landed in the airport, but somehow I never would have thought that it would feel so far-flung.

The Faroes are a self-governing island group in the North Atlantic, halfway between Iceland and the UK. They islands they have their own flag, their own parliament, own language and even their own banknotes, but form part of the Kingdom of Denmark. 

The feeling of isolation is partly an illusion. There are connections from Copenhagen to Vágar five times daily, as well as from other destinations several times a week. Cruise boats also come in the summer months and camping sites become popular. Yet, for people used to the big cities, the feeling of almost total isolation is real enough. The imposing bare mountains – there are no endemic trees in this rocky, windswept land – tell you with almost physical certainty that you've arrived to another world.

Because it was spring, the tourist season hadn't started. Faroese weather is known to be fickle and unpredictable, but the periodic hail and snow at this time of the year mean that there are few hikers in the mountains yet, if any. We toured around the northern islands mostly by car, and even then some roads were impassable except for four-wheel drive cars with good winter tires. Once again, the feeling of isolation contrasted with modernity. For just serving shy of 50,000 inhabitants, the road- and tunnel networks are excellent. There are also organized bus- and ferry routes to most islands; the remotest of islands can be reached through helicopter-taxi. Reliable infrastructure keep the gears of this small society running. It is the forces of nature, rather than a lack of order, that prevents one from going places. The contrast between the raw and the ordered, between nature and technology, is what appeared so fascinating for me. The landscape, with its jagged cliffs and awesome mountains, is so dramatic that one can't help turning back into oneself and realizing, quite in surprise, that the year is in fact 2012 and we are going around by car and are two hours away by plane from Denmark. It feels rather like stepping into pages of a story book.

Where I felt isolated from people, I felt outnumbered by the sheep. In fact, sheep outnumber the local population by almost double. The local domestic breed, the Faroese, is long-haired, shaggy and well-suited to the climate (it is never more than 12 degrees Celsius at any time of the year). The sheep range freely and can occasionally cross roads, so one should drive with caution. For centuries, the barren mountains have lent itself useful for grazing. So the sheep are everywhere, and they are also where the country gets its name. Føroyar, in the local language, means just that: Sheep Islands. 

Consequently, sheep are important to culture, clothing and cuisine. Most wear one or several items of wool. They are functional: naturally warm, wind-proof, and water-repellent. And it also seemed to me that wool clothing was a matter of national pride. The Faroese would never want to be called Danes, and they speak – and clothe – Faroese. In the capital Tórshavn, you'll find many stores selling both traditional and contemporary wool clothing. Among the popular ones are Sirri (which also sell quality Faroese yarn) and Guđrun og Guđrun, whose classic sweaters have become internationally popular from the Danish TV series “The Killing”. Faroese wool is thicker and slightly pricklier than other types of wool, but they are also more durable.

In the culinary side, I was asked by a friend to taste skerpikjøt, air-dried mutton. Not one to pass up these offers, I agreed to taste a piece. It was chewy and had a slightly pungent taste reminiscent of prosciutto before the tongue fills with a kind of smoky flavor and unmistakable taste of fatty lamb. The aromas attacked my palette like wasabi, but when the strong pungent sensation was over, an agreeable meat taste remained. I was almost sorry that I didn't take more of it; it was a new unfamiliar flavor but not entirely unpleasant.

Aside from sheep, the sea is also what shapes the Faroese psyche and culture. More than a third of Faroese people still make a living out of fishing, or are somewhat linked to the fishing industry. And for me, there is nothing more telling about the Faroese connection to the sheep and the sea as the fact that dried mutton, according to my friend, is traditionally eaten together with a small piece of whale fat. The Faroes are one of the few places where whaling is legal, but it is not commercialized and whale meat cannot be bought. Rather, in the few years that whales do swim into the fjords, they are caught in beaches and its meat rationed to the citizens. Dried, the whale meat usually last many years until the time the whales come again. Whaling is a long Faroese tradition (as is catching and eating the north Atlantic puffin) and although the locals that I have met seem to talk freely about it, I wouldn't recommend criticizing hosts about it. From a certain point of view, it doesn't seem justifiable to continue a tradition for its own sake, even if we grant that the few Faroese aren't the cause of the whales' endangered numbers. Yet for a country that imports most everything except wool, birds eggs, fish and mutton, what more important traditions are there to keep?

I know I often say this of countries I visit but I would gladly go back there again, on official school function or not. I don't see myself living there, but there is something about the self-chosen isolation, the jaggedness and yet also the accessibility, that mystifies. And for one thing, I already miss the tap water there. It was cold, clean – thin like distilled water – and almost sweet. I wonder why they commented on the air, but not the water in the tourist brochures.

1. Koltur, viewed from Streymoy island
2. Sheep, Gásadalur village
3. Starlings like fruit on a tree
4. In Kirkjubøur, the world's oldest inhabited wooden house
5. Up in the mountains, on the way to Saksun where we had to turn back
6. The Faroese (sheep)
7. Fish hanging to dry
8. Giant seaweed, shoe size 38


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