Climate isn’t necessarily the deciding factor when it comes to warmth among people — and you may well receive more than the proverbial necklace of flowers on your visit to the Faroe Islands, as more and more people discover.
[By M. Workman]
If you read enough articles about the Faroe Islands, you’re going to run across a sentence like this eventually. “These spectacularly beautiful, cold, windswept islands are home to an austere people who, despite their brusque exteriors, can display genuine kindness when given enough time.”
It’s a common trope, I guess, to compare people to the weather of their home country. In this line of thinking, people from cold climates have cold personalities. Conversely, people from warmer places (think: Caribbean islands, Hawaii, etc.) are depicted as being more friendly and open. It doesn’t hurt that many of the people I’ve met in warm countries have been quite nice, and back in the 1970s, a woman in a grass skirt would put a flower lei around your neck when you landed in Hawaii.
So, with my head filled with this sort of writing, I was prepared for what awaited when I landed in the Faroes for the first time. I stepped out of the plane and took in that first, brisk hit of air that seemed to contain twice as much oxygen as I was used to. As I walked into the airport, I knew I would be on my own as I wandered among these solemn, reserved people.
The first sign that I might be working with inaccurate information came very quickly, at baggage claim, actually. As I waited for the conveyor to start, a Faroese person figured I was a first time visitor and spoke to me.
“You are in the Faroes for the first time?” he asked in flawless English.
“Yeah,” I replied, “I’m here to record stories for a podcast I do.”
“You will love this place. There are many interesting characters to meet.”
Then he shook my hand, told me his name, and left the hall with his luggage.
Not quite a necklace of flowers, to be sure, but this short moment in the airport was already not fitting into the template forged by countless travel writers.
Of course, this could have been an isolated incident. Every country has their outliers. But the next day, I’m at the G! Festival, three amazing days of music that take place in Gøta each July. A friend I recently met pointed out a tall person standing outside a building.
“That guy is one of the best musicians in this country. He used to be in this rock band, but now he’s working on something else and nobody has heard it yet.”
“That guy” turned out to be Marius, and he is, indeed, one of the best musicians in the country. A few minutes after he was pointed out to me, Marius walked up and said, “You are the American journalist who is in town?”
I said that I was, then he continued.
“I have been working on some new songs. Would you like to come to my rehearsal space and hear them?”
I said “yes” and before I could ask, he added, “And you can record them for your show.”
Two days later, I was at Marius’ rehearsal space listening to some gorgeous music. Some of these songs would go on to be hits on Faroese radio and performed at concerts around the world. But in this moment, it was a smaller, more personal thing. It was a musician sharing his new creation with a stranger. As gestures go, that’s pretty warm.
This was not an isolated incident. At that same festival, I was approached by another man who said, “You are that American journalist who is in town?” (A lot of conversations started this way.)
When I said I was, he asked where I was staying for Ólavsøka. Ólavsøka is a two-day celebration that takes place in Tórshavn at the end of July. People gather in the capitol and dress in national costume and socialize with people they may not have seen since the last Ólavsøka. There’s lots of music, some dancing, and many roads in the center of town are closed for the festivities.
I told him I was staying out in Hoyvík, which is on the outskirts of Torshavn.
“That is too far away for Ólavsøka. I live closer to the center of town and I have an extra room. Here is my phone number. You will call me on Wednesday night and I will pick you up.”
So I called him on Wednesday night and he did, indeed, pick me up and I was a guest in his home for three nights. We remain friends to this day.
‘One of my favorite’
Edgar Struble is a music producer from Nashville, Tennessee. For years, he produced albums for many of the Faroe Islands top country music artists. And yes, the Faroes have a surprisingly robust country music scene.
After years of producing these Faroese artists, a concert was held in Struble’s honor and he brought his family over for the event. While Edgar was preparing for the show, his kids were making friends, and two teenaged daughters even went to school with someone they met.
When it was time to leave, they went back to the school.
“The whole school came out to give them hugs, and the teachers were openly weeping as my kids were saying goodbye,” Struble said. “These are people with true hearts. It touched our lives.”
“My kids did not want to leave,” Struble continued. “My wife and I didn’t really cry, but there were some tears in our eyes when we left. It was a magical place. My family was excited about having an adventure. This was a big adventure for them. But what they found, in addition to the wonderful adventure they had, was genuine love and care and concern, and acceptance of them, unconditionally. When we really got to know people, it was if we had known some of these people for many, many years.”
Many others have told me stories of walking down the street in a Faroese village and striking up a conversation with a stranger, and then having dinner at that person’s house later that night. One woman named Jennifer Henke showed up in the Faroes to see if she could find any long lost relatives. Within 24 hours of her arrival and without her knowing anyone in the country before she came, an impromptu family reunion with dozens of people had been organized.
(Before she passed away in 2014, Henke told the full story of her trip to the Faroes in a book, “The Missing Son: A Faroe Island Saga.” It’s still available on Amazon and comes highly recommended.)
Since my first visit to the Faroes, I’ve been back many times. And each time, I see more and more of the warmth travel writers think only exists in tropical climates. On my last visit, I was sitting on a bench talking to a friend about research he’s doing for his master’s thesis. When he was done, I said, “I think you’re one of my favorite people in the Faroe Islands.”
His reply, “I think you’re one of my favorite people.”
I’ll take moments like that over a flower necklace any day.