Plenty of air, plenty of time — an American learns a lesson or two about the Faroe Islands and the people who inhabit the country, including how a unique mix of tradition and modernity makes an irresistible appeal to visitors.
We landed at Vagar Airport early on a July evening and were immediately struck by how clean the air tasted while walking the tarmac to the terminal. It was the kind of clean, crisp air that people who live in cities like Los Angeles pay good money to breathe in special bars. I was in the Faroes on a 10-day mission to document as much of the islands and their people as I could for a podcast I produce about the islands. I work primarily in audio, but I was traveling with a Norwegian-born videographer who worked in Hollywood and had never been to the Faroe Islands before.
I had spent the previous two years obsessively studying maps and photos and reading anything about the country I could get my hands on. Thomas, on the other hand, only knew the Faroes as a place where Norwegians sometimes had to spend a day or two while on a cruise to somewhere else.
But as we stood outside the airport and tried to take in the scenery that looked like it had been dreamed up by the digital artists who brought you ‘Lord of the Rings,’ it was obvious neither of us had any idea what we were in for. No amount of advance work can prepare the first-time visitor for the grand scale of the Faroe Islands’ scenery, and it certainly can’t prepare someone for contact with one of the most unique and beguiling cultures left in the world.
The first thing we learned was that our concept of time, and timeliness varied greatly from that of our Faroese hosts. We were in a hurry, and almost immediately headed out to appointments we had set up. We had booked our schedule pretty tight.
In short order, we found ourselves behind schedule. You see, you can’t just walk into a Faroese person’s home, or office, or fishing hut and then expect to have a quick conversation and be on your way. Instead, you’ll have to stick around at least long enough to have tea. This is true even in places where you wouldn’t expect it. Once I visited a garage owned by a salmon farm. I was there to look for a lost camera that I was able to locate in less than a minute. But in that short period of time, a kettle had already been put on and a selection of Danish butter cookies had been laid out on a plate.
The afternoon’s schedule would have to be rearranged. Tea was on.
Swapping stories: As a result of incidents like this, we were constantly showing up late for appointments. We usually would have called ahead, but our American mobile phones didn’t work in the Faroes (or anywhere outside of the US, for that matter).
So when I showed up late to the offices of a top executive at one of the Faroe Islands’ biggest companies, I fell all over myself apologizing. “I’m so sorry we’re late,” I said, “we’re kind of overbooked today.”
And he just stared at me blankly, as if he didn’t even understand what I was saying. So, being an American, I continued talking. “I want to respect your time, so I just want you to know that we’re sorry and I hope it didn’t inconvenience you much.” He looked at me as if I was speaking a foreign language (which, technically, I was) before remarking, “yes, but you’re here now, right?” “Yes. Yes, I am. But I said I’d be here 45 minutes ago and I hate to keep you waiting like this…”
He was still giving me a strange look, but he tried his line of inquiry one more time, “Ok, but you’re here now. So, is everything alright?” We went around this circle several more times before simply agreeing to disagree about whether I was late.
After a few days, Thomas and I had pretty much adjusted to the looser pace of life in the Faroes. We found ourselves swapping stories and drinks in the homes of people we had just met. We traveled down roads we hadn’t planned on because there might be something interesting right around the corner. We even found ourselves pulling the car over so we could get out and stare as the setting sun cast warm, orange light over the deep green mountain peaks that surrounded us.
‘Keeps drawing’: Over those ten days, I puzzled over what exactly made the Faroes special, and why it had taken such a hold on my imagination. The answer finally came as I stood with thousands of people during the final night of Ólavsøka. The two-day national holiday ends with a substantial portion of the country’s population dressing in national costume and gathering in Torshavn at midnight to sing. Once the singing ends, the whole crowd breaks out in a traditional chain dance. It is a surprisingly moving scene that is at once joyous and even a bit defiant.
What occurred to me in that moment was that the Faroese have been able to blend the modern and traditional in a way few western societies have managed. And make no mistake, the Faroese have a highly modern society. They have tech companies innovating in education, design houses that are making a mark internationally, and internet speeds most Americans would envy.
Despite having a population of less than 50,000, Faroese bands regularly tour Europe and the US, and each summer the G! Festival brings up-and-coming artists from around the world to perform in the Faroes.
But in the midst of all that modernity and engagement with the larger world, there is a refusal to abandon the things that make the Faroese unique. They have managed to keep their language despite colonial and global pressures to abandon it. The chain dance, and the insanely long songs that accompany it, is performed not just by the community’s elders seeking to preserve tradition, but by parents and their children and by stylish university students home on summer break. I was struck by stories of high school students shunning a cap and gown at graduation in favor of national costume.
This mix of the modern and the traditional is what makes the Faroe Islands like no other place I have ever been. And it’s what keeps drawing me back to the Faroes again and again, to learn more, to document more, and sometimes just to stare at a mountain.