FØROYAR (Faroe Islands) Chapter 1

I never get bored of the flight to the Faroe Islands. It’s a thrilling experience, thrilling for the fact that the pilot seems to try his best to kill you. One minute you are enjoying the feeling of scooting amongst the clouds, being occasionally jostled cheekily by the turbulence, and then suddenly the wingtips of the plane are scraping the green rockiness of mountainsides and its belly skimming along the dark ocean below. This was my third arrival in the Faroes by air and maybe this time my luck was up. I remembered my virgin flight 4 years before when I had broken out in a fearful sweat, and how I had almost grabbed my neighbour’s knee in seek of reassurance. Now it was the same story. The majority of my fellow passengers were clearly veterans of this landing, all of them Faroe Islanders, either calmly chatting away as we plummeted towards an uncertain fate or running wild. Raucous youngsters were still standing in the aisle, yelling to their friends in the far seats and displaying remarkable feats of balance in the process. Almost everyone on the plane seemed to know each other, which was confirmed when the air stewardesses began ushering folk back to their seats with sharp but friendly slaps to the rear. To the rest of us, all of this chaos resembled a scene from a disaster film, in a plane full of madmen and flown by madmen. If we were going down then we were going down laughing.

Whoever these pilots Atlantic Airways employed were, they were sadistic bastards, that was for sure. I had visions of them in the cockpit, showing off to the attractive new airhostess by removing both hands from the controls for a few seconds and saying “Watch this, darling.” The aircraft would swerve alarmingly to one side and drop several hundred feet, resulting in deafening hysteria amongst the passengers, while the pilot exclaimed proudly,

“Look, no hands!”

The co-pilot would egg him on and then have a go himself, trying to out do his colleague and spread further panic, getting the navigator to cover his eyes while he guided the aeroplane on a random course destined to end up in the side of a mountain. Whenever normal flight was resumed, a short message of forced apology would come over the loud speakers, with sniggers clearly audible in the background. “Difficult wind conditions” or “dangerous air pockets” were usually to blame and like fools we believed it.

Just before it seemed the ocean would swallow us I happened to gaze out of the window. In full view was the island of Mykines, the most easterly of the Faroe Islands, lit up in the afternoon sun and surrounded by the dark waves of North Atlantic. I repeated the name in my head over and over,

“Mee-chi-nes, Mee-chi-nes.”

I was becoming obsessed with this place yet I had never been there. Truly it would be a crime not to go there on this time. On both the previous occasions I had had the chance to do so that blasted Frenchman had thwarted my plans. Memories of young Clément Blaizot returned to me then and memories of three years before and that summer when all seemed well with the world. On that second trip he met Anna for the first time and the two of them fell deeply in love. How things had changed. What exactly had changed and the reasons for it are too complicated and difficult to explain, but Clem was long gone and Anna was left with a heart that felt like a punch bag. I was looking forward to this trip in more ways that one, and seeing Anna again was a major reason for this.

The bright green of the island of Vágar drew closer at an alarming rate and the insides began to turn. Luckily for all, the pilot’s death wish faded and we thundered along the tarmac of the runway somehow still intact. Rapturous applause and whoops of delight filled the air as we taxied. We had survived again.

All the tedium of passport checks and baggage dealt with, I jumped onto the coach to Tórshavn, the capital of the islands, a good hour’s drive away. As we swept by the hills and valleys of Vágar I began to feel slightly nervous. After twenty days of lone travel through Norway, Sweden and Denmark I was beginning to feel quite happy within my shy existence. The only times I had opened my mouth were to either eat or try and find a room for the night, and to fend off a Norwegian nazi in Voss. I am sure there were days when I had said nothing at all, and I was glad for it, most of the time.

Now I was to have a companion, a west-country girl by the name of Charlotte. I’d seen her message on Framtak.com, the most informative of the websites about the Faroes, and found someone who shared the same passion for the tiny places, those lands often over-looked by the rest of the world. She wanted to visit the islands she told me, and as I’d been there before and was planning a return, it seemed the logical step to go together. Maybe having someone to share it all with would enhance my enjoyment, as it had done in 2001 when Adam and I cemented a friendship and enjoyed the delights of a country surely no other 16-year-olds were visiting that summer. I knew that hoping for the same kind of happiness again this time was a foolish idea, and the only way to gain new and memorable experiences was to live them and not dwell on what had been. Still, I remembered that summer fondly as the valleys, mountains and tiny fishing villages slipped by, and the bus was sucked into a dark and dripping tunnel that would take us under the waves to the island of Streymoy.

As the suburbs of Tórshavn came into view my attention was turned to the excited voice of the presenter of the radio show the bus driver had put on.  Some kind of sporting event seemed to be in progress, and from the small amount of Faroese I knew I worked out it was a rowing match we were listening to. Anna had told me that the Faroese take their rowing very seriously, even more than football sometimes. It was something of a national obsession. When I had awoken from my troubled day-dreaming I sensed the growing excitement and tension onboard the bus as every ear craned to the words of the commentator. In the background shouts of encouragement and the splash of oars cutting the water could be clearly heard. The now nearly breathless commentator reached a high pitch of excitement that bordered on reverse puberty as the race came to an end with a great shout of triumph from him and all of my fellow passengers. Old men removed their caps and waved them in the air whilst energetically bouncing up and down on their seats. They were joined by youngsters clenching their fists in joy and stamping their feet. Even the driver got involved, thumping the horn and yelling like a madman at the news of the victorious crew’s victory in the waters of Tórshavn harbour, somewhere in the mist only a few miles away. One middle-aged man, who looked like he was on his way to a Rasputin look-alike competition, in his delirious joy at the result ran to the onboard toilet, unbuttoning his trousers as we went. My word, he was happy. I tried my best to join the celebrations and pretend that I had some kind of idea what exactly was happening with a few very over-enthusiastic “get ins!” and finger slaps. Sadly though, I could not get my slapping technique in order and instead found myself making elaborately violent “wanker” signs to my fellow passengers. I didn’t know if such a sign was recognised, or even existed in the Faroes, but judging by the looks on people’s faces I guessed that they had got the drift. I ceased my celebrations, realising that labelling the locals as “wankers” and telling them to “get in” (‘Get in what?’ they must have wondered) was hardly a great start to my trip.

Before the hysteria had chance to calm we found ourselves in Tórshavn. Well, the driver claimed we were there anyway. All I could see was thick, white fog. So we were promptlyy kicked off and left to fend for ourselves while the driver lit a cigarette and sped away. For some reason he had left us in Hoyvík, one of the suburbs of the town, instead of the central bus station down by the harbour. Cursing him I began a journey of pain lugging the most inconvenient bags in existence, which (damn them for it) belonged to me. Relying on memory alone I began practically swimming through the mist. Things were made even more unclear by the shoddy state of my eye-sight. Too much of a self-conscious tit to simply put on my glasses I was becoming completely lost.

After 10 minutes of blindness, sounds of activity coming from the centre of town gave me some idea of where I was headed. Occasionally figures would appear suddenly from the mist, speaking rapidly and excitedly to one another, brush by me and be gone once more, headed in the other direction. Most looked pretty normal in everyday clothes, but a few were clad in garments I had only ever seen before in photos and recognised instantly to be national dress. From what I’d heard (mainly from Anna) the Faroese only clad themselves in these intriguingly colourful clothes on special occasions like weddings and conformations. As yet more passed by me without a look, I wondered what the occasion to be that so many had gone to the effort to be so well turned out.

I knew that I was approaching the harbour from the chugg-chugging of what seemed like a whole armada of boats. But there was another noise, and not one you normally associate with Tórshavn, or the Faroes for that matter. It was the sound of people, lots of people. As the outline of Skansin, the old town fort, became clearer to me, it seemed that the whole world was surging towards me, in particular drunk teenagers who seemed to be having a “who can be the most obnoxious” competition, and they all seemed likely candidates for this honour. They regarded me and my over-laden state with disdain, threw a collection of slurred Faroese nouns my way and then disappeared into the fog to spread their drunkenness across some nearby pavement.

It was surely my travel fatigue that numbed my wits on my return to Tórshavn. Normally I would’ve without a doubt known what was happening around me and what all this activity meant. The vast numbers of people, the rowing matches, the drunkenness all had some significance, but my weary mind couldn’t or wouldn’t function properly to give me some kind of answer.

I was actually beginning to lose interest in the mystery and was now concentrating on meeting Charlotte and sleeping a while. That was until I was accosted by another drunk and wheeling figure in the form of a young and pretty girl with white-blonde hair and clad in national dress. She took my arm, kissed me roughly on the cheek and whispered in a sweet voice a sentence which included the word “Ólasøka.” Before I could react she was gone again and I was left blushing but feeling much clearer on the overall situation.

Ólavsøka! Of course! I cursed myself for forgetting such a thing. I checked the date in my journal, the 28th July, under which I had written in bold red pen ‘ÓLAVSØKA.’ This was the Faroese national festival, which occurs every year at the end of July.

As I found my way along the busy harbour edge, trying my best not to be jostled into the dark, oily water by the crowds, I kept a lookout for Charlotte. This was no easy task, looking for a blonde girl in this tiny Scandinavian capital where it seemed to be frowned upon not to be blonde. Her boat from Shetland should have arrived at 2PM. It was now 5. We had arranged to meet at Tórshavn’s youth hostel, but I imagined all the festivities in town had drawn her down to the harbour. I gave up my search after not too much time, realising that I had only a vague idea of what she looked like.

So I began a truly horrifying trek up the hillside in the west of Tórshavn up to the hostel, which sat perched on one of the highest hills overlooking the town in an almost mocking fashion. I should very much like to meet the person who had the idea for putting the hostel in its almost stratospheric location, meet them so I can stab them. Surely an absolute imbecile had been appointed to the job. What other kind of person would put a Youth Hostel atop what seemed to be the world’s highest hill and on the edge of town? I undertook that mighty mission, my bags growing heavier with every step and the noise of Tórshavn fading behind me. I surely would’ve had a hernia if it had not been saved from the final stage of the climb by a kindly woman in a car who offered to take me the rest of the way. With many a “takk fyri” we sped up the hillside towards the hostel. This softly- spoken, middle-aged new hero of mine was greatly intrigued my appearance. I had not shaved while in mainland Scandinavia, and my shoes were battered out of all good use. She asked, with a titter, if I had been sleeping rough, which ironically was true in some ways, due to lying train timetables in Norway. I had been given the impression my beard was worth keeping while still in Norway, when a particularly beautiful girl working at the hostel in Voss had said of it,

“It makes you look like you are wise and with many stories to tell.”

This was an image I had rather liked, but clearly she was the only one who saw it. I had wondered why people on trains had often chosen not to sit next to me, and the strange taunts of “Pirate!” by Dutch teenagers in Helsingør finally made sense.

This wonderful Faroese woman was full of questions- why was I in the Faroes? When did I arrive? Would I like some soup? I helped myself to some steaming and delicious tomatoey stuff which had recovered me remarkably by the time we rolled up outside the hostel. As I got out I gave this wonderful woman many more “takk fyris.” I really was so grateful. Before she drove away she scribbled her name and address on a piece of notepaper and handed it to me, telling me if I needed anything during my stay she was happy to help. With that she made her way into the mist and away, leaving me with a warmed belly and a renewed faith in the human race.

Once inside the hostel I began my search for Charlotte. The bespectacled receptionist didn’t look up from his book when I asked if he knew if a certain Miss Hathaway who had come by.

“She just left for town, looking for you” he responded, with his eyes fixed on the text.

Fabulous. I began to make for the door. Maybe I could still catch her. I didn’t have to go far, crashing into her in the lobby. She pointed at me, I pointed back, and so our journey together began.

Over dinner we got to know each other better. Charlotte had come laden with food of all kinds- cous cous, rice, various meats, raisins and yoghurts which all had a reassuring taste of home.

We decided that spending the night in town was the sensible thing to do, so down the hill we went, taking a shortcut though a misty and bumpy field full of grass-munching sheep. When we reached the town centre the party was still going on. The harbour was still packed full of people, as were the bars from which came raucous sounds of youth and live bands who screamed about being young and loving it. It seemed that Tóshavn had created a few more bars since I had last been there. Wherever we looked we saw people, drinks in hand spilling out onto the street. We ended up in by far the best of them, Café Natúr, right down by the harbourside. We chose this place solely for the fact it had a grass roof and it proved to be a fine choice indeed. We somehow found a small table upstairs and began sampling the local beer. We only paid for two the whole night as people kept on leaving theirs untouched on nearby tables. Needless to say this resulted in general merriment all round. Whenever someone left a drink we were onto it like flies and drank them like fish in fear their owners would return, which once or twice they did, looking either completely bemused or smacking a fist into a palm and scanning the bar with fury in their eyes.

I was beginning to enjoy having some company. Charlotte told me all about her journey northwards, and in particular her time in Shetland. She showed me a browning lovebite a lustful Scotsman had planted her on the boat the previous night, and judging by the looks of the men in the bar were now giving her she was in danger of receiving a few more. I told her of my journeying so far and we discussed our plans for the next two weeks together in the Faroes and Iceland. I was beginning to feel incredibly excited about everything again. I had a new friend for a start, who I was beginning to like more and more with each intriguing tale told and joke made. We had great plans for the next week, after which we would sail to Iceland. And so we drank and learned more about one another.

We were quite surprised to learn our neighbours, five 30-50 year-old men, on the next table were English and we soon struck up a conversation. They were in the Faroes to hike and had enjoyed several days of exploration across the islands. After one very intense day of walking they decided to get wasted at their hostel in Selatrað on Eysturoy, only to discover the only other guests staying there were recovering alcoholics on a detox week.

“I reckon we put them back a few months” guffawed one man.

At some point they disappeared and were replaced by a group of local men, one of whom was liking the look of Charlotte very much, his watery bottle-green eyes hardly leaving her. He nudged me and asked with beery breath

“Is she your girlfriend?”

“No, just a friend.”

This both appalled and delighted him. “I hope that you do not like the boys. How else could you not be with such a woman?”

He tried his best with Charlotte, but seeing she was far from interested he returned to his drink. Whilst Charlotte was in the toilet I was asked again if my companion was my girlfriend, and once again I said no, a little annoyed this time.

“Then you must like men, I see no other way.” With that he finished his drink, thrust a 100 Kroner note in my hand and walked away*. I watched him go over my shoulder, and he turned back at the stairs to survey the room for Charlotte. I caught his gaze and blew him a kiss. In fear that anyone had seen this he fled into the night.

Pretty soon afterwards, fireworks lit up the sky over Tórshavn. The first exploded with a blinding pink and illuminated the attic bar through, creating a quite wonderfully romantic and surreal scene for a couple of seconds. Soon the bar emptied down onto the harbour edge to witness the show. Rockets zipped across the skies and banged alarmingly in the warm night air. Fishing boats and rooftops were illuminated in all kinds of purples and deep scarlet, giving the effect of some bizarre disco. People were dancing in the street, taking eachother by the hands and whirling around until dizziness brought them down. Complete strangers came up to us, kissing us on the cheeks and wishing us the happiest of Ólavsøkas, offering chugs of Brennavín and maybe more kisses. It was like a second New Year’s Eve but to be found in the warm days of late July and not huddled together for warmth under York Minster, as I was accustomed to.

As we made our way back up the hillside to the hostel we congratulated ourselves on choosing such a wonderful time to visit the Faroes. We passed slumbering sheep, on whose woolly coats the migraine inducing colours of the continuing firework display were projected. I had never seen Tórshavn so alive.

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