Into the Mystical Unreal Reality of the Faroe Islands



In a small cafe in a town called Nolsoy, on an archipelago in the middle of the North Atlantic, surrounded by barflies and the blue fug of cigarette smoke, I am trying to be unobtrusive. This is not going so well. There are precisely two occupied tables in the establishment, the barflies’ and mine. At mine, English is spoken, pallid beer is sipped, and all eye contact is avoided. At theirs, they speak a derivative of Old Norse, drink a rigorous liquor and shoot glances my way, accompanied by throaty chuckles. I, in fact, look not only like an American and a tourist, but also like an idiot, having walked up onto the quayside at Nolsoy, through its most famous landmark — the bone archway formed by the massive jaws of a sperm whale — and into its one bar wearing a flotation suit. A giant, puffy, one-piece flotation suit. Ten minutes ago, thudding across freezing harbor waters in a Zodiac, a flotation suit had seemed like a good idea. Now it makes me look like a Power Ranger. The chuckles are starting to crescendo. As I exit the place, from behind me I hear, “Zay hallo to George Bush.”

Nolsoy is a higgledy-piggledy little village, and the locals in its one bar are fishermen on extended hiatus. On a Sunday, Nolsoy’s few aimless streets are deserted, as is the eerily well-kept football pitch that straddles the waterfront. The men, ominously, have filed out of the bar behind me. But when they approach, they approach tentatively, almost shyly, until one finally speaks. “You are American, yes?” “Yes.” “We have something we want to show you.” I follow them down the slope of the village, toward the harbor, where they lead me to a small, padlocked boat shed. In the middle of the shed sits an exquisitely handcrafted rowboat — a kind of modern Viking variation on the old New England dory, with a raised prow, a small mast stacked with running lights and the words “Diana Victoria” painted along its stern. So this is it, I think. This is Ove Joensen’s boat.

If you are to understand the Faroe Islands, maybe the most curious place left on earth, you would do well to start with Ove Joensen’s boat. Joensen was a sailor in Nolsoy who, in his spare time, built the Diana Victoria by hand, and for one purpose only: to row the 900 miles, via the Shetland Islands, all the way to mainland Europe. Joensen wasn’t a glory seeker; he wanted to raise money for Nolsoy so that it could afford a new town swimming pool. Nonetheless, in 1986, when he arrived in Copenhagen and leapt out of the Diana Victoria to kiss the statue of the Little Mermaid, he was greeted by a roaring throng — there are about 10,000 Faroese living in Denmark — as cameras threw the images back to the Faroes on live TV. Joensen had completed the brutal task in just 41 days.

The men around the Diana Victoria relay the story carefully, piece by piece, each detail of Ove Joensen’s life laid out delicately, like a tiny wreath. They conclude by telling me, mostly in gestures, that after the journey, Joensen’s hands never fully unfurled. Three months after his triumph, he slipped on the deck of a boat and slid into the icy waters below. Ove Joensen, whose feat is still celebrated in the Faroes with festivities every August, was dead by a freak accident at the age of 39. In the interior gloom, the men’s eyes glint with pride as their hands stroke the flanks of the rowboat. When I note how unusually small the blades of Joensen’s oars are, one of the men snorts and says, “That’s your problem. Why are your oars so big?”

The Faroe Islands are an archipelago of 18 upthrusted hunks of igneous rock in the middle of precisely nowhere, the stretch of North Atlantic halfway between Norway and Iceland. It is oddly temperate, thanks to the currents of the Gulf Stream, and oddly green, thanks in part to the two million pairs of seabirds — guillemots, fulmars, storm petrels and, of course, the famously cute puffins — that carpet the islands in guano each breeding season. The Faroes are easily the most moodily beautiful place I have ever been. Each island is a giant slice of elaborately tiered basalt, tilted to one side and covered in green, tussocky felt. Streamer clouds, almost mannered in their perfection, encircle the mountains. Rocky cliffs, topped in arêtes and tarns, plunge into the sea, while up from the water jut massive, looming sea stacks. It rains here a lot, and waterfalls flow pretty much continuously. Driving to my hotel from the airport, the only thing I could make out through the mist was the dull nacre of the rills, dozens of them, snaking their way down the sides of the mountains.

Vikings settled the islands more than a thousand years ago, and almost 50,000 of their descendants now live here, sharing space with 75,000 more or less freely roaming sheep. Although the Danes took formal possession of the Faroes in 1380 and have never fully relinquished it, “We are not Danish” is a common refrain here. (When a country woman said it to me, her eyes flashed hotly before settling back into Scandinavian stolidity.) No, the Faroese are nothing if not Faroese. They speak their own language, recite their own sagas, dance their own raucous chain-formation dance (based on the old French branle simple) and still sing quarter-note, Gregorian-like chants. Their icon remains the turf-roofed house. When the Vikings first arrived, they made rock foundations in the shapes of their boats, turned the boats over on top of the rocks and then, to stabilize and insulate these makeshift houses, put sod on the hulls of the boats. It is not uncommon to come upon a Faroese mowing his roof.....

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/25/tr...d=1&ref=travel