Category Archives: Travel

A Weekend in Suðuroy

Sheep graze beside Skúladepilin í Suðuroy, which serves as the island's high school and a  school for health professionals. The school opened in 2009 and has been a rare new construction on an island that continues to experience population loss.

Sheep graze beside Skúladepilin í Suðuroy, which serves as the island’s high school and a school for health professionals. The school opened in 2009 and has been a rare new construction on an island that continues to experience population loss.

I spent my first weekend in the Faroe Islands on the island of Suðuroy, the southernmost island in the Faroe Islands. Suðuroy interests me because it is on track to become the only large island not connected to the others by undersea tunnel. Getting to Suðuroy still entails, and may always entail, a helicopter or a two-hour ferry ride. Largely due to its isolation, Suðuroy has been losing population for several years and has now fallen below 5,000 inhabitants.

I went to Suðuroy for the 70th birthday party of a relative of my host family. I was also able to visit a small local festival in honor of a 130-year-old fishing boat and go out to the local pub one evening.  It was great to have such an intimate look at the island’s special culture.

Vágur: A child plays on the Johanna TG 326 during the celebration of the boat's 130th birthday.

Vágur: A child plays on the Johanna TG 326 during the celebration of the boat’s 130th birthday.

Tug of War is serious business at a boat's birthday party in the village of Vágur on Suðuroy.

Tug of War is serious business at a boat’s birthday party in the village of Vágur on Suðuroy.

Holding a heimalamb, a lamb raised at the farmer's home because its mother didn't want it. Cute, right?

Tvøroyri: Holding a heimalamb, a lamb raised at the farmer’s home because its mother didn’t want it. Cute, right?

People from Suðuroy have a distinctive accent and are known for being loud, friendly, and a little bit provincial. In my experience, the first two were definitely true. As for the third, well, I can only relate that when I went to a gas station and asked to use the bathroom, they answered “Yes, of course, if you don’t mind going down some stairs…” and promptly opened a trapdoor with a ladder leading to a toilet in the basement!

Suðuroy’s nature is a little different than that in the rest of the Faroe Islands. To my eyes, there are fewer mountain peaks and more sheer seaside cliffs. Suðuroy is the only one of the Faroe Islands to have had coal mines, one of which is still active. Basalt rock formations can be seen in several places, and the waters around Suðuroy wash no fewer than 262 islets and skerries. In addition to the picturesque villages, visitors often come to Suðuroy to visit its caves or the scenic point at Eggjarnar, from which there are astonishing views of sea-cliffs both north and south.

The sea-cliff view from Røðin.

The sea-cliff view from Røðin.

A lamb sleeps on Suðuroy, in view of seacliffs and the island of Lítla Dímun.

A lamb sleeps on Suðuroy, in view of seacliffs and the island of Lítla Dímun.

Tvørgjógv and Ásmundarstakkur in the north of Suðuroy.

Tvørgjógv and Ásmundarstakkur in the north of Suðuroy.

Hálsgjógv and tidal pools near Tvøroyri.

Hálsgjógv and tidal pools near Tvøroyri.

Sandvík, the northernmost village on Suðuroy and the spot where saga hero Sigmundur washed up from the sea to meet his death.

Sandvík, the northernmost village on Suðuroy and the spot where saga hero Sigmundur washed up from the sea to meet his death.

I hope to return to Suðuroy during the course of my project. The island is of great touristic interest for its lovely, unique nature and the way it represents a throwback to life in the Faroes before undersea tunnels connected “the Faroese mainland.” In addition, Suðuroy is still home to about a tenth of the Faroese population, and, as I know some people there now, I think it will be a good place to get to understand the lives and perspectives of the women living in more remote parts of the Faroe Islands. This weekend was a good first visit and I look forward to returning.

Passengers doze off on Smyril, the two-hour ferry that connects Suðuroy to Tórshavn.

Passengers doze off on Smyril, the two-hour ferry that connects Suðuroy to Tórshavn.

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Learning to Drive in the Faroe Islands

The sunset from the Old Mountain Road from Gøta to Leirvik.

The sunset from the Old Mountain Road from Gøta to Leirvik.

We parked on the old mountain road, where sheep and lambs frolicked beneath us as the sun set on the sea between the islands. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there to enjoy the view. I was there to learn to drive.

As I processed that information, the scene seemed to shift from idyllic to terrifying before my eyes. The narrow road angled down, steeply to my eyes, and with a slight but definite curve on top of that. To the left of the road was mountain, to the right, a little guardrail all that stood between us and the sea. I felt dizzy just thinking about getting behind the wheel — and that wasn’t even factoring in the obstacle course: a couple walking on the side of the road, the lambs crossing here and there at will, the trawling lines laid out for reorganization just a bit farther ahead.

Trawling lines laid out for reorganization on the Old Mountain Road between Gøta and Leirvik.

Trawling lines laid out for reorganization on the Old Mountain Road between Gøta and Leirvik.

“I can’t do this,” I said. “Isn’t there some place flatter?”

“What?” said my friend Uni. “This is flat!”

“…”

“This is where I learned to drive!” he continued.

“Great, you are a superior human being,” I said, swallowing my pride for once in my life. “I can’t drive here. Not the first time.”

The harbor, then. Late at night. The closest thing the Faroes had to the huge, flat, empty church parking lot where I’d first learned to drive automatic almost a decade ago. Here, there was just barely enough room to get up to third gear before having to turn before we went into the ocean. Perfect.

Bitstrips Driving

Silly Foreigner Miranda

Being a foreigner is a lot like being a child. Everything is fresh, new, exciting, fun… and humbling. Here in the Faroe Islands, all I do is learn; sometimes at the level of a preteen, sometimes a toddler. I don’t know how to speak their language, drive their cars (especially on their mountains and through their rough-hewn, one-lane tunnels), or knit a scarf (much less a beautiful Faroese sweater).

Everyone here is incredibly kind and patient. They’re willing to speak to me slowly, switch to Danish or English at my slightest hesitation (btw, guys, I know you’re doing that with good intentions, but it doesn’t always help), spend hours explaining everything to me and even let me practice stalling their car in the harbor.

Bitstrips Cliff

They worry about me, this stranger in their strange, treeless world. Sometimes their concerns are well founded. Sometimes, like when I’ve been told for the thousandth time that if I take one vertical step up a mountain in bad weather, I will fall off a massive cliff and die, I feel a little bit patronized. Then I hear that that happened to a Faroese girl, just last week. So I shut up.

I’m still getting used to the weather here. The wind sometimes sounds like it’s trying its hardest to take down the house, late May is still not summer, 55 degrees is considered a heat wave, and there are a hundred kinds of fog — with different words for all of them. There’s dark, gloomy fog and fog as white and bright as snow. There’s fog mixed with rain and fog that parts to let the sun shine through in patches. There’s fog so thick I can barely see up the road, fog that seals in the top of our valley like a tupperware lid, fog that decorates just the peaks of the mountains like cupcake frosting.

Bitstrips Fog

Though most of the time I feel a bit like a child, I do have my moments of triumph. I’m an exciting travelling hillbilly, after all, redneck accent in the ready for entertaining at parties. I can cook exotic and delicious dishes. My time in Norway made me into a reasonably experienced and fit hiker. Despite my feelings of inadequacy, most people here are happy that I can say anything at all in Faroese.

And last week, although I was a little late to the pier-jumping party, I’d like to think I did America proud with my sjóvarlop into the Faroese sea! 🙂

Through Bergen, with Love

Bergen as seen from the top of Mt. Fløyen.

Bergen as seen from the top of Mt. Fløyen.

En route to the Faroe Islands, I spent several days in the Norwegian coastal city of Bergen. One does not simply fly into the Faroe Islands, after all. Although Atlantic Airways (the Faroese national airline) is expanding its services pretty quickly, coming from America you still need to connect in one of a handful of European cities. You’ll have to book the flights separately, and, with flights in and out of the Faroes frequently delayed (sometimes for days) its good to have some buffer time in between. That gave me the perfect opportunity for a short stay in Bergen, where I studied abroad in 2012. The plan was perfect — I could stay with friends and even attend the 200th Jubilee celebration of Norwegian Constitution Day, or Syttende Mai.

Bergen's historic wooden wharf (Bryggen), the tallship Statsraad Lehmkuhl and a Ferris Wheel for the Bicentennial celebrations.

From right to left: The famous tall-ship Statsraad Lehmkuhl, a Ferris Wheel for the Bicentennial celebrations, the Haakonshalle and Rosenkrantz Torn medieval buildings, and Bergen’s historic wooden wharf (Bryggen).

Aside from convenience and pleasure, there was also something romantic about the idea of entering the Faroe Islands through Bergen. Norway, and especially Bergen, have long had a tight connection to the islands, which they controlled during Viking and Hanseatic times. When the Danes took over Norway, they took the Faroes as well — and kept them when Norway was handed over first to the Swedes and then, finally, to the Norwegians themselves. Copenhagen long ago replaced Bergen as the “capital across the water” where Faroese goods were traded and religious and political authorities reported. But Norway and the Faroe Islands continue to resemble and remember each other in many ways.

Unlike in the rest of the world — and even in the rest of Europe — the Faroes are well known in Norway. Some Norwegians have even been there. The blank stares mentions of the Faroes elicited for me in the United States were replaced with a wide variety of reactions —  “Wow, you’ll love it!” “How intriguing.” “What a crazy place…” “I had a Faroese friend once.” “I love Faroese music.” “I’m applying for a job there.” “I’ve always wanted to go there!” “Their language is so strange, it’s like you can almost understand it, but not quite…”

High above the sea on Damsgårdsfjell!

Rising high over the sea on Damsgårdsfjell!

Hiking on Mt. Ulriken, high above the city.

Hiking on Mt. Ulriken, high above the city.

In many ways, Bergen was a good halfway point between where I was coming from and where I was going. A good place to acclimatise. The mountains and the sea, the rain and cool summer weather, the wool sweaters and smell of fish — these I would find in the Faroes as well. The size of the bustling city, the birch and oak and pine — these I would still have to leave behind. Norwegian was harder on my brain and tongue than my native English, but much easier and more familiar than the more-inflected and less-phonetic Faroese.

Fishing and picnicking on Mt. Sandviken.

Fishing and picnicking on Mt. Sandviken.

I drank deeply of the pure mountain water I had missed so much. I walked so far that blisters broke through my tender flatland feet. I saw friends I had missed for many months, meeting them in bars and cafes, by lakes up on the fells, in cozy homes where the familiar smell of wet wood and the warmth of heated floors nearly brought me to nostalgic tears.

Syttende Mai 1

The Syttende Mai Parade

Syttende Mai was a day to remember. We gathered for the traditional holiday breakfast, with puddings and fenelår sausage and champagne, and walked down to the city along with thousands of Norwegians who had gathered in their Sunday best or beautiful Bunads, the Norwegian national dress that varies spectacularly and colorfully from region to region.

Spectators at the Syttende Mai Parade

Spectators at the Syttende Mai Parade

We wandered blissfully from the parade to a cozy cafe packed tight with the festive air, to the statue of Ivar Aasen to celebrate the linguistic diversity of Norway, to the city’s oldest student bar up on the cliff, down to the wharf for ice cream, back to Årstad, on the other side of the harbor, to grill as the afternoon light shifted into a long, light Nordic evening. And we sang about Norway, in Nynorsk and in Bokmål, sometimes stomping the deck so hard that I was afraid the old boards would break.

After a short break when the French girls sang their anthem and I sang an Ozark ballad (I decided on Matty Groves), my friend Kurt turned to me and sang,

“Vilja tær hoyra kvæði mítt?”

The first words to Ormurin Langi — one of the most famous Faroese kvæði. “Do you want to hear my ballad?”

I answered,

Vilja tær orðum trúgva,
um hann Ólav Trygvason,
hagar skal ríman snúgva.

Glymur dansur í høll,
dans sláið í ring:
Glaðir ríða Noregsmenn
til Hildar ting.

Now that was good fun! Here were cultural roots that ran deeper than the sundering sea. I pulled up the lyrics on my phone so we could all sing along, some tripping over the orthography here and there or interrupting to say, “That’s just like an old word from my region! Like something my grandfather would say!”

In English, the lyrics mean something like this:

Will you believe the words,
About Olav Tryggvasson,
Here’s how the rhyme revolves.

Raucous dance in the Hall,
Dance, form a ring,
Gladly ride Norway’s men,
To Hild’s War Gathering.

Singing Anthems, Ballads, and Kvæði

Singing Anthems, Ballads, and Kvæði

At some point, an exchange student came by to ask Kurt what was going on.

“This is a song that they sing on the Faroe Islands,” he told him. “That’s a little group of islands way out in the sea between here and Iceland. We like the way they sing. And this song is about a Norwegian king; they celebrate him on their national day. This makes us very happy.”

What am I doing in the Faroe Islands?

My name is Miranda Metheny, I’m a little American girl from the Missouri School of Journalism, and I’ll be spending this summer in the Faroe Islands to do my master’s project.

The Old Town of Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands.

The Old Town of Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands.

I first visited the Faroe Islands for a short visit in 2012. I was overwhelmed by their unique beauty and culture — simply put, it was the most remarkable and fascinating place I had ever been.

When I went home, I read everything I could get my hands on about the Faroe Islands. Unfortunately, I found that most foreign articles about the islands were based on short stays, were structured along stereotypical lines and exotified the place by focusing more on the extremes (such as the more remote islands) and on the past than on the complex and modern society most Faroe Islanders now live in. In short, they framed the Faroe Islands in certain limited ways that left out a lot of the reality I had experienced, even briefly.

When it came time to finish my master’s degree at the University of Missouri with one final journalism project, I saw my chance to come back to this amazing place. I’ll be here until August, learning the Faroese language and experiencing the culture from as many angles as possible.

For my project, I will be taking photographs and writing articles about travel and cultural topics such as Faroese music and food, as well as the lives of young women here. That last topic is especially interesting to me as I fall within the demographic (except for the “Faroese” part, of course), the Faroe Islands are currently experiencing a disproportionate shortage of women, and the coverage I have seen of this issue has been especially prone to framing and stereotyping. I’ll also interview Faroese people about stereotypes, cultural identity, and the representation of the Faroes in foreign media.

I hope you will enjoy following my adventures in the amazing “Land of Maybe” (so called because little is certain in a place with such changeable weather). Feel free to contact me by commenting, sending me an email or looking me up on LinkedIn or Facebook. I can’t wait to get started!

Múli was the last village in the Faroe Islands to get electricity. Now it is all but abandoned, but many sheep live there and walk among it's houses.

Múli was the last village in the Faroe Islands to get electricity. Now it is all but abandoned, but many sheep live there and walk among its houses.