Lately I have made it my goal to speak to as many locals as possible when I travel, record their stories and tell them back to the world. Through the stories of the people I met on the Faroe Islands I have come to understand a lot better what life in such a place means. A sheep farmer in a tiny village at the end of a long island said to me, over a cup of coffee I had bought in his barn shop, that it took him quite a while to adjust to life in Trøllanes. In Mikladalur where he grew up and which is just behind the mountain, he said, he could always make out the village of Kunoy across the water on the neighbouring island. But here in Trøllanes you could see no sign of civilisation. You were all alone with your thoughts. I guess what isolation is, lies in the eye of the beholder.
The Faroe Islands are the kind of place that everybody has heard a lot of stories about – good and bad – but only few people I have met throughout my years of travel have actually ever set foot onto them. Naturally I always found it difficult to tell which stories are truth and which are myth, which ones are blown out of proportion and which ones are not being told often enough.
It is the sense of isolation, both geographically and culturally, and the uniquely close bond of humans with nature, that interests me the most. How to people live up here, and why? Some of the stories below helped me to begin to answer these questions.
Guðrið Poulsen: The Artist
I meet Guðrið Poulsen in her home in Torshavn, which lies conveniently above her ceramics shop and workshop where she welcomes customers from all over the Faroe Islands and abroad. In fact, Guðrið is a pioneer in her field – the Faroe Islands don’t have a modern tradition of ceramics and pottery – so for many years she was the only person on the islands working with this material.
‘I always had this dream of working with something creative, but didn’t know in which direction I should go. When I was young there was no place to go and test out your ideas, so I went to art school in Finland where I discovered clay. And from then on it was always clay’, she remembers, as she tells me about choosing her career. ‘I was always very stubborn about making a living out of my passion, so I just jumped in to see if it would work.’
‘Sometimes it was hard economically and I felt very hopeless about my life as an artist, but luckily I have a very supportive husband who would always convince me to push on. And in the last few years I can finally say, that the times of hardship are over.’ She slowly had to build up her brand and find a balance between making pieces that people want for their homes and experimenting with new shapes or materials. ‘It is a niche market – not many people are interested in artistic ceramics, but there are a few who come to check out what I’m working on at the moment.’
‘I am dependent on the way people think about the things they buy – if they don’t care whether something is imported or produced with low quality, then I don’t stand a chance’, says Guðrið. And indeed, I realise that we are so over-saturated with cheap products that the prices for hand-made art, design and crafts seem blown out of proportion. Only that they aren’t – with every piece from Guðrið’s shop you buy a part of her story.
Tourism is also an interesting factor, and even though it is still early days for tourism on the Faroe Islands, Guðrið has noticed that there are more and more people coming here with a specific interest in the local arts and crafts. They bring to her shop a new set of experience, and lots of feedback she couldn’t get from the local Faroese customers. Traveling away fro the Faroe Islands however, is often a financial challenge. Therefore, Guðrið is involved with an artist residency programme that aims to bring artists from abroad to exchange ideas and projects with the local community. ‘Our guest atelier is in Tjørnuvik, a tiny village at the end of the world’ – sounds good to me!
To find out more about the artist residency programme & how to apply, click here.
One of the main questions burning inside of me, is why Guðrið decided to come back to the Faroe Islands after studying in Finland. She tells me how hard it was to develop her business, and how limited she was in terms of traveling abroad for inspiration. But she also got many things in return – time in particular, but also the freedom to do something. ‘When I returned home with 25 I had this vision of doing something to make Torshavn better than it was when I was young. I didn’t have any opportunities to try out my passion, so I started teaching a ceramics course, drawing courses and all kinds of things.’
For many years going abroad was often the only option for young people to study or try out new ideas, but lately things are changing. Guðrið tells us, that this year the local university has seen more applications than ever before. Young people are keen to stick around – ‘it’s cool again to live in the Faroe Islands’ – and Guðrið thinks it is not only because there are more opportunities in terms of jobs, education and leisure, but also because the society has become more open to alternative ways of living.
Another key feature to this is that the Faroe Islands offer a lot of space for improvement – there is physical space to put ideas into practice, but also ideological space as the society becomes more open. This notion of the DIY-society lingers on in our conversation and Guðrið tells me, ‘Here you can make a difference and there are so many things to be done here’. And then she says one of the most beautiful things anybody has ever said to me – it was almost like an accidental advertisement to lure me into moving here myself:
‘If you want something to happen here, you have to start it yourself. And you can do it here.’
I could continue telling stories from my chat with Guðrið for a very long time, but there are a few other people we met on the way, so let’s hear a bit from them!
Johan Simonsen: The Free Spirit
Johan is one of these people you can spend as little as an afternoon with, and remember until the end of your life. We meet him on Mykines – he is our tour guide for the hike to the puffin colony and the lighthouse on Mykinesholmur. A tall, skinny guy like you’d expect to meet somewhere in an underground club in Berlin or Belgrade, rather than in the midst of the stunning landscape of the Faroe Islands.
Soon we find out that Johan is a real free spirit – he lived all over the world, tried the likes of Israel and Los Angeles, but somehow ended up back in his ancestor’s old house in Midvagur, a small village close to the airport, and of course the ferry to Mykines.
‘Mykines is one of the Faroe Islands most popular and most expensive addresses – houses are hardly ever for sale here, but if they are, they sell for a lot of money. If your family owns a house here, you would usually just invite your friends to spend their weekends here during the summer. People love to come here.’ And we are not surprised. Once you arrive in Mykines village by boat or helicopter the memory of Torshavn will feel like the memory of a metropolis. This is truly off-the-grid.
Mykines has no roads or cars, there are certainly more sheep, puffins and gannets on the island than people combined, and yet it is one of the most sought-after holiday destinations of the Faroe Islands. ‘I had this idea of spending a summer here, so I decided to work with the tourism board and offer my skills as a guide to visitors who want to visit the lighthouse.’
Johan also tells me about a project he had launched this year for journalists and hopes to expand to anybody who is interested – spending a night on Mykines in the private home of a local. Under time pressure, we get the light version of local hospitality and accompany Johan to his friend’s house where he lives for the summer. While he packs up his things for G!Festival in the weekend, we get to know Turið and Drós. They are spending the summer here, cut off from modern life – why? ‘Because we finally have the time to think about things and do the projects that we usually don’t have the time to do.’
We talk about growing up and staying in the Faroe Islands, dreams of traveling to South America or Southeast Asia for a change, but also about plans to come home and settle on the islands – island life is deeply engrained in their minds.
Helgi: The Festival Volunteer
I never actually meant to meet Helgi – I was doing one of these annoying things foreigners do when they are abroad. I had a conversation about a difficult topic in my mother tongue, not expecting anybody else to understand. Only that Helgi did understand, and was keen to join in.
I had told a fellow Austrian I had met at G!Festival how much criticism I had received on the Travelettes Facebook page for traveling to the Faroe Islands. People were demanding boycott, calling me ignorant and irresponsible, and found all sorts of other ways to proclaim their opinions without any actual interest in an open dialogue. I said I didn’t understand the harsh criticism some people had towards the Faroe Islands, and explained some of the things I’ve also written about since here.
‘It’s interesting what you say. Too many people only hear stories about how evil the Faroese people must be for killing whales. But they don’t understand that for us it is a traditional way of hunting. We don’t do it because we are evil, we do it to feed our families.’ And Helgi has a point, if you had the option to feed your family for free by participating in animal hunting, or having to buy imported meat from abroad in the supermarket for a lot of money – which one would you chose?
I’m not going to be a convert when it comes to the ethical reasons of why I stopped eating meat and fish, but if there is one thing I take away from meeting Helgi, then it is that you can’t always understand another culture by the same terms and frameworks of your own. The Faroe Islands have been isolated in many ways or a very long time, and are still a colonised nation. The pride people take in their heritage and national tradition, in their closeness with nature and in their history of making ends meet with what was available can only be understood in the context of this isolation and international relationships. It is not a matter of right or wrong, but a matter of time and generations.
The last thing Helgi says to me is, that he believes that things will change eventually. ‘Support among young people for the whaling has actually grown significantly ever since Sea Shepherd started their aggressive campaigns, but in the long run I think people’s minds are changing. It might take a few generations for it to disappear entirely though.’ Indeed, there is a growing awareness for veganism and alternative lifestyles, but the Faroe Islands are only just starting to open up to these ideas. While I hope it will happen faster than what Helgi says, I also learn something important about culture: sustainable change has to come from within.
We met many more people during our time on the Faroe Islands, and the anecdotes and memories I collected in just one week could fill an entire book – or at least one or two more blogposts, but for now I will leave you with these three stories. Maybe they give you a new appreciation of the Faroe Islands, like they did for me.
Here are a few more portraits I took throughout the week – I hope you like them!
Kristian Blak – musician and owner of Tutl, the local Faroese music shop & label
Lena – our Heimablidni host who cooked up a vegetarian storm for us
Jakup – Lena’s husband who is firing up the little stove to ‘cook’ a meal with his grandchildren
Julian – who hosted us for coffee and cookies in his front garden during our sea kayaking tour
Hans Mikkelsen – our sea kayaking guide from NAX
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.