Small and perfectly formed. The Faroe Islands, part 3/4

3 July 2012

Even for someone used to living in a small society, having spent a decade living in Iceland, the Faroes represent a micro-society no bigger than a small market town in mainland Europe. Everyone knows everyone, or at least will know someone related to anyone else. Degrees of separation between individuals are in the order of two. The result is that attitudes aren’t what they are in a wider society, and the politics of the place can be so complex that an outsider has zero chance of fathoming the networks of allegiances and connections or cottoning on to the subtle subtexts.
Importantly, in a tiny society such as this one, conflicts of interest are not just a hazard but are virtually unavoidable. I once interviewed a Minister with a complex portfolio that include transport and aquaculture. He cheerfully explained that he was also in business and was the local agent and importer for a fish cage manufacturer, as well as being the Faroese distributor for a prominent car manufacturer.

  

My friend Óli Jacobsen deep in some quality reading matter

 

 

This is the opposite side of the coin that is the Islands’ compact nature, which also provides a wonderful informality of the kind rarely seen anywhere else. I can think of hardly anyone in the Faroes I would address as Mr or Mrs. It’s first name terms from the start and that’s something outsiders don’t always find comfortable.
In such a compact society things can be fixed with remarkable ease. While planning one trip that involved a weekend in the Islands, I asked my contact to arrange a stay for me away from Tórshavn. I was spending the best part of  a week there and wanted to see a little of the rest of the place. The instructions came through and on Friday afternoon I set off from Tórshavn in the little hire car and took the last ferry of the day to Klaksvík, so there was no turning back. Through Klaksvík and out the other side, and twenty kilometres of snow-covered road in the dark later, I pulled up outside a deserted hotel where my heart sank. The doors were locked and there wasn’t a light anywhere other than the dim street lamp outside, while the snow was coming down faster and I wondered what I had let myself in for. Then a van pulled up.
‘You’re the Englishman?’ The driver asked, smiling as he jumped out. ‘Come inside, I’ll get you something to eat.’
Half an hour later I had a meal in a huge dining room where  a handful of locals gathered to play cards. Afterwards, the cook, who I later found out was the owner, showed me the fridge and the coffee machine were, and waved goodbye as he and the card school disappeared into the night. I realised that I was alone in this huge, echoing hotel that would normally be closed for the winter.
That night the wind howled and I slept fitfully at the very far end of a long corridor. But in the morning I blearily pulled the curtains aside and looked out on a stunning scene of a semi-circular bay ringed with the sharp points of mountains reaching skywards. A delicate powdering of snow remained on the sheer slopes between the peaks and the sea, almost mirror-calm once the night’s storm had passed. It was the kind of view and a tranquillity that would be priceless anywhere else.
It was a strange and rather wonderful weekend, spent exploring Klaksvík and Viðareiði, the northern part of the Faroes that has its own distinctive character, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many hoteliers anywhere else would have opened the doors for a single guest, and then casually trusted him with the entire building for a whole weekend.

Winter daybreak, seen from the window of Hotel Viðareiði

This article was originally written for a business magazine, the Faroese Business Report

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