As a collector of Faroese stamps, I look forward to receiving the Posta Stamps magazine. It always teaches me something new about the Faroe Islands, and the latest issue has introduced me to the American-Faroese artist Joel Cole. One of the first stamp releases in 2021 showcases his work, a six-stamp minisheet featuring sculptures that explore the immigrant experience. On his Instagram account Cole notes that these selected pieces are just a subset of some 80 pieces he created for this series addressing “ideas surrounding human immigration and integration.”
Stuck at home during the global pandemic, one of the things I miss the most is live music. It’s always been an important part of my life, and while I love my favorite venues, I always jump at the opportunity to hear live music in unconventional places. Living room concerts, street festivals, in-store performances, warehouses, boats, coal mines. Today I added a new experience to my live music wishlist: the Concerto Grotto, a series of sea cave concerts in the Faroe Islands.
You could say that Tim Severin is a historical re-enactor, but that would conjure all the wrong images, of renaissance fairs and Colonial Williamsburg. At nearly 80 years old, his accomplishments are better described as experiential archaeology, recreating legendary journeys to prove they could have happened. His historical adventures are based on years of upfront study, working with scholars to decipher ancient texts and find period-appropriate technology and materials. I only recently learned about Severin’s work, through his 1978 book that documents a fascinating early project called The Brendan Voyage.
I didn’t go outside much during the last two weeks, and I’m guessing that neither did you. COVID-19 is ravaging the world, and we’re only just beginning the strange solidarity of fighting it together, by staying apart. In the best of times modern life can be racked with anxiety, so in the midst of a deadly pandemic, and accompanying economic collapse, how do we stay sane?. We need a Happy Place: somewhere that makes us feel calmer just by thinking about it. That place for me is the Faroe Islands, and while the country is asking people to avoid visiting right now, I found the next best thing by staying inside and devouring The Land of Maybe: A Faroe Islands Year by Tim Ecott.
I could fly to the Faroe Islands right now. It would take a few connections from Pittsburgh, but soon I’d be looking out the window of an Atlantic Airways flight and trying to name the islands, if I could make them out through the fog. But that accessibility is a modern phenomena, and for most of its history the tiny archipelago was a distant place, a significant sea journey from anywhere. Isolation required self sufficiency, which led to a unique food culture, distinct even from its Scandinavian neighbors. Fermented lamb, boiled pilot whale, braised guillemot, puffin stuffed with cake. These dishes bear the imprint of the landscape itself. Faroese food is the creative output of natural constraints, defined by both what was missing (fertile soil, salt) and what was plentiful (steep bird cliffs, grassy mountains, deep ocean inlets).
The shoreline of the Faroe Islands is almost entirely composed of steep and dangerous cliffs. For most of us, these dramatic rock faces are something to take in at a distance, but traditionally they’ve been active sites of hunting and foraging. Fowlers climb up and down, using massive ropes to reach fulmar and puffin nests. Although no longer a necessary food source, collecting eggs and netting birds on these cliffs is an important part of Faroese heritage. A couple of years ago, the clothing brand North Face sponsored a trio of professional climbers on a trip to Cape Enniberg, one of the tallest sea cliffs in the world. The resulting movie contains beautiful scenes of the Faroe Islands and touches on some of the traditional climbing practices.
This blog comes from a fascination I have with people and places of the North: isolated islands, extreme landscapes, remote villages, and people that have found a way to live and even thrive in those environments. I find inspiration in travel, but also in the stories that other people document and share about these places. I recently discovered a book that could not be more perfectly aligned with these interests: Faces of the North by Ragnar Axelsson. Through stunning black and white photographs, and richly concise essays, this book documents the lives of people in Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland.
The sale of alcohol was banned in the Faroe Islands until 1992, but today it’s home to one of the coziest tap rooms I’ve ever visited: Mikkeller in Tórshavn. The Copenhagen-based micro-brewery has locations around the world, but almost all in large cities like Berlin, Oslo, or Stockholm. By contrast, Tórshavn is Europe’s smallest capital with barely 13,000 residents. The bar is housed in a beautiful 500-year-old home with low beams and a turf roof. Just steps from the harbor, in an old part of the city, the light brown exterior stands out from the cluster of black buildings nearby. Together they make up the Heima í Havn area, a restaurant group featuring some of the best dining in the country.
When I told a colleague I was planning a trip to the Faroe Islands he had two questions for me: 1. Had I seen their insanely picturesque football fields? and 2. Did I know about The Faroe Islands Podcast? Both were news to me. By the time I learned about the podcast it was already nine years old, having begun in January 2009 after the journalist Matthew Workman noticed a visitor to his blog from a country he’d never heard of. It was all down the rabbit hole from there. The internet didn’t have that much content about the Faroe Islands back then, at least not in English, so Matthew started blogging and podcasting about it.
There’s something wonderful about putting a name on a letter and knowing it will find its way to a remote destination, passing hand-to-hand until that person can open it. Of course today we send messages around the world in micro-seconds, but for me that only heightens my wonder of the physical post. It’s not just a technical feat, but a complex set of systems and people overcoming geography, weather, and Murphy’s law; there are many steps and many people holding that letter along the way. I want to share more about my love for the post, including how I started collecting Faroese stamps. But today I want to point you elsewhere, to a beautiful story the BBC published in 2018 called “Tales from the far-flung Faroes (The people who live on remote rocks in the North Atlantic) by Christian Petersen”