Friday, September 16, 2011

The Faroe Islands; 0.2% of Faroese are Polish

Just when you think that you have these islands sussed, a headline such as this will appear, and abb another quirk into the fabric that these naugha-Viking islands weave.

The Faroe Islands are a touch odd; it is their very eccentricity that attracts and it is their sometimes quirky approach to life that mesmerises. Life is a blend of new; of course the islands boast contemporary communications, cutting-edge design and a wide selection of modern wines, but at the same time, one sees people dressed in traditional Faroese clothing; one sees fishing villages that still launch their boats in ways that are clearly evolutionary developments from the ancient days and not revolutionary.

Don’t get me wrong, these are no backward people. Their livelihoods depend on fishing (and the generosity and (one has to believe the wilful blindness) of the Danish taxpayers; and in each endeavour, they are quite resourceful and successful.

The Faroe Islands are not a part of the EU. They keep outside, as does Iceland, principally because of their fishing industry. They believe that opening their fishing grounds to the unprincipled plunderers of the southern fleets will cost them far more in both the long and short-terms than staying outside will do. And, I think that they have a point. The fishing industry protects the evolution of an ancient life-style, admittedly aided considerably by Danish largesse, but nonetheless, it is evident from the number of full laden semis that boarded the ferry I am on in Torshavn that their Viking sea-based heritage is alive and well.

I was in the islands for business. There is annually a trade show for those whose travel businesses work heavily with operators in The Faroes, Iceland and Greenland, and this year it was in Torshavn. Next year it will be in Reykjavik, and after that it will be Greenland’s turn to host the event. Rather sadly, they have, for their last couple of turns, held it in Copenhagen, which has always struck me as an odd nod to their colonial past. We live in hope, though, of 2013 being back in their wonderful, northern home.

It is a great event; a chance for new tour operators, guest houses, bus routes, restaurants, hotels and other vital components of the travel business to show off their new products; in turn, there are about eighty-five buyers from around the world (in addition to my participation, there were buyers from Australia, China, Japan and Russia in addition to their more traditional European markets) looking for new products to sell.

And we found a lot. There are some fabulous community groups in South Greenland offering new programs, a new combination coach program in Iceland that will offer independent travellers another choice in touring there, and some new air-routes around the region offering us wide new opportunities to design some terrific products for the 2012 season. Watch the website!

Air Greenland, Air Iceland, Icelandair, Atlantic Airways and the redoubtable Smyril Line all work closely with the travel trade, and their complex and interwoven route network opens up this area for exploration. There is accommodation to suite all budgets, and the friendly faces, welcoming smiles and marvellous stories of the Atlantic Islanders will all combine to make a perfect and memorable vacation.

Which brings me to Poles.

The current copy of Atlantic Airway’s flight magazine highlights a fascinating statistic. The Faroese population, according to this August organ, comprises 92.7% Faroese, 6% Danes, and 0.3% Greenlanders with only Norwegians and Poles getting a mention at 0.2% each before “other” who make up 0.6%.

Now, given that their population is about 48,000 people, this means that there are about 96 Poles; a small number to be sure, but measurable. Further evidence of this diaspora was to be seen at a dry-dock boatyard where the various boxes for differing selections of waste products were indicated in Faroese, English and Polish.

The Polo-Faroese migratory movement is not one of the world’s most studied, but it is a bit interesting.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Wonderful Faroe Islands

Well, I have been here for twenty-four hours, and that added to the collective wisdom garnered on three previous visits, I feel, bestows expert status.

I can assert with little doubt that the weather in the Faroe Islands is not their strongest suit. Today, it was a touch gloomy at first, then overcast and later in the day, for a few minutes, scattered clouds. The clouds were subsequently gathered together and tethered above Torshavn, where they now sit.

However, I couldn’t have enjoyed the day more.

If one is in the slightest doubt where one is, upon awakening in a strange hotel room, one glance at the breakfast buffet and the pride of place accorded the pickled fish will narrow it to Scandinavia in a hurry; a second glance, marvelling at the size of the bowl, and the supplementary “foods of the sea” will confirm it as The Faroes. I happen to like pickled fish, and with the time zones on my taste-buds side, I plundered the buffet and headed out into the drizzle.

I do like rain, actually, and the light morning mist that covered Torshavn simply added to the warm and cosy feel of the town. Emphatically painted wooden buildings with turf roofs abound in the city centre; glancing in through the windows one can see the most contemporary offices and feel a sense of wonder at the Faroese ability to merge a thousand years of history and convention with today’s electronic convenience. It is a feeling that reappears frequently as one wanders through this remarkable island group.

I decided to go and visit the island of Nólsoy, conveniently located twenty minutes by ferry from the thumping heart of Torshavn. I sailed over, and watching the island appearing from the mist wondered where everyone was. The ferry was delivering about thirty folks there but otherwise, the town had the look of a Norse Potemkin village; deserted. I decided that the four-hour wait until the next ferry home would stretch even my imagination, so I simply stayed on board and headed back. The next attempt at self-amusement was a bus to the fishing town of Vestmanna some forty kilometres away.

It was a fine bus ride, passing through more of these perfect toy-villages until we arrived at the end of the line, and with a little over two hours to pass until the return bus, I wandered into the throbbing heart of the community.

The throb actually turned out to be a rather powerful pair of engines running inside a building close to the harbour, and with that mystery solved, I wandered on. It was quiet, I have to say, but rather lovely. The clouds had lifted, the drizzle abated and I simply looked around. Lovely houses, secure in the knowledge that the community had been there for a thousand years or more, and village elders kept (presumably) a continuing eye on who married whom. Houses were lovely, although it has to be said that some were a touch shabby; I liked that, as it indicated a sort of realism that is absent from perfection, and continued to wander. Past the harbour, in and around the local supermarket (heavy on yoghurts and Cadbury’s chocolate, leeks from Belgium and an unusually large selection of liquorices), gazed into the local clothing store (now, in the post-tourist season offering a 60% pricing advantage) and a rather drab looking dance hall. I suppose that most dance halls look sad in the middle of the afternoon, but there you go.

Then lunch and the most perfect fish and chips that I have ever encountered. And believe me, I have encountered a few in my time.

There couldn’t really have been time for my cod to realise what had happened to it between the moment that it lurched toward the bait, was hauled into the boat, deposited, still flapping, on the dock - a dock that has a number of notices that prohibit dogs from sniffing around, but oddly, not cats - being hustled into the kitchen and via a fryer onto my plate. Six hours at most is my guess, and it tasted thus.

The perfection of really fresh fish, cooked with skill is remarkable; it was simply sublime.

And so I returned on the bus to Torshavn marvelling at my fortune of being here, on a group of magical islands adrift in the North Atlantic Ocean.

I love the Faroe Islands.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Driving through northern Michigan

It has been five months since I have been to Europe, for me a record. After the mad wanderings of the past few years, it has been good to stay home for a while, although I certainly miss Esperaza.

During the summer I have had the opportunity to go on a couple of interesting, more local trips, into both the Arctic and the near US states. It was really a pleasure to explore some of our neighbour’s territory, and last week found us driving home from Toronto to Winnipeg.

The drive is good; from Toronto we headed to Sarnia and into Michigan before heading north and driving the length and breadth of this interesting state. It is, for those who have not been there or studied its geography, deceptively large, and peculiarly shaped.

We stopped on our first night in Gaylord, a village touted to emulate a small Alpine village. Apart from the obvious lack of Alps, the descriptions were misleading; oddly -gabled buildings astride a normal, gas-station and big-box infested highway would have been more accurate. The hotel was fine, and as pasteurised as one might expect a Hilton to be, although their air-conditioning sounded like rush-hour on an aircraft carrier. Food in town was harder to find, and although we rocked on up to the “Big Buck”, with predictably gargantuan servings of various American specialities, we left thirsty.

They brewed their own beer; actually an admirable pastime and I have to say they do it well. However, their wine making leaves a lot to be desired. Astringent, weedy and, one has to say, tasting as if it had been made in Central Michigan, it was on sale at an eye-watering $9.50 for 4½ ounces. Now even in metric units, this is a price that would normally be paid for some nectar of the gods, and not this backwater naughawine.

However, suitably fortified we headed north and crossed the Mackinaw Bridge to the Upper Peninsula. We did choose the one day of the year that pedestrian traffic in permitted on the bridge, and consequently thousands of folks took advantage of this regulatory relaxation, and wandered toward us. Watching the walkers, of absolutely every shape and size, did lead to some unkind comments and some small wagers as to some individual’s potential of completing the five-mile walk alive.

It did add an hour to our journey, however, and thus our run across the northern section of the state was a touch more hurried than we might have liked.

This is the land that the economy seems to have left behind. Once clear of Mackinaw, the next two hundred or so miles of highway was littered with “For Sale” signs. Fully two-thirds of the motels and RV parks were for sale, and in many cases, it appeared to be a forlorn hope.

Where are the tourists? We supposed that now, rather than driving and stopping when tired at a motel showing a “vacancy” sign, folks simply got on their iPads, Pods or Phones, and heading straight for a brand name, booked a Best Western, Days Inn or similar, rushing by the independents, unable to reach the brand-obsessed on-line traveller. Cars are also better today, and the daily distances we cover are longer, allowing travellers to congregate in one of a few thriving centres rather than spreading the wealth more evenly throughout the state.

It is a sad state of affairs, and the economy of the “UP” was clearly hurting.

We stopped in Fargo, ND as well, principally to look at a building that we might invest in, but also because of the small towns in the upper mid-west, Fargo really stands out.

Its downtown is attractive, full of life and small businesses. This, principally due to the investment made by a local family who sold their software company to Microsoft for $1.3 billion or so; and let me tell you, that sort of money goes a long way in a smallish town. Of particular note is the lovely Hotel Donaldson, a terrific spot and worth a detour of anyone’s trip. That does assume, of course, that one is anywhere in the vicinity to begin with, which given Fargo’s location, is improbable.

And so to Brussels.

The last time I was here I had arrived on a Capitol Airways flight from New York, and given that Capitol went bankrupt in the 1980s, this was some time ago. As I look out of the window, I see planes from seven airlines, only three of which existed on my last visit. How things change. I am not here for long, heading in a couple of hours to Copenhagen on one of these new airlines (Brussels Airlines). I shall have time to scoot into town there for a beer with an old friend before the final flight of the journey to the magical Faroe Islands.

And more of the Faroes tomorrow.