Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Airport Security

Now I like, it must be said, secure aeroplanes. The thought of being hijacked is an anathema to me, and to that end, I am happy to undergo airport screening.

To a point.
And it is this very level of screening that always bewilders me, and in particular, I would love it if the airport screeners actually seemed to be singing from the same page.

There is a subtle difference between airport security in Europe and in the USA; simply put, the security folks in the major European airports seem competent and professional, those in the USA seem to be the cheapest folks available; Canada, as always, lies somewhere in between.
It must be said that working for CATSA must be the most boring career imaginable; perhaps new recruits believe that they will be the ones to stop another airline massacre, but the odds of spotting anything more dramatic than an errant can of shaving cream or half a bottle of forgotten water are remote. Year after year, the prospect of this future must loom larger, and only those who make it to management or those of a particularly authoritative bent remain. And so turn-over is a problem, and one is confronted all too regularly with those keeners, actually believing that they are doing the world’s security a service.

So yesterday, having cleared security in Torshavn, Copenhagen and Amsterdam with no issue, I arrived back in Canada. And sure enough, the two newbies on duty at Pearson airport in Toronto became terrifically overexcited by a glimpse of something in my bag. It turned out that the objects of their fascination were glass bracelets; unable to distinguish between glass and liquids - and yes, I know that glass is technically a liquid, but this is not the point - even after feeling the items, I had to unwrap them and present them to the scanners.
Petty, futile and unutterably irritating;  the wrapping torn - yes I know that I am not supposed to have presents wrapped at security - mine, and eveyone behind me in the queue's time wasted; two young women on their first week on the job saving Air Canada from disaster and an incandescent Max.

I do get annoyed at the sheer stupidity of the system; do I feel any more secure now all travellers are harassed to bits? Of course not; if one wants to get nasty stuff on to aircraft it seems that disguising it as cocaine would do the trick; there seems to be no abatement in the movement of the stuff anywhere. Before September 11th one flew around the world with little interference and an infinitesimal chance of disaster; now we fly around the world with varying degrees of hassle and an infinitesimal chance of disaster. Relying on airport security to deter terrorists from smuggling weapons on board also requires one to believe that anyone trying to massacre hundreds of people by bringing down an airliner would draw the line at being arrested by a CATSA security agent.
And real progress, like programming these full-body scanners to detonate any explosives they actually detect seems like a distant dream. In the meantime, however, I would urge both the Canadian and particularly American security organisations to figure out how to retain their employees, and help them distinguish between petty harassment and professional security process.

At that point, the travelling public might take the process more genially.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Day Near Copenhagen

I’ll tell you what’s fun; using Faroese bank notes in Denmark. Which is, I hasten to add, perfectly legal, but apparantly uncommon.

The thing is this. Faroese weather has a reputation for being capricious, and unsure of the Vagar/Copenhagen flight I decided to spend an additional day in Copenhagen before heading back to Canada. Uninterested in spending the day in the city itself, frankly, I have pretty much had it with anodyne European cities, I booked a couple of nights in the resort town of Dragǿr, a rather lovely village nestled snuggly against the southern perimeter of the airport.

I rather like resort towns in the off season. They often show their true colours, relieved of thousands of tourists plunging into the sea, hustling for ice-creams, waving, laughing and generally having fun. No, the off season with its slightly bemused patina is the season for me.
And as a stopover option for those transiting Copenhagen airport, it is absolutely terrific.

The Dragǿr Badehotel is just fine. A modest three-star property that has clearly seen days of grandeur, does the job. The rooms are all smallish but clean and comfortable, and fitted with a most eccentric showering system that requires imagination and agility to extract the maximum benefit. It is currently being refurbished, a touch annoying for us, but given the count at breakfast this morning, four - including my colleague and I, it was probably a good time to have the artisans in.
The town is really lovely. Founded over seven hundred years ago during the Great Herring Years, the town has always traded and provided pilots and seafarers to the rich maritime heritage of the Baltic coast. Today Dragǿr still exudes history and prosperity in equal measures, and the old part of the town, and its unique environment, is simply a delight. The community is quite obviously a resort, with many summer homes and prosperous retirees balancing its permanent residents, yet there are few of the obvious trappings of many seaside towns. The community offers small and apparently local shops, museums (although they are closed in the off-season), galleries, restaurants and a wonderful environment to explore.

Its old quarter is simply lovely. The traditional yellow houses dot small twisting roads, back lanes and lovely open squares, and tell of a history that still connects the past with their present. The town has not become a caricature of itself, a fate so often befalling lovely coastal villages, and has retained an earthy charm. It is a fine place to wander, explore and wait for a plane.
It is quite clear to even an untrained observer that beer is a rather popular drink in this neighbourhood. Gallons of the stuff seem to be consumed with men and women sitting and enjoying buckets of the stuff for quite protracted period of time. This I know not because I stayed to watch, but when I returned to a cafe for a restorative after a walk in the somewhat bracing weather, time had stood still. Their earlier clientele remained in place, smiles fixed on their faces, and so I joined in.

And it was at this moment that I realised that Faroese banknotes are not regularly proffered at Dragǿr cafes, particularly by English speaking tourists in December. It caused consternation at first, it did strike me as a particularly good counterfeiting strategy, and finally merriment and the owner was summoned and confirmed that odd as it was, it was legal tender. This reaction was duplicated by a taxi driver, who was unlikely to have actually heard of the Faroe Islands as he grew up in Somalia, and finally by a delightful young lady who finally exchanged our last banknote for a couple of cappuccinos; admittedly, as we had finished the coffees by this point, she really had little option. We wondered later whether any of the recipients would join the fun, and palm them off as change to their regular customers, and how long they might whizz around the town before finally ending up in the bank, and back on an Atlantic Airways flight to Torshavn.
Dragǿr is lovely, and well worth considering as a Copenhagen stop-over town. Accessible from the airport by taxi ($30) or by a simple, twelve-minute bus ride ($5) it makes a fine alternative to the city centre. Hotels start at around $60 for a single room, and there is a variety of properties to choose from; all in all, a convivial, interesting and very convenient place to be.

Thorshavn, Faroe Islands

Suffice it to say that the Faroe Islands, wonderful in the summer and fall, have a charm throughout the winter, even when the weather may be at its more dramatic, and the days draw short. By December, the sun will rise above the horizon at about nine o’clock, and dip back down before half past three; and this burst of sunshine visible only at sea level, as behind the mountains, the sun will penetrate only briefly as it reaches its peak.

But despite this drawback, the islands are cosy, welcoming and endlessly fascinating.
In the course of a couple of days, it is possible to drive to most of the northern islands, connected as they are by an intricate system of tunnels and bridges. While the difference between the islands might appear academic at first glance, it is their very distinctions that make the country such a pleasure to explore.

The fourteen or so islands lie roughly northwest to south east, and rise to over 3,000’ although only a mile or so wide. The land plunges down into the sea, to unfathomable depths before rising up a few hundred yards further to create another magnificent, rocky and spectacular island. Nestled along the shoreline are the ancient communities clinging to the land, their past and future firmly determined by the sea. The islands are indeed ancient, and their language reminiscent to Old Norse. It is a language that nearly died in the late 1800s, and it is said that only the interest of Danish lexicographers sent to the islands to record the remaining fragments of language, spurred the islanders to a linguistic revival. Now the Faroese language, spoken by a maximum of 70,000 folks, is indeed thriving. 140 bookes were published in 2010/11 in the language, and its own literature is rich and growing.
The culture of the islands is strong, and obvious everywhere. Communities are proud and welcoming, the traditional Faroese sweaters and jackets are worn regularly and their old foods are common. Possibly too common for many as the appearance of puffins, dried salt-cod, whale blubber and mutton head-cheese on otherwise conventional buffets can be a surprise.

Having tried a piece of the cured whale blubber (which I had incorrectly identified as cod) and decided that it was not a flavour that I was likely to acquire, I was admonished for eating it incorrectly. Advised that the correct and delicious way to enjoy this delicacy was to compose a trifecta of dried salt-cod, speck (the harmless name they give to whale blubber) topped with a boiled potato. This combination was the only way to enjoy these delicacies, and as the Faroese did it this way, so should we all.
Popping it into my mouth and chewing was the gustatory equivalent of a right hook. There is a very good reason that the delicacy has not spread, and while the alarm on my face may have registered my true feelings, I managed to chew and swallow it, and rapidly poured a shot of local fire-water in to douse the experience.

This proved to be an error, as I had not realised quite how strongly the aquavit was flavoured with aniseed, and the ensemble thus created was memorable.
Fond memories, though, as it has to be said that the rest of the feast was wonderful, and the experience only went to reinforce how closely this wonderful country has kept its culture.

To drive through the islands is to gasp at the endless perfect scenery, to wonder at the picturesque communities, to marvel at the engineering that has built the infrastructure to keep the community together yet living in their traditional villages; it is a country of ever-changing weather, cloud formations that inspire and light that seems to make the country smile.
It is, perhaps, one of the most difficult countries in the world to imagine carving out a living among the high and craggy islands way out in the North Sea, but the Faroese do, and do with a smile that reflects their pride in maintaining their culture and pride.

For a visitor, the Faroe Islands offer peace and excitement, they foster tranquillity and curiosity, and thay always leave one eager to return.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Faroe Islands once more

I have to start by saying that I am not given to hyperbole. Understatement may not be my strongest suit, but I try to stay pretty close to the truth, and having said this, I need to explain a lifelong love of The Faroe Islands.

In about 1968 or 1969 National Geographic magazine published an article about The Faroes; I was mesmerised. As a pre-pubescent boy, National Geographic, as it landed on the doorstep was a must, as from time to time, naked female breasts, still a mystery and wonder to me, were displayed. This month, however, it was about remote communities, whale hunts, air-dried lamb, remarkable landscapes and the ancient turf-roof houses of Torshavn, the islands’ capital city. From that moment on, I was captivated by the islands, and, in fact, still am.

Tonight, I am in Gjogv; an utterly remarkable village in a picturesque valley to the north of the island of Eysturoy.  The hotel I am staying in, the Gjaargardur Guest House, is wonderful; perfectly appointed, friendly beyond need and absolutely lovely; the evening is perfect.
Snow dusts the mountains that converge here, and while the village is cosy and secure tonight, it was built in the days that cosy and secure were the only elements of life that counted as the village’s economy relied on men heading out to the wild North Atlantic to fish; perhaps they still should be, and Gjogv still is, and although its population has declined from about 80 to about 40, it still has the air of prosperity and a continuum that will attract folks back to it yet

I am here, in the islands, with our Chicago-based publicist with whom we have worked closely for fifteen years or more. It is my belief, and I  have to be honest, my commercial hope, that the Faroes will be the next “big” destination, and to this end, we are here for four days to enjoy ourselves; and astonish ourselves.
The islands are small, and with a community of only 50,000 one does not expect to find a symphony orchestra; yet here one is, and tonight its director, Paul Jakup Thomsen, spent an hour talking about the culture of the islands. That over 5,000 people regularly watch the symphony, yes, 10% of the population, is exceptional; that their number includes several European prize winners is remarkable, and that their repertoire includes among an orchestra’s standard, Leroy Anderson’s Typewriter Symphony and David Shaffer’s Sandpaper Symphony is astonishing; astonishing, perhaps only without an awareness of these islands.

It is an island where culture means much, and is displayed every day. When Paul asked his class of ten or so young women to sing us a song, they immediately did so; it was a lullaby, and judging from their snickers and grins, the lyrics may not have been entirely appropriate to sing to a 55 year old man, but the thought was there. And not only that, they sang beautifully and spontaneously, used to communal singing for many reasons, odd or conventional.

Lying half way between Scotland and Iceland, the Faroe Islands are inhospitable, gorgeous, stubborn and probably my favourite place in the world. Their livelihood comes from fishing, as well as a pretty eclectic mixture of businesses ranging from clothing design, computer software and tourism to the general support businesses that any community needs. They are unutterably gorgeous, noted by National Geographic as the most desirable tourist destination in the world. For those interested in scenery, hiking, birdlife, history, culture and finding the elusive “peace and quiet” so often sold by tourist destinations, the Faroes should be on the list.

So here we are. Surprised by a blizzard that howled through last night, and dusted the islands with white, we will wander from the north to the south and the east to the western extreme (the island of Nolsoy) and wonder about this rather unusual land for the next three days.
I am not sure why the National Geographic article so attracted me, but now, on my fifth visit to these islands, I know why I want to come back.