The Faroes – a blast from the past

Last week I received a delightful email from a listener about our trip to the Faroe Islands in May 2010. Even though it’s an old story, it’s a good read – especially in lieu of earthquakes and volcanos and the impending arrival of hurricane Irene……

Sean and I are recently home to NYC from a fabulous adventure in the Faroe Islands. It was a huge journey to get there as we left on the first day planes were back in the air after the Icelandic volcano erupted, and a huge journey to get back as the volcano was spluttering again last weekend, and we had to fly north of Iceland to avoid the ash cloud. Now we are back it feels strange to look out the window and not see islands on the horizon through a cloud of mist one minute, sunshine the next, and snow, rain and wind in between. What a place! We have been working to get to the Faroe Islands since we first started research on our book project over a year ago. The Islands are home to a design team called Gudrun & Gudrun, two women, who have created a local industry by using all the natural resources of the islands to create beautiful clothes. Everything they make is made from the Island’s natural wool or fish products ( sneakers made from fish skins! ) and all are hand knitted by women that they know. So it’s a very personal endeavour. 

We left on Monday April 19  bound for Copenhagen, but as the airport wasn’t yet open, we landed in Amsterdam and made our way overland with thousands of other travellers. All had a story to tell of where they had come from and where they were going. The trains were packed with people overflowing to the carriage ends, where they stood and exchanged stories – it was a fantastic atmosphere. We first met a father & son duo in the train queue at Amsterdam airport, who were making their way back to Denmark from the Caribbean, where they had been sailing with the daughter & her husband. ( Who gave up their plane seats in the first flight out for a family with a disabled child ). Eric & Daniel paid for our train tickets to Hamburg when the Dutch transport would not accept US credit cards. This set a huge precedent for generosity which followed us for the rest of our trip. Fortunately in Hamburg we were able to settle the debt with the next series of tickets which took us by bus to the German border. During the trip we learnt all about the Danish socialist government, the best places to sail, and what to see when we arrived. I also met a couple of German fellows who had lived in New York since the end of the war, and were on their way back for a 60th school reunion. They talked about their childhood, about cutting peat from the bottom of the garden & drying it so they could then burn it to heat the house. Such graphic descriptions of the cutting tools and how the chiseled sodden peat hole would suddenly collapse inwards, swallowing tools, ladders and anything else that lingered too long. But such fun, and good memories.
The bus delivered us to the ferry, which took us on a sunset voyage across the Baltic to Denmark. Then we simply had another train and cab to catch before we found our hotel – after 26 hours in transit we were given the honeymoon suite. Which shows the Danes are not only generous, but they also have a sense of humour.

We had a couple of days in Copenhagen – didn’t see ‘our Mary’, but saw the sights and had a fortuitous discovery in a side-street restaurant that was run by an Australian. He offered us 2 flat whites as soon as he heard our accents, organised the house special dish – poached eggs with avocado & salad on seedy bread, and then introduced us to the Faroese chef. With great pride Gutti brought out his computer to show us where to go and gave us a long list of people to see, including the chef at the hotel where we were staying ( who cooked the crew a magnificent meal on our first night ), and Birgir, the skipper of a fabulous old schooner, who would, along with Unn from the tourist office, become a great friend.

We picked up a car after a couple of days and headed west to the Danish coast. We had recently seen ‘The Ghost Writer’, Polanski’s latest film, which was shot on the German beach just to the south, and that was what drew us there. Wide open beaches with grassy sandhills and a mind cleansing sea breeze…. It was fabulous. We took our time and followed the coast north as far as we could go, then looped back to Copenhagen taking as many ferries and back roads as possible. Not to mention “Bageri’s”. All the little towns have their own bakery, easily identified by a giant pretzel and the royal crown symbol hanging outside. We discovered lots of variations of pastry/buns baked with brown sugar, some with chocolate, some with fruit, but all of them delicious. The temperature encouraged the indulgence, but the cool weather also meant we chased Spring flowers all the way north. There were daffodils lining the fields, and the forests of beech trees, not yet in leaf, were carpeted with thousands of tiny white flowers peculiar only to them. We were most impressed to find that Eric and Daniel’s tales of social equality were true, for every road we travelled on there was a bicycle lane. No matter how out of the way we were, there were bike lanes. And there were people using them too, all over people seemed to be riding or hiking. 

Sean and I were restless in the end to get to the Faroes, and even moreso when our flight was delayed by 6 hours. By the time we arrived it was too late for Unn to wait, so we picked up the car left for us and drove into town. What an introduction! It was pouring with rain. Really pouring, as though we were driving continuously through a waterfall. The eerie light luminated snow on top of the mountains and sheep loitering on the side of the cliff-hugging roads. Everything seemed so extreme, but we were soon to find out that this was normal. You just need to leave the New York pace behind, slow down and let things happen. 

Sean and I had 2 days before his assistants arrived, and then we had a further couple of days before the stylists and models arrived. We met Unn & Birgir, found a great coffee shop by the dock, settled into our hotel overlooking the town, and began exploring. I had looked at so many pictures of the coloured houses and landscapes that a lot of it looked already familiar. But nothing can prepare you for the weather. There is a local expression that if you don’t like the weather just wait for 5 minutes and it will change. How true. When we first arrived if it started to rain we would grab our umbrellas, but after awhile we just pulled up the hoods on our jackets and carried on. Scouting for locations was fantastic, not least because a landscape would change in front of you as mist lifted or the sun broke through the clouds and danced along the sea. It also gave us time to understand the environment a little more. Sheep rule on the islands. They have right of way if the wander onto the roads, and if you want to cross a field of green grass you have to get permission from the farmer, because the grass is for the sheep. The islands are volcanic, there are no trees and pasture comes at a premium. Of the 18 islands that make the Faroes, some are uninhabited and difficult to access. But we were told that some have fantastic grass, so good that sheep are taken there in boats, literally thrown on the island for the season just to eat it, and when they are retrieved you can taste the difference. We sailed past some islands where the terrain was so steep you couldn’t imagine how the sheep survived. But everywhere we went – waterfalls, beaches, cliff tops – the sheep were present or left bountiful signs that they had been.

Through Unn we had arranged to exchange photography for our hotel rooms, hire cars and airfares. So we had a couple of busy shooting days to earn our keep before the models arrived. Our hotel sat on top of the hill overlooking the capital Torshavn & was built in the classic Faroese style with a grass roof. I became addicted to the view, looking out each morning across the bay, and to check on the ‘oyster catchers’ who have a nest just outside the Bill Clinton suite. Bill and his birds….

Oyster catchers are natives with long orange beaks that they use to lift oysters in the air and then drop them to smash the shells and get to the meat. These particular residents come back every year to the same nest, and the hotel has installed a webcam so you can watch the chicks hatch and grow. They have the same colours as puffins, which we saw in abundance on the ocean. They have a season where they are ‘on the water’ and then come in to nest. 

This is starting to sound a little like a nature lesson, but bear with me, because ‘nature’ became something of an issue when Suzie arrived. Suzie is a fashion editor and we have worked with her regularly over the past 6 few years, shooting the Spring and Fall Collections from Paris and New York shows. She arrived with her assistant, 2 female models, and Wiktor, our amazing blonde male model from Sweden. The idea was to shoot Suzie’s collection on the first day with the 2 girls Ronya and Marikka, and then shoot with Ronya and Wiktor for the other 2 days. Suzie’s shoot went well. We kept close to locations in and near the town so wardrobe changes were relatively easy and there was immediate access to double expressos. However, the next day we went out with Birgir. Birgir was originally a blacksmith in the navy and has been sailing for about 30 years. He is a no-nonsense seasoned skipper, with a hearty appetite for life. He has the reputation for instigating tourism in the Faroes, and he loves the place with a passion. When I first approached him to take us out, he spoke with such intensity about caves and colours in rock faces and special places he could take us, that I knew we would be crazy to miss the opportunity. Even if it would be difficult to transport gear and crew. If only I knew what was in store. We met the following morning where Birgir instructed all 12 of us to put on dry suits and packed us and the gear in a zodiac. We had a 30 minute ride to another island which was like going through a looking glass to another world. Suddenly there craggy coloured cliffs soaring to the sky with thousands and thousands of seabirds nesting and protesting our arrival. We motored in and around a huge cave, and as we came out Birgir and Robert heaved themselves onto a rock ledge and with a backpack of tools, hammered in a series of pytons and ropes. About this time I realised my production schedule didn’t quite cover what was in store. But Sean did. He and Birgir pulled us out of the boat one by one, and encouraged us to climb from ledge to ledge with the help of the ropes and the promise of the view. It was spectacular. Absolutely beautiful. We were high on a huge ledge, with pools of water between lichen covered boulders – just like a volcanic rock garden. It was a unique and completely original photo location, and Sean wasted no time getting to work. 

Of the models, Wiktor was the most amazing. He was so blonde you could hardly see where his hair finished and his skin started, and he was tall – of course, but with a hilarious sense of humour, and a very real sense of himself. When he arrived at the Faroese Airport he was pulled aside by security. ‘I must have scared them’ he said, ‘wearing black satin boxer shorts over long back tights, studded boots and a short military jacket…..’ Wiktor trained as a dancer for 7 years, and could do the most amazing contortions with his body. In fact he had to give up dancing in the end – something to do with his body being too rubbery. Anyway, he certainly brought a lot of energy and ingenuity to the set and was the first model that moved as fast as Sean. So we have some great work as a result. Sean is over the moon.

The whole crew was in awe of the rocky location, with the exception of Suzie. From the beginning she had problems with the climb, and ‘I am afraid of heights’ quickly became ‘ I hate nature’ and then some other expressions I won’t mention. When it came time to leave, and the descending mist and diminishing tide made our departure more urgent, Suzie went into lockdown. She was not going to move, she couldn’t move and she hated us all. Actually she hated Birgir the most because he was responsible for the venture, and was delighting in taking pictures of her distressed state. Our pickup guy in the zodiac had quite a challenge in retrieving us from the island as the tide had dropped by about 3 meters and it was getting rough. So he had to wait for a wave, manoever the boat into position and get us to jump at the right moment. We all had the dry suits which would have kept us floating if we did fall in the water, but the main fear was hitting rocks on the way down. Yes, it was an adventure! When all the crew except Suzie had made it into the boat, Sean took action as the ‘el capitan’ he was henceforth called. He told Suzie to stop talking and to hold onto him. He strapped her onto his back, and abseiled down the cliff, almost being strangled in the process. By the time Suzie slid into the boat everyone was cheering and she was declaring how much she hated everyone. But by the time we reached the shore and Unn met us with a pot of soup and a bottle of local brew, Suzie was back in form, declaring how fabulous she was.

The following morning before we headed off for another big shoot day, we were interviewed by the local radio. Of course we were delighted to be invited to talk about our project and it seemed especially fun to be moonlighting from the ABC. The marketing Gudrun ( one does marketing, the other does the design ) spoke first in Danish so we didn’t know what she said, and then we talked about the book, but also about how fantastic the Faroes are and what an extraordinary time we were having. From that time on, everywhere we went, we received the most amazing response. Apparently Gudrun told the story of how Sean carried Suzie down the cliff. So from then on, people would greet Sean with ‘YOU are the man, that photographer, the one who carried the woman down the cliff!’ Robert, who helped us on the day, and who took us for another boat ride after the shoot was over, said what a great thing we had done for the Islands by promoting Gudrun and Gudrun, and how proud the Faroese were of us. It really was quite a moment.

After such an incredible day, it seemed that anything else we did would be tame in comparison. But the first shot of the next day was a beauty. The location was a spectacular waterfall on the road to Tjornuvik, where the overspray and the misty rain made for extremely wet conditions. Ronya wore a Gudrun & Gudrun trademark dress, which Gudrun had knitted during dinner the night before the shoot. The models were real troopers, although by the time we reached the second location at the beach, the cold wind blowing off the ocean meant Sean was shooting double time. The sand was black, and as the tide sent long shallow waves up the shore, all the surrounding cliffs glistened in reflection. While it was a shame that the cold stymied a prolonged shoot session, this meant that we reached the 3rd location at golden hour, which was extraordinary. Kirkjubour is a small village where Faroese tradition is strongly upheld. All the houses have grass roofs and are painted black with red window frames – which would seem a bit cultish except that the people are so modern and friendly. Or should I just say proud. One family has lived in the same house continuously for 17 generations…. ! We were there for the world heritage listed cathedral, or what remains of it after 700 or 800 years. At sunset it was a spectacular location with Sean able to use the natural light to great effect.

The stylists & models left the next morning, and of course all that day there was no rain and the sun shone gloriously. With the shooting finished, Sean & I, along with his 2 assistants, expected to use our remaining time on the islands for checking the gear & backing up all the work. Which we did, but the volcano gave us a treat by exploding just enough to delay our departure from the Faroes and so give us the opportunity to spend more time with Birgir and Unn. Birgir is a great cook and a great host. The first time I met him was the morning after his 61st birthday party and the galley of his old schooner was a testament to the generosity of the celebration. There were bottles of red wine, empty beer bottles and glasses queuing for the dishwasher. With the legacy of strict consumption laws on the islands and still only one place in the capital where you can buy alcohol, it was clear that Birgir had connections. We also knew it was a privilege to be invited to join his table. So when we were, we knew we were in the company of royalty ( literally, the prince of Denmark ). And with a special menu at that. Birgir knew Sean couldn’t eat seafood, so he bought him steaks and set him cooking while the rest of us sat around the carved wooden table peeling garlic and chopping onions. We finished up doing this 2 nights in a row, and know that the next time we are going to the Faroes, we will send advance warning with the delivery of a vast quantity of the pungent bulbs. But that first night was the best. We chopped and talked and drank some wine while Birgir steamed the most succulent crab I have ever tasted. He served it with garlicky mussels and fillets of white fish – simple and delicious. 

When the flight was delayed again, Birgir invited us to join a group of Danish businessman ( also delayed ) in a sail out to the caves. It was eerily the same course we had taken for the infamous photo-shoot, and the ropes were still visible from the ship, fastened to the rocks in anticipation of the next outward bound adventure. But this day the sun shone and they didn’t leave the ship, although Sean, and his assistants swung in the bow’s cradle and climbed the mast in pursuit of the next great photograph. 

I realise at this time that I haven’t talked much about Unn. She didn’t come to any of the actual shoots, although she was essential in organising them, and was always there when we came in, forever ready with a welcome drink and a sharp wit. She ( and Birgir ) both called Sean ‘Santos’ because Sean was too hard to say in their language. Unn spent 15 years in Denmark as well as working for a short time in Boston, but finally went back to the Faroes because she missed the view. There we go, in search of the land of belonging….

We eventually flew out to Copenhagen by the of the week, and then back to New York via the North Pole. Or that’s what it seemed like anyway. They had to join the queue of aircraft flying north of Iceland to avoid the volcanic ash – I just wish we could have seen some proof from the air to compensate the 10 hour journey. Whew! 

And so we are all back sorting through the thousands of photographs and adjusting to life in New York. We felt so sad to leave the Faroes, I wondered if this meant our time in the US was perhaps coming to an end. The first day back I took the bus up to Fairways Supermarket on the west side. As I waited at the counter to ask for a roasting chicken, the guy on the other side burst out with ‘ hello darling, where have you been ?’. I felt so welcome, but thought he must have mistaken me for someone else, so I quickly put in my order, and when he brought it back he said ‘ Just remember, YOU have a GREAT night ! ‘. I felt immediately cheered and at home once more . Then he went to the next customer and said ‘hello darling, where have you been? !’.

There’s no place like New York !


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