My trip to the Faroe Islands was inspirational. It wasn’t a roller coaster of excitement. It wasn’t a sun-drenched getaway. I didn’t sleep a lot, nor did I feast on exotic fruits fed to me by sun-kissed maidens — in fact, all I ate was meat and potatoes. The Faroe Islands were educational. Eye-opening and and interesting.
The Faroe Islands are unique in that they’re the smallest Western nation in the world. 45,000 people spread out across an archipelago of 18 islands. They have three cities, the biggest of which has a population of 15,000 — the next, Klaksvik, has just 4,000.
Zoom in on that city. A village or small town by any other standard, Klaksvik is the capital of the Northern Isles and the hub of culture and commerce for 6 of the Faroes’ 18 islands. Once upon a time it would’ve been a village with a thriving marketplace, a civilisation whose only contact with the outside world was by boat. In fact its tunnel to the mainland was only finished in 2006!
But is it a backward, single-street village? Is Klaksvik a second-world shanty village reliant on good weather and safe waters for its survival? No. When the fog horns bellow do women run helter-skelter to the harbour hoping that food has finally arrived? No. Klaksvik and the Faroes themselves are actuallty one of the most developed nations in the world. In Klaksvik alone they have multiple deep-sea harbours and dry dock. A cinema and theatre. Two gymnasiums and a skate park! They even have a fully-featured hospital and – get this – a football stadium with more than enough seating for the entire town — city! I meant city! (Don’t call it a village. They really hate that. I did it a few times…)
They’re also planning an indoor football pitch for use during the dark and cold-rain winters that descend upon their city for two thirds of the year. An indoor sports arena for just 4,000 people; just 4,000 people utilise these awesome and ludicrous amenities. Four thousand happy little souls, living out their lives as humble fishermen and sheep farmers but with access to resources that would put most western nations to shame.
But how do they do it? How can economy on such a tiny scale work?
More importantly: why don’t all towns of similar size around the world have the same resources?
Now that I’ve painted an objective picture of Klaksvik, it’s necessary for me to tell you what it’s like to live there. What’s it like to live in a city where everyone literally knows everyone? What’s it like when the bank manager is both your uncle and the one signing your mortgage agreement? How about when the city’s star football player is also the same person that you regularly head into the Arctic Circle to trawl cod fish with? What’s it like to live in a place where it’s not unusual for teenagers to head out together for a 9-month stint as fishers in the Barents Sea off the coast of Russia?
But the weirdest thing about the small city of Klaksvik is this: nothing is locked. Car doors are left unlocked with their keys often on display. House doors are (usually) closed but never bolted. Boats and bikes are left running: nothing is chained down.
As a result, life in Klaksvik felt just as I expected: it’s like one big family. Because that’s what it is. We’re talking about a city that formed by the coalescence of nearby villages; from just 200 people a thousand years ago, there are now 4,000. You don’t need a piece of paper to work out just how closely related everyone is.
There was the possibility that I would be thought of as ‘the stranger’, the freak that would draw people to their windows. The other-world alien that would pull crowds of pointed fingers, furrowed glares and nervous giggles.
I thought I’d feel like an outcast, a tourist — or worse: a journalist — an outsider come to investigate and poke and ridicule their ancient form and customs.
Instead I was welcomed with open arms and hearts. And legs.
[Next part tomorrow... hopefully!]