Saturday, April 16, 2011

Grindadrap, Groceries and the Midnight Sun

I'd known of the Faroe Islands through stories my father told me when I was young. He spoke of fishermen he'd known during two summers spent as a deck hand aboard a trawler that worked the waters off the coast of New Jersey. From him I got the sense that the Faroes were a proud, seafaring people whose island home was somewhere in the North Atlantic. I heard about the Faroes again in the late eighties, this time in association with the killing of Pilot Whales as depicted in lurid news releases by radical environmental groups. Of the two, the impression left by my father is closer to the truth, but how I found that out is what this story is about. Must not get ahead of myself.

I felt the killing of hundreds of Pilot Whales each Summer in the Faroes didn't have to happen, but my feelings were not the issue. My job, and the job of our group, was to be objective. We had to observe and we had to listen in order to avoid being labelled as activists or troublemakers. Our thoughts had to remain hidden, or at the very least, be carefully articulated, if we expected to walk among the Faroese without a curtain of silence being drawn around us. It was decided after much debate that we were to remain quiet on the subject of the Grindadrap unless asked point blank. At that point it was up to us to try to explain our feeling honestly and in the context of being from Hawaii, an island culture on the other side of the world.

There it was again. Island culture.

Hawaii and the Faroes were linked. Isolated in their pre-history in the middle of vast oceans, reliant on sea life for sustenance, the two archipelagos shared a common bond. The Sea and Pilot Whales.

I knew the sea, having spent many years on or beneath it on surface ships and submarines, but I knew little of Pilot Whales. Why were they used for food in the Faroes and not in Hawaii? Despite a growing list of similarities between the two island groups, here was a curious difference. Did it have anything to do with the fecundity of Hawaiian waters. Were there so many other types of marine life that the Pilot Whales there somehow missed out on being placed on the Hawaiian's menu? If this was the case then how did the Faroese come to use the Pilot Whales of the North Atlantic as a food source?

There was much to learn, this much was clear. As we talked things over hunger began to set in and the urge to get out of the house and explore a grocery store took precedence over protocol.

Pall offered to take a few of us to the nearest store and I called shotgun. Bonnie and Louie needed to buy food for the gang and thus our provisioning crew was set. As we hiked down to the road I noticed the sun in the western sky above Vagar and looked at my watch. The time was 6:30PM but the sun was still high above the horizon. So this was what the midnight sun was all about. At 4 degrees below the Arctic Circle, the Faroes would see the sun for almost 22 hours of every day of our stay. It was going to take some getting used to.

We drove out to the main highway and turned right. The road was modern and well maintained. The only difference of note was that all major intersections were roundabouts, a traffic management solution that I soon became a fan of. At a gas station near the end of a long and narrow body of water called Kollafjord we piled out and invaded a small convenience store. I purchased food from three of the four 'C's' food groups: Coke, candy, and chips. I also bought some cheese and packs of sandwich meat, some locally baked bread and four large Cadbury milk chocolate bars. Heaven. Bonnie and Louie were more restrained and tried to shop intelligently, as we had to make dinner and breakfast before we headed out the next morning. One of their purchases was from the fouth of the four "C' food groups: coffee. I think I was the only non coffeee drinker in the bunch but could not brag as caffeine from soda was my drug of choice.

Back at home base in Leynar Pall (who had taken the bus to meet us at the airport.) said goodbye took our rental car and headed to Torshavn, where he lived with his wife and parents in their traditional house in the middle of town. Louie cooked a fine meal of baked fish, vegetables and fresh warm bread with melted butter. The sky remained clear and the sun slowly pretended to set. We ate and talked and marvelled at the view from our lanai. A cold wind blew in off the fjord and up the steep sides of the hill upon which our house sat.

Careful study of the hills and mountains around us revealled a curious step sided effect to the slopes. there would be a grass covered incline that ended in a steep cliff of stone that rose for a hundred feet or more, then another grass covered slope that again met a higher cliff face and so on until the summit of the peak was reached. I learned later that these rock steps, or divisions in the hillsides were called Hamrar and were a clear sign of the Faroes volcanic origins. Another link between here and home. Another sign to pay attention to.

We talked late into the night, which never became night, until it was clear we'd better get some sleep or pay the price in the morning. I commandeered three cushions from the back of one of the sofas in the living room and arranged them along the inner wall of the lanai. My sleeping bag went on top of these and I climbed in and looked at my watch. It was two in the morning and bright as day. Tomorrow was already here.

I rolled over to face the wall, closed my eyes and fell asleep to the soft music of rushing water and the strange and beautiful calls of birds unknown.

(To be continued.)


  1. I'm enjoying this story so much Doug, I hate waiting for the next chapter! Can picture you curled up out on the porch but I never had you down as a Coke and crisps man ;)

  2. Dear Ellie,

    You are the reason I keep writing. Working hard on the next installment. Thanks so much for the comment. This watched pot stuff is making me crazy.

    Aloha, D.

    And yes, I'm in a coke and chips 12 steps program and failing daily.