A sense of plaice.
The sudden aparition of the Faeroes themselves is startling: the 18 islands jut from the sea exactly like Arizonan mesas, except that they're half-covered with water and a vivid green. They are very small and easily missed; one story has it that they failed to gain full independence from Denmark after World War II because a beer bottle covered them on the conferencetable map.
We put in to Torshavn (Thor's Harbor) on Olafsoka, the high point of the Faeroese social calendar, when the country's entire ambulatory population squeezes into the capital city, dons Mexican hats, and parades up and down the main street in varying stages of inebriation. Here I have the honor of offering the president of the oldest legislative assembly in Europe a pull from my pocket flask--an invitation he politely declines until a later hour.
To escape the oppressive buzz of insular folklife, I flee across the straits to the island of Nolsoy, a mile long, a couple hundred yards wide, and a century back in time. The boats in its harbor would have been instantly familiar to any Viking: high in the prow, low amidships, with elegant overlapping strakes and two to ten sets of thin oars. A British puffinologist leads me on a clamber over moor and bog to the island's southeastern cliffs, whence the "sea parrots" launch themselves like flying cigars in search of fish. Puffins out for an evening stroll on the cliff edges are easily snared by unsentimental Faeroese, and are served on special occasions smothered in caramel sauce.
The notion of caramelized puffins seems unexpectedly whimsical for a people who personify the word "dour." The relentless hostility of Faeroese nature leads to gloomy self-absorption. Hitchhiking out of Torshavn, I catch a ride with a long-faced gentleman who drives in silence over fog-shrouded fens into a steady downpour. As we near my destination o Kollafjord, a small fishing village (the description suits every town in the Faeroes), he begins and ends the conversation by pointing a bony finger out the window. "Regnet," he says. "It's raining."
Kollafjord is a palette of parti-colored houses strung out along a fjord, sea in the front yard, pasture in the back. Faeroes means "sheep islands"; sheep are it for megafauna, if you don't count beefy fishermen and the seals who change into women to lure them to watery graves. Otherwise, were it not for the imported rats, rabbits, and ineffectual sheepdogs, there would be no warm-blooded life here at all.
In search of dinner, we seek out Carsten, the local carpenter, a barrel on legs who swings a Thor's hammer and dances on roofbeams like a Hyperborean ape. In his Viking boat (the finest craft I have ever rowed) we pluck plaice and cod from the icy waters of the fjord while the puffinologist tells of trolling the waters of Loch Ness at midnight with a calf's head, fishing for the Monster like Thor fishing for the Midgard serpent. Alas, our hosts are unimpressed with our catch, far preferring the local delicacy of skarpe-kod, raw mutton "sharpened" by hanging it out in the weather until it acquires the je ne sais quoi of decomposition.
Another treasured respite from lambchops and codfish is pilot-whale stew, made by boiling chunks of whaleflesh together with an equal amount of blubber. The traditional Faeroese fondness for this dish (a subsistence staple within living memory) has led to a certain international disrepute; even delegates to the International Whaling Congress meeting last July in Glasgow were shocked by video footage, taken only hours earlier by the Environmental Investigation Agency, of a bloody pilot-whale hunt on the island of Vidoy. The usual strategy is to drive a pod of whales up a fjord until they flounder in shallow water, whereupon hunters wade in to kill them with spears, gaffs, and the elaborate whale knives that are a standard part of Faeroese dress. The grisly spectacle is made even more heartrending by the cries of wounded whales and the stubborn refusal of pod members to abandon their dying comrades. During my visit, a rare pilot-whale hunt takes place one Saturday night in Torshavn itself, with drunken Faeroese in evening clothes leaping into the blood-red waters to stab the heaving creatures with their long knives.
One afternoon in Kollafjord, the mayor comes by with the exciting news that a fin whale has been captured, and is being slaughtered at the whaling station in the next fiord. (The Faeroese have officially abandoned commercial whaling, but if they're out fishing and a whale happens to swim by, well, that's not really commercial, is it?)
The mountain of flesh has been winched up a concrete ramp where blue-suited men are scoring great gashes in its side with scythe-shaped knives, then using hooks to pull off enormous slabs of steaming red meat; these are hurriedly cut into ten-pound chunks, loaded into wheelbarrows, and set on racks to cool.
The ramp runs red. Several American tourists throw up. A young biology student from Cambridge, with a knife just out of its plastic, hacks at the guts exposed by the harpoon: "This must be the uterus! Yes, it's the uterus!" I find myself curiously detached, like a child watching a serious traffic accident. I am fascinated by the texture and color of the whale's flesh, the huge black tail fin, and the bristly baleen. But I cannot look at its great eye.