When the Faroese Come Out to Play

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Europe » Faroe Islands » Torshavn
July 30th 2007
Published: August 5th 2007EDIT THIS ENTRY

Standing in the midst of some 8000-1000 inebriated Faroese at midnight last night, all of us belting out Faroese songs (me included), I realized I would have a very hard time explaining Olavsøka -- or St. Olaf's Day -- to anyone who had not witnessed it first hand. It is perhaps the most important festival in the Faroes, though only celebrated in Torshavn, the capital. What limited hotel and hostel space is available fills up months in advance, both with tourists and with Faroese traveling from other islands. Although St. Olaf's Day is technically just that, one day (July 29), the party started on Friday night and didn't really wrap up to the wee hours of today. It is a combination religious holiday (celebrating the arrival of Christianity to the islands) and political affair (politicians marching from the parliament to service at the "cathedral"); it is an assertion of the unique Faroese culture, with a large percentage of the population dressed in beautiful national dress (even when sporting punk hairstyles and piercings); it is a fair with games and junk food; it is a weekend of drunken debauchery; it is a sporting competition (rowing and horseback riding); it is a showcase for the musicality of the Faroese, with its many choirs and bands, and a time to dance and sing at random; it is a time for family and friends to be together. Basically, it is a complete celebration that encompasses anything and everything Faroese. And at midnight of Olavsøka proper, all is distilled into an absolutely moving experience of singing followed by the famous Faroese chain dance. Everyone links hands and begins the simple two steps to the left, one to the right, movement and singing out the ballads that chronicle the history of the islands. Indeed, the dance and the ballads were one of the major ways the Faroese maintained their history and language when under Norwegian and Danish rule. It was fascinating and a whole lot of fun.

But perhaps the best part of all is that Meghan and I got to share the experience with a Faroese family. The islands are special for many reasons, but one of the most important is the warm hospitality we have experienced. Through a random connection with a Swiss man we met in Suduroy, we had been invited into a home there for coffee and conversation. The Faroes being the Faroes, we ran into this family (along with the Swiss) at the morning processional of Olavsøka. We were then invited to their home just outside of Torshavn for a buffet dinner (including dried whale with blubber and air-dried leg of lamb, uncooked). We sat for hours laughing and discussing the world, also getting to know their friends. It made Olavsøka a much more meaningful experience.

It is with real sadness that I am leaving these far away islands tomorrow morning. But it is on to Iceland, with warm memories of Olavsøka and the friendships we have made here to carry us forward.

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