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by Bobbie Bergesen

A Foreign Service spouse takes us on a tour of some exotic islands of the far north. – Ed.

“Dare I inquire,” the middle-aged man behind the desk asked carefully, “whether you are an OAP?”

Having toured the UK (we’re using initials now) for about six weeks, I knew he was asking if I was a Senior Citizen (U.S. usage:  no initials).  The British call us Old Age Pensioners.  I also knew that after a glance, he knew the answer perfectly well, but was just being polite.

“Yes, I am,” I assured him, pointing to my gray hair, “and my husband is, too.”

“Good,” he said, “then you pay less for the tickets.”

It was August, 1988, and we were at the express bus station in Bath, England, buying two tickets for the next morning’s bus to Heathrow airport, to catch our flight back to the United States.  After island-hopping around the British Isles, it was time to head home.

The ticket-seller’s politeness, tinged with humor, was on a par with the courtesy we found almost everywhere – with one notable exception – on our self-guided tour of northern islands ranging from the Faroes to the Channel Islands, with necessary stopovers in Iceland, Scotland, and England.  After my Foreign Service Officer husband retired, we kept on traveling the world somewhat to my surprise, as we had done for over 30 years.  The difference was that it was on our own nickel and with our own itinerary.

Touring the islands around the British Isles had long been a dream – islands like the Shetlands, the Orkneys; the Isles of Mull, of Man, of Skye; Iona; the Isle of Wight; and the Channel Islands:  Jersey, Guernsey, and others.  But cows or not – and we saw several on Jersey, looking just as storied Jersey cows should, with huge, soft brown eyes – we couldn’t get to Guernsey.  High winds and roiling seas made it impossible for the Hovercraft to ferry us from Jersey over to Guernsey, and the airport was closed, too.

En route, we first stopped at a set of non-British islands.  It was 99 degrees when we left Washington, D.C., marking the tenth day over ninety in one of that summer’s longest hot spells.  But Icelandair – an airline we cottoned to – Took Us Away From All That.  Leaving Baltimore, we landed at Iceland’s Keflavik airport, where a cool, pure wind immediately blew the smoggy heat out of our systems.  Icelandic air was eminently breathable.  We looked forward, too, to another visit to Rejkavik, where two years earlier we had an enjoyable visit on our way to Europe.  Fares were cheaper than other airlines’ at that time, and the service excellent. They even gave us two free nights at a hotel in the capital.  Although that freebie no longer applied, the water in the hotel softened one’s skin wonderfully, I remembered – it was sulfur, someone said – and when it was piped from its volcanic source, it was so hot, I was told, it had be cooled down before being used for washing and bathing.

Hotel Esja, Rejkavik

Perched on a hill overlooking its mountain namesake across the water, the Hotel Esja in Rejkavik looked unchanged.  Like its counterparts, the hotel reflects Iceland’s attractively functional architecture.  Spare, austere, it is perfectly in keeping with the stark, elemental lines of the landscape itself.

This time, however, the lobby swarmed with tourists, ranging from American backpackers to German sweater shoppers.  The extraordinarily fine, but dense wool from the hardy Icelandic sheep is a miracle of lightweight warmth but almost too hot for Washington, even in mid-winter.  For Germany, it must be ideal.

In the cafeteria-style dining room of the Esja, German was the main language at breakfast.  A bowl of leek soup and an omelet and roll filled the bill nicely for lunch.  In the afternoon, we walked downtown to visit the new Art Museum, with its strikingly modern architecture.  Dinner at the Torfan, in a charmingly renovated historic building, cost $50 for trout and redfish for two with a glass of wine.

Egilstadir, Iceland

The next day, we took a domestic flight to Egilstadir, on Iceland’s east coast, a town named for a revered poet who lived and worked there.  A beer is also named for him.  Here we were to stop for about an hour before continuing on to the Faroe Islands.  Self-governing, they have their own language, currency, and flag, and depend on Denmark only for defense.  Reportedly, they have one of the highest standards of living in Europe, the healthy economy based on fishing, mostly for deep-sea cod.

But fog in the Faroes kept us pinned for hours in Egilstadir’s tiny airport.  Strolling outside in bright sunshine, we talked to other waiting passengers like a Swedish professor and his wife, who lived and lectured on art history in Denmark.  They also knew New York well from a stint at the UN (initials again, well known this time).

Eight hours later, we finally took off, landing in clear weather at Vagar airport in the Faroes. Also clear was the reason Icelandair pilots prefer to be able to see where they land.  Although it was almost twilight – about nine-thirty p.m. local time – we could plainly see the dark volcanic cliffs down which innumerable waterfalls hurtled, and countless streams coursed through the rugged, broken terrain.  A bus was waiting, although the delay caused us to miss the regular connection.

Hotel Foroyar (formerly Borg), Thorshavn

The bus driver was uncommunicative while eight or nine of us climbed aboard and settled into our seats.  We all climbed out again 20 minutes later, carried our bags onto a dock, boarded a ferry for a 15-minute crossing to another island, and then boarded another bus.  The water was calm as the sun, a muted gold, slid under the horizon.  About eleven-thirty, we arrived at the Hotel Borg in Thorshavn, the Faroese capital. The kitchen was closed for the night.

Threats and lamentations eventually produced a box of piping hot chicken from the only carry-out still open downtown in the harbor and carried up to the hotel by a yawning youth on a motorbike.

This contemporary hotel is a mixture of a log-cabin bunker and sod-covered building.  Snuggled under the brow of a hill, the Borg is protected from the north.  On that side, the building is well-insulated, with walls like a log cabin’s and small, square porthole windows.  The hotel rooms lie across the tiled and carpeted halls, facing south.  These have large windows.  Our room looked out over a turf-covered roof above the next level of the hotel and down into the entire town of Thorshavn, its harbor, and the water beyond.  The glorious view the sun revealed the next morning was enlivened by two red-beaked oystercatchers absorbed in pecking at the turf outside our window.  Ignoring us, they performed all unawares.  It was impossible to tell if they gleaned anything or were just scrabbling around in hopes of catching breakfast.

Birds piping briefly woke me at 5:15.  At 5:25, I got up, thinking was 6:30, but then went back to bed for an hour.  Breakfast at the Borg, which began at seven, was typical of northern European breakfasts, although more extensive and perhaps of better quality.  It consisted of good, i.e., real orange juice, not orange soda, as much as you liked, served from large pitchers on a buffet table;  a choice of Lipton herbal teas set out in what looked like a glorified, compartmentalized cigar box;  dark, rich coffee in thermal carafes at each individual table; a wide choice of bread and rolls including multigrain breads, dark and light, and rolls and pumpernickels; three kinds of jam:  strawberry, apricot, and marmalade; a large bowl of room-temperature soft-boiled eggs, to be cracked open and eaten out of the shell in the English way; a wooden bowl of sea salt and a pepper grinder; corn flakes and a muesli cereal mixture; slices of mild white cheese, salami, thick ham slices, lean raw bacon, a loaf of liver paté or mousse; a goblet bowl of pickled herring, and plenty of butter.  More of an island than a continental breakfast.  Forget lunch after starting the day with all that.  Meanwhile, outside the breakfast room, another red-beaked pair of birds entertained a large crowd of Germans on a group tour and a sprinkling of Americans traveling on their own like us.

Lunch was less hearty, but just as tasty:  The appetizer offered two kinds of herring tidbits in little bowls, one with capers and the other in a light mustard sauce.  Then came a cold platter of roast beef slices with a garnish of finely shredded fried onions and minced turnip, which looked like horseradish but didn’t bite.  There was salmon lox with fresh dill, a piece of fried plaice (flounder), and a dish of mackerel mousse with fried bacon.  The mousse was so strongly flavored it was hard to tell if it was mackerel or possibly liver.  Two wedges of Brie and one of Saga cheese, garnished with radishes and served with crackers, completed the meal.

Thorshavn harbor

From the hotel, a footpath led down a grassy hill to the harbor.  Stiles and gates had to be opened and closed to prevent the numerous sheep grazing alongside the path on the springy turf from getting out.  The path led to a road which ran by a mix of houses ranging from highly contemporary styles, with solar heating and soaring glass window walls, to carved, dark wood, Swiss mountain-type chalets.   Already people were pulling canvas deckchairs and plastic chairs into place to sun themselves on the chalets’ balconies.  It was perfect California weather.  From the harbor, the Hotel Borg, lying under the ridge and blending into the hillside, was barely visible.

Townspeople were smart to sun themselves early.  By late afternoon, as we trudged back up the footpath, having thoroughly investigated old-town Thorshavn, its harbor, museums, and churches, with – who else should we run into? – our Swedish friends, Teddy and Ulle, a dense mist started to slide in stealthily from the sea.  It came in silently, eerily, first wiping out the harbor, then climbing higher to completely blot out the town.  By the time we got back to our room, after several worried moments on the hill about losing our way, the view from our window vanished completely.  By dinnertime, visibility outside the hotel was down to a couple of hundred yards.  The whole outdoors was blanketed by a moist, impenetrable cloud.  Would the ferry to the Shetland Islands be able to leave the next morning as planned?

No problem.  Although the bus that picked us up at the hotel was barely visible ten feet from the front door, its driver easily drove down an invisible road.  No doubt the loud clanks of the metal cattle crossings the bus rattled over helped orient him.  Once down at the dock of the harbor ferry terminal, visibility miraculously improved.  A large crowd of prospective ferry passengers was already scrambling up the gangplank, and the Norronha pulled out right on time as though leaving in brightest daylight.

During the entire run to Lerwick, Shetland, no whale blew nor seagull flew.  In fact, nothing could be seen ahead, beside, or behind the ferry, including our wake or even the water itself.  No foghorn blew, either.  Presumably, few other vessels cruise the North Atlantic way up there below the Arctic Circle.  And the day before, we noticed that even the smallest fishing boats in Thorshavn carried oversized radar gear.  Perhaps a ferry’s spinning radar knows each little blip, to paraphrase Pogo’s comment that a (frog) Mammy’s loving heart knows its little tad.

Other passengers were happy to chat.  A Danish physical education teacher, in a tank top and blue jeans, looking tired but happy, told us how she first went to the Faroes on vacation.  She liked the people so well, she went home to Denmark, gave up her job and returned to Thorshavn, where she had lived and worked ever since.  Although used in summer as a ferry, she said, the Norronha was used as a floating hotel to take in refugees after the Ayatollah Khomeini took over in Iran.  Although clean, the fixtures, bathroom facilities, and cafeteria had a well-worn look as though heavily used.

Lerwick harbor, Shetland

In fact, many passengers used the facilities heavily and some didn’t get that far.  But despite rough seas, the ship rode comfortably, heading into a south wind.  It could carry 1000; there were 800 on board.  Most of the passengers were Scandinavian.  There was one group of Italians with a young, attractive guide, and a few Scots.

Having left Thorshavn at 9 a.m., we arrived in Lerwick about 10 p.m.  Although Lerwick was comparatively warmer, a turtleneck sweater under a windbreaker still felt comfortable.

After a couple of days in the Shetlands, we went on to the Orkneys, the Isle of Skye, the Isle of Mull, the Isle of Man (we checked the specially bred Manx cats and found they really had no tails, just little stubs), the Isle of Wight, and of course, Jersey, but no other Channel Islands.

Besides London, we dropped in briefly on several big cities like Glasgow and Manchester.  We traveled by air, ferry, boat, bus, and train;  and once we were home, we would have happily set out to do it all over again – but not till next summer.End.

Bobbie Bergesen
Bobbie Bergesen

Bobbie Bergesen, who has written a number of reminiscences for American Diplomacy, was a U.S. Foreign Service spouse until the retirement in 1984 of her husband, Foreign Service Officer Alf E. Bergesen. She now lives in Melbourne, Florida. After Mr. Bergesen’s death in 1995, she remarried and continues to travel with her new husband.

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