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Monday, February 2, 2009

All Things Considered...

Podcast #2 features an interview with Michael Reveal, an American attorney who has lived in the Faroe Islands for 12 years. The following is an essay Michael wrote in 2006. It first appeared in Faroe Business Report...

All Things Considered
by Michael Paul Reveal

During a recent business trip to Norway, an acquaintance of mine from Oslo asked me in all seriousness whether we had any cars on the Faroes. Having unfortunately heard that line of questioning before, I took a deep breath, smiled and stated that we had a goodly number, all things considered. He seemed to accept my cheery, but obscure answer, for we quickly plunged on to more pressing matters. His question, however, continued to resonate with me.

As my plane descended toward the Faroes, I caught a glimpse out the window of the emerald green mountains of my adopted homeland and I took note that there was, indeed, nary a car in sight. Perhaps, I reflected, my friend had asked a fair question. The approach to the international airport in the Faroes is over some rather dramatic countryside and one's first impression of our island nation stands in stark contrast to that conjured up as one approaches other international airports surrounded as they are by kilometre upon kilometre of concrete and cars. Here there was nothing but crashing surf and towering black basalt, then the brightly coloured rooftops of a small village and then the runway. Be that as it may, I began to wonder if, all in all, we in the Faroes were not suffering from a rather severe image problem.

As my fellow passengers and I flowed into the baggage claim reception hall, nodding our greetings to the passport control officer who scanned the arriving passengers for any folks he did not know, I wondered just how many people really do know anything about us – our history, our language, our location on the globe, our hopes and dreams, our accomplishments, our trepidations, and, yes, even that we have 17,420 passenger cars at last count.

"All things considered", I had told my friend. "What on earth does that mean", I asked myself as I settled into the comfortable airport bus, one of some 207 buses in the Faroes, I was to later learn, for the short trip from the airport to the capital, Tórshavn, now made even shorter with the new 4.9 km undersea tunnel.

What I guess I meant by that somewhat flippant rejoinder was that statistics are just numbers unless they have a context and understanding that context is what is really important in the end. In the face of formidable challenges, the Faroese have managed to carve out a rather pleasant place in which to live and work and contribute to the well-being of the planet. If the Vision 2015 goals advanced recently by the Faroese Government come to pass, the Faroes will be an even nicer place to live and work, one of the nicest in fact, all things considered.

The Faroes began its fiery existence some 60 million years ago when the earth split open in what was to become the North Atlantic and poured lava out in rather amazing quantities. The recurrent ice ages rendered the Faroes into its current size and shape. Now the Faroes is considered a small place by some. Manhattan, on the other hand, is thought to be quite large by all accounts, yet the Faroes at 1399 sq. km. is in fact some 45 times bigger than Manhattan Island. We don't grow apples, so I guess New Yorkers are safe to continue calling their home the Big Apple, but we do have big sea cliffs, gargantuan in fact. But we are a modest folk, so we do not sound off much about the fact that we have the world's highest sea cliff, but we do. It's called Enniberg, for the record. Now in all humility, the Faroes is not as big as Wales, but it is bigger than Cape Cod and essentially the same size as Hong Kong. Hong Kong has a head start on skyscrapers, however, but soon we might even have a few high-rise office buildings of our own to complement the expansive green pastureland that some communities would dearly love to have in their city centres, all things considered.

The Faroese are descended from intrepid Vikings (at least the males, anyway) who coursed their way here from Western Norway and points south, picking up a bride or two along the way, which explains why the females of the Faroese population are more akin genetically to the Irish than the Vikings. For centuries the population held fairly steady at around 5,000 stalwart folks, give or take the fluctuations caused by Black Death and the relatively frequent mishap at sea. Today, the Faroes has a population of some 48,000 and, believe it or not, some 70,000 sheep.

Now I suppose in a certain context 70,000 sheep seems like quite a number, especially given the fact that Manhattan's Sheep Meadow hasn't seen a sheep since 1934 and Hong Kong has very, very few sheep per square metre. New Zealand, on the other hand, boasts some 47.2 million sheep, quite a number by anyone's calculations and certainly overwhelms our modest number. That splendid number equates to about 12 sheep per person in New Zealand, while in the Faroes we average only 1.5 sheep per person, which explains why we have to import lamb from New Zealand to keep pace with our deep love for a tasty leg of lamb on wintry nights.

Which brings me to another oft repeated, yet erroneous, notion about the Faroes: We are cold and dark and utterly storm tossed. Steaming lamb may indeed chase away the chill of winter, but in reality we are not that cold, we just don't warm up much. My friend in Oslo well knew that the Faroes rose out of the sea somewhere between Iceland and Norway and thus the Faroes by geographical association must, of course, be dripping in cold and snow. Not quite. Praise be to the Gulf Stream, or what is left of it by the time it gets to us. The Faroes sits in the middle of the North Atlantic Current and is thus protected from the many vicissitudes of winter that plague our neighbours. We average some 7°C [45°F] year round, with the temperature dipping to around 1°C in winter and soaring to some 13°C in the height of summer. We get 28 of what the weather folks call "snow days", enough, I suppose, to qualify as a place where winter sets foot, but it seems to tread very lightly, as what we do get is usually gone within a day or two, washed away by the misty weather commonly referred to as rain.

Now even the Faroese will readily admit that the Faroes gets a lot of rain, or at least what appears to be a lot of rain, all things considered. Here again, statistics are but numbers and taking a closer look should dispel some long-standing misconceptions about the Faroes. According to the rigorous number crunching of the weather bureau, the Faroes experiences some 1500 mm of precipitation annually. A sizeable amount one could argue, but it falls mostly as a light mist with an occasional good downpour thrown in now and again to remind us of what real rain is supposed to be like. Real rain, of course, is that pelting, large-globuled wetness that descends upon Bergen, Norway, for example. Rain there accumulates to some 2250 mm per year. The title of wettest spot on the earth, however, goes to the idyllic island of Kauai, Hawaii, a place plagued by real gully-washers. Some 3800 mm of rain and mist and fog accumulates in its mountainous interior. So do we get a lot of rain? Well not really, all things considered.

As a consequence of our 1500 mm of light mist or rain, call it what you will, we end up a bit short in the area of what the meteorologists call "sunshine hours". How many hours (not days) do you think the sun embraces the Faroes? Take a guess. Would you believe some 927 hours? Not many, considering that there are some 4380 hours of potential sunlight in a year (assuming a 12 hour day). Yet, we are ahead of Cold Bay, Alaska, situated in the heart of the Aleutian Islands. They sit under the clouds some 305 days a year and alas see the sun for only some 720 hours (more or less). I suppose they, like us, have few incidences of skin cancer. There are indeed untold advantages to living in the midst of the ocean under the clouds.

Now another major advantage is, of course, quick and ready access to fish. Fishing is by far the major industry in the Faroes, accounting for some 97% of the export. Most of the total catch, some 261,310,000 tonnes (live weight) per year, is caught in Faroese territorial waters, although the Faroese fishing fleet ranges worldwide. According to data prepared by the governmental agency, Statistics Faroe Islands, all those tonnes of fish contribute to an export value of some DKK3,668 million (less a small fraction for exported ships). We import some DKK3,738 million in goods, so our trade balance is a little skewed, but not outrageously so, all things considered, especially compared to some other nations.

Most of our export heads to the European Union. The United Kingdom absorbs some 78% and Denmark some 19%, while Spain continues its love affair with our salted fish, savouring some 10% of our export.

On the other hand, we import most of what we want from Denmark. A quirk of history keeps 33% of our import flowing in via Denmark, while another 18% comes from Norway. A mere 4% comes from Iceland, an amount that will assuredly rise now that the new free trade agreement has been signed between Iceland and the Faroes.

The UK accounts for only 5% of our import, which probably represents our continuing and deep-seated love affair with chocolate. The troops that came here from the UK during the second world war left more than just an airport. They left us with an abiding desire for things swathed in chocolate. Much to the delight of the candy sellers in the Faroes, and much to the consternation of the dentists and the Ministry of Health, who diligently promote healthy eating habits in the face of the delightful vistas of colourfully wrapped caramels abounding at Christmas time and just before Lent. All in all, 29% of our import is destined for our homes and our stomachs, or as the statistical office calls it "goods for household consumption". We do love that New Zealand lamb, followed by a flavourful bite of chocolate and a savoury cup of coffee. Ah, paradise, enow.

I suppose the Faroes is indeed a paradise, all things considered. We have a relatively stable economy. We earn money by feeding others, which is not such a bad calling. We ourselves eat well. Our homes are big and well-furnished. We send a considerable amount of money overseas to help in disaster relief. We are extremely sports-minded and have a passable football team able to strike fear and trembling in the hearts of many a foreign spectator cheering on the likes of Scotland and, yes, even France. Not bad for a bunch of part-timers. Not all of our time is spent cheering on our sports teams, however, as we support various amateur and professional theatres, have a national symphony orchestra, numerous choirs, excellent museums and a host of rather talented artists and musicians. We drive cars, of course, even luxury BMWs and sturdy SUVs, and read lots and lots and lots of books.

In fact, we publish some 149 (2004) books a year, including some 67 translations of other works. We even have our own Faroese editions of Harry Potter, which flow hot off the presses just after the English releases. Now to some, 149 may not seem a substantial number of books to get published every year. But, here again, context is everything. The publishers in the United States crank out 175,000 (2003) titles per year and those in the United Kingdom do an admirable job of putting out 125,000. Yet when one considers books per capita, the Faroese shine. The US publishes around 0.5 books per 1000 folks, the UK about 2 books per 1000 and the Faroes some 3 books per 1000. An admirable number by anyone's calculations, all things considered.

We do not spend, however, all of our time reading, it would seem. Our fertility rate is higher than any other Nordic country at 2.522 (2003) and we have fewer divorces as well. We have hardly anyone receiving social services in comparison to Sweden, for example, which has some 286.2 people per 1000 receiving assistance. We have infinitely more hospital beds available to us per capita than the other Nordic countries, although we could use a few more dentists and doctors. Folks with those credentials are invited to apply forthwith to the Ministry of Health.

Our inflation rate is low at 2.4% (1998 = 100.0 CPI). Unemployment hovers around 4% with industry begging for even more workers. Even though we have had our ups and downs lately regarding immigration policy, we still welcome more people to our shores on average than any other Nordic country (2003).

Now given the fact that most of our export comes from the fishing industry, one could well reason that this industry would be paying the greatest wages. Not so. The fishing and fish processing industry accounts for only 19.6% of the total wages paid out in 2004. Who pays the most? Reasonable question. Would you believe the government? Yes, the government (local and national) accounts for 34% of all wages paid, then comes the fishing industry, followed by the service industry with 10% with the construction industry keeping pace at 6.5%.

The average wage in 2004 was DKK210,000 for men and DKK140,000 for women [€28,000; €18,763]. This inequity is a problem that is well appreciated by the government and leaders of thought in the Faroes and steps are underway to address it. Some 85 individuals had incomes of more than a million DKK [€134,000] and altogether the Faroese had taxable income of DKK6,891 million [€923,465,772]. Not an outrageous sum, but one must keep in mind that all that money was earned by only 42,567 taxpayers (2003).

Now the Faroes is not known for its high crime rate and that is reflected in the low expenditure for what statisticians call "public order and safety". What the Faroese do enjoy is a social welfare system that generally meets the needs of most all the citizenry, which explains the large budget for "social protection" that equates to DKK1,865 million [€249,960,290] (2003) out of a total budget of DKK5,328 million (2003).

So what does the future hold? More of the same, no doubt, all things considered. The doldrums that have plagued the fishing and aquaculture industries is receding. Banks are reporting record profits and an enterprising young Faroese has just unveiled a building project in Tórshavn of mega-proportions, featuring high-rise condos, a shopping mall, office buildings and even a covered football pitch.

All this fits well with the government's Vision 2015 development plan, designed to make the Faroes one of the best places to live and work in the world by 2015. All things considered, we are a long way toward that goal already.