Juliana, outbound to Faroe Islands

I wrote this when I was supposed to be working on my presentation on U.S. politics.

Well, my good people, it’s been a fantabulous two months here in the Faroe Islands. I don’t even know where to begin, but since my last journal was pretty much just excessive whining about airplane travel, I’ve decided I should at least start with something positive. It’s always easier to talk about the unpleasant. It’s more difficult, and thus more rewarding, to look on the bright side.

Shortly after I arrived in the Faroes, I climbed a mountain in Vestmanna, a nearby village. It was, as described by the veteran hikers, an “easy walk,” which meant I only occasionally had to climb on all fours and there was only a 40% chance of me falling off a cliff and dying. It was one of the greatest moments of my entire life thus far, and what I saw when we stopped for lunch will stay with me forever: We were walking along the edge of the mountain with the open ocean directly below us, though we had to take the guide’s word for it because the fog was so incredibly dense, we couldn’t see the people walking ten feet in front of us. Our group of twenty or so people, mostly elderly people who have more guts than I’ll ever have, sat down on some rocks and ate our lunches facing the thick screen of mist that hid the ocean from view. As I was just digging into my scrumptious convenience store sandwich, the fog lifted completely, and all the breath escaped from my lungs.

We were a thousand feet above the ocean, staring over the turbulent waters in the fjord below. Craggy mountain faces streaked with waterfalls were to our left, and the Atlantic ocean stretched out to our right. This raw, powerful scene hit me like a tsunami, and all I could do was stare at it, speechless, feeling simultaneously small and insignificant yet incredibly empowered. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to enjoy this view for very long; after about ten seconds, the fog descended on us again, and the rest of the hike took place within the clouds.

Not long after this, I started school. All the students crowded into the auditorium, where I presume they were sorted into classes, because they all kind of just left in clusters, and I was left standing there awkwardly, not knowing what to do. The principal came up to me and asked me something in Faroese. I told him something I soon got very used to saying: “I’m an exchange student from the U.S., and I have no idea what’s going on.” He then guided me to the counselor’s office, where Allie (an exchange student from Oregon) and I were put in classes. Allie, being 16, was put in year one, and I, being eighteen, was put in year two.

When I arrived in my classroom, I learned that having no idea what was going on wasn’t exclusive to me; literally nobody, not even the teachers, knew that there were two exchange students from the U.S. in their school. I was asked by each of my teachers in turn, “So . . . what exactly are you supposed to be doing, since you can’t understand Faroese?” to which I would always reply, “Good question.”

When it came to the students themselves, I wasn’t exactly sure how to approach them; I was told many, many times by people who had been to the Faroes (and even some who hadn’t, strangely) that Faroese people in general are shy about speaking other languages, even though they’re often very good at them. My host mom even told me that when she went to Denmark for university, all the Faroese people in her class, though they were fluent in Danish, didn’t speak a word for their entire term unless they had to. With this knowledge at my disposal, I had no idea how I could possibly become friends with them, being a rather shy person myself.

Turns out, I needn’t have worried. My classmates, though noticeably softer-spoken than American teens, were very warm and welcoming. They often help me with my Faroese when I ask, and they’re all very good at English, though they won’t admit it. Lately, some of them have taken to speaking to me in Faroese to see if I can understand them, which I’m very grateful for; I’ve learned more Faroese in these past two months than all the Danish I learned in the seven months I thought I would be going to Denmark, and that’s mostly thanks to them. Unfortunately, due to various circumstances, I’ve missed all the get-togethers they’ve held for the class so far, but I’m determined to go to the next one.

One I’m particularly interested in is the “bindiklubb,” which means “knitting club,” though it’s more like a house party than a club. When I was invited to one, I anxiously asked my host sister, Maria, if I should learn to knit for the occasion, worrying that I’d be judged since I’d never even touched a knitting needle in my entire life. But Maria just asked me, totally surprised, “You mean they actually KNIT in your class’s knitting club?”

“You mean people DON’T usually knit in knitting clubs?” I asked, equally surprised.

“Not really,” said Maria. “Mostly they just eat cake and gossip.”

So you can see why I’m eager for the next one.

While my classmates and teachers do mostly speak to me in English, I try not to let myself take that for granted. I have tutoring with an eighty-something-year-old guy named Eilif, who’s a polyglot and works as a translator, three times a week, plus I try to do some self-studying when I can, though that has sometimes proven to be counter-productive. From what I’ve seen, the more in-depth a source on Faroese appears to be, the less factual it actually is. Even Sprotin, a Faroese-made online dictionary, often needs to be checked behind. I discovered this just in time when I was using it to complete a translation for my Faroese class; as I was working, I asked a nearby classmate to help with a word Sprotin couldn’t find. After he told me the word I was looking for, he read over the sentence I was working on and pointed out a mistranslation that Sprotin had given me. When I got home that day, I asked Maria and Sanna (the younger host sister) to check what I had translated so far, and they told me that a sentence Sprotin had told me meant, “I’m stressed enough as it is,” actually meant, “I’m very excited for this.”

And that was the moment I stopped trusting Sprotin forever. So now when my teachers tell me to use Sprotin to figure out the handout, I’m just like LOL NOPE NOT UNLESS YOU WANT ME WRITING ABOUT SPINNING WHEELS WHEN IT’S ACTUALLY ASKING ABOUT SCOTTISH PEOPLE.

(Long story.)


Even though Faroese doesn’t have a Rosetta Stone or even an option on Google Translate, it’s much easier to understand than I thought it would be. It’s a Germanic language like English is, so while the grammar rules are still baffling, it was rather simple to read something by picking out the roots of the words, and once I got the rhythm of the language down, listening to conversations became easier, too. I often sit and listen to my host family or my classmate’s conversations in silence, and usually one of them will turn to me and ask, “Do you understand anything we’re saying?” Most of the time I don’t, but I actually understand a lot of the subtext.

Some of you might know that when I was at FSCJ, I took two semesters of American Sign Language. During my second semester, I participated in a day-long work shop led by several Deaf teachers, and during this workshop, no one was allowed to speak OR use sign language; you had to communicate ideas and stories entirely through gesture. I think about this day very often, because it taught me something incredibly important; you don’t need to hear (or see) words in order to understand what’s going on. When I listen to people’s conversations, even if I only know a few words, I can always tell how what they’re talking about makes them feel. Also, people use body language a lot more than they realize; if you sound angry and you suddenly make a gesture like you’re choking someone, it’s not that hard to figure out what you’re saying.

Still with me? Not getting bored yet? All right, let’s keep going.

Let me tell you that it’s really not hard to make me happy, and when you eliminate any stress factors, it’s almost impossible to make me sad. Fortunately for me, the Faroe Islands are a land without stress. Nobody is ever too concerned about anything, and the phrase, “What isn’t done today can be done tomorrow,” is often spoken. The Faroes are called, “The Country of Maybe,” because when something is suggested to a Faroese, they usually won’t say yes or no, just “maybe.” It’s because they really don’t care either way. To be completely honest, this mentality irritated me at first; I’m from a family whose only fuel source is high octane stress. Everything had to be planned and decided either ahead of time or immediately, or else there might not be a chance later. It was hard shifting my thought process to fit this more laid back way of thinking, but I think I’ve mostly gotten the hang of it now. The only thing here that regularly causes me brief stress would probably be the busses.

Before coming to the Faroes, the closest thing to a bus I’d ever been on was the tram at Disney World. I had no idea how to read the schedule, no idea where I should get on or where I should get off, no idea which one was the right bus, and no idea that the bus drivers here are apparently sadists who slam on the gas as soon as your foot is in the vehicle. The first two weeks or so of navigating Tórshavn entirely by bus were absolutely terrifying. I get lost a lot (see the Washington D.C. airport part of my first journal for another example) and trying to figure out the busses by trial and error wasn’t helpful. More than once I had to call my host mom to pick me up because I had no idea how to get home.

Other than that, my exchange here has been nothing but a real life pipe dream of puppies and marshmallows and heavenly Scandinavian chocolate. I was worried that I would cry often, but so far there has only been three instances of waterworks; once in the middle of the supermarket because I had literally forgotten to eat that day, once at the orientation in Gjógv because whoever was in charge of the music played Leaving On a Jet Plane (which makes me cry anyway), and once more on September 11th. Our history teacher showed us a clipshow of various American news sources showing the disaster happening on live television, and one of the clips was of the same channel I had watched with my mom on the actual day of the event. Seeing it again triggered some kind of PTSD-flashback in my brain and I had a complete and utter meltdown. I was horribly embarrassed to go to school the next day, but my classmates, being the wonderful people that they are, made me feel better about it.
I will now briefly cover some troubles I’ve been having. I know there’s a possibility that future exchange students will be looking at my journals for reference, so I feel it’s only fair. I’ll still try to keep it short, though, because often times, things that seem like problems are actually much more insignificant when you view them at a later time.

So there’s this girl who likes to tell me her opinions on American political and social issues. To any exchange students reading this, if you’ve been on your exchange long enough, you’ve probably met someone exactly like her, as if every exchange just needs at least one in order to be complete. Ordinarily, I would love to have a conversation with someone like her because I love to debate. However, a conversation is not an option when talking to her. In fact, you can’t talk to her. You can only have her talk at you. And not only are a majority of her opinions based on incorrect facts, but she also occasionally blames me, personally, for some of America’s problems, as if I’m Barack Obama himself; “Your government makes its people pay off the national debt, but that doesn’t work! Why do you do that?” I dunno, lady, but if I’m ever president, I’ll be sure to look into it, okay?

The second thing is a bit more of a problem than the first. Plenty of American TV commercials for food will mention how their product will “satisfy” or “keep you full” longer, which is basically marketing-speak for, “We crammed a bunch of chemical junk into your food that will make you think you’re eating less but is probably making you fat.” Americans with good metabolisms process these foods without too many side effects, but when they go to other countries that don’t pack their foods with garbage, their bodies take a toll. That is, they’re hungry. Constantly. Now, this is really, really common for American exchange students, but my body takes this a step further because I have always had a very high metabolism. The result? Suffering.

I am not exaggerating when I say that I am in actual, physical agony at least twice a day due to hunger. When I wake up in the morning, having gone at least six hours without eating, I’ll be so hungry that my ribs hurt. Breakfast is always bread and cereal, which I’ll eat twice as much of as everyone else, and then when I go to school, the cafeteria has sandwiches, fruit, vegetables, and candy, which I buy in bulk and eat without showing anyone because I’m embarrassed of how much I can put away. Once school is over, I either go to SMS (the mall) to try and find something cheap to eat (which is impossible, since almost everything here has an import tax) or go straight home to scrounge for something I can put in my stomach without preparation. During dinner, I eat until I feel full enough to be sick, because I know that if I don’t, I’ll be hungry again in about five minutes. After dinner, I try to go to bed as quickly as possible so I can be asleep when my body gets hungry again. And so, almost constantly, I am feeling either pain, weakness, or nausea due to my high metabolism, and I am spending more and more money every month trying to pay my food bills. As of this writing, I’m talking to my counselor and host family about what I can do. I know we’ll find a solution.

Let’s finish this journal on a brighter note. Here are some things people, here and back in the U.S., often ask me!

Q: What’s your favorite part about the Faroe Islands so far?
A: To name one thing as the best would be an insult to everything else.

Q: What classes are you taking in school?
A: Math, religion, politics, history, English, Faroese, Spanish, and art. I’m lucky and don’t have to take Danish.

Q: Do you understand anything in school?

Q: Are there mountains everywhere?
A: Everywhere except within the city itself, where they have very steep hills instead.

Q: How big are the Faroe Islands in comparison to the United States?
A: The eighteen islands’ collective land area is about a third the size of Rhode Island.

Q: What do you miss most about the U.S.?
A: My dog. And maybe tumble driers.

Q: What about the Faroes was unlike what you expected?
A: I honestly thought no one would have cars here. I don’t know why I thought that, but I was wrong anyway.

Q: What was the first new word you learned after arriving?
A: “Útsøla” = “sale”

Q: Have you petted a sheep yet?
A: Not yet. They’re faster than they look.

Q: Have you seen a whale hunt yet? Do you plan to?
A: No and yes.

Q: What do the Faroese think of Sea Shepherd?
A: They’re hoping Paul Watson will come here someday so that they can be the ones to arrest him.

Ah, there are so many more things I want to talk about, like how I’m learning Spanish from a Danish textbook and putting my answers down in Faroese, and how interesting it is to be constantly surrounded by English-speakers whose concept of English word connotations are different, and how some people still call me Yuliana and the people in my Spanish class call me Huliana, and how I’ve fallen victim to fashion trends so I wear leggings as pants now, but alas, this journal is far too long! I’ll see you all in the next one.

And now, I leave you with this analogy:

There once was a man who tied a baby elephant to a tree. Though the little elephant kept tugging at the rope keeping it tied, it just wasn’t strong enough to break itself away. The man kept the elephant there for many years, until the elephant was an adult, bigger than the tree itself. And yet the elephant never tried to break itself free again because it remembered that it couldn’t, all those years ago. The only thing preventing the elephant from escaping was the memory of struggling in vain, even though now, the only thing holding it back was a thin rope and a twig.

So if you feel like you have a problem that you can’t overcome, just think: a year from now, when you look back at that problem, will it still look like a tree? Or will it look like a twig? Believe that you can overcome anything, and you will.