James Hilton put his Shangri-La somewhere in the Himalayas. What with the snow and wind and the Chinese checking the lamasery registries every morning, no one is much buying into that these days. No, if there’s a Shangri-La, it’s likely in a place where the white sands beckon and the soft winds blow. In the South Pacific, perhaps, some Bali Hai where you can lie under the palms, read your Mitchener and listen to Mary and Ezio on the Original Cast Recording. Our Park Slope nippers in their Maclarens are not dreaming of lamaseries; they’re thinking prestige Upper West Side day schools then, a little later, a private jet and the beach on Fiji. What upwardly mobile American whispers to himself, “Yeah! The Faroes!”? Nobody in a Maclaren, I warrant you. And nobody’s handing out Pulitzers for a Tales of the North Atlantic.
The problem may be primordial. Unless there’s skiing involved, and real skiing, downhill, not trudging cross-country over the tundra, no one much likes cold weather. AC, yes; cold weather, no. Maybe the occasional frozen margarita; never frozen toes. So nobody but the really foolhardy wants to go near an iceberg or live on sardine sandwiches. Explorers go north to die on the ice, but the wise and well-heeled glide southward, wo die Zitronen blühn.
There is, to be sure, the occasional romantic who heads in the other direction, but they are not made of stern stuff, and the fainthearted among them, like Boswell and Johnson (likely up to no good) or Mendelssohn (and who would trust him after what he did!), rarely get past the Hebrides. The Vikings, as bold as they were brutish, did push on into the islands of the North Atlantic, but they really didn’t want to talk about it afterwards for reasons that will unfold in due course. And so places like the Faroes, and even Iceland and Greenland, rarely get their due. But they are all rich in tradition, if not in weather or wit, and so I thought it might be a good idea to go and take a look-see.
We are docked in Slipshod, capital of the Faroes, summer population 15,000, winter pop. 15. A ten minute drive takes the adventurer to the other side of the island and the “Old Capital” of Gottforsaekken, which was destroyed in 935 not by the Vikings but by an infestation of herring. It was rebuilt in 1982 as an exact replica of Pearl Harbor for a Japanese remake of “Mrs. Miniver” in which Mrs. Miniver, played by Bethanny Fraenkel, is raped and murdered by the Japanese pilot who lands in her garden. The screen rights didn’t clear and so the project was abandoned, but Japanese visitors are still invited to be burned alive in the Faroes’ only full-scale replica of the U.S. Arizona. The site is today mostly used for women’s softball and pick-up jai-alai contests.
But enough of the hearsay. In this land of legends there are some hard facts. Unlike the other islands of the northern latitudes which claim fishing or herding as their principal source of income– It is in fact enormous subsidies from their unfortunate European patrons (see under “Greenland”)–the Faroes subsist on agriculture, they say, though they too survive by subsidy. This latter is paid by a European state that wishes to remain anonymous–it’s France—because it is too embarrassed to acknowledge that it is saddled with the Faroes as a colonie (“Departėment des Faroës. Capitale: Glace d’Or; Pop. 7” There is of course no “Glace d’Or; it’s an ill-tempered reference to the Foroese custom of peeing out their windows in winter). The annexation, if that is the word, came about because a drunken Viking chieftain, Normandy branch, had thrown his navigator overboard after losing at bones, later called craps, and attempted to steer his longboat himself. Which he did, right into the Faroes, and the rest is, as their patrons like to say, la grande méchanceté.
The agriculture, it turns out, is mostly the thatch that the Faroese grow on their roofs–nothing grows under their windows, naturally–which, to be kept green for the tourists, must be watered constantly. The watering, which is good for the thatch, is very bad for the roofs of the Faroes which collapse after about three years of normal sheltering, and that explains why the backbone of the “black” economy of the Faroes is roof repair. It is, however conducted in barter, two wagonloads of live thatch for a week of craftsman-level work “upstairs,” as the Faroese call their roofs.
To be fair, there is some agriculture on the Faroes besides thatch husbandry. Large parts of the population that are not engaged in roof repair are bracken and gorse farmers. One or the other–botanists continue to argue whether one is in fact the other–grows all over the island. The crop is harvested and the premium growths–the Faroese eat the rest–are packed and exported worldwide in the familiar yellow Faroese packaging. But economists are doubtful about the effect on the GNP since the plants are now selling at ha’penny a tonne on the International Bracken and Gorse Exchange at Dumfuckin, Scotland.
A few brief language notes: The Faroese try, naturally enough, to speak Faroese, an unintellible form of Cornish, itself near its expiration date. It is not a rich tongue. The Faroese word for “winter” is “sommer,” probably because of the bitterly cold summers. They had no word for summer itself because it pretty much didn’t exist, but in 1985 a public relations firm they hired–it was only later that it was explained to Terce and Crood of Aberdeen, Ltd. that payment would be in gorse and bracken–suggested that they call it either La Saison en Enfer, with a sly wink at the–shhhh–mother country—or, more soberly, the Tourist Season.
The Faroese had no idea what a tourist was but they did know which side of the sardine sandwich their subsidy was buttered on, and so they wisely chose “Tourist Season. Terce and Crood are still trying to collect their gorse but the Faroese seem quite happy with their new “Tourist Season.” To make it more inviting, they invented a folk festival, “Faroes Fantasy,” boldly stolen from the spelunking festival, “Fingal’s Cave-In,” that the Hebridese folk had made up in 1978. The Faroese sent out invitations to all their good neighbors in the northern isles from Skye to Greenland. The Hebrideans snidely responded–they too had hired Terce and Crood–“Been There. Done That.” The rest simply thought they had their own winter misery and threw away the very elegant bracket-woven invitations after discovering the value of the weed on the exchange at Dumfuckin.
The last actual tourist to arrive in the Faroes was a not terribly bright surfer named Spinelli who showed up there in the endless summer of ’68 in search of the ultimate wave. After only three hours on the island he had to be medevac’d off for treatment of a gunshot wound he had received, he said, in a hunting accident [NB: The only wild life on the Faroes is the gorse weevil.]. Later, when it was discovered that the gunshot wound was self-inflicted–“I hadda get outta there, dude. You can’t ‘board on ice (little did he know!), and besides, they don’t deliver pizza.”–the Gunshot Trauma Unit in Oslo, known throughout Scandinavia for its severe triage policy, treated him for frostbite and discharged him to recover from the gun wound on his own. And they billed him for costs plus VAT, $650,000.
Despite calling themselves the Faroes, only one Faroe has so far been discovered. The grandiose plural is a shallow trick, borrowed like much else on the Faroe [sic!], from someone or somewhere else, in this instance from Trinidad and Tobago (has anyone ever visited Tobago?) which gets a UN subvention for two out of the transparent misrepresentation.
The Faroes claim that “euro” is derived from “Faroe,” citing the principle of “the Old Norse Disappearing F,” still visible in “Oslo” which appears in one extremely deteriorated Icelandic inscription as “Foslo,” and even more obviously in the universal expression “Yuck, that tastes bad,” where the “y” phoneme is a later mischievous intrusion from the Finnish. I leave it to the reader to judge.
By the time we enter Icelandic waters, which the Icelanders claim extend, along with their fishing rights, from three miles off Cape Hatteras to halfway into downtown Belfast, we are all up to speed on the colorful, if mostly invented, past of this fraught island. All aboard were treated to a lengthy shipboard lecture that featured not only a lot of magma talk, which is to be expected, but an impenetrably close reading of the Icelandic saga, the Eddas. Ed, it turns out, was once chief god of East Prussia, but then was reassigned to Iceland, a slight he never quite got over, and the Eddas (pronounced “Edds”) were his embittered reminiscences. Ed had gotten his East Prussian plum because he had invented the Norse gods’ favorite game, Cannery, in which the deities worked out their coarse sexual frustrations–Hey, no judgments! It’s cold up there!– in a quite remarkable fashion.
One who refused to drop her squirrel fur jeans–the goddesses wore no underwear, which is why they were regarded as divine–and play Cannery was Frigga (pronounced “Frigger”), the goddess of First Dates, even after Ed declared Cannery the National Patriotic Pastime. As a result she was smirkingly referred to by the male gods as the “Ice Queen” (pronounced, according to the usual Consonantal Drift, as “Ice Cream”). The saga comes to its traditional (short form) ending after 6,000 stanzas with the death of Ed in the Great War with Wotan (pronounced “Woody”) and the echt Germanic gods. The foul blow that laid Ed low was delivered by Thug, an NBA god (pronounced “guard”) drafted by Germany. Sorry. Bad joke. Thug was actually the Athletic Director at Ohio State where he had trained under Woody Hayes and was on loan to the Germans when he sent Ed to his geothermally heated grave.
The Vikings, who were responsible for most of the nastiness in Europe before the invention of Scholasticism and marmite, didn’t discover Iceland, but once there, they gave it a sound pillaging nonetheless. Iceland doesn’t rank very high in Viking lore, however; it stands well below Ireland, where the Vikings shagged a couple of hundred Irish nuns, and the good sisters, to show their gratitude, taught their crude visitors how to go to confession and diagram sentences in Old Norse. And their Iceland venture could never be compared with the Vikings’ falling upon Sicily, which the Italians had already discovered and hurriedly left–the Pope later made them go back, but they’re still itching to clear out once and for all. The Norsemen have very fond memories of Sicily, however, since it was there that the Viking men became much smitten with the Sicilian women who taught them how to grow a really bushy mustache and that there was really no need to go to confession..
So low was the Icelandic landfall in Viking regard that they celebrated it annually by putting their chief navigator in a kayak with three years supplies and pushing it out into Bergen bay. The overloaded kayak inevitably sank about 40 yards from shore, with it the navigator shouting nasty things in Old Norse. The always parsimonious Vikings usually managed to retrieve some of the supplies, which weren’t real in any event, for reuse in the next year’s Sinking, as it was called.
The Icelanders are far more savvy regarding visitors than the Faroe naifs. We were met on the dock by a band of the traditional kilted mortgage jugglers and no less than the mayor of Reykjavik, the Hon. Lars Bankrooptson. He said not to miss the Viking sites at Plunderqvik and Rapinesgood and, oh yeah, a little crestfallen, not to eat the local food since it was still mostly covered with ash. Then, brightening a bit, he remarked that the ash was digestible but that for many folks, gray was an acquired taste.
There was also an amusing little bit when Lars–he insisted on first names: “We Icelanders don’t stand on ceremony, or anything”–tried to teach us some Icelandic. “Hello” is “U fisk?” to which the reply (colloquial) is “Ja, ik fiskalot” or, on more formal occasions, “Ja, ik fiskanawfulot.” What a difficult language! It puts Hungarian in the shade.
There wasn’t much to see at Plunderqvik which was in any event wrapped in impenetrable fog, like every other place we visited. But Rapinesgood is where some of the exteriors of “The Vikings” were shot and there has sprung up among the locals a kind of cargo-cult of Ernie Borgnine. We missed the midsummer festival of Frigginkold when, fog permitting, they put an annually selected “Ernie”–usually a tourist, preferably a Belgian–in a dingy and attempt to ignite him with flaming arrows from the shore. There are also tidy little peat huts where sort of meat-stuffed calzone called “Saxon Bits” are sold. It’s on my calendar for next year, weather permitting.
Just to give you an idea of the size of this useless piece of real estate, Greenland, which the locals pronounce Groinland, is exactly the size of 16 Moldavias arranged in a hexagonal pattern or seven New Jerseys laid side by side, only nicer. Its average temperature is unknown. “All our thermometers are rectal,” the locals chuckle with typical Greenland humor. The place chiefly survives on its import trade, which consists chiefly in an enormous subsidy from Denmark, which hates the place. The last Dane to actually visit Greenland landed there in 1795, and it was he who memorably said, “This hellhole is the groin of the universe,” and, well, there you are.
The Danish parliament opens every day at noon with a prayer that the Canadians be seized by an epic misprision–the Danes have been spreading rumors for years that there is oil under that ice–and invade and occupy Greenland. The Danes would express outrage, a curse or two perhaps at the UN, but nothing to scare the fragile Canadians off their new territory. The annual ritual cursing of Greenland in the Danish parliament is also worth witnessing.
In addition to their quick wit, the Greenlanders are both canny and industrious. Fully aware of global warming, they are busily engaged in hand-chipping the principal glaciers into ice-cubes for the tourist trade. They are practically giving away iced-tea at the docks. They also have some marvelous sawdust recipes, even though there is no wood on the island. The chief tourist attractions, apart from the dirt cheap iced tea, are the many Viking stone huts, most built in the Late Viking Style, the kind that collapses in the wind. Unfortunately many of the best sites are now closed to tourists because of the flying rocks in what they call the Helluva Wind that blows from January to November.
The capital, Nothappening, since it was built on the moving edge of an active glacier–those crazy Greenlanders!–has no fixed population. The aborigines of Greenland, known as the Hellisch People, have completely disappeared, eaten, it is thought, by the Vikings, who in their usual sour fashion called the place Wrongturn. And, once fed, the Vikings quickly cleared out and settled in Normandy. Nothing happened subsequently until the first Dane arrived in 1790 and–Curse the day!–mistakenly planted the Danish flag.
Though nominally Danish, Greenland today is giddily autonomous, though the United Nations denied it membership in 1949, after a member of the Security Council happened to visit there. The country is run by a bicameral parliament, The Thing, composed of an upper house, The Big Thing, and a lower house, The Weird, which the locals call The Totally Useless Thing. It is the oldest parliament in the world where fish are represented (though without voting rights, a source of some contention), and it is housed in a large but cozy ice sculpture affectionately called The Halibut. The president, who lives just outside Ravenna, Italy, can literally dissolve parliament simply by turning on the heat in the Halibut. He then announces an election date for The Next Big Thing.
Greenland’s single paved road is located 15 miles west of Nothappening. It is an attractive gorse-lined single-lane boulevard, a concrete circle 8 miles in diameter. Cars are towed there on sleds by sturdy Greenland terriers (which are also eaten, preferably stewed with seaweed, the runts of the sardine catch and a sprig of rosemary) for the annual Summer Drive Around (Sommerlicken Goot Rundfahrt) which takes place, weather permitting, each June 23rd.Three Icelandic tourists attended last year and one Faroese who thought he had landed in Newfoundland. “You wish,” the Greenland immigration officer (and mayor of Nothappening), said to the new arrival.
The Greenland issue, or “that frozen pile of whale excrement,” as the Danes call it, may soon disappear, however. A large chunk of the place recently fell into the ocean, neither the first nor the last to do so. Some say it was out of despair, a kind of geological suicide; some say it’s because the Danes are secretly heating the ocean around Greenland; others again maintain that the locals who lived on that chunk of ice, a people known as the Nouits, thought the Gulf Stream might carry them to the Caribbean. When last sighted they were headed toward Murmansk, where a severe thrashing is being prepared for them.
We were returning to Iceland. The captain of our ship, a fastidious man, has to use the bathroom and he prefers the Iceland toilets, which were geothermally heated, to the ones aboard ship which take only liquids and make a loud and provocative sucking sound when flushed. Underground hot water abounds in Iceland and is used to heat everyone and everything from cold shoulders to steamy sex. The mythically inclined, which is just about everyone on the Island, say that it’s a gift of Lupe, the goddess of fire and pole dancing, but the fact of the matter is it’s because Iceland–and the Icelanders prefer to look away from this and bury their heads in Lupe’s hot lap–sits right atop the dividing line between two massive tectonic plates whence escape the really dangerous crap beneath, molten lava, large boulders, tons of ash and, yes, hot water. The Norwegians aren’t buying either explanation, the mythical or the geological: they think the Icelanders are somehow stealing their oil.
The current Icelanders are a rather somber lot, as indeed we might all be, buried under eight feet of volcanic ash and a ton and a half of defaulted loans. All the bright guys in Europe thought that they could launder their dirty cash there, failing to take into account that the Icelanders hadn’t washed anything in centuries. No great harm done. The Icelanders never had much of a head for money to begin with; they rarely used it until 2008 when the Brits began dumping it on their shores at night. They much preferred barter: Per Halversonsdotter’s daughter to Lief Halversonsdotter’s son for a pound of premium elk horn, the kind with the elk still attached, and a left snowshoe. Iceland has, by the way, the tiniest genetic pool on the entire planet, and grandmother-son marriages, unwitting of course, like everything else on the island, are not uncommon, nor entirely unhappy.
So the Rotten Sardines, the name of a local punk rock band now fondly applied to all Icelanders, soldier on, killing seals and whales as skillfully as their ancestors and selling them to the Japanese, though the more thoughtful among them, the Ditka Halversonsdotter family, to be precise, are occasionally given to wondering why the Norwegians got all the good oil and they were left with the cod liver variety. Early on they tried to light this latter, which produced neither heat nor light but a God awful stink that can still be detected all over the island when the wind calms, as it did for three hours in 1995.
Reykjavik is not an unattractive town. It has a number of interesting sights for the visitor, particularly the large ice sculpture of Jan Sibelius, whom the natives like to pretend was Icelandic: “Yah, the Siberliussonsanddotter family used to run the sweets shop up country till they got entirely married into one of the Halversonsdotter families.” The Finns protested this transparently false claim and withdrew their consul from Akureyri. The Icelanders ignored it. “Who gives a fikk [the family connection between Old Norse and Low German is particularly obvious here] about the Finns!” Another place of interest is the Bait and Tackle Museum, with its curious specimens of semi-frozen chum and its unrivaled collection of fish hooks, many of them still embedded in body parts. Downtown has many unfinished office buildings with a very modern if melancholy air. They are a legacy of the 2010 Frikkenekobust, as it is called here in private, though in public the empty buildings are always referred to as “our treasured architectural monuments.”
The more adventurous visitor may wish to take an exciting swim in the Fisktank, a large geothermally heated pool featuring thirteen varieties of local fish, from the tiny leech-guppy to the really intimidating Giant Arctic Sting Ray. A placard at the tank assures the bathers, in Icelandic and Finnish (the latter, with its many misspellings, a sly jab at that troublesome folk!), that the Giant Arctic is relatively harmless, but I’d still want to stay well clear of its harpoon-like tail. After all. the blood in the tank–it is cleaned once a month and the dead fish (boiled to death) and dead bathers (cause of death unknown) are removed–has to have come from somewhere.
“Maybe it ain’t Fiji,” the Icelanders like to say of their island. “But it sure as hell ain’t Greenland.”
The Isle of Skye
As everyone knows, the Vikings originated on the fjord-ridden coast of the land they called Ourway, variously identified as Norway, the Azores or the former Straits Settlement. Sometime about 800 AD, a community of gay Vikings, who preferred bright colored dresses to the traditional bloodstained fur knickers, was banished to the south. “We stay Ourway, you go Yourway,” the straight Vikings chanted as they drove their mini-skirted brethren out of the fjords into the open sea. The exiles made their first landfall fifteen years later on an island they later called Skye. That was after they adopted the language of the aboriginal people, the Gibbers, called, not entirely surprisingly, Gibberish. In that exotic tongue the word for “land” was “skye” and that for “gay Vikings” was “Sods” (pronounced “Scots”; linguists will recognize the Intervocalic C or “C otiosa”).
Skye is now an attractive but thinly populated island entirely covered with rain. The Scots (still pronounced “Sods” by the traditionalists) have carefully deforested the entire island to make more space for clan wars and windswept moors. The national flower–what were the options? It is the only flora on the island–which the Scots call the thistle but which is in fact the stinging nettle, grows everywhere in rich, if painful, profusion.
The first of the clan wars was fought shortly after the arrival of the original gay Vikings at what they had imagined as Yourway. The casus belli, which arose in the longboats as they approached the shore, was the color of the dresses the newcomers should wear at the formal Landing: green, red, yellow or blue. The Gibbers, who were drawn to the shore by the gaily decorated boats but had no idea how to dress, awaited them naked by the sea’s edge. After extended and bloody fighting on the beach and inland–the Gibbers took off for the hills–a Viking clansman named Teddy Tartan cried out, “This is just total madness, laddies (pronounced “ladies”). Why don’t we just combine them into an attractive mélange and stop this horrible carnage?”
So it came about. The newcomers stopped fighting and started sewing–one understands perhaps a little better why they were chased out of Ourway–and the curiously unattractive result was called–you guessed it–“tartan”. But the serenity was soon shattered by the first Scots execution, when Bruno McRavish was submerged in a vat of haggis. Bruno’s offense was saying, just loud enough to be overheard, “Those colors clash, Teddy.”
The violence of Skye has not abated, and visitors are instructed to be careful of the always slippery ground underfoot and the possibility of being struck from behind with a battle-ax should they be wearing the wrong color combination. Plus ça change, as Heraclitus said. Dress has changed, however. The original Viking minis, which barely covered the male privates (which the Scots now refer to as their “English”), now descend to near the knee. The cause was not modesty–there are no Gibberish words for modesty or its synonyms, nor even for clothing) but rather the painful chaffing brought on by exposed thighs and the constant rain.
The newcomers, who, with the flight of the Gibbers, had the island pretty much to themselves, soon sorted themselves out over their new possession. The rich Sods settled around the port where they were engaged in the knitting industry (see below) and became proficient in figure skating and platform diving. The poor Sods were driven into the hills where they raised sheep as companion animals.
The harbor of Loch Dunvegan, the chief port of Skye, which has the world’s largest seaweed outlet store, is snug and rock-filled, these latter the remains of an ill-considered attempt to construct a breakwater from large boulders carried to sea in kayaks. The visitors, who must be rowed into port one by one, are greeted by a large dockside billboard emblazoned, In Gibberish and English, with “Skye’s The Limit (Get It?),” a sly reference to the constant rainfall, the highest suicide rate in Europe after Sweden and the fact that Skye is 300 miles from Gottforsaekken, 450 from Slipshod and 890 from the nearest functioning toilet. “Och, that’s why we’re wearing dresses, lassie,” the locals whisper with typical Sodding humor, if not with complete accuracy.
The local industries are the knitting of kilts [NB. Visitors should insist on lined kilts. Loosely knitted kilts have been the source of much mischief, from “sodding” (attempting to unravel the kilt of another) to pneumonia], the dry cleaning of sporrans (Bruce Martin, the inventor of “Martinizing” was a native of Skye) which become fouled with all sorts of unpleasant substances, and the manufacture of bagpipe mutes which are made locally in great quantities and exported directly to all parts of the UK. Which also explains why the Skye national anthem, “We Did It Yourway,” is always hummed and never played.
The local tourist sites are few but exciting. They are “The Cauldrons,” enormous craters where deep pools of haggis, the national dish, though it is never consumed and which is amusingly referred to by the locals as “Bruno sweetbreads,” is kept at a constant boil by underground thermal springs. The Scots claim the Gibbers invented haggis; the Gibbers vehemently deny it: “You think we’d have anything to do with that miserable pigshit. It has ‘Viking’ written all over it!.” Another site that will interest some is the facility that produces the Sodding or Scots terrier by cutting off the legs of black Schnauzers. The procedure, though somewhat radical, achieves the desired size and the characteristic dour look of the Scotty. The severed legs go, of course, into the haggis. “A wee bit of garnish, lassie. Tasty in the bargain. Bobby Burns, that twee man, used to toss away the haggis and just eat the dogslegs.”
There is one special treat for the visitor if the timing is right. Mid-winter, when the rain turns to sleet and the fog freezes over, is the time of the annual Penny Pinching Contest, a very old gay Viking tradition which, as they say, “We did it on Ourway.” A Sodding penny, the national coin and the only currency in use or accepted on this frugal isle, is embedded in the sporran of some poor Sod chosen by lot, and the contestants, all blindfolded, attempt to find it by touch alone. There is much good-natured groping, much Sodding ribaldry. And the local saying, much reproduced on postcards, “You can chase the Viking out of Ourway, but you can’t chase the gay out of Viking,” is on everyone’s lips. Again, visitors are advised to exercise caution.
Between the Vikings’ mistaking Greenland for Martha’s Vineyard and Mendelssohn’s setting the Hebrides to music, a lot of very cold water has passed under the Arctic Circle. The history of the northern isles is a cautionary one, with a moral: yes, wear warm clothing, but, more importantly, colonize carefully, particularly when it comes to islands. The British, in their hunger to rule everything that moves, made some very bad decisions in that regard. They stumbled upon the Falklands in the South Atlantic, and instead of off-loading trash and taking on water, they annexed the damn place. But then again, they snatched up the Bahamas which 1) is a very lovely place and 2) gave them a spot to park the Windsors during WWII. Ditto the French. St. Pierre and Michelon, despite their vaguely tropic sound, are broken off crumbs of Newfoundland, itself no picnic, while St. Bart’s, on the other hand—warm weather again!–has turned out to be the Hamptons of the Caribbean, only easier to get to.
It was the Scandinavians, however, who had no experience of warm weather, who jumped into the North Atlantic with both feet, and particularly the Danes and the Norwegians. The results of their careless colonization are drifting in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, somewhere between the coast of Unenviable and that of Unviable: cold, windswept, ice-encumbered chunks of real estate whose art is in ruins and whose history is in runes: the Islands That Nobody Wants.