Everyone, at some point in his or her life, has played some sort of game in the car. Punch buggy, I spy, 20 questions… Games designed to make journeys pass more quickly, to keep kids rapt in activity while their parents navigate, to foster healthy competition. Me, though? I have spent most of my miles playing a game you’ve never heard of—gulir bilir (GOOL-er bee-LER).
Gulir bilir means “yellow car” in Faroese, a language most people do not know exists that originates from a set of islands some world maps do not bother to include. The Faroe Islands lie northwest of Scotland and halfway between Norway and Iceland in the Atlantic Ocean and have for nearly 65 years been self-governing under the Kingdom of Denmark.
The archipelago is composed of 18 islands with a population of about 48,000 people. The islands are green and steep and rocky and beautiful. The houses that occupy them are quaint and colorful with lush grass growing atop the roofs. No description can do the lands justice. If you would like to fly to the Faroe Islands and see for yourself, you may only do so via Reykjavík or Copenhagen, and you will need to cast aside your fears of teeny tiny planes that land between two cliffs– unless the weather is bad, in which case the teeny tiny plane can’t land at all.
The Faroes, a breed of sheep from which the islands derive their name, outnumber the people 2 to 1. To put it more simply, there are more sheep than people. I cannot speak for the sheep, but in my experience the people are kind, quiet and humble.
Janita, my stepmother, is Faroese, which is how I came to have a personal connection to the Faroe Islands. She and my dad met nearly 20 years ago when she held an internship at the seafood distribution company he now owns. Being the tender age of five, I unknowingly revealed their relationship to my dad’s boss by announcing that she had left her shoes in his closet. It worked out in the end, so we can laugh about it now.
In the summer of 2010, Janita’s brother, Dan, and his then-girlfriend now-fiancé, Vár, came to stay with us for several weeks. Since it was Vár’s first time visiting America, we went on a lot of excursions to make sure that she had a well-rounded experience. For the Faroese, everyday American tasks like going to the grocery store, with its seemingly never-ending selection, can be an experience in and of themselves. Seeing squirrels, which are not native to the Faroe Islands, is a treat and worth some iPhone footage. But that’s beside the point. To give her that well-rounded experience, we spent a lot of time in the car driving from one place to another. Six Flags. New Hampshire. Maine. Boston.
It’s a well-known fact that siblings tend to argue with each other when they are crammed into the backseat of a car, and my brothers, who at the time were 12, 11 and 6 years old, are no exception to the rule. Perhaps my favorite backseat argument tale to tell is the time my middle brother, Frankie, got so angry at my oldest brother, Andreas, that he would not even allow him to look at him. “Don’t! Look! At! Me!” he screamed.
No one particularly enjoys listening to siblings argue, so Dan and Vár started playing a game I had not previously heard of— yellow car—to help make the rides more pleasant.
The rules of yellow car are alarmingly simple. If you see a yellow car, you say “yellow car” and you get a point for doing so. A tally is kept and at the end of the car ride a winner is declared. There is no reward, but there is glory. Lots of glory. You’d be surprised to know how many yellow cars are on the road. You’d also be surprised to know how many yellow cars are not on the road. Try playing. You will see exactly what I mean. I cannot recall a car trip during which we did not play, much like I cannot recall who reigned as ultimate champion. I can only recall the happy warmth I associate with the game.
I moved to college at the end of that summer. It was the last breath of my childhood, filled with final precious moments, before college began and separated what was from what is. I left my family behind, brothers all lined up in the backseat, where they will eternally remain in my mind’s eye, and moved to a different state. And Dan and Vár flew home, but yellow car stayed.
No matter where I am, I play the game. I have taught it to many close friends, who pass it on to their own. I have played it across many a state border. I have won and I have lost. My boyfriend– who is now my most frequent car companion–and I have even expanded upon the rules. Now, you receive 10 points if you are lucky enough to spot a yellow Volkswagen Beetle, because it combines the yellow car with the punch buggy game.
Whatever is happening, whomever I am with, when a yellow car whizzes by me, glowing like a shooting star, I am reminded. Reminded of my family, of my home. Reminded of how time alters people and places but memories are eternal. Reminded to smile.
Image credit: Alvimann