Experiencing Hygge in Copenhagen

I heard about hygge (hoo-ga) before I went to Denmark. Every year Denmark and Norway compete for “happiest people on Earth” and a big part of that is attributed to this value for hygge. I was looking for a book on Denmark’s history when I discovered Meik Wiking’s The Little Book of Hygge (in English of course). I bought it because I loved the design and thought my daughter would like it.

IMG_1833Wiking is the head of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen where he studies living well. I learned quite a few things about hygge from his book. First, unscented candles are critical to creating hygge, best translated in English as “cozy togetherness” Most Danes use lots of candles, lots of sweets and lots of ham and bacon, washed down with coffee or hot chocolate. The ideal number of people to enjoy this cozy time is 3-4 so it is perfect for introverts. The dress code is comfy/casual and often everyone watches “box sets” (think binge watching on Netflix) or plays board games.

I did find it interesting that the book compares the idea of Danish “hygge” with similar words/ideas in Norway, Netherlands, Finland and even Canada, but ignores Sweden. And yet the one place I experienced hygge was at my University chum Susie’s home in Malmo, Sweden. Whereas my hotel, The Absalon, and restaurants were all about Danish modern design. They were stylish but more formal and un-hygge.

My friend Susie explained the competition between Sweden and Denmark. The Danish are smug about their superiority to Sweden. Swedes don’t seem to spend much time thinking about Denmark. It reminds me of the competition between NorCal and SoCal, with NorCal the Danes with a little bit of a chip and SoCal as Sweden too absorbed with its own business to give the other much thought. Susie and her family explained that they enjoy Friday evening television watching with the family, Saturday family time when children get 10 pieces of candy, and Sunday cozy time with family. It’s a lot of togetherness with family.

Work/life balance is very important to all Scandinavians and remember that when you are headed somewhere in a car. People with children knock off work at 4 and others at 5, so rush hour starts early!

I definitely came home thinking I’d like to incorporate more hygge in my life. And you can too. I was in Avid Reader bookstore in Davis, CA and lo and behold, there was a copy just like mine. So I didn’t have to lug it all over Denmark and England and you don’t have to go to Copenhagen to get the book.

Reunion in Malmo, Sweden

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The view from the steps of the Central Station in Malmo.

One of the attractions of Copenhagen is that it is a just a long bridge away from Malmo, Sweden, and my college chum Susie lives in Malmo. I was able to spend the with her on a Swedish national holiday.

Susie met me at the train station and we hopped on the number 7 bus and see more of the city. She was hoping that we could take the river cruise but it was not operating at 10:30 a.m. on this holiday. We rode along manicured boulevards with beaches just over the rise. We hopped off at an island called “Island.”

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Turning Torso or as I call it, Twisted Sister

We walked along the sea and admired the mixed income neighborhood and mix of old and new. The gym and cafe and market are located in a brick building that had been Hermann Goring’s airplane factory between WWI and WWII. Sweden was neutral and so they have lots of ties to Germany AND they allowed thousands of Jews to move from Denmark to safety in Sweden.

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Three buildings in downtown showing the many ages/phases of Malmo.

We then rode the bus into a “new” development (by Swedish standards) on an old infill site that had been a shipbuilding yard. In the mid-1980s the company stopped building ships and sold off its assets. The area was redeveloped and continues to grow and change. The iconic building the Turning Torso (designed by a Spanish woman architect) is also located here as the one skyscraper in the neighborhood.

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A brilliant idea for thwarting terrorist attacks on the city’s celebration.

We walked to a cafe called V.E.S.P.A. for salad and pasta. It was yummy. One of our servers was an expat from Minnesota. We talked and talked for 2.5 hours! By then we were ready to walk on and find gelato. It is generally windy in Malmo but it was particularly blowey this day. We jumped on the bus one last time to return to the train station. We walked into the center square of the old city.

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Hermann Goring’s factory

Lots of businesses were closed for the holiday and the city had a special program planned. We had a little time before it started so we continued our walking tour. Swedish flags were flying in many places as it was a “red letter day,” one of days when it people are allowed to fly the national flag.

The national church is Lutheran and there is no separation of state. Unless you declare yourself a non-believer and take action to separate yourself, 3% of your income tax will go to support the church. Devout Christians account for 29% of the population, but almost everyone is a member and most teams participate in confirmation as a rite of passage.

IMG_1092St Peter’s Cathedral is a lovely and inspiring. Susie said she and her husband John enjoyed a worship service where the pastor read scripture and invited people to meditate while the organist played Bach on the pipe organ. They loved it.

We watched the Fire Department band play and a goofy rhythmic gymnastic group perform an anachronistic routine that felt like 1950 not 2017. They juggled red balls and did mild calisthenics without breaking a sweat. They inspired us to giggle and marvel that this troupe still attracts participants.

We retired to Susie’s gracious apartment and enjoyed a home cooked meal. Her husband John, and her daughters Linnea and Olivia answered questions about “cozy time” and other uniquely Swedish things.

It was a quick 45 minute train ride back to Copenhagen. It made a great day trip.

Preparing for Denmark Adventure

hygge

I am visiting Denmark this summer. I found my hotel on Trip Advisor. Thanks to Rick Steves’ I am taking a bike tour in Copenhagen with Mike. My chum Susie from University is going to show me her Malmo, Sweden on June 6–the national holiday to celebrate being Swedish. I have printed the instructions to find hidden Giant sculptures around Copenhagen on a bike scavenger hunt.

I am excited that I am going to be able to see two more Scandinavian countries (after Norway in 2013). Originally I thought I’d get into the countryside and see more of Denmark. Then I realized that second half of my trip involves a lot of travel through England, so enjoying one city more thoroughly and staying in the same hotel is appealing.

I discovered Helen Russell’s humorous memoir Year of Living Danishly at Vroman’s bookstore in Pasadena. I read it to prepare for my trip. The culture in Denmark is similar to Norway in many respects. The author refers to Jante’s Law, which I experienced growing up with a Norwegian grandfather.

Aksel Sandemose outlines 10 rules for living Danishly in his novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, known as Jante’s Law.

  1. You’re not to think you are anything special
  2. You’re not to think you are as good as we are
  3. You’re not to think you are smarter than us
  4. You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than us
  5. You’re not to think you know more than us
  6. You’re not to think you are more important than us
  7. You’re not to think you are good at anything
  8. You’re not to laugh at us
  9. You’re not to think anyone cares about you
  10. You’re not to think you can teach us anything

cod bookSome people think it is synonymous with humility and essential to maintaining the egalitarian Scandinavian society. Some people think it is about enforcing conformity. In another memoir, In Cod We Trust, by Eric Dregni, about his family’s year in Norway, he observes, “These ten commandments may have begun as a morality tale of how not to act, but over time these rules were adopted to teach kids not to be self-important narcissists.”

I am curious to soak up as much of the culture as I can for the relatively short time I am there, and to find out more about Jante’s Law.

Travel is Life

I am participating in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, this month. I have several longer travel-writing projects I want to pursue and I am challenged with carving out the time needed to complete these and get them to publication. I am excited about this challenge. I completed a 50,000+ word novel in 2011 while I was living in St Heliers, Auckland and it helped me discover myself as a writer. I wrote the first draft to a mystery novel called Death by Sand and Gravel. Over time I discovered that I make a better travel writer than mistress of mysteries, so I am using November to recommit to a more disciplined approach to my writing life.

November is National Novel Writing Month.

November is National Novel Writing Month.

The reward will be a couple of long essays that I can independently publish through On Your Radar Media Company and many, many blog posts. There are other rewards. To write “The Hip and Chic Knitter’s Guide to Norway,” I will also knit a pretty-in-pink project that I purchased in Bergen. This will involve some pattern translation challenges and may involve interviewing other knitters who regularly translate patterns from other languages into English. This child’s sweater will also be a Christmas gift for a friend’s daughter. (Sorry to remind you that Christmas is coming.)

Thinking through how I am going to translate this pattern–asking my friend Susie in Sweden to help me and coordinate with her friends in Stavanger–got me to thinking about how travel is no longer a time set aside with strict bookends. At one time it felt like my “self” on adventures abroad was somehow different that the duller, more cautious Julie who lived a work-a-day life in NorCal. At some point, my travels and the friends I made on my adventures became so numerous that they could not be easily contained in a 2 week time slot called “vacation.” The transition was complete when I redesigned my life to be less about earning a paycheck and more about living a full life. I now have as many or more friends living abroad and I see my travel adventures as bright colored threads woven into my life tapestry, not a separate scarf only donned at the airport. Nor are my work threads the beige neutral threads in my life; they are full of vibrant color too.