City Life, Cul­ture, and Hap­pi­ness in Scan­di­navia

SLOW Magazine - - Contents -

To say I have al­ways been ob­ses­sively fas­ci­nated by the Scan­di­na­vian coun­tries is putting it mildly. Ask any­one who knows me, and they will tell you that it is my dream to live in ei­ther Den­mark, Swe­den, Nor­way, or Ice­land (which is tech­ni­cally not part of the Scan­di­na­vian group, but is of­ten clas­si­fied as such).

At any given mo­ment, I am able to name at least 10 to­tally ran­dom, yet vastly in­ter­est­ing facts about th­ese mys­ti­cal coun­tries that lie far in the North, be­yond the bor­ders of the bulk of Europe. In my mind, one en­ters through a Nar­nia-like door­way at the top bor­der of Ger­many to ac­cess the mys­ti­cal Nordic coun­tries – much like the trav­ellers to plat­form 9¾ in the Harry Pot­ter nov­els. In­deed, it may be no co­in­ci­dence at all that the trio of fairy­tale-like coun­tries lie so close to the North Pole, the epit­ome of myth, fa­ble, and folk­lore.

The land of IKEA and hygge; where ed­u­ca­tion and health­care is ab­so­lutely free (so don’t be sur­prised if the server at the restau­rant has two de­grees), and gen­der equal­ity is not a term, be­cause it just is. All this, as well as the breath­tak­ingly beau­ti­ful nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena and pre­pos­sess­ing land­scapes, the in­ter­est­ing and iso­lated cul­ture, and the unashamedly com­fort­able lifestyle, cre­ate a truly unique ex­pe­ri­ence for many trav­ellers. It re­ally is no won­der at all that Hans Chris­tian An­der­son, my favourite au­thor and imag­iner of fairy-tales, found so much in­spi­ra­tion here.

So, for your next Euro­pean trek, why not ven­ture into the cap­i­tals of Nor­way, Swe­den, and Den­mark? It may be cold, but it prom­ises to be the ex­pe­ri­ence of a life­time. Stock­holm, Swe­den The his­tor­i­cal city of Stock­holm is not only the most pop­u­lous city in the Nordic coun­tries and there­fore bustling with peo­ple and ac­tiv­i­ties, but is also cheer­ful, mod­ern, pic­turesque, and a real foodie par­adise. The city stretches across 14 is­lands where Lake Mälaren flows into the Baltic Sea. It is an area that has been set­tled since the Stone Age, in the 6th mil­len­nium BC, and was founded as a city in 1252.

A good way to get a great view of the city is by walk­ing (or rent­ing a bi­cy­cle like many of the lo­cals of­ten do) from Kungsträdgår­den park along Sö­dra Blasieholm­ska­jen, down to the wa­ter­front near the Na­tional Mu­seum, and across the bridge to Skepp­shol­men. The ho­pon, hop-off bus or boat tours are also pop­u­lar op­tions for sight­see­ing.

Stock­holm’s food scene is a blend of culi­nary in­flu­ences, and in­cludes tra­di­tional dishes such as the ever-pop­u­lar pick­led her­ring and meat­balls. Cen­turies of fish­ing in the North Seas means the Swedes have truly mas­tered the art of cook­ing seafood. Seafood plays an es­sen­tial role in the lo­cals’ di­ets, and or­der­ing any fish dish off a menu comes highly rec­om­mended. An­other dish that comes highly rec­om­mended is hus­man­skost, con­sid­ered to be Swe­den’s com­fort food. It’s a hearty blend of pota­toes and root veg­eta­bles gath­ered from the fields and com­bined with meats like rein­deer and moose, seafood from the North and Baltic Seas, and Arc­tic herbs, wild berries, and mush­rooms. Din­ing out in the town re­volves around two main ac­tiv­i­ties: lunch and fika. Fika is par­tially to blame for the city’s love of sweet things, and in­volves fre­quent gath­er­ings, sev­eral times a day, for cof­fee breaks, com­plete with sug­ary pas­tries such as the Swedish take on cin­na­mon buns. Copen­hagen, Den­mark One of the cities that so ef­fort­lessly ex­udes the Nordic ur­ban charm is Copen­hagen, which orig­i­nated as a Vik­ing fish­ing vil­lage founded in the 10th cen­tury, be­com­ing the cap­i­tal of Den­mark in the early 15th cen­tury.

Cy­cling is a way of life here, whether it is sunny, rainy, or snowy. The lo­cals cy­cle ev­ery­where, and there are more bikes than peo­ple in Copen­hagen. So nat­u­rally, the best way to get around is to sad­dle up and take in the phe­nom­e­nal scenery from the seat of a bike.

From vile Vik­ings to an­cient cas­tles and palaces, cob­ble­stone streets dec­o­rated with old, colour­ful houses, and a sculp­ture of the orig­i­nal Lit­tle Mer­maid – Copen­hagen is a mod­ern day fairy-tale, with ad­ven­ture around ev­ery corner. In­ter­est­ing sights in­clude the plethora of old, charm­ing cas­tles (Copen­hagen and its sur­round­ing re­gions are home to the world’s old­est monar­chy) and the Tivoli Gar­dens, the sec­ond-old­est op­er­at­ing amuse­ment park in the world.

Visi­tors are not only en­cour­aged to take home me­men­tos, but also the prac­tice of hygge – a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non which has no di­rect trans­la­tion in the English lan­guage but could be roughly trans­lated into calm mo­ments for your­self and oth­ers. A key el­e­ment for sur­viv­ing the long, dark Dan­ish Win­ters, hygge is, in a nut­shell, the con­cept of self-care through small, yet com­fort­ing in­dul­gences. Oslo, Nor­way Oslo is one of Europe’s fastest-grow­ing cities, with a pop­u­la­tion ap­proach­ing 700,000, and new neigh­bour­hoods with eye-catch­ing ar­chi­tec­ture pop­ping up fre­quently. Oslo might just be the “hip­ster­ville” of Scan­di­navia. It’s a city cen­tred on art, his­tory, ar­chi­tec­ture, and mu­se­ums. Of course, the Munch Mu­seum is a must-visit for art fa­nat­ics, but then there is also the Nor­we­gian Folk Mu­seum, one of the world’s largest and old­est ope­nair mu­se­ums with over 155 tra­di­tional houses; the Ski Mu­seum and Tower, which is ba­si­cally a land­mark; The Mu­seum of Oslo; the Na­tional Gallery; and The Kon­tiki Mu­seum.

Mu­se­ums aside, the city also boasts an ar­ray of “bor­oughs” – af­flu­ent sub­urbs that of­fer fine din­ing, small hid­den eater­ies, and bustling nightlife. Nes­tled be­tween the Oslofjord and hun­dreds of square kilo­me­tres of forested hills, Oslo of­fers

the best of both worlds. Live mu­sic is a big part of the city’s iden­tity, and ev­ery year Oslo’s clubs and are­nas host thou­sands of con­certs that show­case ta­lent rang­ing from lo­cal bands to in­ter­na­tional su­per­stars.

Not only do th­ese mag­i­cal Nordic civil­i­sa­tions have some of the best at­trac­tions in the world, they also have an abun­dance of hap­pi­ness. Ac­cord­ing to the 2017 World Hap­pi­ness Re­port, Nor­way and Den­mark come in at num­ber one and two re­spec­tively, with Swe­den com­ing in at num­ber 10. So, what makes the Scan­di­na­vians the hap­pi­est peo­ple on Earth? Lifestyle prac­tices such as their in­crease of car­dio­vas­cu­lar ex­er­cises dur­ing the dark Win­ter months? The hygge way of life? Their con­tent­ment and so­phis­ti­ca­tion? The ad­vanced so­cio-eco­nomic lifestyle and the high GDP per capita?

Re­searchers from the Univer­sity of War­wick re­port that the mys­tery sur­round­ing Nordic – and specif­i­cally Dan­ish – hap­pi­ness has less to do with so­cial­ism and more to do with sci­ence. An­drew Oswald and Eu­ge­nio Proto think they have found the an­swer in DNA: “The closer a na­tion is to the ge­netic makeup of Den­mark, the hap­pier that coun­try is.” Though this re­search is not widely ac­cepted, the find­ings state that the Danes and other close civ­i­liza­tions have a par­tic­u­larly high preva­lence of one gene vari­ant which is as­so­ci­ated with good moods, and a re­sis­tance to de­pres­sion.

How­ever, there are some who think the ques­tion it­self favours the con­tent, and that the en­tire phe­nom­ena of “happy coun­tries” is as big a myth as Santa Claus him­self. One of which is Michael Booth, au­thor of The Al­most Nearly Per­fect Peo­ple: Be­hind the Myth of the Scan­di­na­vian Utopia, who thinks that Danes might sim­ply have low ex­pec­ta­tions.

The bot­tom line is that the peo­ple of the Nordic coun­tries seem more than con­tent in their ways. And per­haps after a Scan­di­na­vian city-hop­ping ad­ven­ture, you too will have em­braced the hygge way of life.

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