Nordic wisdom and ‘hygge’

Wimbledon Common, 2 December 2019

There is no better way of enriching one’s perspective of the world than to live in a country different from one’s own and thus be exposed to diverse idiosyncrasies and cultures. Certainly, London has to be up there among the best cities in the world to experience diversity. Throughout my almost 14 years of life here, I have come to embrace, and have even adopted, traits I admire not just in the Brits but also in many other cultures I have had the privilege of getting to know well.

People say that opposites attract, which may explain why I am particularly drawn to the Nordic way of life. My fixation with Scandinavians reached new levels two winters ago, when we were forced to stay in London and miss our regular trip to the Sunshine State to spend Christmas with family because my son had to study for his 11+ exams. At first, the idea of not having my Vitamin D topped up under the Florida sun in mid-winter was devastating. How was I ever going to survive the short, cold London winter days without getting depressed and claustrophobic? How could anyone survive winter without a sunny break?

As a Venezuelan born in Caracas, throughout my first twenty eight years of life, I was only familiar with what could arguably be described as perfect weather conditions. A lovely fresh breeze gently blows into the valley of Caracas from the surrounding mountains, where temperatures hardly ever fall below 20°C or rise above 28°C, all . . . year . . . long. I had never seen snow before I came to live in London in 2007 and had not even experienced anything similar to the London drizzle. Rain, in Venezuela, only comes in the form of tropical downpours that can be vicious but only lash out for brief periods of time before the clouds open up to reveal, yet again, the spectacle of our glorious blue skies. In Venezuela, a typical long weekend or the equivalent of a half-term holiday, no matter the month of the year, was spent sunbathing in a beach of warm Caribbean waters, located just under an hour drive from Caracas. In my family’s case, we never felt like we needed to go much further. In fact, we hardly ever travelled abroad and it wasn’t until I came to live in London that I experienced my first proper winter. At forty-two, I still haven’t seen proper snow and no one has yet managed to convince me to go skiing.

In this context, I am sure no one would take offence when I reveal my secret conception of the Nordics as superior people. In the Scandinavian countries, from as early as October until well into March, it snows pretty much all the time and then, it’s not like the summers are particularly warm. Finland, for example will hardly ever hit temperatures above 20°C and Norway will most probably remain between the 13°C to 18°C range. Sweden, on its part, apparently has the best summer temperatures, with an average of 22°C.

Since the World Happiness Index started being measured in 2012, Scandinavian nations have consistently topped the charts. The latest report from 2020 had, in fact, five Nordic Countries in the top ten and four in the top five. Surely, the Nordics have something to teach us all about the true meaning of happiness. If I didn’t know a few Scandinavians personally, I would probably try to dismiss the World Happiness index as a flawed report and insist on the wrong premise that people who live in very cold environments cannot possibly be the happiest on earth. Yet, having friends from Finland, Norway and Sweden, I have witnessed the Nordic wisdom first hand and I believe it is precisely because of the challenges posed by the extreme weather conditions in which they grow up that they have been able to discern the real sources of joy in life. Thank God I turned my gaze towards them for inspiration through the months leading to the winter of 2019.

Whenever you complain about weather in front of a Scandinavian person, they fix you with a frown, truly startled by your grievance. They are oblivious to bad weather and cannot understand why anyone would complain about a little cold and some darkness in London. Invariably, they will remind you very matter of factly that “There is no such thing as bad weather, there is only bad protection against it.” Whether it’s raining or snowing, windy or cold, their philosophy is “Gear up and get out of the house to enjoy daylight!” But it is more than that. From experiencing so many winters -true winters- throughout their lives, they have learned to see the beauty in all seasons, particularly the coldest ones of the year: “Because you cannot change the weather, learn to embrace it.” There is so much wisdom in this simple statement!

And here I have to stop and also thank my dog, Bonnie. With the memory of how Scandinavians describe the beauty of winter, every morning and every evening when I walked my Bonnie through the autumn and winter months of 2019 and early 2020, I started paying attention to the motions of nature in my local parks: The gradual changes of colours of the trees, which you notice day after day, until the leaves start falling and only the branches stand bare; the dramatic break of dawn and the early sunsets that you love so much because they shine bright in the context of so many hours of darkness; the awe inspiring fierce winds that not only make you humbler but also provoke unexpected physical responses. Tiny cool drops awake your skin, cold fresh air energises the spirit, the grass is frozen and you love how it cracks under your feet, you embrace the beauty of the territory you inhabit and finally realise how much you have grown in power, not because you now withstand treacherous weather but because you actually embrace it.

However, the question remains, what do you do in winter having to spend so much time indoors? How do you not feel down watching the grey clouds and the darkness outside? The Scandinavians have a solution for that too and the Danes even have a word for it: Hygge. There is no translation in English nor Spanish for this beautiful idea of “togetherness” in a cosy environment, perhaps in a candle lit room, bonding with friends or family, holding a hot drink in your hands. The concept has nothing to do with luxury, quite the contrary. You don’t need much to come together with those you love, to listen to them and share your own experiences in return, to celebrate what really matters in life: caring for each other and being thankful for the simple privilege of having a roof, people that we love and love us back, whilst the storm passes, whilst winter transforms into spring.

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