The Year of Living Danishly

Today’s review is of Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly, published in 2015 by Icon Books. Perfectly timed to pique the interest of this generation of woolly jumper fanciers and Nordic Noir obsessives, Russell details her 2013 move to Denmark from London with her husband in the quest for a happier life. A magazine editor and journalist, she decides to go freelance and challenges herself to ‘live Danishly’ for a year, whilst her husband works for that iconic Danish toy company, Lego. Her book catalogues the journey of their new life together as they adjust to the Nordic work-life balance, freezing weather, and Scandinavian attitude towards baked goods. The baked goods bit is pretty important. It is a contemporary take on the age-old conundrum of being an ex-pat: would my life really be any better if I lived in a different country, or would it be infinitely harder and more difficult?

It is safe to say that I am pretty much this book’s ideal reader. In my early 30s, middle-class, working in a job which is intellectually stimulating but sometimes stressful, I frequently daydream about what it would be like to have more time in my life to do the things I love: hiking, reading, writing and spending time with my husband and friends. I live in a city which boasts two Swedish coffee shops within 10 minutes’ walk of my house, and I have just learned how to knit my own Scandi-style gloves: friends, be prepared to receive some Nordic knitwear from yours truly come Christmas.

2016-01-26 19.56.30

My Scandiknit handiwork..

My husband even works in a field which is ideally suited to living in Scandinavia: as a glaciologist, you gotta go where them glaciers are, and countries with a polar border have more than the average amount. In fact, he is currently considering a job in deepest darkest (and I really do mean darkest) Tromsø, so a book about upping sticks and moving to a new Nordic life is really, really up my alley. I couldn’t wait to find about how another blonde British women in her 30s, whose career is in the world of books and words, finds the transition between British and Scandinavian living in the early 21st century.

Russell’s writing style is chatty, gently humourous and very much belies her background in lifestyle journalism. Individual works of poetic beauty they may not be, but her sentences are highly readable and trip along merrily as Russell is amazed by immaculate Danish interiors, learns the life-affirming importance of mood lighting, and struggles with the unspoken rules of flag flying. I say unspoken, but Russell is actually presented with a typed and laminated set of guidelines by her neighbours when she accidentally contravenes the strict code of the Dannebrog. Her husband is depicted as the true Scandiophile, whilst Russell’s relationship with her adopted homeland alternates between self-deprecating British skepticism and giddy enthusiasm for its excellent pastries. She paints herself very much as the girl-next-door, worried about her weight and her lax approach to housekeeping and how she’s going to cope with the notorious Nordic winters. She’s likeable, pally and just the sort of person you’d love to have on hand to help you get through life in a strange new country.

20160208_202821As the title suggests, the book charts one calendar year in Russell’s life in Denmark. Each chapter ends with a summary of the things about ‘living Danishly’ that Russell has learned during that month. January is for ‘hygge and home’, hygge being that fashionably Danish concept of wood-fired candle-lit cosiness, during which we learn that Denmark is cold in January, owls are loud, and immigration is not for the faint-hearted. By June Russell’s in the middle of a hormonal three-to-six month nosedive on the culture shock curve, and it’s time for a cold hard look at Danish feminism. But twelve months after arriving, Russell and her husband decide to stay for another year and the book ends with a list of twelve excellent ways to ‘live Danishly’, wherever you lay your hat. Trust more, get hygge, use your body, make your home nice, streamline your options, be proud, value family, be equally respectful, play, and share.  These are the things that Russell identifies as being at the root of Danish happiness, and I have to say they make pretty attractive reading: I wanted to move to Norway more than ever after reading her book.

Russell also presents a beguiling possibility of earning a crust as a freelance writer living abroad. As someone who has been toying with the idea of taking her writing more seriously, it is reassuring to know that someone from a similar background can earn money and continue to work in their chosen field from abroad. Admittedly Russell’s experience is a lot more commercial than mine, but not only does she write lifestyle and comment pieces for a number of UK publications but she also – obviously – pens the book about her daily experiences. If she can do it, might I? Only time will tell…

Want a second opinion? Check out what PD Smith has to say about the book over at the Guardian.

Want to find about more about the current vogue for all things Nordic? Hop on over to AA Gill’s 2012 piece in Vanity Fair.

A Larsson Love Affair

One of the first biographies to fully transport me to a different world was a book belonging to my best friend. Her family were a bit of a rarity for Suffolk in the 1990s: they were half-German,  my friend’s mother having been brought up by her Berliner grandmother. The family spoke little bits of the German she learned as a child, peppering their conversation with words like ‘Bäuchlein’ meaning tummy, instead of the standard German ‘Magen’ for stomach. This caused no little embarrassment when it came to learning German at  secondary school; at the age of twelve nobody wants to be saying things like ‘My favourite animal is a teddy bear’ to their stern and rather austere teacher.

As well as giving us a head start in German baby talk, my friend’s mother also passed on her fascination with Northern European culture. She was a great appreciator of art and antiques, filling the house with books, pictures and other objet d’art with a distinctly European flavour. Once, rather thrillingly, she took us out of school for a day to help haul the family’s paintings and trinkets to a nearby stately home to be valued on the Antiques Roadshow. Alas, nothing was found to be of great financial worth, but her status as a connoisseur of culture was firmly established in our minds.

One of her favourite artists was the Swede Carl Larsson, not only because of the lifelike skill of his drawings but also for his idyllic depictions of family life. When visiting, I loved to sit with the family’s big hardback illustrated Carl Larsson biography,  spending hours pouring over the pictures. The book took the form of roughly chronological life-writing interspersed with beautiful reproductions of Larsson’s paintings. Larsson had a large, messy, happy, creative home and family, both of which provided the inspiration for almost all his work. It was always difficult to choose a favourite picture as I always wanted to be living inside his world, but three strong contenders were:

  1. Namnsdag på härbret, 1898 (“Name-day at the storage house“)

Namnsdag_på_härbret_av_Carl_Larsson_1898

Larsson’s picture highlights the Swedish traditions associated with ‘namnsdagen’ or name-days, the origins of which lie in the mediaeval calendar of Christian saints. Name-days are an important part of Nordic culture and are still celebrated in Denmark (navnedag), Finland (nimipäivä), Sweden (namnsdag) and Norway (navnedag).
If you look to the left of the picture, you will see a tray being carried into the name-day celebrant’s bedroom. On it would typically be coffee – look closely and you’ll just see the top of the pot – and a special cake, just as we would have for a birthday. The children are dressed in traditional costume and bear flowers and greenery and at the very bottom corner is a man accompanying the procession on a violin. I also love the lay-a-bed on the right-hand side: are they a guest who over-indulged the night before, or a teenager reluctant to rise? Either way, I’m very envious of their wooden recessed bed.
You can read more about how name-days came to be at My Little Norway and Watching The Swedes, and find your own Swedish name-day at Dagens Namnsdag. Mine falls on 31st March, a satisfying half-year from my actual birthday.

 

2) Krebsfang (“Crayfishing with the family”)

Krebsfang
Outdoor crayfish parties are a big part of Swedish culture. For hundreds of years, friends and family have gathered together to catch and cook crayfish during August, when the summer sun starts to wane and the beginning of the new school year draws close. These parties take place in the late afternoon and early evening, sat outside those seasonal summer houses beloved of many Swedish families during the long white nights.
Larsson’s watercolour leaves no detail unrecorded: on the table is a pile of freshly-cooked crayfish, which have just been boiled in the big cauldron leaning against the tree by the water’s edge. A bottle of schnapps and a little glass for this strong liquor is to hand, and in the background the whole family is involved in catching the crustaceans with nets, line and pots. Mamma makes a pot of fresh coffee over an open fire, and there is an enticing loaf of bread ready to soak up the liquid in which the crayfish have been cooked. Who wouldn’t want to crack open a claw, raise a glass of schnapps and while away a few hours at the Larsson’s outdoor table?

If you want to get a better sense of what Swedish crayfish parties are like today, then take a look at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s visit to Sweden in his excellent Scandimania series http://www.channel4.com/programmes/scandimania/videos/all/s1-ep1-crayfish-party.

3) Julaftonen, 1904 – 1905 (“Christmas Eve”)

Julaftonen_av_Carl_Larsson_1904

‘Christmas Eve’ provides a seasonal counterpoint to ‘Crayfishing with the family’: everyone is gathered for a celebration, but this time the party is inside and lit by candles and firelight. As with other European countries including Poland, Christmas Eve is the main day for family Christmas celebrations in Sweden.

At the front of the picture is a young woman, her clothes covered with a maid’s apron and cap, holding out a lidded stein full of what looks like foaming ale. On the table are more jugs, mugs and glasses, ready to be filled from the ale cask on the right of the picture. Behind these is the smörgåsbord: a rich feast of dishes which includes a large glazed ham, ready to be sliced, boiled potatoes and what could be a plate of lutfisk, a dish made from dried ling – the cat under the table is raising her paw to signal her interest!

To find out more about Christmas celebrations in Sweden today, take a look at https://sweden.se/culture-traditions/christmas/

These pictures highlight a couple of aspects of Nordic culture which really appeal to me: a strong sense of the importance of family (and a work culture which supports this), traditions which reflect the Nordic seasons, and a love of a good party with plenty of food, drink and fine company.

One day I’d love to visit Larsson’s home Lilla Hyttnäs at Sundborn, but until then I’ll have to content myself with looking at Larsson’s pictures and the Larsson museum’s website (in English): http://www.clg.se/enstart.aspx

This piece was originally published on nordicnarratives.wordpress.com

Longing to Name the Sea

I have always been slightly obsessed with the Nordic countries – indeed, my choice of (serious) partner has always mirrored this to a ridiculous degree: my first boyfriend is a marine engineer for ice-class ships in Finland and my husband is a glaciologist who spends months of his life camping out next to the Greenland ice sheet.

Lofoten beach

Some scenic book reading on the Lofoten islands

At university I spent a summer railing and sailing round Scandinavia, taking the boat from Newcastle to Norway and racing the summer sun up and down the gulf of Bothnia and along the Arctic circle. I rode a bicycle across the Lofoten islands and took the sleeper train to Helsinki, and spent a storm-tossed crossing from Denmark to Germany drinking whisky on a boat train full of German students.

Iceland Hesteyri

An unexpected pancake house at Hesteyri

A few years later I flew to Iceland, the mid-Atlantic meeting point between Greenland and England, wild camping on the remote Hornstrandir nature reserve and slipping down into a crack in the earth’s crust to bath in its heated waters. Even as a child I poured over my best friend’s mother’s beautiful Carl Larsson books, imagining what it must be like to fish for crayfish in streams and eat picnics at midnight in birch forests (and live in a beautiful wooden house decorated by my artist-partner!) My family’s three-generation fascination with Tove Jansson’s books (detailed here) fed into this too – how marvellous to have one’s own miniature island to spend the summer on! You get the picture.

I love wool on a cover, so I do

I do love some wool on a book cover

So when I chanced upon a book which told the story of one English family who moved to Iceland only a few years ago I was always going to fall on it like a hawk upon prey. Sarah Moss shared my obsession with all things Nordic, but has the wherewithal (and academic career) to make this dream of Scandi-living into reality. (My only experiences of the realities of this are occasional shopping trips to Ikea, where my husband scorns the Daim bars and I spend the whole time thinking about the meatballs.)

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (2012) is not a fluffy nostalgia-ridden account of time spent gazing at the northern lights from the steamy sides of a geothermal spa. It tells the real difficulties faced by people who are not Icelandic living in Iceland. First, there are the practical problems: ‘You can’t do anything without a clan, not without spending insane amounts of money.’ Iceland has virtually no immigrant population, and hardly a single second hand shop. The two are not unrelated: as Moss finds out, people are part of small tight-knit clans who are used to looking out for each other and therefore would not think of buying second-hand from a stranger.

The all-defining sea

The all-defining sea

People from útlond – the outsider’s land – are not easily assimilated into these groups, but fortunately Moss has friends at the university who seek out fridges, washing machines and high-chairs from their familial networks. But the way she is referred to as an útlendingur (foreigner) also jars – and this I can easily understand, because when I lived in Japan it felt very strange to be called a gaijin (literally ‘outside person’), and always appreciated it when people used the more friendly gaikokujin – an ‘outside language speaking person’.

Then there is the omnipresence of the Edda, Iceland’s unique record of its own history: ‘Many Icelanders can quote the sagas in the way that 17th century Puritans quoted the Bible.’ Moss finds these gnomic utterances cropping up everywhere – and it unsettles her, because of the assumed unthinking way that they are treated as a true and semi-sacred text. It is the anxiety of influence and the English professor – I have to say, I rather like that literary heritage is so interwoven into people’s lives and speech. Of course, it is true in English too – but this seems to be restricted to smaller phrases which no-one can quite be certain of their origin (my friend SiAB has done a brilliant quiz to test your knowledge on this here.)

A little Nordic shrine at home

A little Nordic shrine at home

Moss certainly doesn’t seem her time in Iceland through rose-tinted spectacles. I’m not likely to move to a new country anytime soon (the thought of choosing and transporting books alone holds fresh dread after the recent move), but I am going to continue my love affair with all things Nordic, as there is the Northern Streams festival of all music Scandi-Scottish here in Edinburgh in a few weeks and I quite fancy getting my fiddle out, or at the very least singing some new songs…