(Written in the airport on June 1. I loved Denmark. Can you tell?)
If you learn only one word in Danish before going to Denmark, learn about hygge. You can’t understand the Danes or their uber-socialist utopia without it.
A word lacking a clear English counterpart, hygge is often mistranslated as “cozy,” “friendly,” or even just “nice.” It’s a uniquely specific word that could only come from a country of 4.5 million people, one where a more tightly-knit, collectivist society fosters a special feeling of comradeship with other Danes in particular and quality time with friends and family in general. Hyggelig, the adjective form, could describe a sociable person who gets along well with others, or a room well-lit by candles, or an evening with a small group of friends in which everyone enjoys each other’s company. Hygge even sounds like what it means, especially to the anglophone ear, as it’s pronounced “huuh-geh,” like a Nordic-twanged “hug.”
I first encountered this word in a satirical handbook called The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Danes, but couldn’t tell if the expat British and American authors were simply caricaturing their new Nordic home or if hygge is indeed as important to Danes as they claimed.
Turns out it’s the second one. Two stories about hygge:
1) At the bodega:
As we’re making dinner on Sunday night–I’m doing my part, speaking of caricatures, to enforce stereotypes by baking chocolate-chip cookies–Line gets a text from her sister inviting us to a very special event. For 10 years, her sister has played in an accordian orchestra. While we don’t get the privledge of hearing their concert tonight, we’ve been invited to meet up with them at one of their famous sing-a-long after parties. “You are going to get a very different taste of Danish culture tonight,” Line says, laughing.
The bar where the party’s taking place is on the outskirts of town in what Line describes as a somewhat patchy neighborhood, though we seem to be on a pretty good block. The bar itself, which Line describes as a “bodega” and I would call “a dive bar,” is half-full with smoke and mostly full with the accordian players, whose long table of about 15 completely lines one side of the bar. There is only one accordian, however: everyone else in the group is singing, and very loudly. I can’t understand the words, of course, but the tunes are clearly folk songs in the category of pirate shanties, only the singers, rather than 18th century British sailors, are Danish 20-somethings dressed in tight jeans and hipster caps. The accordian music is coming from the corner nearest the door, where a weather-faced woman who could be 50 or 70 leads each song in a bellowing growl normally reserved for lumberjacks exceeding 300 pounds. Line tells me she and the man sitting next to her are the bar’s owners.
We get a few pints–for the incredibly low price of about 25 kroner, or $4.25, each–and squeeze into seats at the end of the table, dodging the occasional jab of the pool players’ cue sticks. Every person seems to know all the words to every song, and they also all seem to know exactly when to leap to their feet and thrust their bottles of Tuborg into the air. When I ask someone how they know all of the words, he points out that actual words and random shouting are generally interchangable in drinking songs. So I feel free to start shouting along, especially after the first two beers.
The bottle thrusting is usually accompanied, I notice, by loud shouts of the word “Skål!”, the Danish word for cheers. Apparently in Denmark friends do not simply clink glasses absentmindedly at the evening’s start and leave it at that. No, skål is a far more aerobic endeavor, one that, particularly when accompanied by drinking songs, involves lots of arm thrusting and cheerful shouting and leaping around the table to clink bottles with everyone in reach. In a particularly good mood, or after the third or fourth round of beers, a round of “SKAL!” echoes around the table about every 45 seconds. This is the country that gave us the Vikings.
Half of the lyrics are too bawdy for even the unflappable Danes to translate for me, but at one point, Line translates a song line as, “We clink glasses with our friends and we clink glasses with those we don’t know, one and the same.” This is exactly what it is to skål, and I somehow feel like less and less of an outsider inside this circle of continuously clinking glass.
2) Mormor aften:
On Monday, Line’s friends from her university department are hosting a mormor aften or “Grandmother evening,” a theme party based on dressing in outdated costumes and dining on Danish dishes cooked before the Second World War. This sounds so excellent that I bust out a lacy white skirt, found at a street fair in Poland, that could easily double as a table cloth. Delighted, Line gets on a lacy floral-patterned dress to match.
We bike to her friend Maria’s apartment. Inside are six smiling Danish girls, all in their late 20s and also dressed in a collection of similar flowered dresses and woolen pullovers. Knowing I am American, they switch instantly to English when we walk in, a flattering courtesy as I am the only person in the room for whom this is remotely helpful. We chat for a bit before Maria asks us to take our places at the table, which has been set with flower-stamped china, lacy doilies, and, of course, two tapered candles, in keeping with the deep Danish love for candlelight.
Maria has been cooking since 2 pm and she has three courses to show for it: creamy cheese and ham tartlettes, with thick but flaky crusts; rich Danish meatballs and potatoes doused in gravy, with a side of homemade pickles; and a typical Danish dessert of strawberry compote and cream, which is wonderfully dense and sweet.
After dinner, Maria brings out a plate of bridge mix–Line warns me off the liquorice, having seen my expression after having me taste Danish salted liquorice–and puts on a 1950s classic Danish film, whose title translates to The Old Gold. The girls tease that for subtitles, I can choose between Danish, Swedish, Norweigan, and Finnish, then promise to translate. And they do, though little of the movie needs extensive translation. Like American movies from the 50s, the plot is as simple and sweet as apple pie (or strawberry compote): hero’s father gambles away farm, hero works heroically to pay back debt, bad guys emerge to foil plans just when hero has won back farm, hero’s true love is poor so hero is forced to marry a terrible rich woman, hero miraculously finds Viking gold so he can pay off the debt, marry his love, and live happily ever after. The girls translate/reenact the whole movie line by line, which results in some funny language lessons during farm scenes–they are appalled to discover that the English word for a horse’s cry is “neigh,” as I am equally appalled by the Danish “grrn grrrn.”
About halfway through the movie, I get out some of my chocolate chip cookies, saying that it’s something American grandmothers would serve. Everyone pours herself milk from a glass bottle, which Maria has secured especially for the occasion, and praises the cookies in between translations.
After dinner, everyone lies around on the couches and in a mixture of Danish and English, talk idly about their plans for the next day, when they are going to see the Sex in the City premiere together. I try to help Maria and Kirsten in the kitchen with dishes, though mostly I end up standing around learning jokes about Danes from Jutland, the western part of the country.
At the end of the night, everyone gathers up their things and gives me a hug goodbye on their way out the door. I thank Maria for the food and tell her that I have had a truly hyggelig time. She is delighted to hear it.