by Anna-Cara Keim
When asking a person outside of Scandinavia what they know about the Nordic lands people’s associations seldom reach beyond Vikings, the welfare state, Danish television crime epics, Ikea and popular music. ‘But why is that?’ asks British journalist Michael Booth, himself a resident of Denmark, when he sets out on a trip through all five Nordic countries. In an attempt to go beyond the usual myths and stereotypes of Nordic societies, that are broadcasted by the ‘Western’ media he takes the reader deep into the Danish province, to Malmö’s most notorious housing estate, to Norwegian Constitution Day celebrations and on a trip through Iceland’s twentieth century history.
Denmark has been repeatedly called the happiest country on this planet. You ask why? There are definitely some benefits of being part of Danish society: Danes work significantly fewer hours than other Europeans, the unemployment benefit is generous, they have long summer holidays and flødebolle, a chocolate covered marshmallow treat. The individual Dane has apparently a greater social network than the average Brit and they love belonging to societies or associations. Choirs are especially popular. (And I always thought that they say that about Germany…) There are some more secrets to Danish happiness – one is best described by the word hygge. Michael Booth calls it one of the three “prime drivers of Danish conformism”. Hygge can be translated as cosy – yet, it denotes so much more. All sorts of events are described hyggelig and it generally assumed that everyone present has a good time.
But there are also some downsides of living in Denmark – it boasts the world’s highest taxes: 72 per cent. VAT is 25 per cent and is added to almost everything you buy and don’t even think of buying a car. You will need to add 180 per cent on top of the car’s retail price. Perhaps then it is not a surprise that the Danes also have the world’s highest levels of personal debt. On average the Danes’ private debt levels amount to 310 per cent of their annual income, and the availability of seemingly cheap mortgages has caused some to warn of a collapse of the housing market – and others to describe the Danes as “Mediterraneans in disguise”.
From Denmark Booth takes us to Iceland– a society created from the “very essence of Nordicness”. This author describes it as a curious place, populated by Scandinavians who wanted to get away from Scandinavia. Unfortunately, in our more recent memory we tend to associate Iceland primarily with the banking crisis of 2008, and possibly some stereotypical images of geysers. Yet, until lately I was unaware of the fact that large parts of the Icelandic population claim to believe in elves.
Norway is a very different story and the country is perhaps best understood through 17 May, Syttende Mai – Norwegian Constitution Day. All of Norway will be dressed in regional costumes – dirndls, shawls, ribbons, frock coats and of course, the Norwegian flag is everywhere. Oslo and other Norwegian cities hold big parades where school children and music groups populate the city’s streets. Everyone is outside, looking its best and enjoying a drink. The 17 May celebrations commemorate the split of Norway from Denmark and the writing of the Norwegian constitution in 1814. Some might argue that Norway did not become fully independent until the dissolution of the Union between Sweden and Norway in 1905. However, contemporary celebrations of 17 May have turned into something different – an inclusive and multicultural event. The message: everyone living in Norway who embraces pluralism and democracy can be Norwegian and may celebrate Syttende Mai.
Next stop is Finland – home to Santa Claus and Torve Jansson’s Moomins. Santa Claus lives in Rovaniemi, the largest city in the Arctic Circle that even takes pride in a Santa Claus Village – funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development. Finland, and not at least Finnish language, is rather different from the other Nordic countries. A large, scarcely populated country bordering Russia it sits, as Samuel Huntington once pointed out, on one of the world’s cultural fault lines: it has its share of Christian European history with Enlightenment and Reformation but also that of the Orthodox world, with a tsarist and communist experience.
However, unlike Sweden or Denmark Finland does not seem to have a great talent for self-promotion. Most non-Finnish people would probably struggle to name a single famous Finn or Finnish invention. Wait, isn’t there the Finnish sauna and a popular culinary delicacy made with ammonium chloride – yes, salty licorice!
The last part of this Nordic odyssey brings us to Sweden – a country that foreigners like to associate with midsummer celebrations from the latest Ikea ad. The reader gets to observe one of the country’s legendary crayfish parties, where apart from eating crayfish the main aim of the whole affair is to get shitfaced. Moreover, we learn about Malmö’s notorious Rosengård estate and the on-going debates about Swedish immigration policies, accompanied by the rise of the populist right. However, Sweden is much more renowned for its achievements in the world of gender equality, until recently it even had a dedicated Ministry for Gender Equality. And did you know that the Swedish army ordered hairnets for its soldiers in the early 1970s? So the young Swedish men didn’t have to sacrifice their blond curls…
The Almost Nearly Perfect People is an entertaining read that provides you with curious facts, anecdotes and some bite sized pieces of Scandinavian history. Rather than being a history of the Nordic countries, it aims to draw a more complex picture of Nordic societies based on travels around the region – observed by an outsider, who is also somehow an insider.
European travellers who made it to Scandinavia in the 18th and early 19th century where considered as venturing “off the beaten track”. In those days, comparatively little was known about the Scandinavian lands – and I sometimes wonder whether this has really changed…
Michael Booth: The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle’ (Jonathan Cape, 2014)