Life does not consist mainly, or even largely, of facts or happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever flowing through one’s head. – Mark Twain
Whenever I get set to travel to a new destination, random memories associated with the place start to come to mind, as if I had done a search through my memory bank and the computer is retrieving everything I ever heard about that subject. The flow of memories starts as a sporadic drip, drip, drip and gradually intensifies as the departure date approaches. Things I encounter at the destination spark more memories until there is a veritable flood pouring into my mind.
This amalgamation of memories and associations is a big part of my experience of the place because there is only so much you can see directly on a one- or two-week vacation. That’s one reason why the way you travel and whom you travel with make such a difference to your experience. As with the blind men and the elephant, there are innumerable ways to experience any place.
Take Scandinavia, the northern extreme of Europe. It was the last part of Europe to be settled, and even now is sparsely populated. Norway is the size of California but has only 9 million people, fewer than Los Angeles County. And yet the list of Scandinavian associations that flood my mind are too numerous to list.
To clarify, the definition of “Scandinavia” can be confusing. Even though Finland is on the Scandinavian Peninsula, my Danish friends tell me it’s not technically part of Scandinavia. That distinction is saved for Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
If you include Finland and Iceland, then we are talking about the Nordic countries. It’s a broader category that includes Svalbard, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and the Åland Islands. The Nordic countries are very particular about distinguishing themselves from one another, but to an outsider they have much in common.
Though Denmark is a peninsula off Germany and not on the Scandinavian Peninsula, it is grouped with Norway and Sweden based on historical tribal settlements. Scandinavia was the home of the Vikings, and that is one of the most fascinating things about the place.
The Vikings were amazing! They were the primo explorers of the world long before Europe’s great age of exploration and colonization. They traveled as far east as Baghdad and as far west as America, which they discovered 500 years before Columbus.
It may be that the reason the Vikings got the jump on exploration was because they were seafaring people. Scandinavia is defined by the sea. It’s a water world of islands, peninsulas and archipelagos, lakes, glaciers and fabulous fjords that were cut into the earth by moving glaciers. This makes it one of the most scenically gorgeous places on earth, packed with overwhelming natural beauty.
The belief system of the Vikings, what we call Norse Mythology, is a fascinating world unto itself. It’s a world populated by numerous strange gods, including Odin, the one-eyed father of the gods, his son Thor, the creator of lightning, and a supporting cast of thousands of other gods and critters such as the original trolls. It is an extremely rich cultural heritage. The cultural contribution of this small, sparsely populated region is way out of proportion to its size.
I find much about the Vikings really appealing. According to Norse Mythology for Smart People:
For the Vikings, the world as they found it was enchanted – that is, they didn’t feel the need to seek salvation from the world, but instead delighted in, and marveled at “the way things are,” including what we today would call both “nature” and “culture.” Their religion and myths didn’t sugarcoat the sordidness, strife, and unfairness of earthly life, but instead acknowledged it and praised the attempt to master it through the accomplishment of great deeds for the benefit of oneself and one’s people. A life full of such deeds was what “the good life” was for the Vikings.
With a little coaching, you can still see the Vikings’ imprint on modern Scandinavia, just as the foundation of any culture remains at its core no matter how much is piled on top of it. You can sense that influence today in the attitudes of modern-day Scandinavians, and you can observe it historically in places like the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, and the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway.
Some of the ancient character of the Scandinavians comes down to us today in the Swedish concept of Lagom and the Danish concept of Hygge. Lagom translates to something like “not too little, not too much – just right.” It reflects a way of life based on moderation, balance, simplicity and avoiding the clutter of too much stuff. It’s reflected in the elegant design of Swedish furniture, such as you see it at IKEA.
Hygge is more about coziness and comfort, staying in and enjoying the pleasures of family and friends at home, or maybe in a coffee shop. Both of these concepts are welcome pleasures to one coming from an often hectic and cluttered life, such as myself.
Scandinavia consists of a few sparkling cities and great stretches of wilderness with some of the most awe-inspiring scenery anywhere, and abundant opportunities for adventure activities such as biking, hiking and kayaking. The cities too, with their architecture and its relationship to the landscape, offer their own kind of scenic beauty, each with its own individual personality.
I always find myself looking to the literary and artistic history of a place I am visiting, and Scandinavia has many of the world’s greatest creations in this realm, such as:
Hans Christian Andersen, whose fairy tale heroes, villains and heroines such as “The Little Mermaid” populate the imaginations of children throughout the world;
Edvard Grieg, whose Peer Gynt Suite is the universal soundtrack for morning;
Soren Kierkegaard, the founder of existential philosophy;
Karen Blixen aka Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa;
ABBA, the pop group whose hits such as “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo” flooded the international airwaves in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Who can deny the contribution to the world of such culinary masterpieces as Danish pastry, Swedish meatballs and Norwegian Salmon? You can experience these things at their source today, and the seafaring culture has produced some of the finest seafood that can be had anywhere in the world.
The Farm-to-table movement is thriving in Scandinavia, and sustainability practices are natural outgrowths of the culture. The microbrewery craze has also taken root in Scandinavia and produced a great array of foamy tasting pleasures.
The inventive, resourceful culture of the Vikings has filtered down to us today through Scandinavian manufacturing innovation that has made its mark across the world with companies like IKEA, Thule and Volvo. In Bloomberg’s 2018 Innovation Index, an annual list of the most innovative countries in the entire world, Sweden was #2, Finland #7 and Denmark #8.
Of all the reasons to visit the Nordic countries, perhaps the most inviting is the fact that they continuously come out on top of studies that rank the happiness of countries.
Every year the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network ranks national happiness based on surveys of 156 countries’ citizens and various aspects of living conditions.The United Nations World Happiness Report for 2019 lists the 10 happiest countries as:
5. The Netherlands
8. New Zealand
In these annual ratings, Denmark, Norway and Finland toss the first-place ranking back and forth among themselves. Finland was number one for the last couple of years, Norway before that, and Denmark before that. This year the Nordic countries hold the top four places on the list, and five of the top 10.
These results are far too pronounced to be attributed to anything like random chance and the Nordic dominance of the Happiness Report alone would be enough to draw me there to try to find out: What is their secret?
As we approach the winter holidays, it’s something to think about.
Stay cozy and warm!
Your Humble Reporter
A. Colin Treadwell