Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
Michael Booth has lived in Denmark for about 10 years with his Danish wife and 2 children. You’d think that he would be careful about what he says about Denmark, so as not to alienate his neighbors, in-laws, the teachers of his kids etc. But no. Booth is dry-witted in his observations of Scandinavian culture, life and politics. He’s self-deprecating while making a concentrated attack on his hosts.
Denmark, the happiest country in the world as judged by a wide range of researchers, institutions and Oprah Winfrey, over many decades, is usually around fifth or sixth on the (Gini ranking) list, the lowest of all the Nordic countries. If Gini is the best indicator of income equality, and if income equality is the key ingredient for a social utopia, then how come it is the Danes, the southernmost members of the Nordic clan, the ones with the highest taxes, the most meagre natural resources, the worst health, the most ignoble history, the very worst pop music and the weakest economy, who are so regularly held to be the happiest people in the world?
I learnt a lot about the history of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden. Finally I understand the complex WWII history and I can stop accidentally torturing acquaintances by asking them questions about activities that they didn’t ask their country to participate in. I also learnt about the oft mentioned Janteloven (a fictional list of rules that Scandinavians abide by – it’s not flattering and hinges on people knowing that they aren’t any better than anyone else), political history (long periods of social democrat rule allowing for the creation of the welfare states), equality and cultural practices.
I think I discovered why Norwegians can be so cheerful and non-confrontational (when not enjoying solitude in their hytta). I think it hinges on hyggelig (cosy and cheerful) and folkelig that dictate most of their behaviors.
I loathe (folkelig). I loathe its whole Dixieland-jazz-in-a-beer-garden forced bonhomie; its lowest-common-denominator, often xenophobic humour; the assumption that all people require from their entertainment is to be anaesthetised by the lazy pastiche of the ever-popular summer review shows (‘Look, a man dressed as the queen!); and all they want from caterers is industrial beer and processed pork products. But that’s just me. Lots of people like it, and I acknowledge that I am a hateful snob.
I thoroughly recommend this book. It’s entertaining, informative and written in a way that drew me through it, like a novel would. I have to admit to a small thrill when he mentioned Trondheim, which is where I’m living on an expat assignment from Australia.
This review in the Guardian summed it up nicely
On his odyssey among the “Almost Nearly Perfect People”, British journalist Michael Booth has managed to uncover a few facts of truly tabloid vintage: neutral Sweden is one of the biggest arms manufacturers in the world, 5% of Danish men have had sex with animals, and 54% of Icelanders believe in elves. None of the latter is likely to increase tourism to the far north, but as the author points out, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark do little to promote themselves.
I also liked this quote in a review in the Telegraph
The real joy of the book is the accumulation of trivia: the fact that there are more saunas than cars in Finland, that in 1971 the Swedish army ordered 50,000 hairnets so its soldiers could indulge the fashion for men to have long hair, that bestiality is not illegal in Denmark (Booth hears rumours of a brothel catering for those so inclined).
Best of all is the discovery that Helsinki has listening posts scattered around the city “with speakers that broadcast poems when you press a button”. Here at last, you feel, is something that the rest of us could envy, and emulate.