Getting ‘hygge’ with it in Denmark

Blame Princess Mary, but Australian is fast becoming the new lingua-wanker of Denmark.

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Explore the hygge
Airport hygge leaves a bit to be desired

We need to talk about Hygge: the Danish word that last year took the world by calm.

Its definition translates roughly into English as “the feeling of a throw rug with cushions and tealights”, or at least that’s what you might believe from all the airport books and Instagram posts revealing the secret of (to paraphrase Will Smith) “getting hygge with it”.

But what’s it like in reality?

It was a rainy Monday evening in August when I had my first-hand experience of the phenomenon. But first, the introduction:

The weekend had been the average debauched boy’s weekend in Copenhagen. We were hanging on the morning-coat tails of an Dansk/Australian wedding (we weren’t invited, but kept running into everyone who was, which was half of Denmark).

Having done all the cultural sites on previous visits, it was a luxury to experience all the other things to do in Copenhagen, which it turns out, are exactly the same things a jaded ex-pat does in any large European city: visit bars in places that make you remember you’re not quite in New York.

Meatpacking Copenhagen
See you inside the Meatpacking of Copenhagen

Copenhagen’s Meatpacking district has replicated the trendy bar vibe of its NYC namesake. That was the easy part, it turns out, for the service was a different kettle of fisk (more on this in a minute).

In one bar, NOHO, staff hovered over us like surveillance drones, collecting glasses the second the empty drink hit the wooden table, awaiting to fill the next order.

Cocktails were cheaper by the pitcher, which sounded great in theory, until we realised the only ones applicable had names such as Raspberry Smash, Lemon Heaven, and Sweet Jesus Don’t Tell Anyone We Ordered This. The least-sweet option was the Raspberry Smash. We sucked up our pride, and the sugary concoction soon after.

Seeking more or a rock vibe, we moved on to Jolene, a lesbian bar run by Icelandics. Well, it was certainly run by dicks.

“I’ll have six fisk,” I said, referring to the local speciality which is essentially a shot of vodka with eucalyptus, menthol and liquorice, that tastes like Fisherman’s Friend.

He poured six drinks into plastic shot glasses on the bar.“Skal!” I said.

“This is whisky. I don’t drink whisky,” said one of the Australian girls we had met up with.

“Excuse me,” I said to the bartender, “I ordered six fisk, and you gave me six whisky.”

“No, you ordered six whisky.”

“I think I know what I ordered, and it wasn’t a shot of whisky.” Making friends is hard in this city, whether Fishermen, barmen or otherwise.

Dive bar toilets have seen it all
The toilets are freshly painted every day

Time to move on, the next destination was Mesteren & Lærlingen. The toilets here definitely fit the description of dive bar, though not one frequented by professional divers judging by the splash around the edges.

It was on the terrace here that an old friend from Paris recognised me. Despite being 15° cold, his shirt was unbuttoned to his navel, and he was wearing a foulard. I’m surprised I hadn’t recognised him first.

“How do you not feel cold with your shirt half open?” my Australian friend asked him.

He thought about it a split second, and simply replied: “French.”

Just like his buttons, the night went downhill from there.

Sunday was our hungover cultural day, which meant an excellent set of exhibitions at the Charlottenborg museum. It was a series of entirely watchable art films, which is virtually unheard of.

(Later than night we continued our cultural tour by watching Mission Impossible Fallout. An entirely watchable Tom Cruise film, which these days is also virtually unheard of.)

Charlottenborg Museum
There’s not quite something for everyone at the Charlottenborg

Blame Princess Mary
The waitress in the Charlottenborg café gave us menus and we ordered three beers. “I don’t speak Danish,” she said, unapologetically, in a blunt Australian accent. Blame Princess Mary, but Australian is fast becoming the new lingua-wanker of Denmark.

Monday brought more rain. We traipsed into town to buy stereotypical Danish design products from Hay, drank expensively cheap Sancerre, and said farewell to my travelling companion.

Cold and a little drunk, I was feeling spent. My credit card was too, so when two Danish friends invited me for a cosy hygge dinner, I willingly obliged.

I've got designs on your apartment
I’ve got designs on your apartment

Proving that an apartment’s furnishings can be a good reflection of its occupant, their apartment was beautifully turned out, droll and welcoming.

They’d lit candles on their teak dressers, and soon the lasagna was served in a large glass tray, which we scooped up in large slices and washed down with Norwegian beers.

Sitting back in our classic leather and wood design chairs, I covered myself with a warm blanket. My friends cuddled on the couch. It was the Instagram image of hygge.

But it would be remiss to focus solely on the visual aspects of hygge. A picture tells a thousands words, but also ignores a thousand sounds and smells.

What was going on under the blanket three-days’ worth of stodgy food and excessive beers worked their way through the system, creating a Danish oven experience.

Meanwhile my friends were cracking sarcastic jokes and each others’ toes with equal fervour.

With the new memory fond and fresh in my mind Tuesday as I walked through the bookshop in Copenhagen airport, I skipped over the photo essays of hygge, and skipped straight to their hygge audio books instead.

A road-trip through Norway with my influential Fjord escort

Unfiltered waters of Lovatnet
Fjords are excellent for unfiltered waters, and heavily filtered photos.

When the question is “Where should we go for a cheap holiday?”, the answer is rarely “Norway.”

We were two unemployed Australian journalists… or as the current job market might have it, “content copywriters looking for new opportunities”. And, an opportunity had just arisen, in the form of a free week between other holidays, to discover the riches of Norway.

Of course, a trip to the fjords isn’t without its own specific challenges.

The first problem with the fjords in Norway we discovered, is getting there. Quickly disabused we had the money to travel by cruise ship, we opted for more extravagant means…

Before looking into car rental, I’d just assumed the only car that would get you to West Norway was a Fjord Escort (boom boom!). As we sat in the rental agency in East Oslo, we contemplated the upcoming 1000km journey in the car I’d reserved: a Toyota Yaris…

“Lift up your spirit with a Yaris,” claims Toyota’s promotional material. Anywhere else but Norway are there better and cheaper pick-me-ups available on virtually any street.

Lucky then, the car rental agency came through with its first piece of luck: the Yaris was unavailable (a visiting Saudi royal perhaps?), and we would have to be upgraded to a BMW.

Set to go, with our bags in the boot, and a full cup of coffee forgotten on the roof, we encountered our second problem with Norway’s fjords – there’s a hell of a lot of them.

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How do you know the best one to visit? I’d seen promotional material from Air France for Stavanger, but the risk of meeting someone French was too great for this to be a reliable holiday option.

What else then? Geiranger? This one stuck in my head…but again, that was mainly from cruise ship publicity, and my own love of reading articles that rubbish cruise ships (of which David Foster Wallace’s ‘A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again’, and Jon Ronson’s are two stand-out examples from a strong field).

On the ground, we heard that Geiranger was population 500 locals, 3000 tourists. Not to mention cruise ships so big that the ground deck is level with the shore, and the top pool deck and tennis court on par with the cliff top.
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Kate though was an Instagram junkie, and through extensive research had come across a smaller, lesser-known fjord encircling lake Lovatnet.

While the sunlit instafilters painted a delightful picture of the place on social media for Kate, mine was a more macabre interest.

A few years earlier I had watched a Norwegian disaster film, The Wave, about a town on the fjords that was wiped out when a chunk of the mountain had collapsed into the water, created an enormous tidal wave. As it happened, two villages nearby, Bødal and Kjenndal suffered such a fate in 1905 and again in 1936. Building your village too close to the shore once could be considered unlucky. But for it to happen twice, that’s just tragic. (Here’s a succinct account of the story.)

Upon arriving however, it was clear the allure of building by the water. The Lovatnet and other lakes are filled with meltwater from the nearby glaciers, lending them a tropical emerald hue. Forgive me as I reach for my thesaurus to describe water of colours I’ve never before seen, but judging by the comments on Instagram I later received, I would now describe them as “envious green”.

The water was also delicious. To taste perfection, dip your bottle into the lake for some perfectly, icy pure water, the likes of which I’ve seen sell for 50 euros a bottle in Bon Marché.

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Kate, a dab hand at social media, was quick to see the opportunity. She downloaded a series of photo filters specially designed for the Lovatnet area, which made the colours pop even more strikingly. And striking is the right word, as that also describes the approach we took to posing.

Barely a landscape could be appreciated without it being captured on screen from several angles (most of which were identical), given an even more dramatic filter, and uploaded for the envy and vicarious living of our stuck-at-home friends.

If Kate had a library of filters, she had global database of poses. All of these were variations on her walking, skipping or turning seductively in front of a 100,000 year-old geological wonder.

My favourite was the one I call “airing the armpits”. You walk 5 metres in front of the camera, and lift your arms up as if you need to aerate them surreptitiously (not far from the truth TBH – we were camping after all).

Another, self-explanatory post, is the “look-back turn”. It starts with a forward walk, then just as the camera is about to click (for the hundredth time), you suddenly turn as if someone had called your name (but who? Remember, the premise for social media is that you are all alone and at one with nature.)
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Kate made it all seem easy enough, so I decided to give it a shot. But my forward walk looked like a cowboy learning to walk in high heels, and the airing my pits made me look like a hypnotist had turned me into a chicken.

So instead I tried variations on a yoga pose. Having only done yoga a few times my references were meagre, so there ended up being a lot of downward dog on the rocks.

I combined these with some gym routines from my weekly circuit class. Some squats, a few pushups, and some planks with a leg in the air. The results on camera were instantly better than anything I’d achieved at the gym for the past 6 months.

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The last difficulty we had with our road trip was accommodation. Prices in Norway, as most people not from Norway are aware, are enough to make your eyes water. So much so, that if I hadn’t read lake Lovatnet was filled with meltwater, then backpackers’ tears would be my second guess.

The solution was to camp. I had brought with me a two-person tent. Being 193cm tall, and Kate not far off that, we were going to be stretching its technical specifications.

The tent was lightweight, and so too it turned out, were we. I woke up alone in the tent on the Wednesday morning, Kate having bolted in the night for the relative comfort of the BMW where she wedged herself in like a banana (at last! Something resembling fruit in Norway!). We subsequently dubbed it the Bedroo-M-W, and Kate spent the remaining two nights there, while I slummed it in the tent.

Still, the photos reveal none of those stories. Sometimes, social media is best enjoyed like some of that cool glacier water. Unfiltered.

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Finishing Kungsleden: the aftermath

 

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So what do people do after the Kungsleden? It depends, but again, there is a definite theme.

Tormund from GOT-henburg, who I met on Day 1 and had walked for 23 days, was going to spend the week eating pizza and enjoying a real bed. “And maybe I’ll eat pizza in my bed.”

A Finnish guy meanwhile was heading to Gotland to enjoy Medieval Week, when you dress up like Vikings and drink mead.

“Then I’m going to do what we call ‘underpants drinking’. There’s even an official word for it in Finnish: ‘Kalsarikännit’.”

We also met an elderly trail runner. She had done the Fjallraven Classic in 72 hours, though the best do it in 12-13 hours…that’s more than 100 kms of running over very rough terrain.

For us, we headed to Kiruna and took the Arctic Circle night train back to Stockholm.

Obligatory train window shot
Obligatory train window shot

Kiruna train station is quite the make-do affair, and as a result there was no food to buy in advance of the journey. It’s because the town is in the process of being moved, train station included.

The massive mine that forms the centre-piece of the town has gone so far below the surface that some of the infrastructure, such as heavy rail, is no longer safe. The town has been literally undermined.

We had booked out a three-bed cabin to ourselves. Despite a week in the wilderness, it was the first time we’d had to ourselves.

The Arctic Circle train, which takes 15 hours, is one of the great train rides of Europe. You can shower onboard, sleep in comfort, and all the while take in the magical scenery which consists mainly of forests, lakes, and forests by lakes.

I woke up freshly showered and shaven, having slept 7 hours without disturbance, put on some clean clothes and sandals, and got a coffee from the dining cart.

It was just as shit as anything I’d drunken in the mountains, but fuck me it was great to be back in town.

DAY 7: Kebnekaise mountain station to Nikkaluokta: meeting Kapten Hilarity

For the last 19km of the classic route, there’s a ferry you can take across a lake that takes care of 6 kms of hiking. Even if the trail was easy by now, our legs were still tender from the climb yesterday.

We made the 11:15 boat departure, having stopped briefly to admire a moose on a plain in the distance. In this last vestige of real wilderness in Europe there is wildlife in abundance, but you need binoculars to see the best of it.

I baggsed a spot on the boat.
I bagsed a spot on the boat.

“Is this the boat to Nikkaluokta?” I asked the young man wearing a hat that said Kapten

My own hat said “Stripclub Veteran”, so it wasn’t a given that he actually was a captain or in charge of the boat.

“No, this is going to Kebnekaise.” We were crestfallen.

“Just kidding! Throw your luggage on board.”

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Just my luck to find the last living troll in Sweden. But more hilarity was to come.

“Is there a discount for STF members?” I asked once on board. The STF card is widely used by hikers, giving members a 10% discount on most accommodation, some items from the store, and train travel.

“Only if you work here,” the Kapten replied.

“Ok, so give me the keys and I’ll drive.”

The boat ride was expensive, 350 kr, but the views it afforded of the mountains as we exited up the turquoise glacier lake were splendid indeed.

We disembarked at the other end to find a restaurant serving “Lapdanalds” reindeer burgers and cloudberry waffles. After a week of dehydrated food, even defrosted meat, old coleslaw and a stale bun was a taste sensation.

Serving reindeer burgers
Now serving reindeer burgers with flies.

DAY 6: Climbing Mt Kebnekaise: Keb-knee-crazy…

The walk to the summit of Kebnekaise is 18kms return, and takes on average 10-14 hours. Thanks to the midnight sun, there is little risk of returning before dark if it takes longer than expected, so long as you complete it before September (in which case, you’re really, really slow).

The weather was fine but cold, and with a strong wind of 10-14 metres/second. Our roommate advised us to check the Norwegian or Danish weather forecast instead.

“They say the Danish meteorological service has ‘better’ weather,” he explained.

He thought about this for a moment, then added: “Though I’m not sure if that means better as in ‘more accurate’, or better as in ‘always sunny’. That would definitely be my definition of better weather.”

Mt Kebnekaise, Sweden's highest peak?
Mt Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest peak?

We forewent our regular oatmeal breakfast in favour of the buffet option in the hotel. We had eaten the similar offering in Abisko, which had been hearty, healthy and delicious.

We arrived at the dining hall – “Elsa’s Kitchen” – at Kebnekaise to a scene reminiscent of feeding time at the zoo. For a realistic interpretation of what it’s like to lower a zebra carcass into a pen of lions, just put some cheese and bread rolls in a basket in front of some Swedes and leave a sign out that says “All You Can Eat”.

Guys were piling their plates with upwards of 8 bread rolls, each. With no coffee cups left, people were resorting to drinking out of egg cups. Even the large serving bowl of sour yogurt called filmjolk, which is the definition of acquired taste, was scraped dry by Swedish day-trippers loading up their stomachs and lunch packs for the climb ahead.

I’d seen school dining halls that were better organized and better behaved, and those had been in Sweden. Even the wolverine from Day 2 had managed to keep the reindeer carcass spread within a 3-metre radius of where he ate, and had had the good manners to neatly impale the head on a bushel once he was finished.

Clearly some matronly discipline was in order. I took a big slurp of coffee from my apple juice glass, and pushed my plate aside. Discipline could wait: there was a mountain to climb.

We were on the trail by 7:30, and on the right trail by 8:00.

The sun was already high, but the temperature was a chilly 6°. Thanks wind chill factor you dick. I was marching in a long-sleeved merino shirt with integrated hood, some snazzy zip-off gaiter-pants, and a merino wool snode.

Where bad fashion is always in fashion
Sweden has banished bad fashion to its remotest outreaches.

A snode is a circular scarf that can be worn around the head as a beanie, the neck as a scarf, or something between both, if you want to look like a Pashtun goat-farmer. Snodes can do anything; anything that is except make you look well-dressed. Still, according to the rules of mountain and hiking attire, anything goes, so long as it doesn’t go together.

What the other blogs don’t make apparent about climbing Kebnekaise, is that it’s actually bloody hard work. The 9 kilometres is almost exclusively upwards, except for the parts which are a steeply downwards, and the ground is always loose rocks.

You need good quads and thigh strength to lift you legs over the rocks and avoid tripping. There is also a false hope on the Western route. You climb and climb, thinking you’ve reached the summit, only to realise you need to descend again, then climb up even further.

When we finally reached the summit, the mountain still refused to make things easy. For this part we would need to strap on crampons we hired at the mountain station (130 kr for left and right feet – bargain!).

I was skeptical about needing them initially, but when I saw the icy ascent on the glacier to the summit, with about 5 metres of visibility, they were definitely worth it. Some guides had affixed a rope which I clung to, for dear life, and edged up.

I’m glad for the lack of visibility, as the vertigo would have been paralysing. Apparently the summit is a tiny 2-metre wide ridge, which steeply drops at both sides. I took a selfie then got the fuck back down.

Can I get a K?
Can I get a K?

It was now about zero degrees, and I wished we’d brought a thermos or cooking stove to warm some noodles or soup. But once we made it below the cloud-line, the view was superb. Stunning vistas over glaciers and snow-capped peaks well into Norway. 2.5 hours later, and a bum slide down a section of snow to avoid yet more rocks to descend, we made it home.

But there were more surprises to follow. Only then did we learn that, due to the unseasonal heatwave, the highest, snow-capped Southern peak, which we had spent 10.5 hours climbing, had melted 4 metres since July, and as such was no longer the tallest point of Sweden…

We also heard that trains from Kiruna were being cancelled due to the fire risk they posed from the sparks on their brakes. But by this stage the only thing burning in the immediate moment was my legs.

Back at the hut, we exchanged war stories with the others who’d tackled the mountain. One had turned back early on – despite his incredibly buff torso and biceps, his weak knees couldn’t stomach it.

Another guy had spent an hour helping a woman down from the very first ascent. She had been petrified – literally turned to stone – from fear. And if there’s one thing the mountain didn’t need, it was more stones.

Later in the mixed sauna, yet another well-built 50-year-old threw water on the coals, and told us about his day.

“My wife, she suffers a little from vertigo, so I left at the first ascent so that we could summit with my son. I made sure she was with a friend – I certainly would never leave my wife alone to climb a mountain…”

Sorry to pour some cold water on that mate, but that’s not what I’d just heard.

DAY 5: Singi to Kebnekaise mountain station: back to civilisation?


“What’s the weather forecast tomorrow?” I asked a hut warden at Singi. It had been bright and sunny all day, despite a prediction of cold and rain, so I had grown to become skeptical of anything I read (Fake Weather!).

“We didn’t receive the nightly read-out as we don’t have battery at the moment in this hut. But we might again in 20 minutes.”

“It’s just that, I heard it will be terrible weather tomorrow,” I persisted.

“Why do you want to know? You can’t do anything about it, and in any case you’ll be leaving here tomorrow before 11am and going on to your next hut.”

I couldn’t fault her logic. It’s like what they say about England: everyone loves talking about the weather, but no-one can do anything about it.

I discussed my encounter with Swedish fatalism back in the dining hut. “She said the same thing to me,” replied a French guy.

The forecast was clearly dry on her humour front.

3am at the Kebnekaise mountain station
Up next at 3am, it’s… dawn.

But the weather was playing on my mind. On Day 5 we had not secured accommodation at the Kebnekaise Mountain Station hut, which meant we would have to camp.

The last forecast I’d seen was for showers all day, and overnight temperatures just above zero. This did not sound like fun.

We decided to make the 14km walk as quickly as possible, and hope for a free room. The route had a short, sharp incline, then a steady descent past small mountain lakes, dark cliffs with high, narrow waterfalls at regular intervals. The sky was overcast, but it never rained beyond light drizzle.

We entered a rocky valley, following a river, where we cooked some noodles on our fancy stove on a rock. The ramen noodles cost 3 euros, and the stove 120, so I calculated the cost of the instant noodles to be 63 euros per serve. So it was basically like eating out in Stockholm.

Small shrubs began to reappear (the plateau had been rocks covered in lichen and moss), and we passed an increasing number of hikers.

About 2kms from Kebnekaise station, the first tents began to appear. Soon these would become a feature of the landscape. A helicopter buzzed back and forth, carrying heavy loads affixed with a cable underneath. There was no doubting that Kebnekaise was a popular place.

We finally reached the mountain station. In contrast to the modest huts we had stayed in the past 4 nights, the station was expansive, comprising numerous lodgings, a large hotel area with dining rooms and reception area, and another building dedicated to hiring out gear, equipped with separate male and female saunas, each the size of a large Parisian apartment. We had been prematurely brought back to civilisation.

At reception we were lucky: there were two beds that had become free. What luck! The lodge could take upwards of 200 people, though in bad weather they found a way to put the campers indoors (though in-hallways or in-corridors would be a more apt description).

“It’s not like you can just go to the next place down the road,” the receptionist explained.

We would be in a 4-bed dorm in 16-bed cabin. The price? 1000 kronors per night. Per person. This was twice what we’d paid in Stockholm. So, what did the price of luxury entail?

As far I could work out, the difference between huts on the Kungsleden trail, and at Kebnekaise station were:

  • Running water
  • Induction stoves
  • Flushing toilet
  • Kitsch art on the wall

The clientele was also different. Whereas Kungsleden had hikers and outdoor types typically spending 5-10 days and sometimes more, most of the lodgers at Kebnekaise had come for the weekend, with one goal in mind: to reach the summit of Sweden’s highest mountain, Kebnekaise…

Our cabin mates were either upwards of 40, or pretending they weren’t yet 60. The style was best described ‘carrion dressed as mutton’. Broad-shouldered, bald guys, with thick biceps covered in tribal tattoos. Remember that craze? I can now inform you it didn’t age well.

“Do you have any scissors I could borrow?” one guy asked me.

“No, but I have a knife.”

“Is it sharp?”

“Yes,” I said as I passed it to him.

“Thanks. I need to perform some surgery on my foot.”

I vomited a bit in my mouth, but it was too late to take the knife back. I had been using it to cut sausages all week. Now it sounded like he was going to remove a gangrenous toe.

Day 4: Salka to Singi: boots tougher than nails

Time was that Sweden built bunkers and military camps across this entire region to guard against German troops attacking their precious railroad for transporting ore. We passed close to the remnants of some outside of Abiskojaurestugorna on Day 2.

How times change. I was talking to the Singi hut warden, Jan, at the end of relatively modest day’s hiking.

“I wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for Germans,” he said.

Germans are the number one international hikers on the trail, followed by Dutch (in their August vacay), and some Belgians.

Looking for German hikers
Looking for German hikers

Singi camp was only 12 kms further from Salka, which was all we could have managed given yesterday’s 25km effort. But it was over almost entirely over stones and boulders, and my shoe sole was very literally worse for wear.

In addition to being an unofficial diplomat, Jan was also an expert shoe-maker, and had his own business in Stockholm. He looked at my shoe and told me to come to his hut after dinner.

There were three wardens when I arrived, cap in hand, and broken boot in the other.

He rummaged for a few seconds and pulled out 5 garden variety household nails. These he roughly hammered around the edges of the sole, and then stuck a strip of silver gaffer tape around the heel.

Thanks to the nails the sole would no longer flap against the stone, but clickety-clack like a tap-dancing shoe.

“If they have Gorilla glue at the next hut, use that, it’s stronger,” said one of the other wardens.

“And if that doesn’t work, let me guess, I throw them out?” I offered.

“Yes. Or sell them on eBay.”

Today it was time to trial the Primus jet boil stove I’d bought in Abisko tourist station (cheaper than renting an old Trangia for a week…go do the math on that?!).

A word of warning: while a watched pot never boils, an unwatched jet boil will do so almost immediately. This thing was so fast and effective it could cook a slow-roasted lamb in under 9 minutes.