Wednesday, January 8, 2014


When I was unhappily venturing into one of my very first Real Life jobs, I was so bored and lonely that I began keeping a binder full of printouts from the internet. I would search for things, places, and ideas that made me happy to think about: co-operative governance structures, for example, which is about the dowdiest fantasy a girl can have, yet made me daydream about the day when I could live in adult housing co-op. It felt far from my then-current co-op housing situation, which had placed me with a teacher's college student who would get blind drunk on weeknights, and a plain-faced girl who eschewed deodorant and worked out in her room (with the door flung wide open) in sweaty cotton briefs. Before Pinterest would come to serve much the same function, leafing through the binder made me feel happy, inspired, far-away from my horrifically dull office job. It was a stakeholder in my sanity.

The first section of the binder is a printout of the Wikipedia page on Scandinavia. (I was big into Robyn at the time.) Being "into" a geographical region is sort of iffy, politically speaking—we tend to look down on people who get obsessive about places like Japan or Africa, because there's a whiff of cultural appropriation and/or gawking tourism—but Scandinavia, which is stuffed full of white people, seems somehow okay. I was fascinated by their reputation for happiness, for their social programming, their physical fitness, and their musical output. Here was a region of the world that suffered much the same stumbling blocks as Canada—brutal winters, a minor culinary scene (Noma notwithstanding), vast tracts of land given over to wilderness, the aforementioned white people—but the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Denmark and Norway seemed cheerful and cozy in comparison.

Take, for example, their concept of hygge. Right now, much of Canada is trapped in what's been dubbed a "polar vortex," which is causing wind chill temperatures in Toronto that bottom out near -35 C and has eaten entire cars. We've taken to Twitter to complain about the cold, staying huddled in our apartments and refusing, for the most part, to leave unless we're getting paid to do so. Two weeks after the winter solstice, it's dark out there. We feel ruthless in our misery, and no amount of morning sun can mellow us. The Danish hygge, on the other hand,  is about "creating a nice, warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people around you." They take pleasure in the company of their friends, in the aesthetic loveliness of a fireplace or a glass of stout beer, the gift of a hand-knit sweater or a well-cooked meal. It's very hard to visit on Twitter. Hygge means leaving your house to seek out good feelings. It is actively choosing to find the people and activities that make us happy.

I also love the Dala horse, a handcarved wooden toy that's become kind of a symbol of Swedish handicraft. They're carved from scraps of wooden, and often brightly painted. They're ridiculously simple, embodying the Scandinavian commitment to clean lines, but also beautiful and hefty; holding a Dala horse in your hand, you get a sense of the wood, the craft, and the time it takes to apply the latter to the former. Scandinavian design is, of course, massively influential throughout the world—hello, IKEA!—and the Dala is a lovely and portable distillation of that design. I would love a whole herd to come galloping through my house someday.

And then there's my little homegrown slice of Nordic heaven, Karelia Kitchen. When I said before that Scandinavian cuisine was minor, I meant only in comparison to the heavy-hitters like Japanese, French, and Mexican fusion. Nordic cuisine, with its reliance on highly seasonal berries, chewy breads, and smoked fish, is a thing of such ephemeral beauty, and Karelia Kitchen embodies this wonderfully. They do a wide selection of inventive open-faced sandwhiches, a lovely lunch menu (the last time I was there, I had fishcakes with a cucumber/vinegar salad), and desserts that melt in your mouth. When we were in Iceland—not technically Scandinavia, but its cultural cousin—we ate dried fish and skyr and felt very much like Vikings; the chance to recreate this feeling in Karelia's warm, Marimekko-wrapped dining room is so welcome. Also, they have the best cheesecake in the city, hands-down.

I'm writing this in a sunny Toronto living room. The windchill today is a relatively balmy -19. I have food in my fridge, a selection of Ritter Sports in my pantry, and am wearing a cozy pair of sweats. Technically, I have everything I need. But it's not quite right: I need to open the blinds, let the light really pour in. I need to meet a friend, engage in some hygge. And I need to keep opening that magical binder up to pages that make me feel truly, wonderfully, good.