Sunday, October 19, 2014

Savoring Scandinavia a Second Time

lovely tulips abound in Scandinavia
Scandinavian trolls...in Norway
Bill and I got a taste of life in Scandinavia for almost a month in May and June this year. It is comprised of Norway, Denmark and Sweden and can also include Iceland and Finland. In previous blog posts, I cited the interesting sights of each country. This post is about what I found common, shared, and loved in the region, not the least of which are the folkloric trolls, supernatural beings in Norse mythology, which we found everywhere. And, of course, I went gaga over the rows and tows of tulips in all colors, as well as wild lupines of Iceland that covered the geologic island masterpiece. What a fascinating place!

At a lecture of the Enrichment Voyage we attended, the professor flashed two comparative lists of country indicators, quality of life, democracy, gender gap, happiness and over all human development, leaving the headings blank. When asked where we would choose to live, majority of us (Americans) raised our hands for the country on the left, only to find out that was Norway! The other, sadly, was the US. It would have been quite revealing had a third country been included, the Philippines!

Nobel Museum in Stockholm
That the Euro is stronger than the US dollar should have already been a hint to us. Year after year, Scandinavia has continually scored the highest marks in all categories, garnering the top 4 or 5 usually. No wonder the Nobel awards are given by Oslo and Stockholm, two cities who best know how to live well. We had visited both centers.

offshore wind turbines in Copenhagen
light and heavy flushes
The region’s success is due in part to its wealth in natural resources. Oil, forest and aquatic resources abound. Wood is used extensively and seafood is a hallmark of Scandinavian cuisine. Wind turbines are quite a sight to see off the coasts of Copenhagen, and the North Sea abounds with oil rigs.  What’s more, efficiency in energy use is a primordial principle. Commodes have two flushes, one for light, another heavy. Bicycles are as common as small (and dreamy like my Mini Cooper!!!) compact cars. And public transport systems are excellent and enviable. We always had a choice of trams, buses, trains, or subway systems to go from one place to another. Thus Scandinavia’s carbon footprint is lower than the US.

third largest restored Viking ship is in Norway
street sign in Helsinki
Its success can also be attributed to homogeneity. The vast majority of Scandinavians are descended from Germanic tribes in what is now northern Germany, who spoke a Germanic language that evolved into Old Norse. The Vikings sprang from Norse culture and their influence is seen heavily throughout the region. In fact, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish are related languages, considered mutually intelligible with one another, although Danish is considered much closer to Norwegian. Finnish is entirely unrelated to the Scandinavian languages, yet Swedish is required as a language in Finnish schools. All street signs in Finland have their counterparts in Swedish. And everyone we met spoke English in Sweden; it is required at all school levels.

color in Helsinki International Airport
HTL check-in
I was even more impressed that Scandinavian products are imbued with excellence in design and innovation. Arabia, not at all pertaining to the Middle East, is a design district in Helsinki, the Design Capital of the World, where elegant products are tops in both form and function. Almost everyone that is starting a home in America must have come across IKEA, a Swedish icon in home furnishings. Soon that may also be true of HTL. It is the hotel we stayed in Sweden where the nonsense is taken out of hotels. There are no closets, just cute hangers everywhere, self check-in and and other innovations. Whether it is fences and roofs of old, modern minimalist furniture, exquisite tableware, or even airports that come alive with color, I was very impressed with everything Scandinavian.

my favorite shrimp open-faced sandwich
and Bill's salmon sandwich in Oslo
hamburger place in Iceland
For people who care that the table is graced with well-designed tableware, it is no wonder that Scandinavian cuisine, built around seafood as already mentioned above, is also excellent. The shrimp open-faced sandwich I had at a Norwegian cafĂ© was unforgettably so good! So were the many versions of salmon Bill ordered. Swedish meatballs and German sausages are now mainstays of kitchens around the world.  However food there is very expensive. As a result, McDonalds outlets have long lines and many other examples of American fast food are to be found everywhere. But not as common as Middle Eastern pizzas! Yes, they are having a wave of immigration from those countries/

a beach sauna in Helsinki
the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik
The climate was not as cold as I thought it would be, despite being in the high latitudes and many northern places even touching the Arctic Circle. Summers go as high as low 70s Fahrenheit while winters are mild in coastal regions (20-30s) due to the warming effect of the Gulf Stream. In Helsinki and Stockholm beaches are dotted with small sauna cottages that are separated from the main homes. A common practice is to have a sauna, plunge into the cold water, then return to the saunas again! In Iceland, the Blue Lagoon is the iconic hot medicinal bath and tourist attraction. But Open Air Museums are top attractions in each of the major cities even though they are unusable for almost half of the year.

Amalienborg in Copenhagen
Oresund Bridge
Architecture and engineering are fascinating in the region. Except for Iceland, each country has great medieval castles, just like every country in the rest of Europe. The big engineering feat is, of course, the spectacular 5-mile Oresund Bridge which we saw from the deck of MV Explorer. It connects Stockholm to an artificial island after which a 2.5–mile tunnel connects it to Copenhagen, the largest combined road and rail bridge in Europe. It also seems there is a silent competition to have the most prominent, most awe-inspiring Opera House among Scandinavian countries. 

Reykjavik Opera House
Congratulations are certainly in order to all Scandinavians for a great example of good life! But I still would not live there! The United States is friendlier to tropical me!