Gimme a little hygge

Mid-June in Copenhagen.

A summer rain.

The wind is steady and the air is cool enough for a sweater. The fog is heavy even though it is near noon.

A woman of a certain age sits alone at a wooden table in a small cafe.The interior light is golden and the old stone walls are surprisingly free of a draft.

Her head is bent over an heirloom pink-floral china cup, a dab of frothed milk on her upper lip. Wet hair, a little tired around the eyes, shoulders hunched protectively.

She steals quick glances around the shop, noting the two mothers in the corner huddled over baby strollers, whispering.

Wistfully, she remembers years ago her own daughter jumping out of her stroller and the little black eye she sported afterwards. And nearby, a young man with scruffy facial hair reads a paperback, the title unrecognizable.

And a blonde-braided barista, with a tattoo blooming out of her collar up the nape of her neck, cheerfully glides between the overstuffed chairs and scratched tables, brewing up and serving a myriad of different coffee drinks. And despite her youth, she exudes a mature, nurturing presence as she floats across the weathered pine floor.

The woman drinking her mocha recalls a memory of her own grandmother in a stained yellow apron by the stove waiting for the blueberry crumb cake to bake, long enough for her to poke the toothpick in the center and have it come up clean.

The woman sighs and sinks into the chair’s upholstered embrace and receives the sympathetic atmosphere of the room.

She has come here for the cozy. Or as the Danes say, for the hygge (pronounced hÜh- gÜh).

An atmosphere of warmth and comfort, perhaps even nostalgia. The feeling of being surrounded by family and dear friends, a comforting hug, a genuine sense of welcome, an inclusion into the circle.

There are several reasons why Denmark is rated #1 on the happiness scale. They are all valid, but to me the coffee shops play an important part – they are the heartbeat of this small country.

Like Parisian cafes they create the sidewalks’ mood, three or four on every block, each with its own style and vibe. Most all of them have candles, votives and candelabra perched in the windows.

Many are at basement level with tiny curtained windows peeping out, visible only by stooping down. And some are like thrift shops come to life, with cast off furniture and knickknacks lovingly furnishing the little dens.

Some are laundromats that serve double function, clean clothes and catching up with a friend over sweet rolls and tea. Others are uber cool Danish modern with sleek design and clever lighting also serving wine and beer. One is so tiny it only holds six or seven people, a great little nest for eavesdropping while pretending to read.

And all of them have woolen blankets stacked on chairs ready to wrap around shoulders and tuck under legs when the ocean air is too much.

But all of the shops know the language of the trade, and that is hygge. Their rooms must be evocative of home, or at least what home should be. Because they know that the coffee is only as good as the company you share it with and the motherly indulgence of the person who serves you.

It comes with a warm smile and gesture that speaks to you personally: extra cream? need a blanket? such a mess outside huh – make yourself at home, no need to rush …

To the Danes, hygge translates into many things – it can be a social gathering or family time, a drink or even an object like a certain chair. But candles and lighting are a key element of hygge.

In every season, homes and apartments in Denmark display white tapers or votives outwards to the streets. Originally this was to counteract the dark Scandinavian winters, but now they are year-round decorations.

It’s like their candle glow is an enduring testament of faith in the returning sun, or an invitation to honor an event. Or even just a stubborn flicker of light to announce that it’s Monday and someone’s made it through the day so far.

But on this day, the woman feels all the elements of hygge in the quaint little shop except one. She has no friend, no family member here to sink back on the couch and commiserate with. No one here to say they are sorry about the things that the woman is ruminating over.

The things that are not really big things but are big to her all the same.

Just because it is a lonely kind of day, a day for melancholy.

And this is the country of Hamlet, who we know spent many a day brooding and scheming and maybe exploiting the grey days (and moods) like this one. And of course Soren Kierkegaard, who could also make a case for the value of moodiness, being quite the brooder himself. His grave is actually just a short bike ride from this coffee shop.

Yes these men were dark, but weren’t they also hiding a bright lick of energy, a cock-eyed optimism, a belief in the shine under the tarnished coin? Maybe.

Hygge is not the same thing as melancholy, but I think it allows a space for it. While Americans are not too fond of this emotion, preferring a cheerful, upbeat attitude, the Danes treat it differently.

For them it is not something to avoid, they recognize its inevitability. They see that our sad cycles broaden our emotional spectrum. And that you cheat yourself out of all the good stuff if you ignore the damp, grey moments in time.

Maybe the melancholy illuminates. Maybe it brings the shadow emotions into brighter contrast. Maybe it expands the capacity for all that we know in our complex hearts – anger, frustration, fear, longing, relief, empathy, and joy.

But the woman in the coffee shop needs a hug.Yes, she is having a wonderful adventure of overseas travel and new experiences. But she’s lonely. She misses her mom still.

And she wonders if she has any real friends in the world like the two women in the corner. Women friends who laugh and gossip over a glass of wine and help to share the emptiness.

A sister who makes her laugh like crazy until she nearly wets her pants. An old friend who shared her exact taste in books who she hasn’t even spoken to in years.

And now she wonders if those moments of connection ever really existed or if maybe they were just embroidered memories. Still the woman struggles to sort through the thoughts and events to discern what’s been refracted in the unreliable compact mirror tucked in her mind.

And now she craves a crusty hot rhubarb scone, sifted with cinnamon and dripping with butter. And she longs for her Grammy’s wrinkled hand to hold her head gently while she weeps, burying her face into the tummy underneath her floury apron. Yes, she knows that is exactly what she wants.

Outside the shop the rain lifts enough for the woman to walk back to the hotel. She rises, puts on her jaunty purple raincoat and with a grateful smile to the tattooed girl, steps out onto the street.

Mechanically she moves her head both ways, mindful of the bicycle lane. Another day in Copenhagen, another afternoon of biking and wandering in the parks and waiting to meet her husband after work.

And one secret hour spent cocooned inside a warm, snug shop, savoring a little taste of hygge. 

The woman is pleased to have dusted away her exhausting thoughts but she is still longing for just one more bite of the satiating, delectable experience, to have just one more morsel to carry away for the trip still stretched out ahead of her.

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