As your faith is strengthened you will find
that there is no longer the need to have a sense of control,
things will flow as they will, and that you will flow with them,
to your great delight and benefit.
– Emmanuel Teney
I got hygge in Skagen. Admittedly, my resistance was low. I was vulnerable, susceptible to it. I was jet-lagged and traveling alone, carrying the baggage of flying solo on a trip I had planned to make with my mother, who had subsequently been diagnosed with terminal cancer and was unable to travel. After an all-consuming 25-year career, I was just easing into a new and foreign lifestyle of semi-retirement—that had commenced just days before the economy and stock market plummeted. Yes, I was a set-up to be infected with hygge. And, based on my experience, I hope you catch it too.
I had read about the Danish phenomenon of hygge (pronounced “hue-ga”) before arriving in the country, and came into contact with it almost immediately after landing at Aaolborg airport. Upon first hearing the word hygge uttered, its guttural pronunciation was foreign to my ears, and my instinct was to issue a “Gesundheit!”
I had splurged on a driver to deliver me from Aaolborg to Skagen, the northernmost point of the country. Soon after meeting Kaj, I asked him about hygge, and what it meant to him. He screwed up his face, thinking intently, eager to help me understand.
“Well…it’s the family, around the table, having wonderful conversation. With a fire in the fireplace. And candles lit, lots of candles.”
“I see…so warmth is important in hygge?” I asked.
“Noooo…” Kaj replied. “A snowball fight can be hygge.”
We decided to stop at a small town en route to Skagen, and as we pulled into a parking lot in front of the harbor, I let the hygge discussion drop. Saeby or “sea town,” was a picturesque village that inspired a number of Danish writers, including Henrik Ibsen. His play “The Lady from the Sea” is commemorated here with an impressive statue—its puts to shame Copenhagen’s diminutive “Little Mermaid.” A series of sky blue tug boats were moored along the small port, amid sleek white sailboats and chunky houseboats festooned with floating gardens of geraniums and marigolds.
Saeby was set amid verdant fields and separated from the sandy shoreline by a narrow canal, lined with brightly-colored boats in shades of green, blue and red. Blonde, sunburned families sat at picnic tables outside small takeout eateries, licking ice cream cones. Standing sentinel over this riot of color was the stark white tower of Saeby Klosterkirke, a former Carmelite monastery, the lines of its roof ascending like steps to the tip of its peak, in iconic Scandinavian architectural style.
Later, back on the road to Skagen, Kaj took me by surprise by bursting into song, serenading me at 150 kilometers per hour in a beautiful tenor with a snippet of Danny Kaye’s 1948 song “Wonderful Copenhagen.” (“I sailed up the Skagerrak, and sailed down the Kattegat.”) My initial shock turned into one of unexpected recognition and I felt a wave of nostalgia. My father, now dead for 23 years, had been an aloof and reserved man, with the uncharacteristic but endearing trait of regularly launching into song. Like Kaj, he would sing only a refrain, and then nonchalantly resume whatever it was he had been in the midst of doing. Disconcerting perhaps to the uninitiated but a kind of soothing background music for those used to it. It had been a long time since I had heard this brand of soundtrack.
Kaj also regaled me with bit of Danish lore. He told me of the legend of Thundershield, a vice admiral in the Danish navy in the 1700s, who Kaj called a “devil may care,” with obvious admiration. While in a heated battle with the British in the Great Northern War, Thundershield’s ship ran out of ammunition. He signaled this to his opponent, adding “May I borrow some of yours?” The English commander was so amused that, while he declined to provide his enemy with gunpowder, he did invite him over for a drink, and, thus ended the battle. Fact or fiction, I loved the story and found it emblematic of the dry, deadpan humor of the Danes.
Kaj also humored me with several pit stops so that I could take photographs of the stunning scenery. Over the next 20 miles I saw images so vivid and beautiful it seemed as if they were conjured up on my command—a massive field of lavender stretching out to the horizon, with a simple, stark white cottage in its midst; three compact and stocky Icelandic ponies, in a field of emerald green, heads tilted at the same angle, huge liquid eyes looking directly at me; a charming millhouse on the banks of a stream, the wooden slats of its paddle wheel slapping the water. Kaj pointed out the salmon ladder aside the mill’s small waterfall, designed to help the fish home on their annual migration to spawn. Each of these scenes spoke to me of contentment, fulfilled some longing.
After arriving in Skagen, I was ready to stretch my legs and made the trek past three lighthouses to Grenan, meaning “branch,” the very tip “Top of Denmark,” as the area is also known. The blue waters of the calm Baltic, or Kattegat, lie to the east, and the green choppy surf of the North Sea, or Skagerak, pounds the shore on the west side of Grenan. While it’s light until about 10 p.m. during the summer months in Skagen, the beach was sparsely populated at 5 p.m. as I made my way out to the point.
I passed the grave of 19th century painter Holger Drachmann, tucked among the dunes, thinking it was a lovely spot to spend eternity. I wondered if someone could actually be buried on the Grenan now if they so desired.
I watched three Sandormen—open-air tourist trolleys pulled by big-wheeled tractors—wind their way out to the farthest reach of the sandy point, and then saw a small crowd spill out onto the spit of land. Reaching the headland, I saw I had joined a wedding party, dapper and dazzling in tuxes and gowns, a dozen of whom stood barefoot on the Grenan’s tiny tail curving out into the water. I felt privileged to witness others’ hygge.
Making my way back along the shoreline, I waded through the crystal clear waters with shoes in hand, when a lovely lavender shape floating with the tide caught my attention. I stood mesmerized by the motion of the jellyfish, a species that had stung me as a child, seeing it not a threat but a thing of beauty.
I later learned that hygge has been called the “spiritual foundation of Denmark.” In my ongoing encounters with life’s unknowns, I try to remember my Danish lesson in going with the flow.
For more Images of Denmark, visit my Travel Photos.