I’ve travelled to Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland over the past few years, and I’ve learned a couple things along the way. I’ll share them with you here, but be warned: I spent most of my time in Norway and Denmark, so I’m probably overgeneralizing based on that experience.

I tend to go in the winter or the “spring” (read: winter), and usually find it’s hard to get my bearings. Aside from the wicked jet lag, this far north the light only ever shines at an angle that suggests 10 am or 2pm, and the beautiful dawn and twilight last hours, so I feel like I’m in magical twilight unicorn elf land while I’m there. And who could sleep in magical twilight unicorn elf land?

Here’s some of the stuff I think it might be useful to know when traveling there.

Social Stuff

The US is a competitive culture full of individuals trying to stand out. Nordica is full of communitarian cultures with non-obvious rules for engagement and this weird law of Jante thing that explains a lot if you know where to look for it.

Basically, the law of Jante comes is a concept created by a Dano-Norwegian author for a novel published about 80 years ago. It’s essentially the idea that the mowers cut down the tallest poppy. You might be cool, but you’re not better than us; you’re nothing special; you’re not smarter, etc etc. It’s the dark side of communitarian culture, and it only manifests occasionally, like when you’re stepping out of line.

But mostly, the communitarian nature of these cultures manifests itself positively—people move their stuff so baby-strollers can get on the bus, everyone has free healthcare from the government, and of course there is public money available to small arts groups because that’s the thing that makes a nice society.

Conversation

When I hang out with friends in the US, we take turns telling anecdotes and interrupt and talk over one another all the time—depending on how extroverted a social group may be, interrupting can be the only way to get a word in edgewise.

In Nordica, interrupting is considered quite rude. Instead of focusing around anecdote swapping, in the circles I’ve travelled in, there’s much more of a collaborative conversational element, with talking across the table, and fewer long periods of one person talking.

In the US, where I live on the East coast at least, the pause in conversation is something to be feared. If it lasts more than about fifteen seconds, that qualifies as an emergency. You better jump in there with something, anything—even a super-boring anecdote about how much you just love rubber bands (even if you don’t love rubber bands)—to spare the group from silence.

In Nordica, pauses in conversation are normal, because people like to think before they talk. I understand that in Finland, even longer pauses are considered normal.

These two conversational styles can easily collide with dire consequences. There is a pause in conversation. The American jumps in to save everyone from it. The Nordicans think it’s weird that there’s this long dull story suddenly happening. None of the Nordicans interrupt because interrupting is rude. The American continues with the story, afraid to stop, lest there should be another long silence.

Several of my countrymen and I have shared a laugh over that terrifying moment when you look up to see four Nordic people staring at you, and you realize you’ve been talking for like ten minutes straight because you’ve never actually been able to finish a thought in casual conversation before, and you don’t know how to end a story, unless someone interrupts you. 

Also: You’ll creep people out if you talk about religion before you know them pretty well.

On the Street

Depending on where you are in the states, it can be normal to say hi to random passers-by, share a smile, or at least make eye contact. Maybe you make friends with the lady behind you in line for the airplane. Or tell another lady that her outfit is way cute right before getting off at your stop on the subway. Or stop someone who looks confused and ask if they need directions.

Not in Nordica, my friend.

In many (all?) of the Nordic countries there is this concept of “privacy in public,” which means that on the street you have the right to not interact with random strangers—it’s considered impolite to get up in someone’s business, even if the intention is friendly.

Greetings

“How’s it going?” or “How are you?” are standard greetings in the US. Everyone responds with “fine,” unless you’re dealing with a close friend or it’s an emergency.

In Nordica, those questions are serious questions. So Americans can come across as fake, since we don’t really want serious answers.

In a Bar

In a full bar in Nordica, even when music is playing, you can still hear yourself talk. This is because, unlike Americans, Nordicans don’t shout all the time. Pro tip: be aware of the volume of your voice when abroad.

Oh, also, it’s more socially acceptable to be drunk in public in Nordica. It is in the US in certain circumstances, but we’re often supposed to feel bad about it later and call around apologizing to people. There’s like a special zone of autonomy dedicated to drunkenness in Nordica. And according to a Dane I met, it’s also considered impolite to make fun of drunk people being drunk. So that’s different.

The Magic Words

In Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, the commonly used word for both “please” and “thank you” is tak or takk or tack. There are other words, I understand, that you can use if you’re dining with the queen or Neil Gaiman or something and need an extra-emphatic way of saying this stuff, but in general the magic words aren’t used as much when Nordicans speak in English, perhaps due to this issue with translation.

I heard a rumor that there is no word for “please” or “thank you” in Finnish (though Google translate reveals “thank you” to be “kitos”), but I had a Finn tell me once that you can make requests politely by phrasing them so that the recipient won’t have to answer no and disappoint you. If you want to find out whether this bus goes to the airport, a Finn once told me, you don’t say, “does this bus go to the airport?” because the driver might have to disappoint you. Instead say, “this bus doesn’t go to the airport, does it?” So that the driver’s “no” is a positive thing, surprising you with “no! it does go to the airport!”

Likewise, I’m told that it’s considered polite in Finland not to waste the time of others, so instead of opening with some small talk before you ask for a favor, one simply asks for the favor as quickly as possible. “Can I borrow your car?”

In practice, since these magic words aren’t as big in Nordica as they are in the US, this means that Nordic requests made in English can sound a bit rude “Get on the bus,” or “Get on the bus, thank you,” rather than, “please get on the bus,” or “if you wouldn’t mind, it’s time to get on the bus now please.” It’s not actual rudeness—it’s just linguistic difference, so take it with a grain of salt.

Politics

The infrastructure of my brain is only set up to handle a maximum of two parties, so I find the Nordic countries bedazzling with their wide array. The “conservative” parties often seem a bit to the left of Ralph Nader, and people will tell you with no shame that they are “Marxist,” and not in the literary criticism sense of the word, but actual Marxists, because apparently that is a political affiliation that still exists in the formal sense of the word.

Immigration seems to be a big issue in most of these countries, probably because there is a strong social safety net to protect and some issues of racism.

And just for reference, in the evil Nordic socialist utopias our politicians are so fond of pointing to, BY LAW people get a minimum of four to five weeks of paid vacation each year, paid parental leave that can last more than a year, substantial unemployment benefits, and free healthcare. Oh, also it’s free to go to college and in Denmark, for example, the government also gives you around $1,000 per month while you are in school for expenses. Yeah. It sounds just…horrible.

And fun fact: As countries, Norway and Finland are younger than the US. Norway became its own state in 1905, and Finland in 1917.

Logistics

Mostly the same, but also different.

Mass Transit

In New York, if I get on the subway with all my luggage, I try to sit near the door and let it sprawl out a bit. If someone else with lots of crap gets on the train, tough titty. In Oslo or Copenhagen, if my baggage starts out in the part of the bus dedicated to baby carriages, I must thoughtfully stow it in an alternate location so that it will not inconvenience other passengers. There is strong social pressure to do this. And of course you would, because you’re a good person and not a barbarian, right?

Bikes

Watch those bike lanes—especially in Denmark and Sweden. They look like just an extra-wide part of the sidewalk, smooth and unoccupied, and ready for your foot traffic. Then the light changes and THE BIKERS WILL MOW YOU DOWN. Be safe: Stay away from the death trap.

Crossing the Street

People do it at cross walks when the walk signal is right, and not really at other times. Not like most American cities I’ve visited.

Bathrooms

In the gender utopia that is Nordica, sometimes the loos are not segregated by gender. After the first or second time using them, this really isn’t as weird as you might otherwise think. So get over it. Oh: also everyone calls them toilets.

 Credit Cards

Do you have one of those new-fangled chip credit cards? It’s useful, as it’s standard in most of Nordica. Sometimes different shops will have trouble with the plain magnetic ones that are standard in the US. Especially if you don’t have a pin number on your credit card. (Sidenote: who has a pin number on their credit card?)

Also: if your pin number has more than four digits, you might not be able to get any cash out of an ATM.

Food

I hope you like fish, because in various forms, it’s in a way lot of food. I also hope you like creamy sauces and cured pork products. Vegetarianism and veganism also seem to be popular, but I’m neither of those things, so I don’t know how hard it is to get along.

I love cured fishes and root vegetables and toast, so I get along pretty well. Breakfast is usually a yogurty thing or eggs or some sort of sandwich configuration—open-faced with brown bread and cheese or coldcuts. Yes, they insist on having lunch for breakfast in many places.

Sweden is unique in that “lunch” usually connotes something hot (or so I’ve been told), while in, say Norway, it often means another open-faced sandwich.

Aquavit (um. Strong liquor?) and snaps (aquavit marinated with herbs) will put hair on your chest, and they go great with fish.

Here’s some of the more interesting stuff I’ve eaten in Nordica:

Denmark: Some really delicious smoked mackerel with soft-scrambled eggs on toast…er…dense brown rye bread that has been toasted. (“Toast” means a lighter bread that has been heated). Shrimp on toast with mayo and lemon and chives. Open-faced sandwiches with fried fish or tiny rock shrimp on them.

Norway: Lutefisk, a type of cod that is fermented in lye and then rehydrated and cooked until it’s sort of gelatinous. On its own, it was mostly texture, and not-so-much flavor, but that was cool because you’re supposed to eat it with all these sides—sugar syrup, bacon bits swimming in oil, boiled potatoes and creamy mustard sauce, mashed dried peas cooked with bacon, grainy mustard, and this bizzare brown cheese that has the texture of fudge and the taste of carmel and goat. Texture + sugar + fat + mustard = delcious.

Sweden: Different sorts of pasta with an assortment of things that I wouldn’t think to throw together into a single dish, like mozzarella balls and sautéed beef and butter and marinara sauce, or sautéed reindeer in a creamy wine sauce. Surprisingly delicious, but not what I’d expected.

Finland: I think I ate at the Chinese buffet in Finland, so I’m looking forward to trying something for-real Finnish next time. In the meantime, let’s talk salmiakki, a salty licorice candy that is quite the surprise to an American palate. It kind of grows on you over time, but in the meantime, I had fun bringing a box home and pranking my American friends at dinner parties. The faces they made were PRICELESS.

What Not to Order

I have the sense that so far North, fresh vegetables in winter haven’t been a traditional part of the local food culture. In particular, I’ve noticed they are not big on salads. They might be on the menu, but they are often not the best thing to order. Also, while Mexican, (or let’s be honest, Tex-Mex) is often a safe bet at random restaurants in the US, I’d avoid it here, where it’s often a pale bland imitation. Hot sauce does not seem to be in popular circulation—I didn’t see it very often at restaurants, etc.—so if you love the zip and pep, pack your own.

Bread

You’ll get hooked on all of the delicious, nutritious brown-breads they have in Nordica. American bread, frankly, is a flabby, over-sweetened travesty. It’s hard to go back to it when you get home.

Drinking Cultures

In the US “booze” =any kind of alcohol. In Nordica “booze”=hard liquor.

Different Nordic countries have different drinking cultures. Americans who drink with Norwegians, for example, have to cry all night into a single beer because if you buy two, it’d bankrupt you.

In Denmark, going to be “early” as part of a night out is something like 1 am. You can probably get a Dane to teach you to open beer with lighters, tables, folded newspaper, and even other beers.

In Sweden, someone fed me some lovely local snaps from their hometown, flavored with elderflowers or something, but there are quite a lot of varieties to try.

Finland seems to be about the vodka, though I once went to a Finnish party where we first slurped some fizzy Cool Aid tasting powder beforehand, and then shook the vodka around in our mouths.

Save Your Pennies Before You Go

Everything costs more. Norway is basically an oil magnate, and it is the most expensive of all the countries. I hope you want a single beer enough to pay $10 for it in a bar. Denmark, I believe, has the cheapest beer, I’d estimate something like $6-7. It’s wise to make some duty-free purchases when you land.

At cafes, though, you can usually get a refill of coffee for cheap, or occasionally free, so use that to your advantage. Also, sushi seemed to be a bit cheaper than other fare I saw while over there—maybe since it’s also got that fish action. 

Still, be prepared for sticker shock.

An American’s Guide to Surviving in Nordica
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10 thoughts on “An American’s Guide to Surviving in Nordica

  • May 7, 2014 at 2:15 pm
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    A great read – as a Dane I can vouch for this guide, it is very well put and a lot of smart tricks 😉 The Law of Jante does not count as a general thing anymore and is not taught or talk about much anymore. But there is no doubt, that it lies underneath

  • May 7, 2014 at 3:35 pm
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    That’s a fun read. It is interesting to read about your experiences, when visiting the Nordic countries.

    Btw. we don’t have a word as such for ‘please’ in Danish neither. We have different expressions that might be used (bede om, venligst, tak) and so on, but no term that be used in the same manner as please.

  • May 8, 2014 at 2:43 pm
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    Fun list :-). Now let’s see… “Please” as in “can I have that, please” is “vær så snill” in Norwegian. But don’t claim we are not polite, just because we don’t add “please” to everything :). We thank each other for everything, mainly for the food – “takk for maten” – for having met each other before – “takk for sist” – for leaving – “takk for nå” – for having been your guest – “takk for meg” – for the day together – “takk for i dag” – for the evening – “takk for i kveld” – for having been together in general – “takk for laget”. So no, we don’t do a lot of begging or asking for stuff, because that is considered very rude, but when something is offered, even just some light, social interaction or a conversation (takk for praten) we appreciate it and make sure to say thank you!

    And the trick to getting drunk with these outrageous prices – get your buzz before you go out! If you really want your Norwegian friends to love you, offer some of your tax-free booze as a reason to gather before you go out. Don’t ever offer to buy a round of beer at the pub for your friends though (unless you’re wealthy and really want to impress)! It will ruin you, and nobody will buy another round.

  • May 8, 2014 at 3:02 pm
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    Oh interesting…”please” counts as begging?

  • May 9, 2014 at 3:13 am
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    I was a bit surprised that you didn’t bring up the coffee thing. Or is it just in Sweden and Finland that almost everyone drinks enormous amounts of coffee? 🙂

  • May 9, 2014 at 11:25 am
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    I hang out with lots of coffee drinking grad students, so maybe I didn’t notice?

    I did notice that it is quote easy to become dehydrated because no one seems to drink water or carry water bottles around like I’m used to!

  • May 9, 2014 at 12:06 pm
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    Lizzie – It depends. “Can you please send the salt” = “Kan du vær så snill å sende saltet” is not begging, but it’s a little over the top polite. A gentle lilt upwards and a soft voice does the same as the “please”, also the construction of the sentence – Kan du (can you) as opposed to “send saltet” – which is a demand, and rude.

    If you don’t start with “kan du” you are making a demand, even if you use please. So “Vær så snill, send saltet” is still a demand, even if you added “please”. Not as rude as the demand without please, but still a bit pushy. When it becomes begging is when you ask for something you would otherwise not be expected to ask for. “Give me a map, please” – “gi meg et kart, vær så snill.” It’s a combination of a demand, and a request for the person at the other end to be nice (vær så snill – be so kind), so you actually request both an object, and their charity. If you add “kan du”, you mitigate that, as you give them the option of replying politely “sorry, I can’t, because this is the only map we have” or something similar.

    This is a construction similar to the Finnish, where you avoid putting people in the position of saying no. Here, you avoid putting people in the position of being unkind. Adding “vær så snill” means that by not acting the way you would like them to, they act unkindly, so you avoid it. This also means that “vær så snill” can act as an emphasis: “kan dere vær så snill å tie stille” – “can you please be quiet” – but with a definite air of despair, of having gotten on the person’s last nerve.

    This means that it’s much more common to ask if you can, or they can, do something, or have something. And the assumption is that everybody actually wants to be helpful. If they are not, it is because, simply, they can’t.

  • May 9, 2014 at 7:15 pm
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    Interesting read… Having just moved to Denmark about a week ago, this actually does square with my experience here so far.

    The PIN on the credit card is also common in South Africa, as well as most of Europe.

  • May 11, 2014 at 1:37 am
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    The long weekend I spent in Iceland convinced me that I would need to plan for regular shipments of hot sauce if I were to spend any length of time there, or start hothousing peppers, or something. I don’t think of myself as a huge spice-head, but apparently I’ve become used to a background level of capsacin which was suddenly absent.

    I was also surprised by how salty the food was — everything from chips to fish soup. Apparently Iceland missed the States’ low-sodium craze, and it probably meant I ate fewer chips at a sitting, so it might work out to be a public health win.

  • May 14, 2014 at 3:27 am
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    So if I bring bottles of hard liquor–GOOD hard liquor (like mescal or bourbon) from the States, everyone will love me? 😉

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