As a kid, there was a large wall-sized-map in my church that I would often roll out and look at on Sunday nights after church. My friends and I always wondered why Greenland and Iceland were named the way they were, and, given that we lived in the subtropical state of Louisiana, we wondered how cold it must be in those northern countries and if anyone could survive life (because a mere 28ºF felt awful frigid to me). Beyond that I was oblivious to Norway.
Yes, I knew vikings once ruled land and sea. I knew everyone was blonde and beautiful. And I actually knew Norwegians spoke… can you guess it?… Norwegian. But really, what did I need to know about a country that laid 4,700 miles away?
A lot, apparently.
If I knew then what I know now, I should have petitioned my elementary school to start teaching Norwegian. Having lived in Norway for the last year, I decided it would be smart to read a few books on the Scandinavian culture. While scrolling through Amazon I ran across The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth. Booth, a travel writer and journalist, grew up in Britain and is now living in Denmark (and has been for the last 14 years).
Booth begins his book with a puzzle. Booth has opened his morning paper to see that Denmark ranks #1 in the Satisfaction with Life Index, compiled by the Dept. of Psychology at the University of Leicester. Yet… in Booth’s eyes, Danes are not joining together to host a sing-a-long over Ren & Stimpy’s Happy Happy Joy Joy. Booth remarks that Denmark is a “dark, wet, dull, flat little country” (1). The supermarket checkout girl barely acknowledges his existence (which is one thing Denmark has in common with Louisiana). Booth receives the evil eye from his fellow Danes when he crosses the street on a red light (even though there was no traffic). He arrives home to find a not-so-pleasant tax bill. And we can’t forget that after “infringing the no-left-turn rule,” a motorist threatened to kill him.
From Bernie Sanders to Oprah Winfrey, Scandinavia has been marked as heaven on earth. But are these countries really as perfect as they seem? Booth travels to each of the Nordic countries and interviews prominent political and cultural figures to ask them about some of the darker problems with their respective countries. Throw on top of these interviews some shenanigans such as Finnish saunas, disrupting every Swedish person’s personal bubble, and Icelandic elves, and you have a pretty interesting book.
Denmark is a country so safe that moms can leave their babies sleeping outside of cafes, a country so equal that an 80-or-so-year-old woman can have a jolly evening chatting with a notorious rapper, a country with the highest taxes in the world (between 42-56% income tax – not to mention car, gas, road, property, church, and a value added tax, and more). Despite being taxed up to 72%, most Danes couldn’t think of a better place to live. Why?
Is Iceland more Scandinavian than Scandinavia itself? Is it “too Nordic” (118)? With the freshest fish on the planet, why would Icelanders choose to eat (even try – even make) Hákarl (rotten… ahem… treated shark)? Elves. 26% believe in flower elves, and 30% believe in house elves; only 45% believe in God (139). How is it that a place that can look like both the Shire and Mordor, a place that looks so much like the moon that Apollo 11 moon landings were rehearsed there, can manage to attract companies like Google? What do they have that other nations don’t?
Skiing. Shrimp. Bunads. Friluftsliv (“open air life”). Norwegians have the closest relationship with the surrounding nature (CGI-like fjords as Booth calls them), taking just about every opportunity to go on a walk, to hike, to ski, to simply be wherever the sun is – no matter the heat. Like Jed Clampett, “Up through the ground came a bubblin’ crude” – and overnight Norway possessed liquid gold. Oil, that is. Despite Norway’s strict use of their oil money (using a mere 4% on themselves annually), what kind of an effect is all of this oil having on the Norwegian mindset? Are they really the laziest Scandinavians?
Who are the Finns? Why is their language so extremely different? It ain’t Indo-European, but has similarities to Hungarian (this question isn’t actually answered, but it’s interesting to think about!). Finns are the most courteous of all nordic people and “are fascinated by what others think of them” (216). They are possibly the least corrupt and most dependable in all of the world. How does living between Russia and Sweden affect their lifestyle? How does a Christian heavy metal, horror-monster-costume-wearing band named Lordi win the Eurovision 2006 competition? Seriously, you need to watch this (“Hard Rock Hallelujah“). How do they have the best schools (and all over the country, at that – not just in one area)?
Why does IKEA name its doormats after Danish towns? Are the Swedes more conflict shy then they are rule abiding? Are they really as good at integrating immigrants as we hear on TV? Is it hypocritical for this neutral(-ish) peace-keeping country to also be the world’s eighth largest arms exporter? Is there too much government involved in their personal lives? How is it they can study anything they want to? And why do the other Scandinavians hate Sweden?
This was a really informative book. Booth has a humorous way of describing the mundane, whether it be the inside of a Finnish sauna or a brief history of Denmark-it’s all good reading.
Though Denmark did manage to hold on to Norway for a few hundred years more, henceforth the Swedes would play a far more proactive role in the region’s history, mostly by holding Denmark’s head in the toilet bowl while Britain and Germany queued up to pull the handle (20).
I’m not sure if this book was really more negative than it was positive, or if it’s simply easier to remember the negatives (because it is easier). Booth does aim to examine both the success and weakness of heaven-on-earth Scandinavia, his purpose being to “rebalance the utopian view” which is held by, well, everyone I know.
He also does reflect on the many positive aspects of these societies: gender and economic equality, high levels of trust, social cohesion, life-work balance, etc. The negative views that come up come from his interviews with “leading anthropologists, ethnologists, economists, politicians, academics and journalists” (and from his own experience of the social ills of being weird – a.k.a. not Scandinavian).
No country is nor will be perfect. But, it can be close! But “[a]s Paul McCartney once said when a journalist suggested that The White Album might have been better as just one disc instead of two: ‘Yeah, well, you know, it is still The White Album’” (367). Scandinavia might not be perfect, but it is still Scandinavia.
“One of the things you miss if you travel if you are Norwegian is to just sit on the tram and doze and know it’s safe. That feeling” (202).
- Author: Michael Booth
- Paperback: 400 pages
- Publisher: Picador (February 2, 2016)
- Other Reviews: Scandinavia Speaks Back
(Thanks to Picador/Macmillan for sending me this book!)