Lessons from Scandinavia

walk-dont-walkA few nights ago I stood on a street corner near my apartment. It was a little before midnight. The air was crisp, the sky was bright, fir garlands twinkled with Christmas lights. I stood alone, nary a car in sight…and waited for the light to change from red to green.

Shit, I thought. I’m practically Danish now.

Five years in Copenhagen has almost completely erased twenty years of proud NYC jaywalking. In a fit of civil disobedience, I crossed against the light. But the fact that it took a conscious thought to do so made me realize how much living in Scandinavia has changed me.

I’m less competitive. As an American abroad, I didn’t have to explain the notion of American exceptionalism because it was evident in everything I did–or did not–do. But five years in Scandinavia has taught me that competing with myself and those around me? All it does is exhaust me. My kids don’t have six activities each. A day. The older one doesn’t play an instrument. Neither one of them is on the chess club. If there is a future checklist of extracurricular activities they need for college acceptance, we’re failing. And after five years here….that’s ok with me. In fact, if they choose not to go to college, that’s ok with me too. They’re kind. They’re happy. They drive me nuts but they are good, inclusive, thoughtful kids. No amount of piano or extracurricular Arabic lessons are going to enhance those qualities. I don’t always succeed and it isn’t always easy, but I’m learning to place those qualities above grades, above awards, above percentile and rankings.

I’ve admire the way Scandinavians look at the world. Scandis are loosely guided by the social principles of Jantelavn, which places the value on the whole rather than the individual. In fact, those who attempt to stand out above the fold are often looked down upon. It’s pretty much in direct opposition to the way I was raised, the way most Americans are raised–in a culture that demands and encourages you to stand up and shout. I hated it at first. I mocked it. They are striving for mediocrity! There’s no innovation! There’s no competition!  There’s no ingenuity! And it’s true. There’s not a whole lot of that. (Or rather there’s plenty, just not by super-sized American standards). What there is though? Contentment.

I’ve seen how social programs can work. Contrary to what many Americans seem to  think, ‘socialized’ health care doesn’t result in people dropping dead on the main drag on a daily basis. Will you get the same level of health care you’d get with a top-tier US insurance plan that’s costing you or your employer $3,000 a month? Nope. Do you need all those bells and whistles? 95% of the time, nope. Will you ever go bankrupt in Scandinavia because you get sick or are in an accident? Nope. But more than the very real benefits of tax money which pays for everyone to have decent health care is the pride the Nordics have in taking care of one another. They all contribute and they all receive. They are proud of the way they’ve structured their economy to look after one other. Nope, it’s not perfect. Yes, there is fraud. But there is a deep-rooted sense of satisfaction which comes from knowing that not only are you taking care of, but you are taken care of. I admire it greatly.

When you get rid of one, two more take its place
When you get rid of one, two more take its place

I’ve learned to worry less. Kid number one goes to Tivoli with a friend on his own. Kid number two walks to the toy store two blocks away by himself to buy Pokemon cards. The 12 y/o rides public transport alone. They go to the park near our house on their own, they stay home by themselves while we do the grocery shopping. And I don’t worry. It’s not that I don’t worry because bad things could happen. It’s that I don’t worry because I’m not immersed in a culture which is so obsessed by worry it that it dictates every action, reaction and counter-action. And by virtue of marinating in a more relaxed atmosphere for five years, I’ve absorbed it. And quite frankly, it’s glorious.

I’ve learned not to look for answers to problems that don’t exist. I realized this the other day sitting in a meeting which was peppered with ‘what ifs?’. It took some scrawny Danish guy from the bus company who shrugged his shoulders and said, “if it becomes an issue, we’ll address it.” And suddenly…it made sense to me. For most of my life I’ve demanded an answer to ‘what if?’. The problem with demanding answers for issues that don’t exist is that once there is one problem, three more follow. It’s like the Hydra. It turns out when you free your mind from could be-maybe-what if? problems, there’s a lot of room for something like…well, happiness.

scandi-nationsScandinavians have it right about a lot of things. Not everything. But a lot of things. They have it right about the work-life balance. They have it right about vacation time. Scandinavians–scratch that–Europeans think Americans are nuts. Oh, and they don’t give a fig if overworked Americans think Europeans are lazy and entitled. You know why? Because they’re sipping drinks on a beach somewhere enjoying their vacation time. Americans take a perverse pride in just how much they are being screwed over. There is a bizarre sense of I must be heartier, stronger, better because I work more and harder for less. It took me eight years of living outside of it to be able to put my finger on that. And I still don’t understand it completely.

I don’t know where life will take us next, what the next chapter will hold. But I hope that the lessons I’ve learned after five years in Scandinavia come with me, wherever we end up.

19 thoughts on “Lessons from Scandinavia

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    1. It’s not perfect. And as much as I rally around a universal, socialized health care system, that’s far from perfect too. Somewhere there must be a working balance that works for if not all, then MOST. Nothing is going to work for ALL. But there is often a misguided notion that the rest of the world is jealous of Americans, which is misguided. They love America, and what it offers and what is symbolizes, but they also think America as a country and Americans as a people, have much to learn.

      But, on the whole, it’s a pretty hard place to think about leaving.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Interesting post! What a great place to live! I tend to think that many Americans who live and travel abroad are already more open minded than most, but they still represent those “ugly American stereotypes.” YES, I wholeheartedly agree, much can be learned from other cultures.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s funny. There are always trade offs, right? The other day I thought with sadness that it’s likely my kids won’t have any friends that they’ve had since early childhood. Or at least not in the same way that I do. That said, I will take the freedom and independence they get living in Scandinavia, and the sense of pride they take in themselves assuming the responsibility is a sight to behold. Some days watching them blossom in this environment takes my breath away. Then somedays I get yelled at by a Dane for not following a rule exactly and I want to punch someone.

      Can’t have it all, right? ;-).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Technology has helped my son keep in touch with a few of the kids he went to grammar school with in Switzerland. You never know what they’ll have access to!

        I also have several friends whose kids chose to remain/return to Switzerland after college. So….who knows what’s in store for anyone.


  1. We spent 7 years abroad (5 in Zambia and 2 in Jamaica) and returned to the US this summer. I keep telling myself to give it some time to adjust, but frankly, you just named so much of what is giving me angst here. I don’t want to be sucked into the middle of the competitiveness and now with the election results, it feels mean spirited in addition to competitive. I do feel sad that my kids aren’t growing up knowing friends for life, but you know what? They have friends all over the world and they know MORE kids for having gone to 3 different schools already. Maybe somewhere in Europe should be our next stop???? I studied in Denmark during college for a semester abroad and was breath taken by the differences in belief about how societies treat all people. That experience changed my views about what makes a good society/community. Thanks for expressing the thoughts so well.


    1. Most folks I know who have repatriated back to the US have had similar issues adjusting ‘back’. I agree with your last statement whole heartedly, the views of what makes a good society/community. I think many Americans (not all, by any stretch), but many have lost their way a little bit in terms of our views about society and community. I think we used to look after one another, but what I’m seeing a lot of know is resentment between–well, just about everyone. As I replied to someone else, I feel lucky that we can ride it out here for a bit to see what happens in the next few years.


  2. Sounds like a great place for a family. I have similar feelings about the NHS in the U.K., it would be difficult to implement in the US since people are so used to instant service and all the extras they pay for that the slower service would not go over well, even if it was free!


    1. The thing is, only the folks with the best insurance get those things. And they pay through the nose for it (or their employers do), but more that that, what is missing from many is the idea of paying to take care not only of yourself, but for others as well. It’s a massive difference in ideology. I happen to agree with the UK and DK. I think linking health insurance to income is slightly barbaric.


  3. This really resonates with me because, in so many ways, I am the Untypical American. I don’t chase personal glory or power. I prize free time over work time – and actively ensure I have more of the former. I value life experiences over material accumulation. I’m interested in the way other cultures operate since I know the best methods often originate outside the USA. And, of course, I don’t jaywalk. 😉


    1. I think you’ve freed yourself up for a lot of contentment. It’s exhausting to always be chasing the next thing, the next personal best, the next reward, the newest level. I’m glad I’ve been able to take a breather.


  4. As the resident Canuck, with about half of my extended family being American, I think I can offer a comment or two. First, congratulations on picking up a few life lessons that need to be passed on. It’s not only in Scandinavia that you get this kind of perspective. I’ve got two friends in Vermont (near Burlington) that are very good people, very good parents, very low-key and very accomplished, although you really need to dig to find out the latter. I’ve known them for maybe thirty years or so, and they never fail to impress me about how decent they are. They care deeply about their community, participate in it fully, and are very well regarded. If they would even hint at needing some help, they’d have several dozen people show up at their doorstep the next day.

    What makes them “different”? It’s their sense of community, in expanding layers of their family, their neighbours, their town, their region, their state and their country. When we join them, as we do several times a year, it’s not “I” but “we”, it’s not “them” but “us”. I think part of the reason they are as calm and unstressed as they are is that they know they are surrounded by support if they need it.

    The fear of socialized anything, as I do understand that this word is a “dirty” word by the way of thinking of many Americans, brings up myths. All it is, is people in the community supporting each other. It the recognition that no person is truly an island – we all rely and depend on each other. The frontier folk came together whenever things needed to get done, and once done, left each other alone. Many Canadians appreciate our “socialized” medicine, because everyone, regardless of income get the medical care. True, there are all kinds of issues and waiting lists, but if you really need the service, you get it quickly. The long waits are for the elective stuff. Those can be annoying, but they aren’t going to kill you. While the taxes going to pay for it aren’t cheap, we in Canada still spend much less per capita than do Americans (about 50% less). And in Quebec, we get subsidized daycare ($7/day/child), although that too is supported by taxes.

    The other fears that seems to pervade (some) American thinking – we all tend to overendow our monsters. Despite the drum of bad news stories, the reality is that any one of us will need to be rather unlucky to have to deal with any of the problems that we read about in the news. Perhaps I have been shielded by my Canadian guardian angel, but I (and my wife) have walked in many places in the US where people told us we shouldn’t go (without packing heat), even at night, and I have yet to have a bad experience. I have, however, met lots of interesting people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. As I told one of my daughters, what’s to worry about? After all, each and every one of us are living on top of a slab of slag that is floating on top of molten rock, on a planet that has at least 30,000 near-earth asteroids zipping past us, around a sun that could vaporize us if it had a stellar burp. And yet, despite all the could/might horrible stuff, we’re all still here.

    Personally, I’m not going to sweat the details. I’m going to die, sooner or later, and the only thing that will be left will be the memories of the people who knew me, and when they go, then that will be that. If I am fortunate to leave something to the world, then wonderful, but it does not diminish my life to have lived it to (hopefully) the fullest.

    And Dina, if you want the Scandinavian experience back home, you might want to explore Vermont. If the USA ever decides to splinter, we in Canada will quite happily adopt Vermont, although we might have to teach them some Canadian vernacular.


    1. I always wonder if Vermont really shouldn’t be an extension of Canada–proximity alone would account for a lot of the similarities you note. I found it interesting that you likened ‘socialist’ tendencies with community building and neighbors looking out for one another–interesting because that seems to be the tenet of a lot of ‘small government’ proponents, that communities should take care of those less fortunate (and charities and churches–as opposed to the government). I think it’s the word itself–socialist and socialism which scare people. Folks tend to forget that many of the institutions they know and love are indeed socialist institutions (public schools, social security, medicare, the post office!). I don’t know what’s going to happen to the US in the next four years, or eve scarier, long term. But it worries me to no end. I think we’ll stick to the sanity of Denmark for as long as we can. After that? Well, Canada sure looks good…


    1. I wish everyone could travel to different countries (or provinces or cities or states even!) for those very same ideas. Every nationality thinks they are the ‘best’. But Americans? We’ve gone and super-sized that notion like a carton of McDonald’s fries–to or own detriment.


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