Letters to Home: It’s a Great Big 'Hygge' World Out There
December 4, 2016
by Tara Gilbreth
Just because giving thanks doesn’t have its own holiday adorned with turkey, American football, and a 5 pm nap, it doesn’t mean that the Danes don’t know how to be thankful. In fact, I was able to find a whole new meaning of Thanksgiving in a country that doesn’t even celebrate it. Stepping off the plane from Paris (my last grand European weekend getaway of the semester) and arriving back in the comfort of Denmark, which now feels like a second home, hit me like a ton of bricks. Though this feeling is usually associated with the bone-numbing cold this California college girl still can’t seem to dress properly for, something was different this time. It was like that split-second feeling of total rationality when you wake up from a dream in the middle of the night and you don’t know whether you're still asleep or awake, when suddenly everything makes sense. I guess the realization you have limited time left tends to do that to a person. It’s a feeling you can’t quite put into words, but a unique and exclusively Danish word might come close.
“Hygge” (pronounced something like the “hu” in “huge” + “guh.” My host sister says I say it “like an American,” with too much energy, and that I need to say it like I’m bored) roughly translates to coziness and comfort. For my host family, hygge is sitting in the sun with your feet up and a good book, drinking some chilled rosé after work, a candlelit Friday night dinner paired with a nice bottle of red wine, or after-dinner coffee while sitting together in the living room and watching a movie. It’s the warm, wholesome feeling of belonging and enjoyment when you are absolutely present and content in the moment.
I’ve often thought about how Americans can’t fully understand hygge. We are so busy looking to the future that we often forget to experience the present. I must admit, my type-A personality and partiality for control also make me guilty on all counts. Because we stubbornly see the world though our own lens, we don’t see the world as it is, but as a blurred projection of our own values. Danish hygge is about seeing the beauty in everyday experiences, even in the smallest and the most seemingly insignificant things. The moment I stepped off the plane, realizing I only have two weeks left, I finally understood the importance of that word. Hygge not only makes you slow down, but also reminds you to give thanks for each and every little victory.
Since landing in Frankfurt on August 3, my world will never be the same. Over these past four months, the world has opened up to me in ways I didn't know were possible, and for that, I am humbled and thankful. Don’t get me wrong, I am so excited to be back at CMC, where the culture is familiar and I’m not constantly the subject of a social experiment entitled, “Spot the American.” But I have grown accustomed to the constant cultural stimulus I’ve received here in Europe and it's something that I will definitely miss during my long walks from Kravis to Bauer.
Traveling is weird. The more places you go, the less content you are with where you are; the wider the world becomes, the less space you feel like you occupy. But that feeling of insignificance is beautiful. It’s even oddly comforting because you know that the cure is also the affliction. There is nothing quite like watching the sun slowly rise over the Mediterranean from a coastal town too small to make it on a map, or standing below the Eiffel Tower and squinting to see all the way to the top. Now, since having had these experiences at the vulnerable age of 21, I know I will never be happily content in just one place for the rest of my life. But it’s the price I’ll willingly pay to truly see the world the way it wants to be seen.