Happiness and Hygge in Copenhagen
One Saturday morning I was sipping my usual light roast and looking out the window of our second-story apartment in the center of Jerusalem. The air was warm, the breeze was barely there, but it gave me a sense of urgency. I looked down and saw a family walk by; I paid particular attention to the mother. I thought about how she, like me, was likely a person with lists of dreams and goals who felt a pang of guilt whenever she thought about what anyone in her family may have to sacrifice if she decided that life was too short to keep saying, “someday.” Shortly after that day I decided that, well, life is too short. A mother, first and foremost, but also a human being with an inextinguishable fire burning within her, telling her to see more of the world before it is too late.
I call them ‘momventures’; they’re three-to-four-day travel experiences without kids. My first was in Athens with a close friend. Eight months later I ventured into the Norwegian fjords. At the tail end of that trip to Norway, due to train schedules, I found myself with 24 hours in Copenhagen. It was an unintentional, bonus addition to my momventure, and I wanted to breathe in as much of the city as I could.
I arrived to Copenhagen from Bergen just as the sun was settling in for the evening, and I walked from the central train station to my Airbnb. My first impression of the city was that it was empty; a native New Yorker, I’m unaccustomed to walking around and having room to breathe, or even to think. Before I got to the apartment, the sparsely populated streets had a slight chill. When I finally arrived at Bente’s apartment, I was greeted by the warmth of her family and another traveler.
Her fourth-floor apartment had a lovely view of Copenhagen from the balcony. I saw castles, modern high rises, and the physical manifestations of a complex national history. I settled in for the evening, and based on the view from Bente’s balcony, drifted off feeling relatively certain I’d be greeted by Copenhagen’s depth and warmth the next day.
A mother, first and foremost, but also a human being with an inextinguishable fire burning within her, telling her to see more of the world before it was too late.
Hygge is a trendy word at the moment, and though I did sort of learn how to pronounce it, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. I asked a few Danes to define it and got the following words as a response: coziness, little luxuries, indulgences. I took a walking tour described only as a hygge tour. As promised, it was a few hours of indulgent little luxuries.
One of our first stops was Peter Beir Chocolate, where we sampled quite possibly the best chocolate I’d ever had. We learned about a Danish man on a mission to teach the world about intricacies through chocolate. Jamheed, our guide, told us that Peter Beir is passionate about the fact that tiny differences in where and how cocoa beans are grown can result in extreme taste variations. We sampled several pairs of chocolate that looked identical, but with one key difference. Most striking to me was the difference between chocolate whose cocoa beans were grown near water, versus chocolate that was grown in a dry climate.
Another destination was the Parliament, housed in an urban castle. It was here that Jamheed told us that Danes are often cited as among the happiest people in the world, and his explanation was simply because the country was wealthy, with so many social and material luxuries. I expected a smile, but his eyes cast downward a bit, and I shifted on my wooden bench. He paused, looked at us, and posed the questions: “What motivates you to deal with injustice when you have nothing to worry about? What makes you think deeply when you’re always comfortable?”
“What motivates you to deal with injustice when you have nothing to worry about? What makes you think deeply when you’re always comfortable?”
As we walked past Nyboder, the old naval barracks that are now highly coveted housing, their famous yellow hue intrigued me. The narrow cobblestone streets in Copenhagen told the story of a nation’s journey from war to its lauded happiness, but I was grateful for Jamheed’s short but real suggestion to look a little closer at the scrapes and cracks on the stones in between snapping photos of the quaint and joyful sights.
In a 24-hour journey to Copenhagen, I felt emptiness, warmth, and depth. I questioned what it means to be happy, and I felt the palpable passion of a man who set out on a mission to implore people to think more, and to notice more through chocolate. I sank my teeth into the quintessential cinnamon pastry while I sat on a park bench and heard about Hans Christian Andersen’s journey from illiteracy to impact.
I’m a mom on a quest to see as much of the world as I can within the bounds of the life that I’ve been blessed with. Copenhagen gave me a lot to swallow in 24 hours. It was the essence of what I long for in every travel experience: just enough discomfort to inspire.