London Should Look To New Orleans To Learn How To Do “Hygge”


Recently here in London there has been a lot of talk of “hygge” – a Danish concept that roughly means a sense of cosiness and conviviality and is used to refer to occasions where you gather family or friends to spend time together, often with indulgent food and drink, in comfortable and relaxing surroundings.

Londoners love the idea of doing this. But as we’re mostly hyperactive and grumpy workaholics living in rabbit hutches hours of complicated travel away from our London friends and with family elsewhere in the UK or the rest of the world, we struggle to make hygge actually happen.

Some people doubt whether Londoners should even bother. “The concept of hygge feels entirely alien in our busy, ever-changing city,” wrote Miriam Bouteba in Time Out London recently. “Ask anyone what they like best about [London], and no one who hasn’t recently undergone a lobotomy will reply: ‘Staying in with my candles’”.

But I still think London could do with some hygge. Not so much its superficial trappings like arty lighting and cinnamon buns (though I probably wouldn’t say no to these if offered), but its underlying benefits. Londoners crave a time and space to loosen our tightly-packed lives and connect more with other people. This is what hygge really means, and our experience here of endless new attractions, constant flux in our actual and cultural landscapes, and hyperlinked transport is not giving it to us.

New Orleans, on the other hand, has a kind of hygge. It’s no more a city of woodsmoke, long snowy winters and “glögg” than London. But it seems to me that, like Denmark, New Orleans has always been good at making space and time to slow down and enjoy life.

But in New Orleans doing so takes a different form. Hygge in Denmark is a way of crystallising time and space into a protected area or moment of contentment and balance. This sounds nice and is no doubt usually pleasant and benign in practice. But it’s worth remembering that the opposite of hygge is “uhyggelig”, which can mean scary or weird. Some say that hygge is a reflection of Denmark’s relatively tranquil recent history and its somewhat homogenous and socially exclusive society, which it can also help to perpetuate.

In New Orleans, meanwhile, the equivalent of hygge is about not compressing time and space, but opening them up. For most of us, the good stuff in life – relaxed eating and drinking, fun times with family and friends – can only be small interludes of relief from work. But it seems to me that ways of life in New Orleans are capable of magnifying these experiences into whole worlds of exciting possibility, reflecting the city’s long record of cultural openness and creativity, and its historical – and in some ways continuing – proximity to disaster of various kinds that encourages its inhabitants to enjoy life to the full while they can.

“New Orleans is a small city but it seems spacious because it is always full of people…like a crowded barroom at night,” writes Andrei Codrescu in New Orleans, Mon Amour. “At dawn a deserted barroom seems small beyond belief: how did all those people fit? The answer is that space and time are subjective no matter what the merciless clock of late twentieth-century America tells us. And there is more subjective space and time here in New Orleans than almost anywhere in the United States…[The city] feeds the dreamer stories, music and food.”

And of course there’s Mardi Gras. In nowhere else in the world does one public holiday mean a whole season of celebrations, an alternative city geography, and a parallel government of kings and queens, Big Chiefs and Baby Dolls. Carnival in New Orleans is nothing less that “a social rebellion against day-to-day life,” one inhabitant of the city and enthusiastic carnival “krewe” member told me once. Frustrated Londoners who find themselves yearning for connection and fulfillment that daily life in their city does not provide could do well to get up from their dimly-lit sofa cushions and look to New Orleans as well as Copenhagen.

Image: Deann Barrera


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