Hot & cold, or how a New Yorker article explained Malta to me

When I came across an article about a glossary of positive emotions in the New Yorker, the idea was far from new to me. But this important quote is worth rethinking:

Lomas has noted several interesting patterns. A handful of Northern European languages, for instance, have terms that describe a sort of existential coziness. The words—koselig (Norwegian), mysa (Swedish), hygge (Danish), and gezellig (Dutch)—convey both physical and emotional comfort. “[…] In contrast, more Southern European cultures have some words about being outside and strolling around and savoring the atmosphere. And those words”—like the French flâner and the Greek volta—“might be more likely to emerge in those cultures.”

This theme comes up in many of my conversations about perceptions of cold with Mediterranean people. I certainly relate to the Nordic idea of doing one′s best to feel hyggelig as much as possible, if not most of the time – this, however, doesn′t apply to British people, who seem to like exposing themselves to cold as long as the sun shines on them.

The pleasant temperature range would be around 20-25. This does not mean that Nordic people never challenge themselves with extreme heat or cold. In fact, it is quite common to train children to deal with the cold, and when they grow up, Scandinavians often smoke outside in their tank tops in freezing temperatures. People from the North are also happy to challenge themselves while traveling, and they seek out hot places for vacations. However, they/we use state-of-the-art technology and other achievements of civilization to stay hyggelig in private space, which extends to the office. Scandinavian companies especially invest in physically and emotionally comfortable environments, and Lithuanians, too, are picking up the trend. The inadequate infrastructure at Lithuanian schools, hospitals and universities is not considered a part of national heritage at all, and it is fortunately giving way to technologically sound and energy-efficient solutions. When it is cold, Northern people mobilize technology, clothing and their individual routes in space to stay cozy.

Not so in the South. In the Middle East (I never visited Spain or Italy during the hot season, and I don′t remember suffering from this in Greece and Turkey), people seem to believe that extreme heat is best countered with extreme cold, so they don′t mind wasting energy to at least halve the outside temperature in every closed space, including buses. This applies not only to oil-rich countries of the Gulf, but also to Israel. I was sick most of the time in May because of this contrast until I pulled out my winter clothes and started carrying them around. In Malta, I am still to experience this habit, since temperatures have not soared to such levels yet.

Despite my personal discomfort, I always feel very curious and struggle to understand why people do this to themselves when they could just tune their technology to stay hyggelig. Japan is a long archipelago that spans from similar longitudes as Lithuania to tropics, but Japanese people are masters of staying hyggelig – not only have they historically used kotatsu (a heated sitting table with a blanket), they have easy access to such inventions as feet-warming stickers for winter. I often use Japanese items to protect myself from cold and stay cozy – including in the Mediterranean.

Interestingly, in the Mediterranean, cold is not met with such a vigorous attempt to counterbalance it with its polar opposite. When cold comes along, they tend to just accept it and at best wear more clothing. In many of my conversations with Mediterranean acquaintances, the topic of being accustomed to a certain climate often came up. I got an impression that unless they traveled to a Northern country, they thought that when winter descended on those latitudes, people simply stayed in the cold, rather than use technology to protect themselves and stay hyggelig. In fact, some of my most hyggelig childhood memories are from these very rare cases when extreme cold (under -20) exempted us from going to school – looking at frozen landscapes from a warm, comfortable room without any duties to attend to is exactly what Northern coziness is about. On the other hand, the most un-hyggelig thing is when the weather barely warms up to a point when it would no longer be necessary to take a sweater for an evening out, but businesses and indoor public places like libraries immediately start freezing their premises. In Israel, a woolen scarf was as necessary in May as it was in January. Even in Malta I have already had to regret not taking a scarf to a conference.

I first started contemplating it when my former employer hosted a delegation from Indonesia. Although it was freezing outside, our guests did not  button up their coats and walk faster – I believe they thought it would impede their enjoyment of a new city. Which links to the observation from the New Yorker – being outside and looking around is key to enjoyment of a new place. I am very critical of my cultural biases and I am not saying that one or another way is better. The proliferation of Danish vocabulary in English simply allows me to describe how I feel in the Mediterranean without a strong value judgment – un-hyggelig. Whether to expect and value coziness is appropriate or not is another question.

What put all these things into perspective is a remark by a Maltese travel companion about his trip to Latvia in winter. He said, confirming the New Yorker quote, that perhaps the city was nice, but it could not be experienced as such in the cold: “What about the customary window-shopping?” he regretted. The pleasure of being outside and peeking in through windows and cracks, the enjoyment of eating and drinking outside – all these joys were not available, and this lack leaves an impression of an unwelcoming, unpleasant travel experience. Not being able to enjoy the street is likely to make travelers and migrants feeling the same in the North as I feel about not being able to enjoy my living room or a conference venue.

This has obvious consequences on tourism in the North. While people from there have coping strategies for dealing with heat (our press considers it its duty to remind us every year about the importance of hydration, staying in the shade, etc), being deprived of the pleasure of enjoying the street is likely to discourage tourists from the South. Let′s not forget: in their home countries, they can only enjoy being outside well after sunset. In effect, be it hot or cold, most people stay indoors, where temperature can be controlled (homes, offices, libraries, malls or cafes, even cars) most of the time. So it′s mostly the exceptionalism of travel that constitutes the whole difference. Denmark is marketing hygge quite excessively at this point, but tourists know that they are unlikely to get to experience home environments. The main puzzle for travel industry is how to extend these environments to travel situations.

It seems to me that people in the North, at least in the Baltics, have read and traveled so much that they perceive the Southern lifestyle as superior. Thus, businesses and consumers are looking to extract that savoring of the street whenever possible. Outdoor cafes are booming, exploratory city walks are fashionable. Will we see comparable cultural learning on the other side?

Read my post on how to survive cold temperatures in the Baltics here.

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