Hyacintho Norvegica

What exactly is an open faced sandwich? It is a piece of bread, buttered, with stuff on it. Excellent. Glad we’ve got that cleared up. But what is it called? If you said “Smörgåsbord”, I would like to help you out: you’re wrong. You’re not alone in your wrongness, so you have that I suppose. Onwards.

An open faced sandwich is called Smørrebrød in Denmark, Smørbrød in Norway, and Smyrjibreyð in Faroese. A literal translation of these would be “Butter Bread”. In Swedish it is Smörgås; Bord simply means table (cognate to the English “Board”), in this case referring to eating in a buffet style.

The sense in which many of us use the term Smörgåsbord most frequently will be a great variety or selection of offerings. I like this metaphor, and it does the Swedish word a great deal of justice. The Smörgåsbord is a thing of wonder and plenty: it is generous and it is communal; it is abundant.

A subset of Smörgåsbord is Julbord, or Christmas table. You’ll find Julbord in restaurants across the Nordic lands throughout the Christmas period, often with slightly squiffy revellers ‘enjoying’ office parties. They’re also traditionally popular with families, for annual get-togethers of distant relations.


As soon as I land in a Nordic country, I know what the first thing I see will be. Well, not the first thing per se, as that will be a hot dog stall in a convenience store. I’m magnetically attracted to them, and they captivate my gaze. Inside me there is a dog salivating and barking, keening for the pølse.

No, I suppose it’s when I get in to the city centre or the heart of the town. The first thing I expect to see, and largely because it adorns the frontage of one in every three commercial premises is the word Frisør. It may be styled Frisör or Friseur, but it will still be everywhere I look. Hairdressers.

Is it that the people in the Nordic countries get their hair cut more than they do in the UK? Or is it, perhaps, that I am drawn to the word as much as I am drawn to hot dogs, ketchup and mustard? I couldn’t say, only that the word Frisør is one of the first things to come to mind whenever I think of past holidays in Sweden, Denmark, Norway or Finland. Not Iceland or the Faroes: that’s landscapes and hotdogs. (Sometimes I have a one track mind; it’s my own fault for skipping lunch.) Either way, there is a predilection for coiffure in Northern Europe which I simply cannot get my head around.


As you probably know by now, I have travelled quite extensively through many Nordic and Northern European countries. Let me let you in on a little secret, if I may be so bold. In the spirit of adventure I would like to break down a common misconception: No one really speaks English over there.

That’s not to say you couldn’t maintain a pleasant, if superficial, conversation about some relatively inconsequential banalities with some random tramp relieving themselves against a park wall, but don’t ask someone in a restaurant what a raspberry is. They’ll struggle. And I am not surprised that they might struggle. It’s not a common word. What I am surprised by is the assumption we all have of Nordic folk as being inherently polyglot. I learned French and Spanish in High School, and I can get by, ordering food in a restaurant, booking a hotel, asking if my metro card has been found, but I am not about to have a deep chat about macroeconomics. Why then would I expect a Norwegian farmer to have the same depth of vocabulary in a language which they also learned at school? It’s not fair. I understand that the world’s media is in English, and that helps, but it’s not going to work magic.


What kind of bed do you have? I have a slightly rickety king size bed. It has one mattress, that’s normal, yeah? No? Why would one bed need any more than one mattress? While we’re at it, why on earth would two people sharing a bed need more than one duvet to cover them? It’s nonsensical.

Yet, that has been my experience of travelling throughout Northern Europe. There was an occasion in Iceland where my partner and I simultaneously woke to stop the other from falling down the gap between the two single beds we were sharing as a double. There was lots of screaming and grabbing of each other before we started to suspect that neither of us had been, in fact, falling between the beds. Such is our fear of doing so that it manifested itself in each of our dreams. At the same time.

We are utterly bewildered whenever we walk in to our allotted bedrooms in a hotel or an apartment to find two singe duvets, laid side by side on two single beds, occasionally held together with metal bars. We find ourselves asking how people in these countries actually go about sleeping at night; is there a secret technique to which we have not been introduced? I will ask until I find the answer.


I don’t know why, but I find electrical systems in the countries through which I travel to be endlessly fascinating. Partly because they are always different from the British domestic system (our three pin plugs are inexplicable, and I’m sure we only stick with them out of belligerence), but also because of their adaptability. You would never, for instance, see a power socket in a light switch in the UK.

Light switches fascinate me too. They are, more often than not, panels to be pushed. In the UK they are far more old fashioned than that: Small clicky bits of plastic in a large expanse of panel. They are not space efficient. And they universally lack power sockets. I find European switches far more fun.

I have seen ceiling lights in Norway and Germany where there is a power socket high up on a wall, or on the ceiling itself: the light is simply plugged in to it and dangled from a hook. That is not how it is ever done in the UK, and we are much the poorer for it. Our lights are hard wired in to the ceiling.

In Switzerland, they have optimised their plugs and sockets to allow for flat hexagonal triple power sockets. They are fantastic, and I genuinely wish that I convert the whole world to their system.