It may not be obvious from my name, but I am deeply Nordic. I decided this the other day when visiting Scandinavia for the first time to report on the Copenhagen Fashion Summit for this magazine. As a succession of noble-looking Danish men stepped up on the stage—or passed me on the street—I had a visceral reaction. One after the other, I found that I was looking at the exact head shape, wide eyes, and bone structure of my late father. I got to thinking about my paternal line, originally Scottish before the clan sailed to Ireland in the middle ages as warriors: Gallowglass. Of course: Vikings! We surely carry the gene.
I guess a quick mailing to 23andMe would settle the matter, but for now I am very much into my purported Northern roots. (It helps that Copenhagen was beautiful, its people had a dry wit, and its cuisine was delicious: I ate so much foraged food during my stay that I left feeling like a small woodland animal.) I read the Swedish bestseller, The Gentle Art of Death Cleaning, that provided evidence of the region’s preponderance of lifestyle avatars. And I regularly swipe books from Vogue’s “giveaway” table (duplicates of galleys and newly published volumes that are up for grabs) with such titles as Real Nordic Living, New Nordic Gardens, and any novel by an author with an ? in their name.
So it was with delight that I chanced upon Katja Pantzar’s The Finnish Way, a self-help book promoting the joy and restorative power of sisu. A 500-year-old national concept roughly translated as grit, fortitude, or, if you prefer, being a badass, sisu is a quality the Finns admire and practice that, says Pantzar, leads to well-being, resilience, and a cure for depressive tendencies. What is it exactly? Well, evidently it takes a whole book to define, but in essence it revolves around walking, cycling, and swimming in nature in all weathers, getting naked with strangers in the sauna (a great leveler, she points out), eating things like homemade cloudberry jam, washing your own windows, and generally not being a consumerist lunatic. One of several experts Pantzar consults in the book, Liisa Tyrv?inen, is a research professor dedicated to studying the links between wellness and outdoor recreation. In her sensible words, “People seem to go like machines. But we’re not machines, and then we get sick. Once you’ve lost your health, what do you have?” Hence: the need for sisu.
Born to immigrant Finnish parents in Canada, where she was raised, Pantzar is uniquely placed to compare and contrast. On a short-term visit to her ancestral homeland a few years ago, she found herself so seduced by its ability to nudge her into a simpler and healthier lifestyle that she stayed, marrying and having a child there to seal the deal. With such collateral benefits as “incidental exercise” (such as traveling to work by bicycle because it is made so easy for you with signage and dedicated pathways), and joining a tradition of thrift and recycling that pares down your needs, the country helped settle her almost imperceptibly into better habits.
We’ve heard about the benefits of forest bathing (big in Japan), sound bathing, and even bathing in Himalayan pink salt under the light of a full moon; Pantzar’s jam is ice bathing, for which Finns cut a square through the frozen ocean in winter and dip into it for 30 seconds to a minute. She describes the chilly Baltic Sea as her “pharmacy,” easing stress, aches, and pains; boosting immunity; dispensing with the need for a post-workday glass of wine or three; and unleashing feelings of euphoria as a “hormone storm” kicks in in response to the thermal shock therapy. Not bad for 30 seconds.
While reading her book, I recognize in myself some Finnish traits: the rugged stick-to-it-ness for one. In my late teens I often went to Normandy at Easter, where I made it a mission to submerge myself in the freezing Atlantic for a split second; I was famously so determined to swim in the Long Island Sound one Memorial Day that I eventually did so, hovering for so long at waist level that I caused my unborn first child to turn breach. (I realized what I’d done when the midwife advised me to put an ice pack where the baby’s head was to turn him back—oh wait, I did that! My measure of frigid water ever since has been: Is it “baby-turning” cold?)
Now that I’m Nordic, I resolve to try to incorporate Pantzar’s lessons into my daily pattern, though creating Helsinki-on-the-Hudson presents a few challenges. I am ready to step up my Citibiking to work—though whether I will add special tire treads and invest in waterproof trousers in the depths of the New York winter remains to be seen. For the ice water dip followed by a sauna, right now my only solution would be daily visits to the Great Jones Spa, which would be cost-prohibitive; I may have to make do with a cold shower instead. Pantzar’s Finns seem to spend much of their free time frolicking in forests gathering wild mushroom and berries—cloudberries presumably among them. Again: Tricky, but I make time on my weekend to do some rather vigorous gardening, ensuring that I can spend the rest of my summer foraging for basil leaves and tarragon in my own backyard. I also take a couple of hours to try on a friend’s vast pile of cast-off, unworn clothing, which may not conform to Pantzar’s preference for scant possessions, but I’m told is very good exercise, and certainly incidental.
And then I ice bathe—my first dip of the season. Pantzar’s cold-weather uniform of neoprene shoes and gloves and a woolen hat along with one’s bathing suit is not necessary, but it does take me quite some time to sink and swim. It’s cold, but not baby-turning cold. And the relief and reward when it’s over makes me feel on top of the world.