Wonder-lust: My Favorite Lifestyles Around The World & How To Adopt Them

No shots at the English language– a language that is, after all, my bread and butter, the entity around which most of my days revolve, my life’s blood, even, my very reason for existing– but every once in awhile you realize it has some real limitations. Much like a 6’2” NBA point guard exposed on the defensive end, no matter how prolifically talented, there are some situations in which the world’s most widely learned language simply comes up short. 

It is probably not a coincidence that most of these situations involve feelings and emotions. English prides itself on its functionality and adaptability, which makes for an ever-expanding vocabulary filled with words that are practical and accurate, if not particularly pretty. What do we call a coat that protects us from the rain? Raincoat. That bird or that berry that happens to be a brilliant shade of blue? Bluebird. Blueberry. I’m not trying to launch a crusade against compound words, or argue that the English language is incapable of beauty– after all there are several hundred years’ worth of famous poets who would surely, vehemently disagree. What I’m saying is that everyone from Chaucer to Byron to Eliot to Plath had to work a lot harder to construct their stunning sentences, to capture the hazy contours of sentimentality, than they might otherwise have if English itself provided them with more attractive tools. 

Consider: flâneur. This is a French word denoting a person of leisure who wanders the streets, deliberately aimless, content to soak in the sights and sounds of their city. It is also, coincidentally, chief among my personal career goals, although I haven’t found an employer willing to pay me for this pursuit just yet. Probably because there is no Anglo equivalent to this lovely, whimsical term. It took over twenty English words collected in the course of a long meandering sentence for me to properly convey the same idea– this is a real failing, not least in the sense of economizing one’s breath. 

via hilobrow

Similarly, there is schadenfreude, German for the sense of pleasure that is derived from seeing another’s misfortune. Perhaps not the kindest piece of vocabulary, but again, an entire discrete concept has been neatly tied up in three thrifty syllables. At this bargain rate, you can use the word in your daily life, like: “a few weeks ago when the Maple Leafs lost to their own minor league affiliate zamboni driver, I experienced schadenfreude” or “following the absurd Houston Astros’ trashcan bang cheating scandal has been a real exercise in schadenfreude.” See? The English language provides no such simple joy, unless you count this:

Jerry Seinfeld GIF

I’m not alone in lamenting the constraints of the planet’s lingua franca, though others have found a more productive way of addressing them. John Koenig created The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a website on which he invents words to encapsulate specific, existential sensations in order to “fill a hole in language.” 

Some of my favorites: vellichor, defined as the strange wistfulness of used bookshops; chrysalism, the tranquility of being inside during a thunderstorm; or the surprisingly profound vemödalen, which refers to the frustration of photographing something amazing (for instance the Grand Canyon, or the Eiffel Tower) knowing that thousands of identical photographs already exist. 

Vellichor. Noun. the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.
via pinterest

You can scroll through pages and pages of these neologisms if you’re interested in a uniquely indulgent kind of nerdiness, and I think you’ll be struck by both the inventiveness and the applicability of the terms you find. All those ephemeral feelings you’ve experienced but never quite been able to put a name to– this is your solution for that. 

Two in particular that have resonated with me lately– onism and monachopsis. Koenig uses onism to refer to “the awareness of how little of the world you’ll experience”, while monachopsis is meant to convey “the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place.” This is not because I am in the throes of a personal spiritual crisis, but because recently I’ve been drawn to books on the lifestyle hallmarks of other cultures, and reading them has filled me with an aspirational longing that not even the Dictionary of Sorrows can fully or succinctly describe.

I don’t know if it’s a “grass is always greener” situation, wherein the grass is life itself and it always tends to look more authentic and fulfilling on the other side of the ocean, or if the people in these places truly have figured out how to do this whole living thing right. The good news is that it’s not necessary to pick up everything and move thousands of miles in order to live out the principles of these lifestyle trends. Each of the books below contains ideas for adapting their ways of life into your own daily routines, to varying degrees of practicality. All of them are entertaining to flip through on a free afternoon, but if you’re short on time yet still interested in achieving the legendary happiness of Scandinavian people or the iconic, effortless cool of a French girl, I have summarized the best bits here for you. And I accept thank you’s in all languages. 

The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way To Live Well (Meik Wiking) 

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Denmark’s concept of hygge has become increasingly popular on an international level over the past couple of years, and it’s probably not a coincidence that this has happened in tandem with a cultural shift towards wellness, mental health awareness and self-care. Hygge encompasses “the quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being,” though you’re probably more familiar with how it has manifested in your Instagram feed: a steady stream of images involving candles, fuzzy socks, and elaborate latté art. In fact, the trend has become so ubiquitous that something of a hygge backlash has already begun, with articles arguing that the concept is “unabashedly bourgeoise” or raising concerns that the philosophy has been corrupted and commercialized— considering there are so-called hygge blankets for sale on the internet, that seems pretty fair. 

However, valid though these contentions might be, I have no choice but to ignore them. I am a hygge zealot. A true believer. I read The Little Book of Hygge and felt as though my entire worldview was being elegantly articulated, like a devout Protestant first reading the bible, or Jamie Dimon discovering Adam Smith. A way of life that centers around warmth, togetherness and gratitude, and also takes care to stress the importance of eating cake? Yes please, sign me the heck up. 

Ideas to try from The Little Book of Hygge

Beginner: Light five or more unscented candles. Wear your softest robe. Bury yourself under fleece or woolen blankets. Eat a bowl of soup. Drink a giant mug of cinnamon hot chocolate spiked with bourbon.

Intermediate: Host a hygge gathering, but with no more than three or four guests. Have everyone participate in making a meal that is simple and nourishing, like chili or stew. Play boardgames or work on a large puzzle and soundtrack the night with your favorite vinyl records. 

Advanced: Create a “hyggekrog”, aka a nook somewhere in your home that is reserved for hygge time. Keep an old suitcase nearby stocked with all of your hygge essentials: tea lights, a bar of high quality chocolate, your favorite classic novel, your nicest stationary paper and best pen for writing letters, and whatever else you think you might need for an evening of perfect, cozy contentment.     

Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living (Linnea Dunn)

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I won’t pretend to understand the intricate dynamics of how various Scandinavian countries relate to one another, but the rise of lagom, the Swedish method of living life “just right”, came pretty quickly on the heels of the hygge proliferation. While the two terms share some of the same guiding principles, once you’ve read beyond the cinnamon buns and the Friday nights in, you realize that they’re actually concerned with fairly different things. Where hygge can be indulgent, even decadent at times, with its emphasis on comfort and pleasure, lagom professes to be a bit higher-minded, focused on equality, sustainability and simplicity. Still, they are hardly in conflict with each other, and in fact I think can coexist quite nicely: while hygge encourages you to bake a plate of cookies, lagom reminds you to never take the very last one. 

Ideas to try from Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living

Beginner: Go for more walks. Take time to journal or paint or otherwise express your feelings. Spend the afternoon at a park, lying on a blanket and reading a book. 

Intermediate: Build “fika” into your routine– fika is an endearing little word that basically means an elevated coffee break. Around 10 am, you stop for fifteen minutes, eat something sweet and drink something warm with colleagues or friends. This isn’t a time for absently scrolling through your phone but for attempting meaningful exchange and connection. And for eating cinnamon buns. 

Advanced: Go full kögstop– this means committing to not buying anything (beyond groceries and essentials) for a set period of time. Lagom has a natural environmental component, and practicing it means wasting less and never buying more than you need. 

How To Be Parisian Wherever You Are (Anne Berest, Audrey Diwan, Caroline de Maigret, Sophie Mas


It is hardly a matter of liberty leading the people to try and emulate the style of French girls. Their particular kind of cool is already iconic and plenty of books have been written on the topic. They don’t get fat, they feel beautiful every day, they don’t sleep alone, their kids don’t throw food, and somehow they all manage to regularly pull of horizontal Breton stripes. And while it might feel overdone to continue idealizing the Coco Chanels and Bridgitte Bardots of the world (overdone for other people, to be clear, not to me, for I say a daily prayer to both of these women) this particular guide to dressing, entertaining and living like a Parisian is wholly original. Part genuine advice and part wry mockery of the French Girl stereotypes they are purportedly celebrating, this book is a good time, especially if you choose to peruse its pages while tearing off pieces of baguette and sipping on a dry white (from the Loire Valley, naturally).

Ideas to try from How To Be Parisian Wherever You Are

Beginner: “Go to the theatre, to museums and to concerts as often as possible, it gives you a healthy glow.” This is probably the best tip I’ve heard anywhere, lifestyle or otherwise. I don’t know if it’s been given to a dermatologist yet for peer-review but the next time my skin starts acting up I’m going straight to the Louvre. 

Intermediate: “Host a dinner party and get the conversation flowing with a controversial political statement.” Most people try to avoid religion and politics when socializing beyond their inner circle but apparently that is not the French way. Perhaps this will end with you losing some friends, but for one glorious evening you’ll get to feel like Simone de Beauvoir, so maybe it will be worth it. 

Advanced: “Never wear makeup on a date but apply lipstick when you go to the bakery on a Sunday morning.” I suppose if you’ve visited enough institutions of culture, as advised above, your face should be glowing enough that you have no need for foundation or concealer but still, this exercise in contradiction seems extremely bold.

Whiskey In A Teacup: What Growing Up In The South Taught Me About Life, Love & Baking Biscuits  (Reese Witherspoon)    

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There’s not a person on earth more charming than Reese Witherspoon. As Elle Woods she taught a generation that the best thing a person can be is multifaceted- that you can wear pink dresses and still absolutely crush it at Harvard Law School. In her real life she’s exemplified more of that same spirit, establishing a production company that highlights female storytelling, starring in a variety of prestigious television projects and just being an all-around delightful presence on Instagram. To hear her tell it, she owes most of her best qualities to her Tennessee childhood, where the tea was sweet, the furniture was wicker, and the roadtrips involved lots of Johnny Cash playing on the Cadillac radio. This book is a little bit lifestyle, a little bit memoir, even a little bit cookbook, but mostly it’s an ode to Reese’s beloved, departed grandmother Dorothea. As someone who’s been similarly shaped by a worshipful relationship to a grandparent I think it’s wonderful that Dorothea’s personality and legacy are captured on these pages to inspire readers, much in the way that Reese’s fictional characters have always done. 

Ideas to try from Whiskey In A Teacup

Beginner: Collect old quilts. Visit flea markets. Never chew gum around other people. 

Intermediate: Put monograms on everything– your towels, your bedding, your bags, silver, china, even your dog’s collar. Monograms especially belong on stationary, of which Reese suggests you should have both the formal and informal variety because she expects you to attend a wide range of events and then send the appropriate thank you notes.

Advanced: Apparently Dorothea used to garden in sneakers, pearls, and a floral printed dress. 


If your imagination is as taken with these aspirational ways of life as mine has so evidently been, I hope you’ve found this borrowed wisdom helpful. Even if a lot of what these books preach is incompatible with my own daily routines, I think it’s useful and rewarding to learn about how other people do things, how they seek fulfilment and define what it means to be happy. It’s so easy to get caught up in the monotony of doing things the way you’ve always done them that it’s good to shake the snowglobe a little, to dream about what a different life might be like. 

A life that makes a priority of coziness while also always maintaining balance, in which you strive for effortless chicness and still never forget your roots. I wonder, what’s the word, English or otherwise, for a life like that?       

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