In search of the Scandinavian dream: What's it like to live the Nordic Life?

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Reggae blasts out of a Wurlitzer jukebox as sweaty bodies pulsate to the beat. A blonde in denim hotpants grabs the hand of a tousle-haired boy in pink and they smile shyly. Minutes later, he scrambles up on a makeshift stage, wiggles his hips for the crowd and dives on to a sea of waving hands that carry his petite frame around the room.

The boy, aged four, is my son, his dancing companions 15 Danish children at a Copenhagen kindergarten. They are all six years old and if they were British, would likely be swotting for the new compulsory reading test. Here, the crowd-surfing is the closest they'll come to formal learning in a day where play rules, and the only absolute rule is that anyone who climbs on to the roof must be able to get back down.

Outside, chickens scrabble in the dust as younger children balance on a 4ft-high tower made from old milk crates: part of a makeshift assault course. They've just finished lunch: open rye sandwiches in the Nordic style, with a sliver of dark chocolate atop one slice of equally dark bread.

For Louis, the stage-diving was one of the many bonuses that came from swapping his south London nursery for six weeks in Scandinavia with his parents and baby brother Raf. Others included seeing real reindeer cross the road, watching a train disappear into a ferry, throwing snowballs on the Trollstigen pass, scoffing countless pastries, heating the seats in the back of our Volvo (even if we only discovered them after we'd spent days camping in June blizzards) and, yes, a trip to Legoland.

Fed up with feeling like frauds for lusting after the Scandinavian dream from afar – insanely cheap childcare! daily family mealtimes! proper cycle lanes! – we decided to round off my maternity leave with a roadtrip around Sweden, Norway and Denmark. It was time to put all those articles about how perfect life is in Copenhagen to the test, plus I owed it to my Danish schoolfriend Annegrethe, who'd spent years telling me how great the place was.

We ticked off all the Nordic musts, from Stockholm's archipelago and rural Swedish lakes to Norway's fjords and Denmark's beaches, most spectacularly on the island of Bornholm. The only drawback was the cost of living in countries where sky-high taxes mean residents get plenty back from the state but make London look cheap in comparison. It hardly helped that neither I nor my husband was earning anything: my statutory maternity pay ended two months ago and my husband took time off unpaid because no one in the UK really thinks paternity leave is a good idea. Still, making him put his career to one side for a while did at least up the trip's Borgen factor. (For those who haven't seen the Danish political drama, high-flying husband bows to wife's career ambitions. See season one quick! Season two returns this autumn.)

There was only one thing for it: we'd have to camp. I'd been promised that Scandinavians were even more obsessed with the outdoors than I was with their region – the Norwegians call it friluftsliv, open-air living – so it wouldn't be all German retirees looking on smugly from their camper vans while we wrestled in the wet with our tent. Would it?

If al fresco living seems at odds in a region where Copenhagen counts as southerly yet is on the same latitude as Glasgow, and days are often shorter than an H&M hemline, then remember all that Viking blood. How else to explain the Nordic penchant for wild swimming in even the least clement weather? At the beach by Denmark's fabulous Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, just outside the Danish capital, we spotted a family braving the waters in nothing short of a squall.

I can only think it's because they start them young: Nordic babies famously nap outside in anything down to about -10C. And they play outdoors in all weathers, too. Indeed, Maria Oqvist, who heads the stripy Swedish kidswear brand Polarn O Pyret, admitted she had qualms before opening in Britain because "so much of our philosophy is about being able to play outdoors, which is not as common in the UK".

Our Nordic gateway was Gothenburg in western Sweden, partly because flights were cheap, but mainly because it is the City of Volvo, and we decided that was a good place to pick up a car. No prizes for guessing the marque. We were excited that it turned out to be the exact car that Kurt Wallander drives, down to the colour.

Hitting the road gave us an early taster of Swedish conformity: not only was the motorway bumper-to-bumper with Volvos, but they were also all driven at exactly the same speed – well within the 110km/hr limit. We brushed 115km and instantly earnt ourselves a glare from the motorbike-riding policeman who appeared out of nowhere at our side. Lesson one: Swedes do not speed, and they do not overtake, not even when crawling after a log carrier on deserted northern roads, as we later discovered to the cost of our sanity.

A vision of Scandinavian utopia awaited us at our first scheduled stop in the Holaved Forest on the edge of a shimmering lake in a hamlet just outside Odeshog, in eastern Sweden. Urnatur is a wooded retreat run by Ulrika Krynitz, a biologist-cum-designer, and her husband Hakan Strotz, who I'd back in a survival contest over Ray Mears. The inspiring couple swapped farming for eco tourism, building a handful of grass-roofed log cabins where guests come to learn back-to-basics forestry skills and go foraging, the essence of Nordic gastronomy.

Ulrika's cow had what sounded like bovine mastitis, so we left her massaging udders to take what would transpire to be our only lake plunge, such was the paucity of summer 2012. It was magical even if we were wearing wetsuits. Then it was time for fika, an equally magical Swedish tradition of coffee and cake. Back at the cabins, we tested Hakan's solar-powered shower; it was like standing in a painting, with the silvery birch forest visible through a giant glass wall.

Supper was served in a special hut lit only by a fire in the corner and candles. We could have been in Noma – the restaurant that catapulted Denmark to fame after chefs voted it the world's best – as we sat sipping birch sap, a fresh-tasting liquid that is tapped from trees during a 10-day window in March. It's as much a staple for Ulrika as for Noma's über-chef Rene Redzepi. "People used to say it was like drinking marrow back into the bones. It is one of the first things you can get after winter," she said. Following this, she served Urnatur lamb, minced into patties, accompanied by potatoes flavoured with wild garlic picked that afternoon. Violet petals and forget-me-nots provided an edible floral corsage.

The next morning, Louis helped Hakan harvest a pine tree, which we needed for the bark. He watched the forester chisel the inner bark into paper-thin sheets, which were later dried then finely ground into a flour substitute. Nutritious and plentiful – two-thirds of Sweden is forested – this forms the basis for bark bread, a starvation-era staple that is today found on top menus. Hakan cooked ours, pancake-style, on an enormous iron griddle.

In fact, our entire trip left me hoping Scandinavian baking will be the next major Nordic import after jumpers, crime fiction and slow-burn TV. From squidgy cinnamon buns to dense rye rolls, it was all seriously delicious, or perhaps I mean Scandilicious – the title of the latest book by Norwegian food writer Signe Johansen. She credits long winters with creating a strong baking culture, adding: "You need carbs when it's miserable outside." I wanted to cry at the thought of the wall of pre-sliced loaves that awaited me back home, and made all sorts of resolutions to bake my own.

Not that everyone was so approving of Scandinavian food. Ola Sonmark, a university teacher I met over a plate of herring outside a Stockholm metro stop, said: "Swedish food is really boring. It's all meatballs and potatoes."

Even some of Denmark's top chefs, whom I encountered at an annual cookery contest in Gudhjem, a small town on the northern coast of Bornholm, came in for some criticism from one of the competition's judges. James Petrie, head of creative development at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck, told me afterwards that the dishes suffered from being too similar. "It was all very light and fresh. But nothing really stood out. It was more about preparation than cooking."

The guys behind Copenhagen's Nordic Food Lab certainly don't lack creativity, though. I met them on a houseboat moored across the water from Noma. Redzepi is one of the brains behind the venture but an American, Lars Williams, heads up the team's day-to-day research. This spans "finding the deliciousness" in year-old potatoes to solving one of Nordic cooking's major flaws: the lack of naturally occurring citrus plants. The new Nordic cuisine, popularised by Noma, lives and dies by serving locally sourced food, or as Williams put it, exploiting "regional quirks" such as shorter growing seasons because of all those months of darkness.

He disappeared briefly, leaving me staring at a whiteboard on the wall, a mass of indecipherable scientific equations presumably testing the assumption scrawled at the top: "The delineation between edible and inedible is deliciousness." He returned with a tub of tiny ants. They didn't look much like lemons, but the formic acid they spray out when annoyed tastes of lemongrass. Allegedly. Nibbling one, Williams pointed out, "The only thing that tastes bad is prejudice," but I still passed despite knowing I'd missed out on eating something Redzepi dished up recently at his London pop-up at Claridge's.

The ScandiNAVIAN dream isn't just about foraging for food, however. With my return to work looming, I'm obsessed with the philosophy of working to live rather than living to work. While we in Britain are all stuck at our office desks, the Scandinavians are all back at home having supper together. Even the dads. Or rather, especially the dads, because Nordic parenting is famously two-sided, as Polarn O Pyret's Oqvist reminded me: "When you employ or promote someone in Sweden, you have the same risk of them being away from work if they're a woman or a man."

Oqvist's own marketing manager is a man who is away on six months' paternity leave – or parental leave as it's known over here. "It's accepted to prioritise to be with your family. Most employers are very open-minded and flexible," she added.

Swedish fathers – who must take at least two of the 16 months' paid leave on offer or mothers lose it – take their daddying very seriously. Not only are they equally likely to be pushing one of the giant old-fashioned prams you see everywhere, but they also have their very own magazine, Pappa, to read over coffee while sproglet snoozes outside.

Nordic masculinity comes as a shock to the star of the latest Scandi drama due on our television screens next month. In Lilyhammer, a joint Norwegian/US production, Frank Tagliano, the New York gangster (played by Steve Van Zandt) trying to start a new life in Lillehammer under a witness protection scheme, finds the male midwife he encounters while dealing with his girlfriend's pregnancy unexpected, to say the least. "He runs into the more feminised male role in Scandinavia and finds it hard to understand," Anne Bjornstad, one half of the husband/wife writing team, said of the comedy.

To become properly Scandinavian in their attitudes – again, think Borgen: mum foists kids on dad to become Danish prime minister – British mothers need to loosen their grip on that metaphorical umbilical cord and stop brow-beating themselves for choosing to work, even if that is easier said than done. This is something the Scandinavians learnt to do back in the 1970s; we are still playing catch-up.

It helps that Nordic nurseries are high quality and, for the most part, plentiful. Not forgetting cheap: it costs the average Danish family £350 a month to send a child of less than three five days a week, and that includes lunch. Send an under-two to our London nursery full-time and it will leave a gaping £1,300 monthly hole in your bank balance. That's providing you can get a place, which I still can't for the second son I registered just after he was born.

It isn't only working parents who apparently benefit; I've never seen such well-behaved kids. Three days in Legoland and the only child to collapse in tears was, ahem, ours (admittedly because the rides finished a full hour before the park shut and we'd only just got there). This isn't because Nordic children aren't spoilt. Anne Klogard, who runs the Copenhagen nursery Ryvang 2 that wowed my son, said that with both parents working, kids get showered with gifts. "But because most children go to kindergartens they learn how to be part of a mini-community, so they know how to share." k

A train track runs through Osby, a sleepy town in southern Sweden, Wallander country. With its green-badged Systembolaget (the state-owned liquor chain), campsite and wild-swimming spot on the outskirts, Stora Hotellet (translation: big hotel) and the customary competing grocery chains, ICA and Coop, it could be anywhere in the country. Our Michelin map doesn't even reckon Osby merits a detour. But Louis is nevertheless on a pilgrimage, for it is here that Brio, which stands for the Brothers Iverson of Osby, started out. With the clock ticking on our return flight from Gothenburg, we forced ourselves past the turn-off to Tomelilla, home to Daniel Berlin, a chef tipped as the next Redzepi, to get here. I felt I owed it to the Iversons; without their small trains, my life would be very different.

The Brio museum is for serious toy-trainspotters. It's mainly an exercise in nostalgia, with the company's toys of yore all frozen in time in vast glass cases, but there is an enormous train set for smaller visitors. Best of all, the track was nailed down, so could withstand Raf's enthusiasm. I liked the Scandinavian touches: the 1950s dolls' house had mini Arne Jacobsen chairs.

If one item unites Scandiphile parents, however, it has to be the Tripp Trapp, the wooden highchair that stands like a parental badge of honour in middle-class British kitchens. Yes, we buy into the pledge that it will outlast our child's toddler years because you can change the height of its seat and footrest. But mostly we buy it because it looks good. Or we do if we can afford it.

In his Oslo office, Peter Opsvik, who came up with the highchair for the Norwegian company Stokke in 1972, told me his quest "is to make people comfortable, which should make people happy". Opsvik thinks Nordic design is fashionable again because "it is simple. And it works."

It's certainly increasingly popular. I spotted our Hans Wegner cigar chairs in a recent midcentury-modern furniture show on sale for twice as much as we paid five years ago. And the UK-based design chain Skandium saw its sales rise 12 per cent last year, despite the recession. Magnus England, its managing director, reports that, "Brand Scandinavia is very positive on all sorts of levels, from the environment and healthcare, to design, both of products and fashion."

Then, of course, there's the impact of those books and TV shows. Referring to interiors on show in programmes such as Borgen and The Killing, England says: "They're not staged environments. That's how people live in Scandinavia." Roger that. I peered in through enough curtainless windows – they really take their natural light seriously – to confirm that they are, indeed, all design-obsessed.

Life being life, I figure all this easy living must come with a catch. Personally speaking, the main drawback is meteorological. In our experience, blond o'clock – that golden hour where the late-evening sun turns everything as yellow as a Swedish ponytail – barely exists outside the pages of the tourist literature.

And I was left struggling to fathom how Copenhagen, with around 170 rainy days a year, has spawned an entire blog devoted to cycle chic. Heavy rain left me anything but on my borrowed bike. Yet, climate aside, I found people oddly reticent to complain. True, taxation is high, but when you get decent stuff back, I guess it's money well spent. And populations are small compared with Britain. But that makes cities manageable, not least on two wheels, something the likes of London will never be for all the millions invested in Boris bikes. I dream of living somewhere with as much going for it as Malmo, Sweden's third-biggest city, which has barely 300,000 residents.

Some, admittedly, find a pressure to conform overwhelming. On a trivial level we're clearly letting down our fellow campers with our lack of tablecloth and vase of flowers – the Danes are preoccupied with the concept of hygge (rough translation "cosy", which I'm disappointed to learn is pronounced "hooga" and not "huggy"). But there's a darker side – alcoholism and depression are prevalent even if the high suicide rate across the region is a myth perpetuated by a 1960 speech President Eisenhower gave discrediting socialism: World Health Organisation data suggests proportionately as many French and Belgians kill themselves as Finns.

Then there's immigration: everyone I quizzed was uneasy about how newcomers fare given that Nordic countries are infamously homogenous. The world is only too painfully aware of how some extremists feel about change; one year on and Norway is still a country reeling from last summer's horrific shootings. No wonder Edvard Munch's 1917 black-and-white woodcut Panic in Oslo was chosen for this summer's exhibition in the eponymous museum that houses thousands of the Norwegian artist's works.

Conversely, with our blond-haired offspring, it was almost comical how easily we blended in. In fact, standing in Svaneke, on the eastern coast of Bornholm, on midsummer's night, the sky a swirl of dusty pink and lilac, the villagers all sharing their perfect picnics and wearing their BBC4-worthy knitwear, we couldn't help but wonder whether people can be too happy.

Well yes, perhaps, according to one wannabe actress we meet waiting tables in Copenhagen. And therein danger lies, as Amanda Bjerre-Petersen suggested to me. "There is no spontaneity. People here are not keen on change." The 26-year-old pulled a face and added that she is desperate to escape to New York because she wants to make movies with Woody Allen.

Which all leaves the big question: would we pack up tomorrow and book those one-way tickets? Absolutely, given the chance. Not to mention a place or two at that fabulous kindergarten: Raf needs his turn stage-diving after all. Until then we'll just have to keep juggling, hopefully with two parents working part-time, not just one. And there are always holidays. Only next time I'm leaving the tent behind and finding somewhere with four walls.

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