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6 Things You Need to Know to Survive a Nobel Prize Banquet

PHOTO: © Nobel Media AB 2016. Photo: Pi Frisk.

Even the world’s most successful people get nervous about dressing up.

There’s a really good reason to come to Sweden, even as darkness descends in December: This is a country that thinks dining with scientists and royalty is at least as important as Sunday football. In fact, Sweden devotes five hours of live TV coverage to the Nobel Prize Ceremony’s awards and dinner, where one can expect everything from interviews with politicians to colorful commentary on the salads. But, believe me, being there in person is very different from watching on TV. I should know. When my wife was elected as a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, we got an invite and discovered that while watching the Nobels on television is one thing—being there is another. Here are my six tips for attending the Nobel Prize Banquet.

nobel-prize-shoes
PHOTO: Tom Heberlein
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Shoes Matter

When the Nobel Prize invitation arrives, prepare to not recognize your spouse. Mine at least suddenly transitioned from obsessing over science to obsessing over shoes. Based on my survey of her colleagues, shoe obsession is a perfectly normal scientific behavior when one is dining with Nobel Laureates and the King of Sweden. Dancing is a big part of the evening too, however, so you’ll want to keep in mind that copper-colored torture slippers are not the best choice.

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Get Your Medals Out

Although tails are tails, if you want to fit in, you’ll need to pin a medal (or two or three) to your jacket. Or hang some around your neck. Sashes are common and there is even a sword or two. (To think, I came to the Nobels without even a lapel pin!) So take that dress code about state medals being acceptable seriously because this is perhaps the only chance you’ll ever have to glitter and glow in Sweden, a society that otherwise very much values equality. One other tip you don’t want to learn the hard way: It’s bad manners to ask your seatmates about their medals.

Nobel-Prize-Stokholm
PHOTO: By Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock
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Take the Last Bus

The banquet is in the City Hall near the awards ceremony, but the distance between the ceremony and the banquet is not walkable in the December slush, especially if you are wearing the aforementioned torture slippers. Royalty and laureates have waiting limousines. For everyone else, the city provides free transport. But don’t hop on the first double-jointed blue bus thinking that otherwise you’ll be missing something. Upon arriving at the Blue Hall, you’ll see a fairytale land of tables decorated with gold, but they will be barred by a thick golden cord. You’ll stare at those out-of-reach glittering tables for a very long half hour while the outside doors open and close and the December wind blows through your evening wear. Avoid this purgatory by first going to bar across from the concert house for a serious drink and taking the last bus to the ball.

Book a Hotel

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PHOTO: © Nobel Media AB 2016. Photo: Dan Lepp.
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Arrive Just in Time and Don’t Speak Swedish

If you arrive just in time (a very Swedish thing to do, actually), everyone will be seated and waiting for the dinner to begin. They will surely be thinking, Wow, look at those busy people as you strut by. Which means that no one will think you’re just a retired immigrant spouse (I speak from experience). Instead, your tablemates will stand to shake your hand as if you are a visiting dignitary.

Oh, and don’t begin the dinner as I did by introducing yourself as a retired spouse—no one wants to talk to that person—especially if they have already imagined you as a visiting dignitary. And if you have elementary Swedish, congratulations—now keep that to yourself. As a native English speaker, how would you like to sit next to someone for four hours who’s most nuanced English is a heavily accented: “How are you? Where do you live? Do you have children?”

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PHOTO: © Nobel Media AB 2015. Photo: Alexander Mahmoud.
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Empty Your Wine Glass

The dinner begins when the head of the Nobel Foundation stands to toast the King. Don’t be like me, trying to keep wine in your glass thinking you’ll need it for continuous toasts throughout the evening. If you do this, the waiters will pass you by. Instead, you should drain your glass regularly and watch as it is magically refilled. Then sit back and enjoy the evening in lively English as the wine flows and time flies.

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Dancing Lessons Are a Good Idea

At some point in the evening, all that’s left is dancing. Which is great if you’re not the clumsy type. If you are, be sure to invest in dance lessons well before banquet time. And remember: The first dance is reserved for your table companion.