Before I had even decided to move to Sweden for my exchange semester abroad, I had some encounters with the Swedish culture (no, IKEA doesn‘t count). I had been listening to a podcast called “the mustards”, hosted by a Swedish couple in their 30ies now living in London. They introduced me to several important concepts of the Swedish culture, such as “lagom”. The word means “just the right amount” and is applied to many aspects in Swedish life. As an example, buying too many clothes or being too rich would be not considered being lagom. You can also say that a dress looks “lagom” on another person, which means that is the right fit for them. Swedes are even less likely to take risks or to be too extreme than people from other countries, because that wouldn‘t be “lagom”.
But for this blog entry I would like to focus on another concept that I have already been familiarized with through the podcast: fika, the Swedish version of a coffee break.
The word can be used as a noun, e.g. “Would you like to take a fika together?” (both in English and Swedish) or as a verb (only in Swedish), e.g. “Går vi fikar tilsammans“ (Let‘s go “fika” together).
The word is a back slang of “kaffi” (which means “coffee” in Swedish slang) and emerged in the 18th century. It was used to disguise the practice of coffee drinking, as coffee was banned five times between 1756 and 1817. One of Sweden’s most famous scientists, Carl Linnaeus (he invented the modern-day binominal nomenclature of naming organisms) actually had an influence on the bans. He considered coffee drinking, a habit that was adapted by the French, to be a threat to the Swedish culture.
Before I moved to Sweden, I thought fika was the equivalent to our “z‘nüni” and “z‘vieri” in Switzerland. But it can actually (but doesn‘t have to) be much more profound than that. You can take a fika during every time of the day, not at fixed times like it is often practiced in Swiss offices, even though people here often take a fika twice a day. Offices sometimes even have dedicated rooms for fika, which can also be seen some of the Swedish TV series set in an office. Fika is a social institution in Sweden. It helps to bring people together, e.g. deepen the relationship between coworkers. It is sometimes even perceived as rude if someone does not want to join the fika.
A fika consists of one or several beverages, such as coffee, tea or hot chocolate. Most of the Swedish population loves drinking coffee. Filter coffee is much more common here, and you often get free refills. Along with beverages, there are some several types of sweets that can be served during a fika:
- Kardemummabullar och kanellbullar- cardamom and cinnamon buns
- Chokladbollar – chocolate balls, either covered in sugar or coconut sprinkles
- Småkakor – small cookies that can usually be eaten in a bite or two
- Kladdkaka – sticky chocolate cake
- Rulltårta – jelly roll cake
- Mazariner – almond tarts
- Prinsesstårta -Princess cake
… and many more!
I have adapted the practice of having a fika break pretty quickly after my arrival in Sweden. I meet up at least once a week with my roommates in our kitchen for a fika. Everyone brings a sweet that they like and we share it together. Sometimes we give the traditional Swedish fika an international twist, as we are twelve people from nine different countries living together. We contribute sweets that are eaten frequently in our home countries. After almost three months of fikas, I can say that the relationship to my roommates has definitely grown, mainly due to the extended talks that we had over a fika. So the saying that it has also its social benefits is true!
As the days get shorter, I also try to make use of the remaining daylight and enjoy the fresh air as often as possible. When I go for a walk with someone else, we bring tea in a thermos flask and some baked goods with us, because fika culture can also be practiced outdoors!
I‘m already looking forward to incorporating taking fika breaks in to my routine when I‘m back home, and to make use of all the Swedish pastry recipes that I have gathered so far!
But of course I won‘t exaggerate it, because that wouldn‘t be lagom.