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Fika Like a Swede

My cheeks were as pink as a rose in full bloom, and my hands were so cold that I could barely move them. It was already dark outside, and Grandpa had walked for one long mile in the knee-deep snow to pick me up from preschool. As he searched for the keys to the front door, I struggled to remove my snow-covered boots. As soon as the door sprung open, I crawled out of my blue winter overalls and ran as quickly as my tiny, size-four feet could carry me into the ‘70s-style kitchen where my grandma was preparing the daily afternoon fika. The house was filled with the wonderful smell of cinnamon, fresh cardamom and sugar. As I sat down at the wooden kitchen table and gulped down three glasses of homemade strawberry lemonade, I watched my grandpa sip his black coffee. I told my grandparents about the snowman my friends and I made earlier that day, and I made sure they could hear every minute detail of what I said. To me, a 3-year-old toddler who barely knew how to tie her own shoes, fika meant consuming as many cinnamon rolls and drinking as much lemonade as my stomach could tolerate in 30 minutes. To my grandparents, fika was a social opportunity filled with joy, love and laughter. It was three o’clock on a dark January afternoon in Uppsala, and I had yet to realize that today’s fika was something I should not have taken for granted.

***

As one of the largest coffee-consuming nations in the world, Sweden is known for fika: a social activity that has become an integral part of the Swedish culture. Serving as both a noun and a verb, fika is difficult to translate into English. In simple words, the concept is similar to a coffee break. People can fika at work, at home, at a cafe, or even at school. Ideally, fika should be homemade, but any kind of fika is always better than none at all. To me, a typical Swedish fika includes coffee, strawberry lemonade, and some type of sweet treat like fresh cinnamon rolls or Swedish Prinsesstårta; however, during the month of December, the only acceptable kind is hot chocolate paired with paper-thin gingerbread cookies and saffron buns. Although it does not matter with whom one enjoys fika, it has to be done in a group setting; by definition, it is impossible to fika alone. Fika is an essential part of daily life, and Swedes take the tradition for granted. 

The most common type of fika takes place at home or at a cafe along with friends and family. It serves as a time dedicated to catching up on the lives of loved ones. Moreover, though it is different, fika at work is not regarded as any less important. Believe it or not, a “fika break” is embedded into employment contracts at most Swedish companies, and one can actually be seen as quite antisocial if he or she chooses not to fika within the group. During this contracted break, coworkers share stories and ideas, as well as any dwelling questions or concerns. As my parents usually tell me, conversations during fika at work can range from topics like midlife crises to birthday party plans. It is not uncommon for coworkers to share homemade muffins or treats at their daily fika as well. Fika solidifies relationships and builds new friendships that would otherwise not have been created.

Without this social, sweet coffee break, there would be no spontaneous family gatherings, fewer meaningful conversations with coworkers or friends, and less exchanges of new ideas and opinions at school or work. I have come to the realization that it is difficult to know how big of an impact something as uncomplicated as fika has on one’s life before it is gone.

When my family and I moved to the United States in January of 2014, I had a tough time building friendships with my new classmates. I felt as though I did not fit in with the American stereotype, which made it hard for me to feel a sense of belonging. With few people I could turn to, I had to navigate the complex environment of middle school by myself. Nevertheless, each afternoon when I came home, the daily fika would be waiting for me at the table, ready to be devoured. The Swedish buns and cookies were sometimes made by my grandma. Growing up on a farm, she would help my great-grandma, Astrid, bake the weekly batch. Astrid often spoke about the importance of fika for solidifying relationships within the local congregation and neighboring farms. Thus, already as a young girl, my grandma knew the importance of a good fika. She kept the baking tradition going, and following our relocation to Texas, a few batches of “Swedish Dream Cookies” would arrive at our doorstep every now and then. When my family and I finally all sat down around the kitchen table after school, I felt that sense of security and belonging I had been lacking throughout the day. As my nerves calmed down, I began to feel less out of place, and my body was sometimes even filled with a little bit of hope and confidence.

Now in college, I am farther away from my family than I have ever been, so I make sure to prioritize my fika break. Most afternoons I can be found sitting down at a bench somewhere on campus with my iced latte and iPhone talking to my family over FaceTime. Sometimes I even go out of my way to purchase a subpar red velvet cupcake at the dining hall, or if I am feeling fancy, a Boston Kreme doughnut from Dunkin’ Doughnuts on Commonwealth Avenue. During this 30 minute fika break we find answers to our problems, exchange opinions, reflect on our past and plan out our future. With all the stress that comes with being a freshman on the pre-medical track, a fika break is just what I need. Of course, my roommates still do not fully understand this Swedish phenomenon, and the fact that they do not like coffee does not seem to help either. Hopefully by the end of the semester, I will have taught them enough about Swedish traditions for them to acknowledge the benefits of a good fika. 

As far as I am concerned, fika has helped me be comfortable in my ever-changing environments. Moving away from the country I call home, to a state where pickup trucks and longhorns seem to be the only two things that matter, to a city of academia where its people call themselves “wicked smart,” fika has been the only familiar thing that has continuously stayed by my side. Everytime I feel stressed, I think back to that cold, wonderful afternoon in my grandparents’ vintage kitchen. I reflect on the memories I made during my endless fika breaks, and on how wonderful it is to take part in such an extraordinary tradition. As silly as it seems, fika enables me to view my problems from a new perspective. It provides me with an opportunity to discover what really matters: staying in touch with those I love. Even though I believe setting goals for myself is a fundamental part of living a fulfilling life, I know that I am never too busy to have some Swedish fika.

Cover photo courtesy of Eventland.