Expat Adventures

Learn Swedish Chronicles, pt II: Fika

Fika (Pronounced [ˈfîːka]); v. “att fika”, n. “en fika”

“If I had to choose only one word to bring to the States it would be fika.”

Definition

Google Translate translates the word to “coffee break” as a noun, or to “have coffee” as a verb, but as any Swede or person familiar with the culture will tell you, in reality it is so much more than that. 

To fika is to take a break from work, or studying, or whatever is occupying your time as an individual, in order to come together with your family or colleagues for a bit of respite. Sweden has a huge coffee culture, so there is generally coffee, or even tea if preferred (as well as something to eat), and in this sense, yes, it does resemble a coffee break the way I knew it in America, but there is really so much more to it. 

Etymology

The word has an interesting backstory to it. Similar to how English Back Slang was developed as a secret language by reversing the letters/phenomes in a word (eg. “boy” becomes “yob”), Swedish also had a secret language (warning: link in Swedish) developed among black market traders, with many words created by reversing syllables. The Swedish word for coffee is kaffe, which was written/pronounced kaffi in the 19th century. By switching the syllables, it becomes ffika, and the second f was dropped for clarity. 

Why did this word need to be secret? Well, apparently, after being introduced to Sweden in 1674, coffee consumption soon rose to excess among the wealthy. The king at the time, Gustav III, feared that coffee was a harmful substance and thus heavily taxed and later banned its purchase. (Fun fact: He also felt this way about tea, and thus, when a pair of identical twins were convicted for drinking these illicit beverages, he ordered them to life in prison instead of the usual death sentence, so that he could conduct a great “experiment” on them. He forced one twin to drink 3 pots of coffee a day, and the other twin to drink as much tea, trying to prove that beverages were dangerous and would quickly kill those who partook. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work, and both twins lived well into their 80s.)

Also not surprisingly, the prohibition of coffee didn’t actually cease its consumption but simply created a counter-culture around it. Caution was taken when discussing it, and thus came about words like fika. The Powers That Be eventually legalized the beans in the 1820s, and coffee’s popularity quickly soared again. The word fika remained in the vernacular, and soon became a national institution.

Common Uses
Workplace

Nowadays, fika breaks are built into most workplaces’ daily schedule, and you won’t win any bonus points from your boss by working through them. Break rooms are fika rooms, where employees gather, typically once every 4 hours of their shift, to take a cup of coffee and catch up with their colleagues. This has held true at every job I have worked in Sweden so far, from the internship at a children’s theater, to seamstress for a local artist, to cashier and sandwich maker at a cafe. 

One of the first (and most important) Swedish phrases I learned was “Dags för fika” (pronounced [dox fer fika]; meaning “time for fika”), and I have fond memories of my co-worker welcoming me into the kitchen with this phrase, where we would then discuss our respective native languages. (I was studying Swedish at the time, and he was quite the anglophile, so this was equally interesting for both of us). The coffee was good. The company was better.

Home

As a (nearly) lifelong coffee aficionado myself, I have greatly enjoyed the culture of fika. When my mom came to stay last year, I was very pleased to get to share it with her, and she soon caught on to the importance of it. We would fika quite often at my mother-in-law’s house, or my husband’s grandmother’s apartment, and when Darling Daughter was born, we hosted many a fika at our place for visitors and well wishers. 

The wonderful part about the home fika is the versatility of it. Every fika is different: the culmination of the people who are taking part. My mom recalls “sweet treats and treats that looked sweet, but weren’t [my mom was unpleasantly surprised by some unsweetened whipped cream!]…simple fika celebrations of desserts made with freshly picked berries from the garden…[and] family and friend parties with savory treats of homemade pizza.” These are all wonderful, and all fika.

In town

In order to truly understand the culture of fika, one need look no further than the konditori. While franchised, American-style coffee shops have been gaining in popularity over the last couple decades, the Swedish coffee shop (perhaps we could call it a “fika shop”?) is the konditori. This is usually larger, more the size of a diner, with several tables and chairs inside (and outside, in the summer) so that fika-goers can gather together in community. A konditori may even provide more substantial food such as quiches, salads, or large sandwiches, but at their essence is the bakery counter, with glassed-in displays of various cookies, cakes, and smaller sandwiches. (My mom’s favorite fika sweet was blåbärspaj with vaniljsås.) Most konditorier have recently added espresso machines, but the traditional ones will only have regular coffee (and hot water for tea or hot chocolate), available in carafes in the dining room, so that the fika-goer can refill as necessary. Many don’t even have a “to-go” option. This is a place to sit awhile, to take a break, to fika.

Alternate Uses

While an important part of fika is the company, the “self fika” has recently risen in popularity. This is often shorter than a normal fika, but similarly allows the fika-goer to stop and reflect, and take stock of where s/he is on a given day. I have no proof of this, but I suspect this came to popularity with the influx of American-style coffee shops, and the growth of college and university towns. I grew up in a US college town, and have been tickled to find that the university coffee culture is alive and strong here as well.

My Dear Husband also brings up the refreshing qualities of fika. When asked what he would like to share about fika, he pointed out it is the “power nap” equivalent to eating. A fika is a great way to have a little snack, to top up when it’s not yet time for lunch or dinner. In a family where we all get hangry, this is very important!

Summary

Whether it be a picnic-like spread as the culmination of a nature walk, a mid-morning respite at work to check in with colleagues, or a warm, cozy gathering of dear friends at home, the fika culture is one of the greatest parts of Sweden I have experienced. Fika is, at its core, friendship, community, and respite in the form of a coffee break.

One thought on “Learn Swedish Chronicles, pt II: Fika

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