Stockholm/ 斯德哥爾摩, Travel / 探險
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Travel Dispatch: What is Swedish “Fika”?

A short cultural observation and meditation on the tradition of a Swedish coffee break, known as “fika” – leading into a short cafe review and listing.

Fika is a Swedish term that essentially means “to have a coffee with a pastry / cake”. It differs from, say, the way Americans say “go for a coffee” or Taiwanese say, “喝下午茶” in that it can be used both as a noun and a verb – you can fika (Shall we fika in an hour?)  or have a fika (Where do you want to go for our fika tomorrow?). Another purported difference is that you must have a pastry, or some kind of sugary sustenance – along with your coffee. I entirely sympathise with this rule, official or not – Swedish coffee is strong.

It’s described as an inherently social act, vs. the American cultural context of “coffee break” – coffee time is seen more as an act of physical recharge (mission: get as much caffeine as humanly possible into bloodstream), or about being a fucking hipster sitting in cafe for hours staring into the depths of your Macbook.

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The importance of fika in Swedish social interaction is something I began to notice at the farm last year – we’d break for a fika promptly at 11am each day. We’d sit on a knoll overlooking all the fields, eating pies and cakes that the cafe didn’t sell on previous days, and down gallons of coffee as Lars or Emilia led to the discussion regarding tasks that had to be finished in the afternoon. The meeting was necessary because after the initial morning meeting, we’d all scatter to work on largely individual projects – one would head off to weed the potato field, someone else would be fixing broken bikes, yet another would be seen hauling loads of fluttering white sheets to and fro from the cabins, to be washed and dried. Fika was a time to re-group and coordinate;  integrate ourselves in each other’s lives again.

From what I’ve observed so far,  life in Sweden can also be quite solitary and individual-based; at least in comparison to Taipei. No night-markets, where you’re gulping down hot steamed buns, shoving elbow to elbow with your neighbor. Here, it’s different. If you don’t want to, you won’t, simply because there’s enough space for everyone. It’s mind-boggling to look at a map of Sweden and compare it to the population; Stockholm is as crowded as it gets, in this country. The cold doesn’t help – it’s already too cold to wear shorts here, and it’s only August. Come winter, I imagine looking out the window and seeing people rushing from place to place doing their own thing; small dots on their own trajectories, huddled against a washed-out wintry landscape. I suppose that’s why the act of fika is so intentional – When we fika, my small dot chooses to depart from its lone trajectory and align with yours, if only for a few hours.

This is fika in Uppsala:  Housed in these gorgeous historical houses, the cafes generally have free refills and  massive cinnamon buns (kanelbullar, in Swedish).  I vow to fika at every damn place in Uppsala by the end of it all; a feat that’s not too ambitious given the city’s size, but it’s something to work towards, yes? I started with the oldest cafe in Uppsala,  creaky wooden furniture, a maze of musty, wall-papered rooms, refills of coffee, and a blueberry-vanilla bullar the size of my face.

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Ofvandahl’s Konditorei

Sysslomansgatan 5, 753 11 Uppsala

Website

8 Comments

  1. “When we fika, my small dot chooses to depart from its lone trajectory and align with yours”
    Amazing. You’ve managed to describe how spacious Sweden is while making it sound so directed to the person you’d have fika with (for the lack of a better term, it’s best described as hugot*).

    * Kind of hard to explain, but it’s along the lines of something coming from the heart, usually with emotional context and impact.

    • Stephanie Hsu says

      “Hugot”. I love it. Thank you for introducing the term to me.

      • temporalthought says

        No problem.

        That garden is beautiful. I’m stuck in the metro so we don’t get to see that around here. Good luck seeing a large plot of plants even.

        Forgot to mention, it’s a deviation from its original meaning of removing something attached, usually by pulling (a plug, wires, etc.); does not apply to doors. Also, to make things clear, that wasn’t Swedish (just in case).

    • Stephanie Hsu says

      Jackie –

      Thank you for stopping by this little space! I will definitely try my best to keep on documenting my exchange semester – I know that many people drop off the radar when their social life starts picking up, but I resolve not to do this!

  2. I never heard anyone describe our coffee as strong, but when I think about it I have often heard Swedes going to America and finding the coffee over there too bland. And the coffee refills we call påtår, a very useful word in a country where we never drink just one cup 🙂
    Have you gotten over the worst culture shock yet? The new courses will start soon so I hope Uppsala is at least a little bit more crowded.
    (If you ever end up in some major problem while in Sweden you can always let me know. Even if I’m far away I can always find someone to help you out!)

    • Stephanie Hsu says

      I would definitely say that some of the coffee I have had at the farm I worked at looked (and tasted) like tar! Absolutely black! Ah- will have to learn that word by heart- one thing I looove about Swedish culture is how much coffee is consumed, all the time!

      I’m actually writing a post about culture shock – you can read about it / we can discuss it. It’s definitely been a struggle, but I think a good one, ultimately.

  3. loved when you say that fika: “my small dot chooses to depart from its lone trajectory and align with yours, if only for a few hours.”
    that was great stephanie, I see how you are picking up and getting more and more used to the culture there. keep enjoying your experience there, and thanks for share it with us. it’s funny to see your posts and then, I see it all as almost as in your pictures in a tv show I started to watch earlir this year “Welcome to sweden” by greg phoeler.

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