I’ve written about fika before. I was but a young man then, so naïve. My opinions have changed a bit. Although my coffee drinking habits have not. As in, I don’t drink it. The bitterness reminds me of my elementary school music teacher who was just serving her time before retirement and her pension kicked in. On an unrelated note, I am a terrible musician.
You can talk to Swedes about how the word fika just can’t be translated. You can read about how it’s a way of life. You can be advised that it’s the safest way to make friends in Sweden. You can use it as a semi-date. You’ll be inundated with the truth that fika is a solely Swedish invention and one that defines a sense of Swedishness. That it’s anathema to your colleagues to miss the office fika for it is a cultural institution that must be preserved at all costs. That once you start regularly fika-ing you will have stayed in Sweden for too long. Or long enough to be Swedish.
Fine. We all have our own truths. But fika is not so simple.
For the uninitiated, fika is a thing here in Sweden. It’s like asking someone “want to grab some coffee?” But the Swedes are protesting having read that sentence. There’s so much more to it than that, they’ll say. It’s not just coffee, they’ll say. They’re right. The same way that “want to grab some coffee” in the US can mean:
- I’m thirsty. Want to grab some coffee?
- I’m hungry and want a baked good. Want to grab some coffee?
- I’m lonely and need someone to talk to. Want to grab some coffee?
- I’ve missed you and want to catch up. Want to grab some coffee?
- I’m horny and find you attractive but am incapable of asking you on a date and think that a cup of coffee will clearly lead to sex. Want to grab some coffee?
- I’m pretentious and want to bestow upon you my encyclopedic knowledge of coffee. Want to grab some coffee?
- I’m interested in making you my friend. Want to grab some coffee?
The word can be used as a verb or a noun. There’s a bit of debate about the exact etymology, but it is generally accepted that the word is a form of back slang in which the word is, yup, you guessed it, spoken backwards. So kaffe, coffee, somehow became fika. Some letters were apparently rearranged. I’m not a linguist. Don’t judge me.
Usually, along with your coffee or tea (or hot chocolate if you know what’s good for you) you can add a baked good. This is, as far as I am concerned, the most redeeming quality of a fika. Because I love cardamom rolls. And cinnamon rolls.
Read those clickbait-y websites that give the top x reasons to move to Sweden or top x ways you know you’ve been in Sweden too long and you’ll find some funny truths. I read them against my better judgment. This is where I learn that Swedish men are tall, Swedish women are blonde, Swedes like to fish, they do this, they do that, and that they fika at work twice a day. Now don’t get me wrong, I am fascinated by stereotypes and cultures and what that says about the world we live in. But, and here come some facts that may rock you to your very Swedish-loving core, the part of you that smells of cinnamon buns and sill, the part of you that bleeds snaps and stor starks: not every office has a daily fika. Let alone two. Not every Swede enjoys fika-ing. Not every fika is a turning point in your attempts to assimilate into this oh so foreign culture. What‽‽‽‽‽‽ (Look at all those interrobangs!) I know. Calm down.
I’ve worked in a few different office situations in Sweden. Never once did we have a planned daily fika time. Now, my few years as an adult in Sweden do not speak to the experiences of every person in Sweden. I’m aware of that. But three different jobs and the most I can say is that sometimes on Fridays at one of my jobs we got some baked goods in the afternoon. Usually only when someone was leaving the company, which happened quite a bit. Turnover was high.
Fika IS a thing. But it is not THE thing. Or ONE thing. It is performed in so many different ways or ignored in so many different ways. It can be used as a marker of identity—either inclusionary or exclusionary. It does not, however, mean you’ve made it, that you’re one of them. If only it were that simple.
The folklorist in me wants to see some sort of interesting public folklore project that crowd sources the fika experiences of Swedish people through pictures, video, and maybe some written accounts. The Swedish American in me wants to see the nuance that makes fika fascinating, not fifth on the list telling me that I’ve been in Sweden too long. The non-coffee drinker in me wants to see hot chocolate be embraced as an acceptable drink for 30-year olds.
But we can’t all have what we want. I've got fika plans next week anyway.
Welcome to Sweden. Want to grab some coffee? Or maybe a fika?