fika = a coffee break (but so much more)

A view of the Uppsala Cathedral as I walked to work yesterday morning. Just because. Nothing to do with fika but pretty!

This post has been a long time coming. As the internet explanation below notes, fika is one of the first words you learn upon coming to Sweden. According to one person I spoke with, the word "fika" is apparently kaffe backwards, though I don't know how accurate this is.

In the U.S., we take coffee breaks. We might even meet someone in a cafe and converse for a while. What we don't do is take fika breaks 2 times a day, sit down with our colleagues, and talk for a while. 

As I was talking with someone yesterday, to ask someone for coffee is to go get a cup of coffee. To ask someone to fika is to ask someone to engage. 

Here's one explanation.  

A social cup of coffee

Swedes prefer not to translate the word fika. They don’t want it to lose significance and become a mere coffee break. It is one of the first words you will learn when visiting Sweden, right after tack (thank you) and hej (hello).

Fika is much more than having a coffee. It is a social phenomenon, a legitimate reason to set aside a moment for quality time. Fika can happen at any time, morning as well as evening. It can be savoured at home, at work or in a café. It can be with colleagues, family, friends, or someone you are trying to get to know. It is a tradition observed frequently, preferably several times a day.

If you pass by a construction site, they have porta potties and a portable fika room- a break room complete with coffee pot. The picture below is the fika room at the construction site near our house. Can't really see it, but it has some plants in it. It's a fancy place!

At Stockholm University, Chris' colleagues have a more casual fika most days- gather for coffee around about 10:15, talk with each other for a while. Head back to work before a lunch break (and then an afternoon fika). The fika room gets a delivery of fruit every day. 

At Uppsala University, the Peace & Conflict Research Department hosts a more formal fika once per week on Thursday mornings from 9:30-10:15. Three people are tasked with purchasing the food (with department funds), setting up the fika, then cleaning up afterwards. After people have their food and drinks, it's a good place to introduce visiting faculty (this is how I was introduced in September), interns, new students, etc. Also a good place to say thanks and goodbye to people. My mom came to fika with me when she was visiting in December.

I tend to go to Uppsala on Tuesdays & Thursdays as it's a fair commute- a bus or bike ride to the train station, a train, then a walk across the city of Uppsala. It takes me at least an hour 15 minutes or more one direction. Fika on Thursdays is a good reason to go that day-- and a good chance to get to know my colleagues in an informal setting. 

Turns out I was on the fika set up committee yesterday... must have been here long enough to no longer be "visiting" in quite the same way!

The three of us- a senior faculty member, a grad student, and me-- figured out who would do the shopping. I volunteered to bake. 

Shopping list: 
8 loaves of bread, butter, cheese spread, cream cheese, 3 huge chunks of cheese, fruit, cookies, cucumbers (4), avocados, sprouts. Gluten free cookies, bread. Everything labeled. Our fika set up tends to be more savory: cheese, etc. The powers that be decided that although salami or other meat is often included, it has too big a carbon footprint so they were sticking with vegetables. I brought some apple cake with cinnamon (applen kaken med kanel) and stopped at a bakery (bageri) for some kardemmbulla (cardamom rolls). One person (from Italy) noted how much she appreciated a "sweet fika." 

We made something like 10 pots of coffee and a couple of containers of tea. Spread it all out- mostly ready to go when people showed up at 9:30. Nothing like hosting a short party for about 45 people. I'd offer a picture here but we were scrambling to get it ready. By 10:15, not much left but the crumbs. By 10:30, we'd cleaned up and went back to our regularly scheduled programming (work). 

While fika can be a work event, it is also personal. Our family came up to Uppsala last Saturday for dinner with some of Chris' colleagues; we took a hike around the Viking burial mounds near Uppsala. Part way through our explorations, we found a spot out of the wind where his colleagues opened up their backpacks, pulled out the tea, coffee, and hot chocolate, and fresh cinnamon buns. Fika on a hike! A picture of Elizabeth hanging out on top of the mediation stone set up where we stopped for our fika. 

In October, the Fulbright Commission hosted us for a day of culture in Stockholm. A visit to a castle, a visit to a museum, and a fika break in the parking lot with lots of homemade treats (a sweet fika, for sure). Portable table and lovely spread below... 

One of the things we like most about fika at work is the chance to actually talk with ones' colleagues- casually, for a few minutes, but it builds a connection. You know who is excited to go horse riding for the first time after having had kids. You know what people are thinking about, engaging with... it is a few minutes of connection- maybe a couple times a day, or once a week as in Uppsala. We've been thinking how we might bring at least some of this tradition back. Stay tuned!