Keep calm and have fika

Off the Beat

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With a plastic cup of hot coffee in hand, I was in the forest sitting on a log, chatting with my host family. Under the green roof of trees and the sunlight that snuck through the gaps, I drew a deep breath, taking another bite of my cinnamon roll and throwing wild bilberries into my mouth.

That time in the forest, we were having fika. “Fika” is both a noun and verb in Swedish, and it means to take a coffee break, though it is more than that. Fika in itself is not formal, so if you are taking a break with a cup of coffee in your hands and some snacks, you are having fika. In this Swedish tradition, you can chat about whatever you’d like, but it is strictly separate from work — you must leave your worries behind.

Looking through pictures from years ago, I remember that fika felt as if I was living in another universe where time is stretched. It was like the day had been extended, giving me some extra time to stop and relax, not worrying about what I would do next.

Traveling to Sweden was a dramatic transition for me. Living in a city where everything is open 24/7 and where I followed a minute-by-minute schedule, I never really knew how to “take a break.” Having been somewhat of a workaholic, I devoted all my time to my to-do list instead of spending it with friends and family, or even setting aside time for myself. Time was a game for me and if I failed to squeeze as many things as possible into the shortest amount of time, I lost.

Stepping into a somewhat mysterious country with very little experience with coffee, let alone knowledge of the place, I only knew that Sweden is one of the happiest countries in the world. Setting off to the dreamland, I had one question in my heart that I wanted to get answered: What makes the Swedes so happy?

In my search for happiness, what stood out to me was fika. In the morning after breakfast, when people get to school, during recess, during work, when they get home, after dinner — throughout the day, there are multiple coffee breaks in Sweden. As a coffee beginner who tried coffee for the first time there, I had a hard time understanding or even catching up with their coffee obsession.

But sipping my seventh coffee of the day, I found there was something more to the coffee breaks than all the food and caffeine. It was the time, people and interaction that made fika so “addictive.” It was its magic that transformed the nature of time from fast to slow, blank to colorful.

Not only did fika slow my sense of time, but every time I had fika, I was with someone — my host family, host brother or friends. We had various conversations, from trivial jokes to politics, and while they may have not always been the funniest or the most meaningful conversations, something always stuck with me: an inspiring idea, a new question to think about or simply fulfillment. Fika gives people both a place and mindset to gather with others. It’s a wonderfully laid-back system that binds people together with coffee.

After two weeks and many fika later, not only had I learned about the tradition but I’d also understood the philosophy behind it. There are multiple untranslatable concepts particular to parts of Scandinavia: lagom, which points to the balance and moderate pace of life, and hygge, a Danish concept that expresses feelings of consciousness, slowness or intimacy in life.

Through these little rituals, I realized that Scandinavians have vastly different perspectives through which to capture moments. Not only is their time frame wider but their purpose of using time also differs. They may look lazy from some perspectives, but they are keeping a moderate pace of life — not rushing things too much and yet remaining productive — that is very much their own.

Four years later, I am back to my busy routine worrying about coronavirus cases, elections, upcoming pieces, exams and assignments. Hurriedly remembering to eat, I keep typing.

In a time when we spend entire days at home, these rituals can help give some structure to our lives. No matter how chaotic and tragic the world becomes, your routine and happy rituals remain. Sticking to our daily structures is probably one of the few things we can still hold onto and that can keep us sane at a moment like this.

Whether you are alone or with someone, in person or online, it never hurts to have a cup of coffee with Dime, Swedish chocolate candy with crunchy caramel inside. After all, what’s the rush? You have 24 hours in a day and, if you’re a young student like me, 80 more years to live. Let’s stay calm and have fika. Perhaps these little coffee breaks are what we need to make ourselves happy.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members separate from the semester’s regular opinion columnists. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.