Nothing gets between Swedes and their 'fika'
(AFP) The French have their wine, the British have their tea. For Swedes, it's all about "fika", the de rigueur daily coffee break with a sweet nibble that is a social institution.
Sweden's almost 10 million inhabitants account for one percent of the world's coffee consumption, making it the second-biggest consumer behind Finland.
Coffee is drunk with breakfast and after meals, but it is the mid-morning and mid-afternoon coffee breaks - "fika" - that are almost sacrosanct, factored into everyone's daily schedules whether they're at work, home, running errands in town or taking a hike in the outdoors.
"Fika", pronounced fee-ka, is both a noun and verb, and designates a moment, usually planned in advance, alone or with friends or coworkers, to savour a cup of coffee or tea or even juice and eat something sweet, usually a cinnamon bun, pastry, cake or even a light sandwich.
For Swedes, the art of the Swedish "fika" in no way compares to a few minutes at the office watercooler, or meeting up with a friend for an espresso in a French café. In Sweden, people stop what they're doing to have a "fika" at least once a day, sometimes twice.
"Life without fika is unthinkable," according to the book "Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break" written by Swedes Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall.
"Fika is also the art of taking one's time," Brones said, explaining that it's more than just coffee and a slice of cake: it's about making a commitment to slow down and take a break from the rest of the day's plans and routines.
"In the United States for example, you get your coffee to go. In Sweden, you sit down, you enjoy the moment, and that's what people want to do more and more."
Swedes have been drinking coffee since 1685, and it became a common and widespread drink in the 1800s. But it is not known when the tradition of having a daily fika began.
The use of the slang word "fika" first appeared in 1913, and is believed to be an inversion of the two syllables in the Swedish word for coffee, "kaffe".
The word also has many derivatives: a "fik" is a café where you have your fika; "fikarum" is the room at a workplace where staff meet for coffee; "fikasugen" means to crave a fika; "fikapaus" is to take a break from whatever you're doing to have a "fika".
"Fika" is also a natural part of the day in the workplace - and stopping work to sit down for a mug of java and a chat with colleagues is not considered goofing off from one's duties.
"Studies show that people who take a break from their work do not do less. It's actually the opposite," says Viveka Adelsward, a professor emeritus in communications at Sweden's Linkoping University.
"Efficiency at work can benefit from these kinds of get-togethers."
At the Stockholm offices of the Swedish handball federation, employees meet up in the kitchen twice a day for 15 minutes, at 9.30 am and 2.30 pm, to have coffee and a pastry.
"It gives us a chance to talk about what we're doing. Ideas take shape and that way we can avoid a lot of meetings," says the head of the federation Christer Thelin.
"By law you're entitled to a five-minute break per hour worked. For the fika we compile these five minutes into one 15-minute break, we satisfy our caffeine craving, and we talk about everything: a lot about work, but also current affairs and a bit of personal stuff too," adds employee Lasse Tjernberg.
'Trendy right now'
The practice never ceases to amaze foreigners.
"It throws people off who come here from other cultures. It arouses their curiosity and they don't know what to make of it," says Sergio Guimaraes of the Swedish Institute which promotes the country abroad.
And "fika" is starting to grow in popularity outside Sweden.
"Sweden is very trendy right now, and since 'fika' is a Swedish tradition that makes it even more cool," said Brones, co-author of the new book dedicated to "fika".
Evidence can be found in the numerous eponymous cafes offering Swedish "fika" that have popped up around the world in recent years, including London, New York, Toronto, Australia and Singapore.
"There is a growing interest in Swedish food which is linked to Swedish authenticity and nature," Guimaraes says.
In addition, "sweets have a special standing in Sweden. It's one of the few countries in the world that has special days dedicated to a specific cake or a pastry, from Waffle Day to Cinnamon Bun Day."