Every day, our newspaper features a personal portrait of some local person of interest. I once got a page for myself after I found a piano at the recycling station. Most of the time we will read about someone who paints, loves music and/or is active in the church.
A few weeks ago, a young lady was interviewed. She listed “fika” as her hobby. To the uninitiated, this sounds as if someone has made “waking up” their hobby, or perhaps “using a remote control.”
So what is Swedish fika? You can read this article for an independent version. It transpires that fika is not, as I believed, coffee with or without a bun. It is planning to have, and finally having coffee and/or the bun alone or with friends/unfriends – an institution in other words. One example:
Concert at the museum in Uddevalla. I, the harpsichordist, arrive half an hour early to get my instrument out of the car and in place, the car out of the way, and the instrument tuned. Now, the rest of the ensemble arrives in a rented large, new, white, air-conditioned Mercedes Vito. The trip from Gothenburg to Uddevalla takes forty minutes on a straight motorway. Nevertheless, the doors open before the car stands still and with exasperated cries of woe and gasps for air, the Swedish members of the group cast themselves out of the vehicle as if it had wooden benches, no suspension at all and as if the trip had been half a day long. They head for the little café beside the museum’s entrance, because they need fika. There’s a concert to play, there’s music to rehearse, but they have looked forward to this particular fika for a week or so – fika comes first.
An important rule is that you have to bear fika with dignity. I remember once sitting behind a cup of indistinct coffee in the large and empty café of the culture center of Stenungsund. I was tired after driving through a rainstorm and hauling various instruments and other bits of equipment. The others had seated themselves a few tables further up and were chatting merrily, and I thought I might just take a short nap before changing clothes for the performance. Not so. Some random person passed me, snapped his fingers right in front of my face and shouted merrily, “Hey wake up!” You have fika, or you haven’t. No shortcuts.
In the worlds of Carl Larsson, Selma Lagerlöf and Astrid Lindgren, all this still made sense. A bit of the true tradition can still be felt in many beautiful Swedish summer Cafes. It was in fact in Selma Lagerlöf’s own house, which is now a tourist attraction, that after a lengthy and delicious fika our daughter Jessica, then four years old, declared with a sigh, “How kind of Selma Lagerlöf to have some ice cream at the ready for us!” And this summer, I had several opportunities to experience the sheer pride the people from Torpa Café and the mill in Hyssna have in their products: excellent baked goods, good plain coffee, and fantastically idyllic surroundings.
You have to wait until the end of the summer to see how much Swedish fika really is part, no, the essence of the Scandinavian daily grind. Just after my arrival in Sweden, rehearsals took place in an old building in central Borås. The fika-room beside the kitchen was usually occupied by several smoking elderly gentlemen from the former military band. The coffee, brewed with the already quite undrinkable Borås water, was based on the hotel blend of the standard brand. Even fresh, it tasted like dissolved rubber bands and toasted peat. Usually, it had been standing on the warming plate of the brewer for an hour or so. There was no milk. The sweet yeast buns, fikabröd, not those from Hyssna Kvarn’s jolly baking ladies but the bulk ware from the large bakery downtown, were cork-dry and dusty and entirely tasteless except for the standard overdose of ground cardamom that lurks in 98% of Swedish buns, no matter whether they are called vanilla buns, cinnamon buns or plain old buns. I observed how they are tackled: these buns are put into the mouth, dissolved with a swig of coffee and hastily swallowed. Small wonder that Sweden is one of the countries with the highest coffee consumption per person.
Even though, hence, everyday fika with humble standard ingredients is an ordeal not unlike cold showers, a hiking pass in heavy rain turning to snow, or cleaning the bathroom sink downstairs, it strikes me that it cannot be called healthy or useful in any particular manner. After a year or so on the new job, I simply had to stop. My heart made funny skips at every trill I was playing and a sizable bit of one of my molars broke off, laying bare the entrance to a large cavern that had to be taken care of according to a prolonged, stepwise and uncomfortable plan.
Luckily, Caffé Latte came to my rescue: in a few year’s time, Sweden has completely changed its coffee drinking customs, and it is an improvement, a vast improvement.
But watch out. The old fika ghoul is still lurking in unexpected places. Last time at Landvetter airport, the Latte I got after waiting far too long and paying much too much was disgustingly bitter and besides so scalding hot that I feared the cup would burst. I left it standing on the table, with blisters in my mouth and without regret.