Monday, June 17, 2024
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A four-letter word is Sweden’s sweet secret to happiness

What’s common between Kolkata and Stockholm? Absolutely nothing you’d think, and you’d be wrong. For one, an unusually chilly spring in the Swedish capital made me yearn for a monkey cap. The much-ridiculed Bengali headgear may not win any fashionista points, but it keeps the ‘shordi-kashi’ at bay. Merits of the ‘tupi’ aside, Swedes have a tradition called ‘fika‘ that is very reminiscent of Bengali adda culture.
While Manna Dey’s song ‘Coffee House-er shei addata aaj aar nei’ reminds one that the glory days of adda at Kolkata’s famed Indian Coffee House are no more, fika is thriving. Fika – a flip of the two syllables in ‘kafi’ – is a ritual that lubricates the wheels of Swedish society with coffee, conversation and cake.
While the world has sad desk lunches and swills coffee on the go, Swedes fika. It’s an essential part of the workday in offices, says Bjorn Nielsen, a management consultant in Stockholm. “Earlier, it was twice a day but now it’s usually once. The Friday fika is extra special with employees bringing baked goodies from home.” But don’t bosses throw a fit at all work coming to a halt for 20-30 minutes every day? “Some of them did initially, but several studies have shown that these communal breaks boost productivity and prevent burnout. Also, Swedish companies follow a flat and not very hierarchical management style, so fikas are a way for employees to chat more informally with seniors as well as people from their own department. Many a problem has been solved over fika,” says Nielsen.
Swedish companies often spell out fika breaks in job contracts, and most offices are designed with a seating space and coffee machine where employees can gather away from their desks. Besides this emphasis on socializing, Swedes also have 25 days of paid leave in a year and no culture of overtime.
Not surprising that they ranked No 4 in the 2024 Happiness Index. And with all that fika-ing, they are also among the world’s biggest coffee drinkers.
While fika involves caffeine, it also has a very sweet component. Cafe Vete Katten, one of Stockholm’s oldest patisseries is a popular fika stop. Inside the high-ceilinged cafe, it’s difficult to resist the enticing aromas of traditional favourites such as cinnamon and cardamom buns, raspberry caves, and even a slice of the classic princess cake topped with green marzipan. “Traditionally, if you ask my grandmother, she’d say you need seven different types of pastries (Sju Sorters Kakor) for a fika at home. Less than that, and you’d be seen as stingy, but now it’s pretty much whatever you want,” says Jonas Alvin, marketing manager at Visit Sweden.
One doesn’t need a formal workplace to fika. “It can happen even in a construction site if that’s where you work. The conversation doesn’t have to be about work, it’s about getting to know your co-workers,” says Alvin. Not just colleagues, everybody fikas – friends, students, and even children over milk. Montadar, a 24-year-old who works at the Fotografiska Museum, says young people prefer to get fika on a date rather than go to a bar. “It’s more cosy on a first date,” he says.
In spring, people meet up in Stockholm’s many gorgeous green spaces, and one fika favourite for tourists is under the cherry blossoms of Kungstradgarden, a centrally located park. After a few fikas, it’s easy to see that it’s not coffee or even the great pastries that makes it special. It’s about taking time off to savour the moment, without constantly looking at your smartphone.

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