I’ve seen a lot of articles and Facebook posts in the last couple of years about the idea of hygge. Hygge is a Danish word (koselig is the Norwegian version) that means a sense of coziness, comfort, and warmth. It’s a mindset that many people in Scandinavian countries have in response to the very dark winters. It is particularly prevalent in Tromsø, one of the farthest north towns in the world. Tromsø is 350km north of the Arctic circle, which means the sun remains below the horizon for a portion of the winter.
Over the winter of 2014-2015, Kari Leibowitz, psychologist from Stanford University spent 10 months in Tromsø studying the effects of light on people’s psychology. She devised a ‘winter mindset questionnaire’ to assess people’s attitudes about winter. She also administered the assessment Oslo area, which is one of the southernmost points of Norway. Her results were fascinating. The farther north they went, the more positive people’s mindsets towards winter were. People in Tromsø make a point of creating light – whether floodlights on the sledding hill or an incredible number of candles – and of enjoying the soft colors of twilight at midday.
In many ways, this reminds me quite a bit of the other bit of Norwegian wisdom I shared with you: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” Rather than falling prey to circumstances outside their control, many Scandinavians simply do their best to adjust and move on. One town called Rjukan, Norway adjusted by building giant mirrors to reflect the sun to their town, which is at the bottom of a deep canyon. (This being said, a lot of Swedish literature, songs, and humor have fairly dark and depressing themes, so make of that what you will.)
But wait, you’re thinking. Didn’t you study abroad in Sweden? Why are you talking so much about Norway? Truth be told, I never learned the Swedish word for hygge or koselig. But one of my favorite words and ideas that I did learn about in Sweden is the idea of fika.
Fika is one of those awesome words that really doesn’t translate. Even though Swedes are known for having some of the best English in a non-English speaking country, they don’t bother to translate it and just use it the way it is. Literally, fika translates as a verb: “to coffee.” But it’s used in a lot of different ways. People have said to me, “Let’s have a fika,” “It’s time for fika,” and “Would you like to fika?” Fika can mean to take a break, to grab a cup of coffee on the go, or to meet up with coffee and pastries and friends. Fika could be at a coffee shop, on a walk, or at someone’s home. (I keep saying coffee even though I don’t drink it. Even under many, many evil eyes, I stuck with my tea. Swedes are coffee OBSESSED.)
One important distinction that was made clear to me very early was that fika was a personal, intimate invitation. Asking someone to get coffee was much more formal. Especially in the winter, fika is a really important way for people to create a cozy, comfortable space where they can reconnect with important people. Sound familiar? Even though fika is an activity rather than a mindset, it feels a lot like hygge and koselig.
Fika is central to Swedish life. In my neuroscience class, we had four hour lecture blocks scheduled. At first, I was a bit worried about focusing for four hours, but our professor quickly made it clear that there would be frequent fikas, and we could bring our drinks and snacks back to class. My apartment was on a corridor with four Swedish girls and we all shared a kitchen; they were almost always having a fika when I got home. Perhaps it has something to do with Swedes’ constant need for caffeine (and in the winter, warmth), but I loved the constancy of people connecting with their friends.
I feel like fika is an art form that not as many people have discovered in the US. We have a huge coffee shop culture, that is true, but it feels really different to me. For one thing, we don’t often have fika at home. And when we’re in coffee shops, we’re there to work or to meet people for various productive purposes, rather than to get together with an old friend. It doesn’t have the same intimate feel as fika did while I lived in Sweden. And the US has a very interesting culture surrounding breaks and productivity, which could be a whole different blog post.
I recently read this article on the BBC. It’s about US cafes that are removing their WiFi and/or banning screens. In the article, the writer describes current cafe culture as feeling “more like open-plan offices than centres of community.” Some of the cafe owners interviewed cited the need for relief from technological imbalance as the reason for getting rid of WiFi, while others cited the desire to create a place of discourse and connection. The article explores societal, psychological, and economic impacts of creating spaces like this. It is a completely fascinating article (and links to a 69 page history of the purposes of cafes!) so I highly recommend reading more than just my little summary here.
Now, I spent a quite ridiculous amount of time sitting in Brewing Market throughout my college career. One semester I totaled it up; I wrote over 100 pages of graduate-level education papers in that coffee shop. The guy who worked on Wednesday mornings, my favorite time to go, started recommending teas to me based on what he knew I usually ordered. My other favorite place to work was in the engineering center, which also had easy access to tea and snacks. I still go to coffee shops sometimes to grade or plan because I like having the energy of other people talking and working around me to help keep me motivated.
But when I think about fika, I also think about this description of the original purposes of cafes. From that same BBC article, the purpose of cafes was “to act as places for lively debate and intellectual discussion and, above all else, social interaction.” In fact, the idea of a cafe without any technology is hugely appealing to me. If people actually talked to each other, I feel like it would ameliorate quite a lot of loneliness, feelings of being disenchanted, and isolation.
I still have lots of questions in my head about this kind of a cafe. I certainly don’t want to lose the ability to work coffee shops; some of my most productive work times have been in coffee shops around Boulder. And I also wonder about notebooks and books. When newspapers came out, people bemoaned the lack of connection lost to reading on the subway or time not spent listening to the radio. Will these older technologies (yes, printing is ABSOLUTELY a technology) still create gaps between people and isolation?
All that being said, I would welcome a “No-Fi” coffee shop in Boulder. I think perhaps it might be more popular than most people would expect. And I think it might help give us a way to start learning the art of fika.
Your homework: Have you ever experienced a cultural idea that you wished you could bring home? How do you connect with your most important people? What do you think about “No-Fi” coffee shops?