In an increasingly fast paced, modern world, people often struggle to find the time to relax. For those looking for a it might be helpful to learn two words: hygge and fika. Somewhat related in spirit, these two words, one Danish and the other Swedish, offer an interesting look at the way the Danes and the Swedes take a break the demands of modern life.
Cosy, Comfy Hygge
Let’s take hygge first. Though the word was originally Norwegian, it is associated most strongly with Danish (mostly because the Danes have been the most enthusiastic at promoting it). Most people understand hygge to mean ‘cozy’, which is about as accurate as saying a twenty-lager hangover ‘aches a bit’. More accurately, the word describes a particular state of mind, an atmosphere, the creation of a little mental and physical space where the turmoil and troubles of the outside world is shut out and a warm, intimate, convivial mood is created.
The desire for hygge is a hugely motivating force in Danish culture and has a lot to do with the long dark winters. From the beginning of October all the way until the end of March darkness rules the country and the sunshine is a sad, pale thing. When it’s cold and gloomy outside for this long, moods tends to follow suit and to stave off an annual dip into depression, the Danes have developed the art of creating hygge into a fine art, and almost a national obsession.
The best to witness hygge in action is in a Danish home. Many Danes put a great deal of effort into creating that ‘cozy, comfy’ atmosphere in their own homes. If you can’t manage to wrangle an invitation into a home, another very good place to find hygge is in a small, cozy restaurant serving good Danish food. Here, as in the home, are the dim, soft lights (usually candles), comfortable furnishings and ‘homey’ feel so essential to creating a hggyelig atmosphere. Here, you’ll also find the other essential ingredient for hygge:husmanskost, which means “good down-home cooking.” Danish cuisine tends be the kind of hearty, solid fare you’d expect from a country with hard winters, a long shoreline and a cultural preference for comfort food — lots of simple, unpretentious dishes featuring seafood, dairy, beef and potatoes. When you’re in a really good, restaurant, with good company, and you can feel your cares beginning to slip away with the prospect of a good time ahead – that’s hygge.
Coffee Breaks in Stockholm
If you cross the border to Sweden, you’ll a culture that is in many ways similar (but also in many ways startlingly different) from the one just left behind in Denmark. Given the close history all the Scandinavian countries share and the somewhat sibling-like relationship they share, that’s not too surprising – and much as in Denmark, the easiest place for a visitor to delve into Swedish culture is in a cafe.
The Swedes are the biggest coffee consumers in the world, averaging about 4.5 cups per day, so predictably there are a lot of coffee shops and cafes scattered around Stockholm. In these cozy little establishments, at practically any time of the day, you’ll find Swedes of all ages indulging in a cherished Swedish tradition: fika.
The word fika is usually translated as ‘taking coffee,’ but like hygge, the translation doesn’t do it justice. Fika is an entire cultural institution, something like hygge but on a smaller scale. Like hygge, it implies taking a break from the daily grind of everyday life, of shutting out all the stresses and troubles and relaxing with friends. Usually, this relaxing break is conducted over a big cup of coffee or two (along with some light snacks of course), but the most important ingredient is good conversation.
Fika is considered both a way of coping with hectic modern day life and a great way of nurturing human relationships. The way the Swedes approach fika is somewhat equivalent to the way Brits traditionally view teatime, or the way Italians think of siestas. Unlike teatime or siesta however, the Swedes are happy to have their fika at practically any time of day. Contrary to their reputation as somewhat taciturn beings, the Swedes can become positively gregarious during this ritual, and never more so than during the long cold winters, when there really isn’t all that much else to do.
Of course, for a visitor to really begin to appreciate the importance of hygge or fika, the most important element is good company. Whether you’re lucky enough to have a good friend or family along, or are fortunate enough to make friends with a Dane or a Swede, it doesn’t really matter who the company is; but once you get that ‘warm, fuzzy feeling’, you’ll understand why both Danes and Swedes value their respective traditions as much as they do.