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The Scandinavian Concepts of “Fika” and “Hygge”: How To Channel Them This School Year

Translation Key (in order of appearance)

  • Tunnelbana: the Swedish subway-style transit system.
  • Kaffe: Danish and Swedish; coffee.
  • Fika: Swedish; see below.
  • Hygge: Danish; see below.

One thing that nobody tells you about studying abroad is how scary it can be. This summer, I studied in Sweden for three weeks and Denmark for four. While it was a truly unforgettable summer, I went into it terrified to be on my own on another continent for that long. I didn’t speak any Swedish, and I only knew the absolute basics of Danish (thanks, Duolingo). I didn’t know anybody else in the program. 

Despite the feelings of excitement that had begun to bubble up months prior, there was a pit in my stomach as my parents, who used my study abroad as an excuse for a family jaunt to Europe, boarded the subway without me — the last I would see of them for almost two months. 

I am not ashamed to say that I cried in the middle of the tunnelbana station. My parents would soon be halfway across the world. But I took a deep breath, wiped my tears away, and climbed the stairs to street level. The day prior, my mom had sent me a picture of a sign hung up in some kaffe shop, but I had only barely glanced at it. Once I was again among the never-setting Stockholm sunshine, I pulled it up again. In big, pastel bubble letters, it read: 

“Fika”

[fi:ka] verb

“A concept in Swedish culture with the basic meaning ‘to have coffee,’ often along with eating something sweet. Fika is considered a social institution in Sweden.”

Wait a minute. What did getting coffee have to do with a “social institution”? I was confused, but any excuse to buy myself a latte and a cardamom bun (an infamous Swedish treat) sounded good to me, so I put the question out of my mind and began to walk home.

The best iced coffee of my life
A beautiful strawberry pastry — one of my favorite “fika” finds!

Three weeks later, I arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark, for my second class of the summer. I was sad to be leaving Stockholm, the city that I had just only started to feel at home in. The idea of fika had stayed with me, but mainly in the form of a social event, where a friend might say to me, “Hey, do you want to go and grab some fika after class?”. I still hadn’t quite figured out the second half of the definition. 

My friends and I treating ourselves to pizza and passion fruit mixers

In what could be considered a weird coincidence or even fate, one of the first coffee shops that I visited in my new host country had another sign hanging upon its wall, this one with a simple but elegant cream background and a classic black font:

“Hygge” 

[‘hue-gah] noun 

“[1] Hard to explain and even harder to pronounce [2] A calm, comfortable time with people you love [3] A complete absence of frustrations, or anything emotionally overwhelming – often enjoyed with good food and drinks, warm blankets and candlelight.”

I was roughly 400 miles and a seven-hour bus ride away from Stockholm, in a country with a different language and culture, and yet the two definitions were strikingly similar. I knew that the two countries shared much; however, the extent of the cross-culturalism had not fully struck me until that moment. 

It was then that I began to fully understand the practices of fika and hygge. While it was a perfectly reasonable excuse to buy myself a fresh pastry and hot drink, it was so much more than that. It was a synonym for “self-love” and “self-care.” A promise you make every new day to make time for yourself, your friends, and your family. To stop and breathe, to notice. Notice the little things, those mundane happenings that bring you joy. For me, that is the sight of the Moon, particularly in the daytime, watching butter melt on toast and ivy growing on crumbly building walls. A “social institution.”

One of the little (pun intended) things. This statue, called Järnpojke (“Iron Boy”/”Little boy who looks at the moon”), is located in Stockholm’s old city center, Gamla stan. He stands 15 centimeters tall.
Admittedly difficult-to-see jellyfish in the Copenhagen bay waters

As a full-time college student and part-time worker, it can be really difficult to find space in my day to look for the little things. Often, I will get home after a long day of classes and realize how I kept my mind shut, how I unknowingly barred myself from new experiences because I was so preoccupied with the “priorities” that come with being an adult. 

I encourage you to seek out fika and hygge in your daily life. In your classes, your work, your home lives and your relationships. Buy yourself that outfit you wanted. Cook yourself your favorite meal. Remember that it is okay to say ‘no’ to things. 

In whatever form it may take for you, remember this: there is no such thing as not having enough time to reflect on the little things in your life, grab a coffee, or spend time with the people you care about. Go ahead — find your fika. Channel your inner hygge.

Jordan Chamberlain

CU Boulder '24

Jordan is a third year Elementary Education student at CU. She enjoys disappearing into fictional worlds through reading, creative writing, and watching an unhealthy amount of T.V. shows and movies. You can find her spending ridiculous amounts of money on coffee, collecting funky postcards, and listening to a chaotic collection of music.
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