After 5 Weeks in Scandinavia I Caught an Incurable Case of Hygge and Fika

In travel, some of the best souvenirs you can bring home are cultural traditions that enrich your life.

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The heart of Old Town in Stockholm. Cold, rainy and need of some hygge and fika. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

I recently returned from five beautiful weeks in Scandinavia, and while there, I learned of two concepts that I vowed to bring back to the Upper Midwest: the Danish concept of hygge, and the Swedish fika. When thoughtfully employed, both are sure to make your midwest winter more bearable, even cause to celebrate.

Introducing: Hygge

The concept of hygge (pronounced: HOO-gah) is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. I stepped into a local shop in the Twin Cities, Patina, the other day and spied several books extolling the virtues of hygge and tips on how to bring hygge into your home.

Hygge, loosely translated, means “cozy.”

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Cute and typical restaurant scene throughout Scandinavia: blankets draped on chairs for cozy customers; candles on every table. You’re welcome to sit, relax, and stay for a long, long while. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Why this concept hasn’t taken hold in the Upper Midwest until now stumps me. We’re famous for the long, cold endurance contests we call winter. But why do we not proactively and relentlessly pursue coziness, like the Danes do? Our restaurants have tall glass windows that let in the cold from the outside, unencumbered by drapes or shades. Our chairs are stiff and uncomfortable, narry a blanket to be found (Surely this is a health department issue; heaven forbid we should generate laundry or risk spreading disease by giving people a throw to wrap in). Candles? Dangerous. Wasteful, even. We can’t just let EVERYONE have fire.

In the Upper Midwest, it’s actually sometimes hard to find cozy places these days. Our offices and clinics are stark and bleached white. Restaurant chairs and tables are hard and washable. We are climate-controlled, but not to a level of comfort (I distinctly remember wearing my winter coat at the office when I was in the corporate universe.) Everything is ridiculously “open concept,” so not only do you feel exposed from all angles, but assaulted by the unbuffered ambient noise and loud conversation. And, not to mention, we’re forever tethered to technology–what could possibly be less hygge than digesting the minute-by-minute “bowl full of hate” of the internet, as a friend calls it.

Instead of creating and seeking out sanctuary for the six months of winter snow and cold we endure each year, we put our heads down and barrel through it. In the midst of storms, we drive the dangerous roads rather than snuggling up at home. I know people who have working fireplaces that are never used–as if it’s too much trouble. It’s almost a show of strength here: wear your flip flops and shorts as long as possible and you’re sure to get appreciative looks from passersby. Fly south? Work from home? Call in sick? You’re soft. Hygge, by our standards, is a sign of weakness.

I submit that hygge is a virtue.

The Little Book of Hygge, which I spied in stores around Copenhagen and is apparently regarded as the essential guide to hygge, lists the following suggestions for incorporating hygge into your life:

  • Get comfy. Take a break.
  • Be here now. Turn off the phones.
  • Turn down the lights. Bring out the candles.
  • Build relationships. Spend time with your tribe.
  • Give yourself a break from the demands of healthy living. Cake is most definitely Hygge.
  • Live life today, like there is no coffee tomorrow.

At sidewalk cafes in Copenhagen, you will find blankets draped across chairs. Every table in restaurants has a candle. The hallways smell of cardamom. Even a hostel I stayed at in Copenhagen, Woodah Hostel, exhibited the Danish concept of cozy. Beds were enclosed, with a curtain over the entry and soft comforters that were much nicer than any hostel has a right to have. Guests could effectively cozy up as they readied for bed. (One sweet Hungarian woman I met named Dory, actually said one night, “I’m going to get hygge now.” Then wrapped herself in her comforter. She came to hygge quite naturally.) Common areas were strewn with soft pillows, books and blankets. The attached cafe served up still-warm whole grain breads, pastries and hot coffee in seemingly unlimited supply.

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Breakfast at Woodah Hostel in Copenhagen. Whole grain seed breads, jam and coffee. Blankets on the chairs, candles at the table. Very hygge. Photo by Charish Badzinski

In Scandinavia, people even have hot tubs and saunas at their homes, which they tuck into to ward off the chill.

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Outdoor seating at a restaurant in Gavle, Sweden. Heaters, blankets, candles and ample coziness. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Upon my return to the states, I happily found BackpackMr had already jumped on board the hygge train. He had a care package of hygge goodies for me: candles, placemats, soft napkins and more, all aimed at making winter a little cozier. Since then, I’ve procured several hygge-inspired items myself: a super cozy bedspread, some new, ridiculously soft socks—a pair which stretches up to my knees, and some pink fuzzy mittens. Because winters are long and hard and we all deserve to be cozy.

Introducing: Swedish Fika

Though my family heritage is Swedish, I had never heard of the term, “fika.” But when you’re in Stockholm, you can’t avoid it. Coffee shop windows declare, “We love fika!” and workmates bring pastries to the office with the intention of sharing them at fika.

The Swedish concept of fika refers to a coffee break with friends, often with a pastry to enjoy. And if it’s a really special occasion, and if you’re lucky, you might have a slice of princess cake.

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Scandinavian cinnamon rolls, topped with pearl sugar. Photo by Charish Badzinski.
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A Swedish cinnamon roll, topped with pearl sugar. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

My family of Swedes brought back the coffee habit big time, but somehow we lost the fika. Some relatives drink coffee from sun up until bedtime, but rarely touch a pastry. Oh, and the Swedish do pastries right! Delicious, cardamom-scented rolls, studded with pearl sugar; cinnamon buns, and even the simply named, “fikabrod.”  Bread for fika.

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Princess cake. Layers of whipped cream and jam and cake all enrobed in marzipan. Yum! Traditionally enjoyed during special occasions, such as birthdays. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

While researching family genealogy at a library in the little town of Skutskar, Sweden, the library staff invited me to join them for my first fika ever. We gathered around a table, shared pastry and had a cup of coffee while chatting. I told them I thought it was a wonderful concept, and they marveled at the fact that we don’t have fika in the states, even with all the Swedes who emigrated here. I explained that while we had coffee shops, most of us hit the drive through, or sit indoors, staring at our laptops. Alone. Meet with people for coffee and conversation? It’s nearly unheard of these days. We didn’t even have pearl sugar, I explained, to their horror. “You must buy some and bring it home,” one Swede declared, while enjoying a pistachio braid topped with pearl sugar.

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Fika at the library break room in Skutskar, Sweden. Photo by Charish Badzinski.
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My first fika, in the library break room as photographed by Britt-Marie Strand of Skutskar, Sweden.

What has happened to us? Even break time at workplaces is a bit of a thing of the past, isn’t it? The last job I had where I was actually allowed to take a coffee break was at a convent. Those wise women were on to something. So maybe fika is a Swedish tradition we once held dear, but most of us have forgotten. I do remember my grandfather, a first generation American, never showing up empty-handed, always armed with a box of donut holes and ready for a coffee break and chat at the table. Sadly, it seems we’ve sacrificed this lovely tradition, this civilized midday break, upon the altars of technology and productivity.

But, not all hope is lost. I’m committed to bringing fika back. A friend in Sweden gifted me with an old Swedish pastry cookbook to bring back to the U.S. I can’t wait to dive in (with the help of Google Translate, of course!). And once again–all I had to do was mention it–and BackpackMr embraced the concept before I even returned to the states. He researched the American Swedish Institute in the Twin Cities and planned a day away for the two of us. It was wonderful. We had lunch at the Institute’s on-location restaurant, aptly named, Fika. And guess what? The gift shop sold pearl sugar.

Fika and hygge, two beautiful concepts sure to help us through the long winter ahead. So bring on the cozy!

Coffee, cardamom and candles, anyone?


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Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to her clients.

Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb

Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

 

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