Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, is built of 14 islands; the city center is virtually situated on the water. It seems as if everywhere I look, there is a beautiful cityscape framed by the sea. The city is a puzzling paradox – one minute a bustling metropolis, then right around the corner there’s a quaint alley that swiftly transforms it into a peaceful sanctuary. The labyrinthine like streets, each with their own personality, keep me wanting to explore, to leave no stone unturned and discover all of its secrets. I feel as if I could spend a lifetime wandering Stockholm’s winding roads and I still wouldn’t see enough.
Gamla Stan is the old city, dating back to the 13th century, the whole area is comprised of medieval alleyways, cobblestone streets and antiquated architecture. Here, the pace of life is a bit slower, the coffee is a bit sweeter, and all that walk its winding streets can feel the history – it’s a living museum, full of sights, restaurants, curios and souvenirs. Gamla Stan has a unique character, with the buildings in so many different shades of gold; the facades seem to tell a story of their own.
I stroll, taking in the sights and the fragrant smells – something sweet is baking up ahead, so naturally, I go in search. Large open shutters reveal a young girl, her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, sitting next to a metallic machine. She’s concentrating, with one foot placed on a pedal – like with a sewing machine; her hands are delicately stitching together waffle cones. The sweet scent fills the air and my stomach rumbles, she looks over, smiling, and invites me to come inside.
It was here, in this tiny dessert shop that I learned about the Swedish word of “fika”. Pronounced “fee-ka”, it refers to a sacred tradition that all Swedes partake in daily – sometimes even multiple times a day. Fika is the almighty Swedish coffee break.
A woman behind the counter giddily says, “Hallo!” I look up, realizing that I’ve been salivating over the ice cream flavors and Nutella drenched waffles for minutes. Admittedly I can’t decide on which to choose, “What’s the most popular flavor here?” I ask. Her face lights up, “Oh! You have to try this!” She rushes over to the ice cream chiller and dishes up a spoonful of a yellow, blue and white blend. “This is the most popular flavor in Sweden – it’s vanilla with something like blueberry. It’s our national ice cream flavor.” My taste buds dance in delight, and I nod my head yes, “Okay, definitely this, and maybe one of those,” I point over to the girl at the waffle maker.
“Please, go sit – in the open window, and enjoy. Fika!” She insists. “Fika?” I thought to myself, maybe I misheard her. Taking my ice cream cone, I sit in the windowsill, and watch the world pass by. I hear different languages mix together as groups of people walk by – families, friends, people from all around the world, laughing and talking with each other. The sun starts to peak over the buildings of the alleyway, and my blue and yellow ice cream takes on a honeyed sort of flavor as it begins to melt into one.
Inside I ask for a napkin; “How was your fika?” The woman asks, smiling at me again. “My what?”
“You know – fika!” She then went on to explain that the concept of fika is simple. It is a pause in the day to truly enjoy the present moment, typically with a baked good (or sweet) and a coffee. You can do it alone, or you can do it with friends. The essential thing is that you slow down and savor the moment: that’s what fika is all about.
*This piece was first published here.