Swedish Lessons

Fika Photo

My Swedish class has officially ended. Though I am no expert, and I will never get the accent down (I even needed a video to learn all the letters of the alphabet: ÄÖÅ), I have surely come a long way.

At first, my knowledge of Swedish was purely practical. I needed to stop leaving the grocery store with licorice flavored ice cream instead of chocolate, to stop putting instant coffee into the machine, and to stop pouring yogurt on my cereal. Times were tough, especially at the Swedish grocery store. But as my understanding of the language deepened, I learned that language can teach us so much about a country. My two favorite Swedish words are ‘lagom’ and ‘fika.’ And Swedes will often tell you that these are two of the words that characterize their society as a whole.

Lagom means moderation, or just the right amount, and can be applied in many situations. You can have the right amount of beer, the right amount of success, or the right amount of customers. My Swedish friend Marcus taught me this handy new word the other night when I was working in one of the student nation pubs in Uppsala (think of a nation as a student group or organization). Working in a pub is sort of a student rite of passage, and everyone helps out in these student-run organizations. Marcus expressed that he thought we would have a lagom night. I thought so too.

On my first full day in Sweden, I woke up early to take a bus tour of the city. My helpful tour guide, whose name I have now forgotten (January feels so long ago), expressed this very idea of lagom to us that freezing morning. He explained that in Sweden, it is common that when people are building their houses, they do not put the largest side facing the street. Coming from the U.S. where bigger is always better, this was a strange concept. Rather, it seems it is more Swedish to put the smallest part of your house facing the street. This is not only a sign of modesty, but of conformity or uniformity, which is so important to the Swedes.

10 Good Things to Know About Sweden

My other favorite Swedish word, fika, can be used as a noun or a verb and is used pretty much all the time. Fika translates to mean a sort of coffee break, which sounds simple enough. As people hyped up fika to me before I arrived here in Uppsala, I must admit, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I take coffee breaks. But I have found my whole understanding of coffee breaks has changed. A coffee break used to be a real luxury, and my caffeinated companion was usually sipped as I walked between classes, during classes, and pretty much glued to my hand all day.

In Sweden, to-go cups are rarely seen, and it’s not just because the Swedes as a whole are extremely eco-friendly. To fika is to sit with friends, and take a break from your day, and everyone does it. The best part would have to be the pastries, though I am still trying to figure out how all the Swedes don’t blow up to huge proportions after consuming kanelbullar and princess cake everyday with their coffees.

I feel that these two words have not only defined, but also enhanced my Swedish experience. During my time abroad, both moderation and slowing down to chat over coffee have been so instrumental in my happiness. I think both fika and lagom are partially responsible for my success here as well. I have learned how to live on my own in a foreign place, I have found a niche, a home here, one that will definitely be hard to leave. At school back home, fika and lagom are definitely not the governing principles of my days, but maybe it’s time they take a place in my daily life. Coming to Sweden was just right for me, each day was lagom, and filled with a good fika break with new Swedish friends.

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