Thought of the Week: Seattle’s “Latté Run” vs. Göteborg’s “Fika”

2010-02-19. Published in Life in Gothenburg
by Nina

Whether it was Sweden’s distracting winter beauty or a series upcoming project deadlines, this week has felt just a bit…disjointed. I left my lunch at home måndag, I forgot a skype-date tisdag, a symposium melted my brain onsdag, and I was late to Swedish class torsdag. Naturally, between rushing to make trams, putting spoiled milk in my tea, or forgetting to write emails, the only time I’ve been able to successfully collect myself has been when my hands are around a cup of coffee…

Hence why this week, I will be diving in to the Swedish concept of fika from the perspective of a caffeine-addicted Seattlelite.

Seattle has a large coffee reputation. As the hometown of Starbucks, my old American city is well-known for its espresso snobbery and those iconic white-and-green to-go cups. The rejuvenating aspects of taking a coffee break there is alive and well—and, actually, contrary to popular belief, much of the latté-loving populous in the Pacific Northwest avoid Starbucks creations. In fact, I dare go far enough to say they despise it. Almost everyone I know who enjoys coffee in Seattle does so from a local coffeeshop that often is dripping with eccentric cultural sarcasm and fair-trade initiatives. Or, at least I do.

There is simply nothing more soothing for the winter soul than to migrate to a café from the depths of white, city mist and meditate on the taste of pearly-brown coffee.

That said, I was delighted to learn prior to moving here that Göteborg had a strong coffee culture. And though in several aspects these two cities remain very much the same in their love for the drink, there are distinct and lovely differences between the Seattle “latté break” and the Göteborg “fika”…

  1. Antiquity. First of all, let me express my immense pleasure in finding no major obnoxious coffee chains in this city. I’ll tell you, having an actual corner in Seattle where there are no less than five Starbucks makes me cringe in ways I never thought I could. What I genuinely appreciate in Göteborg is how many cafes are still in old buildings, still serve on timeless tables, and still keep the 1970 graffiti on their bathroom stalls. Easily, you can find a tucked-in café anywhere in Linnè, Haga, and along Vasagatan that’d could make all buzzing in your head stop.

  2. Invitation. This, I find, is the key difference between coffee here and coffee in Seattle. In Göteborg, the baristas and café owners expect you to stay for your coffee break. They give you a porcelain cup. They don’t ask if you are going anywhere. They’ll clear you a spot within their tables. There is in no way or form a suggestion that you should be ordering your coffee to-go and leaving within 10 minutes of dawdling in front of the display of South American espresso. No. Here, you are given your coffee, and you sit and sip for at least an hour (omgyesss).

  3. Hospitality. In Seattle, when you do have the time (and space) to sit for coffee, you are then expected to bring up your dishes. Not in Sweden. Do you know how luxurious it is just to leave the cup at the table? Do you see the blankets they leave out for you if you’re cold outside?? Yes, the baristas may not ask you about your day, but who the hell cares? They give you blankets. Genius.

  4. Pastries and cakes. No bagels here. No shitty, dry banana bread that costs the equivalent of your firstborn child. No, darlings—here, there are cakes, and cookies, and kanelbulle the size of your head. And if you don’t want anything sweet, there is lasagna(!), and small sandwiches with butter and thin layers of ham. And, God—I cannot…get over…the custard they smother it all in. Jaaaaaaa.

Obviously, there are the smaller things, too: lattés served in water cups (ja!), tea and coffee have the same price (nej!), more crying babies (nej!), maneuvering six faux-bamboo trays on an antique table for three (tetris!), the impossibility of seats with good reading light/outlets (neeeej). In fact, just the other day, I had to master the artful dance of edging around five prams with a very full teacup.

But all things considered, it’s completely obvious to this Seattlelite why Göteborg is the most espresso crazy city in Sweden. Fika here is a religious experience. And I, am a total convert.

/Nina, team 2011