Monday, March 26, 2007

More Biking in Lund … and the Swedish f-word -- Fika!

[Please forgive our long delay from the last blog entry -- life goes on and little is as exciting as the Ice Hotel :-)]

It was a miserable sleety gray Saturday morning. Cathy was out vegetable shopping with her friend in the market square and bumped into a couple she knows. The wife is a physical therapist and her husband is an architect. They are busy people with four teenagers and live about 10 kilometers from the market square. The wife invited Cathy to accompany them to a nearby store. “And we have our car,” the wife said rather sheepishly. “We are being very lazy today.” Think about that for a minute. A busy, financially secure, middle-aged couple doing their weekly marketing and apologizing for driving rather than biking or taking the bus.

Biking, walking, and taking the bus are way of life in Lund because these options are cheap, but they are also convenient, safe and easy. The entire community has agreed to put cars on the bottom of the transportation ladder. Drivers are hyper-aware of pedestrians and bikers. They watch carefully. We have never been “doored” by a driver getting out of a parked car. (The other day David encountered a car in a bike lane, waiting for a passenger -- he was genuinely shocked and a bit pissed off!) Drivers watch while they are driving too. There is a real hierarchy that everyone agrees on. Drivers must and do yield to bicyclists, buses and pedestrians. Drivers, even bus drivers, yield to pedestrians and bicyclists – really they do – even slowing on narrow roads until a bike lane opens up. And bicyclists yield to pedestrians. The system works.

We biked a while back for the first time on ice. The ice can be hard to see – thin, black and impossible to grip, even with good tires. The trick is to make turns and to stop s-l-o-w-l-y. We skidded a little at first but got the hang of it quickly. Akiva was our lookout, finding snow to ride on for extra traction.

Cathy's first spill on ice was nothing major but still a shock. She and Akiva were biking to a concert. The late afternoon was fairly warm and she didn’t see the ice under a puddle. She made a normal turn ended up flat on the ground in the puddle with her bike. Akiva tumbled off his bike to avoid hitting Cathy. Cold, wet, and slightly bruised, it was a good lesson for us to stay aware whenever the weather is a little cold.

Akiva and David biked in the first (and probably only) major snow of the winter-- probably around six inches, with a lot of drifting due to heavy winds. It was tough getting around wherever there was a build-up -- our tires sunk right into the snow and stayed there -- but in many places that had been traveled upon or cleared, there was no problem at all. (And wow, was it fun!)

Indeed, the major bike lanes are cleaned before many car lanes after a snow storm. The priority order for snow clearing transit lanes includes bus routes, major bike arterials and then car lanes.

The bike lanes were mostly carved out of wide sidewalks or existing roads, starting in the 1970s. Several city initiatives in the following two decades added more lanes and improved standards of paving, landscaping and maintenance. An EU-funded initiative, LundaMat started in 1998 and provided about $10 million US over the next six years to fill the gaps in the bike network, including new dedicated bike lanes, bicycle traffic signals, bike parking next to major transit hubs, and the construction of many tunnels under major arterials. We haven’t found any place in or around Lund where we don’t feel comfortable biking.

We expected there would be more mopeds, which are allowed on most bike lanes, since this is the only gas-powered vehicle a teen can drive between ages 15 and 18. But we seldom see a moped. Most of Emma’s classmates walk, bike, or take the train or bus. (Even Akiva takes the train one stop to and from one of his friend's houses for play dates.) Our best guess is that mopeds cost just too much money and require too much work.

One silly thing is that kids are required to wear bike helmets (while biking, that is!) only until they are 15. So, when they turn 15, they immediately stop wearing their helmets because it shows that they are older. Parents often ride bareheaded along with their helmeted kids, which seems to reinforce the equation that "no helmet = older" and suggests that adult brains in Sweden may be less valuable than children's brains.

Cathy says the worst time to bike is in freezing rain, zipping down a hill with what feels like needles of ice blowing hard into her face. She likes biking best for the exercise – working up a grade with muscles firing, heartbeat strong, a clear and open bike lane with traffic lights timed for continuous movement.

After all that biking, it's important to make sure you have proper sustenance. And that leads us to the Swedish f-word, fika. Like the far less pleasant f-word (but not at all like Ann Coulter's f-word), fika is a noun and a verb (and perhaps an adjective or even an adverb) that roughly comprises what we would call a coffee break. Everybody does fika. One of our acquaintances said that she "majored in fika" in school. It is one of our favorite traditions in Sweden.

In David's department (and probably almost everywhere), there are two fika-times each day: 9AM and 3PM. In the faculty/staff/student lunchroom, pots of coffee are put on, and many people gather, usually precisely on the hour, for 20-30 minutes. Conversation might cover something technical, but usually the topics are more general -- folk music, making violins, biking, travel, politics, culture, complaining about the students and the administration (some things remain the same worldwide!), etc.

The coffee is provided by the department, although there is a small espresso machine provided by a member of the department who collects money for its use. Sugar is also free, but you need to bring your own milk if you want it. Quite a few folks are tea drinkers, and some prefer instant coffee. There are mugs to use -- no paper cups! -- with two dishwashers in frequent use. (Confused about which one to use at the beginning of his stay, a colleague gently pointed out to David the "Dirty" magnet, written in English, as the key to this mystery.) Celebrations -- for instance, a recent 50th birthday -- are held at fika (and in that case the celebrant provided dozens of semlor -- yummy cream-filled pastries traditional this time of year). There is also after-lunch coffee, although it's not entirely clear if this is considered as a fika -- even though it surely feels the same!

We were recently invited to a friend's house for a weekend, mid-afternoon waffle fika. A small waffle iron at the table making lovely waffles to be covered with fruit jam, whipped cream, and more. Coffee and good conversation (especially when the three kids went outside to run off their waffle calories) made this a memorable fika, for sure.

There are dozens and dozens of coffee shops in Lund. Makes us feel like we're in Seattle. Kind of. Coffee to-go is usually a few kroner cheaper than if you stay at the coffeehouse. One of Cathy's friends is an American coffee roaster. She was surprised to find that the closest coffee roaster is a far cry north of here -- there isn't one in town. We've been told that the water in Skåne is highly alkaline, which changes the flavor of the coffee. So they have a special SkåneRoast that is especially strong, overcoming this problem.

In any case, we're hosting a fika for the parents of Emma's friends from school on April Fool's Day (on which the Swedes apparently have a similar propensity for practical jokes -- or else maybe we're just the fools for believing this!). The Tentacles (and associates), as her gang is called, will be one of her major support groups next year when she stays in Sweden, so we thought we ought to know more about the families. Emma's likely host family will come, too -- the children are classmates of Akiva's.

The next installment: Cathy and Akiva go to Spain and Morocco and take a camel safari!