Tuesday, 15 May 2007
Girls are happier to travel
Owen Powell – 15th May 2007
In the emails we received as a result of our appearance in everyone’s favourite evening read, The London Paper, one stuck out as being particularly cosmopolitan. To paraphrase, it essentially said, “I’m Sarah, I’m from Sweden, my husband’s from Benin and his cousin runs a restaurant where the chef is from the Ivory Coast.” I simply had to find out more, and while planning long-term for a West African meal in New Cross, I met Sarah for an after-work drink in the Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell.
I wasn’t planning to properly drink, mindful of my bike parked outside and an evening ahead with Niko (Germany) and Stefan (Austria) in “any pub we find near Holborn”, as their email promised. But Sarah arrived and ordered a vodka and tonic, and I thought that a nice slow Guinness wouldn’t do any harm either. Sarah took a sip and began her story.
“I’ve lived outside Sweden for all of my adult life. When I finished school back in the summer of 1994, Sweden still hadn’t joined the EU so it was harder to travel to find work. I actually went to Dublin first, became an au pair, then came to London the year after to study English. I really didn’t plan to stay that long! Before I came, I thought that London would be a wonderful place – really modern and exciting, but it’s probably fair to say that the reality was a little worse. When my younger sister came over and saw my flat in Camden for the first time – well, she cried.”
We both take another sip. “When I first arrived, I knew of about twenty people from my home town of Uppsala who also lived here, but now there are only two of those still here. I've lived all over London - Bayswater, Haringey, Camden, Archway - for a while I shared a house in Wood Green with two other Swedish girls and two Danish girls. We used to have a lot of parties, used to invite a lot of English guys round. It’s funny, we always found it hard getting to know English girls – I suppose if you’re out in a pub, you wouldn’t go and speak to another group of girls, but you would approach the boys. For a while, a lot of the girls I knew all had boyfriends who were in bands. There are many rubbish bands in London, and I’ve been to most of their concerts.”
But what about this Beninian husband, I ask. “Ah! Rome! Yes, well – we met in a club in Brixton nine years ago. I used to go clubbing a lot at this time, I was working at Peter Jones and wanted to go out a lot and forget my job. It was pretty lucky – it was the only night he had ever been to that club, and I can’t think how we would have met otherwise. We got married in 2001. Until then, I think being in London felt quite temporary.”
By this time, Sarah was doing a degree in Arts Management at the University of the South Bank, and after graduating in 2002 took a job at the Tate for a couple of years. She then moved on to the National Gallery, where she stayed until late last year. “I really enjoyed it. My Mum runs a museum in Sweden, so she loved coming over here and doing all the cultural things in London – we’d often go and see four or five exhibitions and shows a day. I also got free Italian lessons at the National – lots of the paintings we had there were Italian, so we had to deal with curators and people from Italy quite regularly. There were no Swedish paintings there, which was a shame. But, I had to leave. It’s the usual reason – the money wasn’t enough. We’re thinking about the future, you know, buying a house. Lots of my Swedish friends who were here all turned thirty with me, and they all left, went back to Sweden to have their kids. So, I took a job with an architect’s firm a few months ago.”
I hardly need say it, but Sarah’s English was flawless. In Sweden it’s normal for English to be taught from the age of ten, then second and third foreign languages are introduced at 13 and 16. The culture in general also favours English being sublimated effortlessly. All television programmes from the UK or US are undubbed, and many Swedish bands sing in English as well (becoming massively popular in Japan and Asia, and helping Sweden to become the world’s third largest music exporter). As Sarah points out, having spent her childhood in Sweden and her adulthood in London, she finds it far easier to have formal conversations in English than in Swedish. “All my academic work has been done exclusively in English as well, so I’m much more confident. I really find it hard doing things like – it sounds silly – but ringing up the electricity company in Sweden, I don’t know how to speak to them. I still read a lot in Swedish, I can get newspapers online and I try to read a few Swedish novels a year. Having said that, I usually read a couple of English novels every week. If I’m reading a book, and someone asks me if I’m reading in English or Swedish, I really have to check the language carefully before I can work it out in my head.”
Cosmopolitanism and travel appear to be in Sarah’s blood. Uppsala, her home town, is a University city, and attracted a lot of political refugees fleeing South America and the Middle East in the 1970s, so she grew up in a mixed environment. In her own family, her older sister had an Italian husband, and her younger sister has now joined her in London and has an Australian boyfriend – “about as far apart, geographically, as you can get from Sweden,” Sarah points out. “I suppose you could say that Benin is about as far apart culturally as you can get from Sweden, so there are similarities there.” Sarah thinks this wanderlust may stem from the fact that her father was a sailor in his youth, travelling the globe in the 1950s, and living in Italy for a while. (Sarah’s brother, by comparison, felt no urge to travel at all, and has settled with his wife in Uppsala. “Maybe it’s a language thing,” she muses. “The girls are more confident, so they’re happier to travel. I don’t know.”)
Sarah has undergone a certain amount of stereotyping as a Swede in London. When people find out where she is from, they generally always mention the same things, as Sarah wearily lists: “Abba, H&M, Ikea …” That’s not to say that Ikea is a bad thing. In fact, it seems to be a one stop shop for Swedes missing food from home – chiefly meatballs and smoked fish. Sarah doesn’t miss the food that much, but does regret not seeing her family grow up, and missing out on her nieces’ childhoods. And the landscape. “Oh! I would walk in the forests every day! I miss the lakes, the sea, but often I have a longing for the forests.” Any stereotyping Sarah has suffered is immediately put into context when she mentions a friend who has trained for years to get a job in her chosen profession, but is always met with the same response. “Yes,” says Sarah, “It can be tough when you introduce yourself as a Swedish massage therapist. People get the wrong ideas …”