foreign fika tales II: On the difficulty of finding out what you want.
Since I've moved to Gothenburg, I've met many women who find themselves in the same situation as I do. Most of us are in their thirties or forties, highly educated, fairly cosmopolitan, multilingual, very ambitious. Most of us are also so-called "love immigrants" and came to Sweden to be with our partners, which means that we put our relationships before our own goals and careers. While our partners usually have well-paid positions in their respective professional field, we enjoy a lot of freedom and leisure time but also frequently struggle with feelings of inferiority, isolation, alienation, and a lacking sense of purpose and self-worth. Therefore, my friend Haydee, a Mexican photographer and communications person, and I, decided to portrait some of these women. We want to give voice to their stories, create and understanding for a particular female experience, and raise awareness for how much potential we think is wasted due to the difficult job market. Last but not least, we love to discover new places and people in Gothenburg and love the Swedish tradition of fika - a sacred ritual of shared caffeine and sugar intake at any time of the day.
For the second interview in our series I had fika with Sandra who lives on the same island as I do. Sandra is a graphic designer and loves all things creative. She is into drawing, photography, printing, gardening, and poetry and never returns from her long walks across the island without some little treasures she found during her stroll. She has been working as a primary school teacher on one of the neighboring islands but just quit her job and is about to leave on her next big trip to Asia. On a stormy Sunday night, she comes over to my place and equipped with pepparkakor, tangerines, and julmost, we sit by the fireplace and talk about work, travels, language, finding one’s passion, and the difficulty of socializing as an introvert.
I met Sandra at Swedish school last spring. We had crossed path on our island before but never actually talked. With her bright red hair falling down to her waist it is impossible to not notice her, especially when she is out with her partner who has an equally stunning mane of red curls. It is because of him that Sandra moved to Sweden. Before, she lived in Berlin and worked as a graphic designer for a big advertising agency. After five, six years of living a busy city life, she started to run low on energy and felt a lot of pressure to be creative and to produce a ton of new ideas for her job on a daily basis. “First I thought that I just had to switch jobs”, she recalls, “but every time I was invited to a job interview, I just sat there thinking What the hell am I doing here?? I don’t even want this job! So I knew it was about time to make some changes in my life." After thinking back and forth for nearly two years, she quit her jobs, took out her savings, and left. Starting her 9-months long trip in Moscow, she went East, crossing Russia, Mongolia, and China before heading down towards South-East Asia. “It was in Laos that I fell really ill. The fever just wouldn’t go down in that unbearable heat.” She laughs and shakes her head, immersed in memories. “The only thing I could think of was getting my exhausted body somewhere cooler. So I took a bus up North.” And during that endless 24-hour bus ride, feverish and exhausted, she met Martin. They continued traveling together for a while before they parted ways, and didn’t see each other again before he invited her to a sailing trip to his home country. Martin is a child of the ocean. Although he visited Sandra in Berlin to get an impression of her life, it was more or less out of the question for him to move there. He wanted to be close to the sea. „And to be honest, I had grown tired of Berlin.”, she says and nibbles on a pepperkaka. “It’s so stressful and hectic and everyone is always in a rush. It takes like three weeks to get to meet someone for a coffee. It’s cool to be super-busy. That simply didn’t feel right to me anymore.” So she decided to give Sweden a try. “I loved the island life from the beginning. The quiet, the light, the colors. It feels like a luxury to live on an island but still be that close to a big city. People always think it’s so far out. But it's nothing compared to Berlin! There, it easily takes 45 minutes to get from one quarter to another. Going from Brännö to Gothenburg is like traveling from Kreuzberg to Prenzlauer Berg.”
However, her new life wasn’t only beach walks and sunshine: “From the beginning, there were always these nagging doubts. Is this what I want? How long will it take me to settle in? Will I find a job? How is it gonna work out with the language? Am I gonna make friends? How much patience will I need? How much patience do I have? I tried to come here without much expectations because I was afraid of disappointment. But I honestly hadn’t thought it would be so hard to find work in my field. I applied for every single position I came across. In most cases, I never heard anything back. I was invited to a few interviews but none of them was successful. At some point, I simply gave up. I realized that this wasn’t leading anywhere.” Instead, she started working as a primary school teacher, initially only occasionally covering for absent teachers but being called in more and more frequently until she was offered a full-time position.
I remember how difficult that period was for her. In my impression, none of my other immigrant friends tried so hard to find a job as she did, least of all myself. I was so insecure and anxious that I didn’t even dare to apply for jobs, so afraid of disappointment that often, I avoided merely looking at any job ad. All the while Sandra persistently sent out application after application, growing more and more frustrated. “On the other hand”, she recalls, “I also started to wonder whether this was simply not my path. To be honest, it wasn’t the first time I had doubts regarding my profession. Look at the Black Friday madness, for instance! I really didn’t feel like promoting this absurd consumerism with my work any longer. During my time in Berlin, there was one project that really felt meaningful to me. I was doing a campaign for the WWF in Brazil, it was about protection of the Amazon and the required legislation. The campaign was published in all the major newspapers throughout the country and I think it got a lot of people thinking. If I think about how I would want to use my skills, this is it. Give people food for thought, make them question consumerism and aim at a more sustainable lifestyle, support good causes or creative projects. But chewing gum, washing detergent, cars? Nah, thanks.”
"Speaking another language completely changes a person; your voice sounds different, your intonation is different, you come across like an entirely different person."
I ask her what makes it so difficult to find work in Sweden. It seems that a lot of it has to do with different structures in the advertising industry. In Germany, you usually work in a team of two, one person for the copywriting and an art director for the layout and design. Sandra was actually doing both because she loves working with language. By contrast, Swedish agencies usually look for art directors with copywriter competencies, probably in order to keep the costs down. And this, of course, makes it almost impossible for foreigners. Working as a copy writer requires an in-depth knowledge of the cultural context and the language. You need an extremely delicate sensitivity for words, you need to be able to play with the language, to know all the subtle connotations a word or a thing has in a given culture. “This linguistic sensitivity has always been intriguing to me”, she says, “that’s why I love poetry slams and literature and everything that has to do with language. It just makes me happy if someone has a good feel for words.”
I refill the plate with cookies and candy and our glasses with julmust. Sandra is like me. She is vegetarian and loves fresh and nutritious food. At the same time, she never says No to a fika and I don't feel ashamed for my love of all things sugar-sweet as I often do with people who only eat healthy snacks (or worse, don't snack at all!). I am curious to know if and how the language barrier impacts her relationship. I know that she and her partner speak English with each other. How does it feel to be together with someone who doesn’t speak German, to communicate in a language that is not your own? She thinks for a while before she answers. “I’ve never been in a relationship before with someone whose first language isn’t German. Speaking another language completely changes you, your voice sounds different, your intonation is different, you really come across like an entirely different person. To me, that can be extremely irritating. Sometimes, when Martin tries to speak Swedish to me, I am like: Oh god, who ARE you? Can you please switch back to English?! Everyone tells me that we HAVE to speak Swedish together, and of course that would be a huge learning advantage. But it is not only that English is the language in which we got to know each other. I have to communicate in Swedish all day long while I am at work, so in the evenings, I simply want to relax my brain and not think about language anymore.” I can relate to this so well. Working in a foreign language is always very energy-consuming but having a new job that requires you to communicate in a language you only speak poorly is incredibly challenging and exhausting. We both feel that this is not really valued and share a general frustration about not being able to express ourselves properly. At our current Swedish level, we are able to make a point but we still lack the means to give our words color, depth, wit, and weight. “You always lag behind”, Sandra sighs, “and then there is this constant frustration about all the mistakes you make, the wrong grammar, the lacking vocabulary… Also, I’ve always felt this huge pressure to progress quickly because German is my first language. The structure is so similar that everyone is like Yeah, it’s gonna be a walk in the park for you, you’ll be fluent in like three months! So I built up this huge mental blockage, both because of the outside expectations as well as my own. When I came here and started studying Swedish, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay, I didn’t even know if I liked it here or not. So of course that played into my learning process and made learning the language much harder. I also struggled with constantly comparing myself with others. I always tried to not measure myself according to other people’s standards but at the end of the day, of course you feel inferior and stupid if you can’t keep up.”
"Even when it came to practical things like a winter coat or warm boots, I simply didn’t want to spend the money because it wasn’t mine."
Another thing she was struggling with in the beginning was the financial dependency. Living from her own savings, her partner payed the rent because he was the one with a stable income. "By now, we share all the costs and it feels so freeing!", she says. "I hated to be so dependent on someone and it put so much additional pressure on me to find a job, to earn money…” She remembers how many things there was she refrained from. If there was a movie in the cinema that she really wanted to see, or an interesting art exhibition she would have loved to visit, she would tell herself: Nah, better don’t go, it’s not your own money after all! “Even when it came to practical things like a winter coat or warm boots, I simply didn’t want to spend the money because it wasn’t mine. Also, you know how bad I am at clothing myself!” We burst into laughter because it is her third Swedish winter in a row without proper winter clothes. I don’t know how she manages but even when the temperatures fall way below zero and blizzards are howling across the island, Sandra stubbornly wears her thin jacket and a pair of light sneakers. “Well I eventually bought a rain jacket this fall, so next year I might go for the winter coat!”, she laughs.
One thing many immigrants find difficult is finding Swedish friends; something that considerably slows down the integration process. I ask her if her work at the school helped her to make Swedish friends, to feel more part of Swedish society. She answers a bit hesitantly: „Well, I do have a good relation to some of my colleagues and we have gone for an after-work a couple of times. But now that I quit and am going away, I guess time will tell which contacts will remain and which won’t.” As we all know, making friends as an adult is just not as easy as it is as a kid or a student. Oftentimes, many of our new colleagues are older and even the ones our age mostly have their own families and networks. Once you cross the 30, that becomes more and more obvious. Apart from that, it sometimes feels as if there is simply not much interest in making new friends among adult Swedes. And, of course, not much time for it, either: if you have a full-time job and small kids, you’ll probably use the little free time you have at your hands to meet your old friends rather than investing time and energy into making new ones. “But on top of that”, she says, thoughtfully shaking her head, “I am also simply not an outgoing person. I hate mingling and I am not the type to walk up to a stranger and say Hi, I am Sandra! I remember that right after I moved here, I found out about a group of women, all working in different creative fields. I went to one of their meetings and felt super-excited and positive. But then, everyone was only speaking in Swedish and I didn’t understand a word of what they were saying. I was just sitting there, had no chance to contribute to the conversation, and desperately tried to think of something to say. Something smart, something funny, something interesting. Just something. But of course, once you’re in that mindset, it’s all useless.”
"How do you socialize as an introvert? Starting a new life in a foreign country seems so much harder for us."
I can understand her so well and feel a little tug at my heart. I have been in similar situations many times. You cannot really expect everyone to speak English when you are the only foreigner but I know how helpless and excluded it makes you feel and how it can send you into a downward spiral of hostile thoughts and emotions towards yourself. I oftentimes struggle with insecurity and social anxiety and the language barrier simply adds so many layers of difficulty to that. Sandra continues: “I am usually a very quiet person. Not shy but introvert. Many people think that I don’t like to talk much but that’s not true. It’s simply that I don’t speak if I have nothing to say and it also depends a lot on the context – if I feel comfortable and relaxed with a person, I can be very talkative.” Again, I know exactly what she means. Particularly in bigger groups of people, I may spend an entire evening nipping my beer and contributing absolutely nothing to the conversation. I probably can count the times I raised my hand during university seminars and lectures on the fingers of my hands. But when I klick with someone, I can’t stop talking for hours and don’t spend a second thinking about what to say; it just comes to me naturally. And many of my friends are very similar in that respect, just as she is. “I think that is a very interesting and important question,” she continues, “I would love to explore it more. How do you socialize as an introvert? How do you meet new people, how do you make friends in a new country, a different culture, a language that is not your own? Starting a new life in a foreign country seems so much harder for us. Even in Germany, I was struggling with these things. Friday night, everyone was hanging out at the agency having beers and I was just like I’d much rather lie on my couch and read a good book." In my thoughts, I give her a big hug for this statement.
We see each other regularly, therefore I usually know what is going on in her life. However, I am curious about the bigger picture and ask her how she feels looking back at the past two years. Is she happy about the point she is at after this time? While I am still speaking, I realize that this question is stupid and intrusive and that I would hate if someone asked me the same. But she doesn’t seem to mind and takes time to thoroughly think about it before she answers: “That is such a tricky question. You know, I always try to find out what I actually want but there is only this big nothingness. I wish I had a goal towards which I could work, or a passion, something that keeps me going. I always feel torn between so many different options and sometimes I wonder if that would be different if I had just stayed in Berlin. But you know what? I don’t think so. Most likely, my mind would be as fuzzy as it is now. I try to see this as a chance to re-orientate, to discover new ways, to change old patterns of thinking. When I look at my former colleagues today, I oftentimes feel envious and inferior. They all have advanced in their careers, many of them hold senior positions, whereas I work as an assistant teacher at a chaotic primary school. But then I ask myself: would I be happier if I was in their place? And the answers is No. If I am perfectly honest, hearing about their daily work routines, all the pressure and stress they are subjected to, I am actually thankful that I don’t have to go through that anymore. If you work in the advertisement industry, everything is ever only about career, career, career. I am given this great opportunity to critically deconstruct that word, that concept, and try to erase it from my vocabulary. On the other hand I sometimes fear: Will I always be that person who’s never going to find out what she wants? It’s always been like that. I really wanted to study design and move to Berlin but after that, I just went with the flow and ended up in the advertisement industry, although I never really liked it. I have so many creative and artistic interests but I am an expert at talking myself out of everything, to put myself off every idea or plan before I even really started thinking about it."
"Also, it is so difficult not to look at everything through the lens of Can I make enough money with this? That just kills creativity and art. That is why I am so intrigued by the concept of a basic income, to uncouple labor from money. There would be so many things I would love to do, social work, creative projects, food cooperatives… But I can’t because there is no money in it and I have to pay my bills at the end of each month.” We start talking about the concept of work and how we have come to see it very critically. “People ask me all the time: So what do you do now? 'Do' does not refer to any of my voluntary work or my creative projects or my daily life or how I spend my time though. It means: 'work'. This is as extreme here as it is in Germany. And there is a very strong judgement involved. If I tell people that I work as a primary school teacher, they are like: Oh... OK. But do you like that job? Is this what you actually wanna do? So I have to justify myself and question my choices constantly. It’s this subtle but pronounced intolerance which puts me under so much pressure and stress. I have set up a new life here, have tried and am still trying to find my way into a new country, a different culture, a foreign language. But these are the things that aren't really recognized because they are not as tangible as a career or a house or something. I simply can’t identify with this kind of thinking. I feel drawn to people who share a similar outlook on life, who don’t talk about work all the time but are passionate about travel and cultures and language and art and life. I find conversations about work in most cases boring. I want to say: Let’s skip your day and tell me, what do you do after 6 p.m.? "
"Sometimes I think: haven’t you been at this exact point a few years back? Hoping to find out what you want while travelling the world?"
The conversation is slowly trickling off. We have eaten a lot of sugar and the fire in the old stove has been burning continuously since the early morning so that it is boiling hot in my small living room. It is a late Sunday evening and has been dark outside for hours, so we feel sleepy and a bit empty after so much talking. I ask her one last question: What and where is home for you?
“The place where I truly feel home is neither here nor in Germany.", she replies. "It is, in fact, Iceland. Only there I have the feeling that I am in complete balance with myself and my surroundings. Something draws me towards there magically, there is this energy which seems to be in perfect harmony with my soul. As if my true origin was there." I remember the indescribable energy of Iceland, the rough winds, the barren landscape, the soil under my feet alive and pulsing with volcanic energy, the feeling of being tiny and insignificant between the endless skies and the ancient earth, the fire and the ice. I can picture her so well in that landscape and I am convinced that we know certain places and people from other lives, from other worlds; so to me, there is nothing strange about her answer. She continues: "Feeling home is not about work or friends or hobbies. I had all of that in Berlin and yet, I never really felt at home there. So perhaps, all these doubts and thoughts that I always have are connected to the place I am? Or is it the other way round and the doubts and question that I carry with me at all times make it impossible to build a deep connection to a place? You know, sometimes I think: haven’t you been at this exact point a few years back? Hoping to find out what you want while traveling the world? Of course, everything is different but it still feels at times as if I was standing at the same crossroads again. Is it always gonna be like this?" We laugh and sigh and agree that we should meet again in a couple of years from now to see if we are speaking fluent Swedish and have successful jobs, or if we perhaps are in the process of planning another trip to find out what we really want. I point at the tattoo on my ring finger. "It's a spiral", I say. "It may feel like we're going around in circles but we aren't. We come to similar crossroads but it is not the same, we are not the same. Never."