Foreign Fika Tales IV: nevertheless, she persisted
April 7, 2020
For the fourth foreign fika tale, I spoke to Grazzia from Honduras. She is married to a Swede and they lived together in Stockholm and Tegucigalpa before moving to Gothenburg about three years ago. When I interviewed her, she had just gotten her first serious job at Gothenburg University, so she reflected a lot about the difference that meant for her life. We spoke about the difficulty to enter the Swedish labor market as a foreigner, about cultural differences between Scandinavia and Central America, and the white lies she told to her neighbors.
I meet Grazzia on a windy Monday evening. Most of May has been unusually cool and cloudy, the weather indecisive and moody. This day is no exception. Incessantly, trams and buses spill out dozens of people onto Järntorget, the busiest square in Gothenburg, but most of them hurry home or towards one of the restaurants and bars nearby. Only few linger. I introduce her to one of my favorite places in town, a small, unpretentious coffee shop that sells rare cigars, excellent coffee, and stale buns. A popular meeting point for elderly Latinos, the Cuban vibe is further enhanced by the predominantly Latin American music and the earthy colors of the interior. Instead of coffee, we order beers and sit down on the bar stools by the window. From here, we can watch the hustle and bustle on the square, whereas we remain largely unseen from the outside.
Grazzia, a trained biologist, started her life in Sweden in the country's capital city where she studied a Masters in social-ecological resilience for sustainable development. The night she handed in her thesis, she also applied for a position at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Central America— which she eventually got. "It was perfect", she recalls, "as a fishery and marine conversation officer, I could work from home but traveled a lot in the Caribbean region. That kind of job is the dream job for every biologist". Yet, she and her husband Linus decided to return to Sweden. He struggled to find work and the prospect of starting a family made life in Sweden much more attractive. He went back after a year or so but although they were already married by that point, getting a residence permit in Sweden took Grazzia almost two more years during which they had to make their marriage work across the continents.
"I was very optimistic when I moved here. I had all these great memories of my time in Stockholm — but it turned out to be nothing like that. I consider myself a very adaptable person but moving here felt like getting slapped in the face by reality."
"I felt like a nobody who just sits there and doesn't have an opinion or anything to say."
Both Grazzia and I moved to Gothenburg at the worst possible time — in the middle of winter. Suddenly she found herself at home alone most of the time, looking at the grey slushy January misery outside, paralyzed by loneliness, anger, and anxiety. She felt locked at home without social contacts, a job, or financial independence, her husband being away at work most of the day. I ask her if she harbored resentments against him at that time and she creases her face: "Oh yes! It was terrible, I felt like I had given up everything — only to come here to absolutely nothing! In Honduras, I had been completely independent, moving around freely, driving, paying my bills, sorting out stuff. Here, I felt like nobody. In the beginning, Linus and I went out to run errands together, bank, apartment, and such, and I didn't understand a word of what was being said. I felt so stupid, just sitting there beside him as if I didn't have an own opinion or anything to say. And Linus was sad, too! We had made this decision together and now I was sitting here feeling miserable. What was he supposed to do or say? It wasn't that he had forced me. I knew I had to make a choice between family and career. I knew it, so I did. I just didn’t think it would be so hard."
In precisely that moment, we see Linus passing by on his way home from work. Grazzia steps out to say Hi. The sky has cleared up and suddenly, the evening is soft and inviting. It's as if the weather here has a bipolar disorder. Through the big glass windows of the coffee shop, I watch them talking and smiling at each other. Kissing and other public display of affection between couples is rare in Sweden. Sometimes it seems as if even loved ones prefer their personal space over physical intimacy. I get that and appreciate it, one of many instances where my personality resonates with Scandinavian culture. The playlist hops from a Latin guitar version of American Pie to The Police. Walked out this morning, I don't believe what I saw, a hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore. Seems I'm not alone in being alone, a hundred billion castaways looking for a home...
"I said 'hello' and 'good morning' to all these people here but they just kept on straight out ignoring me!"
After a brief exchange, Grazzia returns and slips back onto her stool next to me. "That's something I love about Gothenburg!", she says merrily, "You just bump into people you know. It me really sad in the beginning — I didn’t know anyone, I was walking through the city and felt so much like a stranger." Social relations and interactions work so differently in Honduras, she explains. She had a big network of friends and family and would see them several times a week. It was normal to know all her neighbors, to greet everyone in the neighborhood, talk to strangers in the streets. She recalls: "I thought: something must be wrong with me — I said 'hello' and 'good morning' to all these people here but they just kept on straight out ignoring me!"
Slowly, however, she started to push back against the sadness and frustration, taking back control over her life and weaving her own paths into the city's mesh work. Giving in to the gentle pressure of her husband, she joined a language exchange group at Språkcaféet — where she made her first friend. What you have to know about Grazzia is that she is the sweetest, kindest, most likable person on earth. We met on the first day at our language school. I was late as usual and was referred to the last free seat in the room, which happened to be next to her. We were around 60 adults from all corners of the world (read more about my Swedish classes here) and I felt too shy and insecure to talk to anybody. I just peered at Grazzia out of the corner of my eye, admiring her beauty as well as her calm and confident aura. Eventually, we started to talk. And we became friends. That's what she does to people. You just feel comfortable and at ease in her presence, so you turn towards her and start talking. But more on that later.
Her sociability certainly helped her to settle into life in Sweden, however, she has another trait that proved incredibly useful — her persistence. Whereas I was stuck in desperate indecisiveness about what to do next, Grazzia kept on sending me links to all sorts of offers and programs directed at immigrants, things she had discovered and I had never heard of: work placements, internship opportunities, funding options, language support. "I was unemployed", she says "but I was always up to something, involved in things" — many of which eventually turned out to be dead ends. She would often feel frustrated, wondering what's the point in even trying? . So what made her persist? She laughs: "I am not really into astrology, but this I do believe: I am a taurus and therefore extremely stubborn. If I set my mind on doing something, I'll do it." Thus, she kept trying, despite of bad experiences that made her want to give up at times.
"My job has to feel meaningful — otherwise, there is no point."
She recalls a particularly bad day at the Volvo Ocean Race where she had to give an educational workshop and the audience ended up straight out laughing at her. "I was crying all the way home on the bus. Then, as well as in other situations, I felt like people were being racist.", she muses, "but at the end of the day, I was probably just playing the race card. These were really unfortunate situations that didn't have anything to do with my skin color." While I admire her self-critical attitude, I still remark that this makes everyday racism such a tricky issue — it may be rare that people say explicitly racist things to us, rather, white supremacy structures society in a way that shapes perceptions and behaviors in subtle ways. It is well possible that the audience on that particular day would have shown a different reaction if the speaker hadn't been a young, delicate, brown-skinned woman with a heavy Spanish accent.
Apart from occasional gigs like that one, Grazzia has worked as a private Spanish teacher, a translator, and as an assistant at a facility for impaired kids and young adults. These jobs got her some income — but not much more: "My actual profession is really closely connected to my feelings. I love the ocean and want to protect it, so my job has to feel meaningful — otherwise, there is no point. I was already considering to apply for jobs abroad and getting ready to move again. Why would I want to be somewhere where nobody wants me?"
"Without the patience and support of my colleagues, I would not be where I am today."
Eventually however, she did find a way. With the help of the språkpraktik program (an unpaid internship for immigrants to improve their language skills and acquire first work experiences in Sweden), she managed to get an internship at the Center for Sea and Society at the University of Gothenburg. The internship went great, so as a next step, she was able to get a part-time position, her salary paid by the Swedish Public Employment Service — another strategy to increase the chances on the labor market for immigrants. Eventually, she was offered a full position at the University of Gothenburg. "I am forever grateful to my colleagues there!", she tells me. "They were all so busy but they would always make time for me, explain me everything, give feedback and encouraging words. If it wasn't for my them, I would never have advanced the way I did!"
This stood in stark contrast to some of her other workplaces, where colleagues would get annoyed and roll their eyes at her when she didn't understand immediately what they were saying. "If that would have been my only experience, I don't think I'd have a job and speak Swedish today." She nods absently, and I wonder if those people even have the faintest idea of how impactful their day-to-day behavior is, and how much responsibility they as an individual bear for the successful integration of foreigners. Most of them probably don't.
We decide to order another beer. People come and go, their voices floating up and ebbing away, but we are too caught up in our conversation to really notice. From the speakers, the wistful voice of a woman sings a jazzy blues tune in Spanish. I love the feeling of slowly drinking on a Monday evening, so different from the shimmering, exuberant Saturday buzz and the dreamy disillusionment of a Sunday night. While we fill up our glasses, we see another of Grazzia's friends crossing the square, a big drum bag over her shoulder. It's Gisele — a tall, gorgeous Brazilian woman I know from my Swedish course. I remember how she burst into tears in class and made me tear up, too, when during a presentation, she told us about the racism and prejudice she had faced both in Brazil and Sweden. Again, Grazzia runs out to greet her, and after a brief exchange, Gisele follows her into the coffee shop for a quick chat. We complain about the unpredictable weather and she tells us about Brazilian carnival and her samba show at the Hammarkullen carnival the following weekend.
"I felt like just another immigrant who is taking the tax payers’ money."
When we are alone again, Grazzia tells me how much could relate to the previous fika tales. "It's incredible how much I see my own experiences mirrored in the stories of these other women", she says, "it is like I know each one of them really well — and yet we've never met!"
In particular, she recognized herself in the work-related struggles. "Every time I met Linus' family, they would ask me if I had found a job. And every time, I answered No and felt so ashamed — it made me look as if I didn’t try hard enough. But now I have job." She takes a sip of beer, looking content. "And it makes SUCH a big difference to have work and somewhere to go in the mornings. When my neighbors saw me going down to the laundry room at 11 am, they were like 'Oh, are you off work today?', and I had to explain – no, I am unemployed! It was so embarrassing. So I came up with an idea and told them instead: 'Oh no no, I’m a freelance consultant, I'm working from home!'". She chuckles. "...which wasn’t even a total lie, I did a freelance job for WWF last spring – though only for a very short period. But I left out that detail, of course. When I eventually got a job, I left the house at eight and came back at five — and didn’t have to justify anything anymore! It felt so good."
She admits how much she suffered from being out of work: "I felt like an outsider, like I wasn't part of society. I told myself that I am worthless, that I don’t contribute anything, that I don’t belong here." Even when she got the job financed by the Swedish Public Employment Service, she felt ashamed and guilty because she knew she was being paid with tax money. "I felt like just another immigrant who is taking people's money." She thinks for a bit and continues: "The thing is — I still work for the university, which means I still get paid through taxes! But of course, it feels entirely different now. I’m finally part of the system! Which is funny because I never wanted to be part of the system — having a nine-to-five office job, paying taxes, and everything. But now I am so happy about it."
"It's as if I am a magnet with this big sign on my forehead that says: please talk to me!"
I know from previous conversations that her Swedish husband has patiently tried to explain to her how Swedish society works and am curious to hear more about that. She makes me laugh out loud when she tells me how he simply can't understand why she doesn't get it. "I grew up learning that it is extremely impolite not to greet your neighbors, but he told me that people here don't even hear me saying hej and god morgon because they really don't expect it — that's why I never get an answer! Here, many people find it awkward or weird to be friends with their neighbors." For Grazzia, it's the other way round — she finds it awkward to have neighbors who actively ignore her even though they leave the house at the same time every morning and often wait together for the same bus.
He also repeatedly explained to her why she should not answer when strangers start talking to her on the street. "He said: 'Don’t look up! Don't answer! They are weird, or drunk.' And the thing is, it’s true! By now, I can identify the weirdos but for a long time, I couldn't. You won't believe how many crazy encounters I've had.", she shakes her head, remembering all the lost, lonely, and crazy that she has met along the way. "It never happens when I am out with somebody else but me alone — it's as if I am a magnet with this big sign on my forehead that says please talk to me!" She goes on telling me about some of the most bizarre and memorable incidents when people wouldn't stop talking to her and instead follow her around, telling her the strangest things, unwilling to let her go. And once they have started talking to her, she is too kind and polite to cut them off or simply walk away.
We both laugh and Grazzia sighs:"I always try to do as others advise me — look down at the ground, ignore people who approach me. But it simply won't work!" To her, this seems to be nothing but a curious trait, an inexplicable and annoying phenomenon, but to me, it's one of the reasons why I adore her. She simply radiates kindness — and people pick up on that, especially those desperately in need of it. I personally think that this is truly one of the most beautiful things a person can be and do. Very rare in the first place, it is even more precious these days when everybody only ever stares down at their phone, headphones in their ears, afraid of strangers, foreigners, and real social interaction.
"People in Sweden think of society as a whole. I love that!"
We haven't noticed that we are the last guests at the cafe. The last chords of Chan Chan have long faded and apart from our voices, the only sound is the humming of the fridge. When I turn around, I see that all the stools are neatly put on the tables and the guy behind the counter is waiting for us to leave. All the talking has made us hungry and the sky is still light blue and tender, so we decide to head across the street to Andra Långgatan and grab something to eat. We are lucky and get the last free outdoor seats at Dansken, a fun Danish beer bar. As most of the other outdoor seating areas in the city's most popular drinking street, the seats are incredibly uncomfortable. The side walks are narrow, so the only option to have people sitting outside is to squeeze them into tiny, wooden constructions that look like shrunken school desks from the 40s, lined up against the window fronts. The "tables" are a maximum of 20 centimeters wide, the seats about the same. If you get too uncomfortable and stretch your legs, one of the passers-by is inevitably going to trip over them. Still, everyone loves it, including us. Over pints of golden lager, a bowl of crispy sweet potatoe fries, and three very Scandinavian smörgåsar, we let the interview slowly trickle away.
I have one last question: What would she export from Sweden to her home country? Grazzia dips a fry in mayonnaise and answers: "So many things! But definitely that people think about society as a whole. They don't black ride because they know it costs public money. I wear a bike helmet not so much for safety concerns but because of social pressure! I actually heard people saying that if you drive under influence or without a helmet and get into an accident, your hospital bill is gonna be unnecessarily costly and since it is paid by the tax payer, it's really irresponsible to do it! I love that people think this way." I think of all the times I sat on the tram without a ticket and how the last time I wore a bike helmet was in primary school, but say nothing.
She continues: "In Honduras, the thinking goes like: How can I trick the system? How can I take the most advantage? You feel like you can’t trust people because they will try to trick you. And if you manage to do so, it means you're smart, it's seen as a good thing! People don’t believe in the state, they always say 'Oh, it’s so dysfunctional and corrupt' — but the thing is: You can see the same issues on every level of society, from the individual all the way up the politicians and the state! Everyone tries to get as many benefits for themselves as possible. They never think of the whole system as people do here." "But I guess it goes both ways", I interject, "they don’t get much FROM the system, therefore they are not willing to give anything TO the system." Grazzia nods: "That's true. But in my opinion, you have rights and you have duties. Of course I hated to pay taxes because I didn't really see the benefits but I always thought — if people do their part, then they can go on and nag about institutions and the state for not fulfilling their's, but if they don't — how then can they complain?! Everyone does it: people who go to church, teachers, professors, rich people… Everyone!" She sighs. "Here in Sweden, I feel so taken care of. The first time I was in a Swedish hospital, I couldn't believe how modern and clean it was. If I lost my job, I would get social benefits from the state. So at first I thought: And people here are complaining??? They have no idea! I couldn'tunderstand why." She puts down her fork and looks at me. "But by now... I do!" We burst into laughter. "Cheers to that!", I say, and we raise our glasses to the things we hate about Sweden but more than that, and most of all, to everything we love about it.