Life in the big smoke

A citizen of nowhere

“Why are you here?”

The man was carrying our belongings into our new house. I had told him I was Finnish. It was a quick and direct question, a sharp icy gust blowing in with the old sideboard and the boxes full of books. He seemed surprised that I had chosen to live in the UK.

He was in his late twenties and from Bulgaria. The older man the company he worked for had teamed him up with for the day was also Bulgarian. Neither of them wanted to stay in the UK. The older man told me his brother was working in Germany. That’s where he was going. “Very money”, he said. “Very money”. The younger man had been in the UK for about a year and was also thinking about leaving. The traffic in London was awful, the money wasn’t great, the city was expensive. Life could be better somewhere else.

So. Why am I here? I was trying to explain it to myself as I unwrapped mugs and placed them in cupboards, uncrumpled tea towels and opened kitchen drawers for the first time. I’m here because I like the UK. I’m here because there is something about London that pulls me back every time I leave. But these are intangibles. They didn’t work as answers to that simple, direct question. “Why are you here?”

I’m here because of work. I’m here because I’m married to a Brit. Those reasons seem too practical, too mundane. The underlying truth is that I’m here because where else would I be. This is my home. This is where I became an adult. This is where my life is. That’s why this whole brexit thing is so exhausting sometimes, because when I woke up on the 23d of June I was no longer equal to most of the other people who call this island their home.

The prime minister Theresa May has refused to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK after brexit. Those who have experienced her punitive policies when she was the home secretary know that there will be no warm, sympathetic or humane treatment of EU-immigrants, there will only be the cold logic of bureaucracy. There will be a box, you will need to fit it, otherwise you’re out.

During May’s time as home secretary the income threshold for people from countries outside the EU who wanted to stay in the UK was raised. Those who want to apply for permanent residency in the UK now have to prove they earn over £35 000 a year. If you’re a freelancer, if you’re self-employed, if you’re a cleaner, a teacher or an artist that will be difficult.

If you’re married to a Brit, the policy means your British partner has to earn over £18 600 a year in order for you to stay in the country. For each child you have your partner needs to earn a couple of thousand pounds more. Over 15 000 children have been separated from one parent or forced to grow up outside the UK because of the rules. Even the right wing paper the Telegraph is critical of this policy. It’s created what they call “Skype families”.

Many EU friends of mine in the UK have applied for this same permanent residency during the last six months. They have had to prove that they’ve lived in the UK for five years, they’ve had to hand over bank statements and bills to the state and they’ve had to account for each and every time they have travelled out of the country during the last five years. In the new year I’m planning to do this too. Because this is my home. But simply saying that isn’t enough anymore. Now I have to prove it.

Image by Eduard Militaru.

A post-election playlist

Britain has voted. We have a new government. The adrenaline of the last few weeks of is slowly ebbing out. I’m drinking coffee, I’m cleaning the bathtub and the oven, I keep writing in my head, but when I sit down the words retreat to the back of my mind.

There are things I’ll remember from this election, snap-shots that will stay with me such as Vince Cable’s slumped shoulders as the results were read out. The shock and sadness of this election will stay with me, just as I can still recall Nick Clegg’s triumphant face in 2010.

And now everyone’s re-grouping, re-thinking, re-planning their PR strategy. Tom Watson wants to be the next Labour leader. Theresa May wants phone companies and internet service providers to keep records of what we get up to online. Scotland’s SNP has 56 MPs. Some tories want to leave the EU. The pound is stronger than ever, house prices in London are going up, anti-austerity protestors are taking to the streets.

We will have more of the same. We will have something completely different.

The words are stuck, so here are a couple of tunes. The first song was stuck in my mind this morning. Please ignore the swearing, Jarvis is amazing.

Two good pieces for those who want to know more:

– Paul Mason at Channel 4 on why Labour failed.
– A baffled American’s take on the election.

Mother Thames – a river full of skulls

It’s Sunday in the city of London, the heart of the old medieval city. The streets are quiet. All the bankers and the office workers are somewhere else, the restaurants and cafes serving them are empty. The buses are fast and every sound echoes between fat stone buildings. The white dome of Saint Pauls in the distance is attracting every backpack wearing tourist within a mile. There are tours on guided buses, someone wearing the british colours standing on the top deck, microphone in hand. All the tourists seem to nod and pay attention. It’s a nice day for sightseeing. Clear and autumn bright.

I’m heading to the river, to a talk about the myths and mysteries of the Thames. I’m going with Madicken and we climb onto the HMS President which is rocking gently at the Victoria Embankment. Somehow that gentle rocking is disturbing enough to make both of us feel slightly seasick.

It’s not even noon, the boat is packed. We learn that thirty to fifty bodies are discovered in the river every year. We learn that the Thames used to be a sacred river, a sort of Ganges, where the celts dumped ceremonial objects. The river was a way to another world. Camelot has been placed in Westminster. Arthur and his knights in London.

Perhaps that’s why the river is also full of skulls. Lots and lots and lots of human skulls resting in the riverbed. Strangely though there are no bodies and no one seems to know where all the skulls come from.

There are more stories. What we see around us today on the shores of the river are many islands. Every place which ends on an ea or ey used to be an island, Battersea, Bermondsey. It’s just like on Orkney where the ey is a leftover from my ancestors. En ö, öy, ey, an island. London Bridge could have fallen down when it was invaded by vikings and King Canute saved the country by commanding the tide and drowning his enemies, no I’m getting ahead of myself here. That’s not really how the story goes.

There are so many stories in this city, mysteries, hidden lore, hidden history. I walk these streets and I only see today, I only ever scrape the surface. But there are layers and layers of lives and thoughts, hopes and dreams, going down deep into the mud underneath our feet. This place has been a metropolis for centuries. All that energy is stored within stone walls, all those lives, loves, fears, the worship, the ambition, it’s all still here. And I love it. That’s what makes this city great.

For more Thames lore check out the Totally Thames festival. And for London mysteries look up the Fortean Society

The turbulent history of tea and Britishness

A million cups of tea are drunk every minute.

A couple of years ago I was reading about the history of tea and stumbled across a book which makes it seem like this humble drink was the key to making the British Empire so powerful.

In her book For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire and the Secret Formula for the World’s Favourite Drink writer Sarah Rose explains.

For nearly two hundred years the East India Company sold opium to China and bought tea with the proceeds. The opium for tea exchange was not merely profitable to England, it was indispensable. Nearly one in every ten pounds sterling collected by the government came from the import and sale of tea – about a pound per person per year.

Tea taxes funded railways, roads and Civil Service salaries, among the many other necessities of an emergent industrial nation. Opium was equally significant to the British economy for it financed the management of India – the shining jewel in Queen Victoria’s imperial crown.

And then the Chinese tried to ban opium, which didn’t end well for them.

The Chinese tried to ban opium … Victoria sent Britain’s navy to war to keep the lucrative opium for tea marriage alive.

As part of the peace treaty England won concessions from the Chinese no one had previously thought possible in a century of diplomatic entreaty: the island of Hong Kong, plus the cession of five new treaty or trading ports on the mainland.

Eventually the Brits got tired of rowing with the Chinese and started growing their own tea instead, in India. And they have enjoyed their tea ever since.


Image by Morgan Sessions.

A little post about culture shock and what it’s actually like to move to a new country

About two years ago I found myself sitting on the floor in the flat, crying because a pipe was leaking underneath a sink. There had been builders in the house for several days, sorting things out in our new home, the home Gerry and I would settle in for a few years.

There was a trickle of water running along the floor and I couldn’t keep the tears away. I felt helpless and I realised that this was it. This was my home. This country was now my home. There would be no more moving for a while, no more wide-eyed fascination. The third stage of culture shock was setting in, but I didn’t realise that back then.

Let us rewind a bit further. It’s 2009, I’ve just arrived in London. I breathe in the air at Heathrow and it fills me with a bubbly joy, the sweet, polluted air of London. I rush past the yellow signs to collect my suitcase and I move into my first flat in the city. I spend a year happily riding buses for hours, walking everywhere, even enjoying the tube – because I am finally in London.

For two years my biggest fear is that something will happen and that I will have to move home. I hold on to every little thing that keeps me in London with an iron grip. I count my months in the city. I am totally and utterly in love with the place. I worry that I’ll get ill or that I won’t be able to support myself. I work hard because that means I’ll be able to stay.

Then I meet Gerry, then my life slowly winds itself around this town, then I get married, we move into the flat, the flat becomes a home, Finland feels very far away. And suddenly I find myself longing for home. Not the real country I left behind, but small things like the forest, the clean air, the cold winters and the long summer nights. I miss my family because I realise this isn’t a temporary thing anymore. I have rooted myself in this country. And that’s when the problems start.

It’s said that there are four stages of culture shock.

1. The honeymoon phase

  • Everything about your new home is lovely, amazing, fascinating. It’s the best place ever. You get offended if someone says anything negative about your new home. You have lots of energy, you want to see everything, do everything, talk to everyone. You wake up happy every day because you’ve moved to such a wonderful place. You’re totally in love

2. The negotiation phase

  • Homesickness starts to creep in. Suddenly you notice things about your new home, things you don’t really like. You pick up on cultural differences and they annoy you. You realise that perhaps this isn’t such a great place after all. It’s just another place, with problems and annoying people just like anywhere else. You start missing home and people who really get you.

3. The adjustment phase

  • This is when depression hits you. What’s the point, you think. The love is gone. You feel a bit lost, wondering why you moved in the first place. The magic is gone. You’re floating between two cultures. Going back home isn’t an option, staying feels difficult. You’re numb. Nothing makes you happy.

4. Acceptance

  • You’ve come out on the other side. You know this country now, you know this culture and you’re starting to figure out where you fit in. You will always be different, have a different cultural background, but you have found some kind of middle ground. And suddenly you’re ready to fall in love with the country again, this time accepting its flaws, problems and realness.

I struggled with the adjustment phase. A lot of things in the UK started to annoy me. Why were the politicians so useless? Why did I have to move to country where the majority of people in power have gone to the same private schools? Why do you hardly see any female, black or asian faces in Westminster? Why does the post never arrive? Where is my place in this society? Will I ever be able to settle in the UK? Why does everyone around me only seem to care about money?

For a while my life turned into a dull grey. I wasn’t sure where I was going, I didn’t even know if I wanted to be going anywhere. This new country, my home, had lost its sparkle. I wasn’t in love anymore, but I couldn’t ever see myself leaving.

In this confusion I managed to write a book. I poured my frustration and confusion into Det finns inga britter. I started researching what it meant to be British. I read up on the history of this country, learning there is a long tradition of immigration. I got even angrier realising how some of these immigrants had been treated throughout the centuries. I read about the reality black and asian immigrants were faced with in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, being refused housing and medical care. But even though there were many things that made me angry, I also earned that British culture has been shaped by immigration, going all the way back to Roman times. This country is an amalgamation of different cultures and people, but sometimes the Brits find it easy to forget this.

As I read another Britain started appearing before me. A real country, with real problems. It wasn’t the same country I had moved to back in 2009, but I didn’t mind so much anymore because the ground I was standing on felt solid again. I was starting to see this country like some its citizens was seeing it.

There is a fifth stage of culture shock, the independence stage.

You are yourself again! You embrace the new culture and see everything in a new, yet realistic light. You feel comfortable, confident, able to make decisions based on your own preferences. You no longer feel alone and isolated. You appreciate both the differences and similarities of your new culture. You start to feel at home.

And that’s where I’ve come out. I live here now. In some ways the UK is the country where I’ve become a grown up, I know more about how to run a business here than in Finland, in theory I know how to buy a house here. This is where I pay my taxes. And when I go home there are things I forget, like weighing my vegetables when I go grocery shopping. Small things, but things that root me in one place. Even my annoyance and frustration with this country connects me to it. After all it’s pretty British to complain.

I didn’t think culture shock would affect me. But moving to a new country is a big thing, no matter how well you think you understand that culture. If you find these sort of feelings affecting you, remind yourself that everyone goes through it and that you will come out on the other side, hopefully a little bit wiser.

Image by Luis Llerena.