The world over, Scandinavia is often perceived as a socialistic utopia of gender-equality, social stability and high living standards. The people are progressive, peaceful and notoriously good-looking (or so I’ve been told).
Despite this, thousands of Swedes, Norwegians and Danes choose to trade-in their idyllic breezy lifestyles for the adrenaline-run rat race that is London. Surely it's not the low living wages, high pollution, widespread mould and daily commute in bacteria-ridden tube carriages that entice us? I decided to chat with some of my kinsmen about why they chose to leave their glorious — albeit chilly — kingdom of financial, social and political prosperity for a life of the unknown.
Why leave Scandinavia in the first place?
Ola, a man who took the plunge in his 40s, left Stockholm for London after being fed up with the constant chase for status and living a certain lifestyle. Never-ending talk about renovations and price per square meter drove him to his decision: "If I would have heard another person talking about retiling their bathroom I would have gone mad," he tells me.
Alexandra, 26, decided to get out of Sweden straight after high school. "The cold and many months of darkness is actually tough and affects people, she says, "I think that's a big reason why people leave."
For Silje, 27, the reasons to move to London were mainly excitement. "I'm from a small village on the Norwegian coast and I had always wanted to live in a big city with diversity and more things going on," Silje says, "so after university I decided to give it a shot."
Bjarte, 43, left Norway after having met his wife on a trip to Cuba and decided to follow her tracks back to London. "I remember thinking: you only regret what you didn't do. And that seems to have worked out well for me."
Likewise Sofia, 32, abandoned her marketing job in Stockholm when it turned out her future husband was living in — where else — London.
Why London specifically?
Why London? Most Scandinavians know English. Travelling times between London and all the major cities of Scandinavia are also relatively short. But after that, personal objectives start to unfold. Alexandra talks about the the multitude of opportunities on offer in London, and how much easier it is to reach your dream job. "People in London are open and happy to give recommendations to get you ahead and reach new levels in your career — it's much more restricted back home."
Sofia felt at home in London after prior visits. Although her observations may surprise Londoners. "Everyone is so welcoming," she says, "Here, people smile at you in the store, when you enter a restaurant. They pay attention to you and hold doors open. It's easy to be spontaneous — things are less rigid."
Henrikke, 26, moved from Oslo to the UK for studies and later for a job in banking. She agrees that London is a friendly place, also citing its diversity and multiculturalism.
Ola has a poetic point of view: "There is something romantic about the British culture. Their music and football shaped my world when I was young and it welcomes you into something else… a world with less rules and where anything is possible."
Why we stick around...
Bjarte, now working as a sports journalist, loves London's pub culture. He even decided to build a pub in his own garage — and talks about how he believes London, despite its enormous size, gives everyone the chance to find their own little piece of home.
I can relate. I was 19 when I decided to leave Sweden with a deep yearning for something bigger and more exciting. During my own first years in London, a pub in Victoria and a restaurant in Piccadilly — despite their infinitely crowded and central locations — became "my" place, where I could seek refuge away from the crowds and feel like I had a place in this massive new reality.
Alexandra tells me that London's size allows people to be whoever they want to be — whether that's anonymous, well-known, successful or a lazy sod. Certainly, back home, people know your name and you're more easily judged.
The range of activities and events happening also differs on a grand scale with Scandinavia. "One concert with one international artist becomes a national event back home," Silje says, "whereas here you can run on world-famous shows and concerts every day — if you're in the mood." And it's not as if as we haven't brought a bit of home back here: Bageriet, Ekte, Söderbergs, Snaps + Rye, Aquavit, Ole & Steen (to mention a few) are all convenient pit-stops for those of us who like to have their prinsesstårta and eat it. Nordic Bar in Fitzrovia plays host to events such as Eurovision, Euro and World Cup playoffs and an array of typical Scandinavian festivities. Akvavit, anyone?
...And what we miss
Having been a Londoner for the majority of my 20s, I can't help but feel a pang of jealousy when my friends are talking about buying homes back home in Sweden. Even if living with a mixture of crazy and adorable (sometime crazy and adorable) people. I've been in a shared room with an Aussie I'd only just met. I've lived in a house overlooking a prison yard. And in another one where I have reasons to believe that my flatmate was growing marijuana in the backyard (still unconfirmed). Turns out all these experiences were a good way to collect anecdotes. But I admit the charm is starting to wear off and living in a place of my own would be a tiny — no, massive — piece of heaven.
The Scandinavian digital identity is another thing widely missed by the people I talk to. Despite the anonymity many mention as a desirable element of London, it's undeniable that a well-developed IT-infrastructure along with Swish and Vipps (instant payment services) makes life easier. I miss the healthcare too.
And then: the food. Scott, 33, from Copenhagen says: "I miss pølse (Danish hot dogs) and in general the quality of the food is much better back home." It's true that Scandinavians do love their household brands: Scandinavian Kitchen, among others, are doing good business by supplying yearning Scandis with staple goods and sweets in the UK; no wonder Ocado jumped on the bandwagon too. Other honourable mentions include double-glazed windows, proper seasons instead of two: perpetual autumn and a couple of months resembling summer, fresh tap water — you haven’t tried tap water until you’ve tried Scandinavian tap water. Oh, and gå på tur i.e. hiking in the mountains. It's a Norwegian thing.
Brexit is a cause for insecurity about our future in London. "I'm not angry, but sad that half the population don't seem to see the value of the cultural exchange anymore," Alexandra says.
Indeed, what happened with the open London that we fell in love with? My own experience of working behind a bar with endless nationalities — Turks, Kazakhs, Polish, Albanians, French — is something I treasure to this day and the general perception is that the diversity of London is what makes London… London. The doubts whether that is going to change pushes people to look for other possibilities in the future. The obvious benefits such as maternity/paternity leave, childcare, higher living standards and more space also becomes aspects that increase the appeal of returning back home when older age approaches. Ola adds, "The day I can no longer find new and exciting parts to explore, that's the day I’m going home." To be fair, he may end up staying here forever.
On a final note
"When I landed in London, I felt like I finally became who I am meant to be." Ola says.
"London was my saviour and it has made me into the person I am today; this is where I learnt what is true to myself," Alexandra says. It seems there is a liberation in London — a freedom to be whoever you are with endless possibilities unfolding. Perhaps this city represents the exciting and polar opposite to Scandinavian socialism; the dark abyss of uncontrolled capitalism and undistributed wealth, where stakes become higher, rewards bigger and where the dos and don'ts get eradicated.
No matter the reason and whatever the future holds, London will always have a big place in our hearts.