Leaving a toxic relationship – with a city.
After a year in Amsterdam it was clear that I wanted to stay in Europe for at least another year. I wanted to continue exploring, learning, and enjoying a culture exchange. I wanted to try something different, again. I lived on ‘Zwedenstraat’ which translates to Sweden street, a literal sign. So, I made the move to Stockholm – bright eyed and bushy tailed.
Nothing could’ve prepared me for what I was about to experience over the next two years. Within my first month, I was met with profiling. While trying to open a bank account, the teller questioned me about where I was ‘really’ from, questioning where my parents are from, insinuating that I wasn’t who I said I was and I could not be from a place so free. Taken aback by the experience, I waived it off as a one off. A few months later, while simply using a restroom in a major coffee chain I was met with physical assault. A barista held me by my winter coats belt, whispered in a stern tone “Your kind doesn’t belong here” and proceeded to forcefully push me out of the door. Thankfully this time, I had an ally with me at the snack shop next door to convince me to return back and confront the barista. I did, and it was caught on video. As most situations experienced in Stockholm, as soon as I open my mouth and speak clearly and concisely, the attitude completely changes. Almost as if they didn’t expect me to be from where I’m from, speak as I speak. Shortly after this unfortunate experience, the harassment at work started. I continuously reported it only for my reports to be disregarded. Eventually, I was able to escalate it to higher management. I was told that it’s a “culture difference” and I should “suck it up”. That was my first breaking point and I decided then and there I would leave. For the first time in my life, with no hard feelings, I walked out of a job during a shift. That was it I thought, but life had different plans for me.
While researching temporary job positions to fund my next move which, at that point would’ve been a brief stint home, I applied for an admin position at an elementary school. The principal responded promptly with a different offer. Upon meeting and almost three weeks of personal reflection and deliberation, I decided to take the job. It was a new lease on the city I was having such a terrible time in. I decided I would not have a terrible time and embrace this new position and everything it would bring me. A career, decent wage, tonnes of vacation time, and a new view of the city. After a six week sabbatical back home and home like cities filled with friends and family, I was ready to take on my new adventure.
My optimism lasted about two months. While moving apartments during a mundane weekday which I took off intentionally to move, I found myself humiliated on the train. I intensely researched off times and whether or not I would be able to bring my bike on board. Due to faulty language translation on the local train app and website, information was relayed incorrectly and as a result I was treated awfully. The train conductor stopped the train in the middle of transit stops with the closest bus stop a twenty minute walk away, and told me to get off. I had two suitcases and a bike and refused to get off as I would be stranded. I suggested to go to the next stop so I could then walk to the nearest metro station, it was clearly a misunderstanding and it was the middle of the day with limited passengers. The conductor without saying anything to me then went onto the PA system and announced that the train is stalled because “A girl with a bike refuses to get off.” He then opened all the doors on each train car and the passengers proceeded to come up to me one by one and yell obscenities. Calling me everything from selfish to racial slurs. I was mortified. Embarrassed and hurt I called the only friend I had, a fellow ex-pat, to meet me and help with the move.
It hurt, the sting of humiliation and embarrassment but I had something I didn’t have before, so I thought, allies. I was surrounded by local and international staff going through the same dark winters, experiencing the same sub-par customer service. So, I trucked along. Open and honest about my experiences, I opened up to colleagues that I thought were friends. After trusting someone I thought was a friend about my experiences in the city, about how isolated I was feeling, they, after a few drinks decided to express that they felt it was all in my head and let me know that they witnessed “.. a white guy got kicked off the train so it’s not just you..”. Dumbfounded and caught off guard I completely shut down. I reached my second breaking point.
I called in sick to a job I loved. For a week I laid in the dark in my flawlessly designed apartment feeling like I made a big mistake. Feeling completely alone questioning everything that had happened. The profiling not only at the bank, but at the bars, where they would let in everyone but me. I tortured myself going over every situation, the passive aggressive grocery store cashiers who would tell me to use the self checkout and then proceed to help the person behind me. The men, who at the end of the night would make sexual advances telling me they had never been with anyone with my skin, looking at me like I was a seasonal exotic fruit. The friends I thought I made but then were no where to be found. For a week I sulked and then, with the help of actual friends, a much needed vacation, the encouragement and support of an amazing boss, and the will to go back to a job I actually loved, I dusted myself off once again and I went back broken but positive.
I decided that after the new year I would be renewed. I would return from the holidays with a positive outlook and reminded myself that I have a choice and I can leave if I want to. “I don’t have to suffer” is what I told myself. I continued to be open about my experiences, apologized to those around me because I felt like I was draining to be around. I dealt with the daily mini-aggressions, the unfair expat cost of living, I lost myself trying to make it through. I became a shell of myself, a version that was and still is unrecognizable.
Reluctantly, I made the decision that I was leaving. With the love and support from my boss I agreed to finish the school year. Once I signed the resignation letter, even though I had some time to go, it was like a weight was lifted from my shoulders. I was disappointed in myself that I wasn’t able to tough it out but I knew it was the right decision. With this weightless feeling and the weather changing for the better, I approached the coming weeks with a new found energy. Then, like a brick a student called me the N-word and everything turned to dust. The word unexpectedly hit me in the face and took my breath away. I reported it to my colleague who again, I thought was not only a friend, but my person. They didn’t do anything so I then reported to my boss who, at the time did what they could to rectify the situation but the damage was done. I continued on for the day professionally as always, but in my head I was questioning if I heard what I heard, if it mattered, and what I should do. After the work day I sought advice from a close friend about the validity of what I was feeling. Of course completely agreeing with my views, I felt validated. I then entered a social gathering with my person and voiced what and how I felt. They looked at me, waved their hand and said patronizingly that “we’ll talk about this another time”. Again, I shut down. My new found energy was taken away. Again, I found myself helpless and feeling worthless in a dark place not wanting to be anywhere. I wasn’t upset about the student, I was hurt by the way it was handled. The only place I found solace was tainted and the person who was my person for the past nine months showed no empathy or compassion towards or for me.
I sit here with a few days left, heart broken. I really tried making it work here. I could’ve had a good life with a good job but I would’ve had to deal with the systematic and day-to-day cruelty unable to advocate for myself and have little to no support around me. These personal experiences are just a few out of many I’ve chosen to speak about. I’ve chosen to speak about this because I believe that I was treated the way I was treated during these instances because of the way I look. Fortunately, I have the privilege of leaving, I am fortunate enough to know differently. I often think about those who live here without the choice to leave, those who don’t have the language skill or voice to speak up against the daily discrimination. I am leaving here almost empathetic towards the city, a slight case of Stockholm Syndrome. I definitely feel like I was captured and as a survival mechanism have developed this feeling of empathy and admiration. How did it become this way here? Sweden in general is marketed so well, immigration, amazing social systems, great nature. No one ever talks about the long dreary winters, the hoops you have to go through to access the social system, and the asterisks beside immigration.
Over the past few months it has felt like I have been in solitary. I have to re-learn how to communicate with the general public, I have to remember who I am, not who I’m allowed to be. I lost my light but a friend recently said to me that sometimes you just need to change the bulb. I hope that’s the case.
Published in Tilde ~ 4 A Literary Journal 2019 p. 25-28 https://www.thirtywestph.com/tildelit
Canadian writer currently living abroad.
Wrote a book, once.
Reluctantly has Instagram; @thewordmichelle.