‘Even though you can survive here without Swedish, it’s respectful to make an effort’
This article is part of The Local's My Swedish Career series. Read more interviews with international professionals and entrepreneurs in Sweden here.
"I met my wife, Elvira, at a salsa class in my hometown on the south coast of England," he tells The Local. "She's Swedish and was in the UK for just four months, so when she moved back to Sweden we travelled back-and-forth to see each other for a while, until I decided to move. I bought a one-way ticket on the ferry, turning up in Gothenburg without a job or a plan."
Happily, the TEFL-trained Brit was soon put in touch with another ex-Brighton resident, who offered him a role as a Corporate English teacher. "That was the start of things for me here in Sweden and I soon set up my own company, offering my services as an English proofreader and translator."
Now based in Stockholm with his wife and children, Ashby has discovered first-hand that certain behaviour in Sweden can attract strange looks.
"I'm a talker. When I'm at a bus stop, or in a queue, I'll start a conversation. In the UK that's fine, but not so much in Sweden. People think I'm a bit odd. When we used to live in a flat I would see people hesitate about entering the lift if they saw me in it, as they were terrified I was going to start talking to them. Some of them even pretended they had forgotten something and turned round to go back to their flat rather than get into a lift with me!"
As a teacher he has seen this reticence reflected in the classroom. "I once had an introductory class with one student who came from the very north of Sweden. They're quite reserved up there, and during the whole lesson he hardly said anything. After that one class he never came back. Obviously the shock of having to speak in English was too much for him!"
Ashby expresses the importance of making an effort to learn Swedish: "Even though you can survive here without Swedish – I have friends here who do that – it's respectful to make an effort. And it's useful, especially with children, to be able to blend in, to assimilate."
Picking up the language, however, has not been an easy process for the English teacher. "My pronunciation is awful. I can't pronounce where I live! It makes ordering taxis difficult. My wife gets annoyed with me – she says I completely ignore the three extra vowels in Swedish (å, ä, ö). In fairness, they're hard for a Brit to say."
As well as pronunciation, the "lack of a please and thank you culture" in Sweden has been difficult to accept. "Even though I know in my mind that it's not rudeness when someone pushes past without apologizing, it can get to me, coming from an ultra-polite society like the UK."
"Equally, there are things that are considered rude here that aren't at home. The importance of timekeeping is one; in England time is a bit of a flexible thing. You say 'on the hour', you meet at quarter past. Not so, here: if you agree a time, you meet at that time. Arriving late is considered disrespectful. It's reset my clock and changed my perception of time."
While the children's author describes Sweden in the summer as "a paradise", the winters have proved more trying. "The darkness and the cold can be difficult. When I came to Sweden I couldn't understand all the Swedes standing in patches of sunlight, looking up, as if communing with a higher entity. Now I get it. My wife has a light box to combat any winter gloom. I just grit my teeth and cope with it."
Winters aside, Sweden has seeped under Ashby's skin and into his work. He's just written his debut book, which is heavily influenced by Swedish myth culture. "The book is called 'Gribblebob's Book of Unpleasant Goblins'. Although it's set in Sussex (in the UK) there is a big Swedish influence. I first dreamed up the idea walking through the woods in Stockholm, the characters have names like Bengt, Nils, and Anna, and the evil character is inspired by the old Nordic legends of Mara, who brings nightmares. It's a British/Swedish fusion."
Stockholm's woods proved the inspiration behind Ashby's debut book. Photo: Oskars Sylwan
"We've always been a family of storytellers; my wife Elvira has written and had published successful books for both children and adults. It was when my wife was publishing her books that I got in the mood to start writing properly. As I'd been reading the children a lot of bedtime stories, it felt natural to write for them."
"One day, we were walking back home from Skärholmen in Stockholm through the woods, when we saw something glinting in the sun on the ground. We went over to see what it was – and it was a stone that looked like a tiny little book. I said, 'Imagine if it was a little book, and a goblin had dropped it.' As we continued walking home I made up a story about a goblin who had dropped his book, and his dog whose shadow we could see, but not the dog itself. When we got home, Elvira said 'You should write that story down, and finish it'."
"I did, and then submitted the book to the editor behind the Harry Potter series. The editor liked the story, wanted to publish it – and the rest is history. It comes out from Pushkin Children's in February 2019."
"If hadn't moved to Sweden and seen my very talented and productive Swedish wife start to make a career as an author, I wouldn't have started writing 'Gribblebob' so I have my new country to thank for that."