Outsiders in London

All photographs:  copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK


Christine de Oliveira

Age: 40

Born in Tours, France

Father & Mother both born in Portugal

Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: Portuguese


Both of Christine’s parents are from Portugal;  they met there, lived together, and had their first three girls there.   Then in the 1970‘s, largely for economic reasons, they decided to move to Germany.   But while travelling across France, they fell in love with that country and decided to settle there instead.  They made their home in Tours where, in 1972, their fourth daughter, Christine, was born.  

Christine spent her first 27 years in France and received her primary and secondary education there.   She went on to qualify as a chef and worked in that field for several years but came to find it rather frustrating and limiting - she was distressed to see people consuming her ‘culinary creations’ within minutes and with hardly a thought.  She longed for greater interaction with the diners and so started to work ‘front of house’.   At that stage, she was bilingual, speaking her Portuguese mother tongue as well as French, of course.

Having grown up in France with ‘foreign’ parents and a ‘foreign’ surname, Christine always had some feeling of being an outsider, both in France and in Portugal, but she was soon to experience this much more acutely: to break free from what had become a heartbreaking romance, she “escaped” to neighbouring Switzerland and worked for one season in Ovronnaz, in the French-speaking canton of Valais.   For her second season, she moved on to another catering job in Crans-Montana, in the same canton.  Here she was well-received, with her boss kindly reassuring her that he had taken care of all the paperwork and that she need not worry herself about work permits and the like.  All went well until, in her second year of working in Crans-Montana, the Swiss Immigration Police undertook a routine ‘raid’ of all the hotels and catering establishments in the locality.   She then found out, to her horror, that she was in fact working illegally;  utterly dismayed and distraught, she felt that what had seemed a haven of safety and security was now collapsing around her.

Thankfully, the Police accepted her plea of innocence and instead of their standard course of action - immediate arrest and forced deportation - she was given a week’s notice to leave the country.  However, she still had to pay a hefty fine and was also barred from entering Switzerland again for four years.  Christine’s professional career came to an abrupt end;  she lost many dear friends;  and she felt tainted - she had been made to feel like a criminal, like a total outsider.  She had loved her life in Switzerland and was seriously contemplating staying there for the rest of her days.

“Becoming an outsider felt like not being a human being any longer,” Christine says; “I felt deceived and discarded.   I was crushed psychologically and it took me almost eighteen months to regain my confidence.   I put my CV on the internet the day after I’d spoken with the Immigration Police and I just took the first job that was offered to me after I was kicked out of Switzerland.   It was in Cannes that I found a seasonal catering job for nine months, but I couldn’t bring myself to socialise there because I felt like a pariah after what had happened to me.   I felt completely distracted and worked more or less like a robot.”

Feeling totally lost and utterly disconnected from the world, and not knowing whether there was any longer a point to life at all, Christine decided to retreat from people, people who seemed to judge her by what they saw on the outside and not who she was on the inside.   She went for one season to a remote golfing resort in the mountains near Perpignan, somewhere she could try to find herself again.   It felt to her as if those happy years in Switzerland had just been erased from her life.   “But being in the mountains again really helped me to clear my mind,” Christine says, and after a few months she built up enough courage to start again from scratch, and to do something with her life.  

She was fortunate to get a job in Carrick-Macross, in Ireland’s County Monaghan; this involved opportunities for working ‘front of house’, where she gradually began to learn English too.  Having mastered the basics of her third language, she was able to accept a post in Windermere, again in catering, with the Lake District reminding her in many ways of her beloved Switzerland.  

Windermere was followed by a move to Kent, to work in an Italian Restaurant, where she was again at home amongst fellow outsiders - the owner and all the staff were either Italian or hailed from some other foreign shore.  Then on to Stroud, where she truly felt that she did not belong!   And thence finally to London, where outsiders seemed to be in the majority, coexisting and living in relative harmony.  

Christine has now lived in London for over nine years and works in a highly regarded, Michelin-starred restaurant in the city’s leafy West.  She has recently developed a passion for photography and, in her spare time, is undertaking relevant courses in the hope of being able to take this passion further.

For Christine, being an outsider has been profoundly traumatic in more ways than one.  Being labelled an illegal immigrant in Switzerland not only caused havoc to her professional career but also caused deep hurt to her personally.  “It felt,” she says, “as if part of my life had been excised for ever;  looking back on it fills me with sadness even now.” Christine adds that being an outsider anywhere has direct economic consequences too, with foreigners working for longer hours and less money, with their previous qualifications and skills often neither recognised nor valued.

The main advantage, in Christine’s opinion, of having survived the experience of being on the outside is that it has made her stronger - for most people, changing jobs, countries and languages would have been more traumatic than it has been for her.

“If given the choice not to be outsider? I am not to sure about that. In all honestly, I would probably prefer not to be one but only if I could retain the individuality it has brought - I quite like to be different.  France is my country of birth, it is my home, yet when I return there, I feel a strange need to conform and that makes me uncomfortable;  I feel I cannot be myself.   In London, I can.”

Interview Date: 11th May 2013

Updated:  5th June 2013

Growing up in France with ‘foreign’ parents and a ‘foreign’ surname, Christine always had some feeling of being an outsider, but she would later suffer a more devastating encounter with exclusion.   Having moved to take a catering job in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, Christine was well-received;  her boss reassured her that he had taken care of all the paperwork, so she need not worry herself about work permits and suchlike.  All went well until the Swiss Immigration Police undertook a routine ‘raid’ of all the hotels and catering establishments in the locality.   Christine then found out, to her horror, that she had become quite unintentionally an illegal immigrant in Switzerland;  she was summarily deported by the Police, an experience which disrupted massively her professional life and left her emotionally scarred.

Photography: London 11th May 2013