Leila is not her real name. ‘Does the guy in this café know what you do for a living?’ I ask.
‘Of course not,’ she says.
She agreed to meet me at Cafe Westminster, a rather sad place in a rather sad street just outside Helsinki city centre. Leila looks a bit sad too, not as witty as she was on the phone, a couple of hours earlier. It’s two in the afternoon.
‘I’m a bit nervous,’ she says, ‘that’s why. I’m afraid to say something stupid. And I have an ear infection.’
‘How long have you been doing this job?’
She thinks for a moment, calculating. ‘Three years, in total. Before that I was in a relationship, and I didn’t do it then.’
‘Is it a nice job?’
‘No, it’s a way to make money. Extra money, because I already get money from the government because of my disease. I’ve been diagnosed as bipolar. I work to be able to travel and to buy healthy food, which is expensive. I don’t do it for pleasure.’
‘Then it must be a hard job, if it’s only for money… aren’t there any nice clients?’
‘Yes,’ she says almost indignantly. ‘Some are very nice, normal guys. One took my dog to the veterinary doctor. And one helped me to hang the curtains.’
‘What would you do if you didn’t have this job?
‘I would study. I will do that next year anyway, probably. Cosmetology. Before I worked in a bakery and in a clothing shop, but it wasn’t mine, and I didn’t like it. I would love to have a coffee shop or a make up shop. With a partner.’
‘Have you thought of a name?’
‘No, that’s too much. I take it slow. I don’t want be disappointed, that’s why I don’t want to expect too much… maybe that’s my problem. But that’s life, things fail but at least you have tried,’ she thinks out aloud. ‘On a wall in my house I have some pictures of what of what I would really love to have: a house, a family, a dog, maybe a baby. And travelling. There’s a picture of a tropical beach.’
Leila is 26, blond, and wearing black pants, a black top and ballerinas. You would have guessed that she worked in a bookstore or in a bank.
‘Do you have friends?’
‘Do they have the same job?’
‘Two. One became a friend because of this work, the other I already knew. It’s really nice to have a friend I can talk to about my work. My closest friend also knows but we don’t chat about it.’
Another customer enters the bar, an old drunk who out of all tables chooses the one closest to ours.
‘There are countries where your job is normal, like Thailand. Would it be nice if your job was regarded as something normal?’
‘No,’ she says firmly. ‘Because this is not normal. I’m gonna quit when I have a good job. This is not good for my inner self. I want to grow and this job is holding me back.’
She’s silent. The drunk takes a big sip from his beer, his hands shakes, his eyes bulge as he stares out of the window.
‘What do you think of your clients? Are they abnormal too?’
‘Yes, in a way they are. Nobody dies if he doesn’t have sex. I don’t understand men… why do they pay for it?’ she laughs unhappily.
‘Well I think you understand men much better then most other women. You see them naked in every sense… Do you respect them?’
‘No so much. Because they come to me also without respect, just to have sex. And I don’t respect myself fully because I do this…’
‘Is it legal?’
‘Yes, unless I offer my services on the street or advertise.’
‘Are you good at your job?’
Well, I think it’s not hard, to just spread your legs,’ she smiles. ‘Do you know enough about my job now?’
‘Yes. Okay. What do you think about your city?’
‘It’s the best place to live in summertime. Nice happenings, summer carnival for example. Good restaurants and coffee shops. Helsinki is safe too. I’ve always felt safe, never threatened.’ She is more relaxed now, and her voice is different.
‘How do you cope with the winter? Don’t you get more depressed?’
‘No,’ she laughs, ‘I have my medicine.’
‘Where would you want to live besides Finland?’
‘I have seen a lot of countries, like Malaysia, Greece, Vietnam, Spain, India. But if I had to leave I would go Sweden. Because it’s safe and healthy.’
‘Is the Finnish government good?’
‘Well, it’s okay. If people don’t work they still get money. Some people think that’s good, others don’t.’
‘You benefit from government now, don’t you?’
‘Yes, but you shouldn’t if you don’t want to work or if you use drugs.’
She dabs her nose carefully with a folded handkerchief.
‘What about Europe?’
‘It’s good because we have the same money now. So we can travel easily. But we also have more gipsies from Romania now.’
‘Do you vote?’
Of course, it’s very important. Voting people into government is the best way to get things changed. But I guess not all Finns realise this. I sound like my mother,’ she adds, laughing.
We finish the conversation, and she walks out as I’m paying for the teas. When I see her outside, waiting for a traffic light, she doesn’t greet me.