‘Everything in my life was pointing me towards Sweden’

"It feels good to know how to defend yourself, and everyone should have the right to learn. Stockholm is a very safe city to live in, but life is life," says Jo Hall, who runs a training studio, Good to Go, in the Swedish capital.

'Everything in my life was pointing me towards Sweden'
Jo Hall. Photo: Private

The Australian has been training in martial arts for 25 years, and her studio offers courses in self-defence, life-coaching, massage therapy, and marmori budo – a martial art she created herself based on the principles of self-defence. Its name comes from the Japanese word for a protection talisman.

While Sweden is statistically extremely safe, Hall believes that the skills learned in self-defence are valuable in many aspects of life, not just extreme circumstances. Most of the women who participate in the courses tell her it gives them a confidence which can be channelled into other areas of their life, prompting them to speak up in meetings, for example, or challenge inappropriate behaviour.

“The confidence you gain from knowing you could defend yourself can be used not just walking down the street late at night but at any time when something or someone is making you feel like you're 'less than',” Hall tells The Local. “These situations creep into your life and we often just brush them off, when actually we need to turn around and say 'that's unacceptable'.”

“Self-defence isn't just about hitting people; it's about stopping that situation in the first place, because a self-defence situation actually begins a long time before you're physically compromised. So, if you can learn to recognize that situation, you can learn to slip around it, to stand up for yourself or for someone else. You get the awareness of when these things start as well as the ability, if necessary, to end them. Epic!”

Good to Go has now been open for over four years, with courses ranging from martial arts for children to a self-defence course launched in collaboration with a Stockholm women's social group. “Empowering people is a real passion, and the joy of working for myself is that I can be really flexible and create programmes that suit all kinds of people and groups,” says Hall.

While she loves her work, following her passion hasn't been an easy ride.

The Sydney native first moved to Sweden in 2009, after meeting her Swedish wife who was travelling in Australia. After a three-week holiday to see what the Nordic country was like, Hall decided to take the leap and move to Sweden permanently. “Everything was telling me to come here and I like to trust my instincts, so I did. I'm not much of a future-planner, I like to live in the moment,” she explains.

Jo Hall moved to Sweden in 2009. Photo: Private

Though she had run a fitness studio back in Sydney, she decided to spend some time getting to know the Swedish language and culture before striking out on her own in a new country. At first she found it difficult to find work, eventually starting a job in the building industry – something she had never done before – which she found through a friend.

It was after her first child was born that Hall says she realized she had to “follow her mission” and get back into martial arts training. “I had given myself time to settle in, but on parental leave it really hit home that I just couldn't go back to my job,” she explains.

Setting up the business in Sweden wasn't too different from the process in Australia, according to Hall, who jokes “they just use different words here!” But she admits that Sweden's tax system is complicated, particularly for foreigners, and that it's very tough on small businesses.

“You sit down and calculate it all, and you think 'why do I even bother getting out of bed'. But the other option is to do something I don't want to do. That's how it works, so you have to make the system work for you,” she says.

Taking the risk has certainly paid off, and the studio has many long-term clients, including Stockholm's roller derby teams who have trained there almost since it first opened. Hall notes that Swedes grow up with the Scandinavian concept of 'friluftsliv' or 'outdoor life', with an emphasis on learning by playing and outdoor activities in childhood.

This continues through adulthood: Midsummer festivities, berry- and mushroom-picking, and winter sports mean Swedes stay outdoors and active whatever the weather and this mindset means they are usually prepared to put in hours of training at the studio rather than expecting a quick and easy fix. 

“On TV here, people in fitness adverts are sweaty whereas when I lived in Australia they'd never show someone sweaty. Swedes know they have to work hard and they want to do that, and they don't whine so much!” says Hall.

The focus on fitness isn't the only aspect of Swedish culture that Hall has embraced. She says she is also glad to be raising her children and working in Sweden, thanks to the famous work-life balance.

“I couldn't have the same lifestyle in Australia – my wife and I would have even less time with each other. This summer, I shut my business down for almost eight weeks because nobody's here, and I opened up in autumn as usual. If I did that in Australia, I wouldn't have a business to come back to,” she explains.

Another way Sweden has changed her is that she now identifies more as a feminist, and says that the level of equality in her adopted nation has opened her eyes to instances where this is lacking back in Australia. “I never realized it, but after moving here I get treated very differently; very fairly and with a level of respect I was never given in Australia. Being in a same-sex relationship, there's a lot of stigma about that in Australia, but here there's not even a raised eyebrow.”

Despite these positives of Swedish society, Hall is open about the fact she is still adapting, and often confused by particular quirks of the Swedes, not least during the cold winters, during which she says many locals tend to become more insular. However, her work and expat friends allow her to stay social, and she has developed ways of coping: “I take my vitamin D and I try to plan fun things and stay optimistic. I actually really enjoy cold weather and snow so I get very excited at this time of year, and if no one wants to join me, that's their problem, not mine!”

And she adds that “even on tough days, I feel that my life here is far better than it ever would have been otherwise”.

For members


Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

A reader got in touch to ask how long he had to work in Sweden before he was eligible for a pension. Here are Sweden's pension rules, and how you can get your pension when the time comes.

Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

The Swedish pension is part of the country’s social insurance system, and it can seem like a confusing beast at times. The good news is that if you’re living and working here, you’ll almost certainly be earning towards a pension, and you’ll be able to get that money even if you move elsewhere before retirement.

You will start earning your Swedish general pension, or allmän pension, once you’ve earned over 20,431 kronor in a single year, and – for almost all kinds of pension in Sweden – there is no time limit on how long you must have lived in Sweden before you are eligible.

The exception is the minimum guarantee pension, or garantipension, which you can receive whether you’ve worked or not. To be eligible at all for this, you need to have lived in Sweden for a period of at least three years before you are 65 years old. 

“There’s a limit, but it’s a money limit,” Johan Andersson, press secretary at the Swedish Pension Agency told The Local about the general pension. “When you reach the point that you start paying tax, you start paying into your pension.”

“But you have to apply for your pension, make sure you get in touch with us when you want to start receiving it,” he said.

Here’s our in-depth guide on how you can maximise your Swedish pension, even if you’re only planning on staying in Sweden short-term.

Those who spend only a few years working in Sweden will earn a much smaller pension than people who work here for their whole lives, but they are still entitled to something – people who have worked in Sweden will keep their income pension, premium pension, supplementary pension and occupational pension that they have earned in Sweden, even if they move to another country. The pension is paid no matter where in the world you live, but must be applied for – it is not automatically paid out at retirement age.

If you retire in the EU/EEA, or another country with which Sweden has a pension agreement, you just need to apply to the pension authority in your country of residence in order to start drawing your Swedish pension. If you live in a different country, you should contact the Swedish Pensions Agency for advice on accessing your pension, which is done by filling out a form (look for the form called Ansök om allmän pension – om du är bosatt utanför Sverige).

The agency recommends beginning the application process at least three months before you plan to take the pension, and ideally six months beforehand if you live abroad. It’s possible to have the pension paid into either a Swedish bank account or an account outside Sweden.

A guarantee pension – for those who live on a low income or no income while in Sweden – can be paid to those living in Sweden, an EU/EEA country, Switzerland or, in some cases, Canada. This is the only Swedish pension which is affected by how long you’ve lived in Sweden – you can only receive it if you’ve lived in the country for at least three years before the age of 65.

“The guarantee pension is residence based,” Andersson said. “But it’s lower if you haven’t lived in Sweden for at least 40 years. You are eligible for it after living in Sweden for only three years, but it won’t be that much.”