Solveig Galbo: Wild Flowerer

Photo by Ajai Bharadwaj (@ajaiwithaneye)

Solveig Galbo punctuates her sentences with laughter. Particularly as she’s describing her obsession with flowers or her unusual upbringing in remote forests. Her laugh is full, but casual and light. It shows humor and self awareness — or the humor of knowing and embracing one’s own quirks. More than anything it’s her laugh that proves she’s not weighed down, even though she’s willing to fight for a worthy cause. Lacking a genuine sense of purpose or self one can easily be consumed by the troubles of the world. But Solveig is fine. With a light heart and a positive outlook she’s able to fight the good fight.

In fact, I was surprised by Solveig’s lightheartedness. She was friendly and engaging and entirely at odds with the persona I had concocted from scraps of info I was given in advance. For reasons largely at odds with my lived experience, warmth is not a trait I associate with the accomplished. In this first conversation and routinely since Solveig has been an ongoing reminder to be more generous in my assessments of people and life. Cynicism and laziness go hand in hand. Making the effort to simply listen has this nasty habit of proving my assumptions off base. More often than not I end up with a new friend and a guilty conscience. I’m not the only man with a guilty conscience though:

You’re Danish?

“I’m from Jutland. It’s the biggest part of Denmark. This is going to sound so ridiculous, but my dad’s job is to be in charge of a big area of forest. It’s called Mols Bjerge. My parents lived in many many forest areas of Denmark. Actually, the first maybe five years of my life I wasn’t together with other kids. I was just alone in the forest, hanging out with my dad’s hunting dogs. It was very good. I got a really good, deep understanding of nature and every time I’m in the forest I feel calm. I kind of miss it. I’m also deeply attached to dogs — animals in general — because I grew up with them. Even sleeping together with the dogs in the dog basket sometimes. Yeah, I’m very much a nature person.”

That was until you were five?

“And then I went to school. Actually my first year of school, because I was not used to being inside and sitting down in a chair and being focused, I was just running around and making a big fuss in class. So I took the first year twice.”

It’s kind of not natural to sit in a classroom like that.

“Not when you’re so young and you’re used to running around in a forest with dogs. Anyway, from there things were pretty normal. I went to a small private high school; really religious and strict actually.”

Were you religious?

“Not at all. Normally in Denmark people go to public schools, but this was the closest one. Many of the kids from my school were “trouble-kids” because it was this strict school. I think many of the parents if they have wild kids they would send them there.”

Once you adapted over the first year or two you could handle the classroom environment and that structure?

“That was in elementary school, but yeah, it was fine. I still didn’t do anything. I never studied for my classes. It was easy to get good grades even if you didn’t do anything because it’s a private school and they get students based on their grades. It was just not what I prioritized. I was an elite runner so I was running every day in the forest and in a professional athletic club.”

Long distance?

“800 meters. I was on a junior team winning gold in 5 kilometer cross road. I liked it a lot. That was mostly what I had in my head at that time. The other thing was just to be part of a team; to try to do some team stuff. After that… A lot of people after high school, they don’t really know what they want to do with their life. I didn’t have a specific idea so I went to business school to study business law. I studied that for three years and then I shifted to real core law. I graduated in 2007, so I was working as a defense lawyer with a law firm. After I graduated I tried some areas to see what I liked within law and I really couldn’t… You learn that things are never black and white, and that you have to be willing to compromise. That is a given if you’re a defense lawyer. I was a part of a team who won two murder cases. You have to do your very best if you’re defending someone.”

There was a moral conflict for you?

“Exactly. After that I worked with international tax planning for two years. Just planning how to move money between different countries. So that was also very, do you say immoral or amoral?”

It depends. Immoral is against morality and amoral is without morals.

“It was against morality. It didn’t fit my view of life — funneling money out of Denmark. I didn’t like that.”

Photo by Ajai Bharadwaj (@ajaiwithaneye)

To avoid paying taxes on it?

“It was international tax planning for corporations. It’s legal to try to avoid paying taxes as long as you are doing it within the rules.”

But they push it as far as possible.

“All the time. So I stopped doing that and then I started working for the government within the payment services. With anti-money-laundering, anti-terror financing, and general rules the financial institutions have to obey when they are transferring money.”

The group that fights what your previous employer was doing.

“Yeah. So I liked that a lot. I was there many years. And all the years I was also modeling. I was modeling, working as a lawyer, and then four or five years ago I started doing my flowers as well. Doing flowers — I kind of relax doing it. I just really enjoy it. Sometimes I get a vision. I have an idea, I want to try it out. Or I want to see how some specific plants or flowers work in a context. Actually, I started as a party designer. Of course for high-end parties — just to see the whole concept for the party. But in the end I found out that the one thing that was interesting to me was the flowers; the plants for the party.”

How did you get into the event side — doing the aesthetics of an event?

“I just started doing it for friends, and then every time the guests come to me, ‘Oh, you did the flowers? Can you do this and this and this?’ Every time I do it I get new jobs. I don’t remember what my first thing was. Maybe it was my sister’s wedding. I worked really hard on that — like four days in a row, 24-7. It was very challenging. I didn’t get any sleep. Rarely people want to work for me when I’m doing flowers because I’m such a perfectionist. My sister, she loves joking about what she would rather do than work for me when I’m doing flowers. I am generally easy-going, but with flowers, I don’t accept any mistakes.”

You learned on your own?

“Yes. Especially if you’re creative, it’s nice to start on your own. If you study about it or you take training you get other people’s ideas drawn over your head. I don’t want that. I want to get my own ideas first. I want to use my own understanding of nature. And I have so many ideas. One thing I really hate the most is the flowers I see in general — like when people are doing parties and you can see it’s created based on a method. That’s like a machine.”

You can see that it’s standardized? They have five styles that they use, so choose: do you want it like this or like that?

“I think it’s insulting to the flowers. You should respect what you’re working with.”

Do you think that your aesthetic sense, or your sensitivity to this, came from growing up the way you did?

“I think it’s something in the genes as well. My grandmother was very much into it. My dad actually has a lot of skills in it.”

In flowers? Or aesthetics in general?

“For nature. I also like the process of doing it. I don’t have a fixed picture of how I want it to look afterwards. I like to go wherever it takes me. I also like that all flowers have a message. They mean something. I like to have both the meaning of the flowers — where the flowers come from — and the whole vision of the bouquet to fit the client or the person who I’m giving the bouquet to. Of course I think nobody ever understood really my bouquets when I’m giving them. It’s like a piece of art. If it’s a good piece you can look at it and you can everyday see new things. So it’s the same with my bouquets. But I don’t think anybody thinks in that direction. They don’t think, ‘Oh this Japanese rose — let me look up what that means.’”

In the same way that you have to have an understanding of art history to know a work’s relevance, if I don’t know the history of the flower and it’s meaning… That’s an education process.

“But I also like to take flowers from where the client comes from. And also the smells. You can work in so many areas. You can work with the shape, you can work with the color, you can work with the smell, you can work with the vase. It’s so complicated. But in general, compared to the creatives and modeling, people are much worse within law. You would think modeling is so rough and people would treat you so bad. It’s nothing compared to law.”

That’s saying a lot. I’ve spoken with a number of models about that industry and they all hated it.

“I’m also privileged because I never had to do full-time modeling. I did half-time modeling, half-time studying and working as a lawyer, and then my flowers. I like to have different channels. If I feel like being academic one day I can go and work on a case I might have. And another day if I’m really feeling creative I can do my flowers. That’s one of my goals. I want to be independent. I’m not so good at other people telling me what to do.”

I hear you on that one. When you began doing arrangements did you at some point educate yourself about the meaning of different flowers and their history and such?

“When I get a job then at that time I’m thinking, ‘Do I want to convey a message?’ And then I look up these flowers. It’s also just some feeling I’m following. And which flowers are available at that time. There’s a fashion within flowers. I can’t help that. It’s like if you know a lot about clothes, for example. Immediately when I see the flowers I know which kind of place it is. I like it tasteful and simple. The worst is the street shot where they mix everything.”

Where it’s a hodge-podge?

“Yeah! You can see the person who put them together doesn’t have any understanding whatsoever. But, I guess you will meet this issue with all artists — you just have to make a living sometimes. You sometimes have to do what your clients want. So if I go to a client meeting I have to sell my concept. ‘Do you want this — like a hotel lobby with a lot of lilies, Ibiza style with boom boom? Or do you want this natural organic thing?’ I’m really trying to persuade them. But sometimes they pick what you think is awful and you just have to do that.”

How many years have you been doing it?

“It’s kind of mixed because I started doing it for fun and then I started charging.”

Solveig as a young girl with her mom and sister in the forest.

That was one of your hobbies growing up?

“When I was a little girl, if I was sad or I was crying my mom always said, ‘Oh, let’s go pick some flowers.’ And then she opens the door to some area where there are flowers and, ‘Go pick them.’”

That’s a great solution.

“Makes me happy still. It makes me happy to go pick them out myself. If someone’s really in for a treat, I pick them out myself. And if someone is very very special I will start growing the flowers for the event. That’s actually one of my terms. It’s so spoiled and I really had difficulties trying to build that here. I had a perfect life in Denmark. I moved here and now I have to start everything from scratch.”

What happened?

“I met a guy, we fell in love, and we moved here together.”

And in Denmark the perfect life was doing law, flowers—

“And modeling. I was also a landlord. I had my full network. Coming here you need to start from scratch and build the whole thing again. And the flowers — I don’t think I would be as good and love it as much if I had to do it for earning money.”

Always hustling, finding new people, doing as many jobs as possible—

“If I felt the pressure of earning money on it. And the fact that I say no to a lot of jobs. I’m not doing it for clients I don’t like. I hate trust fund babies. I hate these awful guys, ‘Oh, I want to hire you.’ And when I show up they really just want a date. They want to hire me to do a bouquet for a girl or their mom or something, and then I show up and they act really bad. All artists get that. You can count on it. Without exception the parties I’ve done as a party designer I was always offered to join the party and to bring all the girlfriends I want. Sometimes it’s nice. But at the same time, when I’m there it’s impossible for me to relax. My eyes are on the flowers the whole time. If somebody touches the flowers, I have to go tell them not to touch the flowers. If they move the vase just a little bit, I have to go move it back. You cannot imagine how much a perfectionist I am. It’s sick. It’s like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill. It’s so ridiculous but I couldn’t let it go.”

Is it easier to leave?

“It’s not like I want to stay to make sure it’s perfect all night. I can leave it. I had another job. It was an Italian restaurant. They had an opening and I had a night to do the bouquet and then I’m supposed to deliver it at 9 o’clock in the morning. I called and they don’t pick up. I was also working an internship at a law firm, so I didn’t have forever. They just don’t pick up because, here in New York, the businesses have the upper hand against the upcoming artist so they don’t care. Normally, if I wasn’t so stubborn and I didn’t have integrity, I would sit and wait. But I called them maybe three hours and they didn’t pick up. In the end I just called them, swore in the phone, hung up. ‘You’re never ever ever getting my flowers. Forget about it.’ Because I don’t think it’s fair. Even if they can do that and they could go wherever, they shouldn’t treat me like that. I need some kind of respect. So I brought the flowers to my law firm and put them in the reception. I got a lot of jobs on it and everybody was just amazed. But I had the problem, every time I walked by the reception and there was a client sitting and waiting, they were touching the flowers.” (This is one of those great moments where Solveig laughs at herself.) “I had to go every time and tell them not to. And also, I put fruit in it because it was a restaurant opening. So people thought it was funny to touch.”

But you got a lot of work from having them in the office?

“Yeah, and I didn’t need it. It’s like New York in general — the whole dating scene is obscene. I’m glad I’m married because it’s like for every straight guy it’s three straight girls. Supply and demand, therefore all the guys are acting like complete jerks. Oh my god, the way they treat girls. The stories I hear from my girlfriends, I can’t believe it. It’s the same in business.”

In what way? What’s an example?

“They just have the upper hand. I don’t know. People are not nice always. People are not nice and because New York is so intense everything is more intense. The businesses, the dating scene — everything is more intense. And everything is a commodity as well. If you have a good look, if you have money, if you have a name… Everything is just trading commodities. Nobody’s really there for the art or for the real thing. You don’t know if they really want to be your friend or if they just want to get in bed with you. You don’t know if they really need you for this job or if they just want to have an opportunity to talk with you. I had a fight with my husband because he said in general I was too bitchy. He was like, ‘You have to start being nice.’ I think it’s because I’m a soft soul and I have this creative side and everything. I’m from Denmark. I believe in the good of all people. And I just tried so many times here in New York. People over-crossing my borders or people being really not nice in a gross way. Every time I’m wearing hot pants or a small dress I have guys sitting in front of me on the metro videotaping up my…” (I make a surprised face.) “Yeah, yeah. Like this is just one example out of many. I tried so much. I want to be more confident so when I’m setting my borders I can do it in a nice way. It’s because I’m not confident enough that I have to come out of space. Because that’s the easiest — when you really protect yourself.”

That’s a good observation. What was it like to come to the US from Denmark?

“The first three months I really hated it. Absolutely. I came January 2015. So that was a hard core winter. It was like -17 degrees. I couldn’t breathe when I’m walking into the street. It was so bad. I came because my husband. I didn’t want it actually. I was just here suddenly and had to start from scratch. I took an LLM and it’s a one year education. You can study within one year instead of three years of law school. So I had exams all the time. One of my dogs died while I was here and I couldn’t go back to say goodbye because of an exam. Traveling from Europe and just settling somewhere, you’re making sacrifices. And because I applied for the green card I couldn’t leave the country.”

So it was kind of a whirlwind — you guys meet and all of a sudden you moved. Is that how it went?

“I had been in Berlin actually, just for a weekend with my little sister. I met him and we had a very casual date. Then we had five dates. We were in love and he went to the States for a month and when he came back he was like, ‘I’m moving to New York. Why don’t you come with me? Help me to get settled.’ And I went with him. It was just a week. And then we went to the Bahamas. One evening we had been out and we were both highly intoxicated and he whispered in my ear, ‘Will you marry me?’ I thought it was kind of a pick-up line, and I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ The next day we went out sailing. He was so quiet the whole day and I was like, ‘Why are you so quiet? We’re on holiday.’ And he’s like, ‘I never asked anyone to marry me before and you’re acting like it’s nothing.’ I was like, ‘Come on, do you really mean it?’ And he’s like, ‘Yes!’ And I was like, ‘Ok, but then you have to get a ring, you have to call my dad, you have to be on your knees, and I don’t know what I want to say.’ He was very determined. The next day he did everything. This was two months after we met. Everyone was in shock. When he called my dad, my dad was like, ‘Who are you?’ (laughing) And when I came back I went to my boss’s office, ‘I’m quitting. I’m moving to New York.’ And he just looked at me and laughed. My boss, he laughed for maybe half an hour. Then he said, ‘Oh that was a good one.’ I was like, ‘No, I really met someone. I’m moving.’”

That’s crazy.

“It is crazy. Then I used three months to try to finish my job. There was a big scandal in Denmark. There was a software engineer who had stolen a lot of payment information for famous people and gave it to a gossip magazine. I was looking into this case and I was writing speeches on behalf of this minister. I had to finish that before I could move. But I did that and I moved. We lived together in New York, here on Bleecker Street. Then Thomas got his dream job in Boston. He moved up there and I finished my studies. We have a good marriage but we are giving each other a lot of freedom. I don’t ever want to say no to his dreams and he doesn’t want to say no to my dreams. He only said no when I was doing two projects because he was concerned for my safety.”

Tax projects?

“That I can’t… Maybe if you turn off your phone afterwards. I also still want to change the world, so I have been involved with projects where I thought I could change something.”

Solveig was invited to do flowers for an event for the Clintons and I ask how that opportunity came about.

“Through my girlfriend from law school. She’s a very cool person. Actually in New York, the people who have helped me the most have been other girls. Girls help a lot. Guys talk a lot.”

In New York? Or throughout?

“In my case, in New York only. The ones who have really helped me have been girlfriends. I think the girls of New York are so much more… You actually seem like a nice, sweet guy — down to earth.”

I’m not a New Yorker though.

“No, but… Every time I meet a couple here in New York I think the girls are just over-glowing the guy.”

The girls are on top of their game here.

“Yeah, but the girls are also so much more… I still have yet to see a couple where I think the guy is more interesting than the girl.”

I understand that one but given the state of my life right now dating isn’t even on the radar. (she laughs at me) I just… I have zero answers about what’s gonna happen with this, what’s gonna happen with other things. I barely have a place to stay, you know.

“Yeah, but you could pick whoever you want. You’re a tall, good looking guy. Just that. All the guys in New York, they’re so short. Just the mere fact that you’re tall could make you pick whoever you want. You’re an artist as well.”

I just can’t. It’s one extra thing that it’s easier not to worry about.

“I know what you mean. Definitely know what you mean.”

So I haven’t gotten a good feel for how it works here.

“It’s like in all other areas. If they have the upper hand they are just going to take advantage of it. That’s also why, if they ask me for some job I want to look into it first — for which purpose and why. As a girl doing business you don’t know what your clients are up to. It’s the same with law. Going out with clients and the clients are calling you after, ‘Oh do you want to go for lunch here?’”

You would think there would be a general ethic in business.

“Yeah, but these are the clients. The lawyers are not better though. And that’s why I’m saying within modeling — for example Jordan, the photographer I told you about. Before I met him people told me, ‘You can’t rely on him. He’s just a photographer because he wants to screw girls.’ And then I meet him. He’s the most professional guy I’ve dealt with in Manhattan. He has been nothing else but my friend. He is always respecting me, he’s never hit on me, he’s always picking up the phone when I call him, he’s been a good counselor, he’s nothing else but nice. It’s always the people you would think: ‘Oh, some fancy lawyer. He’s not screwing around. He’s not cheating on his wife.’ I think it’s a pity people are so stuck in their perception of how things are. They will probably think that you have this lifestyle.”

Sleeping with everybody that I feature?

“Very much — they will think that. Or not treating people nice. But it’s not like that. It’s opposite. It’s really opposite. Finance guys, it’s a cliche, but they are the worst.”

That I do believe. You were saying before that the first three months you were here, you hated it. Did it change in some way?

“Definitely it changed. I actually don’t know how and why, but suddenly New York just really got under my skin. Coming from nature, coming from the countryside, I would never ever expect that to happen. I thought that I was different than anybody else. I thought that I wouldn’t stoop so low to be in a city. It’s just a location. It’s just buildings. I didn’t think I would be addicted to a city. But, yeah, New York is so addictive. I don’t know how or why. The most beautiful place I ever visited was Tokyo. I don’t think I would like to live there but I was really blown away. I like the perfectionism. And that they see everybody’s work as equal. I like the soft discipline.”

Photo by William ‘Suhayl’ Barlow (@suhaylphotography)

And it’s twice as big as New York but it somehow feels more comfortable.

“People are so close but I think they have been in the top three of lowest crimes. They’re just so proper. It’s nice to be able to relax because you know that people want the best for you. Here, I always feel in the defense. I really feel all the time I have to look out for my bag, my wallet.”

New York is hard. You have to be tough. I think that’s a lot of the appeal sometimes as well. It’s weird. It has all these negatives but at the same time the struggle can kind of pull you in.

“That’s true. I see that. And the interesting people, yeah. That’s maybe it — the people who are here. I like the way that people are trying to change things. I had an internship at a payment service company. It’s a payment app. I was working with them for half a year. It’s called Circle and you can transfer money worldwide for free. Because they also want to change things. They want to make payments free. The international banking system is charging a lot when people are transferring money between the continents. And if you are an artist, you are based in Beijing and you want to transfer money to New York, you can.”

What was your internship?

“It was in payment service and compliance. I was investigating fraudulent and suspicious transactions. Politically exposed persons. I was seeing if some client popped up on the Interpol most wanted list. It was funny to investigate transactions.”

I bet you see a lot when you follow the money. So what was one of the best lessons you learned in life?

I don’t think it’s a lesson-lesson but in general just that life is short so if you want to do something you have to do it. You can’t sit back and wait and plan and think, ‘That will happen in five years. Or, I’m gonna save my money because I want this or that.’ You should just do it right away. But no particular event gave me that. It’s not like suddenly I found out. Ok, maybe I have one lesson. I was really close to my grandma. It’s ridiculous, but she gave me this wooden, big peppercorn. And my mom called me and said, ‘You need to call grandma to say thanks.’ I was 24 and really busy. I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, call grandma to say thanks.’ And then my grandma died and I never said thanks. So that was a lesson for me to learn to say thanks. Just right away say thanks and appreciate it. I’m not postponing. If I’m grateful for something I’m gonna convey that information right away. And if there’s someone I appreciate I’ll tell them right away. I’m not gonna wait. Because you might not have the chance. You never know.”

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