Utrecht is home to many nationalities. Every week, DUIC features an Utrechter with a different background. The concept was inspired by ‘180 amsterdammers’.

Utrecht is throwing off its cosy image

Anna-Liisa Toivonen – foto: Robert Oosterbroek

“It’s normal in Finland to spend a couple of years travelling after high school”, explains Anna-Liisa Toivonen in her Café Ledig Erf. Her parents weren’t at all surprised when she took off after passing her high school exams. First she travelled through Europe on an interrail card, ending up in Paris where she worked as an au pair before continuing her journey. She met her now ex-husband from Utrecht on a Portuguese beach near Lagos.

They kept seeing each other when Toivonen finished travelling and started a course at the film academy in Helsinki. Three years later, she decided to spend some time in Utrecht with her boyfriend. She’d intended to spend just one year at HKU University of the Arts, but the fashion design course was even better than she’d imagined. And she felt at home in Utrecht. “Lively, but cosy. Having said that, Utrecht seems to be throwing off its cosy image lately.”

Toivonen appreciates the tolerance in Utrecht. “So many people living on top of each other and yet everyone accepts everyone else.” She loves Zocher park along the Singel, but sometimes misses the space and natural beauty in Finland. “If I were to lay a map of Finland on top of a map of the Netherlands, the north of Finland would touch the Wadden Islands and the south would reach the Mediterranean Sea. And it has a population of around 5.5 million. It´s much more peaceful, but very quiet.”

The ‘infamous’ Voorstraat

While studying at HKU, she worked in a bar to earn some cash. A placement with H&M in Stockholm convinced her that her future wasn’t in off-the-peg clothing. She spent a few years freelancing. “I designed dance clothes; my brother Jaakko Toivonen is a dancer and choreographer (he was on the jury of So You Think You Can Dance, ed.).” But deep down, she missed the catering trade. She and her husband were keen to start their own business so in 1998, they bought Café het Hart at the top of Voorstraat. Everyone said they were mad. “In those days, people were shot in broad daylight in front of coffee shops. Drugs were dealt straight from car boots.” She couldn’t see the problem; the café was in the city centre and they could afford it.

Biking to the café every day, she and her husband passed Café Ledig Erf on Voorstraat. They told each other that one day it would be theirs. Their dream came true; Toivonen has been the proud owner of this bar since 2005. The couple knew the previous owner. “He was glad to sell it to us”, says Toivonen. “We’d found ourselves a bar with a huge pavement terrace. Of course that was before the weather started playing up…”, she laughs.

The Fin thinks that the city is getting busier. “Not because people are going out more, in fact it’s the opposite: more people are going out.” She’s concerned that the city centre has become too expensive for young entrepreneurs. “All the best new initiatives are appearing on the outskirts nowadays.” Asked whether she can see herself living anywhere else, Toivonen doesn’t need to think twice. “I came here for a year and I’ve stayed for 26!”

Name: Anna-Liisa Toivonen
Date of birth: 1967
Place of birth: Oulu, Finland
Motto: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’

Allemaal Utrechters is a series of interviews with people who moved to Utrecht from another country. We ask them about their background and their impression of Utrecht, revealing the true diversity of our city. The ‘Allemaal Utrechters’ series is a collaboration between DUIC and Culturele Zondagen, and has been made possible with help from Stichting Dialoog and the Municipality of Utrecht. We hope to showcase every nationality in Utrecht.

Click here to view the other articles.

Article by Annabel van Heesbeen.