A Day in the Life of Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg is in Davos, Switzerland, this week, addressing and dressing down the gathered global elite. Cameras and crowds follow her everywhere, like the tail of a comet. But how does the seventeen-year-old spend her days when she’s not leading mass rallies or instructing world leaders? Die Weltwoche asks close fellow travelers of the unlikely international superstar. They tell us the answer.
A teenager, his hair dyed gleaming silver, is jumping for joy as if Justin Bieber or, better yet, Billie Eilish has just taken the stage. The Lausanne, Switzerland town square, packed with elated teenagers, erupts into wild cheers. A sea of cell phones are held aloft to electronically memorialize Generation Z’s global hero, climate icon: Greta Thunberg.
It is Friday afternoon. The seventeen-year-old activist has led over ten thousand followers to the Place de la Riponne for the big finale of her climate demonstration. She stands slightly elevated above the throng on a staircase. “Bonjour Lausanne!” Greta rings out, sending the crowd into ecstasy.
But not everyone is cheering. Recently, Greta’s father, Svante Thunberg, expressed concern about his young daughter. In a BBC interview, the Swedish actor said that while he was very satisfied to see how happy she had become with her climate strike activism, he wants her to return to school to prepare for life after fame. Greta reacted immediately and announced that she intends to resume her studies this summer and live a “normal life.” But what does “normal” mean for a committed, some might say monomaniacal, teen political phenomenon? Or to put it another way: What does Greta do all day when she’s not leading mass rallies and instructing world leaders?
One person who knows the answer is Ingmar Rentzhog. The forty-year-old Swede discovered Greta in the summer of 2018 when she was just a lonely, but determined, teen activist demonstrating in front of the parliament in Stockholm, waving her homemade posters and pamphlets. His photo of the young girl holding up her “Skolstrejk för klimatet” sign went viral. Rentzhog tells me that, back then, Greta dutifully did her homework and went to school, like a normal Swedish teen. “Just not on Friday.”
At the time, Greta was very solitary and cut off from her peers. In the beginning, he tells me, when it came to media interviews, Greta was extremely introverted and reserved. But as the press requests rolled in, she became more and more confident, growing under the public eye. “Media training was not even necessary,” Rentzhog says. But her growing notoriety made it increasingly difficult to maintain a normal adolescence.
Rentzhog doubts if the spotlight suits Greta’s naturally reserved temperament, though he admits that she is “very, very talented and good” at what she does. She’s a phenomenon, and he can testify that her innate social media skills are outstanding. Greta was already active on Instagram and Twitter when the two met. His expertise as a social media entrepreneur was superfluous to her talents. “She learned that on her own and incredibly quickly.”
That fall, he asked Greta if she would like to serve as a “youth advisor” on his “We don’t have time” board, a social media platform that he founded in 2017. Despite reports, Rentzhog insists, “It was all on a voluntary basis.” It was during this time that Greta delivered her famous speech in Katowice. Rentzhog tells me, “This trip was paid by her parents. They are not poor people.” In fact, both are well known personalities in Sweden. Greta’s mother,
Malena Ernman, is an accomplished opera singer, while Svante Thunberg, an actor, producer and writer, hails from a Swedish show business family.
Despite the success of their early collaboration, Greta parted ways with Rentzhog. Today, he doesn't know what’s going on in her daily life. “But I guess it is a lot,” he laughs. Throughout his brief but dazzling partnership with Greta, he says he never really got close to the Thunberg family. All he knows about Greta’s personal life is what he has read in the family’s 2018 memoir, “Scenes from the Heart.”
One third banana, five gnocchi
In 2018, Marlena and Svante published their autobiographical account, “Scenes from the Heart,” of life before Greta’s fame. Before Time magazine covers and speeches in Davos, they were a normal Swedish family, albeit one that traveled throughout Europe’s opera houses. The tight quartet lived in a small Swedish city and, like many middle-class Scandinavians, they owned a summer home on an island near Stockholm. They fondly recall buying a Volvo V70 with enough trunk space to haul their two daughters’, Greta and Beata’s, treasured teddy bears, dollhouses, and tricycles. They write, “Our everyday life was just wonderful.”
But then, a few pages later, their idyllic domesticity darkens. “Our life is chaos,” Marlena writes. Greta is now in the fifth grade and has become inconsolably melancholy. She is crying “in class, in bed in the evening, on the way to school, during breaks.” She has stopped eating. It takes her 53 minutes to slowly consume one third of a banana at breakfast, an alarming deterioration worriedly noted on a family chart on the wall. During one lunch, her family watches as Greta obsessively sorts a plate of gnocchi. She finally eats five pieces. Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes. The tiny schoolgirl loses 22 pounds and becomes mute. The diagnosis: “Asperger’s syndrome with perfectionist demands.” The family’s anguish finally lifts on August 20th, 2018 – the day that Ingmar Rentzhog’s photograph of Greta’s climate strike a catapults Greta to the international stage. “Many things have changed since then. Both for Greta and for us as a family.”
The others drink, she goes to sleep
Greta is actually “quite normal and very nice,” says Marie-Claire Graf, reporting from a United Nations conference in Bonn. The 23-year-old student, known in Switzerland as Greta’s Swiss counterpart, knows the climate star well. They first met at the Climate Change Conference in Katowice in December 2018. Since then, their paths have crossed again and again, including at this year’s World Economic Forum.
For such events, Graf explains, “board and lodging” are provided. She insists that there is no shadowy financing machine, as is sometimes speculated, behind her or Greta. “It is normal that we receive expenses for our speeches,” Graf tells me. For food, she usually receives a small amount – “perhaps fifteen francs” – per meal. She has eaten meals with Greta. “She may eat a little slowly,” Graf reports, “but not ultra-long like when she was a child.”
Like Greta, Graf’s climate activism is non-profit. Graf reminds me that the effort Greta invests in her public life is immense. Greta, she tells me, does everything herself: the many speeches; guest articles in newspapers; interviews; articles for Twitter and Instagram. She only relies on outside scientists for fact checking. “Of course, Greta will be supported, otherwise this wouldn't be possible.” Graf dismisses the conspiracists who claim Greta is being manufactured and manipulated by cynical adults. There is no “army” of PR people, photographers and bodyguards behind her, Graf assures me. The people who accompany Greta work for free. At the moment, only a professional BBC journalist is at Greta’s side to make a documentary.
Graf cannot shed much light on Greta’s limited free time. But she knows that Greta is an avid reader, especially of magazines and books (which ones, she doesn't know.) “And when she is at home in Stockholm, she often goes for walks with her two dogs” – a golden retriever named “Moses” and a black Labrador called “Roxy.” I ask Graf if she and Greta are friends. Graf answers that Greta has companions closer in her orbit. She mentions eighteen-year-old Isabelle Axelsson, also from Stockholm, who is currently accompanying Greta in Davos.
Graf confides that she gets along very well with Greta. “She’s funny, too, and we laugh a lot together” – for example, through social media articles on Instagram which they watch together or send to each other. But, “Greta is, of course, not a teenager like you and me. Typical teenage interests, such as ‘parties, alcohol, relationships’ are,” Graf says, probably less to Greta’s liking. She noticed this in Stockholm where she recently took part in a climate strike with Greta. She recalls that after the day’s heady triumphs, some of the “Fridays for Future” climate strikers headed off to a bar to celebrate over drinks. “Greta,” Graf remembers, “didn’t come with us. She went to bed.”
Greta doesn’t like being the center of attention
Sixteen-year-old Linus Dolder is among Greta’s Swiss compatriots. Dolder, a high school student from Hünibach committed to the “Fridays for Future” movement, reunited with Greta, last week, at her rally in Lausanne. It is where they first met, last August, at the international coordination meeting of the climate strike movement. He noticed, then, that despite her fiery public persona, Greta was deeply uncomfortable with personal conflict. He also witnessed, first hand, the exhaustion she suffers of being permanently at the centre of attention, especially from the unrelenting media. He reports, “When she got tired, she would go to her room and rest.”
Dolder tells me that, from his observations, Greta leads “more or less normal, everyday life.” He tells me that the international celebrity is, in fact, quite shy. She is not one who likes to be the center of attention. Dolder, who serves as spokesperson and organizer of “Fridays for Future,” forwards my interview request to Greta. To my surprise, the Greta Thunberg personally replies. But, alas, my quest to learn about the young woman behind the “Skolstrejk för klimatet” sign is to ends there. She writes, “I would like the focus to be on the climate crisis rather than on my life and person.” – Greta.