Lessons at SFI, Svenska för invandrare, always begin this way: a hushed multitude of languages as we gravitate towards the familiar. Faint feelings of guilt that we’re not speaking Swedish are swept away by the freedom of unthinking communication.
Then as we warm up, Russian, Arabic, Spanish and French give way not to Swedish but to the world’s most widely spoken language – broken English.
Momentarily, I and the other three native English-speakers cannot help feeling a little superior – at least until Stefan, our livewire teacher, sweeps into the room. Then all of us, whatever our cultural backgrounds, are united against the common foe of Swedish.
On Monday, Stefan swept only as far as the door and then summoned us to the film room. Off we trooped, the movement breaking up the islands and Stefan’s presence inducing a little Swedish language among the less shy.
He wanted to show us a film, he was telling a couple of young lads from Chile, that was Sweden through and through. A hot young Swedish director, popular Swedish actors, the archetypal Swedish trio of the Seventies, Socialism, and Snow – a great taste of Swedish culture. The film was Together, Tillsammans, by Lukas Moodysson.
Stefan left us and the film started rolling. The dialogue is snappy, slurred, natural. As a foreigner, if you want to catch what they say, you have to be listening. People weren’t. For some reason, half the students had started talking on their mobile phones.
The week before, Stefan had scribbled his phone number up on the whiteboard in connection with a trip to a Stockholm museum. As he went to wipe it off, Gregor, a scientist from Russia, had raised his arm.
Stefan was keen to get on with the lesson and urged Gregor to hold his question for later.
“Nej, men, Stefan?! Jag har en fråga!” insisted Gregor. “I have a question!”
It was no use resisting.
“Your phone number – are you with Vodafone?”
“Ja,” replied Stefan slowly.
“I thought so – my number starts the same,” said Gregor, proudly holding up his phone in its new, Zebra-coloured shell.
Poor old Stefan. The next ten minutes of his carefully-prepared lesson were lost to a heated discussion about mobile phone providers, handset models, and where in the building reception was best. Not the cafeteria, everyone agreed.
Apparently the reception in the film room was just fine and the volume of chat soon rose above the volume of the film. Nobody was paying the slightest attention to the movie and one more cultural difference was revealing itself.
Around the world, people do not necessarily watch movies in silence as they do in Sweden. And with nobody there to explain the Swedish way, the film was forgotten.
Then suddenly the conversation stopped dead. On screen, a woman, naked from the waist down, stood at the kitchen table and explained that she would not put clothes on because she had thrush.
Tuts of disapproval peppered the atmosphere and Arri, a Somalian, walked out, followed by two of his compatriots. They were followed by a number of North Africans from the group.
Perhaps it was just as well. Later in the film there is a hidden, but clearly implied, oral sex scene between a gay man and his heterosexual housemate who he is attempting – successfully, it turns out – to “convert”.
Was this an insensitive choice of film on Stefan’s part? Maybe. His job is to teach people Swedish and nobody is a more enthusiastic student than Arri, who has serious ambitions to become a dentist. An SFI teacher ought to be able to keep his students engaged for the duration of the lesson without making them feel so uncomfortable that they have to leave.
But it is also part of Stefan’s remit to introduce us immigrants to Swedish culture. And there will always be certain aspects of that which are hard to take for people from other cultures. They do not have to sit through it, but they need to be made aware of it.
All things considered, I suppose he could have stuck to Bergman. But then I probably would have walked out.
Stockholm Syndrome is a new series of articles from The Local focusing on life in the Swedish capital through a foreigner’s eyes.