The list of adjectives I was supposed to be memorizing (tedious, useful, soporific) as part of a renewed attempt to conquer Swedish lay unread on the table before me. Crockery clinked like wind chimes and I breathed in the best of Stockholm.
But not for long. Behind me, by the entrance to the cafe, a conversation had become an argument in the space of a couple of seconds.
I edged around to see what all the fuss was about. A woman with two small children, one of whom was in a pushchair, was arguing with the café owner.
It took me a moment to realise that it was Linda, a Rumanian woman (taciturn, short, unpredictable) from my Swedish class. She doesn’t normally say much but the week before she had distinguished herself in one of our regular ‘What’s the difference between Swedes and people from your home country?’ conversations.
While the rest of us were muttering quietly to each other, Linda stood up and declared:
“In Bucharest we have carpets in our apartments. In Stockholm they have wood. That is the difference.”
We all laughed and then, when we realised she was being completely serious, congratulated her on her wisdom.
Now, though, there was no evidence of that economy of words. She fired round after round of Rumanian invective at the owner who apparently didn’t want to let her in.
Then one of her children started crying (loud, snotty, irritating). I remembered her saying during our break that she had problems with her son. He had ADHD and, as well as being in trouble at school, he was disrupting their home life.
The family had been forced to move from their last apartment after all the neighbours had complained about the noise the boy made. Apparently it was no better in their new place.
Anyway, back in the café I probably should have shown some solidarity with my immigrant sister. But I just sat at my table (cowardly, selfish, embarrassed) and hoped the moment would pass.
Eventually it did and, shepherding the children before her, Linda plonked herself at the table beside mine.
“Hej!” she said, as if nothing had happened.
I feigned surprise as well as I could and moved my chair to give her some room for the pushchair. It was the least I could do.
In our overlapping broken Swedish she communicated to me that she had just wanted to have a coffee and give her boy some cake and they wouldn’t let her in but if she was Swedish they would have done and it’s discrimination and…
I assured her that this wasn’t the case, and that more and more Stockholm cafés had a no-pushchair rule these days. I pointed out that the café owner himself didn’t exactly sound Swedish.
“Then that is even worse,” she said.
Her son was quiet now, holding onto his mother’s leg and looking up at me with big brown eyes.
“How’s it going with the apartment?” I asked.
She took a letter from her bag and handed it to me. It was from the chairman of the board of her block and in just two lines explained the situation: neighbours were complaining about the noise and if it didn’t stop the family would be asked to leave.
“What do they expect,” she said loudly, “with all these wooden floors? If they had carpets in this country there wouldn’t be a problem.”
I nodded and glanced back at my list of adjectives.
Proud, defiant, hopeless.