But when it comes to noisy neighbours, I find my Zen-like approach towards life hijacked by a more Hulkesque lack of patience and understanding.
Early last Thursday morning I awoke convinced that a team of roadies were setting up an offshoot of the Hultsfred festival in our apartment. Blaring Swedish hard rock music, a giant stage in the living room and the footsteps of 10,000 people mingled with my sleep until consciousness spoke the truth: our upstairs neighbour was back.
Our building is old. The walls are as thick as castle ramparts but thanks to a structural oversight – or perhaps as a result of using up all the materials in the walls – the floors are paper-thin. Acoustically speaking, they’re hardly worth having.
Which means that it’s accepted among the residents that occasional visits from the downstairs neighbour are no cause for offence.
We’ve all had them. Hell, those visits – and, of course, being able to hear every word your neighbours say above the volume of a whisper – are how we know each other so well.
I’d never met Gunnar, our upstairs neighbour, but others in the building spoke of how he was a mysterious character, always going away on business that he never revealed much about. After two more mornings of his racket, I decided it was time for a friendly chat.
Gunnar opened his door. He surprised me. He was older than I expected, maybe fifty, but tanned and lean with coiffured and highlighted hair.
“Hej, jag bor en trappa ner.”
No response, so I tried in English.
“I understood,” he said, with a very passable American accent.
“Right, well, just thought I’d pop up and say hello. Also, I don’t know if you’re aware but the floors here are pretty thin. So I’d appreciate it if you could keep the morning stomping to a minimum.”
“Are you complaining?”
“No, I’m asking,” I said.
At which point he unleashed a most un-Swedish rant, in Swedish, about how he’d never had a complaint before, how he couldn’t very well hover around the flat, his flat, his own home, how he’d been here longer than I have and if I couldn’t handle a bit of noise I should move to Norrland.
That, at least, was the gist.
A couple of years ago he would have had it back in his chops with interest. But I was paralysed. It wasn’t shock. It certainly wasn’t fear. And it wasn’t until I was back in our flat with the sound of Gunnar’s slammed door ringing in my ears that I began to diagnose the problem.
Living in Sweden has added a great deal to my life. I’ve learned a lot, and the old personal development has surged like a five year old in a barrel of growth hormones.
Inwardly, so far so good, then. But in my interactions with the world of Swedes, I feel like a general whose well-trained and eager troops are armed to the teeth with nothing but custard. I have tools, but they’re the wrong tools.
So I keep quiet. I nod and smile and ask the odd question. But I don’t joke. Far too risky. I’ve stopped developing serious arguments and opinions in conversations as well – too time consuming, whether it’s in Swedish or English.
Oh, I’m polite enough. But what Swedes get when they meet me is Mr Syndrome Lite, a shadow of the real thing, fighting the desire to regale and raconte and instead loitering near the wings ready for a quick exit stage right.
At its worst, this new habit haunts my dreams. I’ve long had a recurring nightmare of being accused of a crime I didn’t commit. But in the last year or so it has become worse, as I’m hauled up before the beak on charges of something or other, the dumb immigrant who understands nothing and who is understood by nobody.
(I now come to a fork in this article. On one path I draw the reader’s attention to how lucky I am to have lawyers among my Swedish friends, and how everyone speaks English anyway, and how that fear is daily and real for uneducated refugees from war torn lands of wildly different cultures. The other path leads us to a throwaway story about my testicles.)
So I was at the physio last week. I was up on the table, in nothing but my underpants, lying on my side with the top leg pulled up to about ninety degrees. Anna the physio was heaving down on the top leg with all her might, hoping for a relieving back crack.
Suddenly the door opened and one of Anna’s colleagues – who, due to my not having eyes in my backside, I am unable to describe – stuck her head in. They started nattering while Anna leaned on my leg.
Somehow my testicles had wriggled their way in between my legs and the more Anna leaned the more I squirmed. The chat went on, the agony swelled and a queasy feeling swept over me.
I began sweating profusely. I’m not particularly conscious about my body but I do try to avoid sweating onto other people – and yet still, I didn’t say anything. I just didn’t like to interrupt.
But I don’t mind this Muted Me because I know it is temporary. I see it as a passing state of absorbing the culture and expressions and nuances of the new world around me before I can begin to project myself onto it. You’ve got to measure the flow before you can go with it.
The benefits will be large, I hope, and the costs are small. Gunnar has already gone off on another one of his dodgy business trips so we won’t have his noise for a few weeks. My testicles seem to have survived. And frankly, most of my jokes aren’t funny anyway.