‘We never had a single conversation with a Swede’

'We never had a single conversation with a Swede'
Suhail Din's family poses at Drottningholm on a July 2011 visit to Stockholm
UK native Suhail Din reflects on why Swedes refused to talk to him and his family during their recent visit to Stockholm on holiday.

My wife and I visited Stockholm in 2003; we had a wonderful time and promised that we would return with our three children.

The vacation decision this summer was left to my daughter; it being the occasion of her graduation and 21st birthday.

When asked, she said she preferred a European city holiday rather than a beach holiday; and each city European city has so much to offer: Tallinn, Paris, Warsaw, Florence – all of them are great.

I, however, suggested Stockholm.

I knew it was worth seeing being one-third water, one-third urban space, and one-third greenery.

Not only would a visit to a Nordic country be something unique, but experiencing the longer days (even though we live at the 55th parallel in Newcastle) would be something new as well.

And we were all aware of the enormous impact many people from Sweden, even with its relatively small population, have had on the global stage.

So, we thought, it would be quite interesting to see the centre of it all and learn more about what makes Swedes tick.

We were all very excited about traveling to Sweden. We booked the hotel and the flights; we bought tourist guides and even ordered the Stockholm Card.

Now, we are always good guests, we always talk in English and not in Punjabi, and we dress just like any other European family.

We also mess around and laugh and carry on like any other family out enjoying themselves.

In Stockholm, we stood patiently in line and said ‘Hello’, ‘Hej hej’, ‘Thank you’, ‘Tack’ and even the American-style ‘Hi, how are you?’

In other words, we were obviously tourists.

We went to Gamla Stan, visited an Italian restaurant and were served by a Turkish guy posing as an Italian.

We also enjoyed great service from the black Brazilian taxi driver, the Turkish kebab house owner and the pleasant girls in the Efva Attling jewelry shop; one Swedish, one mixed blood, both stunning.

The young Swedish girls in McDonald’s were great, as were the chefs serving us in Åhlens.

All over the city, every financial transaction was polite and professional. The Swedish girl at the Modern Museum was especially attentive.

We carried out extensive visits to Gamla Stan, Norrmalm, Södermalm and Djurgården.

It was first on the street, then in the National Museum and then at Drottningholm, however, when we began to notice that matters were a little off key.

We were often stared at in the street. We could not understand why as we dress as everyone else, except that we are brown.

We were the only non-whites in the National Museum’s Atrium restaurant. The Swedish couple at our table made no conversation even though we said ‘Good morning’.

They were replaced by a mother and daughter from north London, who were I believe Greek or Greek Cypriot, and we had a great chat.

Later in our trip, sitting in the cafe at Drottningholm, my wife noticed that we were being stared at again.

At one point I felt like I should explain that Indian people also appreciate beautiful places and fresh air and green trees and the superb cultural heritage of Sweden.

On the tram I offered an adjacent seat to an elderly woman accompanied by her husband; she didn’t acknowledge me and moved down the tram.

Sitting directly opposite a couple in a deserted tram I tried to catch their eye to exchange a greeting; they looked straight through me.

Waiting in line, a young blonde mother dropped one of her baby’s possessions.

I asked my wife to retrieve it, by now assuming the mother wouldn’t take kindly to me.

She didn’t say thank you.

Again on a crowded tram a woman was very curt telling us to move further in towards the middle.

At Gröna Lund, waiting for my daughters to get on and off a ride, we were surrounded by Swedish people, but once again there was no conversation or as we like to say ‘banter’.

We smiled and cooed at babies in their prams. Anywhere else in the world this would result in a smiling pleased mother.

In Sweden we got a hard stare.

We kept doors open as we went through them.

No one noticed.

A family in Skansen sat at our table, they did acknowledge us, but their whole conversation was in Swedish; they made no effort whatsoever to interact with us.

My daughters went out on our last Friday night, the night of the great tragedy in Norway.

I texted them to be very careful and come home in a taxi from their last venue; I was following events on TV and Twitter.

By this time I was getting paranoid. Whey they finally arrived back at the hotel they told me they had a great time but never got to speak with any Swedes, instead feeling forced to spend time with some more outgoing American tourists.

In fact, aside from in a professional setting, we never had a single conversation with a Swede.

This is a matter of great sadness to us.

It seemed to us that the Swedes seem were using the Swedish language as a barrier to discourage exchange, even though most speak excellent English.

They did not seem interested in a social discourse with non-Swedes – or non-whites, maybe. Many Swedes were off hand, cold, and very few acknowledged us.

In my hometown Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, we now have some one hundred nationalities living, working or studying, and we have very little communal tension.

Most of us speak Globish; a truncated version of English with a vocabulary of some 5,000 words, which serves you virtually everywhere.

In Newcastle, a visitor is sure to receive a warm welcome and a kind word from any member of the community, black, white or brown, Chinese or South Asian.

My daughter would love to live in Stockholm but my advice is that there are many easier cities for someone like her to make her home – especially our own.

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