My dad and I visited one of those ubiquitous fast food grill stands the other day, just next to one of the metro station entrances in Enskede, south of Stockholm.
We both ordered a classic Swedish tunnbrödsrulle (flatbread roll) from the owner of the grill.
He is – I hardly need to mention – not a native born Swede and his Swedish was somewhat shaky. We stood there waiting for our food and I hadn’t really intended to talk at all with the grill owner, perhaps because it felt awkward to have to wait for him to find the right words and then struggle to understand him should he not be able be able to find them.
Such situations often bring with them a degree of resistance that we often don’t perceive as worth overcoming in the pursuit of small talk.
But luckily, my dad opened the door to my curiosity.
It soon became obvious that he had had a conversation with the grill owner the last time a flat bread roll was on the evening menu.
Dad picked up where his last conversation with the grill owner left off, and I started asking questions about what they were talking about.
It turned out that grill the owner was a chemist, educated and raised in Iraq. Shortly after graduation he got a job at a relative’s factory and eventually climbed to the position of plant manager.
In the mid-nineties, he came to Sweden and to Laxå in central Sweden, amidst a grim recession.
Out of 50 applicants, he was one of ten who was called back for an interview for the six jobs that were available at the time.
Unfortunately, our grill master didn’t get one.
And after many further unsuccessful attempts to land a job for which he was trained, he eventually stopped applying. And there he was, standing before me, the chemist from Iraq, making our flatbread rolls.
I was born into the Swedish middle-class. While I don’t have the most ordinary of names, no one has ever had the idea that my background is anything other than Swedish.
Most of my friends also have middle-class backgrounds. We are quite similar in that way. It is also reflected in our values, interests, and that we have all gone on to study at university.
My exchange with the Iraqi chemist reminded me that all of us who are born with social privileges should make an effort to see other sides of our communities than the ones we are accustomed to in our daily lives.
That’s not to say that people with middle-class Swedish backgrounds don’t have problems worth taking seriously.
But we who have grown up in better conditions than many other fellow citizens should be doing our best to be good neighbours, not only to those who we know and love, but also to those who have not had the same opportunities we have had.
And above all, we should do our best to give them the same opportunities that we have had ourselves whenever we have the power to do so.
But unfortunately it rarely happens that we dare to break the ice and allow an exchange to develop that could allow us to positively affect others’ lives.
Usually we only see the guy at the hot dog stand, the taxi driver, or the house cleaner.
And we look at them without interest, as if they don’t have stories that we can learn from; stories that would tell us something about their own backgrounds as well as about ourselves and our society.
I guess I have my dad to thank this time for reminding me of the value of talking to strangers, something I’ll certainly keep in mind on my next trip to the grill stand.
By the way, that flatbread roll was delicious.
Love Liman is a Stockholm-based journalist and commentator.