As we pulled into the deserted recycling area at dusk, I checked the rear view mirror again. The blue Volvo was definitely following us.
It had only been doing so for the last mile or so but I was a little concerned. After all, we were new in the village. I’d already been told we were not only the first English people to move into the neighbourhood but the first non-Swedes full stop.
Some southerners had made dark insinuations that northerners were xenophobic and unfriendly. The unsmiling faces in the Volvo as it pulled in behind us seemed to suggest that these notions may have been grounded in truth.
I resolved to climb out of the car and walk towards our pursuers. I’d already learned that Swedes hate confrontation. I’m a big chap and this, combined with my generally grumpy demeanour, can often intimidate people. It was time to take control. Donna put her hand on my arm and whispered, “Be careful.”
As I strode towards the Volvo, the occupants also bounded out of their vehicle. I braced myself. I’d had a couple of similar episodes on American road-trips and had prevailed. I was going to face these people down.
In the misty half-light, my imagination had framed the previously unsmiling faces as menacing twenty-somethings. My imagination had been rather overactive.
“Welcome,” the person on the passenger side said, in a decidedly non-threatening manner, evidently not in the least bit intimidated by the oncoming lumbering oaf.
I stopped mid-stride. As my eyes became used to the mix of mist and headlights I could see that the young thug of my panicked delusions was instead an attractive fifty-something blonde.
“Hello, I’m Katrine,” she said, smiling broadly. “And this is my husband, Torgny.”
The rangy gentleman offered a friendly handshake and smiled an equally warm smile.
“We saw you driving up here and decided to follow you to welcome you to our village. We’ve heard a lot about you and wanted to say ‘hi’. You must come round for fika soon.”
With that they got back into their car, smiled and waved again and reversed out of the recycling area. They hadn’t even had any recycling to deposit. They had pursued us merely to say “Hello”.
As former denizens of London, Donna and I are not used to friendly neighbours.
We had tried in London, really we had. When one set of new neighbours moved in next door we even invited them round for dinner. They not only did not reciprocate the invite, they had pretty much snubbed us since. As far as I know we had done nothing to alienate them – we’d both had a shower that week.
As is pretty much common in London, we knew the names of only the neighbours immediately adjacent to us. We only came to learn the name of the man who lived opposite us because he appeared in the local paper having been charged with grievous bodily harm.
Swedish friends who live in Stockholm and Gothenburg have reported similar experiences. Southern Swedes, it seems, are every bit as wary of their neighbours as Londoners. Few people bother talking to neighbours they don’t know, let alone going out of their way to greet newcomers.
Here, up north, it couldn’t really be much different. Our immediate neighbours, Randy and Irene, have not only had us over for fika, they’ve drawn us a map of the village, complete with the names of our neighbours. We’ve had two dinner invites and countless impromptu chats with other residents.
Cynical to the last, we’ve tried to find ulterior motives for these acts of kindness and sociability. Have we stumbled upon a coven of devil-worshippers looking for their next sacrifice? Maybe this is a swingers’ commune, and we’ll be expected to get down and dirty with other villagers.
Or could it just be that these northerners are really, really nice and welcome friendly, outgoing new people to their community.
Just yesterday, I was thanking Randy for the use of his ride-on lawnmower (and gently ribbing him about the Swedish obsession with pathologically manicured lawns). He told me that I was welcome and then, out of nowhere, patted me on the back and said:
“You know, Paul, I am really, really glad you moved here. You are very nice, friendly people. You can’t have too many of those as neighbours.”