2016 was a pretty crappy year, I hardly need to tell you that, but I'm sure there's hope. The night is darkest before the dawn.
Just like a few weeks ago when I was on the bus and an elderly woman got on. She stood right in the middle of the designated space for baby carriages, where I was standing with mine, and refused to move.
Then she complained out loud how immigrants and their baby buggies have taken over Sweden and soon you will not be able to ride the bus any more. She looked around, as if she was hoping to get someone to agree, but no one reacted. It was dead silent. The woman looked at me with an ice cold and searching look and then said, in a loud voice: “Could you go home, you're ruining this country.”
I was perplexed. An uneasy feeling spread through my body. I watched my fellow passengers while trying to hold back my tears. They squirmed. One woman took out a book and looked like she was reading, while others pretended to fiddle with their mobile phones. The woman and I were now aware we had an audience, and she seemed to be revelling in the attention.
It is not the first time I have been the victim of racist harassment. In my previous job as a journalist and commentator, I was on the receiving end of hate and threats many times, often in written form. I have always thought that there is something very frightening about being exposed to it in real life, that it requires a certain degree of madness to dare to offend a total stranger.
The woman continued to watch me with disgust in her eyes. I looked at the passengers again who were pretending that the abuse had never happened. I thought about who they are. Perhaps they agree with the woman and her views? Or perhaps they are the kind of people who loudly object to racism online, safely behind their screens, but in real life quietly look on while I'm being verbally abused and offended.
I wanted to tell the woman that it is not very strange that she feels there is no space for her on the bus if she insists on standing in the pram space, but after a long week at work I did not have the energy to protest.
I surrendered and said that of course she could stand there, there's space for all of us. The woman looked nonplussed and almost a bit disappointed by my indifference. She looked at my three-year-old son, embarrassed, and then at me. I looked at her, questioningly. She started chatting to me about the weather and I reluctantly answered. Then she began to tell me about her life.
Shocked at the sudden U-turn, I listened to the woman.
She told me how her husband had passed away earlier that year and how she had been forced to sell both her cats when her pension was no longer enough. Because she did not have any children or relatives still alive, there was no one she could ask for help. She was alone.
Every day she would take the bus to do her grocery shopping and intentionally stood in the pram space in the hope of having someone to talk to, and after numerous attempts she had given up. She felt lonely and bitter. In the middle of the conversation I realized that the woman was not actually driven by hatred but by fear, and that is a feeling we both share. Fear over our uncertain future. The difference is that she has given up and has instead started to hate.
When I reached my stop it turned out that we were both getting off there. Before we parted, she apologized. We hugged and said goodbye.
Yes, 2016 was a crappy year. But as long as there are more people like this woman, who have the courage to defy their fear of the unknown, there is hope.