As our car crept into the deserted recycling area under the cloak of dusk, a sense of foreboding hung in the air. I stole another glance in the rear view mirror. The blue Volvo, a spectral presence in the dimming light, was definitely following us, its intentions as murky as the twilight shadows.
The Volvo had been shadowing us for only the last couple of kilometers, yet a ripple of unease washed over me. In our new village, where our presence as the first English, indeed the first non-Swede residents, was well-known, every move felt significant.
The locals' reputation for xenophobia, whispered in hushed tones by southern Swedes, seemed to crystallize in the stony expressions of the Volvo's occupants as they parked behind us.
Determined to confront the situation, I prepared to step out of the car. My stature is imposing, and my typically stern expression often has a disquieting effect on others - a useful tool in a land where confrontation is anathema. It was time to assert control. I was not going to be scared by these people.
Donna's hand on my arm brought a moment of hesitation.
– Be careful," she murmured, her voice concerned. With a nod, I opened the car door, ready to face whatever lay ahead.
Approaching the Volvo with a determined stride, the tension was palpable as its occupants swiftly emerged. I braced myself. I’d had a couple of similar episodes on southern states American road-trips (beware in Alabama, road-trippers) 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. Turns out 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 with the snarly face.
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 a fifty-something blonde woman.
– Hello, I’m Marie, she said, smiling broadly.
– And this is my husband, Mikael.
The lanky 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.
Then they got back into their car, smiled and waved again and drove off. They hadn’t had any recycling. They had followed us merely to say, “Hello”.
As Londoners, Donna and I were not used to friendly neighbours.
We knew the names of only the neighbours immediately adjacent to us. Swedish friends who live in Stockholm and Gothenburg reported similar experiences. But here, up north, it couldn’t really be more different.
Within two days of moving into our house our neighbours not only had us over for fika, but they drew us a map of the village, complete with the names of our neighbours.
Despite their reputation down south, rural northerners are just really nice, and welcome friendly, outgoing new people to their community.
Around a week later, I was thanking a neighbour for the use of his ride-on lawnmower. He told me that I was welcome and then, out of nowhere, patted me on the back and said:
– You know, Paul, I am very glad you moved here. You are nice, friendly people. You can’t have too many of those as neighbours.
This is a column and the views are the author's own.