One icy winter morning at about eleven o’clock I hurried across the stony windswept square, passing the ragged Christmas tree and solid brick church which sported a banner declaring “Hug somebody you like!” when I noticed a stocky, older man approaching. Outside the smelly ornamental public toilets he stopped and looked around, obviously confused. He was wearing a dark blue padded winter jacket, loose blue jeans, gym shoes and a bob hat which had lost the bob. I slowed down and, taking this as invitation, he came up to me, rather uncomfortably close I thought, and whispered “SFI?” in a gravelly voice. Another lost soul, I thought, and considered pointing him in the direction of the church, but repented and repeated “SFI?” He nodded and smiled. He was closer to sixty than fifty, with a dark weather-beaten face, which possibly indicated African roots, and poor front teeth. He was blinking urgently, obviously running late.
With my whole arm I pointed towards the glass doors of the shopping centre across the square, telling him to go right through the building and out the other side, take off to the right and past the hotel which he would see there. He smiled and nodded, but then asked again “SFI?” and pointed to his feet. He obviously hadn’t understood. I asked “English?”, whereupon he smiled again and shook his head. I waved my arm again in the general direction of the shopping centre. He shook his head slowly for a minute or two and then, like a man revealing a secret, dragged out an envelope from an inner pocket and handed it over. It was an official looking paper, an invitation to take part in a training course for SFI (Swedish for Immigrants) at 11 o’clock at an address on the other side of the shopping centre. I knew it well, went past there often on my way to the gym.
I nodded and pointed to the paper, then used my arms again like a semaphore to indicate which way he should go. To be on the safe side I repeated this procedure a couple of times. He smiled, put the paper back in the envelope, stuffed it into his pocket and set off at a good nick towards the shopping centre. At last, I thought, he got it, pleased with my success at non-verbal communication. Then, as he approached the entrance, he veered suddenly to the left and scurried along a passageway towards the bus station. I couldn’t catch him before he disappeared around a corner, and it was too far to shout. Obviously he had not understood anything I had said. Which of course was why he needed to go to Swedish for Immigrants. There was no map or instructions how to get there.
What happened to the man? Did he get to his Swedish lessons? Did he feel as lost here in Sweden as I did living in Beijing in the early 1980’s? And what could I have done to get him there safely?
These questions squelched around in my head all day. If I had smiled and, holding hands in the African manner, accompanied him to the training centre, a walk of almost a kilometre, would he have trusted me, a white man?