Confessions of a Maltese in Sweden

Sadly, I am close to finishing my full sabbatical year in Sweden. I did have a few breaks in Malta along the way, and one in Greece, but most of the time I was here, living in Malmö, at the southern tip of Sweden, becoming a very real part of it, though at the same time, almost contradictorily, still viewing it with the eyes of a man from another country.

This was not my first time in Malmö. Far from it. Because of guest lectures I’ve delivered in Malmö itself and in its neighbouring city of Lund, I have been coming up to Sweden quite regularly for many years. But this was the longest by far I’ve ever been here, meaning I got to experience everyday residential life, and also got to know Sweden and the Swedes a little better.

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Sweden is a gorgeous country that is much too cold many months a year, and Swedes will never tire of pointing this out. The latter, not the former. I happen not to mind the cold too much, though I have to admit that feeling your ears about to fall off as the temperatures hit the minuses and a brisk, almost ever-present breeze whips up the razor blades, does tend to underscore their point of view. But I still think of Sweden’s wonderful, green rolling hills, and impressive woodscapes, not to mention the brilliantly ordered Swedish cities, as by far the winners when contending with the cold for superiority.

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Come to think of it, in spite of walking like a doddering cripple in the slippery slush on the roads that is the down side of snow, I most definitely also love the landscapes in winter, carpeted by a thick covering of white that replaces summer and spring scenes with others that are so incredibly different as to make one think they are completely new.

The Swedes also complain of the dark, and here they have a point. Light switching slowly on at nine thirty in the morning and the darkness falling heavily around three thirty  in the afternoon does tend to make one believe he is living in a stygian reality, but that is why the wiley Swedes have winter lights. Small lamps are omnipresent on window sills. And they also shroud awnings and interlace the foliage of bushes with tiny white lights, not unlike Christmas ones. Nothing garish. Indeeded, there are very few bright and colored lights at Christmas time itself. Just the ubiquitous triangle in each window, the occasional star, and the steady, shining pin-pricks of festooned lights. Understated. Like all that the Swedes do. Nothing shouts out loud. Everything talks at a gentlemanly level, whispering when needed, but hardly ever raising the decibels to cacophony.

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I have to admit that for this and for many other reasons, I like the Swedes as much as I like Sweden. They are intelligent, entrapreunereal, pro-active, hardworking, and yet humble people. A little bit too humble, perhaps. Though times have changed, it is amazing how the famous Jante Lagen (or Jante’s Law) has retained its grip on most of them, dictating they do not stand out; that they should never trumpet their successes; that they should keep a low profile.

And that is amazing, because I’ve known very few other peoples who have as much to trumpet about as the Swedes. Sweden is a rich country. Rich not just in money (though that too, and an expensive place to live in!), but also rich with innovation and creativity. This is, for example, manifested in the way that Swedes love art. It is everywhere in the streets and they buy art for their homes, and have allocations for art for their factories and other places of work. The Swedes excell in scholarship, invention and research, which is why I feel so proud to have been accepted as a guest lecturer in a few of their universities. And I love their students. I note very little of the arrogance I tend to (alas!) expect from young people. Instead there is attention, intelligent questioning and hard work. Not a lot of humour, too, unfortunately. I suppose that is the result of the other things, though they do laugh on cue in my lectures…

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There is a bit of passion missing. That passion that makes us Maltese and most Mediterraneans quite chaotic and erratic, but very much alive. The passion that, unfortunately, also makes fools of us whenever politics, football or a village feast raise an ugly head. That passion that makes us scream and swear so much does not seem to be there at face value in Sweden. Instead there is a calm that is almost unnatural. Oh, the Swedes (especially the young ones) drink too much. That’s were all restraint stops and loud voices in the middle of the night under my bedroom window, make me want to show Mediterranean passion at its worst. But in the main, I find them to be restrained. Nordic, I suppose. With a touch of the Germanic. But once you dig into the light shell … no more than a veneer, actually … you find warmth and the most incredible friendliness. A genuine interest in what you do and what you are. A wide-eyed acceptance that is almost too good to live.

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Whenever I try to describe Swedes and Sweden, the totally inept and inaccuarate word “simplicity” keeps popping into my mind. Because it is not the simplicity that indicates lack of intelligence … the very opposite, in fact, if that were at all possible. No, the “simplicity” I mean refers to a simplification of life … a scaling down to the essentials. Leaving out the cobwebs and the other clutter and going for the symbolic jugular. Calmly, of course, and accurately.

Even design is scaled down. Minimalism is king! Less is more is the mantra that dominates. But oh what they can do with the bare minimum. And they do it democratically. I noted that “för alla” (for everyone) seems to be the catch phrase most used in advertising campaigns. And there is a bit of a crux of it there. Sweden is built on a model that owes a lot to the predominantly socialist politics that have dominated it over the years … though it’s not the socialism the Maltese have come to regard with severe mixed feelings. It’s an everyday socialism that dictates that everyone can (and should) have a “good” life. As good a life as can be had, in any case.

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Take IKEA, for example. This is probably Sweden’s biggest export (though someone cynical among you might disagree and point at Absolut Vodka!). The whole IKEA concept is based on incredibly well engineered and often nicely designed, flat-packed furniture that is of a reasonably high quality and that anyone can afford. Meaning, even at a bare minimum, one can furnish a house and live in a luxury of sorts.

That is the philosophy. Invisible, but there. Along with an orderliness that is impossible for any Maltese who has not lived in Sweden even to begin to conceptualise. From the general cleanliness of the streets, to the well-oiled machine that takes care of snow and the vagaries of the weather in winter … that allows the country to function almost normally in spite of nature dumping tons of white stuff on it every year. Within hours of a major snowstorm, all the main roads are cleaned, all the pavements salted, and the world goes on. Amazing.

Yes, trains and buses do not always run on time (and then you never hear an end to it), and bureaucracy exists like everywhere else, but here with no corners cut. The law is the law in Sweden. No two ways about it. And it is an open society and an information one. Maybe just too much so. I can find out everything about anyone online. Literally everything. From birthdays to who he or she lives with, to the make and year of production of his or her car (and how much it can be sold for this week), and if he or she owes anybody any money. I suppose the philosophy of  “för alla” dictates that. And another thing: you are as valid as your “personnummer” in Sweden. Roughly equivalent to the Maltese ID card number, or the social security number elsewhere. It is the key to existance. Without it, you don’t! Exist, that is. Potentially the negative side of orderliness. Realistically a clean way of running a well-oiled machine. But I don’t have to like it.

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There are lots of other things to like. The language, for example, is a melodious mixture of germanic voices, wonderful to listen to, though not extremely easy to learn. I have struggled to learn it for a while now, but will write off my partial failure to dwindling cognitive capabilities as opposed to its actual difficulty. Not understanding it totally has its pluses. I notice things. The word “precis” (roughly, “precisely”) is repeated often to indicate agreement. And isn’t this just typical of the way the Swedes like everything ordered and in its place? Wonderful how the lifestyle is reflected in the language. But I suppose that goes for any language and not just Swedish. Still, I don’t know of any other language within my very limited scope that has the word “lagom”, which, again very very roughly, means “just right” – a fitting tribute to what every Swede aspires to in life.

That and the wonderful word “mysig”, that cannot really be translated, though the closest is “cosy” (I suppose). It refers to a feeling. A warmth. An enclosed cocoon of love and closeness away from the overpowering chill of the outiside. The aloofness of the Swedes is only apparent at face value. They crave closeness. It is little wonder that their preferred method of greeting a friend or aquaintance is with a single hug – not too close, but full bodied.

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Sweden is now my second home, and not just because I have a residence and half of my life here, but more because I FEEL at home. A green one that turns white many months a year, and that is ordered, but lively and alive; politically correct, but liberal and open-minded. Gorgeous. And missed.