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.

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28 thoughts on “Confessions of a Maltese in Sweden

  1. Although I only lived in Malmo for 6 months, I can totally relate to your whole post. I love the ways swedes say precis, or juste! or jaha. The worst part was the cold for me! But then nothing beats the sight of Malmo under blue skies, with snow on the rooftops.
    Lagom is the best word ever, and a “lifestyle” that I’ve taken to Malta with me.. along with fika… but I find it will be hard for it to work here.
    I miss my IKEA room, and how few cars I saw around. And of course I miss the kms of bike paths that made it so easy to travel.
    Living in an international residence I was lucky to not miss out too much on Mediterranean fire and passion, as I spent much time with Spaniards… So that was the perfect combination. And the few swedes I got to know really well will never be forgotten!

    1. A few of the things you mention here, Mina, are also ones that are dear to me, and I would have loved to have included them here … like the concept of “fika” (a type of snack, but more of an event than that), and traffic and bikes, and oh so many other things, like the never ending words that Swedish agglutination permits … but the blog would have gone over to around ten thousand words then. Glad you enjoyed this wonderful part of the world.

  2. What passion Gorg – what fantastic words…music my friend. You will be missed I’m sure as we have missed you here in Malta, bubbly, eternally enthusiastic, passionate, intelligent…when I grow up I want to be like you….Safe return…

  3. Almost makes me want to catch the first flight out to Sweden … I say almost because if I want to appreciate all the lovely things you mentioned, I’ll probably also have to survive it….so I’ll wait for it to warm up a tad (or two) 🙂

  4. Hi Gorg,

    I really enjoyed reading this because I similarly became passionate about Denmark on a short trip there, and I’m sure they share many qualities. What struck me most about the Danes is their civility and the importance they give to trust and transparency. They attribute their rise from being one of the poorest countries in Europe before the war, to their present prosperity, to decades of good governance and although they have one of the highest rates of taxation I’m told no one begrudges it because they know it’s well spent! This is all so sadly different to us.

    A funny thing that struck me, and maybe also applies to Malmo is that Copenhagen is a really child-friendly town – I never saw so many babies and toddler as I did there, but even the babies share the calm character you describe above – the most placid children I ever saw! You never hear a baby cry or a toddle throw a tantrum in a shop or restaurant, unbelievable!

    In a nutshell, the Scandinavian countries seem to be a pleasure to live in – if only we could export some warmth in exchange for their civility!

    Many thanks,

    Astrid

    1. Hi Astrid,

      Copenhagen is just half an hour away by train from Malmö, so obviously I visit it often (at least once a month). I’ve also been (literally) all over Denmark, beginning with Skagen, through most of Jutland (Aalborg, Aarhus, etc), Odense, and all around them. It is a gorgeous country and was the first of the Scandinavian countries that I fell in love with and it remains very close to my heart. I agree with you about the Danes, but one thing I have noticed is that they are a much more passionate race than the other Scandinavians I have met. They even talk with their hands, very much the way we do in the Mediterranean 🙂 . But apart from that difference, just about everything I said about the Swedes goes for the Danes. Well, maybe except for one other thing. Their language. A wonderful, quite guttural language that is just about impossible to pronounce 🙂

  5. Camilla Rygaard-Hjalsted

    So true. Same goes for Denmark, I’d say. A lot of what you say reminds me to tell you that Sweden is a HUGE country, so please also visit other places in this great country. I am a Dane myself, but my family owns a house in Sweden and for 45 years I have regularly visited southern Sweden for the very reasons you love it too. Please send my love to Marie who’s art be admire every single day in Silicon Valley!

    1. It is ironic that you and Astrid both wrote about Denmark, Camilla. And I think you can tell from my reply to her what I think of Denmark and the Danes :). I have travelled quite a fair bit around Sweden, though only up to Stockholm so far … so really, I’ve covered less than half of the distance of this huge country. You can be sure I’ll be exploring what’s left in the next few years, and it is something I look forward to with great pleasure. Your regards have been passed on and have been reciprocated.

  6. Kate Wiberg

    Dear Gorg, a friend shared your post with me on Facebook and I loved reading it, firstly because it’s been ages since we met (I was one of those annoying kids in your lectures 17 years ago in Malta) and secondly because I live in Stockholm! My life has been Swedified since I met my husband ten years ago in Malta. All you write about is so spot on, it really put a smile on my face. Please get in touch if you are ever in Stockholm and if you know many other Maltin in Sweden, please let them know about a Facebook page we have called Maltesers in Stockholm. Hej då!

    1. So wonderful to find you here, Kate. And so happy that I seem to have hit on what the Maltese think of the Swedish people and Sweden. Though I’ve had comments from Swedes who also seem to agree. Will definitely look you up if I’m ever in that part of Sweden. Take care!

      1. ruth renling

        Umeå is not so faraway from Malå about 2 hours and half . ha det bra ! Sellili ghal- Maltin and the sun. I really miss the sun and the summer days in MAlta. ha det bra .

  7. Pamela Hallén Rizzo

    As I sat on my comfortable Ikea couch for my usual ‘fredags mys’ (-13 outside) while digging into a ‘lyx semla’, I couldn’t help but laugh when I came across your wonderful article full of truisms – thanks to Mario Schembri Wismayer. I laughed because I realized how I’ve grown to love Sweden, particularly through the eyes of Tomas Tranströmer whose poems make me feel ‘at home’ during the dark and icy wintry
    months. Your musings were the ‘cherry’ on top of my ‘semla’!

    When I learned Swedish, I discovered that Swedes didn’t lack social skills after all. They just thought their English wasn’t up to scratch, unlike my Italian students who were willing to communicate in broken English! That’s when I understood ‘jantelagen’ lol! Not to mention the ‘silence’ in the classroom! Reading Åke Daun’s ‘Svensk Mentalitet’ was an eye-opener when he mentions Swedes’ tendency to avoid conflict: ‘konfliktudvikande’ which explains why they are so ‘polite’ even in hot political debates. As a Mediterranean, I found it a huge relief! I also love the bizarre use of the past tense when exclaiming how good a meal is – during the act of eating: “Åh, vad det var gott”! Or how they exclaim “Ja, ja” when agreeing, but sound as though they’re having an asthma attack due to way in which they suck in the air! I wonder what they say in Malmö! Within Stockholm, besides some linguistic differences, the distinction between ‘cultural capital’ and ‘economic capital’ is somewhat clearly perceived in the areas of ‘Södermalm’ and Östermalm’ respectively. This is not so in Malta. It would be lovely to share your ideas on the blog ‘Maltesers in Stockholm’. Do give us a shout if you intend visiting!

    1. So wonderful to find you here, Pam, and found your take on your adoptive country really interesting. Malmö is undoubtedly different from Stockholm, but, bar minor distinctions, Swedes are Swedes, with traits we’ve both perceived (and that I unashamedly love) hard-wired into their character. Will definitely holler if I visit the capital one of these years. Take care!

  8. Steph Ganado

    Couldn’t agree more!! I absolutely loved my 4 months in Malmo 🙂 HUR MUR DU?? 🙂 hehe Memories I will cherish forever!!

  9. Isabelle Gatt

    Sweden wow! I’ve never been there though I have been to Finland, Norway and Switzerland and some of your descriptions tap some memories I have of these countries. What a wonderful adventure this seems to have been Gorg and thanks so much for sharing the essence of such an intense experience on various levels : intellectual, emotional, aesthetic and sensual . This is very insightful, what a great opportunity for you – well done for planning your sabbatical so well ! I ‘m nearly halfway through my sabbatical year but it’s impossible for me to get away a whole year . I do plan to attend more conferences though and hopefully lecture for a while in the UK, especially now after reading your piece! Mmm Sweden – well there’s an idea 🙂 Safe journey back.

  10. Loved this post, Ġorġ. It very much reflects my feelings of life in my adopted home. I think what helps is the space and the amount of nature one is exposed to. The openness of the country (physical open space) is reflected in the mentality of the people living there.

    It’s odd that I constantly had the fear of become small and petty-minded while in Malta. I am now thankful for that fear because it made me look beyond our shores and encounter many wonderful people and places here in Germany.

    Walking in the forest, the snow, along rivers and ridges, is a privilege I am thankful for on a daily basis. I feel so blessed being in a place where you can get so close to nature just by stepping out of your front door. It’s luxury when you’re used to little more than roads and cars and buildings.

    I look forward to visiting Malta, having been away for almost two years now, but at the same time I don’t, for exactly the same reason.

    Bestest, Ġorġ.

    1. So great to hear from you, Kurt. Had not even realised that you’d gone to live in Germany. Unfortunately, I cannot (for now, and for a number of very valid reasons) live full time in Sweden, but I will visit every chance I get. It has become very much my second home … or one that is equal with Malta, if you like. I understand perfectly what you mean about the natural expanses that defy claustrophobia. Malta’s gorgeous and wonderful in so many ways, but we who have lived there all our lives are only too aware of its limitations. Take care.

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