When GO did not come!

go-guy

“Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; . . . through pity [eleos] and fear [phobos] effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions” (Aristotle, Poetics, c. 350 BCE, Book 6.2).

Think of this, then, as catharsis. Not sure there was ever fear, but please pity me my personal, 21st century induced tragedy. Think of this as the purgation of one frustrated client, letting off steam that has boiled and fumed so much, it might easily explode something, most likely my head.

This is a story of inexcusable inefficiency, underscored by incompetence and a lack of even the basic understanding of what makes professionalism. True, they compensated (a little) in the end, but the story remains one of avoidable mishaps.

A few facts first. I have a very poor internet connection. GO says it does not have the infrastructure to give me anything better than 4 gigabits, though I paid for a few years for a lot more without being informed of the fact. Even that ceiling is quite stretched and hardly ever reached, but I make do and live with the hope that the promise of a fiberoptic connection by the end of the year, made on the phone (not in writing) by a customer-care official, will actually materialise.

I am always online. Think of me as part of the wired (or is it wireless now?) generation that needs to be plugged into the universe to exist. I do a lot of work online, I have persistent correspondence (with my students, my colleagues abroad, with co-workers and others with whom I interact professionally, among others), I use the internet extensively for study, for awareness, and for research – both directly and indirectly. It also keeps me in touch with my much-missed partner, who right now happens to be abroad.

Please don’t think I’m exaggerating if I compare what the internet means to me, to the drip needed for life support of a hospital patient. Remove the drip and he might not die, but will be severely debilitated and terribly harmed.

So when I came back from a long stint abroad on Wednesday 16th September, very late at night, and found that what little internet I usually had was now intermittently switching itself off, my heart sank and I phoned GO customer care. I think it must have been one o’clock in the morning. Their 24 hour support service is to be commended. And I commend it. Which is one of the few good things I have to say about the company and its workers in this blog. It’s also manned (and womanned) by quite courteous people who really make an effort to help. There, I think I’ve exhausted any warmth I might have had left in their regard.

They said that my phone line, much maligned and very accident prone throughout its short life, was probably faulty. I phoned again the following day, when the intermittent interruptions continued, and it was confirmed that the line had pretty much had it, and a report lodged with technicians to work their magic and fix it. GO called me back a few days later to tell me that the magic would be worked on Tuesday early afternoon, when I was given an appointment with one of their technicians. My internet had come and gone a zillion times in the meantime, and though I was managing to work, it was in fits and starts, and the customer-care gentleman was really gentlemanly and offered me extra gigabytes of mobile internet that I could use to bolster my failing connection. I thanked him profusely and used his gift with relief.

But at one point, something happened and the hotspot I was using to link my computer to the phone suddenly stopped working. In any case, I still had internet about sixty percent of the time, though the phone line was now fizzing like an over-carbonated soft drink, so I made do.

The technician came a few hours early. He went up a long ladder to check the box on the façade from which my line emanated. He came into my study and dismantled the connection box here. He went up the ladder again. Then he went off in his van to check something while I took care of the ladder. He came back half an hour later and told me not to worry. He said it was a cable fault and said cheerfully it would be fixed by that afternoon. He came up to my study again, fitted the connection box back together and left.

I checked the line. It was totally silent. What had fizzed and crackled before was now as dead as a doornail, and with it, just as completely dead, was my intermittent internet.

I had an errand and actually ran into the technician, still sitting in his van, planning his next visit, and I reiterated with some vehemence my dependence on the internet and that he was absolutely (ABSOLUTELY) certain that the fault would be fixed by that afternoon. He said absolutely.

It’s amazing how some people can lie with so straight a face you don’t even begin to doubt the veracity of their words. We’re used to accepting the authority of those “who know what to do” when it comes to technical matters. And that’s what I did.

He was lying of course. Through his teeth. With a smile that obviously indicated he thought I was a gullible idiot. Which is entirely what I was at that point. I will be kind and think he believed it. But it’s more likely that I wanted to believe that I’d be connected to the world again soon, so, yes, I was a gullible idiot.

Not forever, though. The mistrust of the system nagged at me, and told me to phone customer care again at around half past three. And the gentlemen at the end of the line was flabbergasted when I told him that what my poor line had was a cable fault and that I had been (categorically) told that it would be fixed that afternoon.

“Let me check, sir,” he said, and something tremulous in his voice told me I’d been had. That’s when the first gushes of red flashed before my eyes. They were to continue doing so in greater volumes over the next hours and days.

He hemmed and he hawed and he told me that a cable fault takes … erm… days to fix, possibly… erm… many days. He became more flustered as I became more distressed. And I did something I never do. I raised my voice. Shouted at the messenger because I could not throttle the person who had lied to me so blatantly. It wasn’t fair on him, but at that point GO (and he represented GO) was not being fair on me.

He offered me more mobile gigs, but I said I had a hotspot problem, so he offered me an internet key, and I said yes, but how? And he phoned their Birkirkara outlet, and their Bay Street outlet (since they were closest to Msida, where I live), but no joy. Only the Naxxar outlet had one, but I had to collect it. And it was a quarter to four and I had a meeting at University at five. And I told him so. And I said I would go there and then and would he tell them to have it ready so I could take it and run, please? And he said “certainly, sir”.

And he was lying too!

I lived through the drive to Naxxar in rush hour (in MALTA) by the skin of my teeth (and tires), parked in front of a garage, and dashed into the outlet at a quarter past four, and I told my story to the security guard, and she went to talk to the supervisor and came back and told me I had to wait in line! There were six people in the line, and three attendants, and they were drawing up mobile contracts and selling phones!

I told her I’d been told I wouldn’t have to wait and beseeched her to let them let me have the key. She was a very nice woman and knocked on the manager’s door and came out sadly shaking her head and telling me I had to wait in line.

I did (ungraciously, after moving the car to a more legal spot, with the security guard nicely keeping my place in the line) and waited for forty minutes till it was my turn and the lady there fiddled with a sim card and filled it with gigs for me and I paid 50 Euros deposit and told her that I had a Macintosh and she said “no problem, sir, it works on all computers” and I grabbed my USB internet key, and my contract and dashed out of the outlet at five to five and made it to University by ten past five (and found the meeting had been cancelled unbeknownst to me, but that’s another story altogether!)

Went home a bit later, and tried to set up the key. And all it did was yield a pdf with instructions that could not be followed. I have a vague knowledge of networking on a Mac, so I followed my own whims and nearly got there, except for the simple, nagging point that the computer was not seeing the key. At all.

So I phoned customer care (humming impatiently through gritted teeth to the ear-worm music they play as you wait with boiling blood to be talked to by a human), and the human finally came on and he tried to walk me through the process.

Only what he was talking about was a PC, not a Mac. I said I had a Mac. He asked if I’d told them at the outlet that I had a Mac. I said I had. And he said … erm… that key only worked… erm… on a PC.

So the woman at the outlet was also lying. Either that or she was so totally incompetent that she actually thought the useless thing I’d nearly died half a dozen times to get really worked on a Mac.

The poor customer care guy who was getting a large bit of my (rather sore by this time) tongue and being screamed at in abject frustration, offered me yet more gigs on my mobile, but found I had been given enough, so I rang off and scrambled to get the hotspot to work again. A struggle later, I did, after fighting a bit more with the key, finding it incredibly difficult to believe that I had been led wrong yet again!

But I had been!

And that was that. My line remained silent, like a grave that’s been buried in marble for centuries. It was silent all of Thursday. It was silent on Friday before I went to work.

And at two o’clock GO customer care called.

“You have reported a fault on your phone line, sir.”

“Yes!” and gave a digest version of the story.

“Well, sir, the technicians called at your house, but you were not there.”

“What? Today?”

“Yes, sir, earlier today, and you weren’t there.”

“People WORK, you know? They don’t stay at home! Did they call me before they rang my doorbell?”

“No sir. You weren’t there!”

“I know I wasn’t there! I’m at work! Did they fix the cable fault?”

“Yes, the underground fault has been fixed, but…”

“I still don’t have a line!”

“No, sir, you don’t. I’ll have to give you an appointment for the technician to come fix your line there.”

“When?”

“The earliest I have is Tuesday afternoon…”

“But I’m working Tuesday… never mind, I’ll manage.” And gave him a time and he repeated it and said he’d note it for the technician. And I vented my frustration and anger a bit more, and was offered more mobile gigs, and rung off!

This might not have been word for word (I did not repeat above that he started by saying that he would be recording the phone call) … so the transcript might be slightly off. But not by much!

Honestly, I’m quite soft spoken normally. I do not, almost ever, raise my voice on the phone at anybody who’s doing his or her job to the best of his or her ability. But my nerves were now fraught to the point of fraying and I’d had enough! It was one ridiculous, idiotic thing after another.

GO did realize they’d messed up pretty badly, and, again when I was at work, I found I had a missed call. I returned it and found that a technician had actually gone to check the work, but, of course being unable to go into my home, he could not fix it. Again.

All a bit ridiculous. So much time and effort wasted on the off chance that the disgruntled client is home, when it’s clear that nine cases out of ten, the client works for a living and therefore isn’t.

And I’m not convinced they will come on Tuesday when I’m home waiting for them, or if they do, I’m not convinced they’ll fix my line.

***

All the above was written on Friday in a dire mood. Since then I’ve worked in very limited fashion using my mobile hotspot, but my beloved landline remained dead to the world. The way the story ended has mellowed me a little. Not a lot, because I still had to go through hell, but at least, at the very end (much too late, if you ask me) there was a major effort by the contracted technician to finalise the story. And one more happening made me think a little better of GO personnel.

He came on Tuesday at the appointed time and had to use two very long ladders (two storeys, at least … one of the two boxes set on the walls of the blocks were I live was meant for a time of giants…) just to find out that the cable link to my line had been sent up to a box from which I could not get a connection, because it would need to cross roofs of unfriendly (let me not use the correct adjective) neighbours who had already cut and dumped my phone line off their properties twice. Trying to find a way of patching the line to the correct box proved dodgy. Two hours worth of dodgy. Two hours worth of going up and down very long ladders (at his own expense, since he did contractual work) giving me ample reason to forgive him his trespasses of the past. He really (really) tried hard to give me my lifeline back!

But at the end of those two hours, my line (and my life) remained as silent as Marcel Marceau in his heyday. At least I had the promise of a return the following morning, Wednesday (today, 30th September), two weeks after my first report, with a colleague to help coordinate the effort, since there were two boxes that needed synchronising. I was late for work (had popped home for a few hours while he worked) and did not argue.

True to his word, he and friend came first thing this morning and fixed the fault in half an hour (after much clambering on ladders again). The dulcet sounds of a ringtone never sounded so melodic and I felt like popping a champagne cork in jubilation.

The colleague (upstairs to check it all worked) noted that I had a very old modem and that it took ages to come on. He suggested I exchange it. And since I had to go to a GO outlet to return the useless internet key and get my deposit back, I decided to do what he recommended.

Went, key was handed in, modem was exchanged for a modern one, technicians there set it up, and I was told it was plug-and-play and I came back home to plug and (not play, but) work.

And all hell broke lose again. When I plugged, the phone line went. When I unplugged, the line came back again.

So I called GO customer care again (go on, count the number of times I’ve said I did that in this blog! I dare you!) and on explaining about what had happened, I was asked to wait and told (I couldn’t believe my ears) that a technician would be with me in my home very soon.

And he was. An affable chap who checked the cabinet of wires (Dr Caligari take note) and fixed something before turning up. And in his capable hands both my internet and my phone worked. Simultaneously, too! And he didn’t stop there. He stayed and waited till I tried all the tricks, the cable in the back of the Mac, the router… one by one, and they all (HALLELULJAH!) WORKED. He went the extra mile and checked the port to which my internet was connected, and found a glitch there. He contacted the engineer and had it rectified. He really deserved the mug of tea I prepared for him as he worked. Yes, I was, at that point, magnanimous enough to offer refreshments to representatives of a company I felt like dumping unceremoniously not many hours before and for two weeks before that.

A happy ending? Doubt it’s a lived happily ever after situation. Not for as long as the infrastructure remains antediluvian. Not till fiberoptic solves my speed problem, and probably creates tragedies and the need for catharsis all its own.

But GO needs to take a good long look at itself. Some of its areas (not least its customer care) work well, but those bits of it that are old and tired define it, and mine is not the only story of gnashed teeth and abject frustration that I’ve heard.

Let me enjoy my internet in peace for as long as it’s there, and sing an occasional chorus from Handel’s magnum opus to ease the clenched, nervous stomach brought about by my trials and tribulations. It keeps on telling me something else will soon go wrong and I’ll be in a vacuum again, whirling in the dark nothingness of the unconnected.

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Dirty!

Oink

The Maltese (we) are a dirty race.

Here I’m using that word in its most basic lexical meaning. I’m talking about dirt, rubbish, trash… all that the Maltese leave behind them anywhere and everywhere they go. Untidiness is ingrained in our nature and, it seems, no amount of education can wean us of the urge to dump things wherever and whenever we please.

When a cigarette packet is empty, it is thrown out of an open car window onto the road. When a packet of crisps is eaten, it’s crumpled and dropped. Right there and then. As are cigarette stubs. Wrappers. Sticky, disgusting chewing gum.

Our streets are pig styes. And, yes, the local councils can do more by engaging sweepers to clean up the mess once in a while, but it really is not the Councils that are making the streets dirty, and giving our island the veneer of a third world country in the eyes of its residents and visitors.

No, it’s us. We are the culprits. The son who dropped that crisp bag probably saw his dad throw out that cigarette packet. The level of negative modelling in this is horrendous.

And those who throw out a cigarette pack are probably also to blame for the mattress dumped in a field, just beyond a scenic rubble wall. For the large, broken shelf resting against the facade of a house. Not the house of the one who threw out the shelf of course. No, logically not. NIMBY lives and is well, but anywhere outside the back yard is fair game.

And there really is no reason for this. There are few countries in which trash collection is as frequent as in ours. In which bulky items are collected by appointment by councils. And for free. We have no reason to litter. No reason to dump things where they shouldn’t be dumped. It’s actually more of a chore to do so than to abide by the laws of the land and use dustbins and the services provided for us.

Not that there are enough public dustbins, nor are they emptied and cleaned regularly and efficiently where they do exist, resulting in much more of a mess than if they hadn’t been used at all. But even where dustbins exist, they’re not used.

Why? Because that’s what we’ve always done. That’s what we’ve always been like. Because, in public, we are dirty by nature. Privately, however, we’re not dirty by any stretch of the imagination. Just check out our own homes (in the main). But when it comes to public spaces, we just don’t care enough to learn to hold onto what needs dumping till we find the right place to do so.

I also have the most intense, vehement hatred for those dog walkers who do not clean up after their pets poop. The street where I live in Msida and those surrounding it have become an obstacle course for residents. Circumnavigating turds has become an acquired skill, even while holding one’s breath as the stench of excrement radiates in the extensive summer heat.

And, to pre-empt the obvious comment, no, we’re not the only race that’s this dirty! There are others, sure, but are they the ones we want to emulate in this? Or those countries where even little side-roads are pristine in cleanliness? Or those in whose streets walking is a pleasure and not a chore?

I get very jealous when I’m in those countries whose citizens love their land enough to want it to be as clean as their own houses are. Because I know that even if local councils were to make much (MUCH) more of an effort than they are making at the moment, the streets in which we live will remain overwhelmed by trash thrown out by those who do not care.

I find it hard to believe that all the Maltese don’t care, but given the amount of rubbish that surrounds us, suffocating any pleasure there might be at who we are, I tend to believe that that is indeed the case.

The reading on the wall

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A lot is being written about the dearth of reading in Malta and, separately but associated with this, about the state of our libraries. The facts are very hard to deny. The Maltese as a people are not the most avid readers in the world; quite the opposite. A Misco study a few years back showed that they do read but very few do so regularly and even fewer prefer to read books.

Another fact is that the state of our lending library, in spite of all the work being poured into it by a dedicated group of minders, is poor, in every aspect. The volume of borrowing pretty much reflects this and the lack of reading, which all research indicates to be a fact.

I will try not to belabour the point here and look forward rather than backwards. Enough research has been carried out for us to have, at least, an inkling as to what the causes are for this but perhaps a few ideas need to be put in place, rather than in perennial discussion, as to how this national malaise can be handled with long-term solutions in mind.

Let’s start with the libraries.

There are a number of positive elements already in place. There is a visionary team made up of a CEO and two librarians working hard to implement change against all odds.

There is a University department and a library council led by a person who knows her stuff and an association that is constantly proffering positive suggestions.

But they do not have the money, nor do they have the political clout to make the changes that need to be made to turn our libraries into points of socialisation, built around information and entertainment with books of the print and ‘e’ categories at the centre of the operations.

Nor do we have an attractive, cosy venue for our central lending library. We have perpetually endorsed Dom Mintoff’s mistake in placing the library in an inaccessible, quite horrible building, with gorgeous views but little else. Complete with metal, warehouse-style bookcases and no comfort in the reading rooms. This is a mistake that needs to be rectified.

A central, appealing location has to be identified and given over to the people who know what to do, so they can turn it into what needs doing.

Then, of course, there is the persistent problem of reading, or the lack of it. There is no panacea here. Do not believe anyone who tells you that a mentality stuck in concrete can be turned round in a few years. The thinking needs to be long term. And it needs to be far-reaching and consistent.

Piecemeal solutions that appeal to the camera are risible political ploys that leave no lasting effect. Planning and a vision are needed here. One hopes that there are people in power who can do both. But, in any case, here are a few suggestions.

Catch them when they are young or even before they are born. Work with midwives in antenatal classes to infuse the concept of bedtime reading in the minds of parents-to-be.

Make sure they understand that having enough books around the house will surely leave some sort of effect on the offspring. There is enough research to support this. This might also, eventually, eat away at the ignorant mentality that some parents have of tyrannically imposing books on their children, counter productively making them hate books.

If the next generation, not born yet, reads, then we are on the way.

But children actually do read, in spite of the tantalising allure of so many electronic distractions. Studies in Sweden are even showing that the new generations are being re-awed by printed books, having gone full circle from the fascination with the alternative.

We lose them in teenage. If there are enough good books for teenagers out there and if there are programmes in schools that foster reading in ways that promote it as fun rather than letting the ‘learn-by-heart’ brigade ruin their perceptions, then there is hope.

Let local councils come on board too. Have this corroborated by visionary local council culture plans, including reading clubs, discussions, multimedia spanning of what stems from reading. Get youth clubs on board. Work on a national strategy that includes goodwill and people with a mission rather than political imposition, and we might get there.

Help the publishers. We have precious few of them as it is. They work hard and against the odds. They have done miracles and it has all been on their own. They have little to no help from the authorities and European programmes that are supposed to help culture more often than not do not fit the demands of our tiny market and are therefore not viable options.

Create a needs analysis to see what is missing and help them diversify, promote and be a force to be reckoned with rather than let them struggle to keep their noses above water. They are commercial entities that are keeping a market alive that contributes massively to our national culture. Find out what they need and help them get it, for our sakes as well as theirs.

Help the booksellers too, if you can. Give them back their book fair and then create a festival another time and another place. They need their once-a-year outlet to see some returns on their outlays.

Put books within the reach of those who have no books at all. Work with social workers, parish priests, local councils. Find the depressed areas and slowly introduce the concept of reading to the people there. They might laugh you out of the house to begin with but leaving a book behind will eventually lead to a trickle of interest that might, with time, turn into a torrent.

Flood the media with talk about books. Do not hide culture on television in the slots nobody watches because they are asleep. Make the programmes interesting and watchable. Put drama in there and documentaries that do not involve just one talking head. Pump the social media for all it is worth.

Put very short story collections in waiting rooms. Subsidise these if need be. Make sure there is something that can be read in 15 minutes. Nobody will pick up a book in the doctor’s waiting room if all that can be read is a chapter.

And also fill our beaches with libraries. Make deals with hotels to have book exchange programmes. Give them the bookcases and a crate of books to begin with, help them with expertise, then let them take it from there.

And so on.

I am just an individual and these are only some of the ideas that I have. There is no place here to list all of them. Imagine what a think-tank of like-minded individuals can come up with, just how many other practical visions can fuel the list.

This list is just the tip of what can be done. All ideas here are practical, though they need finances and goodwill to be implemented.

We cannot go on just talking and doomsaying. We cannot keep on dreaming of bringing back what has been lost, thinking that the whole situation can be solved if only we can go back to a different time. The friendly bookseller seer has gone the way of the manifk and Wenzu tat-Titotla.

We need to be proactive and get on with the job at hand. The minds of our people deserve no less.

(From THE TIMES, March 28, 2014)

 

Relaxation

There are crickets in a massively loud symphony of ear-piercing buzz-sawing outside as I write this, and there’s glaring sun over palm trees and slowly undulating red flowers in the garden in front of the glass-framed door of the flat where the AC fights a losing battle against the heat.

Across the way there is a dreamscape of rolling mountains, framing an incredibly blue sea, dotted with sculpted rocks of different sizes, as if some ancient giant artist felt like creating a whimsical installation with nature’s own building blocks. And whitewashed houses with red, slanted roofs, like little, gorgeous dollhouses, dot the lower landscape, leading to a beach on which people lie toasting and frying, ignoring advice and going for the general consensus instead, that tanning is beauty.

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And I’m relaxed, for the first time in months. An incredible feeling of ebbed energy, almost debilitating and draining thoughts like a siphoning of infected fluid, leaving a healthy emptiness that struggles to remain infection free. A struggle, as strong, and eventually as ineffectual as that of the AC against the heat, to keep work away from mind. A fight for renewed sanity and the pushing-back of a breakdown that seemed imminent, sensed as unavoidable to the staunch workaholic brain that knows it is sick but resists the medicine that is suggested at every turn by well-wishers.

The unease that creeps under the skin at work not done cannot be entirely eliminated, so I am making do with not working, and with the difficulty to think forced onto me by actually relaxing … a word I know only semantically and lexically.

And the crickets raise their voices once more, underscoring the exotic sounds of a land and soundscape that is quite similar to ours (the Maltese), but yet so incredibly different as to make it almost alien.

As is my head right now. Identity-less and quiet, seeking words that sound of silence and the barrenness of thought, even as my hands voraciously seek the online newspapers, Facebook and my e-mail client, as if the relaxation has not yet travelled that far.

But it must, for work, another of the loves of my life, kills, and a person who has a type one psychological profile, and who works the way I do, is headed for an early grave.

So maybe this is practice – the dearth of thoughts and draining of energy, the lethargic existence as in a slow-motion movie, the skies pristine and so blue the sun fights the hue with haziness – practice for when the time comes.

But also a postponement, a refuelling, a much needed engine service as the world hums around me and wonderfully forgets I am in it.

I hate the sound of jackhammers!

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I hate the sound of jackhammers. I cannot stand it. It is as obnoxious as it is loud, and it hits my brain in waves of disruption. It confuses my ideas and stops me thinking, making me want to scream so loud that I drown it out, even if just for a few seconds.

I live in an area that is being built up. That is to say, I live in Malta!

As I write this, a huge tower crane drowns out the landscape to the left of my flat, as a massive apartment block has, since last summer, been pandemoniously on its way up to kill yet another bit of the very limited view we have left. And since yesterday, to my right, workers with a jackhammer are tearing up the roof of another old house, possibly to replace it with yet another hulking block, which will remain empty for many years, in much the same way that so many other flats brought into existence by the artificial building boom that has ruined the lives of so many quite streets, have remained empty and will continue to do so.

The sound of the jackhammer is not just horrendous per se, it is also symbolic of the doom of yet another slice of what we were, all to be replaced by what we have recklessly striven to be for years now. I am not massively nostalgic, and do believe that some of the old houses are better off leveled to the ground. But it’s what we do with the space that’s left that really kills me.

We are pretty much going down an incredibly steep hill very fast and the brakes shattered quite a bit back. Few realise that there always seems to be the word “bust” after the word “boom”, and when “building” precedes that word, then we really are in deep trouble. Just ask the Irish.

Selfishly, I just hate the noise. I cannot work in it, and I just cannot conceptualise that it will go on for months and years, and that the moment it eases (for it never ceases), another one, possibly right next door, will start.

We live in dust and grit and we do it because we know no better. And there is so much infernal noise we should all be deaf.

And right this minute, I wish I was.

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.