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Nothing Stupid about Sweden

Swedes are supposed to be stiff and correct, burdened with all kinds of prohibitions in an over-regulated society. At least, that’s what their neighbours say, the Danes. So I’ve gone to Sweden to confront prejudice with reality.

Malmo is Sweden’s third largest city with a population of 265,000. This part of the country actually belonged to Denmark long ago, up to 1658. Today, Malmo and Copenhagen, the Danish capital, cooperate in the so-called Oresund Region, linked together by the Oresund Bridge. It’s quite common to work on the other side now, even settle there permanently.

Malmo, pic Jan-Erik Andersson

I will enter Malmo from north to south, starting from the tourist office at the railway station where I turn left to find the pedestrian streets and main squares. The Scandinavian languages are similar, so I have no problems understanding that “gatan” means the street and “torg” is a square. Suddenly, a huge bronze gun is pointing at me, but I don’t feel threatened, for its barrel has been tied into a knot.

The bridge of Malarbron takes me to the Old City, surrounded by canals. My first stop is Stortorget, Big Square, the home of many a festival. The spectacular City Hall to the left is from the Danish period, its Renaissance facade added later. I sit down at the feet of the mounted king who ended Danish rule, Karl X Gustav. Straight away, I notice two clocks, one adorning the city hall tower, the other the sky-high steeple of the Gothic St Peter’s Church right behind.

A 2-minute discrepency between the clocks suggests that Swedes are no more perfectionists than the rest of us, even though a bearded young man does his best to contradict me. He keeps searching his brain for the perfect words for his crossword puzzle. I get a pleasant surprise afterwards, when entering the City Hall Cellar to see if they still keep prisoners there, and realizing that its vaults have been turned into a stylish restaurant. There are more of the same kind on the adjacent Little Square – Lilla Torg – a cafe and restaurant eldorado.

Swedish Welfare

I pick the pedestrian street of Sodergatan, accompanied by a marching orchestra with five members, all of them cast in bronze. Although Malmo has several art museums, they fail to keep the art indoor; it pops up everywhere. A thirsty middle-aged man, also he with a beard, doesn’t care about the art but asks me the way to Systembolaget, the alcohol monopoly. I had just seen their sign, actually, on a shining glass building.

Pic Jan-Erik Andersson

This must be the prohibitive side of Sweden, professionally practiced in 425 shops around the country, with a selection of 6000 different beverages, carefully described and categorized in a voluminous catalogue. The latest issue of their magazine contains disturbing statistics: when the annual Swedish alcohol consumption increases by 1 litre per inhabitant, murder and abuse increase by 10 per cent. No wonder customers need to be older than 20.

The next square, Gustav Adolfs Torg, lies right ahead. Once pastureland, it’s nowadays a modern-looking open square with stalls in the middle, offering daffodils and pansies, fresh fruit and vegetables. An elderly white-haired lady in blue, using a walker, gets a friendly chat with a good-natured salesman who knows that old people appreciate a kind word. I head for the next canal where a cat, in bronze of course, is enjoying the sun on the broad steps lining the canal, tempting others to do the same. People are very casually dressed, except for a couple in black leather from top to toe.

In the street of Sodra Forstadsgatan, another bearded man, quite young, asks me for money. I’m beginning to believe that a beard is a way of showing that you’re at odds with the Swedish welfare society. My suspicion is confirmed by a bearded old man in a chequered woollen jacket, searching for cigarette butts with the tip of his gaily decorated walking stick. At the next square, Triangeln, my theory is challenged by a freshly shaven guy selling a monthly magazine, Aluma, mouthpiece of the homeless.

City of parks, pic Jan-Erik Andersson

On I go till I find myself in the spacious Mollevangstorget, less magnificent than the previous squares as this is a traditional working class neighbourhood. A gang of men is busy lifting a huge rock decorated with a smoking factory, immortalizing the “Honour of Labour”. In our days, most of the work in this area is done by immigrants, some of them selling fruit and vegetables or seasonal flowers. Walking round the square is a tour of the world among ethnic shops and exotic restaurants.

City of Parks

Back at Gustav Adolfs Torg, I turn left to enter the Old Cemetery, a much alive place today thanks to the sun and the budding flowers and trees. Malmo is a city of parks, two of which are waiting for me beyond the cemetery, the Castle Park and the adjoining King’s Park, separated by a canal. Every bench is occupied, so people are also sitting on the ground, while an innovative young guy has unfolded a camp bed in a warm, quiet spot to get the first rays of sun on his white belly.

Straits of Oresund, pic Jan-Erik Andersson

On the lake shore, a transparent glass building cannot hide its contents: shelves of books. The “Man and Pegasus”, a sculpture hovering in the skies, is supposed to inspire visions of bravery. All I see, though, is strutting geese, apparently participating in a beauty contest, traditional geese versus black and white ones, challenged by some bronze geese looked after by a metal boy. A homeless man has gathered his belongings under a bridge where he’s reading, perhaps the latest Aluma magazine. I bet the white and yellow mansion, across the canal, makes him daydream at times; it’s Casino Cosmopol.

At the end of the parks, the impressive Malmohus Castle is situated. After crossing its moat, I can delve into the history and development of Malmo, exhibited in the castle museums, or admire Nordic art. Modern Malmo, on the other hand, is towering opposite, in the Western Harbour. That’s the apartment building Turning Torso, planned to be 190 metres high.  Those who choose to live there may then look down upon the Danes, at least on a clear day like today.

However stupid a question I ask a Swede, I get such a friendly and clear answer that I wish to ask more, but I dare not ask them what myths they have about the Danes. With the new bridge and the increasing interaction between the two countries, the mutual teasing could be expected to stop. Far from it, some say; the clichés will be revived and multiplied, simply because they are necessary for the Danes and Swedes to navigate among each other.

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