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An Image of 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 neighbors say, the Danes. So I've set out for Sweden to confront a biased image 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 the Danish capital Copenhagen 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.

I enter Malmo from north to south, starting from the tourist office at the railway station where I turn left to locate 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, without making me feel unwelcome, for its barrel has been tied into a knot.

The bridge of Malarbron carries me to the Old City, surrounded by canals. My first stop is Stortorget, Big Square, the home of many a summer festival. The spectacular City Hall to the left is from the Danish period, the Renaissance facade added later. I sit down at the feet of a mounted king, Karl X Gustav, the one who ended Danish rule. Immediately, 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 discrepancy between the clocks suggests that Swedes are no more perfectionists than the rest of us, even though a bearded young man at my side 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 the 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 with an almost Mediterranean atmosphere.

Swedish Welfare

In the pedestrian street of Sodergatan, I'm soon 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 as if local creativity got out of hand. A thirsty middle-aged man, also he sporting 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.

'The System' does not forbid the Swedes to drink but makes alcohol available through 425 professionally run shops around the country, boasting 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 liter per inhabitant, murder and abuse increase by 10 percent. No wonder customers need to be older than 20.

The next square, Gustav Adolfs Torg, was once pastureland. Nowadays, it's a modern-looking open square with stalls 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, not surprisingly in bronze, is enjoying the sun on the broad steps lining the canal, tempting others to do the same. Everybody is casually dressed, ready to sit down anywhere.

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 are at odds with the Swedish welfare society. My suspicion is confirmed by a bearded old man in a checkered woollen jacket, searching for cigarette butts with the tip of his gaily decorated walking stick. At the next square, Triangeln, my theory is disproved by a freshly shaven guy selling a monthly magazine, Aluma, mouthpiece of the homeless.

On I go till I find myself in the spacious Mollevangstorget, less magnificent than the previous squares as this is a traditional working class neighborhood. A gang of men is busy lifting a huge rock decorated with a smoking factory, immortalizing the 'Honor of Labor'. 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 around 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 reach 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 a young guy has unfolded a camp bed in a warm quiet spot to get the first rays of sun on his white belly.

The 'Man and Pegasus' on the lake shore, a sculpture hovering in the skies, is supposed to inspire visions of bravery. My own vision, though, is dominated by 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 a moat, I can delve into the history and development of Malmo, exhibited in the castle museums, or admire Nordic art, reminding me how closely related we are. The experimental side of Malmo is towering opposite, in the Western Harbor: the brand new apartment building Turning Torso, 190 meters tall, made up of nine twisted cubes on top of each other. Those moving in there cannot help looking down upon the Danes, especially on a clear day like today.

After walking the streets of Malmo, stumbling over its sculptures; after many a cheerful chat, some with people without money or a bed to sleep in; after visiting thriving ethnic quarters; after seeing people invade the parks and cafes to relish the sun, even moving into a twisted tower - then I realize that my image of Sweden has already been updated.