A Letter from Malmö by Maria Tonini
Some time ago, on a cold Saturday evening, a friend suggested to go and see Momus, the Scottish singer and provocateur, who was holding a gig in the tiny basement room of a popular bar. The room was really, really small, and I had not heard about the gig anywhere. My friend explained that Momus called the series of dates “The peripheral tour of Europe”. Gig apart (which was good, hilarious at times, and cosy to the point of thinking someone had invaded your living room with speakers, a performer dressed like a pirate, and a hundred people with a beer in their hand), the word ‘peripheral’ stuck to my mind. It can be said that southern Sweden is the periphery of Europe. Or can it? When I moved here, almost three years ago, I remember having similar thoughts: I came from London, and suddenly I found myself in a place where nothing happened. Or so it felt at the time. Now and then I still have pangs of nostalgia for the hectic pace and the resolute sleaze of the Big Smoke, but overall I changed my mind. To Londoners or New Yorkers, Malmö will feel like a peripheral suburb (300.000 inhabitants, more or less like the borough of Lambeth). To us, living here, Malmö is the centre of action – with the added benefit of having Copenhagen only 30 minutes away: a whole different country, a whole different culture across the bridge.
Facts and statistics illuminate an interesting reality: Malmö, beside being the capital of Skåne (the southernmost region of Sweden), is increasingly associated with what goes under the name of ‘Öresund Region’, an area comprising the Western coast of south Sweden and the eastern coast of Denmark. The Öresund Region can be covered in half a day by train, from Swedish harbour city Helsinborg to Danish Elsinore (the Hamlet castle is a gem). According to the latest statistics, the Öresund region has 3.7million inhabitants, mostly concentrated in Copenhagen and Malmö but distributed all along the coasts; what makes it in a way unique is the dynamic interaction between the two countries and its towns, so that living in the Öresund region feels pleasantly cosmopolitan – a region that doesn’t belong to either country, a transnational entity.
In globalised times – I swear I didn’t want to use the ‘G word’: feel free to substitute it in your mind with something less painfully overused – I feel it is slightly odd that it’s still the same old cities dictating the agenda of cool, plus some gigantic newcomers from China. As Saskia Sassen memorably argued, global flows tend to concentrate in particular nodes around the world, and a city becomes ‘global’ if and when it can sport something unique in the global flow of capitals – economic, cultural, political. So Zurich would be central on the global map of finance, Antwerp on the diamond map.
What map would see Malmö as a central node?
Perhaps dwarfed by the proximity to the Danish capital, a proximity that can never evolve into a real ‘sisterhood’ of cities despite some urban planners’ efforts, the third city in Sweden (after Stockholm and Gothenburg) doesn’t seem to have a place in the unwritten list of ‘cool’ European cities. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us, since even a cultural milestone like Paris seems to have somehow lost its shine.
So why Malmö? Why does it matter? Why should you read what’s going on here? Why should you care?
Because there is a sense of true discovery in living in a Swedish city that isn’t even the capital of this already peripheral country (roughly as large as California but with barely ten million people, and, well, a slightly different climate). There is a sense of actually, really, authentically having moved somewhere else, not at all to a global node, not at all to an expat haven (like many Asian cities). A place where English is widely spoken for the benefit of us all, but Swedish is what you need if you want to have a purpose. Where despite the penetration of western/American/global trends, media and popular culture, there are specificities that are strictly local, and there lies their preciousness.
But I’m being unfair when I praise the local-ness of Malmö: with 174 different nationalities living in the same municipality, this city is a microcosm in its own way. Danish people can be heard getting in and out of shops on a Saturday afternoon, Lebanese shopkeepers switch smoothly between Arabic and Swedish as you pack your groceries, the Brits can be found in one of the city’s pubs (it’s true – not a journalistic topos), and I thank my boxing trainer for being from Serbia, as his Swedish is crystal clear to me.
Many people will know, or think they know, what it feels to live in Williamsburg compared to the East Village: we get it, it’s on the news, in lifestyle magazines, regularly listed as a trendsetting location. No one will get a sense of what it is like to live in Möllevånstorget as compared to Limhamn. To the outsider these are long names with strange vowels and little else, and they remain as such unless one is willing to dive into the local cultures, the habits, the relevant issues. It isn’t folklore, or quasi-anthropological curiosity: to live here one has to ‘go native’, but the traditional distinctions between self and other are complicated by the fact that this is a strikingly modern society, one that reminds you of your own European homeland and than hits you with unbelievable oddities.
The sense of living ‘elsewhere’ puts the foreigners like me before several choices, yet none of them feels constraining: Malmö is not fully Sweden, it is a man-sized combination of influences, traffics, languages and conflicts. Its hybrid identity allows for diverse experiences and a distinctive, lively cultural and social life. I hope I will be able to transfer my sense of pleasant displacement over to you, from time to time.