When I was still relatively new to Malta, I wrote about how the Danish word ‘hygge’ captures what I sorely lack in Maltese houses and offices. Now I’m going to use the Swedish word ‘lagom’ to explain, in my understanding, why so many people get frustrated about living in Malta but continue living there.
Being a member in a couple of Facebook forums for immigrants, I frequently see some people estimating, half jokingly, how long it takes until some Maltese member will virtually shout “Go back to your country” after an immigrant complains about this or that. A few hours. A day! Maltese people join immigrant groups for various reasons – to sell stuff, to advertise, – or to offer tips and helpful advice. Once in a while some of them snap in the face of criticism of their country. Those who complained get an additional point – “you see, they’re not welcoming people after all.”
My theory about the patterns of complaining among Malta’s immigrants on social networks has to do with cognitive overload. It is rather difficult to form habits and automatisms, because you have to be on the lookout as you move around, and constantly process the environment. Various negative stimuli add to the overload (noise, pollution, eyesore buildings, stressful road conditions, dust, garbage and pervasive humidity assault all senses). But I’ll elaborate this some time later. This time I’ll try to answer the question why people stay in Malta when they see so many negative aspects of both its development and its cultural habits.
I was introduced to lagom when I studied Swedish in Gothenburg, and, like many Swedes, my teacher was very proud of her culture for coming up with the concept. Traced back to Lutheran self-restraint, lagom is a positive term which denotes being content with just enough, or with being moderate and having moderate expectations. Mild Nordic summers are lagom. Healthy, but not necessarily flavourful food is lagom. And when homes, dates and economic prospects are lagom, the society can move ahead and build things without obsessing too much with perfection. The lagom mentality is said to be at the core of the Swedish post-war boom, and many people are drawn to Sweden as their preferred place to live despite high costs.
How does it apply to the Mediterranean archipelago of Malta, which looks like it couldn’t be more culturally and climate-wise distant from Sweden? My observation is that life in Malta is lagom – adequate, moderate and just enough. People tell me it’s not great for advanced career progression – ambition is not rewarded, and industries are not that complex. But it’s amazing for a career change, because employers encourage you to try out new job profiles and gain new skills. If you have a unique skills set, you can make it shine, and there will be little competition. You don’t have to be certified in everything you claim to know – self-taught professionals are very welcome. I was able to use the wordpress skills I picked up from my brother for getting a part-time job. Employers particularly like jacks of all trades, so Eastern Europeans tend to do well here. Compare this to the experience of hundreds of bright, educated and ambitious Italians and Spaniards in their late 20s or early 30s and you’ll see an obvious difference.
I recently met a couple of friends for drinks, and, having lived in Malta longer than I, one of them mentioned lack of artistic and intellectual stimulation. Performing arts tend to be very conservative and follow a set of models. Once you’ve seen it all, you may get a bit bored. Many artists friends also complain that the scene is very mediocre, and thinking out of the box is discouraged.
On the other hand, there is a flourishing amateur scene. Community orchestras, plein-air painting circles, poetry nights and garage-based bands are abundant. I once surprised a group of Maltese students by saying that nowhere in the world did I meet so many people who write poetry. It’s bad poetry, someone else remarked, but how will someone get to the point of writing good poetry if they don’t get to read their bad beginner’s poetry aloud? There’s not too much that you can experience artistically, but there’s so much you can do yourself, and I love it! I go sketching with my favourite local cartoonist, as well as with a nice, very supportive group called Outdoor Artists. I study at a local art school for peanuts thanks to a government subsidy. I attend writing workshops run by one of the leading poets of our generation, and I’ve recently joined a women’s writing circle. I’m bad at music, but if I wanted to learn something, a percussionist friend would welcome me in his workshops. Comparing the approaches of Vilnius and Valletta as European capitals of culture, I appreciated the community focus of Valletta, dismissed by many as fostering mediocrity, more than the pretentious choices of Vilnius in 2009. Artistic excellence could be fostered more, but amateur self-expression is for all – as it should be. And once in a while there are great gems to enjoy. Cultural life is lagom.
Of all my experiences with Maltese bureaucracy, the Department of Information and Business First deserve praise. Others – much less so. And yet when I remember desperately calling, “Does anybody speak English in this building?” in Budapest, I remember the silverlining – at least I can communicate with all of them in English. In Start-up Nation, the authors claimed that magic happens in just the right mix of chaos and order. Compared to Israel, Malta is more on the chaos side, but it still works. More chaos, like in Athens, would be too overwhelming. It would require spending too much energy for dealing with the chaos.
So far I have avoided the question of money, and I can’t generalise too much here, as everyone’s negotiating power and needs are different. With skyrocketing rents and a price structure that discourages healthy eating, many people feel they are not getting the best value for money for their hard work, and some international companies already struggle to recruit staff. As a freelance journalist, I get paid in flat rates, where it doesn’t matter how much research it takes to produce a piece and how much money I need to survive. I prefer to do a lot of research because I want to produce good quality articles and avoid bias – I would do the same in any country. But if I lived in Germany, I would be spending one salary for a well-researched article in a Western media outlet just on health insurance. For people who work online and are entirely location-independent, there are many countries where they can get more value for their money, such as Bulgaria, Estonia, or, beyond Europe, Thailand or Indonesia. Still, Malta is not as prohibitively expensive as Western countries, which permits more flexibility and creativity in choosing one’s life path. As much as I’d love to live in Germany again, I could never risk working as a freelance journalist there. I would simply go hungry.
Many people would expect to start with the weather when discussing the advantages and disadvantages of Malta. I deliberately left it for the end. The weather is pleasant for half of the year – spring and autumn. For me pleasant weather is about enjoyment being outdoors. Other people are more sensitive to the sun, even if they only theoretically know that it exists beyond the walls of their gloomy office and sets before they leave their desk. Spring and autumn are lagom like pre-climate-change Nordic summers – great for trekking, eating under the sky, yoga outdoors, and an occasional dip in the sea. As much as I can, I try to escape sultry summers and bone-wrenching winters, when locals queue for their yearly dose of antibiotics. In Israel, winters ended much quicker, but at least here not all public buildings and buses use their AC to freeze the people who are stuck in them.
From my experience, Malta is a mix of Tel Aviv and Luxembourg. It has the proximity to the sea, relaxed beach fun, the diversity and quirkiness that I loved in Tel Aviv. It also has an extremely politicised population with a huge class and race divide. When you’re an immigrant, many people expect you to buy into their national project, otherwise what are you doing here? In Tel Aviv, excellent performances were taking place, but what did it matter when I couldn’t afford attending them. Better magazines were getting published, but I had no chance of writing for them.
Apart from that, Malta offers the safety and compactness of Luxembourg, with good connections to multiple European destinations and various professional opportunities. Yes, exhibitions at the museum in Kirschberg were not top-notch, but we could enjoy them for free during a weekly open day with a glass of wine and free snacks. There were lots of cute villages to visit using ridiculously cheap (now free) public transport, and when we got bored, travelling to other countries was also affordable. On the other hand, apart from my landlady and her family, I never had a conversation with a Luxembourgeois. Locals were distant, content in their comfortable worlds. There were dozens of bars, but everyone went there, stayed there and left with their friends, with no spontaneous interaction common in British pubs or in Hamburg.
Just like in Luxie, I keep meeting people who are tired of living here, but it’s just lagom and kind of works, and they haven’t found anywhere else to go – yet. Or haven’t looked too hard.