Friday, December 31, 2010

More on Sweden AND Malta

I flew from Sweden to Malta, which is a tiny country of about 400,000 people south of Sicily.  It consists of 3 islands, two of which are inhabited.  It was a British colony until 1964, when it became independent and is now part of the European Union. 

I flew on Ryanair, which is how I got from Berlin to Stockholm )for only $15!!)    Malta is interesting, but not exotic, people speak Maltese, but many know English.  Not surprisingly, fish is a big part of the diet.  Much of the main island is taken up by villages and farms.  The capital is Valletta.  I stayed in a small fishing village for four days and near Valletta for two days.

The new thing that I did was to Couchsurf for the last two days that I was there.  This is a concept I learned about in Peace Corps.  There is a website,, where you sign up.  You list a lot of information about your interests and travel and indicate whether you are willing to host people at your home or if you are traveling and want to find a place to stay.  When you stay with someone, it is free.  Of course, you don´t choose to host or stay if you are not comfortable.  There are reviews and comments for each time you stay with someone.  In Azerbaijan, some of the volunteers hosted Couchsurfers and so I met a lot of interesting people who were traveling around the world,   I learned a lot from these people.

Before you go somewhere, you look at profiles for the locations you want to stay, contact someone and ask if you can stay with them.  I stayed with a young Hungarian couple with a baby.  They make a living in Malta by lifecoaching, teaching yoga and dance.  They are Bahai and have made friends there with other Bahais.   They are a talented couple who have lived in different countries over the past few years.  Ireland was nice, but too cold.   They wanted to live in an English speaking country that was warm, so they just pulled up stakes and moved to Malta. 

But back to Sweden for a minute.   While I was there, I took a tour of the Reichstag.  This is theSwedish  Parliament.  Ordinarily, I wouldn´t have been interested, but I was struck by how pleased Swedes seem to be with their government.  They commented that they don´t really understand why people in other countries seem to be so angry with each other and their government.  Also, I know the Swedes are firm Socialists.  I wanted to learn more about their system.

A lot of Swedes commented on how they are firmly in control of what goes in in their government.  Of course, there are only 9 million people, but Illinois has about 10 million and there is a lot of unhappiness over the way things are going.

Swedes have one house in their Parliament, having voted in the ´70´s to reduce from two houses.  They just eliminated half of their representatives overnight.  They said it saved money and they didn´t feel they needed two houses.  They also don´t elect their Prime Minister--the speaker suggests someone and the nominee is voted on by the Parliament.  About half of the Parliamentarians are women (they shook their heads about how few women are in our Congress) and people become eligible to run at age 18.  They have one 18-year-old in their current Parliament.

The Prime Minister can be removed at any time by a vote of no confidence by Parliamentarians.  Since there are currently 8 political parties represented, compromise is essential to do anything.   Many times instead of voting yes or no, representatives abstain, which is considered fine.  An average of 82 percent of the citizens vote.  When asked at the tour what are the controversial subjects, the guides initially didn´t come up with anything, but citizens in the audience, after thinking, said that there is some controversy about changing the medical insurance program to include full dental and to have assisted suicide become an option for the terminally ill.

They are very proud of what they call the welfare state.  That is a good word in Sweden.  Health care is adminsitered locally by private doctors.  Normally, there is a nominal copay for going to the doctor, but for the hospital, there is no bill.  They are proud of the fact that a medical appointment must be provided for non-emergencies within three days and surgery must be performed within 2 weeks.   Sweden spends half of what America spends on health care and cover all their citizens.  Swedes are healthier and live longer than Americans. 

New parents can stay home and be paid for about 6 months.   Employees cannot work more than 40 hours, except for those in Parliament.  If a business needs someone for more than 40 hours, they need to hire someone else.  I saw this as a problem in Azerbaijan.  There was a huge unemployment problem, but it was common for someone to be hired to work 11 hours a day 7 days a week.  I don´t know why this was allowed when so many people were out of work.  Besides, the person was burned out quickly and usually had to quit. Many Swedes seem to agree that new parents must be supported to have healthy citizens and that people need time off to have a good life.  So it is institutionalized.

They were also proud of the fact that they have over 100,000 Iraqi refugees living in Sweden as well as refugees from Somalia.  One of them was a barista at my hostel.  He hadn´t learned English yet, but appeared to be fluent in Swedish.  Swedes told me that they don´t understand why the US doesn´t allow Iraqis who have served as interpreters for our troops and have put their lives at risk to emigrate to our country, the way we helped Vietnamese who helped us in that war.

Many Swedes seem to be happy about being in the EU, although they have kept their currency, the krona.  They say being in the EU helps their businesses expand to new markets and they can move to other countries to work and live with no paperwork.  It also helps their businesses to hire the best people.   They have also seen an increase in tourism and like the fact that they can have more of an impact on international matters. 

Now it is New Year´s Eve and I am in Seville, Spain.   The flight from Malta was $54 on Ryanair.

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