Saturday, June 06, 2009

A Southerner in South Sweden

I know I keep saying this, but for someone whose international travel experience is mainly in China, it's really easy to become mesmerized by Europe. That sounds almost counter intuitive, because some would argue that the culture in Europe is so similar to the U.S.

Here's what I mean, though. China's a vast country, almost a continent in its own right, just like the United States. I've traversed it from east to west, examining all kinds of cultures in interior provinces and border regions. But no matter how exotic the locale or how many miles I travel, I'm always in the same country.

Contrast that with Europe, where nations rub elbows with each other. Especially with the EU's paper-thin borders, you can cross with hardly any indication that you've left one country and entered another.

That was my feeling when my Sweden-bound train crossed the Oresund, the strait that separates Sweden and Denmark. Since a bridge linked the two sides about a decade ago, the southern region of Sweden, called Skane, has become tied to Copenhagen's metropolitan area. It makes sense economically, considering the fact that Stockholm is six or seven hours away by train or car.

A Day in Malmo

My first stop was the capital of Skane, a city called Malmo. It has a quarter-million people and lies right on the Oresund. My host, whom I had just contacted on Skype that Sunday morning, would meet me at the Malmo South station. From Copenhagen's center, it was only 15-20 minutes away.

Nils Eric Svensson, an economic development official with quite possibly the most Scandinavian name ever, stood with the hint of a smile on his face as I disembarked. A tall man with piercing blue eyes and some of the biggest hands you've ever seen, I had met him at our office in Georgia over a year ago. We didn't realize it until we finally saw each other. He helped me stuff my bags into his Volvo wagon, which along with the Saab wagon could compete for the title of Sweden's flagship vehicle.

He took me on a driving tour of Malmo. If Nils could be believed, the city was being transformed by an emphasis on the knowledge economy, logistics and environmental technologies. We passed a huge new IKEA facility, a new subway tunnel under construction and a 50,000-seat sports arena on our way to downtown.

As we drove, Nils gave me an abridged look at Malmo's nearly 1,000-year history. The city was established in the 1100s, when what is now southern Sweden was a part of the Danish kingdom. Malmo was originally called "Elbow" because of the shape of the nearby harbor. It has a long maritime history that led to its ascension as a shipbuilding center with a thriving wharf industry earlier in the 20th century. When the construction of ships moved largely to places like South Korea, some of Malmo's large wharfs closed down, leaving thousands jobless and the city with an identity crisis. For Malmo, it was a fork in the road, and from the tale that Nils was spinning, the city chose the right direction. "I've been working in and close to this area for all my time, but I have never experienced a development like we have now," he said.

Many of the wharf buildings, steel factories and old buildings now house companies that make devices for steering ships, clean technology applications, animation for mobile phones and other products that represent an about-face from the city's industrial history. As if to cap the transition, in 2001 construction began on the Turning Torso, a lonely 55-story skyscraper with a unique twisting design. It towers over the harbor and the shorter buildings around it. The Torso replaced the huge Kockums crane that stood as the city's iconic structure in the harbor during the wharf days. On a clear day Nils said it could be seen from 100 kilometers away. Along with the jobs, it too was shipped to South Korea in 2002, symbolizing a clean break with the past.

Where Are They Hiding?

If Malmo had 250,000 people, I wondered where they were hiding. It was a cool, overcast, blustery Sunday, so I assumed many people might be at church or staying indoors. The city was quiet with no semblance of hustle or bustle. Over lunch, Nils said the lack of activity had more to do with the season than religious fervor. In a land dotted with centuries-old churches and universities, not many people make a weekly habit of attending services, he said. It was the beginning of April, and everyone was waiting for the weather to fully change. Then they'd be out in force, walking along the water and taking advantage of the shift from harsh winter to temperate spring.

After lunch in Malmo, Nils drove me up to Lund, an old town with a huge university with a strong research sector that has attracted many high-tech companies. On the way, the green landscape impressed me. We were close to a relatively large city, but the four-lane highway still felt remote. Unlike in America, Sweden doesn't allow billboards to dot every piece of pasture land along the side of the road. We occasionally passed giant, white wind turbines.

Nils said that Malmo residents joke that their Danish friends on the other side of the Oresund strait never get any sunsets because they're facing east. After lunch, Nils and I had about five more hours until darkness fell. I didn't want to take too much of his time, so we went to his downtown office to conduct a video interview I'd put on my company's Web site.

I was talking to him about his region's plans for the upcoming Swedish Entrepreneurial Days conference in Savannah. Tragically, two weeks later, Nils was killed when a truck hit him while he was crossing a street in Savannah. The day before his death, Nils told me at the conference that he was enjoying a sort of vacation in Georgia's oldest city. It was his fifth visit. There was no way of knowing that my interview with him in Malmo would be his last media appearance.

I left Malmo with a deep respect for Nils, enriched by his Swedish brand of Southern Hospitality. With no real benefit for himself, he had taken three hours out of his day off to show a nosey reporter around his city. For me, he turned what could've been a wasted day into an opportunity.

On to Vaxjo

Nils dropped me off a Malmo's train station, a beautiful old brick building that looked and felt similar to the one in Copenhagen. An army of bicycles were parked outside, and gulls fluttered around the structure, which stood in stark red contrast to the bright blue sky. Nils told me Danish architecture had inspired many of the structures in Malmo, and the town hall proved him right. It was situated on a square and looked like a smaller model of the one in Copenhagen.

It only took about 20 minutes for my train to arrive. I boarded and sat down facing east, the direction I would ride for two hours before reaching my next destination.

Vaxjo has branded itself as the "greenest city in Europe." The city takes pride in its quest to totally eliminate CO2 emissions, an effort it began in the mid-1990s. At least according to government leaders, its environmental focus really started long before that, when city officials decided in the late 1960s to clean up its polluted lakes.

While Vaxjo has failed to meet its ambitious CO2 reduction goals, it has reduced emissions by more than 30 percent since the early 1990s. The key to that has been the use of renewable energy sources to provide more than 90 percent of the heating energy. Like Georgia, Sweden has a wealth of forestry resources that it's trying to monetize further as nations form new policies toward green energy.

If you like nightlife, Vaxjo is probably not your place. Maybe it's just Sundays, but when I stepped out of my hotel at 9 p.m., there were very few downtown establishments open. I tried to resist being a fat American, but the choices for dinner were limited to a McDonald's and a questionable pizza place. I went with the tried-and-true golden arches and then retired to the hotel.

The next day was a flash of green. A Vaxjo university professor picked me up at the hotel and drove me around for awhile, showing me the advances the city has made in building environmentally friendly apartments and houses made almost entirely from timber that boasts elevated insulation capabilities that reduce the need for heating in winter.

We then went to the school and did video interviews about possible collaboration between Vaxjo University and the Savannah College of Art & Design. A publisher of an environmental magazine came in to talk to me about partnering with our international business news Web site. I then visited a company that makes kits to transform gas-powered cars into flex-fuel vehicles. Finally, I went to city hall, where Vaxjo's executive mayor laid out reason that his city has become so green-conscious: To create jobs, boost quality of life, and help Vaxjo make its name known on the international stage.

Vaxjo is more than just green energy, though. There'll soon be a glass museum showing off the city's history as a glass/crystal capital. There are great shops, a museum dedicated to the Swedish mass migration to America, and of course, some old churches and buildings. Not to mention that I was now in Smaland, the birthplace of Ingvar Kamprad's IKEA, the furniture giant that has swept the world.

I ate a quick dinner and headed back to the train station. My two-day whirlwind tour of southern Sweden was over almost as soon as it had begun. It was two hours back to the Danish capital. I grabbed a scarce room at a hotel near the Copenhagen central station. My first European tour ended the next day.

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