Helanya and I spent the last three weeks in Lund, a university town in the south of Sweden. I’m here on a research visit, working on collaborative projects with Erik Green and Ellen Hillbom who head the Africa group in their Department of Economic History, the largest economic history department in the world.
And it’s been fun and fruitful: Sweden in summer is sunny and soothing, especially if you stay away from the popular holiday destinations. There’s not much to do in Lund itself: the cathedral is impressive and ruggedly beautiful (picture). It includes an astronomical clock and a basement that would be the ideal setting for a crime fiction novel. There is also Kulturen, the second largest open air museum in the world. It’s a nice way to familiarise yourself with Swedish and Danish culture (until 1658, the southern part of Sweden – Götaland – was still part of Denmark). And if you’re after more action then Malmo, the largest city in the south of Sweden and a cultural melting pot, is just ten minutes by train. There’s a fantastic science and technology museum, especially if you have kids. And Denmark’s capital Copenhagen, across the spectacular Øresund bridge, is about 40 minutes away. Here you can enjoy – as we did – a visit to the oldest amusement park in the world, Bakken, a visit to a 100 year-old mermaid statue (the European version of the Kardashians: it’s famous because it’s famous) and a stroll through Nyhavn, the quaint and trendy dock-area lined with bars and hundreds of beer-drinking Danes. (You could also enjoy dinner at the world’s second-best and much-raved about restaurant noma. I suspect it’s an acquired taste.)
But summer in Sweden is best for putting your feet up. We spent a weekend cycling in the surrounding country-side, passing through farms, villages and forests. The beach is only 7km away, so cycling there is on the agenda for the coming weekend. And if you’re lucky, you’ll be invited to a Kräftskiva, a traditional crayfish party. (At least, it’s officially about the crayfish; it’s actually about the schnapps.)
We settled into Lund surprisingly easily. While most grocery labels, television programmes, bus signs and restaurant menus (and washing machine instructions) are in Swedish, most people speak fluent English, and are happy to help. Apart from a greater selection of fish (try the smoked herring), supermarkets would look very familiar to South Africans. (Oddly, chicken is not very popular.) Drinking is a favourite past-time, especially now that the students have returned. (Stellenbosch students would feel right at home: all first-years wear pretpakkies during their introductory week.) And somehow the Swedes remind me of South Africa in the early 1990s: I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but this ad which currently airs on Swedish TV provides a clue.
Of course, there are also differences. As one of the ten safest countries in the world, security is less of a worry. Sweden hopes to move to a cashless society so credit cards are preferred everywhere; don’t expect to buy tickets on the bus, for example. Bicycles are ubiquitous and there is an excellent cycling infrastructure, which means you can find your way easily across town. This also means that there are nearly no cars in the centre of town and there’s a general unwillingness to use vehicles when other modes of transport are available. (A vision of a future Stellenbosch?) And because wages are so high, any labour that can be substituted by technology is: supermarkets have self check-out lanes, there are no petrol attendants and don’t expect to be frequently interrupted by attentive restaurant waiters. You’ll also pay for that beer, sir: the average bar charges about five times what you would pay for a Heineken in South Africa. (But you can buy good-quality South African wine at a relatively inexpensive price at Systembolaget, which feels more like an upmarket pharmacy than a liquor shop. I’ve been asked for my passport twice: I don’t yet know if it’s a compliment or xenophobia.)
There are many other interesting Swedish cultural traits of which this video is an excellent guide. (For those who don’t know, the actor playing the Prime Minister was actually the Prime Minister at the time.) Swedes really are egalitarian, and loathe anything that may exclude or injure anyone. They’re also very proud of Zlatan. (By the way, if you’re South African, you should know who Tokelo Rantie and May Mahlangu are. They’re big in Sweden.) But the most unique feature of Swedish culture is the massive investment they make in their children, perhaps more in terms of time and effort than actual money (see my earlier post on parental leave). Education is free, even though the education system is highly liberalised and open to private sector competition (it is not uncommon for schools to go bankrupt). Spanking as a form of corporal punishment is disallowed; many Swedes believe this is explains the low levels of crime in the country. And nearly all the tourist destinations we visited were not only kid-friendly, but seemed designed specifically for them.
Sweden today understands that future success depends on their investment in the next generation. Even as the last few days of summer dwindle away in lovely Lund, the future of Sweden seems bright.