All I could see was a box.
I was sitting with United States Ambassador to Sweden Matthew Barzun at Stortorget – the Växjö residence of Kronoberg County Governor Kristina Alsér – and was staring at a large paper box in front of me.
“We’re here to think outside the box,” Barzun said to an assembled group of about 15 Swedish high school and university students, all dressed like they had been posing for a Calvin Klein campaign. The Ambassador had just stressed the need for Swedish and American businesses to think creatively, but all I could think of was the lunch sitting inside that box. I swore then and there I would never eat just a banana and Pop-Tarts for breakfast again.
With a sweep of his bear-like hands, the Ambassador indicated that it was time to eat. He also said something else, but I was too famished to notice.
Inside the box was a sandwich wrap. It didn’t look like much, but I tucked into it merrily nonetheless. I bit into it, and suddenly realized it wasn’t beef: it was reindeer. Santa Claus would have been outraged.
“We need to be open to engagement [with other countries],” said Barzun, seemingly unconcerned by the perplexed looks shared by the students. “America is an idea, and we need to keep that idea in people’s minds.”
Makes sense, I thought. Engage local populations to let them ask questions and voice their concerns about U.S. policy. The program that brought the Ambassador to Växjö on this surprisingly warm February day, dubbed the “U.S. Embassy in a Box Roadshow,” was definitely proof of that.
As I dug into a dessert of lingonberry mousse, the Ambassador fielded questions about U.S. policy and business. Much of the conversation focused on environmental responsibility and green energy, a topic that I – admittedly – knew much too little about. Fortunately, Barzun was able to offer a crash-course on the subject.
But then disaster struck. Without warning, a tall man with an earpiece walked in, apologizing for having to whisk the Ambassador away for his next engagement, a question-and-answer session at the local university. Barzun bade us farewell, and with that any hopes I had of getting more of a story disintegrated instantly. Or so I thought.
I was left with Public Affairs Officer Christopher Dunnett, an equally bearish man who – I soon found out – was more than capable of answering any and all questions.
“Stereotypes are dangerous and destructive powers,” Dunnett explained, elaborating on Barzun’s emphasis on the need for increased Swedish-American cooperation. “We need to have a more balanced economic system – namely less trade barriers – which has been a focus of President Obama and Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton.”
Dunnett emphasized the Swedish-American Green Alliance (SAGA) – a “sustainability exchange” for Swedish and American researchers, entrepreneurs, policy makers, journalists, activists, academics, and NGOs – as evidence of increased cooperation. To date, SAGA has resulted in millions of dollars in investment in both the American and Swedish economies.
That was O.K., but I still wasn’t entirely impressed. I had to test the guy, see if he could think creatively. They wanted me to think outside the box? I was going to think outside the box.
I asked the hardest – and possibly most loaded – question I could think of:
ME: Could you comment on the differences between the American and Swedish political systems? What are some particular challenges you face as an embassy here in Sweden?
He answered almost instantly.
DUNNETT: Americans and Swedes have a fundamentally different view of the role of government. The question we have to ask is, “what’s the proper relationship between government and the citizens?”
To say I was impressed was an understatement. In that moment, I realized this guy was both smarter and cooler than I probably ever would be, even if I had paid attention in civics.
So what, dear reader, is the point of this story? Am I going somewhere with this, or have I – once again – had one too many Irish coffees?
The lesson here is that things are not always what they seem. In the span of less than 90 minutes, I met the most important government official I’d ever met in my life, saw my plans for an awesome story completely fall apart, asked questions with no real reason why, “discovered” an entirely new story, and realized that guys in suits can actually be cool. Oh, and PM & Vänner makes a pretty mean reindeer wrap.
Even when it comes in a box.