A brisk wind ripples the surface of the harbour. Elderly men loiter, nodding as they pass each other. It’s past midday, yet the town is only just waking up. The ‘For Sale’ signs that scream at you from building to building are suddenly drowned out by the shriek of a car alarm. When it stops, the signs continue competing for no one’s attention.
“There were once 20 fishing boats in the harbour, their masts stood like a forest. Now there are only two,” says Hans Erik Kristiansen.
The 80-year-old returns his gaze to the sea.
“The tunnel will be good. It’s completely dead here.”
Kristiansen (above) lives in Rødbyhavn on the island of Lolland, a town of around 1,700. Thousands more pass through, but few stop. From the harbour, Scandlines ferries transport trains and vehicles to Puttgarden, Germany. Even with the wait at the harbour, it’s the fastest route from Copenhagen to Hamburg – around 4.5 hours by car.
The tunnel Kristiansen refers to – the Fehmarn Fixed Link – will make the journey even faster. Drivers will shave 45 minutes off the trip to Hamburg, while train travellers will arrive in a speedy three hours – 90 minutes faster than they do now.
The tunnel will run parallel to the current ferry route and, if construction gets underway this year, will be completed in 2021. Crews will dredge the sea and sink 79 slabs of concrete, each over 200 metres long, into the sea floor. A factory to the east of Rødbyhavn will cast one concrete element in an enormous production line, employing 3,000 people.
While the factory jobs will inject life into the local economy during the construction period, there are hopes that the tunnel will bring a longer-lasting economic revival to the area. Lolland’s population declined by more than 10 percent between 2004 and 2014, to around 61,000 residents. Most of the emigrants are young people like Simone and Iben, who are waiting for a bus in the neighbouring town Rødby in their matching fur-trimmed parkas.
“It’s boring here, no parties and nothing to do,” says Simone. It’s not surprising then, that the average age on the island has risen from 44 to 47 over the past decade.
Nothing to do
When The Murmur visited this winter, it was easy to understand how the two teenagers felt. Closed shops lined the high street in Rødby, and few sources of entertainment could be found. In one of the surviving shops, Brigitte Wager (below) sells supplies for knitting and embroidery. An artist and writer originally from Austria, she moved to Lolland with her Danish husband in 1978.
“It wasn’t easy. It took some time to get to know the locals,” she admits.
She and her husband divorced, and she now lives in an 18th-century house that she restored with her new partner. Being a German speaker, she was able to strike up a relationship with artists across the strait, and hopes the tunnel will increase collaboration.
“People with similar professions should get better at working together across borders, to exchange experiences and ideas,” she says.
She belongs to the tourism network ‘Den Lille Turisme’ (The Little Tourism) that links attractions across the islands of Lolland and Falster. She thinks the islands have a number of unique attractions that can draw visitors, such as fossil hunting, local birdlife, and the cycle paths atop the dykes that protect around 60 kilometres of the coast.
Down the road from Brigitte’s shop is Rødby Church, which was built when the town was a trading post on the shores of Rødby Fjord. But while the sea inlet brought merchants to the small town, it also allowed a three-metre storm surge to penetrate and almost completely flood the island in 1872, killing 28. Following the disaster, the fjord was progressively drained, and a pumping station still removes 20 cubic metres of water a second from the low-lying area behind the dykes.
After Rødby lost its sea access, a new harbour town was built on the coast in 1912 – Rødbyhavn. But the new town struggled, and was put into administration by the state for 30 years after its shipyard closed shortly after opening.
The town’s fortunes improved when the ferry to Puttgarden opened in 1963. Perhaps the most important moment in its commercial history, however, was the opening of the waterpark Lalandia in 1988 to the west of the town. Around 500,000 visitors come each year, and locals enjoy the facilities too.
Sasha Lindgren, Camilla Rasmussen and Julie Aabern (below) are out on Lalandia’s ice skating rink. They are students at Nysted Efterskole, about 20 kilometres away, and visit often.
“It’s really relaxing living down here. I like it, I don’t need to party all the time,” says Camilla. She adds that her family all live nearby, so she will probably stay on the island when she’s finished her education. Her friends are less sure.
Lalandia has around 700 holiday homes that it rents to tourists, who are then given access to all of Lalandia’s facilities – everything from waterslides and heated outdoor swimming to bowling and miniature golf. Its supermarket is managed by Jens, a middle-aged man with a background in wine trading, who has a far more optimistic outlook on Rødbyhavn’s future than some of his neighbours.
“What I don’t like so much here is the negative attitude among some people. They see only limitations and the dark side of things,” he says.”I have a positive attitude toward life – it’s no use sitting down and crying, there is a lot to be grateful for. I have faith in the future, and when it comes to the big Fehmarn tunnel project, it is only the imagination that sets limits. There are many opportunities for companies to establish themselves here and create more jobs, but sometimes the political system and civil servants slow matters down.”
Lalandia also seems excited by the opportunity that the tunnel presents, and has dedicated a section of its website to outlining the services it can provide during and after the tunnel’s construction.
There is much that can go wrong before ground is broken, however. In February, contractors returned quotes for building the tunnel at around 64 billion kroner, around nine billion kroner higher than originally expected. EU funding that is expected to cover around 18 percent of the cost may also be in jeopardy, while the ferry company Scandlines has threatened to sue a German consulting company whose traffic prognosis was used to support the case for a fixed link. German activists have also criticised the tunnel proposal for its potential environmental impact.
Despite these setbacks, the Danish government is committed to the project and expects the tunnel to generate a net social benefit of 28 billion kroner over 50 years.
Drivers will pass by
Birgitta Ragnarsdotter (above) says she’s heard it all before. Now 72 and owner of a second-hand shop in Rødby, she lived in Malmö with her husband while the Øresund Bridge was being built.
“All of the considerations and arguments and scepticism, it’s exactly the same, nothing is different,” she says.
She and her husband moved to the town in 1996, rather by coincidence. After selling their home in Sweden, they decided to drive into Denmark and head south to find a new town to settle in, but their car broke down as they were passing through Copenhagen.
While they waited for the car to be repaired, they visited her sister in Rødby – and never left.
“I look forward to the tunnel opening, hopefully it will bring life to the area,” she says.
But if drivers choose not to stop, the tunnel might bring little extra life. Neither Ralf nor Tina Ludvigsen from Skørringe, around seven kilometres from Rødby, think the tunnel will improve long-term job prospects in the region.
They feel that if the government and local authorities want to improve the island’s economy, they need to take affirmative action.
“Initiative should be taken to get more businesses to establish themselves here, and more government agencies should be placed in areas like Lolland. I have to work in Næstved, which suits me, but I would not be able to find a similar job locally,” says Ralf, after attending a parents’ meeting for his teenage son at Rødby school.
“More jobs in offices could be set up here if the internet and mobile coverage were improved. It should not be necessary to go to Copenhagen to work in an office.”
They have watched cuts to public services affect the quality of treatment that the local elderly receive, while after-school programmes for youth have also been cut, meaning that their children need to be driven further afield. Neither policy encourages residents to stay.
Some residents don’t have a choice about living in Rødbyhavn. Two hundred asylum seekers are housed in the town and are a frequent topic of conversation.
Rita and Yvonne, who volunteer in a charity shop in the town, aren’t happy about it. They think that there are too many asylum seekers for the size of the town, especially after a spate of thefts.
But they’re not the only ones upset about the crime. Muhammed Maree, from Syria, says that he and fellow asylum seekers helped identify the culprits. But their greater problem is isolation from the locals.
“We have no contact with the local population, only with the staff at the centre. We receive Danish lessons twice a week to learn the basics, but I would especially like to know more about Danish culture and society – not least the cultural codes of everyday life,” Oday says. “There is no community spirit here. Someone should invite everyone in Rødbyhavn to a big gathering.”
Hairdresser Karina (below) understands what they mean.
“In some ways, most people keep to themselves, but there is still an open and pleasant atmosphere among locals,” she says.
Except for one year in Copenhagen, Karina lived her entire life in Rødby before moving to the neighbouring harbour town to work at the hairdresser’s. “I like the quiet pace here and would not want to move away. My family and friends are here.”
She plays handball at the local club, which is popular with most residents, including 13-year-old Sarah.
“Rødbyhavn is really boring. Besides handball, there are no activities, and in general there are not many in the town our age. Of course there’s Lalandia, but it’s expensive,” she explains, on her way home from handball practice.
“I want the ferries to continue, because otherwise my mum will lose her job – she works for Scandlines,” she says. “And anyways, travelling through a tunnel will just be boring.” M
Some interviewees preferred not to supply their full names.