Stockholm had been fun, but tiring. I had been staying with an old friend from university, now a permanent resident of Sweden. His snoring was famed throughout our friendship group, but I had never heard anyone who can penetrate solid walls. He had recently been told that his girlfriend should sleep in another room, otherwise it could cause damage to her hearing.
In addition to the near-sleepless nights, my travel kitty had been significantly depleted by only four nights of moderate drinking – buying a round for four to five people adds up to almost one week’s wages where I come from. I decided to make a run for somewhere cheaper. Somewhere exotic.
A word to the wise – if you’re looking for a ferry to Estonia, don’t follow my lead and enter the words ‘ferry’ and ‘Estonia’ into Google. Your first three hits will bring up details the 1994 disaster where the ferry ‘Estonia’ sank, killing 852 people. It doesn’t fill you full of confidence. I eventually managed to find the Tallink web page, booking the cheapest fare on the Victoria, a brand new ferry operating between Stockholm and Tallinn.
The next day I was on my way. It was a four-berth cabin, but the early omens were good. Upon departure I was still alone in my cabin, ready for a restful night. Then the Swedes descended. Three of them, all middle-aged. Independent of each other they had all spent their first half-hour aboard purchasing large quantities of cheap liquor. They started early.
As an aside, I’ve always wondered if the Swedish and Norwegian governments have considered the effect of their prohibitively expensive alcohol on the overseas brand equity of their country. You’ve heard of eco-tourism, sex-tourism, and maybe even fashion-tourism, but have you heard of alco-tourism? The Scandinavians invented it.
When the ferry docks in the morning it will disgorge three thousand tanked Swedes, who will then run riot through the newly westernised streets of the Baltic States, stumbling and shouting their way towards unconsciousness, and perhaps even their hotels. Maybe the local businesspeople don’t mind – it is money after all. But that must be far from the minds of the street cleaners, having to wash the streets that the next morning are spotted with puddles of yellow, jetsam from last night’s endless ocean of booze.
I politely accepted the offer of a can of beer from one of the Swedes. I finished quickly. They were friendly enough (Swedes always are, even when drunk), but I needed some fresh air. I decide to go up on deck. to watch the sunset over the amazing archipelago that marks the entrance to Stockholm harbour. After taking many artistic snaps and managing to chill myself to the bone, I decided to head inside for a coffee.
That’s where I met Tiago, a Portuguese national who was studying in Stockholm. I happened past his table and spotted a well-known work of French philosophy, translated into English – not what I was expecting in foreign waters. He was a student in Stockholm. He was returning to his family in Tallinn – his wife and young daughter – after an absence of three months. I stopped for a chat that turned into a four hour discussion that ranged from the new politics in Eastern Europe to the Euro 2004 football championship and further to the difference between Brazilian and Portuguese.
After our marathon chat, Tiago and I said our good nights, agreeing to meet in the morning. I returned to my cabin to find the trio of drunk Swedes snoring in perfect harmony. I climbed into my bunk and stared at the ceiling, feeling the boat gently rock to the tune of the Baltic sea. I hardly slept a wink, but felt more optimistic about travel than I had for a while.
If there is one thing I will say about travelling, is that I meet so many lasting and great friends. While sometimes travelling with old friends can be trying (as I have learnt), it is also one of the best ways to meet new ones, and confidantes, and lovers. Forget internet chat rooms and on-line dating. Leave the information superhighway and get yourself on the real highways. It’s the only way to travel.
The next morning we met up, as planned. We alighted from the ferry just as tired but nowhere near as drunk or hungover as the rest of the passengers. Waiting for him at the exit from Customs was his family. It was a tearful hello after so long apart. I had a brief moment of homesickness, but that passed as soon as I was introduced. His father-in-law offered me a lift to my hostel in the Old Town. I gratefully accepted, but only under the proviso that I buy them dinner on Friday.
The next Friday we ended up at an Australian restaurant near the Old Town, eating kangaroo and emu. It just demonstrates how far one has to travel to get away. It was a novelty for all of us, and a sure-fire cure for any lingering homesickness I might have been feeling.