09.09.2011 - 10.09.2011
It starts off so modestly. I make it to the ferry terminal in oodles of time, but as this ain't an airport there's no being kept waiting to board. All the same I kill a bit of time perusing the shop for last minute supplies before realising that they're not merely charging Swedish rather than Estonian prices, but inflated transport hub prices to boot - 17 kronor for a Twix? I think not. I attempt to show my passport only to have it waved away as unnecessary; I spend longer having my photo taken (replete with assorted baggage) in order that I might purchase a souvenir copy once on board the good ship Victoria I, but at 10 euros for a photo produced in front of you on an inkjet printer I decide to keep hold of my cash for less-obvious ripoffs.
Once aboard I'm pointed in the direction of my four-berth cabin. In there already is a man who looks to be in his 50s. I give him a nod and a generic Scando-phone "Hey". In return I get what sounds like the Estonian variation on the theme, "Hey hey", which I duly adopt as my stock greeting to everyone I meet for the next three days. It's much, much later that I discover he actually said (or mumbled) the word for hello, "Tere", but fortunately for me Estonians turn out to be a patient, understanding people who let my daft riff on their basic vocabulary slide. The Estonian's watching some women's beach volleyball, unfortunately at a rain-lashed tournament, but I join him to reinforce my Regular Joe credentials (like he even cares). Not long after a guy enters bearing a bunch of flowers. "Ete Lev", he says, using one of the few Russian words I know. I still contrive to bottle my reply, rolling the initial R of my name to the extent that he asks if I'm Italian. I explain that I'm not, and he explains that the flowers are for his girlfriend. He then turns to the Estonian guy to ask his name, who response is a well-pronounced "I don't speak any English", which strikes me as a rather negative choice for a solitary useful phrase to learn.
It's all a bit cramped in the compartment, even without our fourth and final roommate (who turns out to be the even less Anglophone pal of the Estonian guy) so I seize the initiative and make my way up onto deck. You'd struggle to pick a better evening to be making your way along the shipping lanes of the Stockholm archipelago and out into the Baltic. Looking back towards the city the sky is doing that thing where shafts of light are streaming down from holes in a cloud covering the sun, casting one beam down upon the Ericsson Globe as if to underline how next time I'm in the city I should try to make some time for the world's largest hemispherical building (sez Wiki). A few minutes later and the big fluffy cloud is dumping rain down on from whence I just came. What's the Swedish for schadenfreude?
I think I read the Stockholm archipelago is one of those things where legend has it that trying to count the number of constituent islands will send you mad. It's not for that reason that I'm not counting - I've got better ways to pass my time, such as getting jealous at all the people who have beautiful houses with little sauna buildings right by the water's edge as the ferry sails slowly by. The phrase quality of life suddenly takes on a new, more enviable meaning.
Half an hour or so later, and a trip to the other side of the ferry, and a fort-like tower hoves into view. Turns out it does indeed pertain to a fort, and it looks rather lovely in the evening light. In fact, everything is looking rather splendid, so I get out my camera and start snapping away. As I do I hear some guys to my left laughing. I turn to look and see two tough-looking Estonian guys try to push their no-less-tough-looking friend over the barrier and into the water. It's then I notice the carnage. What I had thought was a perfectly normal deck had all of a sudden turned into a sea of empty beer cans (the majority having contained the liquid wares of A le Coq, a brewer whose labels implausibly claim it is based in London) and cheap vodka bottles. Everyone around me is sloshed and it's not even 7pm.
In a situation like this, it's perhaps not the wisest course of action to beat a retreat to a bar, but that's exactly what I do. I say bar, but I mean the King's Pub, which looks British-themed but in a vague enough way as to overcome the impediment of Blighty not having had a male monarch for nearly 60 years. There's a guy with a guitar providing musical accompaniment to the dozen or so patrons, murdering a succession of standards by the likes of The Beatles, Dylan and James Blunt (although in the case of the last this may be no bad thing). Then, during a pause between songs, out of nowhere there's a loud drunken heckle; "CREEDENCE". The singer didn't hear so asks what was said. "PLAY SOME CREEDENCE", comes the shouted reply. Someone in north-eastern Europe in 2011 is asking, without a hint of irony, for a Creedence Clearwater Revival tune. Amazingly the singer consents, and receives rapturous applause (and no little whooping) at the end. It's not long before he's taking further requests, in the wake of the most anarchic pub quiz i have ever witnessed. The role of quizmaster is taken by the ship's head of entertainment, a woman with such patience and determination that a job as a UN peace keeper would seem a more productive use of her talents. The quiz itself involves a lot of shouting, with chocolate being handed out to the one who screams the correct answer first, but eventually - following a hotly-contested tiebreaker (a tricky question about the year of Freddie Mercury's death) - an overall winner emerges. Alongside a bottle of bubbly, said victor gets to choose what song gets played next. "EAGLE EYE CHERRY", he shouts. The singer responds with a lacklustre version of 'Save Tonight', but no-one seems in the slightest bit disappointed.
A group of performers in stupid costumes appear and make their way through the bar to advertise their performance later that night in the ferry's main entertainment arena, the Starlight Cabaret nightclub. I make a mental note to avoid them at all costs, and slip out onto deck again, this time choosing the port-side one which was considerably quieter owing to the fact that it's on the opposite side of the ship from the duty-free store. It's getting colder as the sun sets, although this doesn't stop a steady stream of Russian toughs in wifebeaters and sleeveless leather jackets from coming out for a smoke. I hope that like me they notice how the fading sunlight reflected on the water is almost silver in colour, but I somewhat doubt any did. Nor do I imagine many notice this accomplished canine engraving...
And so to the cabaret. Playing tonight are Deja Vu, the third best seaborne covers band in the Baltic (I may have made that up). Much like the singer in the King's Pub they play it safe material-wise; a case in point is their rendition of 'One Way Ticket (To The Blues)', my first time hearing the infuriatingly memorable song I now learn was made famous by such musical revolutionaries as Neil Sedaka and Boney M. If the venue's armchairs weren't so comfortable I would high-tail it out of there, but instead I sit back with a dubious Bacardi-based cocktail in hand and watch as the guitarist manages to find space for a solo in the most unlikely numbers while the lead singer whoops at inappropriate moments during songs. Whatever their merits, the band manage to get a lot of people up on their feet. Estonians sure like to dance, although some of the men take the lead with such (drunken) gusto that I fear for the safety of their partners.
During an interval, and in what elsewhere might be seen as a breach of personal data privacy laws, the head of onboard entertainment invites the eight or so passengers whose birthday happens to coincide with the voyage up in front of the stage to receive a bottle of wine and a rendition of 'Happy Birthday'. Among this lucky octet is a smart-looking guy from a young family sat around a table in front of me. He ends up standing next to a guy in a Guns n Roses t-shirt who I had seen earlier in the night, noting him to be probably the most drunk of anyone on deck (no mean feat given the stiff competition). For him the wine must have been a nice change of pace after beer and vodka, and he promptly invites himself back to the table of his new "friend". He disappears soon after, returning with a fistful of glasses and a steaming drunk buddy in tow. The family's night is clearly being ruined, but the father is too polite to ask them to leave while his wife/girlfriend says nothing, and instead bares a face like thunder and no doubt a grudge against her partner that will last long after his birthday night is over. It can't help that taking over from Deja Vu are a dance troupe billed as one of Stockholm's best, a most dubious claim if their stock-in-trade is the "hilarious" cops 'n' robbers routine to the Inspector Gadget theme tune they opened with. It's time to call it a night, although I can't say I'm not sorely tempted to hit the adjoining Disco Aluminium. Yes, Aluminium;
At 1am the corridors below deck look a little Bates Motel to the weary-eyed traveller, but I find my way back to my cabin without too much trouble. I can hear snoring from outside the door. I enter to find Mr Don't Speak English lying half in, half out his bed, wearing only his underpants and with an empty bottle of the local liquor, Vana Tallinn, on the bedside. His snoring is unbelievably loud. Analogies involving pneumatic drills are overused, but would be wholly appropriate in this case. It's no surprise that as soon as I step in the door the other two guys sit up in their beds. No-one's getting any sleep around here.
Remarkably I wake up from some form of belated sleep a few hours later (having dozed through our early-hours stop at some islands whose name I forget - look at an atlas). The Estonians have already packed and left to spend the remainder of the voyage smoking on deck. LADS. We're still mid-Baltic when I first make it back outside on what is a beautiful - if bracing - morning. I like the idea of being out on the open ocean, but there's little time to enjoy the enormity of it all and my own comparative insignificance as it's not long before I catch sight of land again. Cue more sailing slowly past fir-covered islands, albeit these are much larger and less sauna-fringed than their Swedish counterparts; more like flatter and temperate versions of the Lost island if you will. More people are gathered on the other side of the ship, to look at the Estonian mainland and a cluster of chimneys and towers that turn out to be Tallinn. The last half an hour or so is a slow tease as our final destination draws near. I'm not alone in impulsively taking photos of Tallinn as the view of its old town reveals itself, only to take more or less the same picture from slightly nearer shore ten minutes later.
The journey ends much as it began, with a lot of waiting around on the ship even though it is in the port before a long walk to the terminal building and absolutely no passport checks whatsoever. Would I take the ferry again? Absolutely. Only next time I'm going to be mortal drunk for the duration.