During my first trip to Stockholm, I spotted numerous ships docked in the harbor downtown. They were huge, blindingly white, and romantic; they made me think of distant lands and luxury. Those ferries go to Finland, I was told. Over two or three days, the passengers eat, drink, and party. I was also told that every Swede takes such a ferry at least once. When I visited Stockholm this June, I took more ferries than some Swedes will ever do, for sure.
My husband and I were in Stockholm waiting for my British visa to be processed. We had plenty of time on our hands but not a lot of money. However, the cost of a cruise is surprisingly low: $17 USD for a private cabin on one of those huge, white, romantic ships. It was much cheaper than staying in the city and paying enormous sums for a hostel. Besides, there would be a party going on all night long. So over the next two weeks, we took five different cruise ferries and visited three different harbors. By the end of our fifth trip, I couldn’t get used to solid ground again for days.
June, when the sun hangs over Sweden until 11 pm, is the perfect time for just such a mini vacation. Passengers take selfies in front of the endless sunset and thousands of green islands. I began with the longer cruise options. Despite my expectations of robust partying, the multi-day ferries to Estonia, Finland, and Latvia were a quiet affair. Some passengers were sipping beer in bars and watching the Euro Cup without much enthusiasm. Some were playing slot machines. Some were pushing baby carriages along the corridors, taking in views of the archipelago.
The ferries can hold up to 2500 people and feel like floating villages with a somewhat confusing population. Many passengers were, as you’d expect, Swedish tourists crossing to Estonia, Latvia, and Finland. But there was also a group of Chinese tourists on every ferry, as well as Russian commuters moving between St. Petersburg and post-Soviet Baltic countries. A friend of mine in Stockholm, a Croat named Juraj who has been living in Sweden for the last several years told me that one company organizes an annual cruise for expatriates from the former Yugoslavia. “My neighbor was a Serb with an ultra-right tattoo all over his arm, but he was fine with me,” Juraj told me. “Everybody was just having a good time without any problems. It’s only in the Balkans that ex-Yugoslavia people have troubles between each other. When we meet abroad, we are fine.”
On a boat to Finland, I met an Indian family from Delhi that was on a trip to Switzerland and then decided to try “the best cruise in Sweden.” There were also regular commuters using the ferry as a cheaper means of transportation, including a Finnish band that was returning from their tour in Norway and Sweden. The musicians spent the evening singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” in a karaoke bar and then lounged half the night in an empty cafeteria, singing German church music and “Goodbye, my Coney Island Baby” a capella. “Our band’s name is complicated,” they told me merrily. “It’s like Kamikaze but more like Namikaze.”
I’m OK about Russia, but Putin is a dick. Sorry for my French
I even met a fellow Ukrainian, a woman from Donbass. She left Ukraine after the fall of the U.S.S.R. and had lived in Sweden for the last 27 years. She “had a house and everything in Sweden,” but missed Ukraine a lot. “I’m OK about Russia, but Putin is a dick. Sorry for my French,” she said before going to sleep. “We were all OK, Russians and Ukrainians. Who needs all that is happening in Donbass right now?” When we landed in Riga, we spotted a freight of military transport being unloaded from a ferry. Most probably, it was destined for NATO drills that were scheduled in Latvia this summer.
There wasn’t much evidence of the revelry I’d expected, but when there’s nothing else to do, you can always eat. For 35 euros, about three times what you’d pay for something similar in Stockholm, you can purchase a ticket for an all-you-can-eat (and drink) buffet. The food, being Nordic, consists mainly of fish, and is served from morning to night, with just a small break so that the staff can clean and prepare more food. The passengers queue in front of the entrance before every seating and spend hours over their plates, chatting and enjoying the food, beer, and standard table wine.
People eat and drink a ridiculous amount. There is no shortage of options, including seafood in all forms: pickled, salted, raw, baked, and fried. There’s also “Chinese food,” which, strangely, includes sushi in Sweden. There are hot dogs and fries for the less adventurous and a whole table filled with meat, which once included venison. My husband had seconds of that one; I did not.