Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Back to the Baltic

JoeIt's 4:45 PM, and we're sitting on the sun deck of the Viking LIne cruise ship Gabriella on a cold, dark, somewhat misty afternoon in Stockholm harbor. The last time we took this trip was a year ago July, and like bad generals throughout history, we've learned the lessons of the last war a little too well. We hustled to the gate to board as soon as possible, in order to deposit our stuff in our cabin and grab a seat on deck before the mad hordes descended—only to find that we were the only people on deck, and all the chairs have been put away for the season. Eventually we wandered down to the aft sun deck, which last time was crowded with Swedes busy taking advantage of the tax free liqour to get schnockered—today, there were just a few lonely smokers. But now we're getting underway, and a few hearty souls are starting to show up to lean over the aft rail and watch Stockholm slide into the murky distance.

There's a phenomenon at work here that we've encountered before. Swedes are proud of their life in the north, and are pretty well adjusted to it; oh, the lack of light gets them down as much as it does anybody else, but the cold and the snow don't keep them from walking in the woods or having a run or riding their bike to work, and winter sports are nearly ubiquitous. But while all of this wintery outdoorsy-ness does entail a certain heartiness, we're constantly surprised at how strictly curtailed that heartiness is. A Swede who sees no problem at all with having a January jog through the woods over a coating of ice broken only, and frequently, by huge nearly frozen puddles, will also most likely simply refuse to contemplate sitting outside for a beer on a sunny but cool evening in September. Harsh conditions are fine (with the proper gear, naturally), but a little discomfort? I think not.

And so, in the time it took me to write that, we're back to being virtually the only people on deck, despite the fact that it isn't realy all that cold, and the view is pleasant (if a little dim). Ah well, I guess we'll just have the aft deck to ourselves this trip.

6:07 PM: Having moved (indoors) to the restaurant deck, am now quite pleasantly warm again, thanks in no small part to the Irish coffee in front of me (good thing it happens to be "Irish Weeks" on the Gabriella). As a person who blindly balks at expectations, it's annoying living in a society where everyone expects me to do the reasonable thing—it forces me to be unreasonable.

Despite having joined everyone else inside, we're still having an easier go of it than in July. We got a table by a window, just next to the bar, in a corridor that on our summertime cruise we couldn't even squeeze into due to all the people crowded in to sing along with the cover band. And the duty free shop, which last year at this time looked to be in violation of its maximum occupancy, was virtually empty. Yup, there's nothing for it: it's time to go buy some chocolate.

9:00 PM: We were delayed somewhat when the smells of the tapas bar near our window table made us aware that we had seriously underestimated our hunger level for the evening. Then, fortified with some smoked salmon, potato wedges, and olives, we decided to take a quick stroll around the deck now that it's quite dark out. It had seemed like it might be clearing slightly as the sun set (at 5), but it seems to have been a passing fancy at best. We made our way up to the foredeck, which is quite untenable when the ship is at speed out in the Baltic, but since we were still in the outer reaches of the archipelago, and therefore going much more slowly, it wasn't too windy to manage. It's a misty, still night, and combined with the relative silence of being so far forward of the engines, it made for a somewhat eerie experience, with the lights of stugas situated on invisible islands glowing off to each side, and the mist glowing in the ship's lights ahead of us. Unfortunately, we weren't out there long, as after a bit a crewman came along to close the top decks up for the night. I don't think the top deck ever closed in the summer—certainly we were up there after midnight. Ah well, we'll just have to make it out a little earlier on the return.

9:20 PM: Finally made it to the duty free. While it isn't as packed as we've come to expect, we're hardly alone; there's a young woman in a Pippi Longstocking costume shopping for wine, and a group of heavily tattooed French speakers trying to figure out which is the cheapest rotgut whisky available. The duty free alcohol is an important part of the Baltic cruise, as there's a VAT of at least 25% added to all alcohol in Sweden (the exact tax varies with the strength of the liquor); we certainly intend to stock up on a few items, but mostly on the return trip. For now, we'll settle for a few snacks for the morning: small cheese sampler, a bottle of wine for Wednesday night's dinner, and some Swiss chocolate. We had our eye on a real rarity—genuine, American beef jerky!—but but we balked at the price tag (80 SEK for 100 g).

It's been a long day, so we're off to bed. Tomorrow, Helsinki!

P.S. Why no pictures? Apparently I forgot to pack a cable for the camera, so they'll just have to wait until we get home. Sorry! I'll update posts after we get back, I guess.

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