Taking a cruise from Finland to Sweden could end your life. Lord knows it nearly ended mine. In my relatively short lifetime, I’ve twice taken a boat from Helsinki to Stockholm. Both times gave me some unforgettable nights, unrivaled fun, and as much as I would like to forget, they’ve also given me hangovers so magnificent that the only way I could’ve ended the pain would have been to throw myself over the starboard side and into the Baltic Sea.
The thing about these cruises is, if you are looking for party-time USA, you will get party-time USA. Not only that, but you will get it more than you ever could have wanted. You’ll try to renege after a couple hours, but it’s like making a deal with the devil – the contract’s been signed and there’s nothing you can do. The odds are stacked against you on those cruises. I wish someone had told me that ahead of time, because I never saw it coming.
My first experience on this boat was a two-day weekend excursion with twenty other employees of a Helsinki shipping company. New to the country, I’d swung an invite from a friend and, with no idea what to expect, packed my bags and went aboard. There I was, about to party with a bunch of dudes who were finally getting away from their wives and kids for the first time in a long time. Sure I’d be able to keep up, I can party as hard as they will.
I never saw it coming.
The boat hadn’t left the harbour before a duffel bag full of beer and the hard stuff was opened up and distributed. It didn’t take long before things got a little out of hand. I’d never been in a place before, in this case a cabin full of ten or so Finns, where I wished that life had subtitles. It would have allowed me to know what was going on a lot more often. There was zaniness all around and I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said the entire time. And now that I think about it, maybe that was a good thing…
Within a half hour there was a grown man running up and down the hallway clad only in a cherry red pair of gitch screaming something or other in Finnish and shotgunning cans of dirty beer. Okay, this is early, but I can probably keep up with these guys.
Take a guess as to how that went.
After about an hour at sea the tax-free shop opens up. When a man can buy a case of beer and a pack of smokes for less than twenty dollars, you know there’s going to be a problem. What’s worse is that the snacks one loads up on – peanuts, chips, candy – are so terrible for you, but will be the only thing available after midnight. While the beer is cheap, there is no ice on the boat. To deter guests from drinking in their cabins rather than the bars, the ships do not provide any sort of mechanism to keep the beer cold. So you’re left drinking that cheap case at Englishman temperatures. This, along with the food options, leaves a normal man praying for land after one night.
But not Finns.
After a few rounds of the tax-free beer we went down to the pub. A pretty standard affair, though the prices hover around 5 Euros per pint. A troubadour sings Hotel California and other old-people classics in the corner, and to the side there’s a door to a wide-open deck space where one can enjoy a smoke or nine.
In the winter, the ship sails through blocks of ice, which creates a turbulence effect throughout the boat. While you’re sitting in the pub, the walls, the coolers, the bottles, and hanging mugs start to shake violently, as if in the middle of an earthquake.
So we sat in the pub, throwing back shots, smoking too much and slowly getting silly. At one point I looked at the clock, because it felt like we’d been there for days. It said seven o’clock. We would stay a few rounds more, a couple of the guys wanted to sit around and ask about Canada, and I was happy to oblige if they were buying the beer. We sailed through the night and I watched a boatful of Finns slowly lose control on their way to Sweden.
Instead of dinner we stayed in the pub. After a few hours we needed a change of scenery and decided to go the top floor. Why? Because there was a different pub there. That’s where I learned something new about the Finnish mentality.
One thing about Finns I was warned about, but hadn’t seen in full until this night, is that they love karaoke. I mean, they don’t just like it…they love it. It is a lifestyle for them. Heavy drinking without getting up in front of your friends to sing a song or two is not an option in this culture. While I don’t speak Finnish, I was pretty certain that I could do as well as anyone else in the bar that night, simply by sounding out the words. Don’t know the song? Out of tune? Don’t worry – you’ll fit right in!
After the karaoke portion of the night wraps up, the top-floor lounge becomes a club. And this place is beyond greasy. To call this place greasy would be an insult to all those greasy dive bars in all the wrong neighbourhoods. This place was sloppier than anything I’d ever seen. I mean, middle-aged dudes and teenage girls all over each other to such a degree it would make Woody Allen blush. I recall having a drink or two, some smokes, and then just taking off because I couldn’t handle that scene for very long. Too many creeps; too much unnecessary Gaga.
The next morning I woke up feeling like I had just spent the night in the devil’s asshole; I felt like a six-foot bag of shit. I was malnourished, had the hiccups, and tasted like I had eaten tobacco soup for a midnight snack. The three others in my cabin were out cold, so I went to our bathroom and sat down on the seat, just trying to figure out my next move.
Looking at the bathroom counter, left-to-right, I saw the night in a nutshell: A pack of smokes, a Zippo lighter, fifteen units of some foreign (possibly Latvian) currency, four full cans of beer, a Smirnoff Ice bottle filled with cigarette butts, eight empty beer cans, a pair of red underwear, a heap of Snus packs hovering on the lip of another a half-filled can, and an empty in the sink.
I couldn’t stay there, I had to leave, so I took the elevator down to the main-level to try and scrounge up something to eat. The doors opened up and two others from our crew were sitting on a couch in the lobby. One had his head in his hands – looking like my brain felt – while the other was drinking from a mickey of vodka. 9AM, yessir.
They suggested we grab a taxi tour of Stockholm- while we were here and all. It was the last thing I felt like doing, even though I’d never seen the city before, but I conceded that I would at least be able to grab something to eat.
Sure enough, they had the same thing in mind. We went straight to Burger King for breakfast, talked to the cabbie about Mats Sundin, and then returned to the boat to sleep off the post-Whopper hangover as best we could.
When I woke up from my nap, the only thing to drink was warm beer and the only thing to eat was black licorice. I felt like I would soon be vulnerable to scurvy. On top of that, I’d traveled half-way across the world, journeyed to Stockholm, and all I’d been able to see was the inside of a Burger King.
The messed up thing is that all these guys were keen to do it all again on for a second straight night. From Stockholm to Helsinki their script was the same: Tax-free. Bar. Karaoke. Then club.
I was in such bad shape that I couldn’t even look at a beer until the sun went down. I tagged along for a while, but had no desire to repeat things. I had burnt myself out so badly the first night, that I just didn’t have it in me. I had no wife and kids to blow off steam from. These cats were serious about making the most of their sabbaticals from responsibility.
You didn’t see it coming.
I didn’t see it coming.
I had a few that second night, but passed out relatively early and woke up docked in Finland. As soon as I was off the boat I called my girlfriend and told her I loved her.
Four months later I was invited back on the boat. The same guy who had brought me along the first time spent so much money in the tax-free that the cruise line gave him a couple of free tickets, so he brought me back. This time it would have the groundwork for a much less intense holiday. It would be him, his wife, my girlfriend, and I.
I wish I could say it was much more relaxed and classy, but, let’s be honest here, it was the Helsinki-to-Stockholm cruise ship. Nothing would be different. Like SNL, the cast may change, but the program’s the same.