Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World

The Ferry From Rostock, Germany, to Helsinki, Finland
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
April 6 2010 7:18 AM

Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World

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Our ship across the Baltic Sea is named the Superfast VIII and is operated by an Estonian ferry line. Question: Why is an Estonian company operating ferries that travel between Germany and Finland? Answer: I don't know—but I'm sure looking forward to that legendary Eastern Bloc customer service.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

A private cabin on this ferry costs $700, which seemed steep. Instead, Rebecca and I paid $125 each for what the ticket clerk described to us as "airplane-style seats." We'll be sleeping in these seats for the next two nights, so we envision they'll be like those wide, reclining thrones that you'd find in the first-class section of a plane.

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Upon boarding, we discover that our seats are more like what you'd find in an airplane's economy section—if that airplane had no windows and was shaped like a small shoebox. The forty bolted-down chairs are crammed together in a dark, airless closet on a lower deck. When we arrive, the room is already filled with other people, and their piles of luggage, and their cranky children.

Having spent the previous night on a train, and all day today wandering the boulevards of Rostock, Germany, we're fairly exhausted by now. So we suck it up, find a spot against a wall to drop our bags, and settle into our assigned seats. We try to pretend they are fluffy beds instead of narrow, hard pews.

I can't fool myself. The chair's metal arms jab into my kidneys as I search for a sleeping position. My knees are jammed against the seat in front of me. From behind me emanates a sound I cannot for the life of me identify. Is it an armored personnel carrier grinding its gears? A high-powered blender liquefying coat hangers?

I crane my neck around. In the seat directly behind mine sits an elderly man swaddled in clumps of wool blankets. His eyes are closed. He isn't moving. Then suddenly the blankets rise up with great force. His mouth gapes open. And there's the sound! I'd never imagined it could be produced by a human being!

It is an atomic sort of snoring, with a relentless rhythm. One deafening blast is followed by another, over and over. I lie awake picturing the awful things I would like to do to this old man's trachea.

When a ferry employee making the rounds ducks his head into the room around 2:00 a.m., another sleepless passenger—having reached the limits of his patience with the snorer—unloads with a salvo of primal anger. "This man is snoring so loud!" he shouts, pointing his finger toward the heaving blankets. The ferry worker shrugs and makes it clear there is nothing he can do.

Frustrated, the angry man shouts, "It is also smelling!" Which is true. Many shoes are off. The air is thick with the odor of feet and there's no sign of a ventilation system down here. Again, the ship employee shrugs. When he turns and leaves, a sudden roll of the ferry slams the door behind him with a percussive force. It briefly stirs the snorer—but within a few seconds he's settled back into his groove, louder than before.

It's time to break out my secret weapon, which involves two ingredients. The first is a small bottle of scotch that I have been saving for a special occasion. The second is a small bottle of Valium that I brought from home for just this sort of emergency.

Let me pause here to pay tribute to Valium and its many useful applications for the traveler. It's perfect when you can't fall asleep and need to tune out the bestial snorer in your midst. Also handy when you're nervous about missing your train or ferry connection. Or you can just use it to take the edge off the afternoon when you're lying out on a fo'c'sle.

Within minutes of downing the pills and chasing them with liquor, I am feeling no pain. The loud snores float off into the ether. I'm so relaxed, and so not fitting into this chair, that I slink down to the floor and melt into the space between our row of seats and the row in front of us. This position puts my face adjacent not only to the filthy carpet, but also to the snoring man's stockinged feet—which reek of a particularly fierce strain of toe jam.

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We're awakened at 9:00 a.m. by an announcement over the ferry's loudspeaker. It's the voice of an eastern European woman, I presume Estonian.

"Hi, keedz," she says, profoundly bored. "Now ees facepainting in cheeldren's area." Her tone straddles the line between droning indifference and mild hostility.

I rouse myself from my Valium stupor. Most of our cabinmates are already awake, and farting. It occurs to me that this is the worst room I have ever been in.

Leaving our packs behind (there's nowhere else to put them, so we just have to pray that nobody steals them), we climb several flights to the ship's main deck. The sunlight here is blinding, after all the time we've just spent holed up in a fluorescent-lit cave. We find a pair of seats in front of a window looking out across the water.

The ship left the dock four hours ago. We're now cruising along at a relatively speedy—for a ship—35 mph. But we've still got more than twenty hours to go before we reach Finland.

A small child scurries past. A few desultory streaks of facepaint wobble across his cheeks. Rebecca is inspired to do a quick impression. "Hokay, keed," she says, eyes half closed, one hand waving a pretend cigarette. She halfheartedly slaps at the nose of an imaginary toddler. "There ees paint. Now you leave."

Those of us booked in the cheap seats down below have been granted a one-hour time period during which we are permitted to take showers in the ship's "spa." When the designated time comes, and I make my way up there, I find that the men's side of the spa is a small tiled room with one plastic bench and one moldy shower stall. There are no lockers, no towels, and no attendant. (Were there an attendant, I imagine he'd just grunt and toss a wad of paper napkins at my face.) I leave my clothes out on the bench and take a quick, hot shower. It's my first since we left Antwerp two nights ago, and by far the best moment of the ferry trip thus far. I dry myself off with the T-shirt I slept in last night, on the dustballed floor of the world's worst room.

When lunchtime rolls around, we peruse the offerings at the snack bar. It has some unlabeled sandwiches wrapped in cellophane. The condensation droplets on the packaging make it impossible to see what's inside. All I can glimpse is a limp piece of lettuce, browning at its edges.

At the table next to us, two young, blonde backpacker women are playing cards. I noticed them last night in the windowless snore-chamber. They seem like nice, reasonable people. Which makes us wonder what on earth they're doing here. Unless you need to transport your car to Helsinki, and don't feel like driving it, it's difficult to see why anyone would take this ship instead of flying (or, for that matter, walking) to Helsinki. Rebecca's so curious, she leans over to introduce herself and ask their story.

After apologizing for their limited English (which turns out to be much better than your average American undergrad's), the two women tell us they've been traveling on Eurail passes through Germany and Poland. They're now heading back to Finland, where they live. "But why would you take the ferry instead of a plane?" Rebecca asks them, pointing out that a plane would have been not only much faster, but possibly much cheaper and also more comfortable.

 "Because," says the taller one, "we thought we take ferry, big advwenture." She throws her hands high and wide on the last word, and the two women giggle. "But now we are here, no advwenture anywhere," she says, surveying the depressing vista of the ferry lounge. Their laughter fades. They return to their cards.

"What game are you playing?" Rebecca asks them. After a quick discussion in Finnish, the shorter one answers, "English name is 'asshole.' "

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