We’re on the ferry from Puttgarden, Germany, to Copenhagen. Bleak skies, choppy, grey water, the mournful cries of gulls. Grim Scandinavians frown into their shot glasses around me while I sit in the bar, reading. Then, from somewhere unseen, Wallander’s ringtone. I know it’s not Sweden—not quite—but my stomach drops. It always portends some alarming development when Wallander’s phone rings.
Ah, Europe. The history, the timelessness, the ambience. The architecture, the crooked laneways. The cobblestones. The teeth-chattering, spine-shuddering, skull-rattling cobblestones. Not too bad in Bremen, Copenhagen or Helsinki, a bit rougher in Oslo, but some lanes in Tallinn, Estonia feel more like dry Australian river beds as I lurch along on the scooter.
Gliding at dawn along Oslo Fjord, I almost can’t believe it: I get to see, in this lifetime, Slartibartfast’s crinkly handiwork.
St Petersburg, Russia, where we’d booked tickets on the Canal Tour. I asked at the Excursions Desk if I could take the scooter to the boat.
‘Better leave it on the ship this time,’ the attendant said. ‘You can’t take it on the canal boat. It’s only a short walk from the ship to the bus anyway, then the bus stops right at the pier.’
But one person’s short walk can be another person’s epic journey. We decided to push our luck and take it. I was glad—there was a long delay at Russian customs, then traffic forced the bus to stop a couple of blocks from the canal. But what to do when we got there?
‘No problemo!’ said our chirpy tour guide, who had clearly not been briefed by the Princess Cruises Excursions Desk.
And so, ten minutes later, here’s a sight: the Mechanic breaking my scooter into its components beside the canal and our fellow passengers lining up to carry the seat, the battery, the rear hub, down the stone steps and across the gangplank onto the deck, where they sat in a heap—the components—while we motored the waterways of the Seat of the Revolution, drinking champagne, gazing at palaces and churches, and ducking under countless bridges, their echoing, buttressed-steel underparts little more than an arm’s length above us.
Every morning the Captain’s been making his announcement, welcoming passengers to the new port, giving a weather forecast and advising the ship’s departure time. And every afternoon there are stragglers, confident that the ship won’t leave without them. But this morning the Captain‘s request took on a new, threatening tone: tonight it’s imperative that we leave on time. Late arrivals will have to fly to Copenhagen.
Every evening the Mechanic’s been peering over the railing at sailing time. He loves the preparations—the drawing in of the gangways, the casting off of the mooring lines, the sounding of the air horns—but, revelling in righteous indignation, he also lives in hope that some late arrival will miss the ship. More than once, when he drove coaches for Greyhound-Pioneer, he left repeat offenders behind—to the hearty applause of the other passengers.
Now we’ve just left the dock at Nynashamn, Sweden, and he bursts into the cabin, exhilarated.
‘Did it happen?’ I ask. ‘Did someone get left on the pier?’
‘No, but almost,’ he says, grinning.
He was up on the top deck and there were a bunch of other Aussies there too. They were watching passengers still arriving, twenty minutes after ‘All Aboard’, just ambling along.
‘We were all yelling, “Idiots! You’re too late!” There was one woman hanging over the rail, pink cocktail in one hand, the other cupped to her mouth, “Run, ya bloody dickheads!” It was excellent!’
Never a natural cruising type, the Mechanic had found his tribe at last.
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