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On a boat crossing the Baltic Sea, from Stockholm to Helsinki

Travelling alone

One advantage of travelling is that when you’re travelling it is acceptable to be alone. When you arrive it can be difficult to find a restaurant to eat in or a bar to drink in where you don’t feel uncomfortable because you’re on your own. I was sitting in a bar in Bergen, tucked away in a corner, listening to the music and watching the people, when a large group sat down at the two tables next to mine. One of them spoke to me. Are you sitting here all alone? Come and join us. So I did. It wasn’t so bad, talking, but sometimes it can be. It can be an effort thinking of what to say. Many people I’ve watched, particularly elderly people, seem to sit with one another without talking. Perhaps because they have nothing left to say to one another, perhaps because they forgot to put batteries in their hearing aids, perhaps because they’re telepathic. No one goes up to them and says: You’re sitting in silence. That’s no good. Why do you come over and join us? Or maybe they do.

On the boat from Stockholm to Helsinki a singer in the bar fills the silence for anyone who is on their own or with someone to whom they have nothing left to say. He tries to get the audience to make requests. Some do, but mostly he doesn’t know or doesn’t want to do what they requested. That was earlier. Now the tables in front of him are empty and people in the rest of the bar are chatting to one another.

I move to the other bar on the ship, called the Atlantic Night Club and Casino. People sit in front of fruit machines smoking cigarettes – you’re allowed to smoke in the bars on this ship. There is a roulette table, and then beyond that a stage on which a man and a woman sing some kind of opera song and are joined by a load of ballroom dancers. Then a band comes on and does covers of things like Robbie Williams’ Angels. The guy in the other bar did that, even though no one requested it. This band aren’t taking requests. People just have to take what they’re given. And there are quite a few people in the audience here. A wide range of ages. Some are dancing, but even more seem to get up and dance when the band take their fifteen minute breaks.

At about half past one or half past two, depending on whether you’re on Swedish or Finnish time, the bar closes and within five minutes they’re kicking everyone out. I’d just bought a drink. I’m told I can take my drink up to the 13th deck where the disco is still open, so that’s what I do. There are some raucous Finns at the table next to the one I decide to sit down at. Sometimes it’s easy to tell Finns from Swedes.

How to make a Finn: Take one Swede, shove a load of fast food down their throat, stick a packet of cigarettes in their mouth and turn the volume up to eleven.

Maybe it’s because the Swedes are more middle class. A Swedish guy on the train coming down from Kiruna last week was saying you could drive around a Swedish neighbourhood and you wouldn’t be able to tell which house belonged to a road-sweeper, which to a banker, a doctor or a teacher. No one was really poor, and no one really rich (or virtually no one). But when you have a nice home to go to, with a widescreen TV, maybe you don’t tend to go out so much. And if you’re brought up in a tranquil environment you don’t tend to be as loud as someone brought up in a noisy environment. (I’ve never conducted research into this so I can’t say for sure whether it’s true or not, but it is the way things seem to be. In my own case, I was the noisiest thing in the environment I grew up in.) It may also be about the kind of work people do, and the hours they work. People who work long hours and don’t often have an evening out may be more likely to let themselves go when they do go out. For a lot of people this crossing from Sweden to Finland seems to be a chance to get drunk and to bring home cheap duty free alcohol and cigarettes. There are quite a few large groups of people, but also quite a few people on their own. and a few couples. All sorts really, so I wish I’d never started saying there a quite a few large groups of people…