Follow the adventure from the beginning

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

To Whom Much is Given: Part One

Day nine in Europe

Sometimes I drink my morning coffee at 2pm. On other rare occasions I imbibe before 8am. When it’s a holiday, I mix it with whisky. But on everyday, the cup is special. No matter how fast I have to drink it, the moment is always slow. It’s a small space for me to think about whatever I want. Flying to the moon perhaps. Or building a bridge. Or finding true love. It’s a time to invent, reinvent, think crazy thoughts, and reclaim my sanity.

Today’s cup is particularly delicious, not because the instant crystals I’ve resorted to this morning have been freeze-dried to perfection (actually yuck), but because I’m comfortable in a friend’s apartment on an island in the Stockholm archipelago. I’m warm in my pajamas, thick wool socks, and hooded sweatshirt. It’s 11am and I’m holding a map.

As I unfold the poster’s complicated origami creases, I begin to travel. For the one-millionth time, I ask where my journey will take me. I’ve started in Stockholm – and it’s been a solid first step (click here to read more) – but now I really should figure out what’s next. Generally speaking, I mean. Maybe, I think, I should have some sort of plan.

Before coming to Europe, I tried to make an itinerary – really I did. But it just never came together. I’m no good at playing connect the dots. It’s difficult for me to see the line that links black dot city number one to black dot city number two. I prefer to color in the white spaces until something appears. In the end, the picture always turns out to be a stained glass image anyway.

Take a sip. Ahhh… warm morning coffee says I’m ready to go. Spread out the map. Get crazy and reclaim your sanity. Close your eyes. Read the brail creases with your fingers. Stick to the Baltic region. Draw circles with the tip of your index finger. Start to slow down now. Eventually pull your finger to a stop. Open your eyes and find what’s next. The closest destination appears to be Helsinki, Finland (although my finger actually points to a space just southwest of Helsinki in the icy Baltic, indicating that I’ll have to travel by boat).

Good. It’s decided then. Now, that was a productive morning cup of coffee! After determining the end, you must discover the means. So now, I need to find a way to get to Helsinki, via the Baltic Sea, without overstepping my daily budget. This kind of party game, pin the tail on the Baltic, is simply no fun with money to spare. Sometimes, we have to get poor in order to gain the richness of freedom and the wealth of adventure. Still other times, I happily confess that a glass of Moet champagne, first-class air travel, or 5-star room service is all a girl can ask for to feel that extra kick of life.

Thirty minutes later, I’m on bus 442 into town. Then I take the tunnelbana’s red line to Gärdet. Then bus number one to Frihamnen Harbor. I’m looking for Tallink’s ticketing office. Tallink, based out of Estonia, is one of many operating companies to navigate regular 15-20 hour ferry routes across the Baltic between Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. I approach the ticketing window and say that I’d like a roundtrip ticket, and that I’d like to sail as soon as possible.

“Do you have any student discounts?” I want to know, fully aware that I’m not technically a student, but that being unemployed comes close enough.

“No, but the ticket you want is on special if you leave in three hours. It will cost you €25 for the 17-hour trip there, 7 hours in port, and again the 17-hour return trip to Stockholm.”

“Perfect,” I say as I hand her my passport and Visa. It’s a great price, cheaper than I’d researched online. All I have to do is get back to my friend’s place, grab my stuff, and go. Just like that. Stockholm to Helsinki. Bam!

I return a few hours later, and hand my ticket to the boarding agent. “This way,” he tells me in English after checking my American passport. I follow his arm motion. He leads me to the left. I read the signs and stutter my next step. “This way TO RIGA, LATVIA.” Oh God. What? I return with the boarding agent and tell him that there must be some mistake. I’m scheduled to leave for Helsinki, not Riga.

“No, no,” he clarifies. “Your ticket is for Riga. You go to Riga now. Look here,” he points to the small print on my ticket. Small, just like the city names on my map. Close your eyes, and pull your finger to a stop. Pin the tail on the Baltic, pin the tail on my ticket.

“To Riga?” I ask. “Are you sure?” Quite sure. Oh my, I realize. Each ferry company operates specific routes typically between a set list of cities. And so when I arrived at Tallink’s ticketing office, I assumed (please, no questions. The answer is “I don’t know”) that the only tickets they sold were for Helsinki. I was unaware, however, that Tallink operates both the Silja Line and the Tallink Line; the first to Finland and the second to Latvia and Estonia. While purchasing my ticket, I stupidly (or fantastically – these things are all a matter of perspective) never once mentioned my destination. I have no idea what led me to this silence, really. It tickles and worries me. I imagine calling Continental Airlines and booking a silent reservation. Like, “I need a round-trip ticket,” and saying nothing more. Please, let’s forget the details, just a confirmation number will suffice. Open the map. Draw come circles. Round and round she goes; where she’ll stop, nobody knows!

A small humph giggle starts to bubble inside me. I stare at the bridge leading to the ship’s entrance and everything starts to make a bit more sense. Riga, Latvia, explains why bus number one to Frihamnen harbor was full of so many Russians and so many migrant workers. Some of them were drunk. I know this because I saw them verbally assault and throw empty beer cans at an elderly homeless lady on the street before they climbed onto the bus a few stops before the harbor. Others were clearly not drunk; some of them carried a single canvas nap-sack, while another tore into a large loaf of tough sourdough bread. My impression is that relatively few Swedes travel to Latvia. Nearly all of them quietly step off the bus before reaching Tallink’s port. Perhaps they prefer other destinations in Scandinavia, or the quick trip to Germany to buy cheaper cars or tax-free booze.

The passengers that move between Sweden and the Baltic states seem somehow rougher. They come to Scandinavia to work odd jobs, construction gigs, etc. – sometimes for a week, a few months, or longer. They make a living by finding what they can, thanks to the recently passed freedom of movement for workers policy (part of the EU’s Free Movement of Persons Act and one of the EU’s four economic freedoms including the free movement of goods, services, labor, and capital). The policy considers migrant workers as a “mobile unit of production, contributing to the creation of a single market and to the economic prosperity of Europe,” while also giving citizens of the EU the “personal right to live in another state and to take up employment there without discrimination, to improve the standard of living of his or her family.” Migrant workers boost their host country’s economy by reporting earnings and paying the appropriate taxes.

On the bus, I distinguish immediately that I am no longer listening to Swedish. Instead, I hear the deeper, harsher sound of Russian and Latvian. These languages are rounder than German, for example, but just as hard. I look around and realize that I’m the only woman going all the way to the harbor. And I sense that the men know this too. One of them starts asking me questions with a thick and cloudy accented English.

“Hello you gurl,” he starts hitting the seat next to him, trying to get my attention. Moments like these are a challenge because closing the door to a pleasant conversation before it can even be opened is never nice. But I remind myself at least once a day that traveling alone as a woman has its own particular set of rules and precautions. Follow your instincts and read the vibe. Become an expert at reading the vibe. Don’t give out too much information. Pick your strangers carefully. And always remember (this is going to sound extreme, forgive my drama ahead of time) that at any given time, somewhere around 50% of the world’s population is biologically equipped to do a woman harm should they want to.

“Wher ar giu fron, gurl? Wher ar giu going?” I throw him some bone answers, and hop quickly off the bus at my stop. Leaving him almost mid-sentence with his next round of broken questions.

This exchange sets the tone. It hardens me to my surroundings and prepares me to pop my collar, put my fleece ski hat on, and take my make-up off. Ok then, I say to the boarding agent, looking across the ramp to the eight-deck cruise liner. Let’s go to Riga, Latvia.





Footnote G: When your cup of coffee is full to the brim…

I’m in Pittsburgh for Christmas vacation with my family. We enjoy these days together, visiting museums, going on winter picnics, attending afternoon matinees and waging games of poker. Every morning, my parents always wake up first. Mother puts the coffee on and whips up yummy breakfast treats – biscuits and gravy, homemade coffee cake, egg casserole, and fresh fruit. She calls for my sister and I when everything is ready. We plod downstairs, sleepy eyed, and ratty haired. We read the morning paper, watch the news, talk about yesterday, and sip on our coffee. Today is a special occasion because we’re all together. So Mom splashes a sip of Kahlua to her coffee. Kimberly likes Bailey’s. Dad and I give ours a hit of Jameson’s. After an hour of breakfast, it’s 10am, and just for today, just this once, it’s the perfect time to go right back to bed for a mid-morning snooze. There’s so much to do, busy busy, always going, but this morning’s coffee whispers a sleepy-head slow down tune in our ears and puts us under feather comforters until noon. Today we rest, move like turtles, and bask in our own delicious irresponsibility.


Winter in Mexico is not what you’d think. It’s brittle and breakable. It’s colder than most because the homes there are built to keep the heat out, not in. So we use space heaters, blankets, gas stoves, anything, to stay warm.

I am living with Bonnie in Chipinque, the mountaintop state park in Monterrey. Since many years ago, Bonnie has been a part of my extended family. Together we have stumbled through first jobs, angry breakups, big life choices, new pairs of blue jeans, and many, many martinis.

Some winter mornings on the mountain, I surprise Bonnie in her bed, spastic and shivering with cold. Two bodies are better than one for staying warm. She throws pillows at me and tells me to leave her alone. She says it in that tone, though. The one that actually assures me it’s ok.

One morning, I bring her a cup of coffee (we take turns making it; first I throw the ground crystals in the filter and the next day she does). Sometimes we talk while we sip, and sometimes we don’t. But one of the best and most special compliments that Bonnie ever gives me comes when she tells me that her coffee is the best she’s had in a long time. Two girls sharing all the riches in the world; a very simple pleasure; an ordinary something to push our day toward something extraordinary. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm a couple of weeks behind, but still following! And, by the way, also reading the book you gave me... following Novalee's life as well.

    Take care! Love, G