Our cruise ship made it past the tree lush straights and inlets and out to the open sea. Donna’s beloved Finland would appear on the horizon the next morning. The evening sun shined bright in the blue sky.
For dinner, we sprung for the ships extensive buffet. My mouth watered when I spotted the piles of salmon, shrimp, herring, along with fish I’d never seen before. Donna stayed clear of the seafood, but appreciated my joy. She explained the rest of the food to the kids- cabbage rolls, fish balls, and pickled meat – all quite common in Scandinavia, but too weird for Chris who made a bee line for the children’s bar for meatballs, hot dogs, and fries.
I set my heaping plate at our table then headed to the soda fountain. I froze in my tracks when I saw two additional taps – one for beer and another for wine. I poured one of each and returned to the table with a big smile. So far this part of the world had captured my heart.
Over dinner, Donna told the kids about that summer so long ago when she was only sixteen. After taking several flights to travel half-way across the globe, she stood alone at the Helsinki airport waiting for somebody to pick her up. The only information she had was a letter and a slip of paper showing hand-drawn stick figures of a man, a woman, and three girls. She explained how she was relieved when her host family eventually approached her. “At first I wasn’t sure what to think,” she told us. “We drove forever to get to their house in Mikkeli. An hour passed and still nobody talked to me!”
“Why not?” Alex asked.
Donna shrugged her shoulders, “they were probably shy about speaking English. Finally I offered them gum and everybody opened up.”
As Donna spoke, I realized this story I’d heard several times suddenly had an entire new meaning to me.
* * *
We saw an opportunity for an impromptu date night. We gave the kids some money and sent them off to explore the ship. We found a piano bar where only a couple people sat. After four months of traveling, finding courage to sit next to them and subject ourselves to a potential quartet was surprisingly easy. We straddled a couple of stools. The player looked up from his keyboard. He resembled a blonde Martin Sheen and asked: “so, where are you people from?”
He kept playing his melody. “So you just assume everybody knows where that is?”
“To Los Angeles” the man next to us raised his glass – a pleasant looking fellow with a mullet. “I love The Doors!”
“Never mind that man” the player said rolling his eyes, “he is Norwegian.”
“Sven” the mulleted man offered me his hand. As we shook he said: “A Swede walks into a barber shop. . .he’s got a frog on his head. The barber asks – where did you get that? - the frog says – it started as a wart on my ass!”
“Very funny – very funny” our piano player replied, still playing a melody. “Did you hear they just served the last glass of ice water in Norway?”
We shook our heads.
“They lost the recipe.”
Sven burst into laughter and squeezed a horn fastened to the piano.
“Hey that’s mine!” the piano player slapped his hand. We wondered if this was some sort of comedy act.
Our man broke out in song and we just listened. Meanwhile a very tall, grey-haired man wearing a black t-shirt took the stool next to me. “Lars” he said, extending his hand, then explained how you can tell the age of a Swede just by learning his name.
“Anybody named Lars was born around 1940,” he rambled off a few more classic names. I introduced myself and told him it was a popular name in the 1950s. He pointed to the big white letters printed on his shirt, “do you know what this says?”
“I’m from Stockholm, Don’t Fuck with Me.”
The piano player broke into a familiar riff and we joined in with our new friends singing White Christmas. This attracted more of our fellow sailors and the stools around the piano filled.
A short man with jet-black dyed hair walked by our leader and playfully punched his arm. “My Russian friend!” he cried, then pounded out an upbeat song as the Russian began to dance – right there on the carpet between tables. The crowd went wild and my adrenaline kicked into gear. This was a party. As others join us, we keep singing – all kinds of songs. We on the stools had the best seats in the house. Sven kept squeezing the horn and each time got his hand slapped. Eventually the kids found us. Jill asked if they were allowed to sit with us. “Probably, I said, giving her my stool. The boys and I stood behind her and I ordered them sodas. They joined right into the fun. We sang We Are the Champions and got everybody to do a classic American wave. Sven clicked on his lighter and raised it high. Outside the late night sun had turned into an orange-red ball that barely dipped below the horizon. It seemed the evening wouldn’t end and that was fine with me.
NEXT: One Month to Go