Monday, April 14, 2008


On Friday we got up at 5:30 AM to catch the early morning car ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki. Our destination was IKEA; our list was long, everything from a high chair for little August Endy, who will be here in June, to a desk chair for Aarne. After four days of shopping in Tallinn, we longed for lower prices and familiar items, even if it meant putting chairs together with the notorious IKEA “screwdriver.”

The trip to Helsinki was sleepy, uneventful…business people staring at laptops, younger passengers sleeping in lounges. We had cups of hot tea and tried to memorize our shopping list.

IKEA was IKEA, this time with labels in Finnish. I enjoyed the designs and textiles. After two round trips through the store and then through the warehouse, we loaded the car and headed back to center city Helsinki. Our return reservation was for a 6:30 PM ferry, M.S. Galaxy, and we planned to have dinner on board. Judging from our morning crossing, we imagined that the trip back could be a restful ending to a busy day.

The drive from IKEA back to the pier in Helsinki was crazy. We drove one of many more cars than the lovely little streets of Helsinki can handle. Thanks to a taxi driver’s help, we found the correct terminal and got the car in line. We had been told that we could actually board the ferry at 5:00 PM and enjoy ourselves on the ship before departure at 6:30. But to our surprise, we waited two hours in the car line, from 4:00 to 6:00--plenty of time to study the ship’s exterior features.

The M. S. Galaxy is one of the Tallink Line’s large, slow ferries that take 3 ½ hours to cross the Gulf of Finland. (Just for comparison, consider that newer jet ferries make the trip in eighty minutes, but then they don’t carry vehicles.) After two hours in line, we began to talk affectionately about the Galaxy as “our ship.” It’s painted bright blue with white clouds, suggesting, I suppose, a galaxy. Here and there on the sides of the ship are painted life-size giraffes with necks entwined, suggesting something we are still trying to interpret. See what you think. If you are ever within a mile of Tallinn’s port, you will recognize Galaxy--the blue ferry with giraffes rising into white clouds. This will not be listed in your tour guide.

Well, we were about to learn that on Friday nights the slow ferries out of Helsinki to Tallinn function as both truck transports and party boats. Finns come on board to buy duty-free vodka and gin—cartons of it. They bring empty suitcases to Tallinn to buy more. They dance in the ship’s bar and have a great time. When we went out on deck and looked over the rail, Aarne exclaimed, “This ship is hardly moving.” I think the slow speed was what everyone else was eager to pay for.

On this Friday night, the Galaxy was completely full. First the crew loaded about twenty trucks--18-wheelers. Each truck was belted and hooked to the floor of the hold. Then the tour buses, having already delivered their passengers into the terminal, drove in. Finally we drove our little rented Toyota up the gangplank and through the huge gateway, walked around the trucks, and climbed up three flights of stairs to the middle level deck to search for some dinner. Truckers and bus drivers climbed up to the very top decks, where they had reserved cabins for sleeping. Several couples, laughing and singing, carried suitcases up to cabins, too. Maybe they know something about the giraffes?

On the ship’s map we located six restaurants—offering six classes of dinner service. The lowest class was “cafeteria.” Then came an all-you-can-eat buffet, then a pub and a grille, then a Russian restaurant, and finally the Galaxy Paradise. We got in line for the Grille, a sit-down restaurant with red and white tablecloths that reminded me of New Hampshire. However, when we got to the front of the line, we learned that reservations were necessary. A tour guide, who had been pushing on our backs all through the line, smelled victory; she brushed us aside and waved a piece of paper to prove that her group had reservations. We had to squeeze our way back through the long line; for some reason I tend to slip into French for awkward situations, so it was “excusez moi, s’il vous plait” all the way through the crowd. We checked the map again and headed for the Galaxy Paradise. Thirst and hunger can overwhelm good judgment.

There it was: “Galaxy Paradise” in flowing silvery writing on glass doors. Through the doors we could see heavy white linen on formally set tables. All empty. In Estonian, and assuming that his question was just to be polite, Aarne asked if reservations were required. A woman in a Galaxy uniform ignored his question and announced that this was a “gourmet restaurant” and that we might prefer the Russian restaurant instead! Was it IKEA stardust that made such a first impression on her? Did we look Russian? When we hesitated, she directed us to look at the Paradise menu posted near the entrance. We looked at each other and laughed. We had already studied the menu. But the real question now was could we bear to eat under the supervision of this woman? And it goes without saying that Aarne would starve before eating in a Russian restaurant.

So we next came upon the cafeteria. Here a long line of patient people suggested good food. We found a wonderful table by a window facing the sunset—a feature not available in Paradise. Around the corner was a bar; Aarne brought two Saku beers back to our table, and we finally relaxed. We watched the sunset while we waited for the cafeteria line to clear, and then we bought the “plate of the day”—mashed potatoes with exactly eight meatballs, mixed vegetables, and for dessert, marzipan. An IKEA sort of dinner. At the horizon on the gulf the sun went down behind low clouds that turned lavender and pink and seemed to stretch from Finland to Estonia. Of course we all know that in real galaxies suns don’t set. But then neither do giraffes float.

Gradually the ship’s decks, halls, and restaurants filled with a long promenade. In both directions, passengers strolled from one end of the Galaxy to the other. Sitting at our table, we watched this world go by twice. Single women, in cocktail dresses or jeans, walked in pairs, while eager young men followed. Giraffes?

After the sun had set, we climbed one more deck up to a piano bar. In club chairs beside a big porthole we hummed along to Tea for Two, Maple Leaf Rag, I Get a Kick Out of You, and songs from West Side Story and Phantom of the Opera. Two young Finnish women sitting near us knew all the words and sang along.

All too soon, through the porthole appeared the first Estonian island and then a spit of land. Almost everyone went out on deck, even some of the ship’s crew, to enjoy the Tallinn skyline. On our left, north of Tallinn, the Pirita Cloister shone in its spotlights. If you ever arrive in Tallinn by ship, look for the Cloister rising above the trees. The Vesilind house is a few yards from the Cloister.

Truckers and bus drivers, freshly shaven, came down from their Galaxy cabins and went with us into the gigantic hold. We climbed into the Toyota amid our IKEA treasures and drove down the gangplank and out of the Galaxy to head north along the coastline to Pirita.


Linda said...


This is really neat . . . thanks for sharing your adventure. Late for dinner, so I've gotta run, but it's so nice to keep in touch this way. Linda K./Repasz/PA

CeilingGazer said...

You speak French when you're frazzled, Aarne? I slip right into ebonics:) love, ems