I was visiting my friend Dick, and learnt two important lessons, one I should have learnt already.
Dick Skinner lives in Sweden. He went there to teach English as a Foreign Language but somehow got side-tracked. He became a doctor through the medium of Swedish, married a beautiful woman called Asa and then, to cement his happiness, invited me over.
I took the ferry to Copenhagen. Searching for my cabin, I caught a glimpse of the dining-room, its tables laden with plates of ham and fish and all manner of food that made me weak in the stomach. I salivated, wiping the dribble from my chin, and made for the bar. A drink first, maybe.
At the bar a middle-aged lush grabbed my attention, well, he bought me a drink. He was a man that would make anyone standing near enough drunk, paralytic if you breathed in his fumes. ‘The buffet’s always there,’ he said. ‘Have another drink.’
Oh, easily led man, gull and buffoon. I believed him until my stomach rebelled. I had to eat! Five strong lagers on an empty stomach, rolling on the swell of an equally hungry sea…I had to eat!
I burst through the dining room door to find it empty and dark. It had a savoury smell, taunting me, rubbing home my foolishness. ‘Just think of breakfast’ the guy said when I returned to the bar in search of crisp, a fragment of nut. I did, going to bed and dreaming of cured herring and whole hams, salmon and white crusty rolls.
At first light I dived out of bed and raced to the dining room. Things looked good. It was open at least…only instead of the feast that had been there that night I was offered five different kinds of cereal and a choice of two fruit drinks.
I spent a day in Copenhagen, which is a very pretty city, but cold. A thin strip of water separated me from Sweden, more particularly Malmo where Dick then lived. There was a ferry that would take me over, which I just managed to get on. I couldn’t believe it. How could any ship be so packed? People were hanging on to gunwales, ropes, life-boats…clinging and drinking at the same time – some of them vomiting – managing all three. It was like a scene from hell, a circle that Dante had never got round to describe, and there was me, clutching my suitcase in case anyone tried to steal it for a seat or a bed.
The Malmo ferry
What I found out, too late, was that there were only five ferries to Copenhagen and everyone wanted the last one back. Denmark may have been cold, but Sweden was ‘dry’ and thirsty Swedes went to Copenhagen where they followed a circular route from bar to bar until, by the end of the day, they found themselves back at the dock in time for the last ferry.
Dick explained all this to me. Sweden had a reputation for permissiveness that stopped at alcohol. Very high prices turned a pint into a considered luxury, and though off-licenses were allowed, there was usually only one to a town, and drink, once bought, had to be hidden in brown paper bags.
Just then however, I would have been happy to find solace in a brown paper bag - live there - gnawing cured ham, salmon and crusty white rolls.