We board the ship at Newcastle and go in search of our cabin. Naturally I had booked the cheapest one available, and for a good reason: we are on a budget. We are following the signs. Down, down, down into the bowels of the ship. The constant growl of the idle engines getting louder and the noxious smell of ferries- marine diesel fuel with vomit overtones- getting more pungent and choking. Down and down, below sea level, switching back and forth through poorly lit corridors, seeking the holy grail of the door to cabin 2010.
Lindsey inserts the key card into the slot and slowly opens the door. Hmmm. Four bunks shoe-horned into a tiny room with barely half a metre between them. The walls are paper thin, with gaps at the top and bottom. Hmmmm. Got to be positive. It's not all that bad, we've slept in worse places. And being on a budget we decide we will make do. Until the Brummies arrive.
Clattering into the cabin next to ours a posse of Brummie lads start to make it their own. Now I've got nothing against folk from Birmingham, but on hearing the tins of cheap larger being cracked open, the strong odour of cheap aftershave wafting through the gaps in the wall, and the crude and jovial banter (as loud as if we were squashed into the cabin with them), I know it would be a disastrous night if we were to stay in this cabin. I look at Lindsey. She has picked up a flyer that was prominently placed on the tiny 'bedside' cabinet and with pleading eyes she is handing it too me. "Upgrade from only 100SEK". ey Lindsey, those eyes are not necessary. We are out of here.
With no room to turn around we back out of the cabin, and almost run back up through the warren of corridors to the information desk. Behind the desk is a feminine looking bloke with skin complexion so perfect it looks like plastic. Lindsey thinks he is very attractive. I think he is an artificial wanker, and see right through his pleasantness and radiant smile directed at Lindsey. "We want a cabin upgrade." I growl. He looks at our ticket and glances at Lindsey with a look that says 'I'm not surprised- and what are you doing with that cheapskate by your side'. I take an instant dislike to the man, but not so obvious as to prevent him from booking us into a more spacious and quiet cabin for nominal extra expense.
The boat sets sail to a fanfare of nautical horn music. We can mange ten minutes on deck before the cold and dampness of the north sea just off Newcastle get the better of us and we retire to the cabin to read and sleep.
The next morning arrives and takes us hostage. It is an inside cabin and it is draped in pitch darkness. The only way we know it is morning is from the announcement that we have only fifteen more minutes to get to the restaurant to make breakfast.
Taking advantage of the Smorgasbord
With a splash of water on the face to wake us, and with budget travel heads on to guide us we head up to the restaurant for a buffet breakfast.
We know the buffet will be good because the previous evening we had had our first taste of Swedish Smorgasbord. It was good, but the passing comment by our waitress that the sea was rough; 'but not as choppy as last night. Hey, even I was sick last night' made me think twice before truly stuffing myself.
Travelling on a budget dictates that you are obliged to take full advantage of an open buffet breakfast, and treat it as your supply of food for the rest of the day. One of the most important items we travel with are resealable sandwich bags, and once again they prove their worth. I look around the dining room, Lindsey gives me the nod. All clear. I palm off piles of ham, cheese, bread rolls and Danish pastries into the awaiting bags. No need for anymore trips to expensive eateries for the remainder of the crossing. Nice one.
To the Batcave
Gothenburg and we disembark from the boat. The full weight of our packs are a painfully reminder to our over-packing . So rather than taking a ten minute walk to the tram stop we take a taxi. I am always wary of taking taxis in unfamiliar towns, I watch every landmark and try to track our progress on the map, sure that the driver is taking us for a ride in more ways than one. And I'm sitting looking out of the window and thinking as he turns left that he has gone on a costly diversion. He starts indicating and veering left and I'm thinking 'you bastard' and then I see that it is a one way street to the right where I thought we should have come from and once again my mistrust of taxi drivers is misplaced. And by way of penance for questioning the driver I pay him a tip which further eats into our budget.
Domestic in Ikea
No wonder the hotel I've booked us into was the cheapest in Gothenburg. We walk down the long corridor, with flaking paintwork, dog- eared wallpaper, exposed pipes and cabling that appear incongruous in the usually safety obsessed Sweden. We walk past the room with a sound system pumping out gangsta rap, past the room with the TV blasting out what sounds like a Swedish version of Oprah and past a seedy looking character, dressed as though the hotel was his residence. And I realise that we are in the Swedish version of a bed and breakfast housing the homeless on the cheap.
Our room is clean and bright, with old Ikea style furniture and pine flooring (hey, this is Scandinavia). Lindsey collapses on the bed and complains about a pain in her throat. I put it down to the poor air quality on the boat, my throat is sore to a point. I seek out the electrical points in the room and get our collection of electrical gadgets on charge. I'm in a world of my own and I look round to Lindsey and suggest that we go out and venture into the town and she is in tears. She is in great discomfort and is crying and I tell her to pull herself together and this just makes things worse. So I suggest that we go out and find a pharmacy and get something for her throat and she agrees and washes her face and then gets her makeup bag and starts putting eye-liner on. And I can't understand this, I mean if you are ill you are ill and your appearance shouldn't have anything to do with it and why are you painting your face when you want to find a chemist and get drugs to make you better and before you know it we're having a domestic and the pain is no longer the cause of the tears, the cause of the tears is me. I've been an arse. Apologise. I am sorry. Truly. We wipe away the tears, we are a team again and we leave the pokey Ikea room.
Beware of anarchy
As we pass the reception the receptionist, a middle aged woman with a saggy face, greying hair and oversized gold framed glasses that sit uncomfortably on her face calls me over. "What do you want for breakfast?"
eh? why you want to know this now?
"We bring it to your room in the morning. At what time would you be liking it?"
"Eight would be fine" I reply, "nine" says Lindsey. We don't want another barney here so I abandon any stubbornness I may feel and agree that nine would be a more civilised time.
Once we have established breakfast and are just about to venture out the old hag calls us back. "I shall be locking the door for an hour or so" "Why?" I enquire. "Maybe trouble" "eh?" "Students on the march" I remember that Anna a Swedish friend at home had mentioned something about a student gathering at the end of April, but trouble? Hmmm. Yet wasn't Gothenburg the scene of anti-globalisation riots not so long ago?
Parade with jokes
The streets are busy, with crowds beginning to line the pavements. We walk around, looking for a chemist, but it is after 6pm and everything is closed and it is getting harder to move through the growing throng of people. With no chemist in sight we cut back to the hotel which was strangely still open despite the warning of trouble and get some Ibuprofen for Lindsey to clear the pain.
Out on the streets again and students dressed in white overalls are moving around selling brochures. couple of girls try to sell us one. I decline, and ask if they speak English. "What's going on today?" I add. They look at each other and giggle. Here we go. "Ummmm" says the blonder and prettier of the two , "it is a parade with jokes" and smiles at me. Which would be appealing if it were not for the serious metal work around her teeth and the encroaching orange plaque climbing up the orthodontic apparatus.
So we are none the wiser of what is going on, but with little else to do we decide to hang around and see what transpires. And Lindsey is feeling better with the drugs numbing the pain and all is well.
"Is this bloody it?" A marching band with young girls throwing marching sticks up in the air? Hardly student trouble. And hardly the sort of thing you expect from a graduation parade which we establish this is all about.
Floats follow the band, orange trucks with poorly constructed stages on the trailers. Students acting with varying levels of enthusiasm and political content. A American Taliban theme run s through several of the floats. Whether they are pro or anti US I cannot make out. It would help if I could understand the crude signs that probably explain what is going on, but currently my knowledge of Swedish is limited to 'tack' for thank you and from labels stuck on the posters for chicken burgers in the fast food joints we have passed, the word that I assume is for 'sold out' - 'slut'.
A group wearing sheets, cloth on their head and stuck on beards, wave wooden guns. They are followed by what is clearly supposed to be George Bush straddling a large green ICBM waving at the crowds. Our patience is wearing thin.
Learn to sing geezer
So we have been standing here for more than a while and we are beginning to loose interest. A float with the college band passes by and this is the last straw. They have tremendous enthusiasm and drive, but the sad truth is the singer can't sing. He reminds me of when I was in a band and on our first band practice we were unsure who was to sing so we each took it in turn to have a go at Johnny B Goode. Chris fingers his way through the opening guitar riff and off I go 'way down in Louisiana close to New....' Silence, the band stopped playing. 'Orleans' I sang to myself and it was there and then that I was proven to be tone deaf and my friends had made this plainly clear. 'Yeah thanks Marc. Your turn now Joe.' I never became the vocalist. Joe did. And it was a shame that no one had done the same to this singer in the back of the truck.
Opportunity cost of the Stockholm Express
Enough of this, let's take a walk. Through the crowds, heading in a direction to where I think we'll find the station. Sometimes I surprise myself at how good my sense of direction is. I made a mental note of the Central Station in the taxi as we came into town. Several hours later we are here. Buying tickets to Stockholm.
"So there are two trains you can take" says the woman behind the counter in the Information office, "the express or the stopping service". Cool. "How much?..... In sterling" I ask. "Well with the weekend rate, in pounds it is eighteen" "What, eighteen quid for the two of us? That's a result..." "No, that is the difference between the express and the stopping service".
Ouch. Think. The express leaves at 2pm and takes 4 hours, the other train leaves at 12 and gets there a little later. So 18 pounds for two extra hours in Gothenburg, 18 quid to spend a little less time on public transport. We talk between ourselves. Economists may refer to this discourse as weighing up the opportunity costs. We've had enough of moving. So we go for the expensive express tickets.
Cheap meal deal in that evil place
Hunger. Pangs of hunger dart around my stomach. Lindsey has the munchies too. But after spending a fortune on train tickets we must really start to economise. Got to remember the budget. Budget food. Fast food. But not Mac Bloody Donald's. No way. We pass a Burger King. Cheap meal deal. And I'm thinking like a student, and it's not supposed to be like this, but we will soon be in Asia and be able to live by ideals and reclaim our souls from the multi-nationals, and.... Stop. Who am I kidding. I work for a bloody multi-national and enjoy it too. Is this trip a trip of self discovery, like the hippies before us? Is this the voyage of discovery I had always planned at university? Are we travellers in the mould of the Grand Tour? To hell are we. We are tourists trying to get to Vietnam overland, wanting to get through the European leg as quickly and cheaply as possible.
"Two whoppers with large fries and coke to eat in please mate."
So it is now midnight and we are trying to find sleep but sleep is hiding from us. Playing hide and seek behind the cacophony of noise from the street below. Lesson number one of budget accommodation, always make sure your room is off the main drag. Front room equals bad. Above night club equals very bad. Above night club that plays angry euro thrash metal equals beyond saving. Sleep is tumbling along a downward spiral towards the quagmire of frustrated insomnia. SHUT UP AND LET ME SLEEP. And if it couldn't get worse it does. The volume on the street is cranked up by several decibels, the thrash metal from the club is mixed with... well what is it? I look out of the window. A fifties American jalopy, lots of chrome, hood down, and a sound system pumping out rockabilly rhythm. Fifties throwbacks are hanging around the motor, leather jackets and dig all that Bryl Cream.
Ear plugs. Lindsey reminds me about the ear plugs . I push them in until they can go in no more. Not silence, but enough to tempt sleep back from it's cruel game of peek-a-boo...