Monday, February 17, 2020
On A Soviet Ship
Recently, as I was writing emails to Annette in Denmark, the fact that I had twice sailed on a Soviet ship and how unusual that was came up in our conversation.
This is how it happened:
When I was 19, I went to London to study and have adventures. I spent about two and a half years there, but went home to spend Christmas and my summers in Sweden.
At first, I sailed from Gothenburg, which meant an extra day traveling to the west coast of Sweden. So when I found out I could go directly from Stockholm, I booked a berth on the MS Mikhail Kalinin. She was a Soviet ship, named after a Bolshevik revolutionary who served as the formal head of state of the Soviet Union from 1919 to 1946.
Compared to today's ocean liners she was a small ship, a part of the Soviet Baltic fleet. Coming from a communist country her accommodations were very basic. If I remember correctly, my cabin had three sets of bunk beds and probably somewhere to store luggage. A toilet and sink to wash in must have been included, but I don't remember a bathtub or shower.
It was an interesting experience for me, then in my early twenties. I bravely sampled Russian food, including kasha, the ever present buckwheat porridge; I drank Russian vodka and talked with the Soviet crew, mostly young men, who turned out to be just like guys everywhere.
On the first voyage, I met a young Irishman, named Michael, who was the son of a diplomat and on his way back home to Ireland. The ship docked in Copenhagen for a day and Michael and I explored the city together. I have no memory of our spending time in the city, but I have many of my letters home to refer to, as my mom saved most of them. One of my letters describes the fun this young Irishman and I had in the Danish capital, a friendly city with many enjoyable things to see, eat and drink.
After spending a school year in London, I sailed back to Stockholm, again on the Mikhail Kalinin.
This time, I met a Swedish girl and we had fun with the Soviet sailors. We talked politics, asked what it was like to live in a communist country, we knew we were not supposed to do this, but we were young and silly. We tried, without success, to find out how they felt about their Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. They were really nice though, fond of their vodka and after a few drinks we would dance. Looking back, I'm sure they enjoyed their jobs with the Soviet Baltic fleet.
This time, the ship was full of tourists, many of them American. They all shared cabins, packed together since the cabins were small. My Swedish friend and I compared notes and found both of us had a cabin of our own. I still have no idea why this was so, but we had no uninvited guests, and I enjoyed being alone in my cabin with its five empty bunk beds.
It was early summer, the absolutely best time to sail up the East coast of Sweden. I remember being giddy with happiness as the ship approached the archipelago, the 20 to 30,000 islands and islets that hug the coast of Sweden, outside Stockholm. A place where I had spent every summer of my life and loved beyond words. The place where I learned to swim, to fish, to steer a boat, to read a sea chart, and so much more. I still love those islands more than any other place on earth.
My voyage home on the Mikhail Kalinin was the last time I went by sea to England. When I went back for what would be the last time, it was by train with my friend Ingrid, who was going to an au pair job in Cambridge. The train went to Hoek van Holland, from where we took a ferry across the Channel to Harwich on the English coast. I had finished school, but I was still with my first serious boyfriend, so not ready to leave London yet. To make it possible to stay a while longer, I signed up for an au pair job in vicar's family in Lee Green, a London suburb.
Living in the vicarage was a very English experience, one that I will never forget. One that I'm very grateful for.
Looking back now, I understand better that sailing on a Soviet ship was an usual experience and sailing up the East coast of Sweden through the archipelago a beautiful memory to share.
Click here to see the ship docked at Stockholm