Book travel, sort dogs, pack a bag, grab passport. My usual approach to travel. Not for this trip. The decision to drive to Finland UK in the middle of a global pandemic for Christmas 2021 was a result of a drunken zoom between me, my brother Mik and our friends, Ed and Vee who live in a forest, 4 hours north of Helsinki. We had been celebrating Ed’s birthday and bemoaning our isolation and loneliness in the latest lockdown. The following morning the WhatsApp came in:
‘We were thinking. Would you like to come to Finland for Christmas? You can bring the dogs and get the ferry from Germany’
When Mik finally surfaced I put it to him.
‘Hell yes’ was the reply.
I was 61 and he 57, both single so in this world of newly constructed relationships we are travelling companions. We have camped together over the years and go to festivals so sharing a cabin on a ferry would be no great shakes for either of us and we would have a bathroom!
Ferry bookings were easy; Harwich to Hoek of Holland, Travemunde to Helsinki and return. Car and dogs. I sorted snow tyres for the car and we satisfied the various driving regulations for Holland, German and Finland. This is usually the point at which I relax and enjoy the last few days of prep and planning but not on this occasion. My ‘to do’ list was growing but with the kind of bureaucracy that does not bring me joy. Due to Brexit, the dogs EU passports were no longer valid to bring them back into the UK; we had to have animal health certificates which could only be administered in the 10 days prior to travel. Some £350 later with every page of their existing passports photocopied and added to a 14-page document, their ‘valid for one trip only’ health certificates were secured.
Lockdowns had been eased but every country had its own restrictions. In the two weeks before we set off things were changing country by country daily. Add that to the PCR and LFT documentation required and we also had to register for our return tests prior to departing. My stress levels were high, however, on 20th December we loaded the dogs into the car and drove to Harwich.
What follows are extracts from my diary recounting the journey.
20th December 2021: I have hardly slept all night, I am so stressed. My hands seem to be shaking permanently but I am confident that we have met all of the requirements. Yesterday Vee messaged to say that Holland had changed its COVID rules and there was now a mandatory 10-day quarantine in place. I was hysterical. Phone calls, emails, panic. Many reads and re-reads of the websites and it became clear that, as we were transiting through, we could apply for an exemption. Mik has been calm through all of this, making jokes, and his relaxed attitude is not helping. But he’s my brother, not my boyfriend, so I can say this to him without it turning into a thing.
Evening: It was bitterly cold when we arrived at Harwich, and I was shaking as I handed over the relevant paperwork at the ferry port. Mik leaned across and placed his hand on mine.
‘It’s all fine, you have pulled this all together. Relax.’
All was in order. Our cabin had been upgraded and we had access to the business lounge and complimentary refreshments. A small win. We joined the queue of cars and waited. I love a ferry port. People hanging around their cars, letting the dogs out for the final run before joining the boat, kids sleeping in bundles in the backs of cars and then the scramble as everyone gets back in when the first brake lights come on and we are off. The clang, clang as you drive the car up the ramp onto the ferry and the bustle around the cars as sleeping children, overnight bags, dogs are all disgorged into the steel hull and then the ascent to civilisation. We deposited the dogs in the kennels (Channel 6 on the TV in our cabin allowed us to watch them which was an entertainment in itself). We tucked ourselves into a corner of the private lounge and did our best with the alcohol available.
We were woken from a deep sleep by the tannoy announcing we would be arriving in 40 minutes into the Hoek of Holland. We took the dogs for a run on the small doggie deck and then loaded ourselves back into the car. My anxiety levels began to rise, and I clutched my files as we approached the kiosk for passport documentation checks. I handed over the passports first. We both have Irish passports and the guy at the kiosk looked at them, looked at us, nudged his mate and in that wonderfully Dutch way raised an eyebrow and said ‘Ireland?’ His mate looked across and nodded. Passports returned, we were waved through.
‘Look at us’ said Mik, ‘We are wrapped up in hats and scarves, driving a Skoda Yeti with two dogs in the back. We probably look like a little old married couple!’
As we drove northeast, the Dutch countryside looked magical. Hoar frost on the trees, and a soft freezing fog hung in pink light as we approached the Dutch/German border. No border checks, a straightforward drive from one country to another.
‘God bless Europe and Schengen,’ I shouted.
We arrived at the port of Travemunda at 6pm after various comfort breaks along the way. It was minus 2 and getting colder and there were 4 hours to wait to board the ferry. Remember what I said about loving a ferry port? Well, not when it’s freezing, there is no coffee shop, or bar, just a seating area and a duty-free shop and some loos. We joined the cars in the queue and pulled on as many clothes as possible. We took it in turns to visit the shop and packed port, wine, sherry, around the dogs who did not look impressed. Eventually, the gates opened and we proceeded to the next border check. Another hurdle trundled over.
The boat could not be more different to the airy, bright Stena ferry. Grey metal, functional, it has a Soviet-era feel to it but the dogs are allowed in the cabins. We took the dogs out onto the dedicated dog deck, which was so icy I had to hold the grab rail to stay upright; I daredn’t let them off the leads for fear that they would slide under the railings and into the freezing Baltic! We settled them in the cabin and went to the bar. We were ready for food. All that was on offer was sausage soup and pumpernickel bread but the truck drivers were all tucking in which I always consider a good sign (when driving across America on the back of a Harley a number of years ago I learned quickly that the best breakfast diners always had police cars parked outside). Sausage soup. Who knew? It was delicious! We went back to the cabin and got into our respective beds, like Laurel and Hardy. We giggled like children in our tiny single beds, a dog on each of us and watched a silent black and white film with German subtitles drinking the duty free we had brought from the car. Another phase complete. We are due to depart at 0230 and I am exhausted. Time for sleep.
I was vaguely aware of the engines changing revs in the small hours but other than that you would not have known that we were moving. We slept until 10 00 and then had a slide out on the frozen deck with the dogs. We had the whole day ahead of us so took ourselves to breakfast. The light from the low sun streamed in through the picture windows that lined the side of the dining room and the best seats were reserved for the truck drivers. Big, burly men in chunky sweaters, oiled trousers and boots, sipping cava from champagne flutes. An incongruous sight! The breakfast buffet occupied some time, and we took advantage of the flowing cava as there was no driving to be done this day. We found a great seat in the bar and settled with our books, my diary and knitting, a cocktail. Mik had his sketch pad and was designing logos based around his hopes for skiing when we arrive at Ed and Vee’s. Families were playing cards, board games, the screen high up on the bar wall shows our trek up the Baltic as we pass landmasses with exotic names – Hiiumaa, Saaremaa.
Each trip onto what we have christened ‘the poop deck’ saw great conversations with people from Europe travelling home for Christmas, converging on their homeland to see family, many for the first time since the pandemic began. There was an air of excitement and anticipation.
In bed: Last night we bought tickets for the one meal being served this evening- €45 each which felt pricey but the alternative was crisps and sandwiches so we decided to go for it. At 6pm precisely the dining room opened. We waited for the queue that had started to form at 5.30pm, to die down, then went in. We were faced with the most wonderful buffet with wine and beer on tap and all included in our ticket so we got stuck in. At one point, Mik started to laugh.
‘I am in the middle of The Baltic eating caviar. It’s insane!’
At 8pm the dining room closed; everything was cleaned down and we were politely asked to leave. It was a full moon so my lovely, indulgent, patient brother wrapped up and we went onto deck. It was minus 9 but I wanted to read a poem I had written, under a full moon on the Baltic and one that a friend had sent to me before I left for the trip. He filmed me as I read in the freezing cold and moonlight and I cried. Am feeling relaxed and deep fatigue is beginning to hit.
Thursday 23rd December:
Evening: We were woken this morning by announcements in Finnish, German and English and took the dogs for their final run. No cava at breakfast this morning but another fantastic spread as we watched our steady approach into Helsinki harbour. The ship groaned as it pushed its way through the ice and we followed icebreakers past frozen islands, trees frosted with Narnia magic.
An easy disembarkation and the most rigorous inspection of every bit of paperwork that we had, but we eventually got a thumbs up and a wave and off we set for the final four hours of our trip. I was slightly hysterical as my work was done and I could relax, apart from map reading which is something I am adept at so sat back and enjoyed the scenery. Mik has taken on a new persona, a Dutch man, and was regaling me with tales as we headed further north and out of Helsinki through fairy-tale forests, the trees drooping under the weight of the snow and crossing frozen lakes. So many shades of white, depths of blue and all tinged with a chilly pink. Stops at service stations and the joys of picking up instant frozen poo! Simple pleasures. Finally we turned off the main highway to drive into the forest. I festooned the dashboard with fairylights, selected John Lennon ‘Happy Christmas War is Over’, hung my speaker out of the car window and we entered the snow-covered driveway. Vee has buried candles in snow chambers and the house is surrounded by fairy lights. Soft snow is falling and there is nothing, just the four of us, my two dogs and their dog and the prospect of fires, saunas, a wood fired hot tub in the snow and the magic of Christmas ahead of us.
It has been four days, four countries, two ferries, 730 miles driven, and 1284 miles at sea. But we are here, and we have ten days before we have to reverse the whole journey and check on travel restrictions and COVID regulations but right now we don’t care. We can forget the pandemic and the rest of the world at least for now—time for deep sleep.