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Between Europe's Borders

You Can Party Until Last Orders on a Nordic Commuter Ferry

On a 20-minute journey between Sweden and Denmark, people from both sides come together to drink and dance (to ABBA, naturally).

by Anders Højberg Kamp; photos by Jens Nørgaard Larsen
07 August 2019, 12:02pm

The smoking area on the Øresund ferry. All photos by Jens Nørgaard Larsen

Is it me or is it the boat that’s rocking? It’s impossible to tell. Here on the rolling seas, at a bar on a ferry going back and forth between Denmark and Sweden, hiding your inebriation is fairly easy. As we cross the Øresund strait and approach Sweden, I fix my gaze on the Helsingborg harbour, its medieval steeples peeking out flush next to more modern constructions. Since I’m a Danish citizen and I’ve forgotten my passport, I won’t be stepping off here.

This seafaring pub isn’t just a pub. It's a ferry belonging to shipping line named Sundbusserne, or “The Harbour Buses”. It's a smaller-scale alternative to the larger ferry operator Scandlines, and only for pedestrian passengers.

The ferry goes back and forth daily between two cities: Helsingborg, Sweden and Helsingør, Denmark. It takes only 20 minutes one-way, and runs until 10PM. But many of its passengers don't take it to get from A to B – they just get on to stay in the bar as long as they can.

With a day pass that cost me 69 Danish Krone (€10) in hand, I’m here to observe the vibe when Danes and Swedes meet on neutral waters; to see two Scandinavian cultures unite over beer, sausage and ABBA songs.

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The deck in the rain.

“I’ve been taking the ferry on Fridays and Saturdays after work for 20 years,” says Swedish 71-year-old Lennart Peterson. “I get on board at 5PM, drink and dance, then get off at 9PM in Helsingborg." Lennart is sitting at one of the many tables that fill the dining hall, where the cover band is well into its second hour. A woman in leather pants rocks out to “Proud Mary,” followed by ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and Kim Larsen’s “This Is My Life”.

I join Lennart's table, where he's sitting with a group of Swedes. “I’ve always made lots of Danish friends on this boat,” Lennart tells me.

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A loved-up Swedish couple on the ferry.

“The Danes are good drinkers,” one of the Swedes, named Glenn Sillrén, adds. “I don’t care what country you’re from – we’re all brothers. We toast each other and have a great time.“ His first time on board was 2010, but only became a regular three years ago.

If there’s one jab Swedes constantly make at Danes, it’s that they’re not very good at understanding their neighbours’ language, when the linguistic and geographic distance couldn’t be much smaller. “It’s like you guys don’t want to understand us. But we understand Danish,” Per-Eric Henningsson tells me, who learned Danish by watching movies as a kid. “It’s probably because we’re your big brother and you’ve got a little brother complex.”

The conversation turns to politics. They discuss the Danish prime minister, who is tougher on immigration and refugees. The Swedes agree they’d prefer him to their own.

Oresund ferry passengers dancing
Passengers dancing to ABBA and Kim Larsen.

It’s a interesting that I'm hanging out with beer-loving Swedes who are skeptical about immigration. Some Swedish stereotypes about the Danes are that they’re boorish drunks, nationalistic, and say whatever they feel like.

Danes, on the other hand, see Swedes as being politically correct to a fault, and having been naive about immigration to their country. And then there’s Systembolaget, a Swedish government-owned store that has a monopoly on hard liquor.

Copenhageners often joke about “drunk Swedes” because they make the trip to the Danish capital with the sole purpose of getting wasted. In contrast to Sweden, in Denmark you’re allowed to drink in the streets, and there’s not a kiosk, 7-Eleven or bar to be found that isn’t ready to get you fuelled up. And ID checks are rare. That's also why I'd wager there are more Swedes on board here than Danes.

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The author (left) waiting for a beer.

A few ferry riders take a break from the music and head down to the former smoking lounge with bar service on the lower level. A Danish couple are enjoying their Tuborgs away from the commotion. They ride the ferry regularly as a way to relax and have a good time. Dorte Petersson , one-half of the couple, tells me “We come here as often as we can, at least once a week. Sometimes we just take a quick trip back and forth and go home."

She lived in Sweden for many years had a job in IT. Her husband Michel works in construction. “We love riding the ferry. Nice atmosphere, live music on the weekends. It’s better than going to any old pub, that’s for sure. And everyone knows pretty much everyone else here,” Michael adds.

The Sundbusserne line made its debut in 1958. Back then, it was more about cross-border commerce. It wasn’t until the last couple of decades that the ferry rides have evolved into something more festive.

On the horizon is Kronborg Castle: a national treasure from the 15th century – the setting that Shakespeare chose for Hamlet, and which might have inspired the line "There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark".

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The vibe on the dance floor.

The fortress is also an emblem of a time when Denmark and Sweden were warring kingdoms. Since the early Middle Ages, they fought for control of southern Sweden, a region called Skåne, which was Danish until 1658. One of the few common threads of these wars is that Sweden kept winning.

Ever since the Napoleonic Wars, during which Sweden won Norway from Denmark in 1814, there has been peace between the two neighbours.

The Danish couple I'm chatting with don't think there’s that big a difference between Danes and Swedes. “The caricatured image of Swedes applies more to people from Stockholm,” Dorte says. “It doesn’t really exist in Skåne. We were one country for so long, and it still feels like we’re part of each other.” She says she’s never experienced any conflicts on board.

“There’s never any trouble. Sometimes someone jumps overboard, but that’s the worst of it,” Michael tells us.

It’s time to eat.

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Both Danes and Swedes love red sausages with ketchup, mustard and bread.

In the oblong dancing/dining room, a solid 200 people are being served dishes they’ve ordered in advance – two røde pølser (boiled hot dogs) with bread, which costs 39 Danish Krone (€5). A deluxe platter of smørrebrød – fish or pork on a slice of whole-grain rye – will set you back 139 DKK (€18), while a bottle of Tuborg beer costs 28 DKK (€3).

Among the passengers are 83-year-old Hanne Melchior and 84-year-old Annike Salomonsen. They were both born in Sweden, but live in Denmark with their husbands. They think that, generally, the Swedes are more welcoming.

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Annike Salomonsen and Hanne Melchior.

Pia Vexmar rides the ferry often and is here with her friend Lotte Andersson. “I like taking the ferry because it’s a lot cheaper to go out in Denmark than in Sweden," Pia says.

“Danes constantly have a light buzz on,” Pia adds. “whereas we Swedes only drink once in a while, but when we do we get absolutely hammered.” Several Swedish passengers are planning to do more of that when they get off the ferry in Helsingør.

A couple of people invite me to see a Kim Larsen cover band that’s playing at a bar on a side street in Helsingør. As we pull into the Danish harbour for what feels like the tenth time, I’m not sure how many times we’ve crossed the Øresund, so I ask the crew. They inform me that it’s the last time we’re stopping here.

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After the ferry makes its last stop, people leave the boat to continue the party in Denmark, where booze is much cheaper than in Sweden.

I run inside to grab my photographer and make it off the boat just in time. I watch it sail away before it stops in Sweden for the night.

We find the bar where the cover band is playing – it’s packed with people I saw on the ferry earlier. Everyone in the bar sings in unison – in Danish – to Kim Larsen songs. Voices of slightly buzzed to fully plastered Danes and Swedes start blending together, echoing into the night air.

Read more stories from VICE.com's series about how the national borders dividing and surrounding Europe affect the lives of the people living near them.