Which ferry should we take from Germany back to Denmark? Oh, it’s this one, except for that one word I don’t understand


Writing that entry last Friday reminded me that I never did share my stories of that emergency vacation, save for a cryptic list of learnings. Here's a little story about the ferry crossing.

Part of the trip involved driving from Copenhagen (København) to Munich (München), which means taking a ferry. (It's faster than driving down the peninsula.) Realizing that we would also have to take the ferry on the return trip on Saturday, we grabbed a ferry schedule during a rest stop in Denmark.

What we didn't realize until it was time for the return trip was that the schedule was (naturally) in Danish, a language none of us could read or speak. As the closest thing in the car to an expert in northern European languages (it wasn't a close vote), I was called upon to do my best to puzzle out the timetable. The choice was between the Puttgarten–Rødby ferry and the Rostock–Gedser ferry. If we could make it, the Rostock–Gedser ferry would have been a better choice since it is a more direct route.

I was able to decode that the Puttgarten–Rødby ferry ran every half hour around the clock, whereas the Rostock–Gedser ferry stopped running at 11:30pm. (This sounds like a no-brainer, except that the Puttgarten–Rødby timetable didn't give the actual run times; it just said afgang hver halve time, sejltid 0:45.) We consulted the map, estimated our driving time, and calculated that if we stayed focused and didn't dawdle at the rest breaks, we could make the 11:30pm Rostock–Gedser ferry.

In the fine print of the schedule I was able to translate that the late-night Rostock–Gedser ferry run does not operate on ... um ... lørdag.

What's lørdag?

We decided to play it safe and go to Puttgarten.

It was a good call, because lørdag is Danish (and as I later learned, Swedish) for Saturday.

Bonus ferry story: After paying the fare on the Danish side for the morning crossing into Germany, the toll booth agent quickly mumbled, "Syv, sieben, seven" as we pulled away. He said it so quickly and unexpectedly, the English-speaking people in the car didn't hear the "seven" since they tuned out what the guy said once they determined that it wasn't English. I was paying more attention, figuring there was an off-chance the agent would speak German to us, and I picked out the sieben, and then upon mentally rewinding and replaying what he said, I also recognized the "seven."

But why did he keep saying "seven" in various languages? As we reached the waiting area, we figured it out: Because he was telling us to line up in row number seven.

Bonus ferry storylet: As we waited for the ferry, I noticed that the car behind us had a sticker saying that it was purchased from... a town just a few miles from where I grew up! How the heck did a car from a small town in New Jersey end up in Denmark? We asked the people standing next to the car—it was a nice day, so people stood outside—and they explained that they bought it from somebody who moved to Denmark from the States, and he brought his car with him. Strange coincidences abound.

Of course, an even stranger coincidence would have been if I happened to have known the original owner. (Not the case here.)

Comments (26)
  1. h.attila says:

    Apparently crossing through a zero vertically to avoid confusion with the letter 'O' has a whole new level of ambiguity if you happen to live in Northern Europe…

  2. Niels says:

    @h.attila

    Which is why you generally just put a dot in the zero if you need to disambiguate it from letter O in Danish.

    @Raymond

    I'm surprised there weren't any English or even German brochures about the ferries; travel-related companies over here tend to know the value of putting out at least key information in foreign languages. (Even if it might be badly mangled at times…)

    [I wasn't the one who grabbed the schedule, but my guess is that all the different language schedules look sufficiently similar that unless you paid close attention you wouldn't realize that they were in different languages. (Especially since, to an untrained observer, all the northern European languages look the same.) -Raymond]
  3. Henning Makholm says:

    h.attila: Strangely enough, that practice has never taken hold here. We meet it mostly in the form of slashed zeroes in console fonts. But it's not a real ambiguity because (in all of the console fonts I've met) the slash in a slashed zero stops inside the round outline, whereas the slash in a capital Ø must protude beyond the O-oval. Monospaced fonts often make it descend a bit below the baseline (and ascend above the other capitals).

    It does give new opportunites for hexspeak. If you ever find yourself debugging a corrupted heap on a 24-bit machine you can fill the memory with 0xD0DB0F…

    (In fact, most of the console fonts I encounter in my daily life use dotted zeroes rather than slashed ones).

    It's a larger problem that øØ was not included in code page 437 when IBM launched the PC in 1981, despite many other special letters for Western European languages being there. Once in a while you still come across legacy systems that pass, say, customer addresses through a CP437 conversion. Then the ø's may either disappear or become Greek phis, whereas æ and å (the two other non-English letters usid in Danish and Norwegian) survive fine.

  4. Not the Stig says:

    I've been watching too much Top Gear.  My first thought on reading "(It's faster than driving down the peninsula.)" was that this needed to be tested.

  5. fahadsadah says:

    Please can you elaborate on what happened with a pilot speaking on guard?

  6. DWalker says:

    Did the letter æ used to be a semi-English letter?  I see old texts referring to hæmophilia and such.

  7. David Brooks says:

    I had a similar thought to Niels: when I was in Denmark, every Dane I met spoke better English than half the English I meet. They also have the common feature of being almost achingly polite. After all, that seems to have been the case with the car's owners. Wasn't there a passing streetsweeper or urchin who could have helped you translate?

    [We didn't realize the mistake until the return trip, while we were in Germany. At 10pm. While speeding down the Autobahn. -Raymond]
  8. Kev says:

    @DWalker59 – it did indeed and is still part of the brand name for Encyclopædia Britannica – þ ð ƿ ȝ and œ are obsolete letters which used to be in the English language.

    Oh and the start of the Shetland Isles Postcode (ZE) goes back to it's very old name Ȝetland which was part of the language at the time (Old Norse).

  9. Mathieu G. says:

    @David: that once happened to me too. Except we were in a small village in Thailand, and the couple in question was my parent's neighbours in France. Now, what are the odds of THAT ?

  10. Magnus Hult says:

    Actually, it's lördag (with diaeresis) in Swedish. Sort of the Swedish equivalent of lørdag though. If you want bonus points you should know that lördag is short för lögardagen, a very old way of saying "bathing day", the day of the week you should take a bath. However, most Swedish people wash more often these days.

  11. Neil (SM) says:

    @Kev, DWalker59 – If wikipedia is to be believed (translation: Raymond probably made it up and added it to the wiki article,) the æ and œ are still used in, er  non-American forms of English formal writing.  Like in the afformentioned encyclopædia.

    en.wikipedia.org/…/English_alphabet

  12. ChadG says:

    Sorry Raymond.  I just read these and assume they happened yesterday…  8*D

  13. Vyacheslav Egorov says:

    I recently moved to Denmark and was surprised by the following:

    • almost everyone (at least in cities) speaks decent English;

    • it pretty easy to decipher basic written Danish (and I was told that is even simpler if you know German);

    • it is impossible to decipher spoken Danish :-)

  14. David says:

    Talking of coincidences, when me and my wife were in Argentina last March, one day we decided to stop for lunch in a mom-and-pop restaurant in the middle of nowhere. We met a very friendly older Canadian couple there and while chatting over the desserts, after doing the excellent steak and pasta the appropriate honors, we found out we were both going to travel to Ushuaia (deceivingly called 'the town at the end of the world') the following week. We also found out we were using the same airway to go there so, jokingly, they asked me what day we were going because "we might be on the same flight", and I said "oh, I doubt it! We depart at some ungodly hour because we had to get our tickets at the last moment and those were the last remaining cheap tickets", and the woman says "oh, really? our plane departs at 5.15, I doubt you can beat *that*!".

    To make a long story short: of the millions of people in Buenos Aires we get to know a couple, in the middle of nowhere, who are travelling in the same exact plane, and sitting on the row right in front of us. What are the chances of that happening?

  15. chrismcb says:

    Cool thing about taking the train from Denmark to Germany. The Ferry sits and waits for the train. The train pulls on board the ferry, and the ferry takes off.

    My one regret is forgetting to take a picture of the train sitting on the ferry.

  16. ChadG says:

    Perhaps this is a *trifle* naive, but didn't someone have an Internet-connected phone they could type these phrases into a translation engine?  I realize that machine translation is not a solved problem, but wouldn't it be "good enough" to divine which ferry to take?

    [Internet-connected phones were a novelty back then. And even if we had one, most U.S. cell phone towers do not reach Germany. -Raymond]
  17. Dave says:

    I was going to say the same thing, obviously the car was full of guys because no-one stopped to ask a convenient Dane for help… even on the Autobahn, a Plattduutsch speaker at a rest stop should have been able to have a go at translating.

  18. Andreas Rejbrand says:

    @Raymond: You do know that the letter "ø" doesn't exist in Swedish?

  19. Another Swede says:

    Magnus Hult & Andreas Rejbrand:

    I'm pretty sure Raymond knows that much Swedish, i.e. that the Swedish word for that day is lördag and that the Danish word is lørdag. It isn't exactly a completely new, different, word, as, say, uhm, Saturday. So one could say that it is pretty much the same word.

    But, of course, not all his readers know this, so it's worth mentioning.

  20. Gabe says:

    Probably the biggest coincidence that I've heard of was when a friend from xyz.edu of mine was traveling Europe. He was in a German nightclub and started a conversation with some local girls. Naturally small talk included asking where he was from, and the conversation went something like this: "So where are you from?" "I'm from America." "Oh, I know an American. Do you know Chad Abc?" "Actually, yes! Chad Abc is a friend of mine."

    Then a week or so later he ran into these girls again, only in England.

  21. Sam says:

    He, the title is funny, since I live right on the border between Danmark and Germany and was all "What Ferry?" :)

  22. Drak says:

    @Sebastian Paaske Tørholm

    Ah, that makes more sense.. literally 'sailing time'?

  23. Henning Makholm says:

    "Cool thing about taking the train from Denmark to Germany. The Ferry sits and waits for the train. The train pulls on board the ferry, and the ferry takes off."

    These days it seems to be more common that the ferry takes off without the train, whereupon the train arrives 5 minutes late and has to wait for the next ferry. Always add 30 minutes when planning your onwards connection!

    It was different in the old days when the railways actually operated the ferry line. But it was sold off later, and the current management seems to consider it more important to get their motorists get across in time than to help the railways keep their timetables. (This probably makes sound business sense).

  24. Boris says:

    The only time I've seen œ used was in my biology textbook in high school, in the word œsophagus.

  25. Henry says:

    Wait a few more years and a bridge will replace the ferry, i.e. even on Saturdays you can cross at any time :-)

  26. Ben says:

    They are not so much "letters" as it is a ligature used for the ae and oe diphthongs: such as in oestrogen, haemoglobin, encyclopaedia etc. Webster clerely must have decided that diphthongs were to confusing and stricken them from the langwige.

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