We left Stockholm under overcast skies, slipping beside one island after another—thousands of them. I could have viewed the archipelago through the wall of windows in our cabin but chose to go on deck for a more organic look.
Another cruise ship loomed into view, coming up quickly from the other side of a large island to our starboard. I hoped we would edge ahead and beat this boat to the spot where the shipping lanes converged, but I saw right away that the ship of strangers was moving faster than we were and would soon draw clear and assume the lead. I decided it was likely pre-arranged by the harbormaster (or whoever serves as sea traffic controller), and when I looked aft I saw yet another cruise ship in line behind us.
Three sea behemoths, taking thousands and thousands of one-day visitors away from Sweden, where only 90 minutes before we had filled the cobblestone streets of the capital city. And I do mean we had filled them, as we had filled the alleyways of Tallin, Estonia, the day before and crammed into the churches and palaces of St. Petersburg, Russia, the day before that.
For the hundredth time during this voyage, I thought about the citizens of the Baltic burgs we besieged. Did our dollars and euros and kroner outweigh our enormous imposition? At each port our ship bullied into the harbor and belched up legions of tourists into the city, where we shuffled and jostled our way into every prescribed place. We photographed every statue and bauble, often unsure of their significance, while we interacted with the locals only to ask how much, which train, and where oh where is the water closet? But not in their language, unless the more learned of us knew it, or the more daring of us attempted—and butchered—it.
Yet we made a difference, right? The onslaught of tourists bought up crafts and geegaws, fine linen and plastic, and we ensured jobs for guides and drivers, servers and barkeeps, clerks and costumed greeters. We came, we saw, we consumed.
But did we connect?
I thought about all that as our great ship departed the final port of our spectacular vacation, gliding between the islands dotting Sweden’s outer banks. A brief shower drove me inside for cover, but as soon as the rain let up, I went back on deck. I stared at the houses build near the shorelines of each isle. Through my binoculars, I studied the homes, the cars, and the pontoon boats.
Then I noticed people. Some alone and some in small groups, they had come outside to watch the parade of floating hotels lumber past. They probably stared at the same parade every week, or perhaps every day of their limited summer. Were they glad we came? Glad we were leaving? Sorry they hadn’t connected?
I saw a bald man who had strolled twenty yards from his house to get a better view. I waved, but he didn’t see me—or he chose not to respond. Three islands later I hailed a man and woman on the deck of their sailboat. But our massive ship offered a feast of details, and they overlooked me.
I watched how the wake of the ship in front of us reached each shore just as we passed it. Lapping the rocks, bouncing the little boats, and rocking the docks to which they were tethered. Then I saw one dock with a half dozen people. Not together, really, but apart. Individuals. They appeared to be waiting for a ferry.
I focused my binoculars on one of them, an older woman with a red patterned scarf on her head and a canvas bag in her hand. As I looked at her, she looked at my ship. I had already passed her when I raised my arm. I waved. And she waved back.
Written July 1, 2014, aboard the Norwegian Star