I spend my weeks traveling to and from various Nordic countries. Tired of the procession of planes and nights in formulaic hotels, I decided, for once, to take the big slow boat from Oslo to Copenhagen, only to discover that this was an amorphous mixture of the two. Everyone who boards is staying in the same hotel.
There is something very communal about all of this. We will all embark together and and we will all disembark together. We will share the intermediate 17 hours together, whether we like each other or not. It is a communal blind date, a mass arranged wedding, a multinational flash village of.Chinese tourists, Scandinavian commuters and eastern-European party-goers crushed together in quite a small space.
Freedom is rather limited in a medium-sized floating tin can. You can check out any time you like. But you can never leave.
As the journey unfolds, I keep spotting the same people, whilst completely missing others. What is it that makes some people noticeable and others invisible? And which end of the spectrum am I? Which end do I want to be? I don’t want to be stared at, but nor do I want to be ignored. Especially not in the restaurant,
On my own I feel like an invisible observer. A ghost.
Other people come in their twos and fours and eights. They move around the boat in couples, families and packs – never far from each other, always knowing where each other is. This uneasy interdependence strains with each passing hour of forced enclosure. Relationships journey from tolerance, past irritation and finally arrive at the port of antagonism.
They express opinions about each other’s behaviour and then try to control it. “Don’t go near the railings sweetie” or “I hate that restaurant, baby” or “you never let me go to the casino, darling”. The subtle manipulation sugar coated in labels of affection, or should we say, ownership? The weaponising of the word “darling” is nothing new of course.
I am speculating of course – on a boat from Oslo to Copenhagen you don’t hear many English words beyond the statutory announcements. But the music and dance of relationships are the same in any language.
As for me, I have no such obligations or constraints. I am a free agent – at liberty to wander lonely as a cloud.up and down the decks, into a bar, out of a bar, through the shop, back to my room. And round again. Watching people. Spotting some of the same people. Ignoring others.
We all meander rather aimlessly around the decks, killing time. Like ants in a nest, sheep in a pen. There are rules of course – no sitting on the railings, no smoking in the cabins, no admittance – crew only, hard boiled on the left, soft boiled on the right. This is what separates us from the animals.
There are two points of escape. The first is the cabin – my nest. Here I am truly invisible. Here I am schrodingers cat. There really is no-one to see me – even through your window. It is a one-way mirror. You can see out – but short of some horror movie nightmare – nobody will be be looking in.
Some cabins don’t even have a window. They are too scary to contemplate. I need a window. Even though it is unbreakable, bolted closed and offers no point of escape – the illusion is sufficient. Those inside rooms are prisons cells of claustrophobia, dungeons for those passengers who break the rules. Too scary to think about. Nobody really exists in those, surely.
The second point of escape is the deck.
The deck. This is why we sail. This is why I chose 17 hours on a boat rather than 2 on a plane and 9 in a hotel.
Here is air. Fresh, moving sea air. A wind which wraps us up. Here is light and space, vertical to the stars and horizontal to the circular horizons.
And here is the sea – surrounding us, embracing us, supporting us – like some enormous, unfathomable mother. Her moods changing – now dark, mysterious and unsettled, now glistening and beautiful in her sunlight jewelry. And now again deep blue, playful and frothy. She is ever around us and beneath us.
I photograph her moods and expressions. I pick out boats and bouys, small islands and beacons, distant shores and mountains. A 17 hour rolling movie set against her slowly rolling constant backcloth.
In the day the deck is teeming with passengers. It is hard to find a space against the railings. I make a careful assessment of the gap between two other human beings. How wide a piece of rail do we need to occupy without invading the personal space of the people either side? I think about 3 feet – but we might be prepared to move in for something less if there is a good photo to be snapped.
I sit more than two feet away from a young woman on a bench. She looks decidedly uncomfortable. Maybe because I put my drink on the same small round table. It probably seems like an awkward attempt at intimacy. Her unspoken discomfort is contagious and I move on quickly.
At night the deck is a deserted. lonely place. The masses swarm to the bars, casinos and restaurants. Entertainment and food may attract, but alcohol and the company of people seems irresistible. So I was able to circumnavigate the desk entirely on my own. I loved it. Just me, the sky and the sea.
It was tempting to dance naked across the rooftop of the boat. The wind was strong, invigorating, life-giving. A sudden burst took my breath away. I imagined being picked up and carried over the railings down into the dark, dark bowels of the mother sea. Like a child returning to its womb to die. .
“A sailor went to sea, sea sea, to see what he could see see see , but all that he could see see see, was the bottom of the deep blue sea, sea, sea”. I step away from the edge. Time for bed.
I return to the security of my cabin. There she still is – silent outside my window. Is she watching me or ignoring me? Is she reassuring or threatening me ? As I sleep, I imagine her rocking me gently in my cradle, humming quietly.
It is breakfast – the journey end is nigh. I take a soft boiled egg from the right, and some Danish pickled herring from a plate. Denmark is closing in on both sides as we reach our destination. Soon we will crash gently into terra firma and drop the gang-plank. The prisoners will be released from the enclosure – free again to roam across the land.
The once unreachable shore is now under our feet. Such is the journey of life. The future becomes the present and the present becomes the past. The journey is over. El condor pasa. The world we all inhabited for a while will never be reconstituted. I doubt I will ever see these people again. Those I noticed and those I didn’t notice will all be forgotten. And they will forget me.
But the sea? She will always be there, somewhere.