Updated: Apr 9, 2019
I love to experience new places and cultures. A recent Danube River Cruise timed our entry into Budapest at the perfect moment for us to see the artistic buildings and bridges shine with golden light against the night sky. It was breathtakingly beautiful and I couldn't wait to explore this magical city with my new cruise friends.
Viking River Cruises are small enough to enjoy multiple encounters with strangers who become friends during the short time together. I always learn from the shared stories, humor, and kindness of my travel companions.
It seems that most river cruise passengers want to meet people, share information, and enjoy new experiences. Other passengers, though, arrive as a small group and stay within their club most of the trip. Some passengers may travel solo or as a couple and just want uninterrupted time by themselves. Most travelers seem to want everyone to enjoy their trip. But then there may be a troll or two, someone who emerges from a dark corner to take well-placed jabs at fellow travelers.
Fortunately, nasty trolls are rare --- but they can leave their mark on us. In fairy tales, like The Three Billy Goats Gruff, trolls stay well hidden and then rise out of the muck to harass travelers who simply want to pass over a bridge and explore green pastures. In internet slang, "trolls" pop into social media conversations with persistent attacks that negatively change the tone of a post thread. Trolls act out in Dungeons and Dragons, War Craft, and other games. Then there are the fabled trolls with mysterious back stories and well-hidden, but endearing qualities. We see them woven into stories like Lord of the Rings, Willow, Harry Potter adventures, Three Hearts and Three Lions, and even spotlighted in the DreamWorks Trolls movie and the TV series, Once Upon a Time. Trolls can be gruesome --- and kind of cute. I certainly loved my childhood assortment of wild-haired, jewel-bellied troll dolls.
But the troll I encountered on this cruise wasn't endearing. She seemed determined to make others feel uncomfortable about themselves and their circumstances. She emerged from and retreated to the shadows to watch others, never seeming to really engage herself in anything but brief, negatively-significant encounters.
I first noticed this cruise ship troll (who I'll call Ingrid) when she joined a small group conversing about upcoming optional tour choices. A woman (I'll call her Connie) who had smiling eyes and a wonderful resting expression of contentment and love for others, said that her husband was going on a winery excursion, but she didn't want to go and would stay on board to enjoy the beautiful piano music in the lounge. She added that it was something they loved about river cruises since they could do what each actually wanted to do without the other being lonely.
Ingrid asked Connie how long they had been married. The couple had been together for forty-eight years! Ingrid scowled, then moved closer and asked Connie why her adventurous husband would stay with a woman who didn't want to join him for what he loved to do. Wasn't that a bit selfish of her? And how could they have stayed together for so many years when they didn't enjoy being together? Connie looked baffled and a bit hurt. Ingrid put her hand on Connie's arm, shaking her head in a sympathetic gesture, and said she was so sad for her and hoped that Connie and her husband could find a way to better please each other. Then Ingrid walked away. Connie looked stunned as she stammered that she and her husband had many things in common and thought they had a wonderful marriage. They weren't unhappy with each other; they just enjoyed different activities. Even though the rest of us spoke positively with Connie, there remained a sadness in her expression throughout lunch. The troll had poked some of the life out of her. I searched the room and saw Ingrid glancing at Connie with a satisfied smirk. It appeared that she was enjoying the shadow she had cast on that sweet woman's day.
Then there was a man I'll call Sam. Ingrid asked him what he was drinking. Sam said, "Just the house red, but it's very good." She said that she could see that he was enjoying it a lot, and then lowered her gaze to a small stain on his shirt. Sam scrambled for a napkin, nearly spilling his drink. Ingrid continued by telling him that after several glasses of wine, anyone would naturally have trouble not spilling a bit on themselves. "When there's free wine, people tend to overindulge," she said, and then she slithered away to view her handiwork from a distance. The normally upbeat spirit of this man was darkened as he dabbed at his shirt and repeatedly said that he had only had two half-glasses of wine, which he didn't think was overindulging. I noticed, though, that he didn't finish his drink.
Again, I saw the satisfied smirk on Ingrid's face as she watched Sam's discomfort. I also noticed that she always wore the same drab, casual outfit in earth tones. It didn't matter if it was at breakfast, on excursions, or at the evening entertainment event, she blended into the furniture and background. Her mousy brown hair always limply touched her shoulders. She didn't seem to wear make-up and her expression was either sour or smug-----never showing joy. There was nothing that would make her stand out in a crowd and she was effectually invisible until she emerged to jab someone. With her guise, she could have crouched under any of the bridges along the Danube, hiding like a Troll.
Ingrid didn't seem to be with companions so it's possible that she was traveling alone, which some people (including me) may enjoy sometimes. But she certainly didn't appear to be enjoying anything except the effects of her negative words. I watched as Ingrid repeated her routine with several passengers. I tried to do some damage control by conversing positively with her some of latest victims. Still, she left a dark cloud around the people she verbally jabbed, a sadness that lingered long after she left them.
My sister, Pamela, and I enjoy dancing when we have the opportunity. Since our husbands weren't with us on this trip, we danced independent of each other but along with several other independent or traditionally paired dancers. We like this fun form of exercise, especially after indulging in too many gourmet delights. Pamela has much better dance moves than me and she's usually better than everyone else on the dance floor, too, for good reason. She's studied ballet and other dance forms for much of her life. It's one of her incredible talents.
We enjoyed an energetic "disco" activity the night before Ingrid decided to creep out of the corner and plunk herself into the chair next to me. I thought that she must have noticed my notice of her and that I would be her next victim. But she leaned over me and loudly asked my sister if she was really a professional pole dancer. We were surprised. Pamela said that she had been a professional ballet dancer, but never a pole dancer. Ingrid said that wasn't what she had heard and, certainly, her moves on the dance floor were not ballet. I said that as a Las Vegas resident, I had seen pole dancers and they moved very differently than my sister's dancing. Ingrid then "wondered" where Pamela had studied to learn "such moves." I quoted my sister's respectable dance credentials.
Then I realized I was playing into Ingrid's Troll game, so I asked her who said that my sister was a professional pole dancer. Certainly, they had misheard and I needed to speak with them to correct this misconception about my sister. Ingrid said she couldn't reveal her source. I looked deep into her dull, brown-grey eyes and said that it seemed as though I was speaking with the source. She lifted her eyebrows, then she trolled her eyes pointedly down my not-so-slender figure as she asked if it bothered me that my sister had obviously gotten all of the skinny genes in our family.
No, no. I wasn't going to let this troll chew me up, too. I smiled and said, "Isn't it amazing how two women could come from the same parents and still be so different from each other?" She looked like she was generating a jab response, so I boldly continued, "You know, both my sister and I, with our different figures and personalities, each have a husband, children, and grandchildren who love and respect us. And my good-looking man says he loves every inch of me, so the mean-spirited opinion of a stranger really doesn't matter."
The Troll's eyes widened a bit as if she were surprised. I cheerfully said that we all receive different gifts and what we do with them can make us happy or unhappy. Some people use our gifts to try to make the world a brighter, better place; while others use their gifts in negative ways that make them miserable, pitiful people who no one wants to be around. And then I stared into her lifeless eyes and challenged her to try to use her perceptive ability, her gift, to deliver a sincere compliment to somebody. I told her that I'd like her to feel the positive energy she can receive from inspiring someone's smile. I put my hand on her arm, like she did with Connie, and told her that she would be in my prayers and I hoped that she would stop being such a negative troll and use her gifts to find and share kindness and joy. It was Ingrid's turn to pale a bit as she excused herself and slithered back into her corner.
A woman who was sitting on the other side of Ingrid put her hand on my shoulder. "She's a nasty piece of work!" she said and told me about her encounter with Ingrid earlier in the cruise. So, I wasn't the only one observing Ingrid's routine! My new friend said she appreciated my response and wished she had thought that quickly when Ingrid attacked her. I admit to feeling good about not letting Ingrid's words shape our exchange, but I wasn't completely pleased with myself for ramming the little troll. I also admit, though, that her words about my sister and me did sting a bit, even though I knew their intent and source. The negative exchange may have left a few marks on all of us.
However, I renewed my commitment to pray for Ingrid (and her victims) and move forward in a positive way. When I saw Ingrid throughout the rest of the cruise, I returned her dark scowl with the warmest smile I could muster. Perhaps a little kindness can even penetrate the calloused exterior of a career troll and bring her out of the shadows for a few positive encounters, allowing all to cross our individual bridges unharmed and at peace.
Julie Davies is the Scripts and Trips editor who loves to explore the world.