Cruising has been called the lazy man’s idea of fun. I don’t know who said it, but I’m thinking he never set foot aboard one of those gaudy ships that now line the docks of every deepwater port in the world. In the first place, and let’s be clear about this, it’s no fun at all. Perhaps it’s enough to point out that the word “cruise” is related, via the Romance croisade and crociera, to the Crusade, the most strenuous and, unless you fancy Papal indulgences, the least rewarding of all the medieval vacations. Even now, when I mount the gangplank once more, I can feel the cross upon my back, the hasty vow to “take plenty of pictures” and the command to “bring back something for me” lying like a dead weight upon this latest crusader.
Why then do I continue to undertake this laborious way of getting from here to there? For one thing, it’s not really a journey from here to there like an airplane flight, another activity I’m not so keen on. A cruise is more of a circle or a half circle or just an arc, and the point is not getting there, especially when the “there” is as uninteresting as Southampton or Fort Lauderdale or Port Los Angeles. It’s the stops along the way that are the bait, les escalles or ports of call with their promised adventure-filled “excursions”: “Helicopter into the Jungle” ($200), “Walk on a Glacier” ($150) or “Watch the Native Hemp Weavers Turn Weeds into Cloths of Gold” ($12.50). No thanks.
There’s no problem signing up for a cruise. Like all entrepreneurs, the cruise line makes it easy for you to buy in. A few clicks online and you’re a couple of thousand down, even with the deep discounts (from astronomical highs) the lines now offer. There’s nothing like an outburst of terrorism on Madagascar (“Jewels of Costa Africa.”) [NB. All cruises have assigned names, the further from the truth, the better.] to drive prices down. Ditto a collision with an iceberg (“Magical Greenland and Once Magical Iceland”), an overboard drowning (“The Fabulous Caribbean”) or, better still, a financial bottoming out (“The Mystery of Wall Street”) or an outburst of “Captain Bligh’s Revenge,” a bout of fever and gut-bustin’ diarrhea that runs through a ship as quickly as a Preferred Suite Owner passes through the cruise check-in.
Well, the prudent you, now long deceased, alas, thinks: Hey, everything is included, all the plenteous meals and snacks, for example, and your room services. But stay! There’s the airfare—you might be flying back from Christchurch or Dubai—and the transport from airport to the ship and vice versa. If you’re a teetotaler, your drinks will cost you nothing, which is good, but you’ll have no place to drown your considerable sorrows, which is bad. And the shore excursions: prepare for a very big hit to the pocketbook. Tipping? No problem. Well, sort of no problem. The line will deduct all the tips for you. No need to reach for your wallet, they already have it: you surrendered your credit card on arrival. On the other hand, the TV in your room is free, and so is the fresh ice.
I would advise putting a few, well, actually, more than a few, bucks aside for the shipboard laundry. The line provides a single washer-dryer in a soundproof room on one of the decks for those naïfs who think it’s easier—it’s certainly cheaper—to do your own laundry rather than handing it over to ship to do it for you. As a matter of fact, it is not easier. The laundry room is sound proofed so that the other passengers might not think that the Somali pirates have clambered aboard and are slaughtering the passengers one by one, all save the Owners Suites crowd who were provident enough to buy, and not cheaply, Anti-Pirate Insurance from the Somali consul in Washington. The source of the clamor is actually the Ladies Who Launder scratching, clawing, pummeling, tearing and gouging one another for possession of the dryer or the last of the detergent. Cameras pipe these 24/7 bloodbaths in the laundry room up to the bridge (and into the Owners Suites: “complimentary Laundry Room TV”) for the entertainment of the navigation officers—“Nothing ever happens in these waters”–after the lovely Lithuanians from the restaurant staff have picked up their clothes and gone giggling off to bed. So a couple of hundred to have your tee-shirt (“I Got Through Heathrow”), washed, shrunk and pressed is not all that bad an investment if you don’t fancy blood sports.
It is a good idea, then, to know what you’re doing before you do it. There are, of course, cruises and cruises. At one end of the spectrum, the heavy money end, there are the boutique adventure cruises where you are assigned a personal bosun’s mate to help you scamper up the rigging–Of course it’s a sailing ship, you dolt!–for the full shipboard experience (flogging is an expensive extra) and are issued a pistol to help fight off the Somali pirates or the Zanzibar cannibals, whoever appears first. At the other end, let’s call it Cheapside for the romance of it all, are those ships with “Disney” on the side where there are five children under 11 for every adult and the meals are served either on the merry-go round or the waterslide. Then you can choose to sail, if that’s the right word, on one of the towering infernos, the maritime monsters that look like an apartment house perched uneasily atop a canoe. They too offer adventure, but in this case it’s real, not staged. There’s a real chance that you’ll be thrown overboard into the turquoise sea (“The Romantic Caribbean”) by your new disenchanted wife–“He took me on the Princess Line, the cheapskate!”–or by a drunken fellow passenger whom you’ve just met and whom you were showing some karate moves at midnight on the Sports Deck.
Me, I dwell in the reasonably priced middle ranks–“Maiden Again” was my mother’s Greek motto, “Nothing in excess.” She had, it seems, picked up a little, a very little, Greek, from an Episcopal bishop who had been defrocked for excessive orthodoxy and was then peddling Bibles door to door–where ships still look like ships and not Trump Towers, where the passengers number about 800 and there are no children or honeymooners on board; in fact, no one younger than 50 and none, guaranteed, older than 100, though I have my doubts about that last.
I made my first cruise–it must be everyone’s starter cruise, cheap, short and brutal–to Alaska, and my first impression was one of astonishment. I had never seen so many really old people collected in one place: the lame and the halt, the blear-eyed, arthritically bent and stroke-addled; geezers with walkers and in wheelchairs or attached to their own oxygen tank. Under every “Honolulu” (“Pacific Paradise”) or “I Sailed the Yangtze” (“Hidden China”) tee-shirt beat, I was sure, a high-end Pacemaker; behind every wizened ear, a hearing aid the size of a New York strip steak. My perspectives have changed somewhat over fifteen years. There seem fewer of the elderly on board, and I no longer mind the occasional dodderer blocking my way into the dining room. My tolerance may be born of the fact that I am now among the oldest on board. But clean, agile and completely free of prosthetic devices.
Once you’ve selected your cabin from a wide range of possibilities, from an inside stateroom (I think not), through bewildering varieties of portholes and verandas, up to the Owner’s Suite (Yeah, right! Who needs a butler?), and signed up, there is still a steep hill to climb, the getting there. True, some cruise ships leave from Fort Lauderdale (for the Caribbean) or Los Angeles (for Hawaii and the Far East), but more commonly they sail from Barcelona or Venice (for the Mediterranean cruises), from Athens (Indian Ocean and Far East) and Dover and Southampton (the Baltic and North Sea cruises). Here’s my advice. Skip the cruise and buy a business class air ticket to London or Barcelona; or fly Air Cathay to Singapore or Hong Kong and get yourself a custom-tailored suit and a massage you’ll never forget instead of playing shuffleboard with very old guys who cheat, not on their wives, who are almost dead, but at shuffleboard.
And if you happen to have that one gold-plated best-seller under your belt (with the screen rights and some points from the gate), then I recommend Upper Class (are you hearing this?) on Virgin Atlantic to anywhere. These gracious lads actually pick you up at your residence and take care of the check-in formalities in the limo on the way to the airport.
“And, sir, would you like to dine at our club at JFK–excellent sushi chef there, sir, just in from Tokyo–or aboard, at your accommodation? Or perhaps both? No shame in being a bit peckish, is there, sir?”
Not that I could think of. The sushi at the club was excellent, as my forelock-tugging chauffeur had promised, and so too was the very rare roast beef on board. But both were eclipsed by my “accommodation,” once known merely as a “seat” but now morphed into a cubicle of considerable dimension with a plasma TV and a sound system that made me believe that I had Placido Domingo lodged somewhere in my ear. And, oh yes, a full sized bed.
“And when would you like your massage, sir?”
It was the stewardess, who looked and smelled like one of those edible, early Beatles girlfriends and was of course wearing those smashing black stockings that the Brits apparently issue at puberty to every stewardess, nurse and schoolgirl in the land. No wonder they once ruled the globe. As an aficionado of Chinese massage, I fully expected that the shades of my “accommodation”–I was already beginning to think of it that way–would be discreetly drawn, and Jenny Agutter, or whatever her name was, would enter and together we’d go up to 80,000 feet. No such. I was taken to a massage cubicle and given a fully clothed, very economy class backrub. Still worth the trip.
But this was not Virgin Air, and one of the most distasteful of cruise experiences may be those called Embarkation and Disembarkation at the beginning and end of the venture. The first chiefly occurs when there is a too brief turn-around time for the ship. The last crusaders are scratching and clawing to get off the vessel and the new recruits eager to get on. But the ship must first be cleaned and primped. A new stock of haricots verts, pistachio nuts, orecchiette and overpriced wine must be taken on board, the toilets flushed, the urine drained from the pool, the drunken comedian put ashore and the captain warned once more, “Stay away from the friggin’ Italian shore!”
“There may be a brief delay, ladies and gentlemen. Please be patient.” The ladies and gentlemen, prostrate from jet-lag, slump back on their waiting room benches.
Same at the other end. Everyone is eager to get off: collectively and individually they have had enough. But no so fast, Everyone must be dispatched according to flight time and destination; each reconnected with his own luggage and loaded into a van, bus, taxi or train and pointed in the right direction.
“Please be patient, ladies and gentlemen.” The ladies and gentlemen, now seated disconsolately in the same shipboard auditorium where they had recently cheered and laughed, have very few options.
So I’m aboard. The landscape is familiar since I’ve been on this line, this very ship, before. I’m an old hand and so I know that my luggage will eventually show up outside my stateroom, perhaps just after we pass the Maldives (“The Mysterious Spice Islands”).
Barely settled, the mandatory lifeboat drill falls like a body blow upon the still frazzled passengers. It is a tiresome exercise but a little more pointed than the airline fairy tale that begins, “If we are forced to land in the water…” since ships are already in that dangerous water and have been known to go further down in it. So every passenger is made to force his grizzled pate or her blue-rinsed head into a bulky life jacket that comes in one size, “Unfit,” and which, despite the cute little attached whistle–“Cabin 314, stop blowing your whistle!”–does not seem capable of actually saving lives. The whistle blowing was from the inside stateroom riff-raff from Deck 3 of course. Only the crew lives on the completely windowless Deck 2, and down below, on lightless and airless Deck 1, are Italian former sea captains, sex offenders, former passengers now too crazed to be removed and the usual assigned, and expensive, places for Pakistani stowaways.
The passengers, just recently arrived and tired beyond the telling of it, are led out on deck, trussed in orange straitjackets like unwilling sacrifices to Neptune, and made to stand beneath their assigned lifeboats. They quietly eye one another to determine the dangerously strong who might deny them a place and the weak sisters they’ll have to push aside to get into the lifeboat. We are read a long list of eventualities, none of them pleasant, that might occur in this type of craft on the open sea–“Not to worry. Each of our lifeboats has a three-day supply of Campbell soup and synthetic protein bars”–and we are dismissed.
Please, Lord, let me not perish at sea. Or on land. Or at all.
Never mind the Campbell soup. There’s good eatin’ on hand, lots of it. There’s a formal dining room for all three meals, ditto a big buffet on an upper deck, where the food is not as fancily tricked out but more varied and you can can mix and match to your heart’s content. The plebs seem to prefer the buffet; the white tablecloths and wine stewards in the main dining room seem to frighten them. There are also niche restaurants, invariably a steak house and a fancy Italian and perhaps, if you’re lucky, an Asian fusion restaurant: the decor and etiquette are vaguely Japanese, the food mostly Chinese and the help unmistakably Thai, and probably the chef as well. And finally, there is the snackin': coffee with Danish and muffins in the AM, tea with pastries and little sandwiches in the afternoon, and pizza and ice cream AM, PM and in between. There’s no shame in being a little peckish, is there? Of course there is! Everyone leaves a cruise covered, smeared, smothered with the shame of overindulgence.
The old liners weren’t really cruise ships. They were real transportation and they carried passengers to and from specific destinations in the US, Europe and the Far East: Robert Donat and his young bride, Celia Johnson, to his new post as station chief in Simla, or Freddie Bartholomew, full of Anglo-Indian spunk, heading in the other direction to adventures at Eton and Oxford (“Tutor will be ever so angry if I don’t enjoy the birching!”). And they always dressed for dinner. That was because they were all traveling First Class, as were Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong, who were both ticketed only for mischief. “Shanghai, ma’am? Dangerous place. I’d take care.” “Don’t worry, Captain Steele,” eyes narrowing, smoke curling up the nostrils, “I can take care of myself.”
Class distinctions prevailed on the old liners: First Class, Cabin and what we euphemistically call “Economy” but they more forthrightly dubbed “Steerage.” And lest there be any untoward mingling, the classes were physically separated by rather forbidding locked gates. Each class had its own facilities for dining, dancing or, in steerage, manning the pumps or catching influenza. The barriers are all gone today, except for vestigial remains on the great British liners. Now all are thrown together. Lowly Rotarians and Full Professors, suddenly impoverished hedge fund managers and perennially rich plumbers all mingle cheerfully everywhere, from the dining rooms to the bathrooms. And the old dining custom of two seatings, 6:30 or 9 PM (your choice), with assigned seating (no choice) at tables for six has also mercifully disappeared. Now you dine when you wish between 6:30 and 9:30 PM, with an increasing demand for “a table for two.” There are not a lot of those private perches, though the number is steadily growing. The maitre d’s are not pleased with such requests and greet them with an insolent smile that says, “Do you think you’re so much better than everybody else?” (Right) or “Do you think I have nothing better to do than find you a table for two?” (Right again) or “Are you fuckin’ anti-social or something?” (Bingo!). What he actually says, this rather nasty young man late of a Bosnian chicken farm, is, “That will be a twenty minute wait, I fear. What’s your cabin number?” The cabin number is the clue: if it starts with a magic upper deck 9, my wait will be twenty seconds; if with a lowerdeck 3, more like twenty years.
The Crusaders kept their edge with jousts and swordplay on the way to the Holy Land. Their modern descendants plunge right into the more dangerous game of shipboard conversation. “Where you from?” is the traditional opening move, but it’s the notorious Fool’s Gambit since it leads directly into the deadly counter-move called, a little bit laboriously, “You’ll never believe the trouble I had getting here” and featuring such predictable side play as “six hours at JFK,” “DeGaulle, please!” and “the luggage of course was lost.” Check. Mate. “Sorry, I’m a bit tired. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to bed.”
They won’t get me tomorrow. Tonight I’m reading up on responses to what many consider indefensible, the Grandchildren Gambit. Kasparov recommends, but only under the most extreme circumstances, the chilling counter of “I’m sorry. I lost my manhood in the war. I couldn’t have children.” Few can recover from that killer, but bear in mind, the folks across the table, even the ones with hearing aids, are not listening. They’re just waiting for their cue to start talking. The cues for tedious narrative are many and varied, so great social caution must be observed. One must never say “retirement,” “Florida” or “California,” “surgery,” “Carnival,” “China” (replacing the once deadly “Russia”), “arthritis,” and “Australia” (an occasional “New Zealand” can get by). There must be no mention of taxes, health care, a sitting president or any relatives, especially dead spouses or grandchildren, the latter of which is, as indicated, the third rail not only of cruising but of Geezerdom generally. Oddly, children no long provoke an endless series of anecdotes. They have grown up and moved away and their aged parents no longer seem to care.
Somewhere mid-voyage the two conversational opening serves of “Where are you from?” and Where have you been?” have lost their topspin and the converse grows slack. All on board now do nothing else but cruise, and so the half-hearted openings slip back into the past tense: “What did you do in Kansas City before you retired?” The only answer to that question should be “I tried to shoot myself,” but I rather fancied the query–I had a strong second act–because it gave me a rare shot at regaining control of the conversation. My answer “I was a teacher” kills the beast before it can do any further damage; nobody is interested in teachers, although on occasion a nimble and clever tactician might come up with, “That reminds me. I remember back in the sixth grade in Keokuk, let’s see, that would be about ’53 or ’54. Edna, you must remember this…”
“I was a professor,” on the the other hand, invariably provokes a frisson from across the table. The listener–I wish!– is pondering. Do I want to go there, he thinks, get entangled with some wiseass know it all? What the hell, let’s give it a shot. “What do you teach, professor?” The last word doesn’t sound exactly like a compliment; he’s bracing for the worst. Another fork in the road. If I give him “Classics,” he panics and bolts and we’re back with the grandchildren. “History” is a dangerous invitation to “I’m sort of a Civil War buff myself. Ever been to Vicksburg?” “Religion” provokes either a sullen and hostile silence or some quite unpredictable diatribe, against the Mormons, for example, or Jehovah’s Witnesses or the personal practices of the Reverend Bob in the local church.
Then there’s my killer app: “I teach Islam.” No one can stay away from that. Everyone wants simultaneously to say something and to ask something; to vent anger or get to the bottom of something, and invariably to express that rarest of cruiser sentiments, admiration: “That must be interesting.” But in the end I fear I disappoint them; I’ve lured them here, but I can’t deliver. I’m a historian of Islamic origins, not of Muslims in America or Middle Eastern politics–“What’s going to happen to Israel, professor?” My fellow crusaders want dogma on these issues; instead, I’m giving them what I read in the NYTimes (though generally with the Times’ slant–Who? Us?–reversed).
Typically a cruise ship arrives at its daily destination early in the morning and departs about 6 PM so that most of the actual sailing is at night. There are, however, “days at sea” to bridge widely separated ports. It’s then that the well-oiled cruise entertainment apparatus springs into action. I’ve already described the most dangerous of the shipboard games, “Laundry Room.” Bridge is a close second on the danger scale. It is pervasive on board and is played with that jaw-clenched seriousness that characterizes all true games. For those less accustomed to full-contact sports, there are the old staples that go all the way back to Babylonian cruises on the Euphrates (“Jewels of Mesopotamia”): shuffleboard, quoits and “Putting for Dollars” (actually, shipboard credits), as well as their more intellectual descendants–the Babylonians had little time to think; they were managing the Jewish Exile, and you can imagine what a headache that was–to wit, team trivia and, yes, bingo, though some maintain that bingo is even older than shuffleboard, that God taught bingo to Adam and Eve in Eden and told them it was called “Sex.” Unconfirmed, that.
For those who prefer to mock rather than compete, there is the very popular photo-guffawing. A ship’s photographer is constantly photographing the cruisers, at arrival and departure, at meals, at play or just dozing, mouth agape, in the Horizons Lounge. The hideously unattractive results are all posted, ostensibly for purchase by their subjects, though few buy. What the photos are instead is the source of enormous amusement and scurrilous comment from the other passengers. Close to it in value for the more practiced masochists is sitting poolside on the upper deck, astonished and appalled that the elderly should dare display in public their scrawny or bloated bodies, marvelously veined things in vivid blue or purple.
These are all pedestrian, if sometimes fatal, pursuits. The entertainment cream rises to the top in the evening, when the lower orders of the entertainment industry put on a brave front in the ship’s large auditorium–large enough in one of the Monsters of the Sea to stage an Ice Capades–and with very comfortable seating so that the ancient guests may doze during the longeurs. There’s always a ship’s band, the “Sea Laddies,” and a resident string ensemble, “the Vlad Quartet, straight from Bratislava, folks.” The latter voice is that of the Cruise Director, smarmy, belligerently optimistic–“Another great day in lovely, fogged-in Foolshaven, Greenland, folks!”–and sadistically informative: “On the starboard side, folks”–wherever that is–“a stunning view of the mouth of the Orinoco, the seventeenth most polluted river in the world.”
The entertainment stars wear makeup, the musicians not. There are choristers, the “boys” and “girls” down on their Broadway luck who pluckily sing and dance their way through devastatingly abbreviated versions of “Mame” and “The Music Man” and, mercy, Lord!, “The Phantom of the Opera.” Andrew Lloyd Webber, the greatest musical nuisance since the invention of the accordion, is built, like a bad chromosome, into the DNA of cruise ships. He is splattered across the playbooks of The Sea Laddies and the Vlad Quartet. He is in the elevators, the staterooms, the bathrooms, public and private, the dining rooms and, if I guess right, he will be piped into those lifeboats that will carry all of us to our watery doom. But don’t get your hopes up; if interest in Baron Lloyd-Webber flags, there is Andrea Bocelli right behind him.
Then there are the soloists. I generally skip the tenors and sopranos–“And now, from Cats…”–but give me a comedian, a ventriloquist, juggler or a magician, and I’m there, early and often. “Right from Broadway,” our Cruise Director trumpets, not mentioning that it’s the Broadway Danny Rose Talent Agency this comic with the hairpiece is from. But I love him, for his ego-crushing optimism, his grasp of the fundamentals of his art–“Anybody here from Florida?”–and his grim willingness to accept a cruise ship booking. “My wife likes me to get out of the house more. Way out. Anybody here married?”
More sober and serious is the lecturer, the full-bore retired professor, an amateur geographer, a Vikings or Maori buff, former Peace Corps volunteers in Rajasthan, Kazakhstan or Baluchistan or, please God!, a sportscaster who had late night drinks with Howard Cosell or Arnie Palmer or Chris Evert.
“Is it true, Jimmy, Chrisie’s thing with Navratilova?”
“Was Dick Buttons on steroids, Jimmy? I always wondered.”
“That diver, Jimmy, Greg something, do you know how I can get in touch with him?”
The lecturers all bring their Powerpoints, their laser pointers, their point of view and their carefully collected but not always smoothly delivered information cache. It doth pass the time, however, this chatter about icebergs and earthquakes, about the Black Death, Polish foreign policy, about Ainu and Inouits and bilingualism in Belgium, especially on 21 day cruises from Athens to Singapore (“East of Suez”) when all the grandchildren have all been named and numbered and their virtues and accomplishments commemorated in paralyzing detail.
In the name of full transparency (a newly devised formula to introduce a stunning series of lies), I once did stand upon that stage myself. “And now, folks, straight from a major university, put your hands together for the very distinguished…” Grabbing that golden mike with both hands, “Thanks, Leslie. Good evening, folks. Anyone here married?” It was sort of a boutique cruise, no more than a hundred or so passengers, from Port Said, down the Gulf of Suez, around Sinai, up to Aqaba (and Petra) and back (“Gateways to Araby”). There was a modest stipend but with all expenses paid for two and a bar tab longer and denser than a tractate of the Talmud.
I lectured on board about every third day, unsupported by either jugglers or a string quartet. There was no auditorium. Like some third-rate lounge act, I delivered my material in the Dean Martin manner, leaning on a piano, mike in one hand, a Ginger Ale in the other, It was easy, talking about stuff I knew inside out to an audience that was interested–audience interest varies in direct proportion to the price of the cruise–instead of to a brigade of undergraduates who don’t know where Suez is and have never heard of Aqaba. “Aqaba,” Peter O’Toole whispered, his blue eyes gleaming under the kohl, “We must take Aqaba.”
What was even more fun was working the bus. We landed at Qusayr on the Egyptian coast where three large Mercedes busses had been engaged to carry the cruisers three hours eastward to Luxor for a day amidst the Pharaonic ruins before returning to the ship in the evening. I sat next to the driver, the talking seat, in one of them, live mike in magisterial hand, and spun tales, free associated and answered questions for three hours.
Tourists’ questions, whether on land or sea, are either witless or unanswerable. “What’s a two family house go for here in Muscat?” “Will there be restrooms in Spain?” “Did the Jewish Israelites build the pyramids? My rabbi says they did.” “Your rabbi, madame, is a fool and a knave and probably a Unitarian so I’d beware.” It didn’t much matter what you answered. The questioner didn’t care in the first place and had long since ceased listening in the second.
“On the left, folks, a camel and, if I remember my Bedouin lore, she’s in foal.”
Yes, in foal, at stud. Get it right.
“So what’s the gestation period of a camel, professor?”
“Three years, madame. Quite remarkable. I remember once in the camel market just outside of Marrakesh…”
Am I being too harsh on my fellow passengers? Ab uno disce omnes, as Vergil put it so neatly, “Try this on for size.” It was evening. We were in the plaza before the great cathedral of Majorca. The local guide, a man of great and serene dignity, looked about him and slowly and solemnly addressed his group. “In this very plaza, on February 2nd, 1513, the Holy Inquisition ordered seven Marranos convicted of Crypto-Judaism be burned at the stake.” There was an equally solemn pause. Then suddenly a light went on in the head of a lady in a sun visor and orange capri pants. “February 2nd,” she squealed, “that’s my granddaughter’s birthday!” If reports can be trusted, that very night the guide, a man respected by his peers and the community at large–he had once been mentioned in the Governor’s Annual Report to the Throne–went down to the port, carefully removed his “Official Guide” badge with the coat of arms of Aragon upon it, and threw himself into the dark Mediterranean waters. Had I been made of braver stuff, I should have followed him into the deep.
But nobody books a cruise to watch a ventriloquist move his lips or even to listen to a distinguished professor making it up as he goes along, but chiefly to inspect the sites threaded like pearls along the itinerary (“Pearls of the Itinerary”): cities, towns, cathedrals (“In Italy be prepared for closings”), stone huts, botanical gardens, caves, gorges, waterfalls, museums (“In Russia be prepared for closings”), monasteries, monuments to the Great Patriotic War. There will of course be visits to countless workrooms and factories where there are made and, more to the point, sold a staggering variety ski sweaters, pearls, olive wood creches, Delft, Wedgwood and Waterford ware, lacquered and enameled screens, Lladro and Hummel collectibles and enough magnets to take down a sub-zero refrigerator door in about 30 seconds. Our forefathers bought cute tee-shirts abroad; their descendants buy up: manuscripts, ikons, in Cairo gold amulets with your name upon them in hieroglyphics, smoked salmon in Shannon and Bergen, mosque lamps in Istanbul and carpets in Kushadasi, fake antiquities in Israel (“Yes, of course it’s a piece of the Dead Sea Scrolls. My father, may God bless him, a professor at the Hebrew University, tore it off 4Q personally. You can’t get this in New York for $300.”), false Ming scroll paintings in China and, once upon a time, when the going was good, false Alexander drachmas in Kabul, a gallon of real caviar in Tehran and whatever entered your head in Bangkok.
Cruisers, it turns out, at least the American variety, want above all to shop. They’ll happily pass up a day in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo for a half hour in the Khan al-Khalili suq, take a pass on the Louvre for the Rue St. Honoré and the Uffizi for the shops on the Arno. The cruise lines have been a little slow on the uptake. There have always been shops on board, one where you could buy cruise line polo shirts and windbreakers (also Rollaids, then batteries and now finally flash memory sticks); and another that sells expensive watches, jewelry and perfumes. But les dames en bateau go through that kid stuff pretty fast during those listless days at sea, and the cruise lines are expanding their shops into larger and larger emporia. Soon there’ll soon be an Arby’s and a Starbucks, I’m sure, and the transformation from ship to mall will be complete.
While the fittest survive and expand in the Darwinian microcosm of the cruise ship, the dodo and the .400 hitter are fading into extinction. That seems to be the fate of onboard photography and perhaps even the casino that can be found aboard every large ship. News of the bad odds on board is spreading in the cruiser breeding farms in California, Florida and Arizona, and fewer gamers seem to be showing up at the tables and slots.
And also fading is that former staple of the cruise, the art auction. The goods are displayed around the ship from the outset of the cruise, mostly modern decorative painting–“That would look nice over our sofa, Earl”–with an occasional classic Dogs at Poker thrown in to pique the interest of whatever Australians might be on board. But there are some Old Masters as well, some clearly marked as copies and others reputed to be Rembrandt drawings or Picasso sketches–“Pablo, for Chrissakes, stop with the doodling on the tablecloth. You’re killing your own market!”
Toward the end the cruise, when everyone has had a chance to imagine owning such lovely things, the whole batch is sold at auction, each piece lubricated, fore and aft, by free champagne. I never really got the art auction thing, but the NYTimes did and published a long article on the slick practices and outright fraud in the onboard art game, and that may have driven a palette knife through the heart of the enterprise. I keep looking under my stateroom bed, however; they must have stashed that stuff somewhere to get it out of the way. “Hey, look, Harry. There’s a Rembrandt under the lifejackets!”
The cruise provides more than entertainment and vulgar commerce, however; there is also on those highly polished decks and in those plushly furnished lounges much matter for philosophical contemplation. It is enough to cite but one example. The place was somewhere in the North Atlantic. The public address system crackled into life. The airwaves are usually the preserve of the Cruise Director, that shameless purveyor of puffery—“Enjoy another great day in the English Channel, folks; the rain should be tapering off in a few days”—and of useless and sometimes frightening information: “Please be careful getting into the tenders, folks. The sea is a little rough here in the Sea of Japan and you don’t want to be swimming in these waters! Just kidding! But seriously, folks, be careful.”
The Cruise Director also serves as translator for the Captain. Cruise ship captains are not cut from the same cloth as airline pilots, with their slow and confident Texas drawl punctuated with reassuring little chuckles that make you think, “Former astronaut. I’m gonna be OK.” The pilot of the sea favors a Serbo-Croatian marbled English with long pauses while, I think, he casts panicked glances at the radar. His daily noontime communique is a useless assemblage of nautical miles covered and still to be covered, speed in knots and the height of the swells, that latter obviously a wild guess. The Cruise Director then translates that information into a cheery account of fair skies and smooth sailing, “but be careful on the deck, folks; it been raining pretty hard and there’s s bit of a wind up.”
But on this particular day it was the Captain, and not with his usual prattle of knots and nautical miles but with a heads up—“Hid oop”—that shortly we would be passing the mid-ocean place where the Titanic went down. Yikes! The frisson that ran through the ship was palpable; even the usually insensate bingo-players in the Great Lounge felt it. Nobody on an ocean liner wants to be reminded that this damn thing, whatever else it may be, was a boat and that boats sink, carrying the passengers, their Turkish carpets, Papuan necklaces and Irish sweaters to a watery grave.
But the frisson, with a quick glance at the life-jacket closet, is only momentary. It is quickly replaced by something more profound, more human. There is a rush out onto the decks. The lame run, the halt scurry and the portly puff themselves to the portside railings—“Elton, are you sure this is port?” “Midge, shut up for a change!”—and gaze at the dark sea. It is the Captain again. “Dragi passagieri, this is the exact place, 1235 nautical miles…” No one is listening. The deck is ablaze with camera flashes and one and all do their best to capture the exact spot on the expressionless face of the sea where the Titanic went down.
The ship moves on and there is a great silence, not out of reverence for the tragedy that had occurred there but out of a dawning realization of the enormous stupidity, and perfect intelligibility, of what had just occurred. They had attempted to take a picture of an idea, of an invisible event. The happy domestic scene that would inevitably follow back in Sun City could already be imagined: “Florence, what the fuck is this? A picture of the ocean? For Chrissakes, were you drinking again in the afternoon?”
These are all mere distractions; the shore excursions are the meat and the potatoes of the cruise experience. You are urged to sign up for these expensive jaunts before embarking, and that on the basis of the sometimes steamy and sometimes creamy prose descriptions in a brochure and the equally mendacious photos that accompany them. Will I really see children playing on the streets of “Tampico Graciosa” (Two hours. Come armed). So the cruiser, still innocently and ignorantly seated in his own living room, makes his choices: “The Craters of Iceland,” “Costa Hibernica”–tourist enterprises have invented as many bogus “Coast” names for dreary stretches of seaside as Arabs have for camels–“Unknown Naples” (“No thanks”), “Walks in the Gardens of Antwerp,” “Phuket at Night” (“Two, please”), “Upland Belgium” (4 hours, some walking; bring rain gear) or “A Day and a Night in Perth” (includes complimentary beer). When the actual day arrives for “The Dream Landscape of Angkor Wat (3 hr. flight) or “Hidden Turkey” (some animal transport; bring nibbles) and you wish you hadn’t signed up for a very expensive stroll through the slums of Bombay (“The Real Mumbai”: There may be some tourist abuse. most of it verbal. Not suitable for children), the groups are assembled, sorted into busses and carted off to the reality of their choice.
Like life itself, the shore excursions are sometimes fun and sometimes not, interesting or boring, worth it or not. A lot depends on the weather and the guide, his or her language skills, information, presentation and group management. It’s fairly rare to hit that combination in toto. Human nature and Original Sin intervene on a regular basis and “Barry Fitzgerald’s Connemara” turns out to be a fruitless trudge in the rain–“Ah,” says the guide for the eighth time, “another soft Irish day”–since the Barry Fitzgerald Museum is closed for repairs, as it has been since 1987. “Well, my good American friends, how about a visit instead to my brother’s pub just down the way?” He didn’t have to tell us: we already knew, with that touristic sixth sense, that its name would be “Going My Way.”
On one of my earliest excursions, I mistakenly thought that the truth was somehow at stake in these presentations, and out of the depths of my naïveté I corrected the guide on a small point: “Excuse me, commendatore”–I was so smooth in those days!–“but Jesus was not Italian on his father’s side. ‘Giuseppe’ is just an Italian translation of Joseph’s Hebrew name.” This well-meant correction was met with an exceedingly threatening scowl from the guide. Had he a pistol in his belt, he would surely have gone for it, but he settled for spitting at my feet–apparently a gesture of extreme contempt in Calabria (“Italy: The Charming South”) and continued, undeterred and defiant, with his description of the miracles performed by Jesus of Palermo. The saddest part was that his hostility was echoed in the baleful glances that my fellow cruisers shot in my direction. They did not want to hear that their guide was telling them falsehoods for their money. “Can’t you just hold your tongue, old man?” the crone next to me whispered loud enough for everyone to hear. I did, and I continue to hold it, no matter what travesties come forth from the mouths of these local rogues with tourist badges. But I know in my heart that Machu Picchu is not the Inca corruption of Macho Pedro, a nineteenth century Peruvian man about town.
I’ve come a long way since then. It’s in part resignation–If you can’t beat ’em, forget about it–and in part my fading hearing which now reduces cruise babble to actual babble, which is much easier to assimilate. And I have in truth seen some marvelous sights on cruises–I particularly recommend the Antarctica and Amazon cruises–and have met some interesting and enjoyable people on board: a noble sportscaster and that knockout he claims is his wife; a real deal Arkansas mailman who also lucked out in the wife department, bigtime; a retired Episcopal bishop; two engaging jolies filles de Perth who put the lie to every Aussie stereotype; a grizzled blond veteran of British music halls who could levitate a lifeboat with her profanities; some very glamorous sommelières from the ends of the earth; and a stateroom steward who is the Picasso of towel sculpture. And more.
But don’t take my word for any of this. Go and take a look for yourself. Just don’t mention my name.