Take Me on a Sea Cruise

What does the word cruise conjure up for you?

(I mean in the sense of sailing on a large ship, not searching for one-night stands or other denotations.)

A cafe on the doomed Titanic

Images of old movies perhaps, with bon vivants sailing in luxury from New York to Southampton, at times huddled under blankets to ward off the salty chill of the North Atlantic? The Titanic brushing that berg on its way to on icy end? Or maybe a modern image appears, of megaships and fun cruises with constant activities, more food than any person should eat in a month, never mind a week, and the  media reports of occasional collisions and mid-sea cripplings, mystery viruses and missing persons, men and women overboard or victims of crime.

For me, cruise means different things, because I’ve experienced cruises at different times in my life, starting with my first when I was just 10. But forty years later one thing remains constant: Approaching a pier and seeing those funnels, or watching the wake roll away from the stern of the ship as it cuts through vast ocean waters, with no land in site, still fills me with awe and a sense of excitement.

A recent Garrison Keiller op-ed piece stirred these thoughts. Keillor can be a tempered, Midwestern Mencken when he wants to be, skewing American foibles and excesses, and I expected something like that before I read the article. But no. Keillor saw what I see on the ships – people seeking to get away from daily drudgery in a way most working-class stiffs couldn’t image 50 years ago. And he did what I always do: find a quiet spot and read. Then read some more. But he also found time to interact with the other passengers, who form an instant if somewhat artificial community merely by the randomness of choosing the same ship for the same week of their lives. He called it a village. And wonderful.

I immediately contrasted Keillor’s take with the one I remember reading years ago in Harper’s by David Foster Wallace. Don’t speak ill of the dead, I know, but that article always soured me to Wallace, despite his obvious talents. It seemed like a predictable cheap blow: Academician/intellectual/aesthete takes pots-shots at what admittedly can be a hokey adventure, one too-often punctuated with excess and predictability and now, more than ever, crass commercialism.

As the Brits on board said, the "Zeh-nith"

[To be somewhat fair, I went back and re-read parts of his piece. Near the beginning, he talks about a sixteen-year-old’s shipboard suicide, and Wallace described his own sense of despair on his cruise, the wave of dread and thoughts of death stirred by sailing on the ocean for the first time. And maybe whatever demons drove him to his suicide rode with him on the Zenith (a ship I’ve cruised on), which he dubbed the Nadir, and colored that experience surely as they did the rest of his life].

You see, I read the Wallace piece knowing all that was dumb about cruising, all the too-easy put-downs the “elite” among us could make, and even the snide comments I had thought about my fellow villagers and the too-cheery staff. But those things don’t matter. What matters is, when I’m on a ship, I have fun. And on my different cruises, I have built some of the best memories of my life.

Ah, the classic, sleek lines of the Michelangelo...

My family first sailed on the long-defunct Italian line, which took sleek vessels designed for transatlantic crossings and put them in the just-emerging Caribbean market. They were named for great artists  – Michelangelo, Raffaelo, Leonardo Da Vinci. At 10, I barely knew these names, and I didn’t care about the men honored or whatever splendor the ships showed. All I knew was, I could eat more pasta than I ever imagined, along with tiny pizzas served in a darkened lounge at 2 am, and my new shipboard friends and I could run the hallways and decks for hours without parental supervision. We were free! That freedom only grew in my teen years, when I would sneak into a doorway to smoke a joint, and relaxed attitudes at sea meant I could order my own beers.

...versus the boxy behemoths of today.

On those first cruises, I met kids of all ages and different backgrounds; some are still friends today. I met Jessica Katzowitz, a skinny, funny girl from the Bronx, and briefly tried to conduct a long-distance relationship when we returned home. That consisted of a few letters and one visit to her high-rise apartment, where she sat on my lap and we kissed while Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same” played on the radio, and I frantically searched for the nipple I knew was somewhere under her shirt. She did not resist my hunting and did not really respond when I finally found it. I wonder if she’s still so skinny.

At dock in Bermuda

As an adult, I hoped to recapture some of the excitement of the childhood cruises, even if no groping resulted. I still have the same wonder when we hit the high seas, though the reading tends to replace running around. One later cruise came just weeks after my surgery for cancer; I vowed to go no matter how limited I was physically. It was a good enough time, colored more by my relationship with my on-again, off-again girlfriend, who became my fiancée, briefly, before it was off again forever.

The next cruise was solo, the recuperative trip after a divorce. I don’t recommend cruising alone, though I did make a shipboard friend, just like in the old days. I remember vividly how we met. I saw her the first morning out, eating breakfast by the pool. At 6 feet tall with short, severe red hair, she was hard to miss. I assumed she and the couple she ate with were traveling together. Just a few hours later, maybe less, I saw her in the bar. Ah, well, morning drinking isn’t that unusual on a cruise; it’s a vacation! Cut loose! But then when I passed the bar in the afternoon and she was still in the same spot – that is not pleasure drinking. I stopped to chat. She was smashed. I offered to help her to her cabin. She was traveling with her mother, who was mortified by her daughter’s condition – or the fact that I had seen it first hand. I later learned the mother was dying of cancer, the cruise was mom and my friend’s last trip together, and daughter was not taking it well, hence the morning libations, repeated often.

For the rest of the cruise, Red and I talked and laughed and drank. We went our own way by day and were inseparable at night. No, no, nothing happened, though post cruise we wrote and visited, just as I had done with my Bronx babe (the only pleasure I, a diehard Red Sox fan, ever got out of that borough…). Nothing ever came of it. But for that week, we gave each other needed companionship. That was a special cruise.

Leaving the pier in NYC

The next one was for my honeymoon, with my current honey. We kicked butt in the trivia contests and read and ended the week feeling the most relaxed we’ve ever been. I could stay up till 1 or 2, doing my share of drinking (in the karaoke lounge, all the bartenders knew my poison), then wake up at 7 feeling refreshed. Must have been the sea air. My father, an old Navy hand, always touted its healing powers, especially when seasickness struck. The motion never bothered me as a kid, not even when we hit a storm that sent 40-foot waves over the bow and furniture sliding from side to side with each pounding roll. Drawers flew out of their dressers, plates refused to stay on tables, passengers – the ones still able to walk – lunged and lurched and tried to grab emergency ropes strung through the hallways. My sister and I just laughed and enjoyed what seemed like an amusement park ride. Today, I would not be so sanguine. And I am much more sensitive to the sea’s agitation. I want to look out and see no white caps, the sea, as Dad used to say, like glass.

We repeated our honeymoon cruise a year later, and one of my childhood dreams came true – the cruise did not end on schedule! We got an extra day on the ship! Strong winds and a tricky strait kept the ship from leaving St. George, Bermuda, for about 12 hours. The delay upset the folks who had flights to catch back in the States, and food began to run a little low, but I was in heaven.

This year's floating village, the Zaandam

Cruising is on my mind not only because of the Keillor piece. In a few months, we’re sailing from Seattle on an Alaska cruise. That trip officially confirms my middle-aged-into-AARP-land status;  the demographics for those cruises tend to be much older than for Caribbean cruises, the pace a tad slower. Who cares? The scenery should be spectacular, we will have a taste of the Alaska adventure we hoped for and then scotched when the Crisis began, and it’s been six years since the last one. I’m ready.

Ready for the instant village, despite the inevitable irritants some of the residents will provide. Ready for the hassles with food, given our vegan status (probably worse will be the comments from our tablemates, which I know we will endure graciously, no matter how old they get). Wallace said the atmosphere on his ship was “nearly insanity-producing”; again probably as much a reflection of his internal state as the cruise itself. A cruise is what you make of it. Don’t expect perfect food, top-notch entertainment, scintillating conversation from others aboard. Don’t take things, or yourself too seriously. Have fun, and maybe build some memories.

I can’t wait.

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~ by mburgan on January 10, 2010.

3 Responses to “Take Me on a Sea Cruise”

  1. ahh the memories…I’m sure mine are quite different than yours…afterall how much trouble could they get into on a ship…

  2. Yeah, I know yours are a lot different from mine…Wish I had some of the pics here so I could have included them.

  3. There is a website for raffaello and Michelangelo… Lots of pics (just not us) I can at some point scan in some pics

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