(With thanks to David Foster Wallace's: 'Shipping Out')
HOW WE ENDED UP ON A 28 DAY CRUISE
The vagueries of how we end up on a Holland America 28 day Mediterranean cruise aboard the MS Eurodam have to do with malaria season in India, the places our parents want to visit in July and finally – and most importantly – that booking three weeks before departure means an 82% reduction in cost. The sticker price for this month of forced feeding and frenetic port visits is only slightly more than our monthly budget for the rest of the trip as opposed to the $20,000 plus we would be spending if we paid full price.
The cruise departs Barcelona and completes its journey in Venice. Along the way we will visit southern Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and Greece. Many of the destinations will be ‘visited’ in the lightest sense of the word; spending an afternoon in Toulon hardly seems like experiencing France, but beggars can’t be choosers and we’re happy to be visiting so much of Europe at all.
Our first day on the cruise is almost 7 months since we started traveling and our 28 days on the Eurodam will be the longest our stuff has been unpacked in one place the entire year. Even at our workaway in Tuscany in June we had to pack up our stuff on a weekly basis for cooking classes as well as trips to Lucca and Florence that we took of our own accord.
So even if we weren’t going to have air conditioning while we add six new countries to our list, the medicine cabinet in our stateroom bathroom would still be pretty exciting.
We walk from the metro in Barcelona over a massive two lane bell-curve of a highway that arcs over the harbor. We are the only people walking. There are four ships in harbor today, loading and unloading over 8000 people. Walking with our back packs we pass the taxis trapped in traffic, the guest’s faces pressed to the window, the seats beside them heaped with luggage that has overflowed the trunk. The Eurodam’s black and white paint seems dignified but old fashioned next to Royal Carribean’s electric blue, like a tailored but out of date tuxedo.
The exterior of our terminal is surprisingly uncrowded. I’ve mentally prepped myself for several hours of waiting in line in a hot, salt smelling warehouse surrounded by frenzied septugenarians and slowly combusting families with young children, but the lines move quickly and the terminal is air conditioned.
I’m really excited to see the inside of the ship, but the truth is we’ve already seen it.
We’ve seen pictures of our state room. We’ve taken a 360’ virtual tour. We’ve read numerous reviews of this itinerary and of our exact room from passengers traveling on the exact same dates over the last several years of the ship’s life. Travel in the information age is re-experiencing what you’ve already virtually absorbed. Taking your iteration of the same photo you saw on Instagram.
We’ve seen videos of ship’s entertainment and watched glossy smiling internationally ambiguous people of a successful looking age work out in the fitness center, show astonishment at food being set in front of them, express joyful exhilaration at falling back into a bed in a robe and engage in the kind of rolling group laughter on the back sea-deck that I’ve only experienced on hallucinogens.
In the cruise terminal, people are smiling and excited, eager to start. You can’t deny that the size of this experience, the stature of the ship, the length of the journey, the cost everyone has paid to be here, it inculcates a positive anticipation that the ship may actually contain the experiences the marketing suggests.
The ship is big, though not in the way that I typically experience big things. It’s nothing like an empty canyon or stadium whose space pushes down on you and lets you feel just how much less important your opinions or feelings are than you thought. It doesn’t remind me that I’m going to die through its sheer scale and enduring material composition. This is partially because whenever I see the ship from the outside, it is still. It appears, therefore, more like a building. This feeling is reinforced on the interior because of the compartmentalization that structures it. The neatly sealed spaces that keep the ship safely afloat also make it feel smaller than it must appear from St. Mark’s Square as it cruises up the Grand Canal, it’s smoke stack shadowing over the clock tower.
On a daily basis the ship is just a progression of rooms. Each one is visually and logistically digestible. You can see each proceeding space all at once. You know exactly what it’s for. This is a piano bar, a meeting room, a daycare center, a jewelry shop. Passing through them, you can recognize you’ve walked a certain distance but mentally you’ve only moved three spots: through the dining room, past the pool into the spa.
Not really experiencing the scale of the ship on a daily basis is even stranger because the compartmentalization of the space extends to something much larger and more frightening that composes and surrounds every reason for and logistic of being here: the ocean.
It plays like a movie in the background of every room. It’s so picturesque and consistent that in an absurd and tragically short period of time it becomes boring. It collapses from force of nature to design accent, like “Wow, the ocean really makes my dinner more atmospheric.” Its just always there and eventually you ignore it and then passing a spectacular sunset one night you have to kind of reach up and mentally slap yourself across the face and say: “Holy shit. I keep forgetting to look at this.”
You’d think the view from the open decks that ring the ship would repel any boredom with the unbelievable majesty of nature eye-fucking you from every angle, but even now on the back deck - which provides the most panoramic view of the sky and sea - it feels more like I am on the cruise ship than on the ocean or the earth. No matter how gorgeous the coast line of Sicily is or how classically Greek Mount Etna (which is Italian, but it feels Greek to me looking at it) looks smoking as the sun sets in this massive blood red mist over the horizon, most of the sensory experience available here is the ship, not the ocean it sits on or the earth that cups it.
There’s music (god help me, there’s always music back here), there’s drinks and a pool and two whirlpools which may or may not be different in some functional way. I can see kids playing basketball up on the athletics deck. An Indonesian women in a tasteful maroon dress whose color could best be described as easy to keep clean is offering the happy hour special on a bucket of beers. There are people smoking and talking and some are sleeping in the sun and already beet-lobster-firetruck red. The pizza place behind the pool hands out vibrating pagers that keep triggering people in a 10 foot area around them to pick up their phones even though no one's phones work in the middle of the Mediterranean.
So, yeah, it’s pretty hard to pay attention to the majesty or grandeur of these vistas even before you get sun-burned, dehydrated, drunk and overfull which are all things you did to yourself but HAL sure helped.
Even when everyone is in port in the middle of the day and the wind picks up so the muzak is blotted out and you stand at the back deck railing and look out over the water, even then, the size of the ship makes an intimate feeling of connection with your surroundings difficult: it’s 100 feet to the water. The details and sounds and smells that tell you that you are experiencing a physical medium are lost. Only the visual remains. You are so far from it that it can’t help but just feel like a picture postcard and you’ve seen and owned and mailed a ton of those and just how much does tonight’s frozen blended margarita cost again?
Our itinerary has a high proportion of ‘port days’ versus ‘at-sea days.’ Cruisers we meet often have a strong preference for one versus the other. Some people specifically choose cruises with long sea crossings so they can focus on the on-board activities.
We’ve spent months now in constant movement. We’re used to always being 48 or 72 hours from throwing everything back in our bags and schlepping to a train station or bus depot or airport, so the port days are a kind of miracle for us. While we gently rock in our beds the ship brings each new place to us and when we awake the world out the door has changed like an elevator moving between floors. Most days we leave the ship to explore the city we are docked in between 8 or 9a and return at 4 or 5p. This convenient magic has a cost, of course. The timing of the daily port visits ensure it's the hottest time of day and least interesting lighting for photos. The overall calendar of the port visits is equally incapable of taking into account holidays (like for instance that most of Europe is closed in August) or Sundays when considering where to drop you off. It’s a good analogue for the ship’s general presence, affording unique opportunities with specific and frustrating limitations.
At-sea days generally carry a higher degree of anticipation and excitement than port days for most of the cruisers. It’s certainly an excuse to indulge in whatever vice the ship affords you without abandon. (My attempts to photo document an entire at-sea day is scuttled when I realize it consists of doing the cross word, reading books and eating six meals.)
Each evening you receive the following day’s “On Location” a printed schedule laying out the activities, meal times and general announcements. The hollow center of the day that usually contains time in port is filled on at-sea days with a double track schedule that creates an illusion of scarcity by forcing you to choose between at least two activities at each time slot over the course of the day.
The daily activities generally follow a few rules:
· Anything informational will pitch itself as helpful to you and then do just enough of that that you can’t call bullshit before beginning to sell something. The most glaring example being each day’s “Port Information” session which is the equivalent of reading the first paragraph of the port city’s Wikipedia page aloud and then trying to sell Holland America (henceforth referred to as HAL) excursions.
· Any activity with no way to sell something or break something (like playing Bridge) will be scheduled but not attended or managed in any way by crew. Attendees will be expected to self-organize. No rewards or incentives will be offered for participation in these events.
· All excuses to get drunk in the middle of the day will be marketed as educational events for whatever you’ll be drinking.
The schedule and frequency of non-food activities pushes you towards an extremely low tolerance for boredom or dis-satisfaction. Everything is free so you have no buy-in to stick out a bad show or movie or game. There is always at least one other organized activity happening at the same time so as soon as any feeling of minor dissatisfaction occurs, you can immediately imagine that things are better somewhere else (even though they never are).
In addition to scheduled activities there are a number of spaces on board dedicated to recurring programs or service offerings.
Black Label Portraits: This is essentially a socialist economic system turned portrait studio. The photographers stand by when you board or disembark the ship each day, when you attend the gala dinners and even prowl the back deck during sail-away. They also offer obligation free portrait sessions every night of the cruise. All photos taken are printed and hung in a conspicuous spot near the main dining room in order to tempt people into buying. I can only assume that the outrageous prices for their photo packages are a necessary part of subsidizing the hundreds of hours of photography and thousands of printed photos that will not be bought. Just the sheer amount of paper and ink they are wasting begins to gross me out after a while and I take alternate routes to dinner.
Merabella Luxury Shops: Retail workers on board actually live steps from the windowless shop they work in for months. They sell, they eat, they sleep. You can see them up on the Lido deck, eating lunch in comfort-heels and large accent jewelry.
Merabella has a large rotating selection of watches which I never successfully browse because I only look long enough for someone to address me or start moving in my direction before I begin jogging down the hallway yelling back about being late for today’s Ping Pong Tournament. I am a pushover in sales situations and can’t afford to walk out of here with three new Citizen Eco-Drives.
Shopping here isn’t about what you get, it’s how you spend your time and shopping is a process some guests are dragging out because they like it. This is for me the equivalent of doing just a little bit of your taxes at a time so you can really savor the process. The store space eventually takes on the psychic qualities of a gladiator arena: imprisoned retail workers actively trying to close sales with cruise guests intent on dragging out the shopping process as long as possible. It creates a kind of caginess that inspires more dogged and aggressive entreaties over the course of the cruise. It makes the hair on the back of my neck stick up and I walk faster or put in headphones when passing through the shops.
Culinary Arts Center presented by Food and Wine Magazine: (which is its formal repeated title as in: “Meet me at the Culinary Arts Center presented by Food and Wine Magazine,” or “The medical team responded to a severe allergic reaction at the Culinary Arts Center presented by Food and Wine Magazine.”)
The brochure states that it: “…offers a groundbreaking experience that combines a love of food and wine with unique and engaging programs.” In fact, this means that chefs from the extra-cost restaurants come and cook dishes from their menus in an attempt to convince people to dine. Daily life on board is like watching TV: constantly being interrupted by commercial breaks.
We attend a cooking demonstration from the ship’s Italian chef who is Indonesian. He emphasizes his flexibility in ingredients as he makes a series of pasta dishes. “We can make it without butter, we can substitute vegetable oil, peanut oil, anything you want.” Having just spent almost two months in Italy the idea that you could sub peanut oil for olive oil or use cheddar instead of parmesean incites Jess to rage. She crumples up the recipe cards they’ve handed out and refuses to consider eating pasta on-board the entire rest of the trip.
The HAL Mainstage, BB King All Stars, Lincoln Center Stage, etc: There are numerous venues for live entertainment all labelled with brands that HAL has paid to feature in an attempt to attract guests on board. The only unbranded (or HAL branded) entertainment is the Main Stage theater’s alternating a set of musical variety shows starring a contracted cast of bronzed 20-somethings and a few nights with visiting one-off performers like magicians and comedians.
There’s the “Lincoln Center Stage,” an excellent 5-piece string quartet that performs primarily for people waiting for a table in the main dining room. We all lean on the wall in the corridor holding our restaurant pagers while they pace their way through “Rhapsody in Blue” (or it's equivalent) each night.
The BB King All Stars have a dedicated theater in the center of the ship and the makeup of the audience vs. the band reproduces the same racial dynamic evident in every other part of the ship: brown people working, white people watching.
The lounge next to the casino has a dueling piano bar with three shows a night. We make friends with one of the dueling piano players. His real job is to maintain mental endurance capable of playing "Piano Man" five times a night and staying excited about it.
The only thing I will say about the on-board entertainment in the form of live music is that I thank god I’ve never been tasked with trying to create a calendar of entertainment that satisfies every single age group and nationality every night for weeks at a time.
Art is typically good because it has a particular message or spirit that connects it with an audience. Art that by design has to appeal to everyone cannot help but fail to appeal strongly to anyone. The challenge of planning such a calendar of performance combined with actually having to hire and manage a group of actors, singers and musicians who then have to live together sounds hard enough. Now imagine repeating the same shows over and over for months at a time for audiences who have as much investment in seeing said shows as they do which type of brownie they are going to get from the dessert bar. It's a Heruculean task that I have nothing but the utmost respect for even attempting. Of those I met and spent time with, they hire conscientious, hard-working and talented performers who produce shows of middling quality that we frequently left in the middle of despite how cruel it seemed to do so. I rationalized this by the idea that if they are on the ship for this many months then much worse audiences than me have been in these seats. I could neither summon the enthusiasm to put on a display of false enjoyment or sit through a lot of the shows. So I left. At least four times.
The Promenade: My favorite place on the ship is the only one that denies the aesthetic of palatable space and décor that characterizes the ship: the Promenade. Nothing is for sale here because there’s no way to make money off the view. It also happens to most match my image of cruises from the movie “Titanic” which it takes me several days to realize is my only cultural reference for this experience and explains (though it doesn’t dispel) my constant background anxiety that a disaster of some kind is imminent.
Functionally the Promenade has to be present because of the possibility of needing to abandon ship. It runs the length of the vessel on level 3 just 20 or 30 feet off the water. It has wood flooring that gets sprayed down sometime during the day and looks faded and well used when its dry. There are equally faded and super comfortable lounge chairs that run the length of the ship and you can totally just go down there and sleep in them anytime of day. The chairs sit about 10 feet back from the railings so you can see and smell the sea and still have a parade (promenade) of passing cruise guests to watch as they walk by. You can really stare at them and its not obvious because they are passing between you and the sea. The best time to sit down there is when we pull out of port at the end of the day so you can wear sunglasses against the setting sun which makes visually inspecting everyone’s clothes and hygiene and faces super easy.
There are a couple of people who pull their chair over into the promenade walking area directly next to the railings to get sun during this time of day and everyone has to walk around them. They are the only ones in bathing suits and they clearly don’t get what’s so great about the Promenade which is basically being quiet and watching people and the sea. If you want to tan, just go up to the Sea View pool or the mid deck pool or any of the hundred never used chairs on the top of the ship. Why would you come down here to get partial sun through the slats of the railings while people literally walk around you for an hour? It’s usually middle aged clinging-to-glamour-of-youth European women with large elaborate hats and tasteful black swimsuits that have some gold or silver metal part that I wonder if you disconnect before you wash it.
Aside from the people watching, the other reason the Promenade is so great is you can actually see more of the functional parts of the ship (as well as the ship’s complete length) and in doing so you are invited to acknowledge both what an incredible piece of engineering this ship is and how cool and exciting it is to be doing what we are doing: skimming across the top of this massive, cold, dark and endless depth.
You feel this way because the Promenade’s functional purpose is to be the place we can gather if we evacuate the ship. As such it has big wooden lockers of life preservers, giant white canisters with inflatable rafts in them and – hanging directly above the walkway in such a way that they rock ever so slightly and menacingly in rough seas – life boats. These are full size motor driven boats 2/3 the size of a shipping container. They are massive and hang low enough over the promenade that you can reach up and touch them as you walk by. They are so functional that we use these to get into port when we get somewhere too small to have a full size cruise terminal. They crane the boats off the ship and run them as shuttles into the harbor. They’re full enclosed and feature what - combined with the ones in each of our cabins and the lockers on the Promenade – can only be called a surfeit of life jackets. In the life boats they are encased in a netting above the seats like balloons set to drop at New Year's. Its worth noting that the sides of all these life boats have loops of rope hanging around their exterior base which cracks a bit the image of all of us orderly finding our seats in our appointed life boats during an evacuation. Clearly in a real emergency some boats are going to be so full we need a way to tether people to the side in the water. The orientation booklet we were given when we got on notes that they can be lowered even when the ship is leaning which is a frightening image I hadn’t considered; if the ship is listing at a 45’ angle, how do you even crawl up the walls to get to Promenade for evacuation in the first place?
When the life boats are craned back on after being used for harbor transfer they drain water out onto the walkway and the lounge chairs which further reinforces the feeling that this space is primarily intended to be functional and therefore is unique on the ship where so much effort is expended (and usually successfully) to make the experience we are having and the work that goes into creating it completely separate.
The Promenade lets you feel the scale of the ship and it puts you in a space to feel a little danger because you can’t help but think about all the escape equipment around you. It’s also consistently and mercifully quiet with a sharply lower number of polite Indonesian ladies offering to sell you drinks. At sail-away as the hedonists drink and smoke up by the pool to the buzzing muzak, you can find all the Bridge-playing introverts down here sitting reading their books in little silent cells.
The Promenade makes experiencing some of the awe the sea should naturally provide possible. Unlike up top, you get the smell and sound of the water with minimal distraction. As you approach the railing and peer over the side the larger waves coming off the boat’s wake break apart and the real speed that the ship moves at becomes frighteningly clear. At night the light from the deck floods out over the wake, exposing the white water of the screw turning and you can watch the waves roll out into flat endless black. We’re moving faster than I can run and staring down at the water activates the same part of my brain that considers jumping off subway platforms and rooftops. I can imagine the tremendous speed at which this massive loud bright thing would plow past me and the complete black silence it would leave in its wake, alone at the junction of sea and sky, endless and dark. Each single spot we pass seems to pass backwards and forward through time. Thousands of years of night there was no light from passing ships. The quiet water watching as civilizations and governments built up and fell down. Greeks and Phoenicians. Roman galleys and Nazis U-Boats. Refugees boats and yachts, container ships and fishing boats passing through this single anonymous spot.
It’s just black and you can really feel the vastness of the ocean and the sky and the true size of this massive but tiny ship. You grasp – at the corners of your conscious thought – that we’re skipping along this living vat of ink like a satellite in upper orbit, silent and still, with no concept of what lies beneath.
Our cabin is the warm center of our life on board and if I had to pick just one place to spend an entire day, it would be here. Cabins define differences between the wealth (and typically the age) of the cruisers on-board. It’s a space that everyone on board shares by virtue of design but that practically no one ever shares in a physical sense.
Jess and I have booked the lowest class of stateroom: an interior - no windows, no balcony. We are fortunate to be located at the rear mid-level of the ship on a blessedly quiet hallway.
Our room is a rectangle with one of the narrow sides blocked out for closets and the bathroom. There are three good closets, a table and chair, a dresser/counter with large mirror and a decently sized LCD TV. The furniture is heavily weighted or bolted to the wall to ensure your safety in rough seas.
The bed is two twins seamlessly combined to a queen with four excellent pillows and a really soft and comfortable duvet. The TV has dozens of on-demand movies, documentaries and TV shows. By the bed are tiny swivel LED lights that get left on in the dark and atmospherically pointed toward the ceiling each time our room is made up and that –due to their tight focus and ease of directing - are pretty fantastic for letting one person stay up reading while the other goes to sleep. Both sides of the bed have controls for all the lights in the room. When all the lights are extinguished the room is completely can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face black which amplifies any pitch and roll the boat is experiencing when you go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
On the dresser is a bowl refilled with fresh fruit of your choice, something we are really excited about the first few days but that eventually is only refilled once the fruit has rotted enough for us to throw it away as our diet shifts from primarily fresh fruits and vegetables to whipped cheeses, cased meats and ice cream. There is also an ice bucket that we discover 14 days in has been being filled every single day, melting to water, then getting dumped out and replaced.
The bathroom is bright and white with a raised floor and a lip under the door that requires stepping up to enter giving the whole room the feeling of a clean new piece of Tupperware. The door is solid and soundproof and closes with a satisfying click. The toilet emerges directly from the wall and is too high to plant your feet flat on the ground while seated, even for my 6’1’’ frame. As the diet on board does not lend itself to regularity, I sometimes pull over the trash can to prop up my feet while attempting to extricate last night’s Beef Wellington with scalloped potatoes. A large mirror covers one side of the room and helpful chrome shelves line one of the walls at the mirror’s edge. The lighting is excellent and Jess spends time plucking suddenly apparent grey hairs.
The shower has enough space for 1 ½ normal sized persons and - in what I consider a highly under-marketed feature of the cruise - a truly limitless supply of precisely controllable hot water. The towels have that nice soft middle age where the waxiness of a new towel has washed away but they haven’t yet become stiff with bleaching like you find in roadside motels. The closet includes two waffle knit robes. I’m not exaggerating when I say that these are the single most comfortable robes I have ever worn. I have intense admiration for and jealousy toward the elderly Italian woman who wears just her robe to breakfast on multiple occasions in clear violation of implicit social and explicit ship protocol.
There’s a speaker placed in the bed’s headboard directly at ear level for emergency announcements and alarms. It is also used during crew safety drills and medical emergencies even when they are isolated to a single part of the ship. The orientation manual describes the difference between the different alarms: “Long Blast, repeated three times.” or “One long blast for 15 seconds or longer” and “Seven short tones followed by one long tone.” Presumably the tones are intended to bridge the language gap so that all guests can grasp an emergency situation without waiting for it to be translated into Spanish, French, German and Italian.
In reality, drills are so frequent you eventually start to ignore all the alarms and since you never hear the alarms back-to-back the ones that apply to you or apply to the crew are totally indistinguishable. Hopefully the ship has some other trick up it's sleeve to knock us out of our obliviousness in the event of an actual emergency like flashing lights or stopping room service.
Most frightening when considering emergencies is fire. It seems counter-intuitive at first that an object dwarfed by the water around it could be done in by flame. Of course the real concern isn’t if the boat would survive a fire, it’s whether you would. Considering this eventuality, our rooms lack of a balcony becomes more worrisome. We are essentially in a steel compartment with minimal ventilation, a heavy concentration of flammable objects and only one exit. I take to unplugging all our chargers at night and opening the door to peer both directions down the corridor each time an alarm sounds on the bed speaker.
Each section of corridor is the domain of an omni-present set of stateroom attendants who make beds, deliver towels and fruit and reset the rooms each time we are out. They wipe down our mirrors and remove room service trays, they replace our toiletries and reorganize our bathrooms and bedside books. They make elaborate towel animals and leave chocolates on our pillows. They would prefer this happen twice a day: once in the morning (assumedly while we are in port) and once before bed (assumedly while we are at dinner).
I say ‘they prefer’ because of the sensation of personal guilt I experience when our attendants Amil and Panda are unable to get into the room for their twice daily rituals. They knock on the door and appear genuinely apologetic for disturbing us while at the same time seriously concerned for our well being (in a way similar to knowing there was a small gas leak) because the room has not been cleaned in over 8 hours.
Our primary source of entertainment on the ship is eating, but constant costless availability makes its abundance increasingly unsatisfying as time passes. Like the live stage entertainment on the ship it’s an over abundance on first look that reveals itself to be composed of the same remixed moving parts as the cruise passes.
There is the “Rembrandt Dining Room,” the “Lido Deck” buffet-cafeteria, the “New York Times Explorations Café” coffee shop, the “Dive In” burger and hot dog stand next to the family pool, “New York Pizza” next to the rear sea-deck pool and three specialty restaurants with extra cost that focus on Italian (“Canaletto”), Asian (“Tamarind”) and steaks (“Pinnacle Grill”). Each day that we leave a port there’s a food stand set up on the back deck of ingredients and traditional foods from the regional cuisine of the city we are visiting. And of course there is in-room dining available 24 hours a day.
There is a base level of complacency and good humor that being over-full inevitably provides. It’s also the case that as many basketball courts and swimming pools and piano bars and slot machines the ship has, after a week those things have pretty much exhausted any novelty they might have once possessed. A kitchen on the other hand can take the same basic inputs and create an experience of variety that endures.
Eventually though, food as entertainment becomes a source of stress: we spend our days in cycles of over-indulgence, exhaustion and shame. The issue isn’t what’s provided, it’s what we are capable of doing in response to it. This is what we’ve asked for, what civilization has sought for generations: complete security in the form of endless and constantly available food. But Jess and I aren’t equipped to handle it psychologically.
It’s not simply that the food slowly reveals itself to be clever re-arrangements of the same ingredients - last nights canapé is today’s tapas salad – that contributes to my declining satisfaction with the food over the course of the cruise, its also the simple amount of food that I’ve ingested. It’s been three weeks since I actually felt genuinely hungry.
This points to one of the most difficult things about personal satisfaction when it comes to experiencing something like a cruise and a tremendous psycho-emotional problem for any cruise line that wants to gain repeat customers: the very thing we want – to be happy and full, digestively, spiritually – when provided to us consistently, eventually provokes the opposite reaction.
The more options we have the less satisfying any of them are.
It would be nice to feel like our dinners got later and later over the course of the cruise because we were adapting to a European schedule. In fact, dinner got later and later because it was the only way to squeeze another meal into the day.
CAPTAIN AND CRUISE DIRECTOR
The most consistent face of HAL onboard is in fact not a face, but a voice. Each morning at 8a you can hear through your cabin door the muffled voice of the Cruise Director Simon on the corridor’s PA system giving his daily announcements. He reminds us where we are, when we can get off the boat, when we need to get back on and any relevant information about what’s happening on board, from special events to crew drills. His delivery is chipper and consistent to the point of exact phrasing. It would be easy to imagine a machine constructing each day’s announcements from the previous ones.
Simon is a just short of middle age Brit with joy-de-vivre rotundity that hasn’t progressed to slovenliness, and a healthy but trim beard. He is a constant presence in the life of guests through his daily announcements, hosting and introducing each evening’s shows/performers/games and his daily trivia in the forward observation deck. As Cruise Director, Simon is also the most conspicuous crew member whose sole role is to ensure guests are enjoying themselves. His celebrity makes him a target for the people who have apparently come on this cruise to have a bad time; those who find urgency and satisfaction only when they’re looking for what’s wrong.
Cruises are ideal for these type of people because 1) every aspect of their daily experience is being structured by an external entity who can be criticized and 2) the ship and cruise experience has already sold itself as devoted (and capable) of pleasing them such that no matter how much they complain, their negativity cannot be dismissed as a matter of perspective or character (which is what it is).
Simon’s strategy is publically diminishing the validity of these complaints while privately addressing them. Like other talented veteran customer service workers he seems to recognize that solely attempting to solve problems for these people is a fool’s errand since what they are seeking isn’t a practical solution but an emotional payoff in the form of acknowledgment, validation or attention.
Here’s how this looks in practice:
Daily trivia is being held in the Crow’s Nest, a forward observation deck loungey area with armchairs, game and cocktail tables and a full ship’s width of forward-facing windows.
Answer sheets are out with golf pencils and people form their own teams as they see fit. Adele is a mid 60’s Canadian. She and her husband are frequent cruisers, but are never together for activities on board. Adele isn’t a ‘complainer,’ she just has a lot of cruising experience and is a ‘straight shooter.’ She has come to trivia alone and refuses to join a team.
(Neither Adele’s name or nationality has been changed to protect her identity)
Round One: Adele complains that there’s no eraser on her pencil. Simon tells her to cross things out.
Simon: 1, Adele: 0
Round Two: Adele complains that a nearby group composed of a large family traveling together is too large to be a team. Simon points out that several members of the family are pre-verbal. Adele says she’s not trying to be difficult, but these are the rules SIMON has set. Simon agrees and says he is now announcing new rules under his power as Cruise Director.
Simon: 2, Adele: 0
Round Three: Simon completes the last question and Adele bursts out in exasperation that if he is always going to ask impossible questions she probably should just stop coming to trivia at all. Simon asks the room if any of us would have a problem with that. The room is silent.
Simon: 3, Adele: 0
The very thing that makes Simon the target of these complainers is also his greatest strength in dealing with them: his celebrity. Searching for emotional acknowledgement, they target the person who has the most attention directed at them, but that attention is a spotlight that Simon turns back onto the complainer’s gripes demonstrating their petty and absurd nature. He keeps things light and refuses to imbue complaints with validity while forcing the person to consider their problem from other’s perspectives. As the room increasingly turns against the person with the problem their intractability softens even as the attention that Simon directs at them creates something close to the acknowledgment and notice they are seeking. He follows these sessions of public scrutiny with a ruthless personal attention to creating emotional acknowledgement for that person one on one. Adele may have been the butt of the joke today but receives a personal card inviting her to drinks with the officers that afternoon and returns the following day as his co-host for trivia. He mocks her, invalidates her complaints and somehow ends up with her on his side. It’s remarkable to watch.
This is not to say that Simon is fully emotionally available to guests. He deals with so many of these people he seems to have cordoned off a part of his brain to mechanically isolate and solve the emotional needs presented to him. He addresses the issue, but doesn’t dwell or allow the guest to dwell on the suffering; he is like a parent distracting a child throwing a tantrum. Simon takes the promise of incredible service and turns it on its head. Where lower ranking members of the crew feel pressure to satisfy every request no matter how absurd, Simon will immediately remind people they are on a massive floating city devoted to catering to their every whim so what do they really have to be upset about anyway?
The opposite polar star of the cruise experience is Captain Werner Timmers whose afternoon pre-sail-away announcements are dense and meandering talks that intersperse his personal biography, arcane naval history and alarmingly vague discussions – as though he doesn’t really understand himself - of how the boat will be proceeding to its next port.
We are invited to a small private dinner with the Captain and a sub-set of corpulent retired small business owners and their wives who are paying for top-end suites. The captain arrives for our cocktail hour in an all white dress-uniform-tuxedo thing with a full watch chain. It looks impressively naval and you have to remind yourself that it is a "dress uniform" in the most explicit sense of the word. It accords power and status in this context but is functionally and symbolically no different than a security guard uniform: borrowing conventions from legitimate state authority to convey status in a commercial environment. That’s not how it feels of course. In person it conveys an authority of such strength that we all rise when he enters the room and he greets us one by one in clockwise order like a monarch.
As his lengthy port announcements have indicated, Captain Timmers seems mildly out of touch in normal conversation but ridiculously well informed on anything related to naval history, the ship or its engineering. It’s a reassuring character for someone perceived to be responsible for a ship carrying almost 3000 people. He’s dependable, calm and hopelessly interested in everything related to his job. In conversation, he speaks and responds slowly, but is consistently dryly funny and seems to use his status and his ponderous nature to make fun of people without their knowing it. He reminds me most of the blind Samurai Zatoichi; pretending to be witless and febrile while possessed of enormous competence. Seated with wealthy and entitled people, he retains an almost bizarrely casual conversation with virtually no mention of his role onboard.
The effect is quite disarming. The contrast between his formal appearance and his manner creates a space that seems to inspire people to project their own personalities with more force; they fill the silence with the voices in their own heads. Similarly to Simon, it seems like a practiced and effective way to deal with the various status and power related games his position is often faced with. Either he doesn’t know how to play the game, refuses to play or really doesn’t know that any game is being played at all.
Simon and Captain Timmers are seldom together given the contrasting nature of their respective responsibilities but once each cruise you can watch them tag-team a room full of cruisers at the Captain’s Q&A session.
It’s in the main theater on the ship and attendance is high. Simon begins as he often does: by greeting and mocking each national group in turn. The strategy of accessing the semi-fascist nationalism boiling underneath the cruise’s international makeup is a familiar trope to raise the energy level in the room. Aussies are drunks, Canadians are polite, Brits are whiny. Italians are passionate, French snooty. There aren’t quite enough Americans on-board to justify a time slot in his address.
Applause greets the Captain who brings the same apparent befuddlement and meandering to his “How to Drive the Ship” power point presentation that he does to his announcements. He digresses into asides about his dog’s birthday or his wife asking about redoing the kitchen, while detailing the 20 or so levers, sensors and switches that direct the more than 80,000 tons of ship we are sitting in. He repeatedly can’t get the slide remote to work and has Simon come up to try to fix it. His manner of explanation seems specific but overwhelmingly casual, the way a teenager would explain a motorbike you were renting on your holiday. “This handle is for moving sideways, so you push it and go, you know, the ship go left or right wherever you want.”
A tremor of anticipation flickers through the crowd as they begin the Q&A. Simon and an assistant run mics to people in the crowd while Timmers sits center stage in an armchair, like a king holding court.
One of the things to like and dislike about the advanced age of so many of the cruise’s guests is the extent to which later life seems to amplify and calcitrate approaches to formal situations like this. These people are old and ruthlessly advance their own personal agendas, as though unwilling to waste time being socially polite when they have so little time left. The questions seem less requests for information as much as confessions of character. Adele is there subverting the format by providing a list of complaints about the cruise and then flourishing her question at the end: “Why haven’t those things been fixed?” A gracefully aged slim woman in the kind of coiffed casual cruise wear that pretends to not have taken 40 minutes to iron is concerned about our legacy on the planet and seems to be projecting her own guilt about cruising onto the environmental practices of the ship. There is a brief moment of uniform confusion as a hang-dog eared man with coke bottle glasses uses his question slot to set-up a knock-knock joke for the Captain. He keeps his hand up throughout the rest of the session, but is not called on again. A trim, tucked in elderly man with a boot-camp hair-cut interrogates the captain on the engines being two stroke or four stroke. His tone suggests suspicion that the Captain is avoiding the question and the whole thing comes off as a retired engineer hopelessly outclassed in a nautical engineering know-how contest. Captain Timmers wins by both knowing more and being completely unemotional about the outcome.
Watching Simon and Werner together displays such powerful synergy, it seems engineered. The Captain’s quiet and understated competence and Simon’s high strung rapid paced humor complement one another. They seem not only good at their functional jobs but deeply skilled at navigating the social ecosystem that characterizes life on board.
Cruising is not cool. At least not among my cohort of liberal arts educated urban 30 somethings. It’s travel as consumerism. It’s the “Total Recall” of travel: you pay to collect experiences without earning them. You are delivered and disgorged onto picturesque vistas and towns too small to handle the crushing number and heft of the passengers. You’ve been to Santorini or Rome but you haven’t really. You can check it off the list in a way that prioritizes the list and neglects what the list is supposed to provide you: unedited experiences of difference from everyday life. Cruisers are cowardly WALL-E-ites surveying foreign lands from a comfy chair with a built in toilet and everyone would be better off if they just stayed home.
Many of our readers and friends were disappointed or upset that we were taking a cruise. The overall message was that cruising isn’t ‘authentic’ travel.
There’s an unstated prejudice at work when people denigrate other’s people’s travel and attempt to rank experience on some self-congratulatory scale of authenticity. Jess and I are particularly sensitive to this division as we ride the crest between the two poles: mid-career, pre-family, homeless and jobless but by choice. We encounter the two irritating members of both groups: young budget backpackers contemptuous of comfort and ornery retirees drastically upset by minor revisions to their expectations.
What’s really happening when we delve into these issues about what kind of travel is authentic or valid is a big socially and culturally biased dick-swinging contest about who gets to claim a genuine relation to a place. In terms of social capital and emotional resonance, it’s being able to claim to understand or connect with a place and to validate or negate other people’s claims to the same. It’s an identity contest.
The biggest difference I’ve noticed for cruisers is that they generally do not concern themselves with what’s ‘authentic.’
If you tell a cruiser you have been to a place, then you have. They aren’t probing to find out what you did, what you spent and how long you were there before validating the idea that you experienced such a place. They seldom provide recommendations about how to see the “ REAL Mallorca” (for example).
Instead, they are more likely to ask about who you went with. This is perhaps what separates cruisers from backpackers: a focus on relationship instead of experience. Cruisers as a whole are significantly less atomized than the people we meet at our hostels. There are entire extended families – four generations – gathered around tables on the Lido deck. The places we are going are less about history or culture and more about who they are experiencing them with. Jess says repeatedly that the cruise ship is like returning to college dorm life. It’s a big sequestered group of people with broadly aligned preferences undergoing daily experiences of variety before returning to a controlled environment for recuperation. It’s travel as a community experience as opposed to travel as a way to become or feel exceptional or more free of your at-home imposed communal identity.
My initial experience of the crew is that they are either exceptionally friendly, hard working and earnestly interested in doing a good job or completely terrified of breaking some intense wall of silence regarding just how exhausted and over-worked and under-paid they are.
I would have said its some mix of the two but as time goes by it seems increasingly unlikely that any set of repressive measures could create such consistently positive and helpful people. (Perhaps that’s simply because I lack the capacity to imagine the level of coercion and fear being utilized.) The problem is that by mid-cruise I really can’t trust my own perception of what’s normal anymore.
The entire cruise feels like some bizarre Milgram experiment designed to teach us about privilege; the very things that were too indulgent at the beginning for me to consider are coming too slowly by the end. I’m becoming the “You’re on vacation!” guy they keep telling me I am, when I’m so hungover from drinking that I don’t leave my cabin until 4 o’clock in the afternoon.
The cruise works deliberately and methodically to lower standards for what is upsetting. The first night at dinner the dining room manager asks me: “Has there been anything or any part of today that was not exceptional?”
What can you say to something like that except: “Yes”?
Of course something wasn’t exceptional. I’m human. 90% of my brain is working all the time to find things that are wrong.
Pasta, for example. Three hours into dinner service on what is probably the most intense rush of the entire cruise (since it’s the first night) when people have the highest expectations of the entire cruise (because it’s the first night) I’m not surprised that this low quality pasta is mildly overcooked. But A) I don’t care. B) It doesn’t matter and C) I don’t want to care. I don’t want this type of thing to become something I’m concerned about.
But this is the reality distorting bubble of the cruise and partially why getting off the boat becomes harder and harder as the cruise goes on.
Just as standing on solid ground on port days reveals that you’ve been compensating for the movement of the ocean, you also lose your ability to remember what normal life is like in terms of comfort, convenience and service. Land-locked waiters, guides, janitors and busboys suddenly seem distinctly unkind, unhelpful and slovenly in appearance. No matter how much time I spend in port it’s still significantly less than I spend on the ship which becomes a baseline for everything. For chairs and glassware. For towels and sunsets and sanitary standards. It explains why every single day contains a ‘future cruise’ seminar: because the longer you are on the boat the more unsatisfactory the actual outside world becomes. It starts to seem like you have to book another cruise or face the prospect of an eternity out in the disordered, unclean and unkind real world.
THE FRIENDLIEST BOAT ON THE SEAS
Our corridor/room attendants Panda and Amil seem to be present and working 14 hours out of every day. They possess a sixth sense for when you are passing in the hallway. As you approach the open door of whichever stateroom they are currently cleaning you hear the vacuum cleaner turn off and they appear in the doorway asking about how your day is going. They are so genuinely kind and devoted to my comfort that I feel personally uncomfortable with it. Our daily small talk in the corridor becomes a point of dread for me because Panda and Amil are so relentlessly sunny and kind that my own variations in mood begIn to feel childish and petty to me.
What, precisely, do I have to be in a bad mood about?
Am I 2000 miles from my family, working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week for months on end? Am I on the short end of the stick of the global economy? The random luck of being born in a developing country meaning that my labor is leveraged by people who worked half as hard for money that history and economics has arbitrarily decided is worth twice as much?
No. I simply drank too much last night or have decided that the beautiful foreign city we are being effortlessly disgorged into today doesn’t precisely match my matrix of preferred activities.
We are continuously told that the Eurodam prides itself on being the ‘friendliest’ boat on the seas. At first glance this seems like one of those safe boasts a second rate competitor can make in an aggressively crowded market like: “Best Crab Omelot in the North-Eastern Coastal section of the Cape!” But it isn’t just a slogan or motto, it’s enacted in requirements to crew and continually referenced in regard to Asian crew member’s ethnicity, race and provenance.
To say your crew is the ‘friendliest on the seas’ is suggesting that, sure, they do their jobs, but that they do them with some type of generous spirit separate and preceding their formal responsibilities. It’s putting an emotional cushion on an economic transaction by promising a connection with the crew.
It’s saying that you will not only receive exceptional levels of service (and achieve a corresponding level of relaxation or pampering) but that the people serving you are happy to do it. That they have a connection to you that precedes the money. That they are your friends first.
As the cruise passes, it feels increasingly to me like a way to avoid thinking about the incredible gulf of wealth and wages that accompany the origins of every employee on a cruise ship.
This isn’t spectacularly different from what capitalism does as a whole: letting prices create the even ground on which exchange takes place and refusing to consider inequalities or unfairness that precede the trade. Theoretically at least, parties enter as equals and only exchange when they receive mutual benefit from doing so.
The distressing thing about the brown color of all the waiters, stewards and cook staff versus the white managers, engineers, performers and officers is that we know the stuff that precedes the exchange does matter. The circumstances that deliver people to the table to exchange are not entirely under their control and in the case of the Panda and Amil it is hard to ignore the fact that they clearly come to the table with significantly less power than HAL partially through conditions of history imposed by the very country that HAL identifies itself with.
What’s problematic for me and makes my daily small talk with the two of them so difficult is the fact that the entire cost and indulgence of this cruise would not be possible without this inequality and its accompanying historical tragedies. The experience I’m having, the room service and turndown, the drinks by the pool and the dueling pianos, this is all possible because the majority of the people they hire to serve us are poor. If travel is facing the fact that the world is full of people with the same capacity and intelligence but varying levels of opportunity, then cruising feels like aggressively taking advantage of the very thing I see as unjust.
At a base level, I am concerned that the people serving me hate me because I hate me and my role in this larger system. And yet the warping effects of the cruise’s services simultaneously make me less tolerant and grateful as a whole. I’m angry at me and at capitalism but also at the Filipino guy making me a club sandwich at 3a who forgets to toast the bread.
If traditional tourism commodifies culture and identity, then cruising aboard the ‘Friendliest Ship on the Seas’ seems to do the same thing to relationship and connection.
Perhaps the most upsetting (but unsurprising) thing about all these anxieties is how quickly they diminish. They peak about half way through and then gradually recede. The system has been set up to punish both me and those serving me when I attempt to opt out or protest the level of service being provided. Over time, its easier to just let the maitre’d pull out my chair each night and unfold my napkin and place it on my lap than it is to refuse. And the longer I inhabit this role the less I remember that this entire system is not normal or necessarily healthy for me or the world. I become the person I am expected to be. I am, after all, “on vacation.” None of the concerns I have about the extent to which I’m participating actively in a system I don’t like get resolved; I just stop actively thinking about them.
Towards the end of each cruise there is an Indonesian crew "Cultural Show." The show is in the mid-afternoon because the dinner hour is so packed with crew responsibilities that it would be impossible to spare them. It raises the question of whether the rehearsal and performance of the show is "instead of" or "in addition to" their normal responsibilities. Simon emphasizes the show strongly in his daily address and asks that we come out and "support" the performers, the first and only time we have been asked to contribute to the crews well-being. Cruisers respond and the main stage theater is as full as we’ve ever seen it. It feels to me, sitting there, like the closest thing to an actual community event on board the Eurodam. You can feel in the air the intentionality of the people present. Cruisers have shown up because they are grateful for the work these people do. I'm grateful. I'm here to support them. I want to acknowledge or connect with them in a way that reaches past the sanitized courtesy of our determined roles.
Mid-show the emcee asks if we know why we are all here, why the cultural show is a HAL tradition. “Because it’s in our contracts!” he jokes. It draws a laugh but not from me. Wrapped up in that joke is this whole confusing mess. It suddenly reminds me of how strange this all is and how many parts of history and globalization and identity are wrapped up in this boat and all the people on-board. How we've paid for this: a grey area of friendship and service, commerce and connection.
After 28 days on board the MS Eurodam we arrive in Venice. We’re flying from Milan, almost four hours away and we get up before sunrise to make an early train. At 4a the ship is already humming with activity. Huge carts of luggage are waiting in the elevator lobbies for transfer to the shore terminal. Panda and Amil have been up for an hour and are already cleaning rooms from guests who left last night. The entire ship will be empty of passengers by 11a. New guests, all 2000 of them, will be aboard by 5p.
The rooms will all be completely reset. The back deck will be cleared of it's lounge chairs and scrubbed down. Several tons of smoked salmon and cured meats will be loaded into some random hatch near dock level. The carpets will all be vacuumed, the balustrades polished. Someone somewhere will press hundreds of waiter's tuxedos to prepare for tonight's gala dinner.
There's just a single security guard at the gangway as we leave. He is seamlessly cordial and cheerful despite the early hour. He thanks us and wishes us a safe journey. Against the pre-dawn sky, the ship looks bright and alert. We shoulder our packs and walk in the direction of the Grand Canal.
 On numerous occasions we consider signing up for the Ping Pong Tournament but decline in fear of being the only adults playing a group of tweens and kids. Later discussion with Simon, the Cruise Director, reveals that the same middle aged Italian guy has been entering and winning every tournament the entire cruise. They eventually have to refuse him entry so he stops crushing 11 year old girls 0-15. I kind of admire his ruthless competitive spirit.
 There’s an implicit statement continuously but silently articulated that real luxury is when your experience isn’t interrupted by having to think about how hard someone else is working to create it.
 Our orientation handbook states: “If you see anyone fall overboard, raise the alarm by shouting “MAN OVERBOARD!” Immediately throw a life buoy (or anything else that will float) over the side to mark the spot and then tell a crew member of what you have seen.” The idea of falling overboard is apparently as compelling for others as it is for me. Any discussion of the ship’s functioning with crew or officers in a public forum inevitably bends towards this subject. My own preoccupation consists of paying closer attention to the objects around me at any given time and constantly considering what object could float were I to throw it overboard.
 Though not relevant for the reader, I have been trying to find a place to squeeze in that Jess and I had a 100% win record every time we attended movie trivia often beating teams two and three times our size. This is the place I squeeze that in.
 It is totally self-evident why this is the case within five minutes of meeting her.
 Adele is truly annoying as a co-host for trivia, but at least she’s not interrupting all the time. I keep hoping she will get back to the boat late one day and be left in port. Her husband probably hopes the same.
 This is his real name.
 Neither Jess nor I own formal clothes at this point in the trip. We go shopping in Naples with a minimal budget and try throughout dinner to emphasize how young and casual we are and that we always dress like this on purpose. This semi-formal wear is used a few more times on the cruise then abandoned in a Sheraton in Bali.
 Some examples of Captain Timmers' best lines:
· Asked who is steering the boat while he is at dinner, removes a 90’s flip phone from his pocket and pecks at the directional pad. “Forward, backward, done. Just have to make sure we don’t hit Corsica”
· Explaining why he cannot come ashore on port days: “I must stay on-board in case the boat float away or whatever.”
· Asked if there is a system for detecting someone falling overboard: “Yes. But I don’t think you should test it.”
 I did a ton of research on the environmental effect of cruising and was unable to come up with a compelling opinion about it. Travel and tourism in general changes culture in the way capitalism changes the nature of everything it commoditizes: for the better or worse depending on your place in the puzzle. Environmentally, cruising seems slightly better than flying to all these ports and significantly better in every way than the majority of the world’s commercial vessels (fishing boats, container ships, tankers). Should you cruise? Depends what you are going to do instead, where and how you live your life at home and what issues you really care about. People with strong opinions on it are probably leaning on one aspect of experience as unquestionably good or bad which makes coming to a final decision about it's validity or value easier than they will admit.
 The future cruise seminars are deft psychological assaults on the idea that you can wait until later in the year to book next year’s cruise. Under the guise of providing ‘advice’ on improving your cruising experience, they in fact detail the numerous pitfalls that could ruin your as-yet non-existent future vacation. Items around which doubt is sown include (but are not limited to): the location of your stateroom vis-à-vis the engine, the kitchen, loud teenagers, etc, a personal financial crisis, a global financial crisis, the loss of a job and even the death of a loved one. In many ways, a future cruise is described as a cushion or solution to these unexpected crises. They sell a certainty of future comfort to balance your spouse suddenly collapsing in the parking lot at Walgreens.
 There is an entire separate and worrying issue at play underneath this claim: it was frequently combined with a boast of having hired an almost exclusively Indonesian staff. This was regarded as proof that the staff was friendly as Indonesians are ‘known’ as the world’s friendliest people. To an American this sounds a lot like an ante-bellum plantation owner bragging about their African slave’s natural ability in and enjoyment of physical labor. Combine this with the unmentioned but obvious fact that HAL is a Dutch company and that Indonesia was once called the “Dutch East Indies” and you add an entire other layer of complexity to how the company regards and pursues its conveniently down-market waged employees. As though the strings of these power dynamics and oppression stretch all the way back through history and connect to the tossed salad being made for me on the Lido deck.
 It’s worth noting that the majority of people in positions to interact with guests in a personal way are white or European. Panda and Amil are the only non-white people I have routine, casual conversations with. The face of HAL is Nordic, but back, legs and arms are most certainly Balinese, Filipino and Indonesian. The parallels to imperialism feel blindingly apparent even when someone refills your lemonade.
 Holland. And America for that matter.