No, ma'am, we're not on our honeymoon
This was the most unrepentantly touristy vacation of my life: at no point did we have to suss out a foreign bus system; no restaurant’s menu was printed in fewer than six languages; never were we forced to resort to sign languge to communicate to anyone; the farthest I had to carry my luggage was through customs; no meal consisted of bread and cheese and nothing else. It was the sort of vacation that my backpack-wearing adventure-travel-snob self of a decade or more ago would have sneered at.
I had a great time.
On the off chance that anyone reading this site doesn’t already know this: Emily has a thing about crossing large distances by land. A reminder of scale, to compare overland travel to the vaguely magical ‘sit in an airplane for a few hours and suddenly appear on the other side of the planet’. We drove across the US on our grand fiancée tour, took a train across Australia, so this time the plan was to cross the Atlantic by boat… then, since we’d be there anyway, spend a few days in Madeira before flying home. Not that we knew much about Madeira, other than it’s where madeira comes from; it’s just where the boat happened to be going. So we went.
Most of the stereotypes about cruise ships turn out to be, if not precisely true, at least pretty close. We were — as predicted — conspicuously the youngest passengers: there was only one other couple within a decade of us, and the rest of our fellow passengers ranged from recently retired all the way up to wheelchair-and-nursemaid territory. (And you know what? Good for them. I hope when I’m 90 I still want to be out and about instead of sitting around at home.) The ship employed two dance partner / escorts for the widows aboard, coyly titled “Distinguished Gents” in the ship schedule. Wallace and Lucien, which I guarantee are not their real names. (This fascinated Emily; she spent much of the trip trying to screw up the courage to ask one of them what, exactly, was the career path that led to “Distinguished Gent”.)
We were obviously the subject of much speculation, people trying to figure out what the hell we were doing on the boat — partly because of our age, and partly because we’re both terrible at the kind of small talk and gregariousness that cruise people specialize in, which probably made us come off as kind of aloof. Of the five (five!) different people who asked us if we were on our honeymoon, one phrased it as “So I hear you’re on your honeymoon.” From whom? we wonder. Another said to Emily, “Oh, I thought sure you must be honeymooners, because every time we see you two he’s looking at you and positively…” and she pauses to think of the right word, and I’m certain she’s going to pick “drooling” but she settles on “glowing” instead. Well, fair enough. We travel well — not a single fight after most of three weeks together 24 hours a day. Plus, free wine on board: of course I was glowing.
The promised broadway show turned out to be a discussion panel of faded stars from decades past… Ed Asner was the only one I recognized.
The italian restaurant on board sneakily progressed from “okay, they’re going to play italian music while we eat,” to “Wait a minute, he’s singing the menu,” to far too many verses of Volare (which lodged permanently in my head for the rest of the trip, pausing only for the occasional piano jazz version of the Girl From Ipanema), finishing up with everyone spinning their napkins in the air while “Mona Liza” the waitress — no, really — belted out funiculi funicula funiculi funicula funiculaaaaaaaaaaaa and etc. The highlight of this evening was the expression on Emily’s face as she flinched away from the microphone, refusing to contribute a verse to Volare: she leaned back in fear and waved her hands exactly as though the singer was offering her a small, live squid. I mean, come on. Beat that.
And we had a boardwalk busker type — unfortunately working without the bendy-woman half of his act this time around — whose act mostly consisted of a lot of backflips plus one audience participation bit which I’m not going to describe because it was actually pretty slick, and I want to try it out on some of you guys one of these days. I spotted him in the lobby marking people before the show; thought for sure he was after Emily so I readily enough told him where we were sitting when he asked. So of course he pulled me instead. This did afford me the opportunity to chat with one of the Distinguished Gents (Lucien, I think) while we waited onstage for the other two “volunteers” — who demonstrated that he was the less-distinguished of the two by introducing himself by saying “Boy, I really have to take a piss.”
What I did all day
Really it’s like a large, vaguely upscale hotel, complete with reception desk and gift shop. A large hotel which sways gently from side to side, constantly, which is especially surprising when you’re in the swimming pool (which sloshes around exactly like the ocean waves twelve stories below) or the bathtub (likewise, but smaller.) (A point of hydrodynamic interest: if you floated motionless in the pool, the waves would inevitably push you towards the shallow end. Greater mass of water on the deep end, maybe?)
The water was preternaturally calm the entire trip — we heard horror stories about crossings so rough that even the bolted-down televisions were falling over, but we had spookily perfect weather. Even so, for at least four days after we left the ship, the ground was still swaying around under our feet, first constantly, then only at odd moments (usually while climbing stairs or trying to maneuver through a crowd.) It was actually pleasant, though it did lead to a lot of weirdly lucid dreams about zero gravity, or flubber-like jumping in slow motion, or floating around in bed a la Little Nemo.
I spent most of my time happily curled up by the pool, falling asleep over one of the fifteen books I packed with me, drowning out the live lounge music with my own vastly superior lounge music on the iPod, accepting a drink whenever one was offered. Eight days of that was just. About. Right. Exactly what I needed. For the first time in months I catch myself writing down notes about a bit of software I want to write. One afternoon I’m standing at the railing with my head stuffed full of mathematics* watching the sun reflect off the even-more-glassy-than-usual water, and a wave of pure bliss catches me utterly by surprise. This hasn’t been my best winter. It’s been pretty crappy actually. I’d all but forgotten what that feels like.
* From the first half of the eternal optimist Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near, the second half of which is kind of a letdown, because it turns out that while he’s sure we’ll live to see the singularity and has plenty of exponential-growth graphs and charts to talk about, he doesn’t actually have all that much interesting to say about it other than that we’ll live to see it. The Age of Spiritual Machines was much better.
We saw dolphins. Emily saw a turtle. We both saw lots of flying fish, and lots of floating garbage which turned out to be baby portugese man’o’wars, and a surprising amount of floating garbage which actually was floating garbage, and almost halfway across the ocean, at least four days travel to land in either direction, a single bird. It did not stop to rest.
And then Madeira, which turns out to be where the French and English go for semi-tropical vacations. Nice enough: very pretty, very touristy, very unchallenging. I’ve not much insightful about it to say that the photos won’t tell you, other than that the Portugese language sounds more like German than like Spanish, and that they choose perversely bad and short-lived U.S. shows to dub and rebroadcast. (Did you know Molly Ringwald had her own sitcom? With Jenna Elfman? For some reason?)
And then our adventure with American Airlines, about which I’ve plenty to say but which rant I’ll spare you, other than to say: if you’ve misprinted a ticket, the best customer service is probably not to open by suggesting that those passengers will have to wait at the airport for seven days for the “next available flight.” Things went downhill from there. But at last we found ourselves on a transatlantic flight, on United Airlines thank you very much, traveling twenty-five times faster than we had been the other way.
And then I wake up in my own bed, and see the trees outside which are what tells me it’s my own bed, and that I don’t have to sprint to catch a plane today, and that I’ll be allowed to cook my own breakfast. And that’s pretty good too.