I listen into other’s conversations. I can’t help it, it’s part of my reporter’s training, just like I scan the desk of anyone’s office I walk into, the walls as well, what types of pictures, awards, souvenirs or sports memorabilia are on the walls or shelves. What books? It tells me something about the person that may be useful to the story, add some color or add a detail that my listener may find interesting. So, sitting in the sometimes-close quarters of Prinsendam I hear conversations.
Listening to some of those conversations I thought of writing an essay “Everything I Know About the Outside World I Learned on a Cruise Ship.” I heard so many comments about places where I have lived or worked in Alaska, on the Adriatic or along the Danube, comments on Sitka, Juneau, Anchorage, Kotor, Split, Dubrovnik, Belgrade, Budapest, Bratislava and Vienna. They were from experienced cruisers telling less experienced cruisers what to expect or experienced cruisers comparing notes. These comments were sometimes so right on and sometimes, at least based on my experience, so wrong. Sometimes they were both at the same time. As much as I was tempted to interrupt, correct or interject I mostly kept my consul and just listened. These were first impressions. That’s what cruises give you, first impressions, gathered in a very short slice of time. They are sometimes wise, sometimes silly, but often insightful views of the way a community presents itself.
I’m a compulsive writer, I write letters. Every week I was posted abroad I wrote to my kids, parents and friends, who then told other friends, who asked if they could be included on my letter list. My list grew and when the technology permitted, became a blog.
Rereading some of those letters is embarrassing. My first impressions were sometimes completely contradicted by letters six weeks or six months into an assignment. But those impressions were fresh. They were what I “saw,” with new rather than experienced eyes, impressions before the disillusionment of culture shock wore off some of the shine. I’m fortunate to have been able to have the experience of living in foreign places for months or years, or working for a few weeks and returning again and again, in some countries over the period of more than a dozen years. Most people don’t have that privilege.
I like both experiences, going to a place and diving deep, and seeing lots of new things. A cruise gives me a chance to see a lot of new things, sometimes new things come so quickly that I have trouble processing them. To help that processing I write, sometimes skipping the ship’s evening entertainment to think about what I have seen and write it down. Much of the first draft of this blog was written on the day, or the day after I experienced it. My first impressions.
On our 68-day cruise on Prinsendam three years ago we got cards every night with some saying about travel. One I remember is that “A traveler sees what he sees, a tourist sees what he comes to see.” Cruising is, by its nature, tourism. We go to lectures on ships telling us what to see and go we see those things often on group tours. Before I travel I read histories and city guides about places I will visit and make my list of what I’ve come to see. After being a traveler for so long being a tourist is a nice change.
But sometimes it is good just to get off the ship and wander, to see what I see, strike up a random conversation with a local, or expat with local knowledge. If, on such days, I don’t see something on my list I’ve still enjoyed myself. After I visit a place I read novels set in the place, knowing it looks like, smells like, tastes like, feels like, what it wears and for me, especially, what it sounds like, the church bells, car horns, the babble in a café or bar.
On this cruise, I mostly saw what I came to see, the steaming seam where North America and Europe separate, a desolate fjord where the Norse lived for 500 years and vanished, an Inuit village that I can compare with a village in Alaska. I experienced some of the things I wanted to experience, a steaming soak in Iceland’s mineral waters, tea and scones with clotted cream in Scotland, the rhythm of riding waves in the North Atlantic. I gathered impressions and shared some of them in my blog. I also shared them with a group of intelligent and well-traveled cruise mates who had their own good stories to tell.
And I loved the ship, the motion, the creaking, the fresh breeze that can become gale. It is a slow and civilized way to travel. It’s easier to process experience on a slow-moving ship than on an airplane that is all hassle and rush. I loved photographing, what I came to see, although I burned though three cameras (rain and spray and, I don’t know, too much wear.) Fortunately, I travel with a lot of cameras. And me? I fared better than my cameras. I not only gathered impressions and memories, I lost weight. I think it is a combination of activity fueled by fine food served in small portions. (Cruisers are free to order more, a second entrée, a little ice cream on that Dutch apple pie, but I generally small portions suited me.)
Talking to the crew and officers also added to the pleasure of the cruise. I asked about seakeeping, bow thrusters, navigation and how the ship was run. Our table invited officers to join us. One who in in charge of housekeeping said he liked this cruise because only experienced travelers would get on a cruise to towns of only a few thousand, or in one case 200 people. They understand what a ship can and cannot provide, they do not get angry at missed ports because of weather. It’s just easier than working a 7-day Caribbean cruise.
Now I am home in Alaska, looking at the autumn sea, processing all that I have seen and dreaming, again, of stepping aboard a ship on this world ocean.