November 21, 2008

Other worlds

A last minute opportunity that aligned with a school vacation sent us scrambling to the Mediterranean and onto a cruise ship for a whirlwind 11 day trip into deepest touristdumb!


The reality of  cruising was such an unreality, we checked our passports at the door and were issued plastic id cards that identified us as non-nationals, we were now “fun-ship citizens”.  Thank the stars that this cruise had an incredible itinerary including Italy, Greece and Turkey, for otherwise it was too domestic and too foreign at the same time. The crew was thoroughly of this world, European, Americas and Asian, and felt like they outnumbered the passengers who were mostly entirely Americans, with a smattering of Canadians, Europeans, and a few Australians. It felt like America on the high seas, far, however, from anything we’d call home.


We embarked with trepidation and fear, anticipation and suspicion, embarrassment and excitement. After 9 ports, as many hot tubs, 5000 calories per day, and the company of some 3200 fellow passengers, we disembarked pleased and plump with relief and sadness, already thinking about how hard it will be to return to more normal traveling of solitude and uncertainty, where adventure is replaced by comfort, and the search for sustenance becomes an absurd exercise in restraint.


We expected to enjoy the destinations, and we expected to tolerate the means. In fact the destinations took some tolerating (hordes) and the means (the ship) was too comfortable not to have an affair with. Cruising life, as the name connotes, is easy, one is fed,  pampered, entertained, fed some more, and gently rocked to sleep every night. There are foreign, exotic faces offering every hospitality at every turn. It is easy to be a gracious guest in such an environment, you have already paid for everything, and every gesture is given genuine and forgiving, without the mantle of tipping or interpreting motivations.


We have been spoiled, I don’t think I will easily get Oscar on another vacation that doesn’t include a “life-boat-drill”. Pat, who went along skeptically is already asking about European River cruises.   The problem is to maintain a ”traveler” attitude and not slip too far into the “tourist” column. There is something very ugly about the giant ship overtaking the quaint Greek seaport, the image of 30 tour busses lined up and 50 taxis trying to make their weeks wage on the “boatload” of tourists that haven’t learned a kalimera, or a yassas between them! The ports try hard not to be ruined by the influx and we try hard to find a backstreet experience. In Naples, we tumbled into a doll factory selling tiny orphaned terra cotta heads deemed too twisted to warrant a body, but finding a comfortable home on my mantle. In Mamaris we found a quiet neighborhood where, drawing stares, we fumbled our way through Turkish coffees and Baklavas. In Istanbul we found a small mosque with a hidden entry where we were quickly overtaken by a call to prayer. We quietly slid out the secret door and landed in the belt buckle district of old Istanbul. In Athens we found quiet streets wrapping around under the Acropolis, and in Rome we rode city busses making loops around the Coliseum late into the night. Being a “traveler” is work, but not being a “tourist” is even harder. How are you supposed to take the road less traveled when you approach something like the Grand Bazaar?


Despite the hordes, there were wonders of the world to absorb. The remains of the city of Ephesus was a singularity for me. I was able to open my eyes wide enough not only to imagine the Greek municipality as it was more then 2000 years ago, but to not see the tourists clamoring through it like ants checking off items from their personal bucket lists. It was such a marvelous excavation site, restored to a point where one could imagine togas on all the tourists and gods and goddesses in every niche. It is primarily a long street, perhaps a mile in length, that crossed an important Greek, then Roman, city. They have restored pieces along the pathway, a library, an amphitheater, homes, a water source, but the amazing thing for me was the sense of the street life that had been brought back, this was a street worn through centuries, and you could feel the life and the culture through your shoes, emanating from the stones that never lose their voices.


In Athens it was a one act play, I had been to Athens 25 years ago. I spent a short week there, contemplating the Acropolis as an architectural student might, which apparently meant more about bars and coffee shops as I never made it up to nor through the Propylaea and into the Acropolis itself. So for me it was a moment of completion, not a protection of the gods so much as a fulfillment of a purpose, and a nod to my grandfather who paid for the first trip only to be confounded by my missing the punch line. The Acropolis is such a punch line! It is a monument created ahead of it’s time, as much an homage to the minds that built it as to the gods that it called to. It is easy, scrambling over the rocks, to be transported so far, far away, to a different time where the world was even more confused about politics, commerce and voting rights than it is today.


The other ports of call were stellar, and only escape mention in the shadow of the ones above. There was a bit of “ruin burn-out” with so many prime examples on the tour. Pompeii was overwhelming in it’s size and condition, complete homes! Pisa’s basilica and tower, uplifting despite the tricks of gravity and the torrents of rain! The Pantheon in Rome has to be the finest way-old building in the world, it shows how little we have progressed in architecture over the eons.


It was a wonderful manner for our small team of three to vacation. Oscar quickly earned free range as a citizen of this small-country sized ship, coming and going as he pleased, bouncing between new friends, favorite crew, and familiar family. We all wandered about our giant floating living room of a vacation, snacking, being entertained and marveling at the worlds over the railings. Our last day on the ship was November 5th, we woke up to the moment where the election was called for our Barack Obama. The clouds spread, the sun shone through, and like in America, people were looking into your eyes again. Perhaps to determine whether we were sharing in the victory, or the defeat, but nonetheless in the eyes, and that was a palpable difference even on vacation! While perhaps more than 50% of the passengers were pulling for the wrong guy, I have since read that Barack has an approval rating in the 70’s, only two weeks after adding “elect” to his title. That is the first poll number I have been happy to read in this over polled universe. Therein is the mandate! The world entire seems to be embracing our Barack, it all made the perfect conclusion to a rarefied vacation.



Cruising is not for everyone, nor for anyone too often, but it is perhaps perfect for us, every 5 or so years! We found this one so inexpensive we couldn’t resist, I think it’ll be a while till another one comes along.


Interested in photos: click here


A moment to our transitory lives…. We lost a close friend this week, to a well fought cancer…. Tom stands as a hero to making one’s life a wonderful adventure…. His grace in these last few years will stay with me forever!....Today I’m appreciating absolutely everything….Thanks for reading.


Anonymous said...

WOW whee! I too am sceptical of cruises, although Conley has just booked our Sept 2009 vacation w/ criuise in Alaska. He lived there and insists we see it soon before it all melts.
Loved the pics too!

Jordan Winer said...

Exciting stuff, loved the "ruin burn out", i think all travelers have been shamed to feel that syndrome at some point... wonderful work..writing that is... and living. -jordan