Up around 7:00 am the next morning for our 18-day cruise. Matthew left our hotel room in Chevekechia, Italy, a charming port outside Rome, to take the crew bus to the Grand Princess and begin his next eight-month contract. Alex and I walked around Chevekechia for a couple of hours, then entered the harbor area, filled out a bunch of paperwork, and were allowed to board the Princess about 11 am.
Matthew gave us a tour of the 3000-passenger ship, once the world’s largest, and together we ate a huge buffet lunch.
Watching Matthew give wide-eyed Alex a VIP-behind-the-scenes tour of the cruise ship, I thought about a scene from Edward Kennedy’s autobiography, “True Compass,” which I had recently read. This is like watching the 30-year-old JFK in 1946, recently elected to Congress, giving his 12-year-old brother Ted a VIP, behind the scenes tour of Congress, I thought. Older brother passes on his passion to younger brother. Alex was awestruck. Since he has been reading about Greek and Roman gods, he placed his brother in the pantheon of gods. At lunch, he declared:
“If you can get me a $5,000 cruise for free, you are a god.
“If you work on a cruise ship, you are a god.
“My brother Matthew is a god.
“I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven.
“This cruise ship is awesome. Everything about it is awesome.”
Looking back years later, I wondered if it was this moment that sparked Alex’s interest in becoming an engineer “like Matthew.”
As for me, on the day I boarded the ship, I felt like I was related to a very privileged person. My son on that day seemed like a master of the universe. Matthew led Alex, in Twain’s words, “scampering about the decks by day, filling the ship with shouts and laughter.” He had watched “for the jelly-fish and the nautilus, over the side, and the shark, the whale, and other strange monsters of the deep.”
Just as in Twain’s time, the ballroom of the ship “stretched from horizon to horizon, and was domed by the bending heavens and lighted by no meaner lamps than the stars and the magnificent moon…”
I could understand how for some passengers, the destination of the cruise ship didn’t matter. The cruiseship itself is the destination. You have the sense of being taken care of, living in the lap of luxury. On sea days, you are entertained with lectures, movies, concerts and shows from morning to evenings. You can utilize one of several expansive workout rooms, run track, play basketball, volleyball or shuffleboard, swim in one of two pools, sip champagne in the hot tub, or gamble at the casino.
Cruise ships allow you to visit the port cities of Europe far more efficiently, conveniently and economically than you could by land. You get a sampling of each country, and an overview of the region, and can decide where to come back to, on land, to explore those places that enchant you the most.
We stuffed ourselves at buffet breakfasts and lunches. For dinners, we felt like VIPs, usually dressed well, donned jacket and tie, and joined Matthew, the captain and officers in their own private restaurant, and interesting conversations about all the places they’ve traveled in the world.
Princess Cruise Lines Official Video: Watch It on Youtube.
Cruise Ships As Sweatshops for Lower Deck Workers
Matthew generally had a good experience during his seven years working on cruise ships. Since his room and board were paid for, and he had no need for a car, he was able to save a lot of money while seeing the world. But his eyes were also opened to injustices experienced by workers from South American and Asian countries, as revealed in this video:
Comparing a 19th Century Cruise to a 21st Century Cruise
Has cruising changed much since Twain’s 1867 voyage? Yes and no. The weeks-long Atlantic Crossing, thanks to the advent of air travel, has been eliminated for most cruisers. No longer do you sail for months, as Twain did. That part of the journey no doubt contributed to a sense of camaraderie and friendship amongst passengers. Twain, traveling with only a few hundred passengers and crew, described a sense of intimacy because he got to know the personalities on his voyage quite well, enough to write humorously about their eccentricities. Passengers shared seemingly endless hours of boredom, seasickness, and sometimes a feeling of being trapped, like a rat or a caged animal. To go weeks without setting foot on land, for many passengers, was a mental hardship.
Modern cruises, in contrast, with thousands of passengers traversing broad boulevards aboard ship, with dozens of amenities and forms of entertainment on board, generally do not develop a sense of camaraderie and intimacy among strangers. Only if you charter a small ship for a group with a common interest are you likely to achieve the kind of intimacy Twain wrote about.
Life aboard a cruise ship has been democratized. No longer is cruising reserved for the super-rich. No longer are you likely to “hob-nob with nobility and hold friendly converse with kings and princes, Grand Moguls, and the anointed lords of mighty empires.”
Regular middle class people — school teachers, accountants, small businessmen — can afford to cruise for weeks a year, living in a style on board ship that would have seemed incredibly luxurious in Twain’s time. The masses can now do what only aristocrats could do in his day:
“scamper about the decks by day, filling the ship with shouts and laughter—or read novels and poetry in the shade of the smoke-stacks, or watch for the jelly-fish and the nautilus, over the side, and the shark, the whale, and other strange monsters of the deep; and at night they were to dance in the open air, on the upper deck, in the midst of a ball-room that stretched from horizon to horizon, and was domed by the bending heavens and lighted by no meaner lamps than the stars and the magnificent moon—dance, and promenade, and smoke, and sing, and make love, and search the skies for constellations that never associate with the “Big Dipper” they were so tired of; and they were to see the ships of twenty navies—the customs and costumes of twenty curious peoples —the great cities of half a world…”
Too Much of a Good Thing?
After 18 days and for me, too many sea days, I was climbing the walls and eager to get off the ship. I felt too contained. I’d wake up in the morning, read about the qualifications of the great gourmet chefs of Europe who would be feeding us, and my mouth would start to water in anticipation of the foods I was going to eat that day. I morphed into a gourmand — a greedy and ravenous glutton taking too much pleasure in food. Like many cruisers, with the unlimited, always on, “all you can eat” buffet, I seemed to be gaining about one pound per day, or 18 pounds in 18 days. Forced to loosen the buckles on my belt, it became clear this was not a long-term healthy lifestyle for me.
As in Twain’s time, life aboard a ship traveling the world was over-hyped as infinitely glamorous, when the day-to-day reality by the two-week mark was beginning to feel mundane.
A long sea voyage, he wrote, tends to bring all the worst traits a man has, and exaggerates them, “and raises up others which he never suspected he possessed, and even creates new ones. A twelve months’ voyage at sea would make of an ordinary man a very miracle of meanness.”
I wouldn’t mind going on another, shorter cruise with fewer sea days and lots of stops, like New England and Nova Scotia, or Alaska, with the fjords visible right from the ship’s balcony. We almost took a cruise of Scandinavia and the Baltic, which would have been nice because that region is so expensive and a cruise would be a good way to contain costs. But I don’t think I’d ever become a cruise-aholic, eager to sail from California to Hawaii or across the Atlantic or Pacific or around the world. Way too many sea days.
Still, I was envious of Matthew and all he had seen of the world. Working on a cruise ship seemed like a wonderful way to spend your twenties. He was exposed to so many different cultures and nationalities, and developed such an international-minded world view. That’s in contrast to most Americans, who as a rule, “aren’t very worldly or knowledgeable of the world,” he said.
He had learned that “Juneau (Alaska) is the only state capital that can’t be driven to. They have been trying for years to build a road there, but it doesn’t look like it will happen in the near future.
“I’ve seen with my own eyes glaciers in both Alaska and Norway receding due to global warming.
“That just because a ship is running into ice doesn’t mean it’s going to sink.
“That Iceland is Green, and Greenland is ice.
“In most countries in Europe you can go for a long bike ride and end up in the next country by the end of a good days ride.”
After seven years on cruise ships traveling the world, and routinely emailing, texting, Facebooking and video-calling, for him “the world isn’t that big.” Certainly not compared to Mark Twain’s time, when it would take six months and half a fortune to see Europe and the Holy Land.