The cathedrals of Europe, the museums of Russia, the cobblestone streets of a colonial-era town in the Caribbean - they all have their rewards and delights, but there’s nothing as pure as standing in the warm water on a hot day, the white beach washed by the surf, the horizon melting into the sky. Nothing like it. Or so I seem to recall. Not that I’d know on this trip.
One day in, you can’t judge how it’s going to go. I’ve been on cruises in the Caribbean that had their cold spells; there’s a picture of me getting kissed by a dolphin, and I was shuddering uncontrollably when we stood in the water. When the weather’s foundation is hot, the occasional squall or chilly mistral is a relief - but when the wind has a sharp cold edge that tastes like it just scraped off the whetstone of an iceberg, you know it’s not the Hot Tropical Escape of your dream.s
The wind has howled nonstop, battering the doors; the waves bash against the boat like a protesting mob - and when someone opens their veranda door, the air shrieks from the halls through every crack it can find and flees out the veranda, like the ship is a prison of ghosts. The vessel rocks back and forth, gently, and I like that; along with
the steady paternal rumble of the engines it’s a reminder that you are on a ship, not a huge hotel with the world’s biggest moat. But in the morning I heard something new: when the ship was attempting to hold position, it had all its thrusters going, and the ice bucket and its lid and the tongs and the glasses clattered in panic, dancing back and forth on the table.
But I was already up. Woke at 6:45 from a dream in which a woman handed me a bucket and said “Why don’t you try Knopf?” It was a Buttercup Popcorn bucket, black and yellow with the classic logo and script, and it was full of broken glass.
So the day began. The previous day ended up in the Crow’s Nest, where we all retired after dinner for drinks and conversation. Ended up arguing about Tom Wolfe with John Yoo, to give you an idea of the ridiculous world in which I live, that I can say such things. Well, I was arguing, anyway. I said Wolfe sometimes uses exaggeration! And mock heroic tropes! to insulate the truth of what he believes; you can’t beat him up for believing them because he’s pre-mocked them for your convenience. John just said I sounded like a pretentious Greenwich Village book reviewer. He had a point; I suppose I did, but I’m also right.
Up to bed, up in the morn to go to Half Moon Cay, the private island for the cruise line. Nothing to see, but nice to walk around, and the beach is good. One of the members of the cruise had rented the house on the hill, where there’s good food and a sauna and servants; you sit there in the shade looking at the white sand and blue water and feel like Ian Fleming. The cruise line built it. The ship’s staff works the bars. The guy who ran the boat drill puts on a tropical shirt and becomes a bartender. Since the harbor is shallow you have to take tenders to get there. As soon as I’d finished my breakfast I went down the stairs to A deck, and saw people coming up from the tender deployment area - like something from the Poseidon Adventure. You’re going the wrong way!
Turns out the strenuous effort of the thrusters I’d heard when I woke was for naught. They couldn’t get the gangway to stay still, and the thrusters couldn’t hold the ship in place. If you slipped ‘twixt tender and gangway you risked being bisected.
The day was cancelled. Gloom sunk through the ship. The Captain apologized on the intercom in the same monotone he used to impart other critical facts, such as the wind speed and our latitude. We would proceed to Jamaica - words that somehow cheered us all, as we thought of sunny climes ahead. It never rains in Jamaica, right?
At present I am in the Explorations lounge, where the internet is doled out at the rate of ten cents per byte, and we appear to have stopped. It’s one of those odd things ships aren’t supposed to do unless it’s the morning and there is a large amount of land outside your window, but I’m sure we’re just killing time. Can’t arrive in Jamaica ahead of schedule. Throws everything off. No host likes it when guests arrive early, and imagine you’re a port officer expecting the massive ship at seven, and come 4 AM: DING DONG! Sorry we’re early.
Tonight I take the stage. No idea what I will say. Should probably give it some thought.
In the meantime? You eat. There are many other activities but not one of them holds any interest, aside from trivia. I do not want to take a cooking class. I not want to learn how to make digital movies on my home computer. (There’s always computer classes. Every voyage I’ve ever taken. Makes you wonder how this time was filled on ships of yore - classes, perhaps, in the best type of shoeboxes to store your pictures, or the best way to moisten the small amount of gum on the black triangles that held the pictures in place in a book. ) There is a dancing class: rumba. No. I wish to read and relax and eat - but not that much.
Not that you have a choice. If you
It’s easy to overeat. It’s almost required. You might have dessert at home once a week or twice; here you cap each meal with dessert, leaving just enough room for late-night dessert, which will drain from your system overnight so you can begin with pancakes. Or french toast. It’s the best thing they have for breakfast, I believe; the eggs are institutional, the bacon limp and defeated, the sausage tends towards sullen and dry, but the French Toast is tremendous. As are the omelettes, but you have to stand in a line composed of people making individual decisions about the omelette’s composition, and people are seized with great confusion when it’s their turn. It’s best in the early morning - those are the brisk risers, back from a turn around the deck, old hands at all matters of shipboard life. The middle-morning types, rising from the concrete cocoon of inebriated slumber to the hard shards of a hangover, are still stunned by the profusion of options, and just point: some of those things. Some of those. Confounding everyone are those who have never given the concept of omelette construction a single thought until it’s their turn, and then each ingredient is subject agonizing deliberation. Olives? Shallots? Oh I just don't know
Dinner has underwhelming, but I liked saying “I’ll have the trout.” Not some of the huge quantity of trout on board, but THE trout. It would be more accurate to say “I’ll have A trout,” but that suggests the entire thing. “Some trout” would confuse everyone: how much?
I’ve had good tables so far. Fascinating people. A Warthog pilot; forensic accountants; a professional large-scale excavator; a man who supervises new product development for IBM. (“You have new products?” I asked, surprised. You don’t think of IBM as doing anything but harvesting an ever-decreasing crop of lucre from legacy systems whirring away in old cold rooms.) A few Bleat readers, which is always a kick. (Hey, Hutch! Waving your way.)
Then it was off to the grand theater for an hour and a half of talking on stage on the Night Owl panel . . .
. . . the hardy-har-har session where we crack wise and trot out lines from columns previously written with the air of someone who just conjured that witticism out of the ether. (I came up with something at dinner I knew I would use later, and warned everyone I would soon be passing it off as new.) Great fun. I have a tendency sometimes to stand when making a point; I will find myself on my feet walking back and forth, and this time Rob and Jonah, having witnessed me parade around like this before, both got up and started walking around as well in mockery. All great fun. Then to the bar, conversation with learned Brits, and hey there it’s 2:30. Home. Sleep.
As I said, we are the moment becalmed, biding our time before the great screws spin up again and bear us to Jamaica. For the moment, off our starboard:
I have to go eat now. I’d rather not. But it’s what one does.
There being nothing else to do: the Art of the Nieuw Amsterdam. The walls are lined with dozens of pictures of ships and old shots of New York. This one bedeviled me; searched and searched for ERA HOUSE.
D'oh. OPERA HOUSE. It's the old Grand Opera House. She took the picture in 1937, when the signs were coming down.
Down the corridor, another:
Union Square. It's a Berenice Abbott picture. Note the time traveller in the middle placing a cellphone call. Also, the billboard in the upper left? The picture on the shoip was cropped. Better:
Odd wording. And did guys really sit in beach chairs in a full suit?
This is easy.
Such a landmark it didn't need a name.
In the fore staircases, pictures of the old ships. The 1905 Nieuw Amsterdam - built by Harland and Wolfe.
. . . and a large oil painting of the latest ship to bear the name.
Pity. I've been on this ship twice and I've yet to meet a real double-Dutchess.
Tomorrow: Jamaica - and a trip to the bridge to meet the Captain.