People and Places

Report from the Atlantic

Posted on August 24, 2009

Many, many people on campus have done cruises and almost all love them.  We have never done one,  but I had always fantasized about crossing the Atlantic by ship and ealier this year Cunard had a terrific sale for its trans-Atlantic passages.  So for Pat’s birthday I booked us and we recently did the six day trip from NYC to Southampton, England as part of our vacation.

A number of people have asked about the trip, so I’m posting below a mid-trip report I e-mailed to family and friends:
From: LeBlanc, Paul
Subject: from the QM2

So we’re into our fourth evening on the Queen Mary 2.  I have this torturously slow Internet connection, but it’s amazing we can connect at all.

If this were a resort hotel, it wouldn’t be a particularly good one.  Small rooms, smaller showers.  Feeding 3,000 people means function room quality of food (okay, a good function room).  By its nature, many fellow residents you might not elect to spend much time with (though it’s fun to be on the very young side).

But as with many things in life, it’s the idea of what we are doing and how we are doing it that creates the magic.

We are 1200 miles out at sea and tomorrow will pass over some of the deepest areas of the Atlantic, 2.5 miles deep.  Today we passed over the resting place of the Titanic.  We are beyond the reach of land.  That we have a room here at all, that we dress in tuxedos and gowns, and work out in a mini version of a Canyon Ranch spa is remarkable.

Looking out at the endless swells today, the horizon bare in every direction and as far as the eye can see, I was struck by the luxurious cocoon the ship creates and only a couple of feet away, over the rail, is a heartless and unforgiving world not intended for our presence.  If you somehow tripped and went over without notice, you would perish as certainly as if you jumped from the top of a skyscraper.  It reminded me of that great chapter in Moby Dick when Pip is inadvertently left behind and drifts alone in an empty sea – it’s the existentialist revelation of the novel before the word was invented.

Therein lies the essential difference between cruises and an Atlantic passage.  It at once reminds you of life’s “ominous core,” as one writer put it, and distances you from it at the very same time.   Or maybe, more accurately, it juxtaposes those two in a way that is hard to replicate.  It’s different than risk taking (unless a stubbed toe from an errant shuffleboard “push” should send a disc off your unguarded toe).  Motorcycles, rock climbing, and bungy-jumping put you in immediate contact with the thing that feels like it could kill you.  Here, it’s the sense of being absolutely safe and at no risk, but in a place where you shouldn’t be.

It’s similar to the feeling I had when we were in Africa and safely taking photos of a group of sleepy lions just a few feet away from the Land Rover in which we were standing.  The lions looked like kittens, but they looked back us with cold, unfeeling eyes and you knew that if you were stupid enough to step just inches away from the Land Rover you would suffer an unthinkable death.  And that was what made it so moving.

On that occasion and this one you can’t help but feel your absolute helplessness, you’re immediate and total vulnerability, in an environment not designed for humans, but for the vessel (or truck) that carries you through it.  We sat playing Trivial Pursuit by a window nearly at water level today and it made the game something altogether different than it would be in our living room.

The other thing that is magical about this experience is that it is part of a tradition, from the strolling around the promenade deck to the officers in crisp white uniforms to the noon time bells and update from the Captain to tuxedos at dinner.  Truth be told, some of the elegance seems a bit of a facade now.  In this democratic age, we see people not quite heeding the dress rules (shorts at high tea!) and a little too unruly elbowing their way into whatever event.  In this relentlessly commercial age, we see Cunard being a little too crassly mercantile with photographers everywhere (in the hopes you’ll buy lots of your own photos), a clothing sale set up in the grand central hall like a NYC street corner, and cafeteria trays in the food court suggestive of a college cafeteria.  

I chatted with an 87 year-old who has been on many passages and last on the Queen Elizabeth and when asked, he had to admit that the QM2 is less elegant than her predecessor.  No one is doing Jello shots and dancing the limbo, but you can imagine a time when life on these liners might have been somewhat more refined.  Of course, that was a time when they wouldn’t have coarse riff-raff like us on board.

All that said, we are still dressing up for dinner, having high tea, meeting the Captain (who looks out of Central Casting), and maybe best of all, sitting in mahogany deck chairs and watching the ocean slip by.  That is not a bit different than it has ever been and there’s still something about the ocean that is mesmerizing and calming, despite all my philosophizing about its existential power.  There are all sorts of interesting characters on board and the people watching is itself entertaining.  There are aging doyens who remind me of Mrs. Haversham, elegant and imperious and who seem to be waiting for servants they no longer have.  There is the maritime historian (whose son is a writer and producer for The Simpsons) who is one of the best story-tellers I have ever heard, whose narrative of the Titanic’s sinking was more dramatic than most movies I’ve seen.  There are the third-world crew members (again, Cunard saving money) – Filipinos, Indonesians, Eastern Europeans, and very few Brits – working 12 hour days with no days off we learned.  We have a favorite young Macedonian bartender named Slave (yup – pronounced Sla-Vey, so he goes by Gaba, or Gaba the Great, as we call him, because people were calling him Slave).

I had a marvelous conversation with Daphne, an aging (who isn’t on this tub?) widow from the Isle of Wright.  Because travel like this is slow and we have time and deck chairs side-by-side create a kind of intimacy, the tale of her life could unwind in a leisurely fashion and I learned about her twins with  Down Syndrome (now age 45 and in a care facility) and her husband’s death a few years ago, and her musician grandson now off to Japan to teach English, and much more.  And because we have the time in a way that is so rare at home, I could be interested and patient and not thinking about how to cut off the conversation because I had thirteen other things to do.

In that spirit, we are avoiding television (there is satellite in the rooms) and news for the most part.  I check the Internet only for reports from the our girls.  We talk, and workout, and eat, and nap, and read, and it feels like a genuine vacation.   In an age where we get somewhere as quickly as we can, this is all about the journey and not the destination and it’s not easily replicable (maybe the Orient Express?).    It’s pretty cool and feels special and we are all glad we are doing it.

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