I've been unable to post the past few weeks as we were on the maiden voyage of a beautiful new ship, Oceania's Marina, the first built by Oceania, who's current fleet is made up by the smaller ships of the Renaissance Line which ceased operations about ten years ago. Although the Marina is now Oceania's largest ship, it is still relatively small by today's mega cruise ship standards, "only" 66,000 tons, 785 feet LOA, and 105 foot beam.
No rock climbing walls, water slides, ice skating rinks, merry go rounds, etc. on the Marina. This ship was built to the exacting standards of adults who like some of the traditional touches reminiscent of what it was like to cruise in the halcyon days of trans Atlantic crossings, before jet travel almost destroyed the industry, and before Disney-like, mega ships made the cruise industry a mass market destination. (Think of the difference between Masterpiece Theater's recent Downton Abbey and the movie Rambo.) I will defer my comments on the details of the ship as they can be easily gleaned from Oceania's website.
My entry is about the voyage itself and what it meant to us. Our cruise began in Barcelona, the ship having just been delivered from an Italian shipyard, so we flew overnight from Atlanta to meet the ship. We had visited Barcelona before so decided to go directly to the ship this time, after a brief bus tour on the way, which took us past throngs of visitors to the unfinished church La Sagrada Familia by Catalan architect Anton Gaudi. They had opened the church free of charge to all that day and it seems like everyone in Barcelona was there to show their respect and express their awe.
After boarding the Marina, we quickly learned the distinction between a "maiden voyage" and an "inaugural cruise." Maiden voyage is AKA a shakedown cruise. There were dozens of subcontractors on board the ship and over breakfast one morning, one said to me, imagine you built a brand new house and just moved in. That is what a maiden voyage is like, attending to all the last minute details that, no matter how good the builder and the architect might be, are still waiting to be observed and tested.
Compound this by putting your "new house" on the ocean, and it becomes a self-contained city that must manufacture its own fresh water, handle waste, supply its own propulsion and electricity, etc, and then be able to deal with the potential vicissitudes of what the ocean might throw your way. He said that part of their presence on board was not only to help with whatever issues arose, but to educate the crew and officers. There were lectures each day being given by the subcontractors in a private boardroom. When you think about all that could go wrong, in retrospect it is adventuresome for passengers to book a maiden voyage, particularly one scheduled to cross the Atlantic, eight days of running new engines and systems 24x7.
It is also a floating hotel, new staff, new kitchens, new housekeeping facilities. We were surprised to learn that some of the new staff had never served on a ship before. A young man from South Africa admitted he had never been on water, so it was no surprise that it took him a couple of days to get his sea legs, especially as those days were so windy and rough (20 foot seas in the Med) that we were unable to dock at our first scheduled port of Malaga, so we headed back out to sea. I made it a point to regularly check with our young South African friend who was assigned to the dining room and the buffet to clear tables to see how he was getting along and as the seas calmed, he beamed more and more, especially looking forward to our ultimate destination of Miami. South Beach, here he comes!
Actually, if I had to point out one subtle aspect of the staff on board this new ship it was how they interacted with each other. Of course you expect them to be courteous and friendly to the passengers, but they also seemed to have a great esprit de corps, always smiling, helping the other. That is where the fine training of the Oceana line showed. The ship is also stately, traditionally designed, beautiful woods, and large windows to bring in the light. Nothing garish here, other than the Martini Bar, but that, too fit in with the theme.
I'll also briefly point out that the cuisine and service on board were excellent, four specialty restaurants to choose from at no additional charge. In fact, to make up for some of the minor inconveniences of the maiden voyage, Oceania served wine and cocktails at meals at no additional charge, something that was unexpected and appreciated by all.
Perhaps the worst seas were as we transited the Strait of Gibraltar, that narrow funnel connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea, where the saltier Mediterranean works its way westward below the Atlantic's flow, the less dense and less saltier Atlantic flowing eastward. Add to that mix the 50 mile per hour winds at the time, and the seas built, with one particularly large wave that knocked everyone over who were sitting on heavy high backed stools at the piano bar (thankfully, there were no injuries). These seas gradually abated as we approached our second scheduled port (now our first), Casablanca, the economic (but not the political) capital of Morocco. Fortunately, the weather was nice for our tour of the city, although in the back of my mind was the Egyptian uprising which was then underway in Cairo, not to mention the Tunisian riots. However, the poverty in Morocco, at least what we saw, is not as oppressive as in other Arab countries. According to Matt Schumann of Morocco Board "Moroccans love stability." Everywhere, though, one can see photos and posters of the current King of Morocco, Mohammed VI.
Casablanca reminded me of parts of Istanbul, with a moderate Muslim population. One thing in common too is the beautiful Mosque in Casablanca, one of the largest in the world, the Hassan II Mosque, built to overlook the Atlantic ocean which can be seen through its huge glass floor. Between the Mosque and the courtyard it can accommodate over 100,000 worshipers. It has the tallest minaret in the world. We were allowed in part way. I was carrying around the sheet music of "As Time Goes By" hoping to play it at Rick's Cafe, which of course is merely a recreated version for silly American tourists such as myself (I think the cafe is now in its fourth iteration), the film of course having been entirely shot in a Hollywood studio, so I finally decided to defer a visit. Actually, my favorite part of the tour, other than the Mosque, was the central marketplace, where real life takes place in the heart of Casablanca.
An amusing sidelight was a quarrel between our tour guide and the bus driver as the bus approached an underpass on the busy streets of Casablanca. The bus had the option of avoiding the underpass by going up the side road, but that would have meant more traffic and he clearly wanted no part of that. The tour guide seemed to be warning the driver (in Moroccan Arabic of course) that there would not be enough clearance for the bus, so as the driver approached the underpass, he stopped the bus, got out, and eyeballed the heights of each, cars behind blaring their horns, and he made the executive decision to proceed (by that time he would have had to back out100 yards of highway with a multitude of cars behind, so it was an expedient decision). We slowly crawled forward, the bus driver's smile beaming as we proceeded without incident until the scraping and crunching of metal against cement reverberated throughout the bus. Recriminations and hysteria erupted between the two. I had visions of waiting hours for another bus, walking this exhaust-fumed filled tunnel in Casablanca. (Perhaps letting air out of the tires might help?) However, since we were able to transit part of the way in, logic had it that we might be able to back up (with a little crunching) which we did to the extent that cars behind allowed. A policeman finally showed up (lucky for us, but not for the bus driver as it turned out) and was able to halt traffic so we could make our slow backward escape and, when free, the bus was ordered to pull over so the poor driver could be cited. Not a good day for him.
Back to the ship, we disembarked for our next port, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain, in the Canary Islands. Tenerife is a volcanic island, with black volcanic sand on some beaches, but also beautiful sandy beaches imported from nearby Africa's Saharan desert. Our tour took us to the Village of Taganana which is high in the Anaga mountain range, also stopping at Pico del Inglés with views of the northern part of the Anaga mountain range somewhat shrouded in mist. Here we sampled local wine, goat cheese and delicious olives which no one could stop eating. Finally, on the return to the ship we toured San Cristóbal de La Laguna, which used to be the capital of the Canary Islands in ancient times.
That evening the ship cast off her lines for the 3,500 mile trip across the southern Atlantic. Many on board were concerned that the rough seas of the past couple of days would shadow us, but this is the time of the year when that would be the exception in this part of the Atlantic and in the following days the seas calmed to the point I could have taken my old 15' Boston Whaler across without incident (other than trying to hold enough fuel!).
This was our third Atlantic crossing. The first one was in 1977 when we took the old QE2 across. I was attending the Frankfurt Book Fair but thought I'd bring Ann (and Jonathan, who had just learned to walk), first to London via the ship and then finally flying home. I was intent on making the journey once in my life just to experience this mode of transportation, taken by countless travelers for centuries before, that I thought would completely disappear, not foreseeing the days of an entirely new leisure cruise industry with numerous "repositioning" cruises across the oceans.
The QE2 cruise was interesting on the one hand and a disaster on the other. It was still in the days of classes. I remember going off to dinner, we to the second class restaurant, dressed up, but rather informally, while those in 1st Class were off to dine in their formal finery, buttoned up in their tuxedos and gowns. One of my publishing competitors was traveling that way. We respectfully nodded to each other, but of course that was the extent of it. Sort of like opposing WW I pilots saluting one another in the sky. I liked 2nd class! On the other hand, the trip was in October, with traditional fall storms forming and blowing across the Atlantic, and the stately old QE2 was not stabilized, so the ship rolled for days, to the point of everyone getting seasick. Our poor son, who had just learned to walk, had to relearn after disembarking.
Things have drastically changed in the leisure cruise industry. Oceania has tried to retain some of the niceties of cruise years gone by, such as afternoon tea, but of course, other aspects of cruising are more egalitarian (other than the size and position of one's cabin). Many cruise lines have made their ships destinations onto themselves, sort of like giant floating theme parks, definitely not for us.
So what does one do for eight days at sea? The ship provides all sorts of entertainment (at night) and activities by day. Also, as the days became warmer, the pool area became an attractive destination. One could always tell who lived in cold climates as they squeezed in as much sun time as possible. Many chose to play games, bridge being popular and now Mah Jong as well (Ann being one of the movers and shakers organizing games each day, sometimes winning as much as $2.00!) She also attended the "Bon Appétit Culinary Center" so she could learn to cook the “finest cuisine at sea” and, indeed, the food on the Marina was 5 star in every dining venue. I started each day in the well-equipped gym with a half-hour on the treadmill. I was amused that according to the calorie read out, I burned enough to justify the prior evening's dessert.
We both liked to attend the lectures given by the Oceanographer who was traveling with us, Dr. Stuart Nelson. I've heard him speak before on another Oceania cruise, but as Ann says, he could read the phone book and be interesting.
But mostly during the languid afternoons, I'd find a quiet nook, or sit on the balcony of our room, watching the Ocean gently roll by, reading my books, almost finishing four novels during that period, two of which I brought and other two from the ship's library. So my literary friends for the journey were Canin, Shreve, Walter, and Casey.
The first one I read was America America by Ethan Canin. It was recommended by a good friend whose daughter knows the author, who teaches at Iowa writer's workshop, the same one where Carver, Cheever, and Irving have taught, some of my favorite authors. Canin was a discovery for me, reminding me very much of some of my other favorite writers such as Richard Russo and Russell Banks, with upstate northeast small town and family dynamic themes. It is also a coming of age novel, with shadows of Fitzgerald's Gatsby and its American dream focus (from which the novel derives its bold title) -- glimpses into the upper classes with the reminder that behind every great fortune is a great sin. Shifts in chronology make it interesting reading as well and sometimes I felt I was reading a novel that was indeed designed by a teacher, but a VERY good one, and I look forward to the future work of Ethan Canin.
I discovered Anita Shreve's Rescue in the ship's library and as I like her writing, in particular the Weight of Water, Pilot's Wife, Sea Glass, and Body Surfing, I snapped up the copy while I was finishing America America. Rescue comes uncomfortably close to my personal life, not that I was an EMT, but married early, "rescuing" not only my first wife, but myself. It is about codependency and dysfunctional families and alcoholism, but it too is a coming of age novel, the two main characters becoming what they were meant to be in the end. It is a very sparse novel, written in typical fluid Shreve style, with a sense of immediacy. This is not a novel to be read for the plot. It's all about the characters and the writing.
So, finishing that book I calculated that I'd finish the other novel I had brought (more on that later) so I panicked as the other novels I had seen in the ship's library -- at least those that I might have been interested in reading -- I had already read, but then I came across an unexpected treasure, The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter. I'm wary reading books by the "younger generation" although I have a high regard for Jonathan Franzen's works -- who was born when I was graduating from high school. Jess Walter is even younger than Franzen, a Generation Xer, but I was intrigued by the title and the fact that Richard Russo wrote a brief testimonial which was conspicuous on the jacket. I trust Russo: "When it comes to explaining to me my own too often baffling nation, there's no one writing today whom I trust as completely as Jess Walter. His intelligence and sympathy and great wit inform every page--indeed every sentence--of his terrific new novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets.". That was enough for me to give it a try, and I am glad I did. (As I publisher, I was always dubious about the effectiveness of testimonial blurbs -- but they obviously work!)
This is a very funny but tragic book, a look at the financial debacle of the past few years and its impact on the main character, Matt Prior who had quit his job at the height of the financial boom to start a business web site that was to report news in verse, called Poetfolio.com. He had borrowed to start his business while his wife became a compulsive shopper on EBay trying to resell petty merchandise at a profit ("everyone else is doing it!") and before they knew it their family, consisting of them, their two sons and Matt's increasingly senile father who is now living in their home, become embroiled in a financial nightmare. It is told, though, with the skill of Joseph Heller's Catch 22, updated for the dot.com world. Like Rescue, it is about some poor choices, but redemption is found at the end. It is a totally imaginative novel, one that seems so natural even though it is so satiric. In addition to Ethan Canin, I will be watching out for Jess Walter's future works.
Finally, I turned to the other novel I brought with me, John Casey's Spartina. I wanted to read this before Casey's sequel, Compass Rose, and also because it was a National Book Award–winning book. I was immediately drawn in because it is about the sea, and, in particular, an area we had regularly traversed in our own boat -- the waters off of Rhode Island. And it is about a commercial fishermen, one I might have met during my boating life, and the vicissitudes they endure because of their love of the sea (the main one, just trying to make a living). Dick Pierce is not only a fisherman but he is a boat-builder as well and he is building the boat of his dreams, one that is to provide for his family but also one that he views as a work of art. Casey brings his environment to life, whether it is in the cockpit of a fishing boat, heaving off the seas of Block Island, or the back marshes of the New England coast. Casey's writing is achingly heartfelt and even though I am not yet quite finished with the novel (I have a tendency to drag out those novels I am enjoying the most), I know this one will want to bring me to Compass Rose soon after.
The other benefit of a long cruise is meeting other people, and some of the photos I posted show us with other couples, all of whom we enjoyed being with. They were from all walks of life, and I'll mention that among the men were Mike, who happens to live nearby, and who was in the publishing business so we had acquaintances in common, Jim, who was an attaché to Henry Kissinger, John, who owned a food distribution business and retired for many years to a French mill house in Bordeaux, and Aubrey, a riotous Englishman with a droll sense of humor who sold wigs for a living and whose hand shake was like a vice -- I had to actually ice my hand that evening if I ever hoped to play the piano again!
All in all, an interesting, memorable experience, topped off by the traditional water cannon salute that greets a new ship, as we entered the Port of Miami. As a lark, I thought I'd try to capture the moment using my non-video digital camera, the first time I ever used the feature. Had I known it was going to work as well as it would , I would have done a better job with composition and zooming, but, nonetheless, I posted it on YouTube (also my first).