It’s a Crossing, Not a Cruise
My Inside Stateroom is a windowless closet on an unfashionable lower deck of the Queen Mary 2. In the corridor outside the room, there are black and white photos hanging on the wall: images of elegant passengers in formal attire, who aren’t passengers on this ship but on one of its ancestors, back when a transatlantic crossing was a big deal and an elegant affair. The photos fascinate me, at first. But then I get paranoid. Why did the masters of the ship hang those photos down here in steerage? Is it for the edification of those of us in the cheap rooms? A template for the kind of passengers we should aspire to be? Or is it to demonstrate what kind of passengers we’re not, so don’t bother trying?
There is a dress code on the ship. If you want to eat in the formal dining room, you have to wear a dinner jacket. I didn’t bring a dinner jacket. I meant to, but I forgot. Without a jacket, I’m condemned to eat in one of the all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants or to stay in and get room service, except on those rare nights when the captain in his benevolence decides that dinner will be informal. It’s just as well. In the formal dining room, you share a table with other people, usually older retired couples, and no one likes to share a table with a youngish solo guy (me). Older gentlemen who travel alone are generally considered endearingly tragic (“I hear his wife keeled over last year at the Winnipeg Curling Club Invitational”) or colorful (“He makes the cha-cha look like dirty dancing”), and they like to spin yarns (an old nautical term, by the way, that has to do with rope making). But younger solo travelers are sketchy and suspect because what kind of youngish guy is traveling alone on a fancy cruise ship? In an Agatha Christie novel, that’s the guy everyone would think is the killer till the real killer tosses him overboard.
The cheap rooms don’t have windows. Instead, I have a TV that I can tune to channel 38, which is a live feed from a video camera located on the bridge. This evening, channel 38 is broadcasting a view of the English Channel. France plays a supporting role. It is a dark, uneven line in the distance. After a while, the line gets finer and fainter: from a Sharpie marker to a felt tip pen, to a sharp gray pencil. Then the line vanishes, and there’s just the strict geometry of sky and sea. Since I’m a landlubber who likes old Westerns, my current situation conjures up images of covered wagons crossing the desert, only this covered wagon has art history lectures, a restaurant that can seat 1200 people, a health spa, a cigar bar, and showgirls.
I’m crossing the Atlantic on the QM2 not because I’m a fan of cruises or the ridiculous anglophilia of the Cunard Line or wearing a tuxedo and dancing to ABBA in 30-foot swells, but because, at this point in my life, I’ve given up on flying. I am crossing from the UK to the USA by sea, and I am alone.
As the days pass, I begin to notice two categories of solo travelers: the Flamboyantly Solo and the Discreetly Alone. The former advertise their solo status and enthusiastically participate in group activities, which on the QM2 include competitive darts and a talent show that I decide to attend for the LOLs but which just leaves me stricken by the poignancy of human existence. Some of the Flamboyantly Solo passengers eventually hook up with one another and graduate to the status of Conspicuously Coupled. Flamboyantly Solo travelers thus seem to enjoy the cruise life, but Discreetly Alone passengers do not. They eat alone and keep to themselves. Eventually, we Discreet Loners begin to notice each other, sitting in dark corners with a book or wandering some unpeopled stretch of an upper deck. We exchange barely perceptible nods and wonder what’s the deal with each other.
At dinner, I order room service. It’s a nice perk. On a cruise ship, food comes with the price of your ticket, and even room service is included. I ask for a bowl of tomato soup and a slice of apple pie. It’s buffet food, but when it arrives on a rolling table covered with white linen, it seems fancier than that. Each plate is covered with a silver cloche, so getting to your food is like opening birthday presents, one by one, each plate like a little surprise.
Before I embark, my girlfriend asks me if I’ve read David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” about the time Wallace took a Caribbean cruise and basically hated it. I tell her that yes, I’ve read it, but this isn’t that kind of ship. In fact, everyone on the QM2 makes a big deal about the fact that the QM2 isn’t a cruise ship, it’s an Ocean Liner, and that this isn’t a cruise, it’s a Crossing, i.e., we’re crossing the Atlantic. But it’s more than just a matter of semantics. As far as the passengers of the QM2 are concerned, a cruise is a journey to nowhere that cheesy people take to get sunburned and do jello shots and skinny dip in a hot tub, while a crossing is serious business. It’s got purpose, and besides that, it’s classy. So please don’t call it a cruise, and don’t bother ordering a jello shot because you can’t get one.
Tonight is another formal night. I order room service again and stare at the TV, trying to decipher Hollywood movies dubbed into French. I find a glossy magazine in the top desk drawer. It’s a lifestyle travel magazine with articles about wine tours in Tuscany and the best hotels on the French Riviera. There are photos of the Queen Mary 2, as well. It’s the usual spread: older guys in tuxedos and ladies hanging on their arms in glittering gowns. There’s usually a waiter hovering nearby, too, pouring these people champagne or presenting them with a tray of hors d’oeuvres. It’s not just this travel magazine, either. You see images like that plastered all over the ship. Pictures of generally famous dead people getting waited on. That’s the QM2’s brand. You are here to be pampered by people who are paid to pamper you. Never mind that you don’t actually get pampered like that, let alone hobnob with celebs unless you’re one of the ballers on the upper decks who eat in their own private restaurants and are attended to by their own private staff.
Of course, these glossy spreads don’t spend any time on the real price of all this pampering. No mention of where the people who are pampering you come from (Central America, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia; Filipinos represent the largest single nationality on most cruise lines), or what their schedule is like (12 hours a day, sometimes more, 7 days a week), or whether they have job security (no), or how long it’s been since they’ve seen their families (8-10 months for a standard employment contract, usually).
I find the cappuccino. There’s a machine at one of the bars on Deck 7. It’s pretty good, but you have to pay extra for it. That’s the genius of the business model. There are miles of buffet trays and bottomless urns of coffee on this ship, but if you want to go à la carte, you have to cough up the cash.
After I get my coffee, I grab a fruit plate from the breakfast buffet. I leave my tray unattended for a second to grab some OJ when some kind of senior officer gripes at me.
“Don’t leave your food lying around," he barks in a slightly toned-down version of the voice he uses to browbeat the boatswain or whoever.
“Sorry,” I say.
“It’s not for me. It’s for you,” he continues. “If you leave it lying around, all sorts of people will breathe on it.”
I frown because a. this guy is annoying, and b. I’m not so sure about his version of germ theory. I want to tell him to stick to sailing the boat, but I don’t say anything at all. I just feel sorry for all the crew people who have to work for the jerk.
This encounter gets me thinking about mutiny and whether it’s something that sailors still do, especially sailors on a luxury cruise ship. I mean, who could blame them? Aside from the occasional “passenger mutiny” when a group of preternaturally un-self-aware passengers scream at the captain because they’re dissatisfied with their Zumba classes, the Internet is mostly silent on the matter of mutiny, though an incident on a Carnival Cruise Lines ship in 1981 is probably emblematic. The ship was docked in Miami when the crew, mostly workers from Central America, went on strike over labor issues. Carnival promptly broke the strike by calling the American immigration cops, who arrested the striking crew, declared them undocumented immigrants, and deported them.
I’m reading a book about America written by Bernard-Henri Lévy. Lévy is a French celebrity intellectual, which is a category of celebrity that is unheard of in the U.S. where celebrities are seldom expected to have an opinion one way or another about the teleology of consciousness. The book is not flattering. Lévy writes about American megamalls, Nascar racing, 9/11 hysteria, and fast-food restaurants, which he describes as “franchised feeding machines.” It’s not a good book to read when you’re on a ship heading to the USA, and there’s no turning back, let alone hopping off midway.
I decide that I should put aside the celebrity intellectual’s manual on how crappy America is, and I should get out of my cabin, and I should do something. So I sign up for a wine tasting. The chief sommelier is a Canadian guy with beady eyes and a big booming voice who confides that he formed his tasting palate by drinking Big Gulps at 7-11 after hockey practice in Saskatoon. He breaks out four wines, two from the Old World, two from the New. One of the New World wines is from Australia, which I’d never thought of before as the New World since I thought the US had a lock on that brand. But of course, it is another version of the New World, a place where disgruntled Old Worlders fled to or were unwillingly dumped.
“Old World wine asks a question,” the Canadian sommelier expounds, “while New World wine gives an answer.”
It’s a pithy statement that seems worth trying to apply recklessly to the difference between Europeans and Americans in general.
During the wine tasting, I sit between a guy from Baltimore who is returning from 5 years in Zambia as a missionary and a Spanish lady who is accompanied by her grumpy boyfriend. The Canadian sommelier talks about terroir and rim-to-core ratios, all very interesting, but I’m focused on the cheese plate that the missionary guy is hogging (“You can’t get cheese like this in Zambia,” he mumbles with his mouth full). After we taste the four wines, the assistant sommelier- Francesco- breaks out a mystery wine and asks the chief sommelier to figure out what it is. The chief takes a sip. Then he furrows his brow.
“Let me sit down. I have to let this wine speak to me.”
He sits down. But the wine seems to be giving him the silent treatment. The chief sommelier asks Francesco for a hint, but Francesco just smiles and shrugs and seems to be enjoying the fact that he is publicly humiliating his boss.
I wake up and head to breakfast. Out in the corridor, one of the housekeepers is maneuvering a monster cart stacked high with bath towels and toilet paper through a side door. The hallway is narrow, and the geometry is all wrong, so it takes her a while, moving back and forth, like when you’re trying to get out of a particularly tight parallel parking space. Finally, she shoves the cart through a door with a “Staff Only” sign affixed to it. It’s a door that separates the ships backstage from the front of house. On this side of the door, the ship is a theatrical production complete with fiberglass Art Deco details, evening dress-up, and black-and-white poster prints of Bing Crosby smoking his pipe on some long-ago transatlantic voyage. Everything feels unreal, glossed over with promotional copy and surrounded by quotation marks. But on the other side of the door, there’s a real ship where people work long hours washing the linen napkins and recycling the champagne bottles.
I read that after it was retired from service back in the 1970s, the QM2’s predecessor, the Queen Mary, was permanently anchored in Long Beach, California. It’s been there ever since, converted into a hotel and a roadside attraction. If you want, you can spend the night in one of the old staterooms and play shuffleboard on deck, then dine at Sir Winston’s Restaurant or the Chelsea Chowder House. There are even ghost tours (the Queen Mary has been voted one of the “Top 10 Most Haunted Places in America” by Time Magazine). It occurs to me that the ship I’m on might, one day, meet a similar fate. Then it occurs to me that, aside from the whole sailing across the ocean thing, it already has.
My favorite place to spend the day is on the lowest deck, at least the lowest one I can get to as a passenger. There’s a long corridor down there with a row of card tables topped with green felt. The tables sit next to big windows that are just above the waterline. Down here, the ocean is close by, a surge of slate-gray and seaweed-green flecked with white froth. A crazy, swelling, pulsing thing that I’m separated from by just an inch or two of glass.
A couple guys are sitting at one of the card tables writing a song for the songwriting workshop that’s being run by Chris Difford, one of the founding members of the British band Squeeze. In high school, I bought their second album “Cool For Cats” on cassette tape, and even today, if I hear any of the songs, I’m instantly transported back to that time in my life and how I felt back then, which was generally miserable. I don’t know why a guy from Squeeze was invited to the QM2, considering the entertainment is aimed at a much older crowd. On this voyage, it includes the 9-piece Royal Court Theater Orchestra, as well as a lavish musical production called “Viva Italia.”
“Excuse me,” one of the songwriters who looks about my age says to me. “Could you tell us what you think of our song?”
“Sure,” I say.
The guy who talked to me starts to play some blues chords on his acoustic guitar while the other guy sings. The lyrics are about the Internet, including a memorable one that goes, “I’ve got the heartache crashing, keyboard smashing, social network blues.”
After the guys finish, they ask me what I think of the song.
“I like it,” I say. “What’s it about?”
“It’s a love song about Facebook,” the guitarist says.
Somewhere on the high seas east of Boston. I’m standing on deck early in the morning with a few of the other Discreet Loners. We’re all staring at our cell phones. In pirate movies, there’s always a scene where a pirate scrambles up the mainmast and perches in the crow’s nest with a spyglass, ready to call out at the first glimpse of some faraway shore. But now, it’s passengers on the promenade deck of a cruise ship holding their cell phones in the air and waiting for reception.
Finally, after six long days at sea, the first short bar of a cell phone signal pops up in the corner of my screen.
“Land Ho!” I call out to no one in particular.
About the Author
Bill Brown currently lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He is the editor of a personal zine of travel writing called Dream Whip. Now in its 15th edition, it is published by Microcosm Publishing. You can also find a clutch of his travel stories on Matador Network: https://matadornetwork.com/author/billbrown/.