Sunday, January 20, 2008

More Cruising Life, V2

The Experience (a.k.a. Feel the Magic!)

One of the chief obstacles to my making converts of my music-listening friends to the organ music I so love (though not the only one, I'm sure) is all the associative baggage that comes along with it. I long ago dissociated organ music from the church and funeral home environments where one might happen upon this repertoire in real life--and I reckon my repulsion at the church associations would be much stronger than most; but I think most people think of these things when they hear a pipe organ, and that's hard to shake.

Maybe cruising is similar. Not with thoughts of death and earthly oppression at the hands mythological spirits, but similar in that the general public must call up a standard litany of associations when they think "cruise ship." We might list them: prevalent superannuation; regimented inactivity; cheesy decor; second-rate "Vegas-style" entertainments; inauthenticity. There's a kernel of truth in each of these things, but there are ways around most of these. It's that last one that sticks in my mind: inauthenticity.

I've always hated the Disney theme park empire, primarily because nothing you see on any of their properties is real. I always feel like I'm being "managed." It's all fake, and you know it's fake. And what you do see just isn't, to me, very interesting. (It's like the Woody Allen joke where two yentas are kvetching about airline food. One says "Oh, that airline food is so terrible!" To which the other responds "Yeah, and such small portions.") Times Square in New York, while still pretty spectacular, loses something when we learn that many of the properties are now owned by Disney and they've decided to manage the experience. Most of what makes New York so fabulous is its diversity; it's unplanned, and what you see is a real conglomeration of cultures and tastes and competing interests. But now Disney has determined that they can sanitize and improve on reality. Disney is selling condos within their compound walls in Florida so that people can live the brightly colored plastic dream forever. That just all seems wrong to me.

And I think there's an element of this on a cruise ship. You see a bit of the world, but only in managed, pre-digested chunks, in carefully chosen, vitamin-enriched snippets which coincide with the motives of profit and safety and family-friendliness. There's a sense of the cruising experience being fundamentally passive, one where you sign up and, like a YMCA Halloween Haunted House, things happen mildly to you from the safety of the OSHA-approved padded restraint device. People who have cruised before on Holland America achieve "Mariner status," as though occupying a stateroom gives automatic nautical savvy (", but I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night"). But of course it does nothing of the sort. I'm drawn to the boat largely because I love boats. And I think that's true for a fair number of cruisers. But my experience with boats gives me about 1% of the expertise to consider myself any kind of "insider" as concerns cruise ship operations. And most of the off-boat experience (and a lot of the on-boat stuff, of course) is, well, Showtime.

(The Vista show lounge from a corner of the stage.)

And yet I'll come to the defense of cruising, too. I think the business of just being on a ship which is going places is fundamentally interesting and, for me, inherently satisfying. The movement of the ship when underway, and the maneuvering of the boat in port are things I just can't seem to get enough of. I'd love these things even without 24/7 food and onboard swimming pools (though I love those things as well). I think I would be absolutely as happy in a dingy cabin of a tramp steamer. That every time I leave the ship I'm in a different place is a legitimate feather in the cap of this vacation option. And you're always free to go your own way ashore and avoid all the pre-packaged stuff. Still, cruising doesn't seem like a great way to really learn anything about the world--except maybe how much water there is. The places I've visited in the Caribbean and now in Mexico have little to do with the bone marrow of these places. I don't know about that bone marrow, but I can see that these cruise ship stops likely aren't giving it to me. The villages we visit exist, quite literally, to bring tourist dollars into the economies of relatively poor places. That's well and good, but the places end up having this same staged quality, because they are not fundamentally about what the country and its inhabitants represent. I can overlook that because I never thought I was going to learn about the world this way. Cruising is not an alternative to staying in, and learning about, another country. This is basically a moving hotel room (with endless cookies) where you wake up each day in a (slightly) different place. And that's cool.

(The three-story atrium of the Oosterdam. Lower floor: office; middle floor: the snooty Pinnacle Grille restaurant; top floor: the Ocean Bar with jazz quartet.)

As for that decor, I agree that it seems like they took their new billion-dollar ship to Donald Trump's girlfriend for decorating. It's all really expensive-looking, but the aesthetic choices seem oriented toward what television audiences think rich people like. A big premium is placed on spectacle. Everything in shiny gold and lots of glitter. There's beautiful woodwork--all the workmanship is fabulous--but it's always with shiny metallic highlights and cheesy piping. Flooring is expensive carpeting and terrazzo, but always with a "look at me" design. But one of the beauties with a ship of this size is that there's lots of everything. Some rooms, like the library or some isolated public spaces, are really lovely and understated, and one of the joys is finding these little corners that resonate for you personally.

(The library. Actually, a pretty tasteful room in person. My photo is a bit marginal.)

And when one's Wayne Newton Meter (ha ha) reaches the red zone, you can always go out on the promenade deck and mingle with lifeboat davits and heavy steel.

(Where a lifeboat lives.)

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