Cruisology 101

Cruise ships soothe a spectrum of anxieties.

Posted Aug 11, 2014

Having not traveled much for many years because of family issues and 9/11 fears, I finally took a cruise.

This startled even me. As a loner, I'm not what most would call the cruising type. But I was curious. Friends who had cruised either loved it or loathed it. I feel bonded to the sea. Breakfast buffets thrill and (because I'm an ex-anorexic) terrify me, joining many other easy, lovely things that shouldn't frighten an adult, but do. The unlimited hashbrown/bearclaw/waffle/cappuccino challenge: What an opportunity to heal. 

I was attracted to the Azamara Club Cruises outfit because its ships dock longer in ports than most and are relatively small, housing some 700 passengers while other lines house thousands. 

Boarding a shuttle bus in Barcelona, watching fellow passengers exchange eager hellos, I marveled like a spectator at a museum, thinking: This. Is. Joy.

Now, see, I was depressed before I left. So sunk that I could hardly picture riding public transit to the airport, much less being airborne. On its face, this sorrow was unjustified. Many things were great in my life. I had not asked for this. Who ever does? 

Some aspects of my life were actually great. Depression doesn't care. Depression stares sweet kisses and birthday cake in the face and says: Ha ha ha, I will screw you up.

Like cloudy jelly sheaths drawn over our heads, depression blocks blessings and views of the sky.

My misery was magnified by shame, because I knew I had no right to it. I pictured juries of my peers finding me guilty of malingering. Of whining. Of having emotions to which sufferers of tragedies were entitled but I was not. These juries' forepersons, looking quite like my parents, declared: I'll give you something to cry about.

Gliding aboard the shuttle bus through dockside Spain, remembering how much I once loved traveling, I thought: Give yourself to the trip. As devout people give themselves to God, we who love traveling (despite how long it's been) can give ourselves to trips. As others say in prayer, we can say, "I have no idea who I am or where I'm going or why," investing faith in the simple geometry of points on globes. The revelation of propulsion. The pinprick epiphany of playgrounds, alphabets, and archways virgin to the eye. Receive the gift of being blissfully illiterate in landscapes which ask nothing of us, certainly not explanations, perhaps now and then only a smile. Welcome the heavy mercy of miles whooshing past, each mile a microcosm of biology, history, and possibility. Be awestruck by the scalp-tingling miracle of being anywhere but home, while letting those miles whisper what they will. 

Travel works wonders if we let it. I gazed up the midnight-blue hull of the Azamara Quest, grasping a plastic key card bearing my name which, like some fairytale wand, would grant me entry into my own special stateroom with its snowy-sheeted princess bed, perpetually refreshed fruit bowl and floor-to-ceiling mirror and verandah from which, once we left port, one saw silver clear to the horizon and heard the stark silky liturgy of steel cutting the sea. I realized that cruises make traveling preternaturally easy. Clearly that's why, every year, some 20 million people cruise. It's why cruising comprises a $37 billion industry. Once aboard, cruisers are free from guesswork, paperwork and, for the most part, risk.

I am a fearful person. This shames me as well, because we've been told to run with the wolves. But I believe more adults are fearful than we realize and/or admit. I think living burdened by fear—of crime, war, hunger, illness, and each other, and the shame and guilt this spawns—drains us and hardens us. Cruise ships say soothingly. For these few days, you're safe. 

In this sense, cruise ships are floating gated communities, seagoing all-in resorts. Sleep here, eat here, we'll guard the doors in port, and then once we sail, the ocean is your moat. A DIY type, I found this almost too easy. Almost cheating. But given a mental state that made trips to my local supermarket seem epic and awful, I was eager to give too-easy a try. 

So it began: the cypress- and cathedral-studded southern coast, smelling of lavender and sunshine, high-season cicadas screaming in the trees. Sailing by night, which requires placing faith in steel, in crew and captain scanning the surrounding blackness from the bridge. So it began: No one minding where I was, and dawn breaking like hurled pearls.

And yes, the friendliness. In every elevator, every hallway, the neverending smiles and hellos. Those cheerful dialogues: I might never forget the bubbly lady in the flowered scarf, telling me over toast about a lightning storm through which she once drove in Honduras. 

I'm not a people person. I could go three days exchanging not one word with anyone and emerge neither lonely nor bereft. Yet an ambient meanness infects modern life which even, perhaps especially, introverts can feel. 

The town where I live is famous for many things, but friendliness is not among them. People take themselves so seriously here that fun and laughter are virtual felonies. This town takes matters to extremes, but most towns now exude tacit hostility because times are hard, jobs are few, and strangers, truth be told, might stab us or tell us their troubles or attempt to sell us TVs stuffed with stones. I wish life was like old films in which townspeople tip their hats as they pass. I say this as an introvert: We have, at home, collectively accepted life without eye contact. We lost that warmth when our forebears left their villages. But cruise ships bring it back.

Another shipboard institution absent from our daily lives is deference. On Azamara ships, renowned throughout cruisedom for their high crew-passenger ratios, workers call passengers "Madam" and "Sir" and wish them good morning and evening and, watching them board, say "Welcome home." This implication of class hierarchy, plus my own struggles with low self-esteem, render such honorifics worrisome. When a crew member lifted my buffet tray from my hands and bore it to my table gracefully, I nearly died of don't-deserve-it shame. I wanted to wail, "You don't understand."

I saw other passengers snapping selfies with crewmembers who had borne their trays or served them wine. Deference, I realized, gave these passengers a sense of respect that they lacked, for whatever reasons, at home.

I realized too that crewmembers are trained in deference, which—because most passengers desire it—is an expertise as crucial to these jobs as folding napkins into fan shapes, say, or interpreting radar screens or baking hams, none of which I can do. Respect, then, goes both ways. 

Somewhere near Portofino, watching the slick slatey dolphins for whom this saucer-sized, picture-perfect port is named—porto delfino—I began to feel that cloudy jelly sheath melt in the heat. From that point on, I saw the ship as part-castle, part-clinic, part-playland, part-shrine, surrounded as it was by that most sacred transformer of souls, the sea. 

Granted, cruise ships are not for everyone: Limitless food and cocktails, sociability, casinos, gaudy gift shops selling Swarovski Donald Ducks and the plain fact of not being on land will be dealbreakers for some, shipboard AA meetings, gyms and room service notwithstanding. But for many, cruise ships soothe a spectrum of anxieties.

One night the main event was a dinner and dance. From a deckchair above the celebration, eating low-sugar yogurt-banana cake, separate like the introvert I am, I watched the band performing "Proud Mary" and "YMCA." The lights of Monte Carlo shimmered through a humid haze.

"It's gonna be a good, good night," the band sang.

And, unironically, it was.

Accompanying photograph by Kristan Lawson.