Christina Tolan has set off on her first ever cruise and agreed to share the experience in this lively piece. We kick off with a health and safety briefing!
Day One – A Bug Voyage
Before setting sail on the 3,000 passenger, 1,000 crew, cruise ship today, we attended a safety demonstration of emergency exit identification and safety vest usage. After several minutes, the recorded voice casually mentioned that “in the very unlikely event of abandoning ship” we wouldn’t all receive a place on a boat.
Instead, many passengers would be escorted to an inflatable slide to shoot down to the rescue rafts.
Why wasn’t anyone protesting? I’ve watched Titanic enough to know that you need a dinghy and not a scrap of raft to survive.
remaining twenty minutes of health & safety weren’t any more motivating. I’ll summarize:
- Wash hands with soap under running water for at least 20 seconds
- Do this preferably in your cabin bathroom and not in the public restrooms
- Use the hand sanitizers positioned in social areas throughout the ship
- Since viruses can survive hand sanitizers, please return to your cabin, wash your hands, then use the hand disinfectant
- There are a lot of Americans on board, and we ask you to not be your usual friendly selves and NOT take part in your custom of shaking hands. Instead, nod or smile, and if you must shake hands, please return to your room to wash hands, then sanitize yourself as above
- If you must cough or sneeze use a tissue. Please throw away these tissues. If you don’t have a tissue, please use the inside of your arm or sleeve.
- If you become sick, please stay in your room and report it to our medical center. DO NOTLEAVE YOUR ROOM.
What germs are on this ship? What do they expect the passengers to be carrying? Where’s my life vest?
I think I’ll take my chances with the icebergs.
Day Four – At Sea
The safety instructions for the life vests and emergency exits on our first day were conducted in English, the universal language onboard. The directions for the bus tours and meeting point to return to the ship were given not only in English, but also Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Kiswahili and a language of too many consonants and not enough vowels.
Seems they should have given a crash course in German. For today’s tour in Warnemünde, Germany our advice was:
“If you get lost in Warnemunde [sic] or Berlin please look for help. One phrase should help you: Please take me back to the ship docked at the port of Warnemunde [sic] in Germany; ‘Bittebringen Sie mich zurück zum Seehafen Warnemunde [sic], Ost-West-Straße.’ “
Warnemünde is about a 2.5 hour train ride from Berlin. I could imagine a Berliner would think this was a joke, not a plea for help, and toss a few coins in the lost cruise-colleague’s outstretched hand.
I found this all reassuring because logic follows that there are more chances of the ship sailing and one being left in a foreign country than falling overboard.
Day Five – Bingo was his name-O!!!
I was out of my league. This wasn’t the Bingo of Mrs. Pappas’ fifth-grade class at Windermere Elementary. Forget playing rows across, down and diagonal, now there were new formats: postage stamp, diamond, all I’s and G’s, six block and X-form. It was a revised Bingo language and I wasn’t fluent.
The caller began. For the next hour, as each number appeared on the screen, which he read in his Latin drawl, my heart pounded, my mouth went dry and my palms turned clammy. I scanned my bonus pack of Bingo cards, my stamper poised, ready to stake its claim. My mom calmly whistled to herself and marked her sheets.
I needed my distance glasses to see the screen, but then faced blurry numbers when my eyes returned to the cards. My obsessive compulsive disorder required that I check the screen with my driving glasses, slide them down my nose, peer through my reading glasses held in my left hand to read the game columns, then mark any numbers I was lucky enough to identify with my turquoise-ink stamper. This wasted valuable time. Why hadn’t I demanded a bifocal prescription from the eye doctor? She hadn’t taken Bingo into account.
How was this relaxing?
As if my personal spiral of anxiety wasn’t enough, here came the “standers,” players one number away from Bingo who were encouraged to stand and show how close they were to the prize.
The caller asked, “How do we feel about standers?” I joined my fellow bingo-hopefuls in boo-ing the over-achievers. How could there be so many standers while I struggled finding the numbers on the page?
Mom coached me over lunch. Even if someone called “Bingo,” I had to double-check my numbers with the screen in case I’d miss something. I should not cap my stamper between numbers and I needed to stop humming the Bingo song.
I entered the afternoon round refreshed and with a plan. I wet my stamper in advance. I sat us in the first row. Here I didn’t need my distance glasses and I could read the caller’s lips instead of relying only on his voice. I also wouldn’t be distracted by the standers.
Two games were won by children. They’re allowed to play but may not purchase bingo sheets nor collect the money. I considered filing a complaint about their unfair advantages of sharper eyes, quicker reflexes and superior hand-eye coordination.
We never had Bingo public humiliation in the fifth grade.
One man mistakenly called “Bingo”. As punishment for disrupting the flow of play, he had to perform the “chicken dance” before the crowd while we clapped and flapped our “wings”.
The final round was “Snowball Jackpot Bingo” with a cash prize of $1,385. My adrenaline level was so high, I only saw turquoise ink and forgot to mark several numbers. I was my worst enemy! Wasn’t panic, heart pounding, shaking hands and an adrenaline rush what I paid for?
On my next cruise I’m bringing secret weapons: bifocals and my children.
Day Eight – The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
A visit to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg was the fulfillment of this historian’s dream, and one of the reasons I signed up for this cruise (in addition to having eleven days alone with my mom and the added bonus of not cooking and cleaning for that time).
I studied my Hermitage guide to see what I could cover in the 2.5-hour tour. My eyes watered at the thought of viewing Rembrandt, Titian, da Vinci and Raphael paintings that weren’t accessible to the West for decades.
Our Russian tour guide, Vladimir, painted a different picture of the Hermitage than the serene cathedral to the arts I envisioned.
“Never leave the group,” he intoned as he stuck orange, numbered stickers on each of us for identification. “There are over three-hundred rooms open to the public, only three percent of the collection on display. You can become lost very quickly. If you see me running around screaming ‘Orange Three,’ then I’ve lost one of you. I make my promise to you: I will bring you safely back to the ship.”
Ok,I thought. Maybe I won’t be allowed to explore the museum on my own.
Vladimir’s warnings continued as he handed out our tickets. “The hearing devices have a short range. If my voice is becoming lower and lower in your ear, look for me. If you don’t see me, you are too far away. Return to the group. Be attentive.”
How much art would I be able to see? I started to mentally cross off time periods that I’d be willing to skip due to time constraints: Byzantine, Early Christian, heck I’d even limit Italian since my professors had covered this so extensively. But I’d draw the line at Rembrandt, Titian and Poussin.
Vladimir motioned for us to form a huddle. His eyes searched our crowd of 46. “I will now explain something very important. Be attentive of pickpockets. There are many tour groups with people of all nationalities. Keep your bags in front of your body. Do not open your bags if anyone tries to sell you something. They are only trying to divert your attention to steal your money and passports.”
The elderly couple from Niagara Falls visibly quaked. The family from Mexico linked arms.
“In my sixteen years as a guide, I had three of my guests robbed by pickpockets. One was an old lady on crutches, in this very hall. Her credit cards and money were stolen. Thanks be to God her husband had the passports. Are you nervous?”
We collectively nodded and murmured.
“Good. Let’s go. Be attentive, Orange Three.”
We shuffled through high-ceilinged, marble-walled rooms, each with a different hand-laid parquet floor in intricate patterns. Treasures of the art world passed my eyes, too quickly to take in: Italian, Spanish, Dutch and French masterpieces – my camera capturing blurred images because we never stopped moving.
Until we reached the Raphael room. Two paintings by Raphael dated to the beginning of the 16th century occupied the center of the long hall, each on its own free-standing podium to allow access from both sides. Lines of tour groups converged before the 11 x 14-inch works, each person waiting his or her turn to take their flash-less photograph.
As we crept closer, out of the corner of my eye I spotted a man selling Hermitage books for 5 Euros, half-price from the Russian duty-free checkpoint in front of our ship.
“Orange Three. Be attentive. Raphael on your right,” Vladimir said our whisper devices.
I knew from Vladimir’s lectures that I shouldn’t buy the book. This vendor in the throng of tourists in the Hermitage, holding a wad of currency in one hand and cradling a stack of books, could be nothing else but a pickpocket. I had a 5 Euro bill in the outside pocket of my bag. Surely, I could hand that over and snatch a book before he dropped his wares and stack of cash to rob me?
“Be attentive. We are entering the room to the right.”
Now or never, I thought. Most of the photos I’d taken were now blurred, modern art interpretations. When was I coming to St. Petersburg again? I handed the man my 5 Euros, clutching my purse with my left hand.
“Be attentive!” Vladimir’s voice rang in my ear.
Raphael’s Holy Family (Madonna with the Beardless Joseph) beckoned me from behind its protective glass. Vladimir’s voice became quieter in my ear. I was losing the group. Just one woman photographing, and I could take a picture of the painting. My earpiece crackled. All tour groups looked alike and I didn’t recognize anyone from our cruise ship. I tried to stay calm, but between the static in my ear from the failing device and my quickened breathing, I couldn’t focus to see the painting before me.
Why did all Russian tour guides dress alike in dark trousers and white dress shirts? They should be forced to wear Hawaiian-print.
I was Vladimir’s disobedient guest. I opened my bag in the middle of pickpocket heaven. I purchased from an unauthorized vendor. I strayed from the group to take a photograph, and now my earpiece had no signal. I’d have to find a gallery guard and wave my ticket shouting “Kassa!” for her to take me down to the cashier and information desk and wait for Vladimir to collect me. Such ingratitude after the hospitality he’d shown us.
Entering the next gallery, I identified a figure in pastel-colored, paisley slacks with a black and white flower-print jacket and layered necklaces of a whisper device, camera strap, purse diagonally across her chest and a sweater tied around her waist. My world-traveler mom. My lifeboat in the raging tourist sea of the Hermitage.
“Where were you?” she asked, photographing Michelangelo’s “Crouching Boy” sculpture as our group jockeyed for the position.
I held up my book.
“Great! Go back and get me one,” she said, handing me a large bill, a pickpocket’s dream.
“Put that away!” I hissed. “We’re sticking with the group!”
We joined our shuffling procession to the Dutch rooms where the twenty-three Rembrandts waited.
Vladimir’s deep baritone came over the device, “Be attentive.”
Christina Tolan blogs at yodelerstyle.wordpress.com