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James Skinner

Greek Scenes ©Tony Brown

‘I didn’t know we were visiting Greek brothels?’ I snapped at my wife as the tour guide went on. ‘Don’t be blasphemous’ she retorted, ‘she’s talking about the Virgin Mary’s home. When we visit Kusadasi, we can either visit it or not!’ She paused and added, ‘there’s nothing to see anyway!’
At least I’ll save 20 Euros. I went back to my inner thoughts. Zorba’s disciple continued to ramble on. We finally arrived at our point of departure. There she was, ‘MTS World Renaissance’. With her blue hull and white decks and a slender single funnel displaying the liner’s company colour, she was resting majestically alongside a bustling and noisy wharf awaiting patiently for her departure time. One look and I thought, ‘you great big hunk of iron, you're gorgeous!’ I immediately fell in love with her.

I must pause and explain something about cruises in general. You see, I live in Vigo, Spain which is, apart from La Coruña, one of the main Spanish ports on the Atlantic coast. Most cruise liners that depart from the UK bound for the Mediterranean will eventually call at one of them, either southward or homeward bound. I know when a ship is in port because my city is swarming with pot-bellied, overly sunburned (if they’re on their way home) fifty pluses all clad in shorts, flip-flops and Mexican ‘sombreros’. Although it may be pouring with rain and around 10 C they still think that they’re in ‘sunny’ Spain. There is one point however that one cannot miss. They’re all British tourists. When we boarded the ‘Renaissance’ and entered the main foyer, the hall was bustling with humanity. Short, thin, fat, young, old (mainly), dark, white and all yapping away in a multitude of languages. I’m sure it was like a recess at the UN only this lot didn’t wear dark suits and carry briefcases. After waiting in line for about 10 minutes, I presented our tickets and passports at the purser’ desk and asked the multimillion daft question. ‘Excuse me, but where do all these people come from?’

The girl at the desk just smiled and answered in broken English, ‘We have passenger from many parts, Sir?’ I went on, ‘yes, but how many different nationalities are here?’ Like a typical idiot I added, ‘are there any English passengers?’ She answered, ‘Many Americans’ paused, ‘from both ends!’ She then continued to deal with my papers punching away at her PC. After retaining my passport and giving me two boarding cards, in an sort of pre-recorded voice similar to those ‘thank you for your service’ that emerge from petrol pumps, she said, ‘your cabin number is D47.’ She handed the keys to an awaiting steward. ‘If you need further assistance, the information desk is to your right. Have a nice day!’ Looking at the couple behind me she continued, ‘good evening. your papers please.’

No way Jose, somehow I needed to find our more about what sort of congregation of Homo Sapiens I was to share the next 8 days and 7 nights. Meanwhile and diligently following a short, dark haired young Greek we trotted off to our cabin.
‘Spanish or English?’ whispered the steward. ‘What?’ I answered. ‘You Spanish or English? I speak any!’ he continued as he opened our cabin door. I liked him right away. ‘I’m British and my wife is Spanish. Take your pick’. Our small Adonis, a typical seaman with, I assume years of experience, just smiled, handed me our keys (a proper one, not a programmed moth eaten plastic card) uttered, ‘Ok’ and left. At last alone, my wife and I looked at each other and almost said simultaneously, ‘this is it, a trip to … ’ when suddenly from behind the pillow a voice pierced the air and broke the romantic atmosphere. ‘Attention please. There will be a life boat drill in the Greco lounge. Please collect your life jackets which are under each bed and proceed immediately to your stations as detailed on the door of your cabin. Thank you!’

I’m sure most of you have been used to and for the worldly travelled even fed up of safety drills aboard aircraft. Recognising that they are essential, they are also a bore. The ones on board a ship are something else. They’re a hoot! To start with, the damn jacket is nothing like those on an aeroplane. The modern ‘Mae West’ is made up of two thick blocks of floatable material that clamp round your neck like an orthopaedic collar. A set of car type safety straps make sure the obnoxious object and your upper torso keep together. I can assure you no body could every sink if it fell overboard, dead or alive! The second point is that the drill itself serves a double purpose.
As we assembled under each muster station, numbered according to your allotted lifeboat, the lounge spotlights were suddenly turned on and the stage at one end of the room was alive with uniformed females, all members of the ship’s staff. Each held a pole with a number that represented a lifeboat. Meanwhile, several photographers were running around the room taking pictures. Groups of giggly passengers, including yours truly, huddled together and despite us all looking like a massive Oxo cube advert, were all eager to keep a memento of our first moment aboard.

Enter the Cruise Director. ‘Good evening, I’m Gary your Cruise Director’. Whilst he continued with the routine palaver of what we should all do in case of an emergency, I couldn’t help thinking, ‘hey, the guy’s a Brit! He’s in the wrong opera!’ I’d missed all the bit about playing ‘follow the leader with the number’, jumping into a lifeboat and blowing my whistle (somewhere hidden in my life jacket) in case I got lost at sea. He concluded the drill and then continued with a long and useful dissertation about our cruise. You know, the do's and don’ts, the whose who and the where’s where. Gary was on the ball. He must know about my fellow passengers.
Gary explained. ‘The international tour operators that we deal with are mainly in North and South America as well as Spain. You’ll meet up with many Latinos as well as Anglo-Saxons. That is why we address everyone in both English and Spanish’.
‘But I’ve seen others such as many, pardon me, different types of Orientals from the Far East?’ How did they find they’re way here?’ I continued. Ditto Bruce Willis, ‘trust me, I’ve been doing this for fifteen years and ‘I’ll tell you something, Mr. Skinner. The world may be full of international conflicts, but aboard these cruises, everyone from different walks of life and background behave like one community in complete harmony. That’s the real beauty of cruise holidays!’ He paused for a second and went on ‘I really haven’t a clue how they make it to the travel agent, but that’s it in a nutshell!’
He and I were the only Brits on board! I wonder why?


One final administrative chore remained before we commenced our cruise and were let loose to explore the bowels of our floating Iron Maiden; ‘Dinner seating arrangements.’
In order to wine and dine around 500 hungry international cruisers for over a week, the ‘Renaissance’ catering sector had arranged two separate sittings which translated into: oldies first, yuppies second. Being democratic, you had a choice, but you had to decide before departure. My mind went to work. We get up early in the morning for breakfast to be ready for our island tours. Then return to the ship, if appropriate, for lunch, on to siesta, tea, ‘muck about’, drinks, dinner, cabaret, more drinks and ‘final drop dead’. ‘I think we’ll put our names down for the early seven o’clock dinner’, I innocently suggested to my wife. ‘And miss the disco dancing? We’ll take the latter turn!’ she decided. As it turned out, it was the best choice. Whilst I waited in line in the dinning saloon to give the Maitre D’ our preference, the ship’s engines came to life!

One of the most exhilarating moments on board a ship is always sailing time. The whole procedure of co-ordinating the separation of a large vessel from its moorings and manoeuvring it through the mayhem of a harbour to commence its main purpose in life is an experience on its own. Captain on bridge, walkie-talkie in hand, delivering his step by step instructions to all and sundry. Passengers running about on all decks and in all directions trying to capture the best views with their multiple choice cameras. Deckhands discretely avoiding them as they carry out Bligh’s orders. Once the ropes are released, the shore staff take a sigh of relief and light up their fags. The ship is pulled away from the jetty by a pair of tugs. She is placed in position, is let loose, starts to move and begins to pick up speed. The bow is pointed in the right direction and the sound of the waves as they batter the sides mutter a soft and repetitive message that seems to say ‘Istanbul here I come’. My own sights and thoughts were focused on Piraeus as it disappeared in the distance. I could still see Melina Mercouri as she bobbed up and down in the water, waving and singing ‘Ta paidia tou Pirea’ (Theme of Never on Sunday). Nostalgia and grey hair grow stronger with age!

Back to reality and first meal of the voyage. It's dead on nine o’clock and like typical Brits, we’re the first in the dinning saloon. Why we impose this typical habit of punctuality is beyond me? Dozens of eyes from awaiting waiters welcome us as one of them moves forward and smilingly shows us to our table. It is number 6. As we go through the ritual of placing napkins on lap and reviewing the menu as well as the wine list, our first cohabiting eating partners arrive. They’re a couple, about our own age, from El Salvador (that’s the country in Central America that went to war with Honduras because of an idiotic football match.) He’s a director of a large automobile distributorship in San Salvador, the capital and his wife is a civil servant. No sooner do we complete the initial introductions that I find we had something in common. He’s about to retire and apart from going on a cruise doesn’t know what to do in the future.
‘Ah!’ Says I. ‘Do what I did and go back to university. Study something totally different. I was taught how to write.’ The ice was broken immediately as we found common ground and mutual interest in our exchange of conversations. Enter the Catalans.
A young honeymooning couple are directed to our table. As they approach, both are mumbling into and eating each others ears, oblivious of everyone standing at or seated around the table. They stop, release each other, smile and utter some sort of sound that is taken to mean ‘good evening’. They then break into Spanish and say, ‘We’re from Tarragona, Cataluña. This is our first trip abroad’. They sit down, go back into their shells and continue to address each other in Catalan. The next couple that were destined to our table were also honeymooners but from Valencia. As they reached our table they were yapping away in their own regional language reverting back to Spanish as introductions took place. My God! My wife is Galician, from the Northwest of Spain and they too have a regional language. I could not believe it. Here I was, seated at ‘The Spanish League of Nations’ all of us in need of our own interpreters!

I’ve exaggerated, of course, but digressing slightly, Spain is suffering at the moment from a sort of regional nationalistic psychosis. The disease’s main symptom is the proud knowledge and use of the regional languages by the younger generations. The short but poignant episode of our first dinner encounter highlighted the situation without a doubt. The Latin Americans, on the other hand are bemused by it all. Hence my Salvadorian friend’s sarcastic remark that suggested we all speak in English to make things easier all round. I must confess that once we were all seated and ready to order, Spanish was the universal language that prevailed. As Gary, our cruise director had rightly pointed out a few hours earlier, ‘all political discrepancies are left by the quayside’. Pardon the pun, but as the waters calmed down it was as if an invisible green light had been turned on. Our waiter arrived.

‘Hello. I’m Niko. I’ll be at your service for the rest of the trip. Are you ready to order?’ Believe me when I say that this is not the typical ‘all-included-self-service-soggy-meal’ system suffered by most average package tour holidaymakers that travel around the world. The catering offer aboard most cruise liners from dawn to dusk is second to none. The evening dinner is an excellently presented cuisine as per the printed menu on display during the day. It is supplemented with a varied selection of wines capable of appeasing the most exigent connoisseur. Apart from the usual sequence of courses ranging from appetisers through to coffee and dessert, the international flavour based on the ‘theme of the day’ added to the excitement of sitting down to a five course meal as the caveat of a full day’s activity provided by the operators. Although our venture had just begun and we hadn’t yet seen the ocean (it was already dark) giving Niko our evening shopping list seemed to kick-start our holiday, and place us, as Glen Miller would blow ‘In the mood’ for the rest of our days at sea.

© James Skinner. 2002.
To be Continued

Missed Part One:

James Skinner

As expected,the ship was a sixties rust bucket all spruced up for the umpteenth time, just like Bette Davies in ‘Whatever happened to Baby Jane?’

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