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The International Writers Magazine
: A Dimplomats Diary

Diplomatic Diaries – Part V - Gone Cruising
James Skinner is The Honary Consul

Forget about pimps and prostitutes, this is not about any sordid sexual experiences. I’m talking about good old fashion ocean cruising. You know, the ones described in all the holiday brochures down in your local travel office.

The ones that show superb pictures of luxurious liners and exotic destinations interleaved with photographs of happy couples popping champagne over lobster dinners just before arriving at yet another exuberant port of call. Hop on one of these ocean liners when your over sixty and believe me you end up exhausted and ready for a week long rest in an old people’s home. This is what I call ‘Gone cruising’. I should know. I’ve done it.

I remember my 25th wedding anniversary when my wife and I sailed around the Caribbean on a Carnival Cruise ship liner. Our dinner companions were a retired couple of storekeepers from Missouri. The others were a mother and son who were ex postal workers from the United States Postal service, over a hundred year’s service between them. They were all older than us yet kept up the daily pace of activities indulging in the extravaganzas of island hopping spiced with midday booze and food followed by evening dancing and general frolicking about! In fact, now that I recall, I also travelled much later on another cruise in the Mediterranean which I documented in a series written for Hacks about three years ago! Only that time round, we were the oldies chasing the youngsters from Mikonos to Crete with the odd Istanbul thrown in for extras. Alas, bygone days! But wait, what’s this got to do with Diplomatic Diaries? I’ll tell you!

There is one sordid angle related to the pleasures of taking a holiday at sea away from your local pub and that is the sickness problem. What happens if you suddenly come down with an itchy rash or fall down and break your leg because you’re caught in a force five gale and miles away from land? Even worse, you may suffer a stroke or a heart attack and curse like hell because you didn’t refuse that last tot of brandy after midnight the day before. Well one thing is for sure. Provided you survive, the next few days or even weeks turn into yet another adventure but this time round its no fun. Welcome to my consular patch!

Over 100 cruise ships visit both Vigo and Coruña every year bringing with them around 100,000 passengers. During the British school holiday time, July and August, most travellers are middle aged with hundreds of kids. When spring or fall comes round, the average age and hypertension rises and my fellow compatriots can be seen wandering around the city in their shorts and Mexican sombreros when the temperature is just above freezing! Welcome to sunny Spain said the brochure. Liars! And then it happens. I get a call from the local shipping agent. ‘Sorry, James, we’ve just taken Mrs. Smith to the hospital. She’s had a mild stroke. She is accompanied by her husband.’ I put the phone down and enter the case in the consular log. All routine so far, that is until I make the first call to visit my fellow compatriots.

Any British citizen taken ill abroad is considered as a ‘Stress Case’. Quite rightly so! Nobody in their right mind wants to be taken to a foreign hospital, stripped naked, subjected to all sorts of medical tests, tucked into an orthopaedic bed and finally connected to a concoction of tubes pumping liquid furiously, all the time being spoken to in gibberish by a multitude of humans dressed in white or green nightgowns. It can become a real nightmare. The healthy one, usually the accompanying spouse is equally fraught. But not to worry, your consular White Knight comes rushing to their side carrying his ID card and a three day old copy of the ‘Daily Mirror’. With a ‘hello, how are you? I’m the Honorary British Consul. Feeling better? What can I do for you?’ the terror is immediately contained. It all sounds corny but it’s the normal routine that breaks down the ice and comforts the stricken Brit suddenly left to the mercy of the Spanish health system. Enter the complaints!

Most, as I mentioned earlier are to do with the language problem. Here we are, all brothers in arms and boasting to the outside world that Europe is the best thing since sliced bread, yet travel a few miles across a boarder and you just cannot communicate with your neighbour. ‘No matter how hard I shout at her, the nurse doesn’t seem to understand that I must have cold milk with my tea!’ Or how about, ‘I asked for fish and this is what they brought me! Where are the chips? It’s awful!’ I looked at the uneaten specimen on the plate. It was a deliciously grilled small Dover sole. Trouble was that it was in its original state, head, skin and bones and not even cooked in horrible batter. I even had one passenger who demanded ‘bacon and eggs’ for breakfast.
Then you have the boredom and frustration.
‘Isn’t there a British community or society that visits the ill or elderly?’ asked one patient. ‘I’m sorry but the Brits on my patch are scattered all over the country and don’t even speak to each other,’ I answered. ‘I’m it!’ Or how about, ‘the doctor says that I am OK and can leave but nothing happens!’ ‘Madam, your insurance company has not yet come through with the travel arrangements and unfortunately it’s the weekend and nothing will happen until Monday.’ Best of all was the case that came through from one of my colleagues in the Foreign Office. ‘I’ve had a call from an MP saying that a British lady is being held prisoner in a hospital in Spain. Made it sound like Colditz Castle!’ The patient in question had just been brought ashore, suffering from a severe heart attack, was drugged to her eyeballs, yet had that small ounce of energy to call her daughter on her mobile to tell her a cock and bull story about one of the best hospitals in Spain. Again, the poor woman had no idea what had happened to her despite the doctors doing everything they could to save her life.

There are brighter sides to these hospital visits. I visited one elderly passenger who had been a Lieutenant in the Navy during WWII. He had been on the Atlantic convoy run for just over three years. I could just picture him alongside Jack Hawkins and Donald Sinden in the ‘Cruel Sea’ as I spent hours listening to his experiences. Then there was the mother who was interned with a slight respiratory problem and was travelling with her son. The latter was more interested in the Vigo nightlife than his mum’s condition. He couldn’t wait to hit the trail. Or finally the CEO of a large corporation who was most upset because her mobile had run out of juice and she had left the charger on board. She couldn’t organise a forthcoming international conference for her firm. Yes, I’ve had them all!

By and large most of them survive to tell the tale. The real sad bit to this sector of consular work is when the odd one passes away. The body is immediately repatriated back to the UK. No problem here. It’s dealing with the next of kin. Only once have I had to pass on the sad news to the spouse whilst she was waiting in the hospital aisle for news of her loved one. They had been celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary on the ship the night before his heart attack. This was the case that left me with the greatest sadness after one of the many visits I have made to the local hospital.
The cruise ship and its inhabitants are oblivious to these traumas that are left behind. They just sail away into the sunset, seeking their next destination and ongoing hoopla.
© James Skinner. February 2005.
Man Overboard
James Skinner - Diplomatic Diaries Pt 3

Crisis Management
James Skinner in Vigo

Diplomatic Diary 4
James Skinner on ID theft

Diplomatic Diary 6
Deakling with big crowds of English

More Lifestyles


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