Why sign up for a seagoing cruise, especially if what you’re interested in is seeing old and intriguing things on land? I have to admit I was a skeptic—and a snob.
It was an important year at our house, with two graduations (Liberty High and Washington State University), no National History Day finals (in Maryland) and, for the first time in ten years, no summer school for me at CSUB. So it was now or probably never for the four of us, and there was no question that we were going to Europe. Lori had gone there as a graduation present from college; I had been there several times, but always on someone else’s nickel and fulfilling someone else’s agenda. I was too old to hitchhike now, and while I preferred the idea of going to one or two places and staying long enough to really get to know them, there was something to be said for seeing a lot of places in a more or less organized fashion.
It was the mental image of a cruise ship that I couldn’t quite handle—a gigantic floating skyscraper traveling on its side and pausing every day or two to disgorge its cargo of three thousand turistas for just long enough to give a selective pump to the local economy. That’s where being a snob came in. I didn’t particularly want to shop, much less have my picture taken with some character in plastic Roman armor outside the Colosseum. I wanted to take my own pictures and turn my imagination loose, but Lori persuaded me that the right guided tour would actually encourage that freedom to happen rather than cutting it off or boxing it in. The key, of course, was to line up the right tours long in advance, and that was what she did—spending hours more on the Web than I would ever have had the patience to do.
What we ended up with, not surprisingly, was a seventh-grade World History teacher’s tour of the eastern Mediterranean. And that was especially fine with me, because seventh grade was when my own imagination was probably at its sharpest, strongest and freest. We visited Athens, Istanbul, Ephesus and Mykonos. We explored Pompeii, the Vatican, the Colosseum, and the cathedral and tower of Pisa. We even made it to the palace of the popes in Avignon, a dreary royal refuge if there ever was one. We also spent a week on our own in Italy (Florence, Ravenna, Venice) and three days in Barcelona—every day a tour (or two), every day a fresh new perspective on something we had thought we already knew well.
In a way, though, the thing that really got through to the seventh grader who still lives in me was practically invisible. After dinner on the night we passed though the Strait of Messina, which runs between the toe of Italy and the football of Sicily, I made my way to the bow of the ship and was surprised to find about fifty other turistas posted there as well. These, of course, were the narrows that the real Spartacus never got his army across. But it was also the passage where Odysseus steered his ship between the whirlpool of Charybdis and the monster Scylla. We didn’t encounter either on this particular evening, but I did see the strangest collection of currents my imagination could have stirred up—glassy water next to frothy water next to choppy water, running in and from all directions. I even saw water that looked like a bank of liquid fog. Though it seemed to be a fairly calm night, they still sent out a special pilot in a little speedboat to guide the giant high-tech ship through the least trustworthy waters in the world.
So I’m no longer a snob about cruise ships, especially for someone who’d like to connect with a lot of history in a short time. The strength and clarity of the connection, of course, is up to the traveler, and the key to it all is careful planning in advance. Will we do it again? Not for a while, at least not to Europe. But in the meantime, we’re starting to read a lot about cruises to Yucatán, and in Yucatán they have a place called Chichen Itza…