Going on a cruise around the western and southern coasts of Spain entails two trips. On the one hand, you go to Spain. On the other, you go on a cruise ship. I naively expected the cruise to be somewhat Spanish – paella at dinner, sangria in the afternoon – but the cruise ship is a culture unto itself: English-speaking, abundant and plush, non-threatening, as boisterous as a seven-day wedding reception. It’s CruiseLand!
CruiseLand is mostly populated by old Europeans, mainly English – round, burnt-pink people, shuffling along the corridors, moving with a grim determination to the buffet spreads. They wake up early to begin baking on deck chairs under the unadulterated Mediterranean sun, or they gather in long queues to collect their baked beans at breakfast. On formal nights they emerge from their cabins in tuxedos and gowns – tuxedos and gowns! Packed away on a cruise ship! – to eat the delicious three-course meal in the dining hall and then settle in for more drinks around the boat. The ideal cruise ship would not have any stairs; there would merely be ramps sloping downwards, from the upper decks with the swimming pools and nightclubs and unused jogging track, all the way to a series of troughs and buffet lines and bars. The old English sunbirds could roll or shuffle or zoom along in their motorized carts (plenty of those onboard), smiling broadly and saying “excuse us, pet,” as they tumble on down to feed.
L and I quickly realized that we occupied a demographic black hole on this ship: early thirties, americanos, with a baby. In addition to the elderly European crowd, there were a number of sloshed twenty-somethings – friendly, game United Kingdom kids who could always be relied on to volunteer for the ship beauty pageant or sexiest man contest or nightly karaoke (I myself performed a 1990s N’Sync hit at karaoke one night and received a warm reception from the Irish lasses). These cool young kids seemed to be drunk much of the time, and were having fun in their flamboyantly obnoxious way. How we envied them! There were other young families on the boat, but being European, they had weird customs we could not adopt. At midnight they could be found in the bars, their stroller parked beside them, their bonny wee tot sleeping peacefully inside. There’s nothing like being in a bar on a cruise ship in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, surrounded by old Europeans in wheelchairs and young Europeans in strollers, listening to an outer-borough piano man bang away at “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Viva Espana!
The hallmark of CruiseLand was aggressive hospitality and good cheer. I distinctly remember crossing an empty atrium at seven in the morning, not a soul to be found, while “La Bamba” blasted gaily through the speakers. At meals, attendants and waiters would approach us bearing gifts of strawberries and napkin animals for Alice. People would pat her, tickle her, hug her, pick her up, with barely a glance at us. It took a day or two to become acclimated to this life: the endless food, the available drinks, the towels, the dinners, the tuxedos, the karaoke, the internet by the minute, the champagne bar, the spa, the lack of care or context. The small grace of falling to sleep each night listening to the waves breaking off the hull of the ship.
Seven days in CruiseLand wasn’t enough time. Not even close.