Monday, 28 October 2019

Cruisin' 2019: Day 2 - Dr. Harry Hackitoff

So after leaving QC last night at 1700, we have now spent a full day at sea. We’ll be docking in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island at 0800 tomorrow morning. I have no idea what to expect there (see yesterday re: unprepared). To that point, I really don’t know anything about this part of Canada at all. But the weather looks good, and I have barely been able to tell that I’m on a boat, so that’s good. My brother, I think, is genuinely a little freaked out about being on the open seas – he sent me a clip of a Bill Burr stand-up routine talking about the horror stories you hear from ship’s crews. You know, the standard stuff: food poisoning, passengers having to be airlifted off due to some medical emergency and, of course, Stand By Me barf o'rama levels of mass vomiting. I think he’s resigned himself to being at Neptune’s mercy as far as the conditions of the waters are concerned, and from the looks of his spit kit, he’s packed every conceivable remedy for sea sickness. So far, we’ve avoided using any of them. Here’s hoping it stays that way.

The ship’s crew are ridiculously customer-focused. We have two stewards assigned to our room. After meeting them briefly yesterday, one of them said ‘Good morning, Mr Macy,’ today when he saw me. I must have been one of a couple of hundred people he met yesterday. He was THE ONLY new person I met, and I have no idea what his name is. That’s both incredible of him, and shameful of me. But he’s not the exception. To the last, every crew member has been friendly, attentive and professional. And they don’t have it easy. There are over 1000 people on this ship, and each room is serviced like a hotel suite every day. In our room, we have two single beds and a bunk bed for Owen that has to be put away every night. So this morning, while we were at breakfast, our room was cleaned, restocked, and the beds put away and\or made. A list of ship’s activities for the next day was left on one of the beds. And then tonight, while we were at dinner, the bunk bed was brought down, the beds turned down, chocolates left out and a towel animal was put on a bed. Good news is that the towel animal was very cleverly done (there’s a class tomorrow to show you how to do it). Bad news was that it was a SCORPION and it was on my bed. Were they showing off, or were they sending a message? Better not eat those chocolates just yet…

So we have all of this exceptional service from people who MUST (like any other employee) hate their jobs sometimes. These guys are at sea 8 months at a time, and deal with people 24/7 that whole time. And, from what I can see so far, they should be sainted for not throwing half of them overboard. Because 24 hours into this adventure, observation #1: rich, entitled old people are RUDE. These people are 65+, have money to burn and are all out of fucks to give. They don’t say ‘please’ when ordering their food. They don’t say ‘thank you’ when they get it. They cut in line. One old man even physically pushed my 9-year-old nephew out of the way in order to get to the front of the ice cream line. Was he afraid that they’d run out? Maybe he was afraid that he’d kick the bucket before he got his rocky road. I dunno. Even when you call them on it, they DO NOT GIVE A SHIT.  

The most stereotypical cruise couple you can think of walked toward the bistro, where I'm in line for some food. He was in an armed forces veteran hat, tan khakis and white sneakers. His Galloway golf polo shirt was unbuttoned, revealing a bright gold chain resting on a heavily tanned, very hairy chest. She had her short grey hair held up by a visor, and her blue and white striped top screamed ‘Ahoy’ as it cascaded down her short, wide torso and met her dark navy trousers and strikingly white sneakers without the hint of a curve; from, shoulder to kneecap, she was the same width – it really was impressive. I’d seen the incident at the ice cream counter, and had vowed to make a stand if it happened again.

‘Hey, I’m sorry, but the end of the line is back there,’ I say to the couple and point to the LONG line of people already waiting that was obvious to everyone. They look at the line, look at me, and then step in front of me. I try again. ‘Hi, excuse me. But we’ve all been waiting. The back of the line is….’ They turn and look at me as if I had just drank the last drop of prune juice. With cold, dead eyes, they scan me up and down. Slowly. A weathered smile that says ‘try it, let’s see whose side the crew takes’, stretched across their cracked, leathery faces to reveal big teeth that are far too white to be real.  Then, in unison, they grunt and turn away again. Apparently, neither good manners nor I are worth their time. God knows how much of it they have left, I guess. I scoff louder than I need to; they don’t even flinch. Before I can shake my disbelief and go again, they get their food and waddle away, like two of the meanest penguins you can imagine. It dawns on me that this is how it's going to be: a bunch of old people versus us, the slightly less old people. Head to head every meal, every line, every performance, for 11 days. I can now see this kind of thing happening a lot over the course of the cruise; my guess is that it’s only going to get worse. It’s me versus rude old people from now on. Game. On. They may have age, money and experience, but I have Generation X cynicism, all the time in the world, and a healthy awareness that I’ll never see any of these people again. Bring it.

Friday, 25 October 2019

Cruisin' 2019: Day 1: Qu'est-ce que c'est? and Bon Voyage.

Other than it being ‘very French,’ I didn’t really know what to expect from QC. We had arrived late at night and taken an UBER to our Air BnB, so I hadn’t really seen any of it while incoming. But after a breakfast of fresh bread (surprisingly NOT stale) and salted butter, my brother, his son and I headed out the door and walked the 2 miles into downtown.

Wait – I guess I have to confess about my trip to the supermarket to buy essentials (bread, butter, Monster and Cheetos). The morning was bright and sunny, but cold. I left the Air BnB and started walking toward the store. I was dressed in my ‘vacation clothes’ (sneakers, white socks, cargo shorts, a hoodie and a baseball cap), but might as well have been wearing a red, white and blue bandanna, an ‘America, FUCK YEAH!’ t-shirt emblazoned with a screaming bald eagle on the back, stars and stripes swim trunks and cowboy boots – I could not have looked more like a very specifically AMERICAN tourist. 

'Oh well,’ I thought.Wait until I dazzle them with my French. The days of me asking for a ‘cravate’ instead of a carafe of water (and the predictable scorn from the waiter who corrected me with no small degree of smugness) were long gone. I’d brushed up; I was ready.  Or so I thought. I managed a few proficient ‘Bonjour’s to passers-by, and a polite ‘Ça va?’ to the greeter lady as I entered the store. And that’s as good as it gets. I went to the bakery, hoping to find a good sourdough loaf for our morning toast. ‘Avez-vous du pain’… was a good start, but just saying ‘sourdough’ with a BAD French accent didn’t seem to work. At least she smiled kindly, and just said ‘No.’ I went to look around some more, and she returned with someone who claimed to speak a little English. But he looked even more confused (and a little scared) than she did. UNBELIEVABLY, no amount of probably inappropriate hand gestures or slowing down ‘S-O-U-R-D-O-U-G-H’ worked either. And although my competently expressed ‘C'est un autre type de pain,’ appeared not to solve the issue, it at least comforted them in knowing that I was trying to buy a kind of the thing they were selling. After a few more minutes and more than a few more mutual apologies, we agreed on a still-warm ‘Pain du Campagne’ that looked lovely.  Needless to say, the venture into the adjacent pharmacy for sensitive-teeth mouthwash passed in silence.  Upon getting back to the flat to slice the bread up, I discovered, 'pain du campagne' is French sourdough.  La victoire!

When I got back, my brother and nephew were up. Drew was enjoying some coffee and Owen was enjoying not being in school. We sliced, toasted and devoured the loaf, and packed up. At precisely 11am, a knock on the door informed us that our time was up – we headed into town.

It was a gloriously autumnal day: clear, chilly but not cold, and crisp. We had a little over a mile to get into town, where we were meeting the rest of the party for lunch (more on that later). We set out, and the first comment that passed between us was that none of us could believe how CLEAN the city was. It was spotless. And we didn’t stay in a ‘nice’ part of town – it was just normal. But there was no rubbish to be seen. The sides of the main road were still wet from the road-sweeper that had clearly been through. It was a great first impression.

About 15 minutes into our walk, we heard a whistle. Not a policeman's whistle or referee’s whistle, but the unmistakable whistle of a father who had spent far too many hours trying to herd unruly kids through unfathomable crowds. For some reason, even though my brother and I were in a town about 3000 miles from our homes, we both turned because OF COURSE someone was whistling for us (I do this everywhere. Worst. Narcissist. Ever.) Turns out, they were. And if I thought that I stuck out like a touristy sore thumb, in my backpack white socks and carry-on wheely bag, that was nothing compared to the sight of my dad hanging out the window of his massive rented mini-van, waving and whistling to get our attention (thus proving how conspicuous I was afraid that we were). He pulled over. We met, hugged and said hello to the rest of the party: my dad, stepmother, younger sister, her husband, their 16-month-old son, and my younger brother and his wife. After a quick round of more hugs and hellos, we agreed that the party wagon would take our bags, but that my brother, his son and I would continue to walk into town. I’d already made a reservation for lunch at a place called Poutineville so that we could sample what I was told was the ‘must eat’ fare of Quebec: poutine.

Not knowing what makes good poutine (or really, what exactly poutine was), I looked to TripAdvisor and to Yelp for direction. BOTH places had Poutineville as the #1 place to get poutine in Quebec City. That, coupled with the fact that poutine, as a dish, had been sold to me by a Canadian friend as a life-changing culinary event equal to street tacos in Mexico, gyros in Greece or donner kebabs in Aber – meant that I was pumped to get some in me; I’d been proselytising about the power of poutine for months and we were going to have it as our first foray into the cruise experience as a complete unit. What could possibly go wrong? Look how happy we are. Look at the care-free expressions on our faces. We are about to be AMAZED. Oh, merde.

I can’t exactly fault Poutineville: the service was great, and the wait staff were very accommodating of a large group of people who spoke little or terrible French and were about American as it gets. The food came quickly, in large portions, and looked exactly like what the menu said it would. I got the ‘Zeus’, which was potato, cheese curd, gravy, gyro meat, tomatoes, onion and feta. I snapped a photo of the food and sent it to the Canadian friend who insisted that we must have poutine. This is what we arrived at my table:

We all got variations of the classic poutine which is (apparently) fires, gravy and cheese. There were a lot of polite comments about the food, and everyone (including me) expressed how ‘heavy’ and ‘filling’ it was; no one finished their dish. As I pushed my plate away, my phone dinged. It was my Canadian friend. Her reply came in two parts: 1. What the hell? That looks like stew. 2. How was it? When I replied that it was ‘OK’, and questioned whether this was authentic-looking. She replied ‘Na. Usually fries, gravy and cheese.’ And sent this, with the disclaimer ‘But hey, Quebec.’ 

I guess Quebec does things a little differently? Maybe it was just ‘Quebec being Quebecky’, or maybe Poutineville (a chain, apparently) isn’t the place go for local authentic fare. Either way, I’m 0 for 1 on the recommendations – this was hot garage. Or ‘ordures chaudes,’ as one might say in Quebec. Obviously, I can't blame my Canadian friend, either. She suggested that we try poutine, and we clearly did NOT try poutine. We got soggy, bland, stodgey muck, and - about three hours later - an unexpected second course. Mon dieu, sacre vache and pamplemousse.

Luckily, the rest of the city is magnificent. After ‘lunch’ we headed to Old Quebec, and just wandered through its narrow streets and steep drops from the Cathedral to the St. Lawrence River. We popped into a few shops, and I bought the first of what I expect to be many souvenirs for the girls: maple lollipops in the shape of maple leaves. I know, right? I also bought a postcard, as I’d like to send one from each port. I couldn’t find any stamps, though, so will have to try in the next port and send two at once. I’ll probably be home before they are, but it’s the thought that counts.

We’ve just got on the ship, and first impressions are: how the fuck does this thing float? OK, I get it. I’m the guy that can’t believe that planes fly, either. Engineering AMAZES me. Well, I guess buoyancy and aerodynamics are physics, not engineering, but still… HOW ON EARTH AM I NOT AT THE BOTTOM OF THE RIVER? This ship is 11 stories high, and has a casino, two pools, marble statues and a shit-load of really heavy things on it. They must be cutting corner somewhere. Rubber rivets? Styrofoam lifeboats? I don't want to know. Which brings me to my second first impression: there are a lot of old, unhealthy people on this thing. I mean, I knew that cruises in general are normally the playgrounds of the old and infirm – but GOD ALMIGHTY, this thing has more walkers on it than the Battle of Endor. I haven’t yet seen anyone remotely the age of the ‘kids’ in our group, never mind the age of our kids. I have seen a kids’ club – reckon Owen will have the run of that place to himself.  We did find an outdoor basketball court, shuffleboard and soccer area. I’m guessing that over the next 11 days, you’ll either find me there or in the hot tub. Check the hot tub first.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Cruisin' 2019: Day 0 - Unfamiliar Territory

A little over a year ago, my father and stepmother offered everyone in the family an incredible opportunity. After a recent and successful Alaskan cruise, they wanted to do a "New England Fall Colors" cruise down the east coast of North America. Incredibly, they were willing to pay the cruise fare of anyone who could get themselves to port. The only catch was that they were going when it suited them best –anyone who couldn’t make the dates being offered would just have to miss out. Fair enough – when you’re paying over £1000 per room and offering to pay for enough rooms for 14 people, you get to make that call. When the dates were announced, it turned out that my wife (who’s a teacher) and kids couldn’t go. Well, to be brutally honest, it was only my wife that COULD NOT go. But the thought of being a single parent on an 11-day cruise with eight ports (including New York) and three young kids was not very appealing to me, in the most hideously selfish way imaginable. I could make the argument that as the Chair of Governors for a small rural school, taking 3 kids from 30 away for over 2 weeks was an unacceptable precedent to set – and that IS true. But that was the second thing that came to mind when we realised that my wife couldn’t go, and that taking the kids would mean me taking the kids on my own. The first thing to come to mind was, ‘Oh, Hell no.’

My kids are great, but it’s a lot of work just getting them around Aber – I can’t imagine being able to drag them through Hell’s Kitchen on Day 8 after being stuck on a boat for a week. That’s on me, I get that. And I have lots of guilt about it. As the departure date got closer, I felt increasingly terrible about denying my kids this trip, especially when my nephew (who is the same age as my eldest) is going. But he is one kid. And, despite my eldest’s suggestion that I could just take her (nice try), I know that it was everyone or no one, and that I’m nowhere near skilled or patient enough to attempt taking all three kids on my own. So they’re staying home. To be fair, there hasn’t been much complaining about it. I think they kind of get it, even though they’re clearly disappointed not to be going. I’ve pacified them by promising to take them on other adventures soon. The more immediate plan is to come back with a shit-ton of souvenirs so that they forgive me. Early indications are not looking promising, but I’ve been given a list of items that will help secure their favour.

So I have a lot of mixed emotions about this trip. Of course, I’m excited and grateful that I get to go. I realise that not everyone gets this opportunity. And, in general, I love travelling. I love the planning, the packing, the driving to the airport, the sitting in the airport, the recycled airplane air, the airline food... all of it. And I love exploring new places. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t mind being reasonably lost in a new city, as long as I feel safe. So all of these things are great, and I’m thankful that I’ve been given an opportunity to experience them again.

The mixed bit comes as, for the first time in a very long time, I’m taking a good chunk of time away from home without my family. Yes, of course, my wife and I have each taken short breaks with friends over the past 10 years or so without each other or the kids – but this is 2 weeks, on my own. No kids, no wife. And it’s had some unexpected consequences.

For starters, this by far the most unprepared I’ve been for a trip in forever. Yes, I booked the flights and hotel, and first night in an AirBnB in Quebec City months ago... but that’s about it. I checked train prices from Montreal to QC six months ago, but never booked. That was a mistake. Train ticket six months ago: $36. Same train ticket as you’re landing in Montreal: $110. Well, of course it is. We do that in the UK. Why on earth I didn’t realise that is beyond me. Luckily, the bus was cheaper and faster, and there’s no discount for advance booking. Yes, I checked –  I need to know just how much of an idiot I’m being at any given time (spoiler alert: it’s usually A LOT).

But it wasn’t just the transfers. I didn’t pack until the afternoon that I leaving. That’s crazy. I forgot stuff, and had to nip home on my way to the airport to get it. That never happens. I’m always the one in charge of packing – and in charge of incredulously saying ‘HOW MUCH!?’ every time I see what Carol has laid out on the bed for me to pack for her and the kids. But it’s always done at least a night in advance, and to a checklist. Not this time. I left it late. I made no lists. This was the wild west of packing. No rules! I still rolled my clothes of course. I mean, I’m not a sociopath. The plus was, of course, that my entire 2 weeks of travelling needs fit into one carry-on bag. Maybe the reason I kept thinking that I was forgetting something was that I was carrying about 30 fewer bags. And I was actually forgetting things. Either way, it felt weird and liberating and deeply unsettling.

Our usual weekend packing
And it’s not just packing. As I was looking into things to do in each port city, I found myself automatically thinking about things for families. Whale watching, kids museums, playgrounds, restaurants that serve chicken nuggets... anyone who’s traveled with smaller kids knows the drill. You plan for the lowest common denominator, and everyone else sucks it up. It was only after a few minutes of scrolling that it hit me that I wasn’t obliged to do any of those things. Escargot in Quebec? I’ll give it a go. Museum of alpaca knitting in Nova Scotia? Sounds cozy. Pub crawl at 11am in Boston? Why not? I could do any of these and there would be no one to say no. The world was my lobster roll. Will I actually do any of these things? Probably not. I’ve had escargot – they are gross. I’m not a huge drinker and genuinely fear that I would forget to get back on the boat. And I made up the knitting museum. If I’m honest, I’m at a bit of a loss without the kids to guide my planning. Imagine Mel Gibson’s character in Braveheart yelling ‘Freeeeedom!’  Now imagine that same exclamation with a question mark at the end. I’m excited... but I have no clue what to do.
Legitimately, the only things I’ve planned are the places or things I want to eat (other than Taco Bell). That’s it.

Now what?
So we’ll see. I’ve just spent the night in a cozy one-bedroom flat in Quebec City. It’s 0800 locally, so I imagine that all the fresh bread is stale by now, so we’ll need to get up and get some breakfast somewhere at some point.  My brother and his son are snoring at an ungodly volume in the living room (it really IS hereditary). Between now and noon – when I’ve booked us in for Poutine – I honestly have no idea what I’ll be doing. Yeah, it’s exciting – but I’m not sure yet whether I like it.