It’s a strange and wonderful world living on a cruise ship for a week. We are not on one of those massive 3,000 berth Caribbean monster liners with 7 passenger decks, 7 bars and 17 nights of restless B-factor entertainment.
Rather, we are on something of a mini-cruise on a robust Hurtigruten Nordic ship, working down the spine of Norway. Like a slow and deliberate masseur checking out every vertebrae of a mountain and every disc of a port. There are 300 of us, with the occasional educational lecture and one bar – unused by me on an alcohol-free week.
All Aboard the Big Floating House
So a random selection of not-previously-introduced voyeurs are squeezed together for a week into a makeshift instant community. Day One to Day Eight, each day announced like a new day in the Big Brother House. “Day Four – and Debbie is eagerly anticipating the arrival of the cloudberry cheesecake”
Unlike in that ironically labelled “reality TV” programme, in this literally real floating apartment block, there is no overt competition or confrontation. Everyone is polite, respectful and accommodating – at least on the surface. More on that later.
Each day, a different part of the world streams itself live in front of our eyes, as we sail effortlessly from one town to another. We just have to sit back, eat, take photos, post them on Facebook and then count how many people like them. What could be more relaxing?
We were warned that we could be the youngest people on the ship. Well not quite. But there is a majority of elderly couples – particularly German and French – many no doubt retired. The majority clearly enjoy the unlimited food and possibly should be taking the stairs rather than the lift. I haven’t seen any of them in the gym.
There are some folk you notice and keep seeing – others you only spot on the last day and wonder where they have been hiding. As in life.
The staff too become familiar as they too are part of the closed community – just living on a different, lower deck. Upstairs for the elite, and downstairs for the servants.
The Fullness of Full Board
Most people take full board. Otherwise, obtaining regular food would be pretty challenging. There is one shop on board selling chocolate and crisps, otherwise you would be forced to find a shop on one of the stops. Unsurprisingly, nothing is open in Tromsø at 12.30am, or in Trondheim at 7am. Or, it seems is some ports at anytime. Norway seems to have a refreshingly no-fuss approach to tourism. There is no need to open up specially, just because 300 people are landing every day in your little town of 2000 people. If we ignore them, they may go away.
The downside of full board is the constant challenge of having to eat “what we have paid for” even when we are not hungry. Two weetabix at home translates into fruit, porridge, yoghurt, salmon, pickled herring, boiled egg, cheese, cold meat and a variety of salad in a breakfast buffet. Repeat ad nauseam (if not careful) for lunch and then a three course dinner, which becomes a relative light snack, because the food is brought to us, rather than the other way round.
The constant feeling of being bloated becomes rather too much. We pretend it is something imposed upon us rather than self-selected, as we return to the dessert bar for “just something to finish us off”.
Queue the Quiet Competition
I mentioned that people are outwardly polite and respectful. But as everywhere in life there are undercover competitions and unspoken conflicts. With so many people in a closed space, accessing food, facilities and seats – there is the a temptation to jump the queue. This could be the rush to check-in, the dash to leave the ship, the stampede towards the vacant chairs, or the queue for the coffee machine.
Competition is discrete and tactics are well-hidden. Subtle enough that no accusation would stand up in court, “I didn’t see you”, “I thought you were in a different queue”, “I thought I was here before you”. As we checked in, there were two queues with some unauthorised moving between them, people using their suitcases as markers, like towels on a deckchair or a golfer marking his ball. Playing the queues both ways. Or maybe one half of a couple in each queue.
Be careful the person who tries to subtly cut in front of my wife when the waiter brings in the fresh tray of tiramisu. She has tracked it leaving the kitchen on her fine-tuned pudding-radar, and vacated her seat at the perfect time to meet it as it arrives at the dessert bar. Don’t even try to get in front of her – or the just desserts you get may not be so pleasant.
Maritime Mating Rituals
There are many rituals on board. We are invited to wave at passing ships, in some sort of international competition to see which community of passengers waves the most. I have never seen this sport on TV, nor expect to read any of the results in the maritime newspapers. So I leave it to others – mainly Norwegians with flags it seems – to take part.
What is harder to avoid is the exchange of mating calls. Our ship groans out a deep guttural and seductive B flat. The approaching ship moans out a higher pitch perfect C. Like two sea-monsters checking for a mutual attraction. Thankfully, nothing ever comes of it. Swipe left, swipe left.
A Long Time at Sea
Whilst there are lots of meals, quizzes, excursions and presentations on board and frequent stops. But even if you went to them all, there is awful lot of time simply “at sea”. Sailing along for hour after hour through water and time. Every knot is 4 minutes, every minute a quarter of a mile. Time and distance spread out – and the temptation is to keep asking ourselves “what shall we do?” The opportunity to read, write, take photos, social mediate, make coffee are all fine and not to be sniffed at. But there is also an opportunity as the beautiful world passes across our eyes simply to stare and watch and listen and notice things. Look and listen out.
Or, its quite okay to give ourselves permission to be bored and to lapse into lethargy and low-energy stupor. Even to take a nap or watch inane TV. We don’t get the chance very often. So let’s not feel guilty.
Journeys End / Carry on Cruising
And so we come to the final day, when we will all be evicted, with our tummies full, our suitcases re-packed and our batteries recharged, or at least rested. I only took to the treadmill once – for 20 minutes.
Apparently, I have 300 unread emails. So the that particular treadmill is still waiting for me. But for now, we are relaxing for the final time on our final night, watching the satsuma sun sink slowly into the sleepy blue-grey sea. A life on the ocean waves is probably not for me. But a slow week at sea – just cruising along – definitely floated my boat.