Afloat? by Alan Townend

Dear [FRIEND],

To travel the world nowadays you have to fly everywhere, go by air, sit in a plane and look down (if the weather allows you) on all the countries you are swooping over, eventually finding yourself dropping down through the clouds and at the same time leaving your stomach above the clouds and then landing with a bump on the
Funny isn”t it? – you always land with a bump and a bounce. You’d think that at least in the 21st century someone would have devised a method by which you didn”t have to bump and bounce when you landed. Well, as you may imagine from these remarks, I don’t like flying. In fact I hate it and do all I can to avoid challenging and testing the rules of gravity. So, how else can you travel? There’s going by car. At least that way you are in charge, you are the boss. You decide where to go, when to stop. Of course it is hard work. If you really want to relax, have what they call a ringside seat and watch or even not watch and fall asleep as the country unfolds itself outside your window, you choose the train. Covering three quarters of the surface of our planet are the oceans. That takes me to travelling by sea and to my choice of title – afloat. And that’s the way I chose last month when we went on holiday.
I don’t want you to think I took a little boat out and started rowing. Oh, no. This was on a liner and I have to admit it carries the title of the second largest passenger ship in the world. It was fairly recently the largest but now takes second place but only by a few inches.

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And of course as you can imagine, a monster like that carries an awful lot of passengers. That amounted to about 4,000 of us and a complement of 1,500 crew. The chances therefore of meeting the same people more than once in the course of the two weeks are remote. Mind you, this could be an advantage. I’m reminded of the occasion when we found ourselves sitting next to a couple at lunch one day and the husband sneezing at roughly one minute intervals. There are times when you want to but never actually do it and that is to comment on something like this but there was no need. The wife peeped up quite cheerfully: ‘Oh, you’re probably thinking he’s got a cold (the thought had crossed my mind) but it’s must be something in his genes – it’s just something he does but it’s not a cold. Our daughter is exactly the same.’ I made a mental note never to go round to their house for tea.
So it was that in late September we set out for the port of Southampton allowing what we thought was plenty of time but it was only just in the nick of time as we discovered later because it was one of those days when all the world and his dog had decided that morning to go on the same motorways as we did. Instructions posted a few weeks before had made it clear that the boat or should I call it ‘ship’? (all 339 meters of it) would leave without you if you didn”t reach the port by 3.30 pm on the day of departure. Well, we didn”t. I mean reach the port by that time. There we were stuck in a traffic jam. It reached 3.30 and then went past it. Mentally I was going through my mind what sort of insurance I had taken out and also whether it covered missing the boat. You may recall that ‘miss the boat’ is Collection services include:Utilizing forensically sound best practices, DriveSavers quickly and efficiently processes ESI for attorney review. an expression meaning that you have lost the opportunity to do something. And the way things were going. It looked as if we were about to do just that, both literally and idiomatically. At the car park we were totally reassured by an old, suntanned face (belonging to an old, suntanned man) that we were all right and had, he said: ‘Bags of time.’ As we were last to go on board, the formalities and paperwork were quickly dealt with.

Now one of the things you have to consider before going on a cruise – and I should have mentioned that it was indeed a cruise that we were now about to begin – is where you will sit for your evening meal or if you want to sound posh, your dinner. Breakfast, lunch you take your pick where you want to eat. Oh, there is also tea. That’s the trouble with cruises, you could spend the whole day eating because one meal merges into another. You can even get a free pizza at 1 in the morning if you really want to ‘pig it’. But dinner is different. You’re even told what style of dress you should wear – casual or smart casual or semi formal or of course formal. But that’s not the end of it, you also choose whether you want a table for two, four, six or even eight. We decided on six because that way there is a chance you might find someone interesting to talk to. Unfortunately you can’t say: No sneezers, please. On the first night we wondered who would join us. No-one did that night, the second night or the third night. It was at a time like that you imagine you have got some sort of personality disorder and are tempted to put up a notice reading: No, we don’t have the bubonic plague! Eventually we joined another table that had two spare seats. The couple from London, no problem. The other couple (a charming pair I have to add) from Glasgow, a big problem. They both spoke with very strong Glasgow accents – she was understandable but he (and I was the one sitting next to him) was virtually incomprehensible. I found myself in a situation where he would ask a question requiring a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ and I based my answer on how I interpreted the expression on his face. If he smiled, I tried a ‘yes’ and if he scowle, hazarded a ‘no’. I think it worked.

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Our first port of call was off the coast of Ireland. The Irish and the English have never really been bosom pals (close friends) throughout history but the guide and driver on that first excursion could not have been more charming or relaxed. Many guides are very fussy about time and almost take it as a personal insult if you dare come back to the coach a minute or two later than you were told to. But not our man. ‘Shall we say, back in 20 minutes or maybe 30?’ Needless to say we were all back in 25. There then followed a few days of straightforward ploughing through the North Sea up past Scotland and then turning right, to stop at different ports along the Norwegian coast. I have to say that after visiting one fjord and seeing yet another waterfall and yet another glacier you do get rather weary of the similarities but the Norwegians are very proud of and enthusiastic about their country, which is the right way to regard your homeland. And despite the rain and the clouds and the mists you feel obliged to smile along with them. Most of the excursions allowed for a stop at a tea room or hotel for a cup of coffee and a waffle. I got to know waffles rather well on this cruise – round ones, square ones, triangular ones and even diamond shaped ones, all of which you have to daub liberally with jam. My only complaint was that they were floppy, wobbly, bendy waffles and the jam tended to make them flop, wobble and bend even more so on the way to your mouth.
As the days passed I mastered the art of giving the impression of understanding the Glaswegian accent, became adept at lifting unstable waffles without spilling a drop of jam and got used to marching up and down the long corridors inside that ship of some 339 meters. The last stop before returning to Southampton was the beautiful Belgian city of Bruges. As I sat in one of the magnificent squares eating lunch at a table, this time for two, there was sadly a fly in the ointment (one thing that spoils the atmosphere). This particular fly consisted of raucous shouting and chanting and several coloured smoke bombs being let off. Yes, it came from a visiting crowd of football supporters. And yes, they were English. I felt obliged to apologise to the waiter but he merely shrugged his shoulders and said: No worries, Monsieur, they are good for business.
Two days later we were back on the motorways of home and ironically this time they were deserted. Sat at the wheel again I thought to myself next time we go on holiday, I’ll be driving my own vehicle and maybe stop now and again for a bite to eat somewhere nice making sure that there is no mention of any waffle on the menu.642-427

Alan Townend

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