Wednesday, 24 April 2019

A Week In An Almost-Perfect World

We have just returned from a week's European cruise to celebrate my mother's 80th birthday on the P&O Ventura. She had never been on a cruise ship before (unless you count a converted troop ship in her 20s) so it seemed the perfect landmark experience to mark the occasion.

Moreover it removed all the stresses and strains of having to think about food such as shopping, cooking and four different people consuming four different diets. Then there was the delight of only having to unpack once and the convenience of not having to walk too far for the member of our party with arthritic knees. Indeed we noticed a high number of passengers with disabilities, including children. It was the ideal holiday option for those with mobility issues with access to all public areas and abundant lifts throughout. It was also the ideal holiday option for parents who could leave their kids in the Kid's Club until 11.45pm at night. Every beaming child I met simply couldn't get enough of Kids Club!

Everyone looked happy from old to young and I didn't hear a single mention of Brexit for the entire week.

Two days in and I was seriously wondering why P&O were not running the country, so well organised was everything. The Captain's word was law and operated within Maritime Law (taken 100% seriously) and he ran a benign dictatorship. Attending the emergency drill upon boarding was not optional, but imposed with the lightest of touches. If you didn't have your cruise card swiped to prove you had attended, you would have to attend a special one just for you! Getting on and off at various ports was treated similarly seriously. You had to be swiped in and out with your bags checked upon re-boarding, passport at the ready.

Every night a print newspaper was hand delivered to the rack next to your cabin door which detailed the following day's activities/excursions and was avidly devoured cover to cover by all on board as encouraged by the Captain, to be carried around in bags and pockets and frequently consulted. We subsequently realised there must be an onboard printing press when they had to make last minute changes.

While an up-to-the-minute cruise ship on the exterior, it was touchingly old school in terms of the onboard activities, swimming, table tennis, shows, talks, cinema, casino, shopping, theatre, eating, drinking, pool parties, 4-channel TV (unless you count the Ventura channels, one of which was the front mast camera, for those without a window cabin). Everyone was literally forced to talk to each other and interact. In some cases, re-connect. If you were determined not to get away from it all, shipboard wifi chuntered along at dialup speed, if you could be bothered to pay £12.50 for a 24hr package.

Talking to fellow cruisers it became apparent that they adored this Britain as it should be on sea for a week, dipping a toe into other cultures, but basically eating their own food, and getting back onboard for dinner if they could. More seasoned cruisers had indeed often given up on destinations not reachable by cruise ship. Far too much trouble. Yet everyone we met was affable and in their element and they all had interesting tales to tell and cruise tips to share. We learned that the best tomatoes in the world grow in the volcanic soil of Iceland, but the Icelanders won't export them (or allow other tomatoes to be imported lest the strain be tainted), You have to visit Iceland to sample the best tomato soup in the world.

The afternoon tea was the killer. Luckily we only made it twice owing to shore excursions but we felt bloated for hours afterwards. Rather sweetly there was a daily afternoon tea for solo passengers to meet and socialise too. There were black tie or theme dinners on a number of evenings, which made an occasion of the evening - and obviously gave a good excuse to take portraits and sell photos!

The service was amazing, to the extent that sometimes plates and cups were whipped away a little too enthusiastically! Each day your cabin would be made up with fresh bedding and towels (including pool towels) and each night, your steward would turn down your bed covers and leave a chocolate on each pillow. Many of the crew were international and seasoned cruisers told us that cruise ship jobs were much prized by the Filipinos in particular who would work long days for 3-5 years on cruise ships and then be able to go home and buy a plot of land or build a house for themselves, which would otherwise remain an impossible dream in their homeland. The ship would also pay for them to fly home to their families and take shore leave fairly regularly in between times, though it was obviously tough for those with children to be away from them for so long. Tips were built into your daily cruise charges, which, when you counted up the cost for a week were amazing value compared to staying in a luxury hotel without everything included for the same amount of time.

Our excursions into Europe were revealing. Tour guides used such alien phrases as 'my country' and proceeded to reel off lists of achievements and products of their country, with undisguised pride. We drove through miles and miles of industrial landscapes where real people did real jobs before reaching the pearls of Bruges and Amsterdam (many Europeans have the good sense to build the ugly and workaday stuff outside of their historic centres with very little creeping into the hallowed tourist areas).

Health and Safety legislation has clearly passed the rest of Europe by as we observed a clog maker turn a pair of wooden clogs in four minutes, minus safety goggles or guards and without handing out any goggles to the audience, some of whom were hit by wood shavings. In Bruges, boatloads of tourists admired the vistas of unspoiled heritage from 14th-19th century without a single life jacket between them, including us, once we finally boarded a boat. Rather amusingly as we got up to disembark following our bi-lingual canal tour by a Peter Sellers lookalike, I saw some discreet stickers inside the boat indicating a figure wearing a life jacket. We were also driven to Amsterdam by a coach driver clearly slightly off his bonce on weed, making inappropriate jokes about the sex lives of dead nuns in broken English as he managed to forget where he was dropping us off. The real hazard in Amsterdam though were the cyclists who literally come at you from all directions at once. And then there's the trams and normal traffic jostling for position. Luckily few people in the city appear to have given in to mobile or headphone addiction, much as they might be prone to other temptations. Talking of which many of the locals came across as rude with a tendency to just barge into each other, or shove each other out of the way, no apologies. Whatever the arguments for and against, weed certainly turns people into a-holes on the manners front and stinks out whole streets and cafes in places. Graffiti too seems on the rise since my last visit to Amsterdam, though at least all the shops appear to be thriving and I didn't see a single homeless person, just a half-hearted beggar bin hoaking. There was a decided lack of public toilets in Amsterdam (unless you count the open air pissoirs (no handwashing facilities) for men and not a chemist to be found! The red light district appeared to have expanded into the most unlikely backwater streets. We even passed a middle-aged lady in her scanties sitting in the window of a deserted side-street at 3pm on a Monday afternoon. Was she offering an OAP discount at that time of the day? Were the users of the street pissoirs made to wash their hands, or indeed anything else, before procuring her services? The mind boggled.

The main thing about Amsterdam is that everything is much further away than it seems with a confusing road layout so buying a Metro ticket is a must to explore the city by tram or you can easily see only a small part of the city and not get the most out of your visit. There are also many streets and canals that are inaccessible by Metro and taxi, though you can intersect them with these. My mother had always wanted to visit the Anne Frank house but found most of the tickets were sold online up to two months ahead of time with only a small proportion of tickets sold on the day, a ready made queue of several hundred for them, so sadly she did not get her wish. My partner wanted to visit the Van Gogh museum but extraordinarily found out all tickets had been pre-sold for the next three days! Digital exclusion is alive and well.

Ah well at least the Puss-in-Boats - the world's only floating cat sanctuary couldn't disappoint. Could it? Sadly it was only open for two hours a day and the queue was enormous! Though I did catch a glimpse of pussy from the other side of the canal where there was a glass side to the boat.

Bruges was gorgeous. And tasted as good as it looked. I spent most of my Euros on a selection of fruit-centred choccies from one of the leading chocolatiers whose cafe we had earlier sampled across the street. Ponies and traps were the best way to get around and there were proud shiny horses of every hue, including piebald, trotting smartly through the cobbled streets, some with trendy two-tone manes and all with a pooper scooper trailing behind, much like a lawnmower tray. Unlike Amsterdam, there were chemists everywhere, even in the picturesque main square and public toilets were also plentiful, quaintly marked male and female.

The odd thing about Bruges was that despite its picturesqueness, its cleanliness, its lack of graffiti, prosperous shops and lack of homeless and beggars, there was a frequent stench of drains to be found round many corners, though the reason for this remained a mystery.

The only charity shop we saw during our travels was a branch of Oxfam in Bruges, which sold fair trade products, not second hand products. It seems the continent does not really do charity shops (as I noticed in France, some time ago).

While I am not sure I could spend weeks or even months on a cruise ship (or one day aspire to become one those urban legend old ladies who apparently flee to one for the rest of their lives, in preference to an infinitely duller and more financially ruinous nursing home), I would certainly cruise again, if only for the separate vegan/vegetarian menus now available on board!. I think it would have to be the Fjords next time. It is also an interesting example of community living, with some people forming lifelong friendships aboard in addition to reconnecting with families they otherwise almost need to make appointments to see in our frenetic modern lives.