Cruise ship changes that allow you to pick the time for dinner — as well as the cuisine style and a table for two or a few close friends — are partly responsible for the continuing increase in the popularity of sea vacations. Comfort food, casual dress and anytime eating are among the top draws for new passengers.
Still, true to my sense of adventure, I miss the traditional system that forced passengers to dine every night for a week with a group of strangers, usually at a table for eight or more.
For decades, cruisers had little choice in the matter. Most ships assigned passengers to a single table for the entire cruise, early or late seating, as the dining room contained only enough tables for half the ship. Each evening, you dressed and dutifully trooped off to join your table, sitting for about 90 minutes, often with folks you never would have chosen on your own — or picked out of a lineup.
For veteran cruisers, making new friends at dinner was part of the fun, sharing stories and experiences. Some cruisers continue to request such tables on ships, though the number of requests like that is decreasing each year, say cruise lines.
For me, breaking bread with strangers is a key element in the theater of travel. I have fond memories of some of the characters I have met, including oddballs I hope never to meet again. Travel brings strangers together to swap feelings, images and experiences that may otherwise never surface.
My first of dozens of cruises was in 1982, a time, by the way, when cabins on most cruise ships offered only a pair of single beds, just like the bedrooms of married people shown on television sitcoms in the 1950s. Today, you must specifically request two single beds in your cabin if that is what you prefer.
Through the years, I have swapped stories and passions with writers, actors, singers, scientists, teachers, plumbers, nurses, social workers, sailors, librarians, and a host of others I don’t remember as well.
Among the most memorable were a horse jockey who regaled the table with accounts of his race track adventures, some of which seemed to surprise his statuesque new wife who was twice his height; a Cuban freedom-fighting soldier who shared his memories from the 1961 unsuccessful invasion at the Bay of Pigs; Sydney Devine, Scotland’s rhinestone cowboy who seemed to know the lyrics of every American country song; and a married couple from Missouri who explained to everyone at the table, several times, why they were cruising, as usual, in an inside cabin. “We don’t like to see the water,” said the wife, “or be interrupted in our sleep by the sun.” I assumed they lived in a basement in Missouri.
Then, there was my Caribbean table for six, to which a cruise line assigned only three, two men and a woman, all of us in various stages of marriages. My table partners included a man who was a wealthy doctor owning homes in several states, and a woman who said she had lived quite some time in a van in a Georgia parking lot, where she spent almost nothing as she saved money from her government disability checks for a Caribbean cruise every few years.
I was caught up in the nightly banter between the multi-domiciled doctor, whose one and only marriage was costing him much of his fortune in divorce, and the divorced van lady, who recently had found a “good man,” though she was afraid to tell him so, as he might take advantage of her, like men in her past.
The doctor was most interested in how he could escape from his married life while the van lady was trying, again, to nest. She asked me one night if I knew how to put out an appeal on Internet’s Craig’s List because she wanted a free, used couch to contribute to a sparse apartment where she had moved to live with her new boyfriend.
They were a nightly soap opera, with stories of trial and emotion, tinged with a hope for respect.
My life’s work as a newspaper reporter has taught me not to believe in the total of anyone’s words, that all of us see through our own filters and put a spin on our lives when we tell our stories to folks we meet. The truth, whatever that means, is somewhere between the lines.
Among strangers, the more accomplished tend to be the most self-deprecating. The newly comfortable talk much more about their wealth than the rich, who seldom mention it. Women more often talk of their lost men, while men tend to discuss their conquests.
Meanwhile, I am thankful for my tables of strangers. I collect their stories and experiences, which make my life richer. And truth is, I am more curious about how the van lady is doing than the doctor.
David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com