Across the Atlantic

Today is already the last day of our cruise. (Pardon me: the Queen Mary 2 is actually an ocean liner, not a cruise ship, and we’re on a crossing not a cruise—or so I’ve been told by some other passengers.)

It’s been a year of firsts in so many ways, and so why not one more? This is the first time I’ve ever been away from dry land for so long. Unlike a typical cruise, a crossing like this doesn’t have any port days, just day after day on the endless ocean, the horizon a flat, blue line line in every direction. Each day at noon the captain announces where the nearest land is, usually some speck of rock and dirt miles and miles away that I’ve never heard of. There’s been little to interrupt the watery view; it was a few days before we even spied another ship, and then only in the far distance. Once we spotted a passing freighter. Luckily, we’ve been in the right place at the right time on two occasions to see big groups of passing dolphins arcing out of the water.

A few nights ago, a tremendous storm woke us at three in the morning when the glassware on the counter in our room all started clattering over. By then we were used to the continuous rocking of the ship, but now it was leaning decidedly in one direction. While we got things picked up and secured, we heard the sound of more things falling over coming from other cabins. The feeling of leaning continually toward one side was eerie. The next day the captain informed us that the nearly hundred knot winds from the storm had caught the starboard side of the ship like a sail and pushed us into a five degree tilt to port. Of course, the girls had slept through the whole thing.

The people you meet on board

Traveling means meeting people from all over and this has been no exception. Our first day, we met a pleasant couple from a London suburb while we were in the long line to get boarded. And even with thousands of people aboard, we’ve managed to run into them numerous times. Then there’s the thoroughly bronzed guy who looks like he lives his life on the pool deck. And he just might—he told me he’s done this crossing alone upwards of thirty times. We met a family from the UK who always travels to America this way because the wife doesn’t like to fly. And it’s been impossible to miss the large group of Mennonites in their traditional garb, with bonnets for the women and decidedly old-school hairstyles and Abe Lincoln beards for the men.

Let’s eat… and eat and eat and eat

If you want to pad your waistline, there’s no better way to do it than aboard a cruise ship. I can certainly see how people get on board, start eating… and never stop. A variety of restaurants serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and you can always get second breakfast or elevensies at the buffet. There’s a pub-style place with good fish and chips, a French restaurant, and a place just for dessert. Each afternoon white-gloved waiters serve tea in Queen’s Room with all of the usual accoutrements. And just in case you don’t feel like following the dress code (I’ve never dressed up this much for dinner in my entire life), room service is available twenty-four hours a day.

Entertainment

Without any port calls, Merideth was a bit concerned that life aboard ship might get a little dull. And while this ship doesn’t have all of the amenities that some do (like rock climbing walls and waterslides), there’s always something going on: there are no shortage of fitness classes, shows, concerts, dancing, lectures, watercolor classes, and more. Last night we enjoyed a great magic show and today we went to a throughly entertaining one-act version of Pride and Prejudice that had us all laughing. We’ve had plenty of time to read, watch the Olympics, and play some throwback board games like Trivial Pursuit and Clue and Monopoly (which is just as brutal as you remember). And spending time at the pool is always a good idea. But there’s no doubt: this ship and this itinerary definitely appeals to an older set. There aren’t a whole lot of other kids aboard, but plenty of people who don’t have a lot of hair left. Sometimes I feel like I somehow ended up at a weeklong AARP retreat.

Worship at sea

On Sunday we attended the ecumenical worship service led by the captain. It consisted of readings, prayers and hymns. We sang a number of hymns, including “Be Thou My Vision” and “How Great Thou Art,” which the Captain described as “a typical American hymn—long and loud.” One of the officers read the passage from 1 Kings about Solomon asking the Lord for wisdom, and one of the entertainment directors read the passage from Luke in which Jesus tells a parable about an arrogant Pharisee (whose prayer is full of pride) and a humble tax collector (who pleads to God for mercy). The Captain read “the sailor’s version” of the 23rd Psalm, which begins, “The Lord is my pilot…” And being a British ship, the prayers included blessings on the queen.

One last night

This afternoon we’re getting packed up once again, and tonight we have our last dinner on the ship. We also get one more night with an extra hour of sleep, which will be quite welcome since we plan to get up around 5 a.m. to see the Statue of Liberty as we arrive in New York in the morning. It’s a bit hard to believe: tomorrow the girls and I will see America for the first time in over a year.

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Traveling light? Not this time.

“Did you leave anything at home?” the cab driver teased in his cheerful British accent as he sized us up.

London. St. Pancras Station. We’d just gotten off the Eurostar from Paris and were the last ones to make the short journey from the platform to the taxi queue. Why? Because our family of four was schlepping four bags—each. That’s right, sixteen suitcases and backpacks and assorted bags in all, including a giant, last-minute-purchased duffel bag I hope to never use again. I don’t even want to know how much it all weighed, but our groaning, sweaty backs and straining fingers said it weighed a lot.

Under normal circumstances, we always, always travel light. Under normal circumstances, it means one bag each. Weekend getaway? One bag each. Two weeks overseas? One bag each. Traveling light means you get off the plane and go, you change trains with ease. No waiting around staring at baggage carousels, no looking around for luggage trolleys or elevators. You’ve got it all on your back, you’re agile, you can go anywhere.
But these were not normal circumstances. This was no weekend getaway, no two-week vacation. This time, we were making the journey home with everything we’d had with us in Paris for the past year.

We didn’t entertain the idea of shipping anything home. After all, I thought, we’re not big shoppers. We don’t buy souvenirs everywhere (or hardly even anywhere) we go. Over the course of the year, I’d picked up a new suit, a few shirts, and a pair of shoes. A new-to-me leather computer bag at a vintage shop. Some books. Not much, right? And as we packed up, I threw out my well-worn shoes that had served me so well and taken me to so many different places. I found a nearby collection station and dropped off a load of tired clothes and things the girls had outgrown. I gave away the region 2 DVD player we’d picked up and gave most of the books I’d bought to a friend. We all threw out stacks and stacks of papers and assorted debris that had accumulated.

But even so, we were taking home quite a bit more than we’d come with. Where had it all come from? Oh right—there were those bulky winter coats we’d bought so we wouldn’t freeze in Chamonix. A few games. Art projects the girls had made along with mementos from school. Journals and keepsakes. Some souvenir mugs and new purses for the girls. Even enough Christmas ornaments for a medium-sized tree. (Because if you celebrate Christmas while you’re living in Paris, of course you want a tree, and no, you didn’t bring any ornaments with you, so that means you better buy some, and then you’ll want to take them home so you can decorate next year’s tree with those ornaments and remember your time in Paris, right?)

Take the long way home

Somehow, it all added up to a lot more than we came with. And now we had to get it home—and the journey home was just starting.

First stop? Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar to London. We were leaving Paris, but we weren’t flying home, not yet.

First problem? How to get there. All those bags on the métro would be a nightmare. The taxi service I called was skeptical we could even get it all in one car. Thankfully, our friend Val came to our rescue with her car and we did get it all in. She got us to the station and we survived lugging it all through check-in and passport control and got boarded.

The ride to London was quick (upwards of 300 km per hour) and uneventful. At St. Pancras we found a couple of luggage trolleys, made a few trips on the elevator and found a nice, big British cab with that nice driver who got us to our hotel near Waterloo Station. Merideth checked us in and the girls and I guarded our small mountain range of bags lined up on the sidewalk until a bellhop helped us up to our room. At last, we’d made it through the first leg.

One night in London

With all our luggage stowed in our room like it was a self-storage unit, we headed out to experience our first evening together in an English-speaking country in exactly a year. We looked for someplace for pub food, but ended up at a comfortable outdoor place with tapas and nachos and ribs. Guacamole! Jalapeños! Food with an actual spicy kick! We were definitely not in France anymore. (I think I can safely predict we will be making up for our nacho/taco/enchilada deficit for weeks and maybe even months to come.)

It was a pleasant evening and we took in the views along the Thames: the London Eye, Parliament and Big Ben. In the morning we had enough time to stroll through St. James Park, wave at Buckingham Palace, and take a look at Trafalgar Square. But soon enough it was time to make our second schlep: this time we were on our own to get all those bags to our next train.

Train, taxi, ship

The good news? Our hotel was right next to the station. The bad news? It may have been next to the station, but the walk from the front door of the hotel to station entrance was at least seven or eight minutes—if we weren’t carrying anything. With four bags each, it took more than twice that long. We made it, of course, and shuttled everything up the steps into the station, found the right track (about as far from the entrance as possible, of course), learned there were no trolleys, and shuttled everything to the track and finally, at last, onto the train. And just over an hour later we got off at Southhampton. One more slog (with trolleys this time) to one more taxi stand and at last to the port. We’d made it: our ship awaited.

Twenty-five hours a day

When we started putting out plans together to get back home, we figured we’d fly. How else do you get home from Paris? You get yourself to Charles de Gaulle and you get on a plane, hopefully a nonstop. I certainly wouldn’t have thought of any other option. But Merideth is always thinking.

As we were finalizing our plans, she mentioned that we could take a ship from the UK to New York City and fly home from there. “But I know you’ll want to just get home,” she said, thinking I wouldn’t be interested. Well now, hold on there, wait a minute: we can take a ship in eight days? Cut six out of nine hours of jet lag by gaining an hour most of those days? Catch our breath and take in the ocean views before getting resettled in Seattle? And get to visit some wonderful friends in New York as a bonus? Sign me up!

And so here we are, on the Queen Mary 2. None of us have ever cruised before, not like this. I’ve spent a few nights on a sailboat and a week on a catamaran, but never on a floating city with restaurants and fitness classes and Herbie Hancock performing in the evening. I’ve finished reading a couple of novels and made some progress on further revisions of my own. The girls are enjoying art classes, we’ve met some nice people, and last night we all watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.

Before we know it we’ll be packing everything up again for the last legs of the journey, but till then we’ll enjoy the view of the big blue sea and the flat line of the horizon the stretches out in every direction.

(Note: it’s fantastic that we have internet on board, but it’s a bit finicky and slow, so pictures might have to wait till we get back on dry land…)