Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Time and Space in the Mediterranean

We were standing around in the downstairs ‘social hall’ at Musar Avicha, our synagogue in Maale Adumim, several weeks ago; it was one of those rare Shabbat mornings when there was a Kiddush after the service. One family was having both a bat mitzvah and a wedding that week, and another of the congregants had thoughtfully provided a bottle of single malt scotch for the occasion to go along with the usual refreshments. (It goes without saying that I was doing my share to finish the bottle.) As I walked around the room, greeting people I knew, I made it a point to let everyone know that Barbara and I would be away: we were leaving on a cruise to Greece the next day. A number of people asked if the trip was my idea or my wife’s? When Bernice asked me, and I replied that it was definitely Barbara’s, Bernice’s comment was, “Of course. If it would be up to the men, no family would ever go anywhere.”
To be fair – and we always try to be fair in these articles – I’m told that there are any number of men who make vacations a priority. However, more often than not, their lodging of choice is a pup tent rather than a cabin on an ocean liner. People who know me would understand in a flash that I don’t ‘do’ pup tents. People who know me also are aware that I have justly earned my sobriquet “Frugal Fred,” and that I am leery of spending large sums of money to go somewhere when I can sleep for no additional charge in my own comfortable bed (although it is probably worth something, perhaps a lot, not to share the bed with a geriatric feline who is convinced that feeding time is 4AM).
So one can imagine my noticeable lack of enthusiasm when the spouse first broached the subject of this eight day cruise to Greece which the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel – still her employer – was offering. The tour would focus on Jewish themes, and there would be a scholar-in-residence, Daniel Schwartz, a professor of ancient Jewish history at Hebrew U.
There is a fundamental economic principle, which individuals and governments often ignore and suffer the consequences, that money spent for A cannot also be spent for B. We have recently bought an apartment, and I maintained, we could better use the money for shiputzim (renovation). Our older daughter, Tina, is planning her wedding for next May (thank you for your mazal tov’s), and the money could as well go for that. Furthermore, I insisted, if I am going to go anywhere, I would rather visit Barbara’s eighty seven year old mother in Florida, whom I love dearly. There is no need to beleaguer the point: you already know who ‘won.’ Barbara even spoke with her mother, who gave me her ‘permission’ to go to Greece instead of Florida. And so, after being prodded no more than ten times, I threw in the towel and agreed to go.
Any time you go on a trip, or a tour, or a cruise, it’s a crap shoot. The weather can be awful, likewise the food and the accommodations. And if you are on a boat and the water is turbulent, you are in big trouble, or at least I am. (Forty five years after the fact, I still remember one ill-fated fishing trip off Montauk [the tip of Long Island], leaning over the side of the boat, with everything I had eaten for several days being upchucked into the Atlantic Ocean, and hearing the captain – most unsympathetic – telling me to “chum it over the other side; the fish need the food.” It is no wonder that I remain a confirmed land-lubber.) However, the most important ingredient in the success of any group activity like this are the people you are going with. Even a two or three hour walking tour around Jerusalem can be ruined by a few kvetches. Eight days with the same crowd? That’s a lot, so you had better enjoy their company! There were to be fifty seven of us from AACI out of about 500 passengers aboard The Golden Iris, a ship which could carry as many as twice that number. (Not to keep you in suspense, it was a really good group of people, as I will discuss later.)
Anyway, it was time to get the show on the road. For once, we were ready early and got up to the mall where our bus was parked with time to spare. Because there were nine of us going from Maale Adumim, and because we have ‘connections,’ (the tour leaders, the Kremers, live in the next neighborhood) the bus taking us to Haifa started from here. We picked up most of the others in Jerusalem (including one very sweet older woman who had not realized that she needed to take her ticket with her, requiring some very frantic phone calls by Carole to sort things out), and from there to Modi’in to pick up another couple, and from there on to the port in Haifa. I am certain that most of you know the routine at any airport: you have to arrive hours before so you can sit around and twiddle your thumbs, or whatever else you care to twiddle. You might think that it would be different at a port, but the twiddle time is about the same at the Haifa port as it would be at Ben-Gurion airport. The one difference is that there is a lot less to see or do in Haifa. The waiting area at Ben-Gurion is replete with kosher foods and duty free shops. There are a lot of things your average Israeli has not figured out yet, but ‘duty free’ is not one of them. One might go as far as saying that Israelis have taken the art of duty free shopping to a new and higher level. I believe I have reported the amazing statistic that three quarters of all Scotch whisky purchased by Israelis is purchased duty free. But why stop there? All nationalities, races, and creeds buy spirits, perfumes, perhaps small electronics at places where there is no tax. Only an Israeli would buy a stove or a refrigerator at Ben-Gurion, hop on a plane, and when he returns to The Land, asks to have his new kitchen delivered to him in Petach Tikva.
There are no such extravagances at the Haifa port. Duty free sneakers, yes; dishwashers, no. Not to worry: I am single minded and resolute of purpose. Where’s the single malt? That they had (for the record and for those of you who care, I purchased a bottle of twelve year old Balvenie, a 10 year old single barrel Bushmill (Irish), and a bottle of Jack Daniel Silver Select, a single barrel Tennessee whiskey which I didn’t know existed and which is really good). No matter what happened on the cruise, I now had something to look forward to.
We finally boarded the ship, the aforementioned Golden Iris, recently acquired by Mano, the Israeli cruise line. Now the fun would begin. Our first activity? – after a light lunch, that is. The equivalent of a fire drill, where everyone puts on a life preserver, walks to a prearranged place, whereupon the assembled group of people walks to a life boat, which would be lowered if there were a for-real emergency. When Barbara and I were on a three day cruise to the Bahamas some ten years ago, indeed everyone participated in the simulated drill. No exceptions. But remember I said that the Golden Iris is now an Israeli ship, so you already know that the word ‘everyone’ is at least implausible, if not impossible. The majority, yes. Others came to the life boats without their life preservers. Still others considered this procedure a spectator sport and never moved from wherever they were sitting. Those who know me realize that I would never be able to figure out the intricacies of wrapping a life preserver around my torso without assistance. But even I, the doofus that I am, figured out pretty quickly that most of the staff assisting us had their own life preservers on wrong. Not too comforting!!!
Our next activity was obtaining and validating our swipe cards. The ship’s crew takes your passport and gives you a card which is used to verify your identity when you leave the ship at a port of call and again when you return. However, this card has another function; it serves as a credit card on board for some things. If you want to get a second room key or a remote for the TV, you have to give them cash. But for the bar, you use the swipe card. What they don’t tell you is that you have to go to the bursar’s office to put money on your card.
Before I go any further, some of you might be wondering why I was running off to the bar within hours of going on board. People know that I enjoy my single malt as well as the next guy, but did I need a drink that badly? Let it be known that there is no way that I would spend five dollars for an eyedropper full of Johnny Walker Red (cheap stuff). I was in fact in search of some camellia sinensis, otherwise known as a cup of tea. While this commodity is available, along with its darker caffeinated sidekick, at breakfast, it is not served with the other meals, meaning you have to go to the bar and spend several dollars for a small dose of the drug. So off we went to the bursar’s booth – along with several hundred Israelis, all of whom were intent on establishing credit with American dollars, some with frighteningly large bills. Usually I don’t get upset with the native inability to form a line; you have to put up with the bad as well as the good if you are going to live in The Land. If someone needs to get on the bus ahead of me, OK; but we were dealing here with caffeine deprivation, which is an entirely different matter. There was one Israeli man with a protruding midriff who was trying to get a staff person’s attention, even though I was before him. I told him pointedly in English that if he tried to get ahead of me, I was going to hit him. I finally used a credit card to put some funds on my swipe card so I could go back and obtain a penny’s worth of cheap tea for $2.24. You will be happy to know that by the next day we had figured out how to beat the system. While the wait staff could not give you a cup of tea, they could give you a cup of hot water. So all we had to do was to walk off with a sufficient number of tea bags at breakfast and dunk the contraband in the hot water the staff provided. It came down to swiping the tea from the ship or using your swipe card to pay for the same item. That was easy!
We had plenty time to sort things out and figure out what was on which deck. At meal times, the fifty seven of us in the AACI contingent sat at designated tables, but with no assigned seating; this way we got to sit with different people and get to know one another. Aside from the hot beverage issue, the food was quite good, with an abnormal selection of different items – all buffet – from which to choose. We had gotten a suggestion to go easy on the calories the week before we sailed, and as a result, I had lost about four pounds. The Friday before we left, I had a conversation with myself. Looking myself right in the eye, I said, “I worked had to lose those four pounds; I’ll be damned if I get on the boat and go berserk in the dining room. Discipline must be maintained.” My strategy was simple: it’s called the one plate plan. You take a dinner plate and fill it – one time. No second trips allowed, except to get fruit for dessert. No fake ice cream or the like. Otherwise, with the bewildering array of choices, they would have had to roll me off the gangplank when we reached port. I had a double reward: not only did I gain only one pound while we were away but even more important, I got to feel virtuous (priceless), while my table mates were filling their plates with second or third helpings.
I wrote above that we had “plenty of time.” That’s because the Golden Iris left Haifa at about 5PM on Sunday and arrived at the island of Rhodes at 7PM the following day. A number of us made a quick calculation that if we had left Ben-Gurion airport at the same 5PM, we would have been whizzing over Greece, in, what, an hour or so? We had plenty of time to sit on the upper decks and ponder over the relationship of time and distance. It occurred to me that I had just read about this topic as considered by Proust in volume four of his “In Search of Lost Time,” but from the opposite perspective. The narrator and his amie Albertine are vacationing in the French countryside. They have been accustomed to spending a day in going to particular villages, and now, when instead of going by carriage, they were able to go by automobile, they realized,“… from Quetteholme to La Raspeliere…would not take more than thirty five minutes. We realized this the moment the car leaped forward and in a single bound covered twenty paces of an excellent horse. Distances are simply the ratio of space to time and vary with it. We express the difficulty that we have in getting to a place in a system of leagues and kilometers, which become false the moment that difficulty decreases. The art of distance, too, is modified, since a village that had seemed to be in a different world from some other village, becomes its neighbor in a landscape whose dimensions have altered. At all events, learning that there perhaps exists a universe in which 2 and 2 make 5, and where a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points, would have surprised Albertine much less than hearing the mechanic tell her that it was easy to in one afternoon to Saint-Jean and to La Raspeliere, Douville and Quetteholme……, prisoners hitherto as hermetically locked away in the cells of separate days as Meseglise and Guermantes of old…..” (This is from the recent Penguin translation by Christopher Prendergast, unavailable in The States, which I had someone smuggle back to Teaneck from England.) Of course, our situation here was just the reverse. Whereas one would expect to get from Ben-Gurion to anywhere in Greece before a flight attendant could offer you a soft drink, we were able to pack away four full meals (plus a midnight snack, which for some of us interfered with our pillow time) from port to port. We had the services of an excellent tour guide (more about this later) in Athens. When she announced that she would be with us the next day in Lavrion, I thought to myself, “how is that possible.” According to our schedule, we were leaving the first place at 7PM and arriving at the next port at 7AM. Very simple. She boarded the tour bus in Athens and arrived in Lavrion an hour later.

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