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Malaga to Miami

November 18, 2012 - At dock, Barcelona aboard the Reflection.

Only Brand X! Put into service in October (we are aboard her fifth voyage), the Reflection has already developed a serious engine problem. Instead of flying in a replacement mechanism to replace the injured machinery, Brand X management has taken the option of canceling the port of call at Tenerife, Canary Islands (we have never set our feet in the jurisdiction and were eagerly looking forward to an adventure therein) and slowly limping the ship to Miami.”I can assure you that our condition does not effect the maneuverability or safety of the ship,” our dour Greek master, Captain Nicholas Pagonis proclaimed in his heavy accent over the public address system; this following the life boat drill held in the theater, far from any actual life boats. We shall see.

Regular readers of Cruisin-Thru-100 will remember our voyage to Bermuda on a Royal Caribbean ship. I commented at (perhaps obnoxious) length about the Royal Caribbean Booze Police. Royal Caribbean distributed printed materials that threatened passengers caught with booze purchased anywhere on the globe but the ship with being flung unceremoniously into an actual physical brig (prison cell) in the bowels of the ship. Brand X is owned by Royal Caribbean, and herein is the first story of the voyage.

We are possessed of a fine veranda cabin, with a sliding door out to a small sitting porch, overlooking the bright orange motorized lifeboats. Soon after boarding, my large, roll-along suitcase was delivered. Jeanne's bag had not arrived when we returned from our light lunch(Waldorf salad, Indian lentils and vegetable curry) in the mammoth casual dining site in the stern.

It was time to alert Albertina; she, our deeply brown-hued, peppy and efficient Colombian cabin steward. “Did you put an iron or liquor in your luggage,” she presciently asked. I fudged the first time she asked. We pushed away from the dock as advertised at 5:15. Jeanne's case of possessions had yet to find us and anxiety rose dramatically as we were underway. “Both bags were on the same porter cart; I know your bag is on the ship.” “Easy for you to say,” my unmollified wife retorted. Again, it was time to bring Albertina in on the case. “Are you sure you didn't have an iron or some liquor in the bag, because if so, security has the bag.” “Well, maybe a little liquor,” I sheepishly fessed up. Albertina was immediately off to the place where incoming baggage resides, deeply below passenger decks. Later, I called her. “They are still sorting luggage,” she said. “How long will it be?” I asked. “Maybe a half hour.”

Our phone rang. It was Albertina, requesting Jeanne come to deck two. “I'm going with you,” I said, acting firmly in control. As the elevator door opened on deck two, there was Albertina with Jeanne's new (another story, yet to be told), large, roll-along bag. “I was trying to call you. They said it was OK, maybe just a bottle of wine, she said when were safely back on deck six. “Probably just a bottle of wine,” and off she scurried with Jeanne's cache of cruise clothing and shoes and... In our cabin, Jeanne summed it when we knew the liter of Beefeater Gin was safe. “The Booze Police got us, but we escaped.”

20 November 2012 - En Route - Mallorca to Malage, Spain

The Reflection is laboriously propulsing its way to Malaga at a speed of 10 knots; that is the equivalent of driving your auto or pickup truck in first gear.

I was groggy with sleep as I watched Jeanne exit our Jewell Hollow bedroom, lit flashlight in hand. She had awakened, as if by magic. It was one minute after midnight. One minute after British Airways would allow her to pay a modest fee to claim two pairs of exit-row seats on our flights from Washington/Dulles to London/Heathrow, with a change of planes ( a beat-up old Boeing 767 over the Atlantic, to a spanking-new and unblemished Airbus to Barcelona.)

It is now an axiom that all flights to everywhere at any time are seemingly beyond full, as if the Great Pilot in the sky was attempting to squish a pound of sausage into a half pound casing. Exit row seats provide unlimited leg room. There are no seats in front, for some impolite (usually short) oaf to drive his seat back into our knees. For the two of us, each over six feet tall, exit row seating is as close as possible to reach the state of nirvana during modern air travel.

Our trans-Atlantic adventure began when we boarded the Thursday, 6:30 pm airport shuttle van at the Holiday Inn, Dulles Expo Center (which continues to be our favorite get-away, come-back site) and ended 4 pm, Friday (local time), when we entered room 105 in the Hotel Montcada, 24 Via Laietana. The hotel is directly in front of the rear of the overwhelmingly majestic (Gothic) Barcelona Cathedral. Via Laietana is a Barcelona main drag that extends to the Mediterranean Sea, creating the natural environment which has made Barcelona Spain's largest seaport.

Some call it jet-lag. We call it sleep deprivation. No matter what one calls it, Jeanne and I had sat in the aforementioned exit row seats for over nine hours and were walking Zombies, when we set out to scout near the hotel for a tapas joint/restaurant. We first entered a very chic hotel restaurant a block up Via Laietana. The Hungarian (our desk clerks were Italian and Czech, much like Dulles where we met an Algerian, Somalians, Nigerians, Ethiopians, nary a native American) waiter politely referred us across the street to Restaurant Gloria. With the energetic assistance from Linda, one of the many Filipino employees, Restaurant Gloria, with a tapas-joint atmosphere but with a kitchen that produced refined food, fulfilled all of our culinary needs during our 36 hours in Barcelona.

When we awoke Saturday morning, after over 12 hours of fitful, wild-dream-laced sleep and an omelet stop at the Gloria, a visit to the Cathedral was the first order of business. The current Cathedral is Barcelona's third: The Muslims invaded in the 10th Century and destroyed the first (one tends to forget how long is the physical conflict between Muslims and Christians); the second Cathedral was begun in the 11th Century; the current edifice was built in the 13th Century, replacing number two. “How did they ever build this thing,” I rhetorically asked Jeanne. The stone columns supporting the three-naves seemingly rise to the heavens. The lovely stained glass windows are the frosting on the cake of this gargantuan, nearly 800 year old, man-made offering to God.

“The front end of this dufflebag is almost completely torn away and there's a slit on the bottom; I don't believe it will survive the flight from Miami,” I told Jeanne, when we arrived in our small, but very modern and functional, hotel room. I won't make my regular readers suffer through another long saga of luggage seeking, as with our most recent written adventure on Saint/Sint Martin; it will be enough to record that much of the afternoon was spent walking to and fro to the Corte de Ingles. The Barcelona branch of Spain's preeminent department store chain is a wonderful fallback to department store hey-days in the U.S., with uniformed floor walkers giving guidance to shoppers and with an almost overabundance of informed sales persons; all so unlike the Targets and Walmarts of today. We selected a Corte de Ingles house brand case and walked it home to our hotel; on the way, photographed the fascinating, Rococo Palace of Music.

Saturday evening we again stayed close to our hotel. We dined on Seafood Paella at Gloria (excellent). Later, we roamed the nearby pedestrian streets all the way up to Constitution Plaza, acquiring offerings at two gelato (ice cream) joints. Finally, we sipped cappuccinos at a coffee shop across the street from our hotel, delivered to us by a fascinating-looking, tiny girl, product of a Kenyan-East Indian merger.

Jeanne and I didn't taste but a sip of Barcelona. It is a city of distinct barrios (neighborhoods) and the birth place of Dali, Picasso and Gaudi, the arcane, iconic architect. If ever in Spain, we suggest you give Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia (Spanish and Catalan spoken) and Spain's second largest city, sufficient time to absorb its wonders. end

November 22, 2012 - Thanksgiving Morning - Barcelona to Miami

The Reflection has entered the North Atlantic; seas are rough.

When we docked in Malaga, I had no idea how much I deeply yearned to return to Nerja, Malaga, Spain; how it grabbed at my soul. Not until, on Tuesday evening, Jeanne and I faced the reality of unacceptable risk if we made the winding, coastal road, 40 mile auto journey from where the ship docked in the seaport city of Malaga to the Andalusian village of Nerja, cantilevered over the Mediterranean Sea.

“I've been concerned about it all day,” Jeanne confessed. “If there were an accident, or the road were blocked, we would be stranded; no passports, no clothing, nothing. The ship has left, on its way to Miami, and what do we do? The cost for last-minute tickets would be huge. Do we fly home and drive to Miami? Do we fly to Miami,” she continued. Jeanne's questions were my own, as well.

The original plan, before Brand X, for whatever real motive, canceled the stop in Tenerefe, Canary Islands, had a fail-safe built into it: If we should miss the ship in Malaga, we would head to the airport and book the next flight to Tenerefe and rejoin the ship there. No harm, no foul. But now, no matter what powerful, subconscious magnet drew me back to Nerja for a short 21st Century audit, the risk/reward ratio was way out of whack, falling off the table on the negative side. To my surprise, the decision to withhold our short visit to Nerja struck me down emotionally. Had I missed my final opportunity to return? For the better part of a day I was in a deep melancholy, disconsolate and crestfallen—in a funk; you name it. It was far more arresting than my usual pout when denied something I desire.

We stayed in Malaga during the ship's time in port there.

In the discussion in my head, I kept using the word “ghosts”. I needed to confront my Nerja Ghosts. The word conjured Ghouly images, negative images; The word “ghost” was inappropriate for my needs. I was drawn to return to Nerja to revisit memories of (mostly)dead friends and family members, good memories of a variety of people.

I first arrived in Nerja during Easter weekend, 1973. An acquaintance, Roger Daugherty, an outrageously aggressive, braggadocios long-dead (booze and the guilt on his Catholic conscience for living with his law partner-mistress, leaving his wife and children alone nearby) Washington D.C. Lawyer had invested in the construction of a seaside Nerja condominium apartment building and needed investors to off-load some of the risk. Roger arranged a charter of a block of airline seats, Washington Dulles/Malaga for potential investors. On short notice, I bought the last ticket. At the age of 40, I first arrived on the continent that has cradled me in a sense of swoon ever since.

It was during my first European sojourn that I met Attorney Tom O'Malley, a Pittsburgh native educated in Catholic schools all the way through Georgetown Law School. A devout adherent to his religion, Tom was as wise a man as I have ever known. For reasons beyond rationality, Tom became my close friend and protector (later Jeanne's) until his death, virtually from the moment we met on the flight toward Europe . Tom was a writer and a person of introspective intellect, including a practical and theoretical interest in the broad field of politics; not completely coincidentally in my view, his oldest son now serves as the Governor of Maryland.

During that long ago Easter weekend, friends Ann Cooper Penning and Godfrey Rockefeller (WW II Marines each) were in Nerja, seeking to buy a home overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. I was with them when they inspected 32 Carabeo for the first time. There was a small white-washed out building on the property, which runs from the street half a football field to a promontory over the sea. “This will be my writing studio,” I grandly proclaimed. They purchased the property, demolished the small out building, put a swimming pool in its place and over many years turned the entire property into a modern Costa del Sol homestead of stunning beauty.

I forget exactly how I met Terry Anderson during the original Nerja weekend, but it involved a bar, a beach and some Canadian nurses. Sans the Canadian nurses, we became friends. In the autumn of 1973, during our Grand Tour of Europe, Jeanne and I spent a weekend in the Anderson thatched-roof compound in Essex, England. I remember well the village fair was in full bloom; the strawberries and heavy cream gloriously tasted like none other. There, we met Terry's brother and business partner, Ian and their families. We also met Lord and Lady Dodd-Noble (another story for another day.)

Terry and Irene now live on the English coast. The late Ian became a resident of Nerja, after his divorce, and at one time maintained a villa off the road to the mountain town of Frigiliana, where Jeanne and I were always welcome to spend a few days. Ian also owned a small Nerja hotel and English bar near the Malaga road, where the welcome mat was always out for the Frinks. Ian was an elfish little man, invariably in good spirits and a joy to be around; we miss him. I can hear his greeting now, impish smile on his face: “Hello, Miss Jeanne.”

We now forward nine years, to Nerja in the autumn of 1983. Jeanne and I are on retainer to Count Alain de Villegas de St. Pierre Jett, a Belgian national with a Spanish title, thorough his business manager and our friend, Parisian Dr. Daniel Boyer. The Count was doing serious business with Elf, the French petroleum company and Daniel clairvoyantly determined that he might one day a trustworthy pair to “shadow” the Count on his fanciful adventures. We were under only two restrictions, pursuant to our handshake agreement of employment: Jeanne and I could not be otherwise employed and we could never be further than 100 miles from an international airport. With jingle in our jeans and endless time, we headed for one of our favorite locales on the globe, Nerja, Malaga, Spain.

Our friend Ann Penning was living in her primary home in Washington D.C.; she generously lent us 32 Carabeo, until she again would fly the Atlantic and move in for a spell. By early November, 1983, we were happily ensconced in Ann's Nerja Architectural Digest-class Mediterranean home. We invited my fun-loving, single sister, Jane, 12 years my junior and Tom Aquino, my musician and raconteur friend from our college days at Michigan State to join us for Christmas; each had to hustle to obtain their first passports in time for their flights to Malaga. Parenthetically, Tom returned to Nerja for two weeks each May, until his recent death. He bequeathed Jeanne and me one the masterpieces of his vast Llardo collection of Don Quixote pieces, acquired in Nerja thorough the years.

I don't remember how we met Alfred McCord Hurt; clearly, it was in Nerja, where this wry, tweedy retired Foreign Service officer (he would tell the story of flying about South Vietnam—he was A.I.D. Station chief—in helicopters with Gen. Westmoreland sitting on their flac jackets as protection from ground fire) had settled in almost certainly before any other American. Al lived off the road to Frijiliana in an old farm house, down a rock-strewn path; he drove a French-movie-iconic small Citroen, which somehow crawled its way back and forth to the highway and on into Nerja and back.

In late 1983, Joy Miller, Al's live-in English mistress, was visiting family in London. We gave him an open invitation to join us for Jeanne's always-sumptuous mid-day meals. He was often our guest before and after Jane and Tom arrived before Christmas. Those meals were memorable and long. Plates would be cleared, but the wine and conversation would continue for hours. Years later, Mrs. Miller would abscond with $40,000 of Al's cash and return to England, with the excuse she had to help her actor sons.

In the early 90s, with oncoming maladies encroaching, Jeanne (to whom Al invariably referred to as the Goddess), I and others convinced Al to return to the United States. He first attempted to live through a Vermont winter, near a son in Vermont. He next came to us in Virginia. He lived for a year in a bed and breakfast in Luray, visiting us often in Jewell Hollow. When he needed more support in his daily life, he moved to an “assisted living” highrise in Maryland, just across the D.C. Line. When he died, Al's son William arranged for Jeanne and me to attend a delayed funeral in Al's native Kentucky. Al was old enough to be my father (and often referred to my as “Sonny”, but our non-generational friendship had the strength and polish of stainless steel. Al and Jeanne adored each other. Al Hurt will never leave us.

Christmas, with Jane, Tom and Al was a joyful, food and wined filled extravaganza. I remember Tom and I would go out after dark to scavenge discarded bodega orange crates. We needed the thin, dry wood for fireplace kindling. While the sun shines in Costa del Sol winters, warming the skin of those seeking it, living changes after the sun sets; then it is time to find a way to warm the concrete and tile homes.

Sister Jane had been the core of our family, increasingly after my mother died in 2010. She was always the comedian and sometimes profanity would creep into her act, but the serious side of her comedy/tragedy mask was profound: she devoted her career to rescuing abused children (often with police backup) from careless, violent or incestuous parents. Jane and Jeanne had planned to live together after the passing of the older brother/husband took its normal course. Jane died mid-year. Yesterday morning, Jeanne said: “I woke up crying, because Janey and I will never live together.”

Memories of family and friends centered around a small, southern Spanish village. Memories, I have come to understand, that are permanently infused in my soul.

November 25, 2012 - Barcelona to Miami, aboard Brand X Reflection, 1000 miles west of Morocco, N Africa

Jeanne and I celebrated yesterday. It was our 30th wedding anniversary. At dinner, Beartrand, our tall, smooth as silk, Roman Catholic (Portuguese Goa State-until 1962- ancestry) East Indian dining room waiter capped the celebration after dinner with a presentation of a chocolate mouse cake and a strong (if off key) rendition of “Happy Anniversary” by our area wait staff.

I had difficulty determining where the party for frequent Brand X customers was being held. When I finally arrived late at the 14th deck Sky Bar, no one was in the receiving line waiting to speak to Captain Pagonis.

“Captain, I am Gary Frink.”

I'm pleased to meet you Mr. Frink.”

“Captain, I am a bit confused and perhaps you can help me out. I noted that we were sailing at 18 knots. I called guest relations and asked if 18 knots was the normal speed for the ship. The fellow said that he would ask the question to the Bridge. When he got back to me, he said that, yes, 18 knots was the ship's normal speed. My confusion is this: If 18 knots is normal, why was the Canary Islands stop dropped? Some passengers, we included, booked this partially because of the Canary Islands port of call.” The very fluid-English-speaking, slightly built, black hair parted-down-the-middle Greek, impassively sized me up and quickly responded to the unexpected question:

“Well, Mr. Frink, in order to reach Miami on schedule with the Canary Islands port call, the ship would have to make 19 ½ knots; it is unable to make that speed, so Canary Islands had to be dropped.”

“Thank you Captain.” Such was my first, and almost certainly last, conversation with Brand X Captain Nick Pagonis.

Wednesday morning, November 21, as my denied-Nerja melancholy, disconsolate funk slowly slide into a mere pout, the city of Malaga, with a population of over 500,000 and the capital of the over 2800 square mile Andalusian Providence of Malaga, lay before us as we sat on our port-side balcony, facing the city; it had to be dealt with.

After a late (isn't it always) breakfast, we boarded one of the shuttle buses provided by Brand X at a cost of $9 each (Holland America provides shuttle buses at zip, zero passenger charge). We tripped off the bus on Paseo del Parque, near the ornate, gleaming-yellow city hall. We were, in fact, walking beside a long, pastoral park. Our first commercial act in Malaga, was to buy five packets of salted almonds from a man in business literally as we stepped off the bus. “This last 5 Euro note is burning a hole in my pocket,” I explained to Jeanne.

Across the broad avenue on the parallel Avenida de Cervantes, adding more that a dash of color to the scene, under the overhang of massive trees, carriages were waiting at the curb for patrons at the curb, as two teamsters stood grooming their horses. Also at that point is an official Malaga “The Genial City” welcome center.

Inside the tourist office welcome center, Jeanne and I met 22 year old, Marta. We asked her what a middle class apartment in a pleasant area of the city (as we were obviously in at that moment) would cost. “For this part of the city (she circled the area on a give-out map) probably around 1,400 euros a month,” approximately $1,850 at currents exchange rates. In answer to our question, she added: “Nerja would be much less.” We asked the recent college graduate (in tourism) about the economy. “I make 800 Euros a month. It is enough for food and some other things, but not enough to pay rent. I live with my parents or friends. I want to immigrate England, Ireland. Really, I don't care. I will go where the good paying jobs are.” We wished her good luck, left the Malaga, the Genial City, Tourist Office behind and began the walk up the hill to the Roman Theater.

As we walked the winding stone walkway to the theater, we encountered a guitarist vigorously strumming gypsy flamingo riffs, and two accomplices hand-clapping the rhythm, in immortal Granada gypsy style; we pitched them a half Euro in change.

The Roman ruins formed one end of a small commercial plaza; at the opposite end was a cafe with outdoor tables and chairs encroaching on the plaza. We sat and immediately questioned the waiter if we could pay with a credit card. “Only if you spend 10 Euros,” came reply. I wanted to drink at least one fino sherry before leaving Spain. A glass of the famous Spanish fortified wine, a beer and Jeanne's Coke Zero brought our tab to 9.15 Euros. After a leisurely time at the cafe, watching school children on an outing pass, I signaled for the check. My request triggered a swift approach to us from the cafe by a young, short Spanish woman, presumably the manager. She took it upon herself to begin a stern lecture about our need to spend the requisite amount before we would be permitted to charge our fare. I lectured back (all of this in Spanish) that the waiter told us the rules, that I understood the rules and that I was a lawyer in the U.S and reasonably “intellegente” . It was high comedy, two lectures passing blindly in the night. Finally I got her to understand we stood ready and able to order a couple of coffees to bring the tab up to 10 Euros; we did so, charged it all to a Visa Card and left a serene scene. Woody Allen would do wonders with the episode.

We strolled up the street onto the Cathedral courtyard, where I took a photo of a huge, handsomely weathered door to a side entrance. Having been thoroughly immersed in stunning Barcelona Gothic Cathedral, we passed on spending time within the Cathedral of Malaga. Our wanderings took us by interesting pre-20th Century combination commercial/ residential apartment buildings, and scads of small, attractive outdoor cafes. Finally, we ambled into the modern building housing the “museoPICASSOmalaga”. We picked up a handsome brochure, but having viewed in Richmond, Virginia the vast Picasso exhibit presently traveling the world, we had spent time with more Picassos than existed in the rather weak attempt to scurry up tourists in the Cubist's home town. In a previous piece on this adventure, I erroneously tabbed Barcelona as Picasso's birthplace; his father (a teacher of painting) didn't move the family there until Pablo was 12 years of age. end

November 26, 2012 - Barcelona to Miami aboard the Brand X Reflection, approximately midway (2,000 nautical miles to go)

The sliding door to the balcony is open. While we are not yet in the tropics, the air temp is 74°; the sun shares the sky with spare cumulus clouds. The always-welcome sound of the mildly rolling sea easily reaches us on the sixth passenger deck. For sea voyagers like Jeanne and me, this nanosecond in our life experiences is perfect.

When we awoke at 9 this morning, I had a bright and usable idea: “Why don't we order breakfast from room service,” I queried Jeanne. When Albertina brought in the high-piled food tray, she asked: “Do you want it out there?” Oh, yes, on the sturdy balcony table. My omelet was still warm and lightly cooked to my specifications; the French toast spongy, seeming eager to soak up the syrup; the two small cartons of milk cold to the touch; the coffee pot contained strong, hot coffee. With a little amazement in my voice, I told Jeanne: “This is a better breakfast than when we go to the deck 14 Cafe.” Dining on well-prepared food in our own open space, watching and listening to the Atlantic Ocean below: As the SNL Church Lady might say: “Isn't that special.”

Jeanne and I have been in attendance for the two grand, after-dinner production shows, featuring the seven piece show band accompanying the Reflection's resident singers and dancers; they exploded with mind-numbing dance energy and vocal talent, in the largest, best equipped, nautical stage theater we have ever entered.

This almost 1,000 foot long ship has been serving passengers (3,000) for only six weeks and, therefore, has some of the latest cruise-ship twists—including the huge stage in its three-tiered, tastefully decorated show palace. Last evening was Broadway show excerpt time, with Phantom of the Opera and other iconic musicals on stunning display. The audience gave the cast a standing ovation, to the point that ebullient Nick, the bouncy six foot five cruise director, insisted the young men and women come forward for unscheduled curtain calls.

Cruise company pricing is very analogous to the business plan of the Gillette Safety Razor Co: Gillette charges a modest fee to get its razor into the morning hands of millions of men worldwide; it then makes its big, fat bottom line by selling those men an endless supply of razor BLADES. Cruise companies have a similar business plan.

Jeanne and I paid approximately $2,000 for this relocation 13 night cruise. By my rough math, that is a rounded off 150 bucks a night for the TWO of us, including pre-paid tips for our cabin stewards and all the dining room help. First, voyages that shift a ship from the Med to Caribbean in the autumn and reverse in the spring always cost less because they make very few port calls (most “cruisers” wish to see new places.) Second, like Gillette, once you are on board the cruise line has devised a diabolical plan to pick your pocket virtually every moment a passenger's eyes are open. Before I get to the pickpockets, I'll take a moment of the reader's attention and set forth what an incredible bargain this Brand X basic voyage is. Our cabin, amply large, with a balcony overlooking the sea; it is thoroughly cleaned each morning and straightened up each evening. Special orders are cheerfully executed: the evening ice I have ordered arrives promptly at 5 pm, the time requested. Our cabin has a large-screen TV, channels available from Europe and the U.S. There is excellent, highly professional entertainment in the show theater each evening. During the day, you can be inundated with lectures, games and sports; or, you can hang out on outdoor deck lounges or spend time reading in one of the comfy chairs or in clever nooks in the two-deck library. Live music is being played for passenger enjoyment somewhere on the ship from 11am until 1am. If one is bored aboard, he or she has only to gaze into a mirror to discover the source.

As anyone who has been blessed with time aboard a cruise ship based out of the U.S knows, tasty, nutritious, pleasantly presented food is available 24 hours a day, from a variety of venues. After the dining rooms close down in the evening, one simply has to pick up the cabin phone, push a button and order yet more delectables, cheerfully delivered to one's cabin. Three formal (white table cloth, heavy cutlery, attractive China, served professionally) meals a day are available in the principal dining room and a great variety of cuisines and tastes are catered to in the informal food emporium. A cruise on an adult, middle-class or above cruise ship is the most reasonably priced leap into luxury available anywhere on the globe. Period!

November 29, 2012 - Barcelona to Miami aboard the Brand XReflection, approximately 36 hours out of Miami

My late sister, Jane, had a cogent phrase to explain why she didn't go out of her way to meet new people: “My friends book is filled up.” Generally, Jeanne and I believe the same. We go out of our way to obtain a table-for-two, with the hope that we won't be obligated to spend our time at dinner with folks we have no interest in engaging.

During the first day aboard the Reflection, I stumbled into a meeting room filled with over 300 members of Cruise Critics, a website subculture of people who go to sea in cruise vessels and are interested in most aspects of the cruise industry. It struck me as interesting that over 10% of the passengers on this voyage were in fact spun together by folks pecking on their computer keyboards; and here a flock of them were, flesh and blood humans, arranging a communal Thanksgiving dinner, bridge games and who knows what all. The 300 and change Cruise Critics Cruisers were just the opposite to Jeanne and me in their approach to a cruise: Their “friends books” have plenty of blank pages and while aboard they were out to fill-in a few; the concept intrigued me.

Yesterday on an elevator, I noticed a man wearing a Cruise Critic cap. I had been attempting to make contact with the leadership of this modern movement in an attempt to get an interview—even taped my travel-writer business card to the CC bulletin board on deck five, and asked that someone call me—but no one swallowed my bait. Therefore, I eagerly struck up a conversation with Gary, the man below the cap. I followed him, and his wife Carol, out of the elevator, abandoning Jeanne.

“Cruise Critics is a real loose organization; it really doesn't have a leadership,” Gary, a pleasant small-framed Canadian, explained. We use it for tips on cruising.” Carol added: “We all use handles, not our real names, when communicating with each other,” Then Carol said: “St. Petersburg. When we went to St. Petersburg, we used a guide whose name we got from some Cruise Critics folks who had used him when they were there. The guide was very good, and instead of being jammed into a big bus with 40 other people, we were in a seven passenger van,” she explained. “Was it cheaper,” I asked. “Not much,” Gary replied, “but we went to a couple of real Russian restaurants, not the tourist traps where the bus would have gone. We were happy with the experience.” I forgot to ask Carol and Gary if they attended the Cruise Critic's (U.S.) Thanksgiving dinner; being Canadian, they probably skipped it.

Francoise and Yvan have been a pleasant experience. The first couple to occupy the second-seating, table-for-two, snuggled up next to ours on the principal floor of the deck-plus-balcony of the Opus dining room didn't last beyond the first evening. “We're from Manchester (England). We have a home in Miami. My parents had one as well, beginning in the 70's,” the nameless, attractive, matron offered. “It is so nice not to have to fly over, for once,” She concluded. He grunted occasionally, in that Oh-So-Upper-Class-Brit-Way. It was clear who had the family jewels, in each vernacular usage of the word. They never returned. “Well, I ran them off,” I hypothesized to myself.

Francoise and Yvan (Ivan, in English) were seated next to us after the vanishing Manchester/Miamites. They are each physically diminutive, by our standard, and probably in their late 60's-early 70s. They live in, or near, Montreal. Yvan is a physician; she trained as a nurse. They display warm eye-twinkles when they speak, in their soft French-Canadian accents.

Francoise and Yvan are the parents of grown children, two of each gender. They encouraged their children into sports and, as children and youth, they were active in competitive alpine skiing. “One of our sons just moved from Raleigh to Georgia. He is in charge of the tennis program at the Augusta Golf Club, Francoise offered. Among her first words to me were: “I miss my three-year-old.” After a moment, we both laughed at the concept. “I mean my three-year-old grandson.”

This is the first cruise for Francoise and Yvan. Accordingly, much of our conversation has centered on the wonders offered by the cruise industry. “You must see the big production singer/dancer shows,” I firmly offered. They charmingly hold hands when walking about the ship; they apparently are always together, even in the gym, where my camera and I caught them toning muscles on some of the body-building contraptions.

It is now Friday, the last hours of our 13 day trans-Atlantic voyage are unfolding. An observation or two: Brand X's new ship is a success. The passenger compliment of the Reflection is double in size to our largest in the past; yet, there is ample room for everybody and every thing required to comfortably and amiably shift 3,000 passengers and a crew of approximately 1,000 from Malaga in south Europe to Miami in North America nonstop in ten days. The ship is well-designed and thoughtfully decorated throughout. The music offered has been virtually flawlessly executed, the shows fireworks of excitement and beauty - a gift of the singers, dancers and the technical staff, handling the lighting and effects in the Taj Mahal of a show-theater. The cruise director is seemingly as energetic as the dancers and as talented as the singers. Service everywhere we appeared was efficient and friendly without being syrupy and obsequious. Well done, Brand X.

I awoke this morning reminded of a “New Yorker” review I read while on board of a poet who has spent many years writing about her complex involvement with her family; in the excerpts I read, she wrote clear, spare sentences. As I increasingly reflect on my life, I could—and have a necessity to—delve and write at an introspective level deeper than observations from being on the move; and, perhaps I will.

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