In 1956, my wife and I became the first in our families since the forgotten days of immigrant grandparents to sail on an ocean liner. Scheduled sailings as a means of transportation were losing out to cruises and jets. In 1992, we decided to join a growing list of grandparents who create lasting memories for themselves and their grandchildren through sea travel and crossing time zones leisurely.
We selected a 15-day cruise on the Sagafjord. In addition to a number of beach-type destinations, this voyage would encompass a slice of true U.S. history: the Panama Canal. At age 10 our hidden agenda was to show Nicole an adult world of manners and discovery, true discovery instead of theme parks. We could seek out a beach on a strange island, sample exotic foods in their native setting and dress for formal evenings.
Nicole showed mild excitement as we explained the keeping of a journal, letters home and adaption to living in the tight nooks of shipboard. I added that although she was our guest, still "there's no such thing as a free lunch."
Passenger ships may offer 350 selections of video movies today and it is no longer a race for the Blue Ribbon as the fastest to cross the Atlantic. But dinner remains a dressy affair and passengers stroll the promenade to catch ocean spray and discover flying fish.
With first light we were sailing so close to the north coast of Cuba that mountains and villages emerged. Nicole asked if she could add Cuba to her list of countries visited. "That's about as close as we'll ever get," I thought, but then I realized that when I was her age, most of a world at war was out of bounds to me. "No, don't put it down," I replied. "You'll probably go there someday."
The Sagafjord sailed with a Scandinavian crew, so at our lifeboat station the Norwegian steward ordered: "Shake your lifejacket." So Nicole and I dutifully shook our lifejackets. He looked a bit bewildered, but continued, "Shake your strings." So, like tassel dancers, we shook our strings. The meaning began to dawn when we were asked us to "shake" our flashlights, and we finally figured out that "shake" meant "check." At the drill Nicole found a friend her age to explore the many passageways, find their own excitement and even dress for high tea.
Small plusses began adding up. Instead of dropping her head in response to a question from the waiter, Nicole would order from the menu and say "thank you." Her pretzel-like wiggle at the dining table turned more ladylike. Nicole suddenly wanted to know what each knife, fork and spoon was for.
Meanwhile, destinations began to appear on the horizon. Aruba wasn’t exactly undiscovered, but it gets my vote as the perfect stopping point for a cruise. We spent an entire morning snorkeling in a shallow cove teeming with undersea life. On Aruba, Nicole met exotic food. The final score was iguana soup 1, Nicole zero. "Why can't they have normal food here?" asked Nicole.
But if Nicole was less than excited about the food ashore, she had no trouble adapting to ship‘s cuisine ranging from schnitzel to snails. It delighted us as grandparents to observe her maturing daily in the social graces. Yet we held no fear that she would not go back to being a typical l0-year-old schoolgirl after she had, for one shining moment, stepped into another world in which, within a few years she would have to become a dues-paying member.
If Nicole had to list a highlight, it probably would be the night of the costume parade. She went as Cinderella. The ship's fresh young dance company also magnetized Nicole's attention, all the more so because she could visit with a certain amount of envy with the dancers on deck after seeing their performance the previous evening.
Grandparenting can't last forever, however, and all too soon it was time to return Nicole to her parents. "Well, how was it?" came the natural question from parents who had surrendered their daughter for half a month.
"Not bad. I won a prize and ate snails," came the reply. "But," she added after a certain amount of contemplation, "there's really no such thing as a free lunch."