A personal account of the 32nd ‘Music at Sea’
February 14 - 28, 2010
When icicles hang from the window sill and a snow dumper has just plonked an 18 foot mountain of white winter wonderland in the middle of your driveway, many might secretly habour fantasies of sandy beaches, softly sighing seas, palm trees, Caribbean sunshine etc. etc. Well, dear reader, not the participants in this Music at Sea! They packed their bags, fought their way through the snow to the nearest airport and…….headed to the Antarctic – remarking when they arrived that it was colder at home than in the vicinity of the South Pole! Those who could, arrived in Argentina early ‘just in case’, four of the group renting a luxury apartment for a pre-cruise week in Buenos Aires with daily tango lessons thrown in! At the other end of the scale first prize for determination must go to Linda and George who, through their flight from New York being cancelled due to bad weather, drove to Canada, were re-routed Toronto/Miami/Buenos Aires, and arrived at Infinity’s dockside berth just a few minutes before she departed!
journey to join Infinity was eventful as I had arranged to connect with her
in Ushuaia seven days before MAS commenced. Late on the evening before I left
came a cryptic email from Celebrity in Miami:
‘If you receive this – please phone immediately”. I did - to learn that there was no point in going to Ushuaia the next day as Infinity, coping with what we might politely call ‘weather problems’, had altered its port order and had already been there! Spare a thought for the poor Cruise Director who, with expected artistes not arriving and departing as planned was now improvising like mad, and spare a thought for the passengers bouncing up and down on the unpredictable waters of the South Atlantic! As I left the house the next morning my better half sleepily enquired what I considered to be one of the main attractions on the forthcoming trip.
“Cape Horn’ I replied.
“Gay Porn?” she exclaimed, suddenly wide awake!
My altered schedule meant
that now I was going to embark Infinity in Puerto Madryn and my past flashed
before me! Eight years ago scheduled to join Mercury in that same port, I had
flown to Trelew – the nearest airport - arriving there still dressed for
a London winter, and since temperatures were in the 80’s looking conspiculously
out of place. At that time memories of the Falklands War (between the UK and
Argentina) were fresh and my discomforture was not eased by the knowledge that
a UK newspaper purchased at Heathrow and now protruding from my raincoat pocket
was attracting some attention! Inside the airport terminal were memorials to
the gallant fallen of Argentina plus a fighter plane of the Argentinian Air
Force based close by and, to add to my misery, the agent who was supposed to
take me to the ship didn’t turn up! I felt stranded behind enemy lines!
An illusion as the local people could not have been kinder towards this oddly
dressed stranger in their midst – even counselling me against walking
around with too much cash in my pockets – making me so welcome that when
I did leave 3 days later to catch up with Mercury in, yes you’ve guessed
it, Ushuaia, the parting was tinged with regret on both sides. Anyway, I digress.
Back to the present when I arrived in Buenos Aires early in the morning and,
faced with a 14 hour layover before the onward flight to Trelew, asked a taxi
driver to take me to the Recoleta area to see the famous cemetery. (Am I unlucky
with taxi drivers? My view on the ones in Buenos Aires is that 90% shouldn’t
be behind the wheel and the remaining 10% have no idea where they should be
going) My current driver made little effort to look ahead preferring to twist
his neck around to me in the back and speak animatedly in Spanish about football!
Whilst doing this he weaved in and out of the many lanes of early morning rush
hour traffic convincing me that even if I reached the cemetary it would be as
one of its inhabitants! He grew more and more animated - I grew more and more
desperate! Suddenly, reaching into the glovebox, he scrabbled around inside,
and then triumphantly produced a dishevelled piece of paper which he reverently
handed to me. What was this – the Holy Grail? No. It was a photocopy of
the passport of one Diego Maradona! Now, for those of you who live on another
planet, or the USA (Editor’s note: a joke of course!) Football is a religion
in Argentina and its High Priest is Diego Maradona – the nearest they
have to a living Saint and by national acclaim the greatest Argentinian to draw
breath). I perusued this treasured document with respect and then carefully
made to hand it back to my driver.
“No, No – its for you”. He said - in English!
What do you do when a
complete stranger gives you a gift which to him is priceless and which to you
- well, let me explain: I had mixed emotions. (Mixed emotions definition: Watching
your mother-in-law drive over a cliff in your new Rolls Royce) Maradona scored
the winning goal for Argentina against England in the 1986 World Cup. What’s
more this goal was ‘controversial’. Why? Simple. In football you
kick the ball with your foot – which is why its called football. Sometimes
you can use your head – if you have a suicide wish - but its still called
football. OK? What you don’t do is stroke the ball into the goal with
your hand which is what Saint Diego did. That’s considered cheating. Damn
it, it IS cheating – but not, apparently,when Argentina play England and
the referee has such a bad case of myopia he should be carrying carrying a white
stick! When asked to explain, the great Diego said the goal was scored by the
‘Hand of God’ (look it up on google) which didn’t play too
well with the English sports fans brought up to believe that God is an Englishman
and watching video replays clearly showing whose hand it was! Throughout the
country English fans spluttered angrily into their beer which brings me back
to my current predicament i.e. an Englishman sitting in the back of a cab driven
by an Argentinian Football Fanatic for whom the memory of that great/dreadful
moment will be forever sacred, and desperate for the Hand of God to take some
control over the steering wheel. Moreover, how I should respond to this unsolicited
gift without causing a diplomatic incident?
So what did I do?
I simpered “Muchas
Gracias” seemingly overcome with emotion (Which puts me in line for the
‘Coward of the year Award” and an Oscar) and, honour satisfied,
my new found best friend deposited me outside the gates – alive - of La
Recoleta cemetery the final resting place for many illustrious Argentinians
including Eva Duarte (Evita), Admiral William Brown (founder of the Argentinian
navy) and presumably one day, (but sadly not yet), one Diego Armando Maradona!
Tomb of Eva Peron
After I had paid my respects to Argentina’s former First Lady I sat underneath the giant centenerary Hindu rubber tree close to the cemetery’s walls, sipping a coffee from La Biela. An extract from the the great Arthur Rubinstein’s biography came to mind. He had a few run-ins with Juan Peron and took his revenge by often repeating a story concerning an angry Peron confronting the US Naval attache to Argentina about persistent stories in the US press which suggested that his beloved wife Eva might, in her past, have worked as a ‘lady of the night’. “Why do so many of your newspapers print disgraceful stories about my wife?” he demanded. “They even claim she was a prostitute!” “Please do not be upset Senor Presidente,” the naval attache replied, “They still call me Admiral – but I retired a long time ago”.
It was a beautiful Sunday evening when Infinity slipped her moorings and glided gracefully down the Rio de la Plata (translation ‘River of Silver’ or, as it is known in English: ‘River Plate’) en route to our first port, the Falkland Islands. She was carrying close to 2,000 guests representing nearly 50 countries with, unusually, less than 40% of the passengers having English as their first language. Throughout the cruise all the major announcements were to be made in five languages. We were a floating United Nations and excitement was in the air!
The next day, Paulina, with her husband Wei (on their 4th ‘Music At Sea’ cruise) celebrated her birthday by inviting some friends to join them in the private dining room of the SS United States Restaurant. As we sat around the table, surrounded by memorabilia from the legendary ocean liner, another member of the group – Russ – sprang a surprise by revealing that this was indeed a very special, nostalgic evening for him because, many, many years ago as a young man, he had worked onboard the predecessor to the “SS United States” – the “SS America”. His evening was complete when shown original menus from his old ship displayed on the walls of the dining room.
Paulina had just returned
from her son’s wedding in Borneo at which she had suggested to her prospective
daughter-in-law that she might follow an ancient Chinese wedding tradition and
serve her future parents-in-law tea on bended knees! The bride to be, having
dutifully considered this proposal, gave her answer.
“I will be happy to respect your ancient Chinese tradition - but perhaps, in return, you might observe an ancient and revered Bidayuh wedding custom?” “What would this be?” replied Paulina. “On the eve of the wedding you leave your hotel, gather a fresh human head, and present it to my parents!” I am happy to report that ancient wedding customs were dispensed with in favour of something more appropriate for the 21st century!
And then as the evening drew to a close, Wei astonished us with stories of his youth which included being conscripted to work on the Bridge over the River Kwai, escaping and then walking (yes, WALKING! ) back to Malaysia.
When the Falkland Islands were being disputed (“two bald men fighting over a hairbrush” was the phrase put about at the time) there were, so I am told, some in the UK who believed the islands were just off the coast of Scotland! The reality is that they lie approximately the same distance from the South Pole as London from the North Pole. Unpredictable weather means that Cruise ships are frequently thwarted in their attempts to stop at these remote islands but we were fortunate. MAS guests came back with tales of drinking British beer in the pubs, eating superb fish’n chips and, above all, the tame wildlife. A sheep shearing demonstration was a must and ALL were delighted and excited to have been there. I was told that serving the entire Falklands community there is just one hospital containing twenty-two beds of which only one is a maternity bed – which suggests an unusual degree of co-operative timing amongst the islanders!
And then it was time for
Infinity to raise her anchors and make course for that great white continent
of mystery - Antarctica. To Elephant Island where Shackleton’s “Endurance”
was wrecked, then a navigation of the Gerlache Straight en route to Paradise
Bay and all to a superb commentary pointing out the multitude of wild life which
included penguins, seals and whales. Our fellow guests, many wearing thick insulated
parkas and sporting binoculars and cameras were revelling in the atmosphere.
As a brilliant sun shone down on the smooth blue sea we drifted seemingly on
tiptoe amongst the icebergs, the hushed stillness only interrupted by the crunch
of the ice floes brushing the hull of the ship – their subterranean thuds
echoing through the silently gliding Infinity like some primitive greeting code
Icebergs seen from the Promenade deck – Close enough?
We weren’t just looking at Antacrtica. We were experiencing it in all its raw beauty. It was that ‘Eureka’ moment when we suddenly knew and understood why Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen had risked life and limb to come here and how fortunate we were to be witnessing those same sights in total comfort and safety. Over and over again I heard fellow guests expressing the same feeling. “We are SO lucky” and the truth is that we were. Even the notoriously fickle Antarctic weather was smiling on us.
That evening I joined
some of the MAS group for dinner. The waiter approached to give an overview
of the food on offer. Solemnly he cleared his throat and, recognising the sign,
seven heads attached to seven hungry stomachs swivelled in well drilled unison
to give him their complete attention.
“Good evening everyone – I hope you had a wonderful day?” Chorus of ‘Yes’ emitted from seven throats attached to seven heads attached to seven hungry stomachs “I just want to go through our offerings for this evening and tell you what is good on tonight’s menu”.
He had our rapt attention. Seven pairs of lungs, attached to seven throats, attached to seven heads, attached to seven hungry stomachs stopped exhaling less the noise interrupt the crucial information about to be delivered. “Tonight” - (expectant pause) – “NOTHING is good on the menu!”
Stunned silence as the enormity of what had just been said penetrated the brains of aforesaid seven heads (still attached to seven hungry stomachs) – then, with exquisite timing which only comes from delivering the line many times in the past he continued: “Nothing is good on the menu because………… TONIGHT…………EVERYTHING IS……… EXCELLENT!”
Communal “WOOSH” as pent up air in seven pairs of lungs, attached to seven throats, attached to seven heads, attached to seven hungry stomachs was released in collective unison with the precision and finality of the final chord of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony when performed by the Berlin Philharmonic! Round of applause from all of us, happy beam from the waiter and, to be truthful, he was right, everything was EXCELLENT – not just that night but every night!
Our conversation turned
to the ‘old days’ of cruising (I nearly wrote ‘good old days’
but that would not only be maudlin but unfair) The Masquerade nights –
fancy dress to you dear reader – without which no cruise entertainment
programme was considered complete. I recall one entry with great joy. A wheelchair-bound
guest completely covered his tranportation with yellow paper and, with much
honking from a horn on the arm rest plus the encouragement of thunderous cheers
from the audience, propelled himself around the ballroom floor like a whirling
dervish as ……a Yellow Cab!
On another less joyous
occasion I was alone in the elevator when the doors opened and in tottered a
three-tiered wedding cake precariously balancing on stiletto heels. “What
are you going as?” I asked the lady – for indeed it was a lady beneath
all the decoration. The recipient of my enquiry gave me a steely look reminiscent
of Dame Edith Evans’ portrayal of Lady Bracknell in ‘The Importance
of being Earnest.”
“I beg your pardon!” (“Oh dear” I thought – something wrong here!) “This” (a bejewelled finger pointed to the garment cloaking her body) “This gown was chosen, and given to me, by my late husband just before he passed away” (“Is that why you murdered him?” - No, of course I didn’t say that. Discretion IS the better part of valour and very necessary for survival onboard a cruise ship). There was a pause whilst she quivered and struggled with deep emotions conflicting within herself. ”Are you suggesting that his treasured gift to me resembles………(she could hardly bring herself to utter the words) a FANCY DRESS COSTUME?
(“Well, it had crossed my mind actually” No, I didn’t say that either - there is a time and a place to say these things and, given the reaction, enclosed space of the elevator, and lack of an emergency phone, this was neither!) She concluded: “I do NOT participate in such childish FRIVOLITIES!” Mercifully the elevator reached her stop and, as the doors glided open, she swept out leaving me resolved NEVER to comment on anyone’s attire EVER again.
Now, there were people around the table that night who are now VERY eminent in their chosen profession (which makes their anonimity essential) several of whom began to recount student pranks which, perhaps, in the sober light of day, might have been better left unsaid – but there again, some might argue the National Enquirer might be be better left unread! (Not me. I always look for a copy to read on the plane and if I was to read that Elvis was flying the plane I’d be tapping on the cockpit door for an autograph.)
Anyway, back to the narra - One of our group (lets call he/she ‘X’ and I’ll use the masculine for convenience throughout) recalled a masquerade party at a night club in New York. ‘X’ determined to win and planned his entry with methodical military-like precision. First he dressed his collaborators in medical white coats. Then, realising they needed a ‘patient’, he ‘volunteered’ a slightly inebriated co-conspiritor to lie prone on a stretcher to which, (just to make sure he didn’t fall off or – heaven forbid – run away) he tied him securely. Surveying his work “X” decided the ‘patient’, far from looking at death’s door, appeared remarkably healthy – which wouldn’t do at all – so, to tweak up the realism, the ‘patient’ was attached to an intravenous drip. No ordinary intravenous drip mind. This was a SPECIAL ‘vintage’ intravenous drip – the IV bottles having been filled with white wine! (No, I don’t know if it was a Chardonnay – Yuck, I hope not. Don’t interrupt you’re spoiling the story). There was no stopping “X’ now. His creative juices were fired and he was really on a roll. In for a penny in for a pound. He ‘borrowed’ a gurney, commandered an ambulance, and, with lights flashing and siren blaring, the whole kit and caboodle arrived at the night club around 02.00am (much to the consternation of the local neighbourhood who, woken from their slumbers thought a Delta force had landed in their midst). ‘X’ emerging from the front of the ambulance, imperiously supervised the opening of the rear doors and then, surrounded by his entourage of white coats, produced his stretcher bound ‘patient’ from rear doors, checked he was securely bound to the gurney and then, perhaps in a similar manner to the ceremonial wheeling in of the Thanksgiving Turkey, triumphantly guided both gurney and hapless occupant through the night club and onto the dance floor where - to humungous cheers from the crowd – they were awarded first prize.!
‘X’ was now
well down ‘memory lane’ and without too much urging from the rest
of us recalled attending a party at Studio 54 in New York arranged to commemorate
the 50th. Anniversary of the sinking of “Titanic’. Don’t ask
why anyone would hold a party to commemorate that but New York is new York and
if you’re going to be tacky - be SPECTACULARLY tacky!…….As
‘X’ entered the club he was greeted by the usual hubub of excited
banter, laughter, clinking of glasses etc and then he was struck dumb by an
unusual sight even for this, the most exclusive and bizarre Disco in the Big
Apple. Hanging from the ceiling, like an enormous vulture about to pounce on
the single lone figure on the dance floor beneath, was an enormous replica of
‘Titanic’. The unfortunate person underneath its hull was holding
a microphone and singing, or perhaps a more accurate description would be TRYING
to sing, because two ginormous fans, each side of the stage and operating at
full blast, were generating hurricane force winds which, constantly blowing
her dress above her ears, not only made singing difficult but breathing perilous
since, with every gasp, she risked inhaling her entire wardrobe. So what was
Yes, You’ve guessed it. “Stormy Weather”!
(I told you this was tacky) but wait dear reader. That is not all. We’re coming to the climax. Picture the scene. “Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky” she warbled. ‘You’re underneath Titanic” – it’s blocking the sun up in the sky’ responded the happy revellers. “Can’t go on – everything I have is gone” she continued - the ship creaked and swayed perilously above her.
“Will be soon” shouted the excited crowd.
“Just can’t keep my poor self together’ she gasped – her dress now half way down her throat.
“Ha Ha – we can see that” responded the throng.
The singer, seemingly oblivious of what was about to happen, valiantly went for the last stanza.
“STORMY WEATHEEEEEEE….” when out of the wings appeared a gigantic ‘iceberg’ heading straight for the pride of the White Star Line. Wallop! It smashed against the ship,
“URGH” screamed the vocalist running for her life,
‘AHHHHHHH” went the crowd in a collective alcohol fuelled orgasm. CHER BANG, went the ship hideously lurching from side to side and then with a great sigh and snap of its suspending lines falling to the floor – CRASH - where it disintegrated into little pieces and then – suddenly - there was stunned silence followed by thunderous cheers as without warning and revealed standing like a goddess in the wreckage:
– “The port at the end of the world”
– “The port at the end of the world”
Back to the cruise! Our next port was Ushuaia – the self-styled ‘port at the end of the world’ – which it is. The most southerly town in the world. Once more we were fortunate with the weather – the odd fluffy cloud draped the snow-capped mountains – but this was a glorious day and, yes, there were more penguins to see! Then to that notorious graveyard of many a ship - Cape Horn. Even fearless mariners have been known to experience qualms of trepidation at the thought of ‘rounding the Horn’. All my previous attempts had ended in failure - on one occasion I was convinced we would capsize - so when I awoke on Tuesday 23rd. of February (the day of our navigation around this southern tip) it was in a frame of mind more like that of the owner of a new Toyota Prius who, hearing the engine purring quietly feels confident, but……….who knows?! I needn’t have had any negative thoughts. No problems today. Infinity rounded the Horn with hardly a roll. It was an absolute dream of a day and when we returned to our staterooms that evening all the guests found a commemorative certificate inscribed with their name and signed by the Captain – a thoughtful and much appreciated mementoe of a very special day. Thank you Celebrity.
The next day was one of those wonderfully relaxing, langorous sea days as Infinity gently paddled her way up the Argentinian coastline towards Puerto Madryn. It was to this area of Patagonia that a Welsh community, fearful they would lose their own identity if they remained at home and promised by the Argentine government that they could maintain their own Welsh traditions and language, emigrated in the mid 1860s. Their descendants remain here to this day keeping the Welsh language and traditions alive. Welsh tea shops and cakes were in evidence. We even saw a Welsh harmonium complete with – get this – a mouse-proof pedal!
Our tenth anniversary cake – pre-surgery!
That morning we had small but important ceremony to perform, namely a reception to commemorate the 10th anniversary of ‘Music At Sea’. Can it really be ten years? Yes! We toasted John and Rosemary, under whose careful stewardship MAS has flourished, and then Jeanne – conscripted to be the group’s honorary surgeon – dissected the unanaethetized celebration cake with consumate professional skill - It didn’t feel a thing!
And so to our penultimate port. Montevideo. Again the sun was shining and what a joy it was to walk the tree-lined boulevards of this ancient city.
Teatro Solis – Montevideo
The Solis theatre, a national treasure dating from 1857, is the oldest in South America and nearby I discovered the most beautiful bookshop – a temple to the written word – inside which was a stained glass window with this inscription beneath ‘Veritas Filia Mendacii Est’ No, I don’t know what this means - so if you do, please email me. Thanks.
Bookshop in Montevideo
And so to that final evening, when, as the great fireball in the sky slid beneath the horizon, Infinity glided from her berth close to the resting place of ‘Graf Spee’ to return to where this astonishing cruise began: Buenos Aires. It was that bittersweet time when one says Farewells and dreams of meeting again. Privately I thought this ‘Music at Sea’ had been one of the best. A unique itinerary, fantastic weather and the crew of Infinity delivering the top class cruising experience for which Celebrity is justly renowned. I had kept these thoughts to myself so as not to prejudice the feedback from the rest of the group. I needn’t have worried. Without exception everyone loved the cruise and adored Infinity. And then I had a wonderful surprise for we have not announced the ‘Music At Sea’ programme for 2011 and I had dismissed the possibility of any of the group returning for a second cruise in 2010. How wrong can you be? Several had already made their reservations for another MAS experience this year.
‘Azamara Journey’ Barcelona – Copenhagen including London and our private excursion and concert in WS Gilbert’s home (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame).
The ‘Celebrity Mercury’ Alaskan cruise with our trip on the Rocky Mountaineer and concert at Chateau Lake Louise.
A unique west coast wine cruise onboard ‘Celebrity Millennium’ including a private reception at John and Rosemary’s home.
Egypt/Israel round trip from Rome onboard one of the newest ships in the world: ‘Celebrity Eclipse’.
What a wonderful start to our tenth anniversary and if YOU, dear reader, would like to join us, please do. As the song goes: “There’s always room at our house to share a smile or two – there’s always room enough dear friends for YOU.” But there won’t be if you delay(!) so telephone or email John and Rosemary NOW!!
Until we meet again
My warmest thoughts
LONDON March 2010.
Reading this epistle I realise that I have not written one word about the most important feature (to me) of our MAS cruises – the private concerts! Well, since I am the perpetrator its difficult for me to make neutral comments but I can assure you dear reader that the concerts DO take place, that they are private (any interlopers from the ship’s guests are politely asked to leave) and that the performer enjoys himself IMMENSELY! As for the audience? Here’s a statistic. In 2010 sixty-seven per cent of all our guests will be those who are repeating the experience! Thank you - one and all!