In order to recuperate, I recently took a determinedly upscale Mediterranean cruise with a classic Greek bias, and since I generally viewed such a cruise as some kind of packaged aging process, I initially decided, for literary purposes, to rename our ship the Geriatrica. Later I changed my mind.
It was entirely correct, however, as I had foreseen, that we formed a venerable passenger list and that hints of sunset soon became evident. No sooner had we left the quay than a charming elderly American woman came up to me when I was standing at the railing and said, hearing that I was writing books, she thought I might be amused by her favorite quote from Groucho Marx. “It works like that,” she said. “Next to a dog, a book is a man’s best friend, but inside it’s too dark to read anyway.” Is not that funny? I just love it. “I laughed politely, but remembered that over time the story must have lost something in its narrative.
Of course, the passage of time had to be a primary concern on board a ship like ours. “Looking rheumatism in the eye” was one of our first lectures, and for me the feeling was that the ancient seas we passed, seas of glory, seas of fate, seas in which young gods fought and heroes died, were themselves Allegories of mortality were challenging. “Facing Up to Decay” could indeed have been a more fitting mantra.
Half of us acted cocky. Lively combinations of lipstick and wrinkles could be observed at the Captain’s Gala Dinner. Nautical-looking veterans with binoculars had got up at dawn to sail for Istanbul. Loud accents of the English fifties echoed through gins and tonics through the whaleback bar. Proudly muscular old couples marched their obligatory exercise around the promenade deck (fifteen laps to a mile) before meeting their friends after getting dressed up for dinner Hooked up for cocktails by the pool.
The other half of us preferred to resign and more often sat two or four people across from fruit drinks with flexible straws. They were very likely looking at maps of tomorrow’s classical site or discussing the recent talk on Theban mosaics. Some of the ladies wore scarves. Few of the gentlemen wore white tuxedo jackets. Unless there was a bridge game, they usually went to bed early.
But the strange truth is that the two categories are mixed up. The metallic scream of the home countries was summed up in local vernacular, there was a general club-like atmosphere, and when the time came for the costume dance in the Seafarers’ Lounge, it was hard to tell which of my fellow travelers were representing Defiance and who were stepping down. This was because I gradually realized that they were united in tenacity, determination, and enthusiasm. They were all there to have fun, and even the oldest of us, even the room-framed ones, even the palest convalescents, were out and about for a good time. They were docile in their obedience to the rules of the ship, but it was an arbitrary suspension of liberty.
By Zeus, how great was their energy! Nothing stopped them. With serious care they listen to the tour guide’s game. Like aging gazelles, they spring from the plains of the Epidaurus Theater. We see them vividly haggling with Anatolian souvenir sellers, boldly experimenting with the effects of ouzo, returning to the ship loaded with toys for the grandchildren, nineteen to a dozen talking, and ending the day with a huge multi-course meal in the geriatric dining room, which they stand for hilariously thanking the Filipino waiters like old friends and shipmates (who after half a lifetime cruises are many of them).
When we got to our disembarkation port, I was pretty sure. The lively enthusiasm for everything had seduced me: the fruitful mix of Carnival and Palm Court and the determination to get the best out of everything. On our last day on board, this adorable old American came up to me again. “I knew I got that Groucho story wrong. I’ve been thinking about it all the time, and this is how it should go:” Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend, but inside it’s too dark to be anyway to read it. “
I really laughed this time. I was amazed that during our trip she had taken care of this joke at the museum, tavern, and Seafarers’ Lounge. and even as she spoke, my eyes wandered to the sunshine promenade above her head, where passengers took their last chance to move along the coast for the measured mile.
There they were in the silhouette of how these gods and heroes could be on a Greek vase: the crazy sinewy sprinter overtook everyone, the learned couple, one or two young people from the entertainment staff, an old man bowed to someone else’s wheelchair, several lonely energetic ladies, a couple of game-military men forever arthritic on the march.
I had grown to be proud of her – to be proud of us! – and when I laughed at the Groucho story and admired that living frieze above us, I renamed our ship there. The SS InvincibleI named her then and everyone who sailed in her.
Jan Morris (1926-2020) was a Welsh writer, journalist and historian. She lived with her partner Elizabeth Morris in northwest Wales between the mountains and the sea. Belong to her many books In my mind’s eye, Coronation Everest, and the Pax Britannica trilogy.
Excerpt from Allegories, by Jan Morris. Copyright © 2021 in the estate of Jan Morris. Used with permission from publisher Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.