In the Belly of the Beast

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Sailing away. Photo: Andrej Mrevlje

“A few hours after we boarded and sailed out into the open ocean, I got a feeling that we, the passengers on this gigantic ship, were the only survivors of this planet, that we were saved on Noah’s Ark,” said Sean, the insurer from Red Hat, New Jersey. Sean and his wife were among the other hundreds of passengers on the Queen Mary 2, the world’s biggest ocean liner, that on the late afternoon of July 6 sailed out of Brooklyn Harbor towards Southampton, England. A few days into the cruise, as we were sitting in one of the restaurants on the Queen, fascination with the power and sheer mass of this boat had already settled in.

It was curious to hear what drove these passengers to board this humongous ship to cross the Atlantic, and I found Sean’s apocalyptic description one of the best. Sean, though, was not referring to Noah’s Ark in a biblical sense. He instead meant that we–the passengers of the Queen Mary–were the only survivors of the madness that is America. It, its people left behind, unaware of our small, life-saving departure, obsessed with Trump and his corrupt family.

We moved smoothly across the cold and calm North Atlantic; most of the seven days the Queen Mary was wrapped in a thick fog, like the image of that transatlantic in Fellini’s Amarcord. It felt like we were ages away from Trump’s scandals and tweets, his idiocy, his power. Unbelievably slow and yet extremely expensive internet helped us support the choice to turn our backs on the political and media chatter back in D.C. The impression was that almost everyone on the boat couldn’t care less about Trump and Putin’s tête-à-tête in Hamburg during the G20, an event that back on “terraferma” would no doubt force a lot of adrenaline through our veins. Not on the Queen Mary 2, she is dignified, a floating universe of her own.

The setting was perfect; we were offered crisp, cold champagne as we sailed under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and out into the mouth of the open ocean. The adventure could have started just then, looking into that endless horizon, if only this were another and not The 21st Century.

As I wrote some time ago, I always wanted to cross the Atlantic on a steamboat, desiring mostly that the voyage would last long enough to write a book, maybe a good one. But, by the time I was finally able to board one of those huge vessels, my ideas felt old. There is no book; there is no journey of self-examination and revelation; to read a book and compare it to a voyage has grown into an old, tired metaphor.

And yet, I was excited and full of expectations before boarding because of the few books I took with me, and as soon as I got on the ship I scouted a spot where one could read undisturbed, looking for what all men seek on the water: a solitude?

Similarly, Herman Melville started Moby Dick:  

Whenever I find myself growing grim about my mouth; whenever it is dump, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand on me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

So I got on the boat and had Moby Dick with me. The right book, except that the boat was so huge that it took a time to run around the decks to find my spot. There were too many choices, no way to sink into the wild hunt that awaited me. I stopped only when I understood that I was already sitting deep in the guts of a huge whale.

There were more than 2600 passengers caught in the same dizzying trap. Once they got us off the buses, they lined us up, replaced our documents with a card that became our passport, credit card, the room key in short; our only ID on the boat. They took us to our state rooms–called cabins on regularly sized ships–and, once you realized that the cabin was not the one booked, you needed to go to the only reception, in the belly of the whale, where dozens of people were waiting with somehow similar problems to yours.

Their keys were not working, the internet was too slow, the wrong account was registered, or one could not text or call his wife who is 350 meters away and 45 meters up, looking for him. All this mess, when the Queen whale was still sitting tight in the dock! Are we safe here, I thought? But only for a second, because you want to believe that crossing the ocean on such a big liner is something extraordinary and exciting, something you wanted to do for such a long time. In reality, you are bound at the feet from the moment you set foot on the boat.

In my case, there was no other state room available, even if we were willing to pay for it I was told. The only way to get a bigger room on the boat, one that would not be practically below sea level, was if someone on the upper floors would die. That’s something more likely than expected since the majority of the passengers were way over 70 years old. It happened the next day when a person had to be taken off the board because of some health issue. By the time they offered us the patient’s room, I was told that she was out of mortal danger, but the Queen had to land in Halifax to secure the right treatment to the passenger in trouble.

When we first boarded the boat, the staff of Queen Mary 2 summoned all the passengers for security check. We had to gather at certain rescue points on the boat. Ours was in the gym, where we were jammed and waiting for fifteen minutes before the captain found time to read us security instructions over the loudspeakers. Then we were ordered to try on our life jackets. I still do not know what the purpose of this exercise was. To honor the captain’s voice?  We were listening to the master’s voice for seven days in a row, every noontime. It was telling us the position of the boat, which we were sailing just miles away from the wrecked Titanic, or the place where the perfect storm, with its 18 meter high waves, swallowed George Clooney’s fishing boat. Not funny! Then every second day, the captain told us to move our watches an hour– something that did not make sense since we all were living in a complete time and communication oblivion.

I never saw the captain, not even on the day he gave a reception for the people who were able to put on a dinner jacket or tuxedo. Many people did since Queen Mary 2 is a lot about the dress code and misplaced nostalgia for the past. People dressed up for the dinners, for the cocktail parties. There are many opportunities to dress up on the boat like this. In that sense, the Queen Mary seemed to want to replicate the mythical glamor the Titanic was known for. That is before it sank. Besides, there were Broadway shows, movies, a ballroom (the major event on the boat was the masked grand gala ball); gazillions of little hobby activities, like organized knitting (every day at 3 pm in the Carinthia lounge).

The Queen was organized like a small town. With most of the restaurants on the seventh deck, there was also the main boardwalk, a big enough deck for joggers and deck chairs that run around the boat. The main bars (quite a good jazz club) were distributed between the second and the third deck, where there was also the main reception and Britannia, the biggest restaurant, with enough seats for 1100 people. It’s huge, served by 146 chefs that can daily prepare 2500 meals in two seatings. But to be able to get through the tight security of the very formal and strict headwaters and get a seat, you need to wear at least some sort of jacket. I needed to borrow a tie a couple of times to pass the “guards.” But otherwise, it was our place, since we were traveling with a New York Times group of journalists and readers. It was the most interesting group of the people on the boat to be with because some of the known journalists (my wife among them) were lecturing, but also because the Times readers were all knowledgeable and nice people, interesting to talk to.

Without this group, to be honest, the Queen Mary would’ve been a nightmare. As I said before, the boat, or at least our cruise, was full of retired people who needed to socialize and, as my wife said, had enough money to do it. This was something that crew members confirmed during the numerous chats I had with them. After I realized that the Queen is not a place of Oceanic contemplation, I began trying to understand how such a marvelous piece of machinery for making money works inside. What is going on under the deck?

As I said before and as you may have noticed by now, the Queen Mary 2 seemed to be a floating home for the elderly. At least this was the case during my journey. Perhaps I noticed it more because there was a dense fog that prevented us from sitting on the deck, as I was hoping to do for the whole trip. Since the ocean offered little or nothing more than a dense cold the whole way of the crossing, I only saw one bird, the name of which I do not know, and one seagull. Our attention turned instead to what was happening inside the belly of the beast.  

Nothing much, the tired faces of the crew told me by the end of the cruise. They work long hours but, coming from the Philippines–half of the 1200 crew–and countries of former Yugoslavia where the incomes are low, these people work hard to save some money to send it back home. They tell you how Cunard, the owner of the big fleet of cruise ships, is reducing the salaries and even the internet, an important way to stay in touch with family, and is getting slower and slower. If they stay on the boat long enough the crew members do get a promotion and a contract that lets them stay at home for longer periods of time at least a couple of times a year. But while they sail, they work and sleep under the deck in the what appear to be very small cabins. They sometimes are able to get on the ground for a few hours, but only part of the crew at a time because the management knows that these folks, like all sailors for centuries, do get wild when they get into the harbors. And the next day the damn ship has to load on and carry more passengers with deep pockets.  

For most of the people, the major activity on the boat was eating. The food was free and available 24/7, at least in the huge King’s Court self-service restaurant where the quality of the food was almost as high if not the same as in the other seated and fancy places. So people, ordinary people, were eating and discussing the food at all times. Then they were going to the events or reading the leaflets with the schedule of events, using the maps of the boat in order to orient themselves. Those were the clients, the slow-motion customers who bring millions of dollars of revenue to Cunard with every crossing. So by the end of the seventh day, when the fog lifted and we finally saw the boring shore of Southampton, I was happy. We finally were able to be expelled from the belly of the big whale and to set our life back on track. And my wife, me and friends from the New York Times were able to go back to their journalist and editor jobs. Because getting off of the Queen Mary 2, where they were treated like simple entertainers, did not boost their professional dignity.

Regarding the crossing of the Atlantic, I lost my illusions, my enthusiasm. But I am not throwing that Moby Dick away. Who knows, perhaps one day it may be useful, and perhaps the big whale is actually among us, sitting in the White House.

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