Jeff Hammer: It’s Time for Normalcy

This column was necessarily written early.

On a day in the very near future, at about 4:00 in the afternoon, we will, if all goes well, board a plane for the long flight to Europe. We have been looking forward to not this day in particular, but more specifically, THE day when we feel comfortable entering an airport, boarding a commercial airliner, and heading across the pond for what we hope is a week of visiting a few places we have never seen before.

It’s been a long time coming. What’s the old saying about God laughing at our plans? He must have had a really good prolonged belly laugh at ours…for like the past two years. No one should be allowed to have that much fun. No offense, Big Guy.

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Was it only two years ago that Gayla and I decided to retire? Seems longer than that. I guess when one is waiting for the world to become safe again, time does not fly. Rather, it creeps along at its own good pace, never worried about tomorrow, because…well, tomorrow always comes, and we, as humans, can only wait for time to provide circumstances for us to make decisions regarding what is best for us.

After our decision to retire, early in 2020, we made such great plans. In reality, Gayla made the plans after a little discussion between us. Over the past couple of decades, we have become particularly enamored with cruising, but those trips were necessarily scheduled in the summer and during winter and spring breaks when time allowed.

Before March of 2020, we shared many pleasant conversations about how when we didn’t have those time restrictions, we would explore different parts of the world at times of the year that were chosen by us, and not by the school calendar. Europe, Central and South America, possibly even Australia and New Zealand were to be our oyster, to use a popular cliche.  Multiple trips were written on the calendar, reminding us why we had saved so diligently during our teaching careers for the traveling we wanted to experience after our time in our classrooms had ended.

More than two years have now passed since our retirement, and we are now just feeling somewhat comfortable traveling abroad again. We are hopeful, and I want to be excited, but there has been too much disappointment during the last two years for me to be as excited to travel as I had been before Covid. When that airplane takes off from Denver on Thursday, pointed east toward Europe, then I will be excited…no, I will feel exhilarated beyond description, knowing that we at least will be experiencing a facsimile of something normal: traveling on a ship of some kind.

Contrary to what many folks perceive, cruising is not just a pastime of the rich. Most cruises to foreign countries are a good way to dip one’s toe into international travel as the cost of doing so, in my opinion, is less expensive than arranging a land tour where one might see the same sites. Passengers are tethered to the ship, in a manner of speaking, as they depend on the ship for food and sleeping arrangements; but that’s not necessarily a bad thing as the food is great and is all inclusive with the cost of the cruise. The sleeping cabins can be a little tight, but for us, all we care about is having a bed and a shower. We spend very little time in our cabin.

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While on board ocean ships, cruisers mingle with passengers and crew from many different countries, and it’s easy to understand that as human beings, we are much more alike than we are different. While eating lunch at an expansive outdoor cafe, usually located at the rear of the ship, one can hear conversations in many different languages. Initially, I found that a little intimidating, but after a short time, I realized that all passengers were on board to escape the stress of day to day responsibilities for a week or ten days and visit a new part of the world; although on more than one seven-day spring break cruise, I brought along math tests that needed to be graded so that they could be returned to my students on the Monday after we came back.  

Initially, we began ocean cruising, but more recently we have taken a couple of river cruises; and there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Ocean cruises tend to dock in more countries, so the possibility exists to sample a variety of different cultures. For example, on a Caribbean cruise, a ship may go to Mexico, countries in Central America, and/or Caribbean islands. In addition, each night on the ship one can find world class entertainment in the ship’s theater: everything from comic performances to magicians to scaled-down Broadway plays.

 However, on ocean cruises, passengers will encounter at least one, but probably more, days at sea, which means that you are stuck on the ship for over twenty-four hours, and you must round up amusement on your own. The ship’s crew will make a valiant effort to provide entertainment options; but for us, sea days are not days we look forward to. We don’t spend time in the casino, nor do we hang out near the pool. 

There is a walking track, which we try to wear out, and sporadically throughout the day, there are trivia competitions at which we find little success, but they are fun. If we are partaking of a spring break cruise, usually there are March Madness college basketball games that hold our attention for an hour or two, along with a minority of like-minded vocal Americans who can be found crowded around a multitude of television sets throughout the ship. However, we would much rather be on shore straddling a bike or paddling a kayak. 

In contrast, river cruises generally target fewer countries. So, there is not the variety of cultures to explore as are sometimes available with ocean cruises; but river cruises stop in different communities each day…usually, and so one can choose land excursions into the local communities or the countryside every day. There are no days where passengers have to stay on the boat…unless they want to, and I don’t know why anyone would. Traveling over 5,000 miles and through nine time zones to sit on a parked boat is not for me.

A disadvantage of river cruises is that they do not usually provide evening entertainment, although we have found that during the evening meals, we have met and come to know other passengers who share the same passion for traveling abroad as us. Besides breaking bread together, we have also shared a lot of life stories resulting in much laughter, usually at the expense of someone sitting at the table, but sometimes any relative or acquaintance, who is not there to offer a defense, will make an easy target.

During some afternoons, locals from nearby communities provide lively performances of song and dance with respect to the culture of that country. During our most recent river cruise, nearly three years ago, on consecutive days, we listened to accounts from both Bosnians and Serbians with respect to the most recent military conflict between the two countries a few decades ago. The contrast in perspectives was both interesting and a little unsettling, as if a minor misunderstanding between the two countries now could renew those hostilities. I hope not. That would be another European tragedy. That continent has experienced more than its share of human suffering.

Hopefully, on the day you find this column on County 10, I will have returned from Europe where just a few days before I was somewhere in Germany learning local history or culture or just walking the streets of a German town with my wife enjoying the country of one of my distant ancestors. But the greatest joy will be living the normality of the moment. We need that.

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