Bad Food, Cold Weather and a Quarantine - We Had a Fabulous Time!

Posted by: Kathy Harmon on 7/8/2010

My Dear Readers,


We just returned from our 12-day Mediterranean cruise with my 85-year old mother.  We discovered immediately why we received a six-cabin upgrade. It wasn't as much the state of the economy as it was the fact that it was the middle of a long nasty winter in Europe.  The temperature dipped into the low 30s almost daily.  We encountered several storms, gale winds, pouring rain, and heightened port security that kept passengers onboard for as much as six hours of a 10-hour visit while inspectors examined all passports (including those of the crew).  That left only a few hours to take in Athens a few more for Alexandria.  Many attractions were closed or have restricted winter hours, and gastroenteritis kept us quarantined for 36 hours so we missed Turkey entirely.  In addition, the food was substandard and I got seven stitches in my forehead from a tangle with an ill-tempered camel I was attempting to ride.


That being said, the plastic surgeon was adorable at Cairo General; our 4,300- square foot cabin was amazing; and my mother was a trouper - not a word of complaint.  The 23-hour, flight from here to Chicago, then Amsterdam and finally Barcelona was especially difficult.  Although our frequent flyer miles got us business class, we didn't sleep well, every flight had some delay and I was fearful that I had made a huge mistake when we finally touched down in Spain.  We ate a light meal and headed straight to our hotel for a long rest.  But by morning mother was rested and ready to board the ship.  In the 12 days that followed I learned several things about my mom.


Although she is the most generous person I know she was shocked by the value of our dollar.  On the flight over we bought two egg McMuffins and coffees in the airport in Holland at a cost of $21.70.  With the exception of two trips to the British Isles and a cruise to the Caribbean, mother has not traveled outside the continental U.S.  She experiences the world through newspapers, magazines and television news channels.   


A few days into the trip we were sharing our impressions and she said she was stunned by the cities we visited.  I thought she was referring to their beauty.  In fact, she confided that she expected to find other countries in some sort of third- world condition.  In her view the U.S. is first-rate and all other countries lagged far behind.  She found the Gaudi architecture of Barcelona enchanting, the Vatican an amazing experience and the friendliness of the Egyptians a delightful surprise.  It was a bit like watching a child on Christmas morning.


We had planned this trip for more than a year and had high expectations for it.   We don't gamble, bar hop, or swim if the temperature's below 70 degrees and my beloved husband considers anything other than jeans formal attire.  We work, read and enjoy each other's company wherever we are.  Given the abysmal weather, had we been confined to small cabins, it would have been a huge disappointment. But the grandeur of our three-bedroom, four bath suite with grand piano, private hot tub, steam room, 1,000 foot deck (which was "crime-taped" so we wouldn't be blown overboard), two dining rooms, private bar, personal butler, two cabin stewards and a concierge compensated for the weather and delays. 


As much planning as we had done, I had been unrealistic about the most obvious things.  Laurry and I love to travel.  We walk rapidly and enjoy racing around strange towns on sensory adventures.  We dash up and down streets, in and out of churches and shops, soaking up the regional flavor, snapping hundreds of photographs, chatting with locals and sampling the cuisine.  Before we left I had asked mom if she would consider taking a wheelchair.  She emphatically declined but consented to a flashy red walker.  What a godsend!  I had assumed that the walker made for a level playing field.  It had never occurred to me that our itinerary would need to adopt a far slower pace.  By day three we began paring our excursions down to the few sites we could squeeze in to our limited time in port.


When we travel Laurry and I always take public transportation, often riding trains and buses to escape the tourist areas.  On our first outing in Italy we planned just such a trip.  We read on the Cruise Critic website, that a "10-minute" walk to the train station and 12 Euros each would take us directly to the Vatican.  In reality the one-hour walk was four kilometers up a steep grade.  Once at Vatican station it was another two kilometers (accounting for three wrong turns) to the gates of the city and finally the doors of St. Peter's.   Mother made remarkably good time on her little red flyer but the puddles got deeper, our feet and pant-legs were soaked and we needed just one more hand to hold the third umbrella.  We ended our day in Rome shivering on a double-decker tour to the Colosseum with fogged windows in rush-hour traffic.  After the 90-minute train ride back to the ship, my thrifty Scottish mum turned to me and asked, "I don?t care what it costs; could we please take a cab back to the ship?"


We had faithfully checked the weather and the 10-day forecast on the day we left home showed temperatures ranging from 45 to 70 degrees with some light rain.  We packed a few warmer clothes and rain gear but had not accounted for the lower temps and storms that occur offshore.  Being at the top of a ship has a downside:  significantly more movement in high seas.  None of us was seasick but mom couldn't overcome her "awareness" of the movement and it made her uncomfortable and unsteady at times.  We took brief language lessons and I became nearly fluent after one hour of Italian.  With the exception of Laurry's command of Spanish our communication was limited to single words, pointing and something akin to charades.   My mother, an otherwise very intelligent woman, seemed to believe that if you speak loud enough and enunciate, non-English speaking people will understand you.


I knew intellectually that seniors often become more fearful as they age.  I was aware that my mother feared falling in winter but hadn't realized how pervasive this fear had become.  Without her walker to lean on, she wouldn't venture out of the cabin without one of us in tow.  As the trip progressed, the walker was transformed from a sign of weakness to her badge of courage.  It was repeatedly tagged on entry to the ship, in ports and at the doorway of  every aircraft.  By the time we arrived home it resembled a 1970 VW plastered with bumper stickers. She refuses to peel them off just yet.   When the planning began mother said she thought she had one more cruise in her.  As always, her experiences age well.  Rather than being "soaked to the skin" in Rome she now claims she was a bit  "chilled" in Italy.  In her photo filled letters to friends around the country she now refers to this "trip of a lifetime" not as her last cruise but merely her most recent adventure.  I'm thinking South America in 2011!

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In the years has been online, we’ve received hundreds of e-mails from visitors asking questions about legal documents, how to start retirement planning in their 50's, as well as advice on traveling with grandpa and the kids and making everyone happy.   We’ve also received personal stories of triumph and tragedy including the creative, often humorous ways people cope with stress, relationships, balancing career and family, 70 hour work weeks, job loss and the "agony and defeat" they encountered starting a new company.   In our newsletter, I periodically share stories about my glorious 86 year old mother and have named a collection after her.  This is YOUR SPACE.  Ask for advice.  Share stories.  I love your e-mails. It's simple.  Just click here!