“You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” so they say, and actually the opposite is true. Generally gift horses come with strings attached, like being forced to buy what it is that you’re supposed to be getting for free, or worse. That’s what happens 98 times out of a hundred and one lives for the other two.
I was supposed to go to Greenland, and had a bunch of actual venues line up and everything, but at the last minute they fired the PR guy and disavowed any knowledge of my existence. I was ticked off about it when I was checking my spam filter and found something that seemed to be legitimate, RSVP, the largest Gay travel agency, sent me an email inviting me to join their cruise of the Mediterranean, I told them I wasn’t Gay, in fact just the opposite, but if they were going to pay for the whole thing, I would put any biases I had aside and go along. It turns out that they weren’t. I knew it.
I would have to pay for the airfare myself, but that wasn’t all that bad. I was able to get a really cheap ticket. But in the meantime, there was what seemed to be long gaps in communication. There were eight rooms reserved for press, and I got one. Two weeks with a thousand gays, If they could take me, I could take them. No problem.
Now the people at RSVP had told a little fib when they sent me my free ticket. They said that for my connivance, they had a discount bus transfer from either the airport at or downtown Rome for eighty-four bucks. This is undoubtedly true about the cost of a ticket, but discount? No way in hell. The cost of a train to the cruise ship port of Civitaveccia is only FOUR euros, about five and a half bucks, per person, and there’s a free shuttle bus from just below the station to the docks half a mile away. I’m not sure if it was RSVP or Holland America who told the whopper, but it doesn’t help matters, as to Citivaveccia itself, this is a small town with an incredible beach. Apparently, it’s one of the very few places in the Mediterranean with decent surfing. I didn’t really see all that much of the town itself, but it had a slightly moldy look, which is typical for tropical climes. Once I got on the ship, and it IS a ship, things changed quite a bit.
The Westerdam is one of the bigger ships in the Holland America fleet, ten stories high, it is, as the cliché goes, a floating luxury hotel. I’ve never been actually been on it’s like before. Oh, sure, I’ve been on ships before, but usually in steerage or sleeping on deck.
Getting there is supposed to be half the fun on these things, and the people at RSVP have managed to get the standard entertainment for the crowd they’re catering to. Gay men looking to get laid, mostly, and the stops on land along the way are mostly extras. As one passenger described it: “It’s not as tacky some other cruises I’ve been on.”
I was invited to the media party the first night, and someone slammed me as soon as she heard my name. It seems that she had invited me to a free dinner at an extremely fancy schmancy restaurant in Manhattan on the dime of the Brazilian government, and I told our hostess that I was primarily there for the free meal. It seems that a person was nearly fired because I was honest and upfront with people I was doing business with. Next time I’ll say I’m the financial correspondent for Life Magazine. But the people at RSVP knew I was straight and they were okay with that. There are very few of us on board outside of the crew. After a few days aboard, I’m very comfortable with my sexual preference as none of the guys on board is the least bit sexy, in fact far uglier than I am, and most of the lesbians are pretty old. But the problem with cruising on a tub as big as the Westerdam is that there’s not actually enough time to see all that much unless you fork out a sixty to a hundred bucks on a tour. There are cheaper alternatives to be sure, but at 75¢ a minute, using the internet for anything except briefly checking for emergency emails.
What is being offered is basically summer camp for grownups, with an emphasis, in this case on “ethnic heritage and culture,” I.e. leather bar recreations and bad disco, with halfway decent singers and drag acts.
But the reason I came on this thing was to see the ports of call, most of which have changed a great deal since I last visited them, some of which was back in the ‘80s.
The cruise was for the most part a circumnavigation of Italy, one of those countries that has a little too much history for it’s own good. Three thousand years of food, art and architecture, where one can get some of the best meals in the world for under a hundred bucks. It used to be twenty, but I’ll get to that later.
The first stop on any major tour of Italy is Rome, the Eternal city. Rome has more art per square inch than any other place in the world. This was once the sole property of the Catholic church, and before that was the capitol of the Classical world for about five hundred years. It’s unbelievable what one can see there, this greatest of archeological sites in the world. Unfortunately is expensive as all hell.
Not necessarily for the Romans, for the Romans know where the supermarkets are. The street vendors selling water and juice and the like charge through the nose, up to four bucks for a coke, something you can get in a supermarket for a quarter of the price.
The eternal city is the tourist town to end all tourist towns, and it knows it. There’s too much too see and too much to do, and all that money to take from the unsuspecting. I heard someone tell of a thief throwing a baby at a guy and robbing him as he caught it. I myself have seen similar acts of villainy with my own eyes. But if one’s careful, one can take in some truly amazing sights, The Coliseum at night or St. Peter’s basilica at anytime are breathtaking.
But I had about a day and a half, I wasn’t here for Rome, but for a cruise, and it was off to Civitaveccia on that five-dollar train, free shuttle bus, and expensive drinks.
Our first stop is Naples, which was once the capitol of it’s very own kingdom, something the locals aren’t too thrilled remembering, as the graffiti on the bases of two equestrian statues of a couple of them, across the way from the Royal palace, will attest. In fact graffiti, most of which is of either the “Joanie Loves Chachi” or “Fuck the Government” variety, is on pretty much everything there, but here it’s more specific to the monuments. After a hundred and fifty years, people still hold a grudge.
But the reason that most of tourists go visit is for something else, something much older, the notorious Mt. Vesuvius and the two towns buried by it back when years had only two digits. Most of the best stuff from the excavations are supposed to be at the Archeological museum, some of the best frescoes left to us from the Roman era, but they’re all in storage in the museum’s basement. They claim they’ll be back up next spring.
I would like to go on about Naples, but unfortunately, I didn’t actually have enough time there, which is one of the major problems with the cruise. There isn’t enough time at any of the ports of call. On the one hand you don’t have to pack and unpack all the time, but getting into port at ten in the morning and having to be back at, say, FOUR in the afternoon just doesn’t leave for much time to see more than a couple of things before you go back. Sure, Places like Dubrovnick, Croatia CAN be seen in a day, or you can inspect St. Mark’s Square in Venice in the better part of the afternoon, but what about Malta or Corfu, which have some really nice beaches and incredible scenery? The fort, the archeological museum, which is unusually half closed because of needed repairs, an expensive lunch (Americans make better pizza than the Italians), and a brief hunt for cheesy souvenirs.
For the rest of the time you’re trapped on the boat. Between Venice and Valletta, Malta, there was a day at sea. The problem was that the entertainment was rather tacky, the pool overcrowded, several hundred gay men looking like a flock of walrus, (I know that sounds homophobic, but there were a few lesbians there too, who also looked like walrus, as did I) didn’t make going for a swim all that appetizing. The gym was overcrowded too and most of the immunities were NOT included in the price, and that included the spa, which cost over a hundred dollars, hell, it cost almost a hundred and fifty bucks to just check my email every day! It’s expensive and boring, especially if you drink, or gamble, which is where the cruise line makes a good deal of its income.
This is not to say that seeing Europe by boat isn’t a bad idea, Far from it. There are plenty of overnight ferries where you can see spectacular sunsets over the glistening Mediterranean, and smaller cruise lines actually dock for longer than a few hours in any one place, so you can actually get to see and do more. If one wants to stay on a ship, there are plenty of “cruises to nowhere,” and going all the way to Europe to be on one seems like a waste of time and money.