The literature from the travel agent and the cruise line advised me that each passenger on the ship is permitted to bring up to two suitcases, none weighing more than 50 lbs. It speaks volumes about how little I travel that I was completely fucking freaked out by this. How could I pack enough books to read if I could only bring 100 pounds of stuff? I wondered if it would finally be worth it for me to buy a Kindle and download a lot of books to it. I began to make LISTS.
Because we do not travel much, and when we do travel it’s usually by car, and always to places where we know we can buy things we need if we’ve left stuff at home by accident, we do not have the kind of rolly-suitcases everyone has these days. We don’t have suitcases, in fact. My husband likes to pack in a small canvas duffel bag I scored him at a nursery school tag sale when our daughter was four, and I like to pack in a largish black leather doctor’s bag I got in the 1990s. It has style and is quite spacious but there’s no question it’s not the most efficient thing one could pack in, and it’s awkward to carry. My husband used to use a twin to my doctor’s bag, which I found for him in the early 2000s when he admired my bag, but ever since he got his duffel bag, he prefers that and the second doctor’s bag is most often used by our daughter. I wondered grimly if we could fit everything we’d need into these three bags plus one small carryon for each of us (my husband would use his messenger bag, I would use my usual big black tote bag I schlep with me everywhere, my daughter would use her school backpack).
The weekend before we were to leave, I said to my daughter, “Let’s figure this out.” I took out the two leather bags (my husband would have to figure out his own shit) and my lists and we began to organize our stuff. Many pairs of underwear, many t-shirts. A couple nice outfits for my daughter; separates for me that could be dressed up or down depending on what was going on; one actual nice dress for me. Several pairs of shoes for each of us (Keens, cute flats, and Chuckies for my girl; ugly-but-comfortable clogs for me plus two pairs of cute flats; I do not do sandals except in the most unusual circumstances, and this did not qualify as unusual enough, and that gives you a sense of how I feel about sandals, though I do own a pair). Two bathing suits each. Several pairs of shorts for my daughter; a million ponytail holders; barrettes; six books for me; two for my daughter, who doesn’t read as fast as I do; a fresh blank notebook for my daughter and good drawing pencils in a sturdy box, because she draws the way I read. Toiletries; Dramamine (kid and adult dosages); computer; phone; cords; DVD player to plug into the computer (so that we could choose our own movies to watch, if we needed downtime — this turned out to be a very smart decision, bringing this stuff though it was heavy) and three DVDs chosen with the directive, “Pick out three things you’d want to watch if you were feeling like crap and wanted to watch something cozy to help you feel better.” (Discs chosen by my girl: “Best in Show,” a season of A Bit of Fry & Laurie; and “The Princess Diaries.”) We packed everything carefully into our two bags. I borrowed a bathroom scale from our neighbor Sarah (no, we don’t own a bathroom scale) and to my astonishment, our bags weighed exactly the same amount: 16 lbs., 4 oz.
“The weight limit is 50 pounds!” I said. The realization that we’d packed everything we absolutely needed, bare bones, and come in at not even thirty pounds was sobering. What on earth was everyone else planning to bring that they’d hit a 50 x 2 baggage limit? My mother had given us, as a bon voyage gift, these nylon packing cubes that are designed to help you pack as much stuff as you can into very finite spaces. I was skeptical about their utility, but had to admit that I was able to cram a phenomenal amount of stuff into the three cubes that came in our set: I had 7 t-shirts, two pairs of bicycle shorts, one pencil skirt, one dress, all my underwear (including bras and two pairs of socks), two bathing suits, one kimono (it’s what I use as a pool cover-up), two pairs of flats, a set of pajamas, and one summer-weight sweater crammed into two of those little cubes. They fit effortlessly into my suitcase. I was then able to put six books into the bag, along with toiletries. My daughter packed into her cube almost everything she planned to bring, period. Her bag had actual room to spare, and she took her favorite stuffed animal with her, too.
On arriving at the terminal we realized that we wouldn’t even have to check our bags, which was a big time-saver. We waltzed right down the paths through all the paperwork checking (passports? passports? passports?) and before we knew it we were boarding the ship. The whole process took maybe fifteen minutes. It was incredibly well-organized, on the cruise line’s part, but also our having almost nothing with us made everything very simple. I watched as families wrangled massive, complicated collections of baggage onto big carts and made sure the tags said whatever they were suposed to say. We didn’t even need luggage tags! I kept thinking, “What do these people know to bring that we didn’t bring?” I genuinely have no idea what they all brought that we didn’t. Probably more clothes, more pairs of shoes, bigger bottles of shampoo and jars and bottles of hair product we don’t use. I have no idea. All I know is, I was really glad we didn’t have that much shit to lug around. We felt very light and carefree as we bounded onto the boat. The only thing I didn’t have with me, that I really wished I had with me, was a copy of David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” his cranky essay from 1995 about going on a cruise.
It turned out to be a very good thing we’d brought so little stuff on our trip because our cabin turned out to be so tiny that I don’t know what we would have done with any extra stuff anyhow; we’d’ve had to throw it out into the ocean and then been arrested for polluting international waters or something. Our cabin, which was, as requested, one of the itty-bitty windowless jobs, was a small rectangle that contained mostly a bed. There was a bunk bed on a hinge that when closed folded flat to the wall but when open hovered over about a third of the primary bed. The bathroom was equipped with slightly miniaturized versions of everything necessary — sink, toilet, shower — the shower was actually slightly bigger than I expected it to be, not merely a stall, which is smart because doubtless a lot of cruise guests need to bathe with their young children and this allows for enough space to do that (a regular stall would not). A retractable clothesline extended from one end of the shower to the other, also very smart. The “hallway” into the cabin was lined floor to ceiling with closet space, shelving, and drawers, all designed with curved edges so that there were no drawer handles to take up even a centimeter of clearance space in the very narrow hall. This was a situation where tidiness was mandatory; any sloppiness in the household would reduce our living conditions to total chaos. My husband was absolutely fucking thrilled. “I want our house to be just like this,” he said happily, over and over again.
Our daughter was initially alarmed by how tight the bed situation seemed to be — the big bed wasn’t the king-size bed she’s accustomed to sharing with us when we travel, but a queen. “Don’t worry,” my husband assured her, “Look!” He defied maritime law by not waiting for housekeeping to open the bunk bed and lowered it himself. Our girl was immediately charmed by her little loft/bunk bed and placed her stuffed animal against the pillows we tossed up to her there. “The two of you are gonna fight over who gets to sleep up there, aren’t you,” I mused as I began to unpack my things. “We can share,” my daughter said.
We unpacked our things, which took about fifteen minutes, and slid our bags under the large bed; having mastered the cabin (and learned that flushing the toilet would create a sound so echoing and booming that we vowed to flush it as infrequently as we could get away with) we decided to go for a walk and see what there was to see.
The ship we were on is not the largest or the fanciest of cruises, but it’s pretty nice. It certainly gets cleaned a lot. Everywhere you looked there were crew members cleaning things, making things just so; there are crew members standing in doorways holding spray bottles of Purell or similar, calling, “Washy-washy!” so that you’ll accept a spritz of hand sanitizer. It is clear that hygiene on the ship is a constant concern; no one wants to have an outbreak of norovirus or God knows what while traveling. All guests are constantly urged to wash their hands in the liberally-scattered-about bathrooms, and submit to Washy-washy, and as far as I can tell the guests pretty much submit.
It was around 2 p.m. when we boarded our ship, and the ship set sail at three. We were all notified that we had to learn what to do in the event of an emergency, and all 2300 of the guests assembled in a very large, grandly decorated dining area to get a lecture and demonstration of life jacket procedure. Then, we were told, we should go relax. “LET’S PARTY!” hollered some bonehead, already sounding drunk. I looked at my husband; he looked at me. “Red Sox fan,” he said. And we were off.