A Tale of Two Cities

I’ve been in Dallas most of my life, and as much of my travel has been for business, I usually visit cities that are relatively easy connections. However, visiting the relatives can be a different story. I speak of two of my favorite “cities”, Cedarville, Ohio, and D’Hanis, Texas.

Editor’s Note: This is a filtered brain dump of a bunch of research I did in the middle of the night. So, whether or not it’s coherent is probably in the eye of the beholder. (As always, if you read something I wrote and think, “That is profound!”, please call my wife and ask for her neurologist’s name. She has a lot of specialists.) 

Here’s the ways I usually travel:

  • Ship. Fun. Relaxing. Requires deep water. (So much for Dallas.)
  • Plane. Pain. More Pain. Expensive Pain. Pretty fast, though.
  • Train. Faster than my wife’s driving. Might not be as fast as mine. 24×7 travel. Limited stops. Usually visit Chicago.
  • Bus. 24×7 travel. Small towns. Get to see a mob of people descend on a McDonalds every few hours (“Buses Welcome!”) Spousal Unit refuses to ever ride one again (something about riff-raff touching her.)
  • Car. Back-seat drivers (often in the front seat.) Stress. Highways. Rest Stops. Overnight Stops. Souvenir Stops. Still more fun than the bus.

And now, our two citites.

Cedarville

We’re thinking of visiting the grandkids later this year, and we’re thinking “roadtrip.” I believe they used to drive straight through (ah, youth!), but we’ll stop somewhere for a night along the way. (Memphis is about half-way.)  Two nights in a hotel are cheaper than flights, we don’t have to rent a car, and it’s not like I can’t afford the time right now.

There are two airports within an hour or so of the kids’ place, even though Cedarville is not a large town. (There are a number of universities in the area, so there are students to consider.)

Train service is really bad in Ohio. Cedarville is close to Dayton (Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) and Columbus (Ohio State and it’s the freakin’ capital) but neither is on the Amtrak network. (Amtrak was my cruise before I found ships.)

The closest bus service is Springfield and we’ve stayed in Springfield before, so it’s not really that far. (Still, there’s a university in Cedarville. Today’s kids don’t ride the bus? The bus has WiFi onboard, so you could live blog it.)

So, you fly to Dayton, take the train to Cincinnati, take the bus to Springfield, or just drive.

This time we’ll drive.

D’Hanis

My first thought when presented with the transportation options to Cedarville was, “Geez, even D’Hanis has bus service.” Now, D’Hanis is small. It’s unincorporated. It’s in the middle of nowhere. Wikipedia lists it as a “human settlement.” It’s my spiritual home (well, one of them.) It’s also my Mom’s hometown.

The closest airport is Hondo (one town to the east), which is a regional airport (and former Army Air Force training base) so there’s no commercial traffic. My Dad flew in there once in a private plane, and had to wait two days for the weather to clear before he could leave again (instrument ratings are good to have.) The closest “real” airport is San Antonio. Let’s just say people go to the Hondo airport more for the restaurant than the flights.

D’Hanis had train service when my Mom was growing up – in fact, when the first train line was built in Medina County (in 1881) and bypassed the town, they just moved the town closer to the tracks. (This is why there is technically an Old D’Hanis and a New D’Hanis.) By the time I was riding Amtrak for fun, the Sunset Limited passed through town, but the closest stop was San Antonio. I had to stay up late to see D’Hanis from the train, since we passed through before the crack of dawn, but I did manage to see the town – just for a second. Again, it’s a small town. I also found D’Hanis in the 1954 Southern Pacific timetables, so the Sunset Limited stopped there at one point, on the eastboound and westbound runs.

D’Hanis had Greyhound service and the Kerrville Bus Line which was a Continental Trailways affiliate. I actually rode the Kerrville Bus to HemisFair ’68 with my Mom and little brother, who got car-sick. (Bus-sick?) Greyhound absorbed Continental Trailways years ago, and the Kerrville Bus just goes to college towns and casinos now (an interesting market plan.) However, Greyhound seems to be routing on I-10 instead of US 90, so they don’t stop in D’Hanis any longer. So, no more bus service. Ouch.

So, now you have to go to San Antonio to get anywhere. That hasn’t changed much, it’s just now you can’t get to San Antonio.

So, D’Hanis is off the grid. Unless you have a truck. (Pretty much everyone has a truck, but still.)

This really distressed me. It took a while to figure out why, but then I realized that D’Hanis was the place I always knew I could go when I was down to my last $200 (bus fares kept going up!) I would get off the bus, and go mooch off call on my relatives. By the time they realized it was more than a visit, I would be moved in. D’Hanis was the place my late grandmother once said I could be buried if I “died alone” because there were extra slots next to her and my Granddad. (I think she was comforting me after my divorce, since that was the last time I was alone.) Sweet and morbid at the same time. (That’s pretty much the definition of my family.)

Cedarville was the place I knew I could go when I was down to my last $200 and the kids would give me a cup of coffee and point me to D’Hanis. So it goes.

This also means neither town will ever be in a country song. If you can’t get out of town, you can’t be in the song. It’s in the rules.

Holidazed

This is specifically written to make me feel better, because I’m about to have my annual panic attack. Read this, and you will probably understand why. This is all just self-reflection, and not designed to insult or offend anyone who may be mentioned or thinks they may be mentioned. So, apologies in advance, just in case.

I hate the holidays. I will admit that. I used to deny it, but even I realize I really dislike this time of year. This has been true for so long that my first wife warned my second wife about it while we were still dating, and I’ve been married to my second wife for fifteen years. I was never sure why, but I’m pretty sure I know now. I’m beginning to recognize some of the annual patterns, and they may have something to do with how I feel.

First of all, for anyone that is even tangentially connected to a sales organization, Christmas is really the end of  fourth quarter and the end of the year – when the sales guys are either going to make their quotas or not. Not making end of the year quota is bad, since reviews are coming up, and you’re about to get a number between 1 and 4 attached to you that is not a ranking (Really. No, it’s really not. It’s just everyone with low numbers is better than people with high numbers. But it’s not a ranking.) So, if you’re a technical resource like me in a sales organization, you can get called into anything that resembles a sales opportunity no matter how hopeless – and the hopelessness will be matched by the desperation of the salesperson. Unfortunately, their bonuses are riding on my performance, so they will expect me to work 80-hour weeks. I don’t get a sales bonus, and I know desperation when I smell it. Usually, once it is apparent that the sale is completely lost, someone will start suggesting that a visit on-site would save the day. The site will be in a remote area, prone to being snowed in, with crappy air service. The only customers available will have no purchasing authority.

I will begin crying at stupid things, especially commercials, starting at Thanksgiving. It may be that I’m really sentimental, it may be the crushing disappointment of never getting a pony for Christmas, it may be the realization that my extended family will probably never get together for an event again – no matter how much we talk about it, or it may just be I gave up drinking too soon in life. So, please just ignore me if I’m crying. It’s probably not you, and it will be over soon.

I will have my annual theological issues with the commercialization of Christmas. These feelings start at the Fourth of July when the first decorations go up. This then leads me to the realization that I’m quite possibly a really, really bad Catholic. However, I’m not especially welcome in the Church since I’m divorced and remarried. Or maybe I am welcome. It depends on whom you ask, and what you mean by “welcome”. Also, I have a fundamental issue with the Church hierarchy who lately seem much more interested in being popular with people and fixing global warming than actually saving souls, which I thought was their job. I understand politicians pandering to the masses, but the Church should be keeping people on the straight and narrow. So, trying to be religious this time of year is very difficult for me. The Catholic Church is a lot like most big corporations – there’s somebody in charge somewhere that has a vision of what should happen, but they keep hiring incompetents to implement the vision.

The Spousal Unit does not want to be home on Christmas. This has been true since her Mom passed away seven years ago. That’s fine, I can live with that. So, logically, we have to go somewhere. In 2009, for lack of better ideas, we went on a cruise, and survived – actually, it was fun. So, now, we take a cruise over Christmas. Interesting point – Christmas Week is the second most expensive week to cruise in the entire year (only New Year’s is worse, and one year, we had both holidays in one cruise.) So, as with anything you have been paying for since at least February, the expectations are high. Anything with high expectations is pretty much doomed, at least on some level, because the expectations amplify minimal imperfections – for some hilarious examples, just read the CruiseCritic website. Also, since the cruise and accouterments (airfare, hotels, excursions, drinks, souvenirs, pet sitters, new clothes, camera gear, insurance)  cost quite a bit of money, anything that can threaten it (work, injuries, pet issues, family issues, travel issues, possible divorce) is made that much worse.

Since we’re gone for Christmas, my family will want to have a Christmas gathering (much like the one the Spousal Unit is avoiding) some time before we leave, since nobody in my family wants to go on the cruise with us – the Parental Unit wants to stay home just as much as the Spousal Unit wants to leave. So, Christmas will be between the 12th and the 23rd and then again on the 25th. If the Spousal Unit’s family ever figures this out, I could end up with three Christmases a year, which is more than my son had as a child of divorce.

Now, ket’s look at what always seems to occur within a few days of Christmas, usually a week or so before – i. e. when I’m trying to close out work projects and get out of town for vacation. When most of this happened this week, I realized it was time to document it.

Some time during the week before we leave:

  • One of our dogs will have a minor to major medical issue. (This actually happens before most vacations in addition to Christmas.) This week, Ripley spent an $845 day at the veterinarian’s. So much for my bar tab on the ship. (On this day in 2011, Bubba crossed the bridge, so I am very glad Ripley is home in one piece, but I wish we didn’t have to spend almost a grand to find out he’s old and temperamental.)
  • The Spousal Unit or I (maybe both) will have a very painful, short-term medical issue that has the potential to derail the entire vacation. Last year, the Spousal Unit had stress-induced vertigo the night before we left that was so bad, I moved our flight eight hours later to give her time to recover (and pack). This year, I managed to slip on a pee puddle in a dark hallway and sprain my ankle. (Yes, pee puddle. The dogs don’t always wait until they’re outside.) I’ve almost finished limping.
  • Someone in the family will start a very distracting project that will then keep the Spousal Unit very distracted until the absolute last minute – to the point where I assume I will be sailing naked, and even though nobody said the project was actually her problem or that it had to be done before Christmas. My Parental Unit will have house repairs or insurance paperwork. Someone somewhere will be ill. Someone needs desperate pet advice, whether they know it or not. My sister-in-law will have some of the carpet in her house replaced. One of the dogs will have a new medication, which requires a sixteen-hour rewrite of the ten-page pet manual for the pet sitter. Something. (One year, it was an actual death, so carpets aren’t so bad.)
  • There will be a major crisis at work. I will be one of three candidates in the Universe that can solve this issue, even if it is not in my job description, my department or even my field of expertise. I will be the only one of the three available. It will blow over eventually, but it may be January before it’s fully resolved. Usually, because of the way annual budgets and finances are designed at work (“Fall Plan” starts in May and ends in February, if you’re lucky), there will be a wee question of whether I will have a job when I return. One year, I had a paper for a conference rejected and found out about it on the ship. So it goes. Then, they said, “No. You have to rewrite it. By Monday.” I redid the paper from my Spousal Unit’s aunt’s house via a T-Mobile hotspot we bought at Home Depot. (She didn’t have Internet access, but she did have a fax machine.)
  • The pet injury and family projects will be the number one, single most critical issues for the Spousal Unit, which make my work problems seem trivial in comparison to her, even if my work crisis is helping management figure out how best to phase out my own job. Having to hear about a Chihuahua’s possible ingrown toenail or how difficult it can be to choose tile while I’m trying to find an extra half million dollars somewhere or I’m patiently explaining for the third time why if a job is necessary in December, it’s probably still necessary in January tends to be slightly annoying. Possibly stressful. Just saying. Maybe it’s just me.
  • I will be told by at least one manager to “forget about work and enjoy your vacation.” I know this is a trap, because I just spent a week trying to figure out where to cut the budget. So, $250 for Internet access on the ship, and I need to watch my email.

On Christmas Day itself, I will not realize it’s Christmas, because we’ve already had the celebrations, I’m still stressed from work, and I will probably be snorkeling. On the bright side, there will probably be rum.

Some years, the calendar is particularly cruel, and I will have work days between the end of the cruise and the end of the year. That’s the case this year.

I don’t really know why I hate the holidays.

Holidaze

The end of another year. Christmas. Hanukkah. Year-end close at the office. Budget deadlines for next year at the office. Family in town. Leaving for vacation.

Stress.

Wow. There is approximately 43% more crap going on right now that I can process.

I was promoted to manager this year. This is the major reason I haven’t posted in a while – I’ve been too busy trying to identify and put out fires. I got promoted just in time for all the budgeting and arguing for next year. What fun it is! I don’t understand the numbers yet, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to defend them. It’s also the time of year that you get questions which demonstrate nobody is actually reading the contracts they are signing. This scares me. I read them and I correct the typos, because I assume my job is on the line. If that is a bad assumption, that is what is wrong with the company.

The other thing wrong with the company is that everyone expects 24×7 access to everyone else and instantaneous replies to requests, no matter how trivial – even though manager’s training specifically tells you not to do that. So, while on vacation, I’ll still be checking email at cruise line Internet prices. If my Internet bill is higher than my bar tab (again), it’s not a great vacation. It’s an office with sand and rum. At least there’s rum.

It’s funny – when I made the vacation plans, being out for two weeks was going to have very little consequence, since not much was going on in my old department at this time of year. Apparently, now the world will end prematurely if all my emails aren’t answered quickly and completely.

One of my goals before I die is to teach the people above me that not every problem is a severity one problem. This may be an impossible task.

My son is a PhD now. His family all came down for graduation, so the three grandkids are in residence. Every time my wife and I try to corral the two boys – even without watching their baby sister – I have more and more doubt on the sanity of people my age trying to have kids. We’re watching the kids because their parents are tired – and they’re in their twenties. There’s a reason old folks don’t have kids – kids are active and inquisitive and fearless. Sure, it sounds like good exercise, but a heart attack really doesn’t help you lose much weight, unless you count only getting fed what fits down a tube while you’re in the ICU.

At least we now know that nothing in our house or my Mom’s house is actually child-proof. Oops. On the other hand, I’ve virtually given up drinking Diet Dr Pepper at home, because I can’t get into the cabinet where the soda is kept. I guess I’ll have to get one of the grandkids to open it for me before they leave.

It’s sad that I have to stop and think if sending a “Merry Christmas” note to my team is going to offend anyone. It’s Christmas, whether you celebrate it or not. There are enough people who either are Christian or believe in the secular values of Christmas, that companies close for the day. It’s Christmas vacation whether you honor the day or not. It’s still vodka, even if you don’t drink. Call Christmas vacation what it is.

One more meeting to go.

Explorations

From June 1, 2001, originally. That was after a plane flight across the Atlantic. It still seems appropriate after sailing across the Pond – since sailing is a much more civilized way to travel than flying.

I crossed the ocean
And it crossed me.

Where am I?
I know the planet is Earth,
Since that’s what we call it.
I know the time
(As much as anyone could know)
But I’m still lost and floating
Home seems an eternity away.

Long ago, the brave crossed oceans,
To conquer and explore.
But today it doesn’t take courage,
Just an expense account,
And another meeting to attend.

Travel is no longer an adventure
(If ever it was before.)
This is just routine, almost tedium,
At five hundred miles per hour.

The oceans pass underneath,
And continents appear.
I’m in a crowded metal tube,
Trying to find a reason for it all.

I left my house to cross the globe,
But the website is still up,
And email downloads still.
Am I really gone?

Near-Death Vacation

Nine levels of switchback. Nine Circles of Hell. Coincedence?

Entrevaux Citadel

Yesterday, I thought I was going to die, all alone, while slowly approaching a French Citadel. Isn’t that what a vacation day on a business trip is all about?

Years ago, the Spousal Unit and I went to Southern France for a couple of weeks – I was on business, she was on vacation. Part of the time, we were both on vacation. On one of those days, we took the train to from Nice to Entrevaux, a Medieval city about two hours north of Nice. (Nice is a seaside town that is at the edge of the Mediterranean on one side and the edge of the Alps on the other.) So, Entrevaux is in the mountains.

Apparently, many years ago, somebody thought it would be a good idea to fortify the town by building a citadel (which means a fort way the hell up in the sky.)

“Monsieur, some evil people are attacking the town!”

“We need a citadel. How about putting it way up there out of sight?”

So, Entrevaux has a Citadel. The Spousal Unit and I shot some photos of it last time. From the ground. However, this time, I was not with my wife, I was with two of my co-workers. Co-workers desperately afraid they will miss something interesting while on a business trip with an open weekend in France. So, we climbed up to the Citadel. On foot.

So, the rest of this is a remembrance and tirade about taking a walk. Those of you in good shape who exercise regularly can roll your eyes and stop reading now. Those who know me and are already giggling or enjoy seeing me in pain (hello, family!) can continue on.

There was a helpful French guide at the foot of the climb who sold us our tokens to enter the passageway up. Three euros. Each. She said there were seven switchbacks along the way. She lied. The brochure says there are nine, as in the number of circles of Hell.

So, David from Austin, Sakamoto-san from Tokyo and I started the ascent. In retrospect, it is very clever to charge people for the opportunity to walk straight up into the sky. If you didn’t charge them, many would get to the foot of the walkway and decide against such a foolish escapade. With a charge, the thought is – “Hey, I don’t want to waste three euros!”

This is the same theory as joining a gym. At least you can skip going to the gym more easily than skipping the walk.

Quote: “How to get to the Citadel: Go through toll-gate [Editor: with the 3 euro token] and walk straight up for about 20 minutes. Easy walk on recently restored cobbled path (difference in height: 156 meters.)” Some key points, for those who don’t easily read between the lines:

  • Straight up. This is not an exaggeration, even though the path has seven to nine switchbacks.
  • Recently restored. France is in Europe. “Recently restored” could be sometime in the 1800s.
  • 156 meters. For Americans, that’s actually 511 feet which sounds a lot higher than 156 meters. However, you don’t actually walk straight up, you walk fifty-seven miles through the “seven” switchbacks. Rappelling would be 156 meters.

    Warning Sign

    This is not information. It is a warning.

David and Sakamoto-san are a lot like me, except for age, weight and general disposition. As they sprinted up the recently restored pathway, chatting happily, I got through the first switchback just barely before my heart began to pound.

Maybe I’ll just stop here and take a couple of photos. I’m not out of breath or anything, this is just a good vantage point, since it’s so close to the ground and all.

My colleagues are now out of sight. As well as out of earshot. So, at least now I can whimper in peace.

So, I’ll guess I’ll just stop here in the middle of the second switchback to {huff, puff} take some more photos. Wow. It’s already a long way down. I’m making progress! Wow. It’s an even further way up. I’m going to die.

Continue climbing.

Horrible realization – I don’t have a pen with me. I can’t leave a note for David and Sakamoto-san to find on the way down, asking them to deliver the camera back to the Spousal Unit. I also don’t have a safety pin to attach the note to my clothes before I breathe my last. Should I be concerned I’m already planning my last minutes on earth?

I’m only concerned about the camera because the Spousal Unit lent it to me before I left and asked me to re-shoot the town of Entrevaux, especially the Citadel. Hey! That means this is all her fault! Feel slightly better. Still out of breath.

Realize if I die on this walk, the Spousal Unit will just buy a truly expensive camera with her inheritance money. If I die, I’m throwing this camera off the mountain.

Continue climbing.

Horrible realization deux – I now know why I don’t remember the climb being this difficult the last time I was in Entrevaux. It’s not just because that was eight years and probably fifty pounds ago – it’s because we didn’t actually make the climb. So much for age and experience. I would yell at David for dragging me up this mountain, but he’s already at the top, and I’m here on the third switchback, out of breath. I mean, taking photos.

Well, {choke, wheeze}, at least I’m almost half-way there.

Continue climbing.

If Lance freakin’ Armstrong goes by on his bike, I’m putting a stick through his spokes.

Well, {sneeze, cough, whimper}, at least I’m almost half-way there.

Another Fort

Hey, that fort over there looks a lot lower.

Continue climbing.

Why am I not making any progress? I wonder what David and Sakamoto-san are doing at the top? I wonder if they will pass me on their way down? I wonder if they will recover my body?

Continue climbing.

Stop to catch my breath, uh, I mean, take some photos.

Meet a couple on the way down. Try to be polite without heaving too much. “Bonjour!”

Why do they look so damn happy? Oh, maybe it’s because they’re going down. Bastards. Wonder what “bastards” is in French? If I could get a WiFi signal, I could use Google Translate. Who am I kidding? If I had a WiFi signal, I would call for help.

Continue climbing.

Well, at least I’m almost half-way there.

I wonder if David and Sakamoto-san remember me?

Hey, I made it all the way through that switchback without stopping. I wonder why my heart is beating so far out of my chest?

I think that was switchback 27. If I ever make it down to safety, I’m kicking that cute tour guide in the butt, as soon as I catch my breath. And can move my legs.

Damn. More people coming down. Look pleased to be here. “Bonjour!” Well, at least a little old couple hasn’t passed me on their way up.

At least I’m almost half-way there.

Hmm. What kind of message does dying on Father’s Day send? I’d better get moving. I’ll just take a couple of photos, since this is a nice vantage point.

Dear Lord, if You could just give me one more chance and let me survive this easy climb on a restored cobbled path, I’ll build You a freakin’ chapel at the top, next to the Citadel.

At least I’m almost half-way there.

Looking down at Entrevaux

If I puke, will I hit the houses?

 

Holy Crap! (Sorry, Lord.) Another couple is heading down. How many old people think climbing a mountain to see an old fort is a rational idea? Were these guys stationed here at one time?

If this freakin’ Citadel is closed for lunch when I get up there, someone’s going to die. Unless I die first.

Bonjour. That man looked pleased to be descending. I’m pretty sure the woman said “Almost” in a slight whisper as she passed me. Almost to the top? Almost dead? Almost is some French word for “look at the fat guy dying on his easy walk”? I’m pretty sure that was a pity smile she gave me.

I wonder if it’s time to start saying “Bon soir”? I’ve been climbing for about fourteen hours (twenty minutes my ass) and it was late morning when we started.

Hey, at least my pants are getting looser. It’s either the altitude or the 37 1/2 pounds of sweat I’ve produced so far. It’s a bit warm in Southern France today.

If one of these couples calls the authorities, and I get med-evac’ed off this stupid easy climb, the first thing the Spousal Unit will say when the US Embassy calls is “Was he wearing sunblock?” What is wrong with her?

At least I’m almost half-way there.

Hey! That’s David up ahead! Hmm. I don’t remember him wearing a white robe. Why is there so much light behind him? Why is he telling me to come into it? Why are my grandparents behind him?

I think I have enough time to shoot some more photos.

At least I’m almost half-way there.

As I turned another corner in the 42 switchbacks, I wondered how the French architects and builders managed to make the switchbacks at the top longer than the ones at the bottom. I wonder if the French army lost any wars just because their soldiers couldn’t make it up to the fort in time. I wonder if the enemy soldiers could just dodge any arrows shot from the Citadel since it would take a half-hour for them to reach the ground?

Man, I thought that can of olive oil the Spousal Unit requested I purchase in Nice was going to be overweight luggage. Wait until IBM has to ship my corpse home. That is going to be one big-ass internal mail envelope.

Wait! This time, it really is David. I’m at the top. That was easy.

Where’s the welcoming party? The snack bar? The oxygen tents? The snack bar?

We’re at the damn top at last, let’s take some photos. Hey! A bench! Let’s rest, then take photos.

Well, that was fun. Let’s go down. Does France have a Care-Flite service?

Going down wasn’t nearly as bad as going up, and I did take a few more photos.

Entrevaux Citadel

French soldiers were stationed here, waiting for attack. I’m waiting for a heart attack.

I even kept David and Sakamoto-san in sight most of the time. Most of the time.

I only stumbled once, but I didn’t even fall, since I’m an experienced climber now. I did, however,  have a flash of rolling down a recently renovated cobblestone path, wiping out co-workers and tourists as I fell. Bowling for Tourists.

At the bottom, we saw a young couple with two bouncing sons in tow, approaching the entrance. I thought “That hike should calm those kids down.” Then, I thought, “This is going to be the vacation those kids discuss with their therapist.”

Once safely at the bottom, I realized that I had forgotten to build the Lord His chapel. Considering what He’s overlooked in my life so far, he may let that one slide. Come to think of it, it may not be the first chapel I’ve shorted Him.

Lord, I would go back and build Your chapel as promised, but I think that climb was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Mainly, because the next time would kill me, and I know how You feel about suicide.

I’m still alive. Next time, I’m buying posst cards at the gift shop and just telling people I made the climb.

David said he signed the guest book as “IBMers from Texas and Japan”. So, the next time you’re at the top of the Citadel, you can see my name in the book. Implied.


New Year’s Cruise

Just back from a week’s cruise on the NCL Pearl, a Christmas to New Year’s cruise. We visited Great Stirrup Cay, Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Cozumel. The Spousal Unit discovered she loves snorkeling. I discovered a Nikon CoolPix AW100 is a kick-ass point’n’shoot camera. Nobody got sunburned. We took my son and daughter-in-law, and we’re all still speaking to each other.

We were told this cruise is one of the most expensive cruises of the year – not because of Christmas but because of New Year’s Eve. People apparently really like to sail on New Year’s Eve.

Strangely, every New Year’s Eve, I’m reminded how arbitrary the choice of the date is. December used to be the tenth month (“decem”, a distant memory from my Latin class), not the end of the year, and there is no seasonal, solar or lunar reason for January first to start a new year, as far as I know.

However, January first does start the year, for whatever reason. Suddenly, at midnight last night, a ship full of people who had ranged from isolationist to surly became friendly. Every bloody one of them said “Happy New Year!”, even the ones who wouldn’t say “Hello” as they passed you in the hall an hour earlier.

Maybe it was the turning of the clock. Maybe it was the hope of a new beginning, no matter how arbitrary. Perhaps, it was just the accomplishment of getting free booze from a cruise line (and the champagne was nice). For a few short moments, we were all friends.

New Year’s Eve celebrations always seemed rather silly to me – you get as drunk as possible up to the actual minute, but that’s all there is – when the clock rolls from 11:59pm to midnight, you’re done. Plus, since it’s purely a timing issue, you can’t move to another part of the ship for a better view.

So, the Captain counted down the seconds, the previous year ended, and that was that. Then, the realization that it was after midnight, you were drunk, and your bags had to be packed and outside your stateroom by 1:00am kicked in. After that, the truly unlucky realized their spouse had decided 7:45am was a reasonable time to disembark.

People did not look as haggard as I expected this morning, as they left the ship with six hours or less of sleep, but Lord, they didn’t look pleased.

I really feel sorry for the crew who got to manage a midnight mob of merriment, herd people back to cabins, and then spend the morning preparing for the passengers due to start boarding by noon. I have a feeling there was more puke to clean than usual.

I’m glad we wanted a cruise to get out of the house for Christmas and to visit ports we hadn’t seen yet, because I don’t understand paying that much money specifically to hear ten seconds counted down in a Norwegian accent.

I much prefer a cruise where all the  people are out-going all week, and not just storing all their happiness for a ten-second countdown on the last night.

It was a strange trip. People were very insular. Part of that may have been an “English as a Second Language” issue, as there seemed to be a higher percentage of passengers from outside the US than on previous cruises. Also, there were huge family  groups onboard – not just Mom, Dad and the kids, but Mom, Dad, kids, grandparents, cousins and more. Those two conditions gave the trip a completely different vibe than previous “mostly American, small families, couples, singles” cruises we’ve had before.

Fourteen people signed up for a Cruise Critic Meet ‘n’ Greet, which was a pretty low number. Two showed up, besides us and the kids. As the officers arrived, I was beginning to fear they would out-number us. So, there was no real passenger participation, which was a change from last year, where we were above 50% attendance or more, and had forty sign up. It was sad, because we made friends at the meeting last year and hung out with them the rest of the cruise. This was a ship full of individual groups, where in the past, we had made some friends relatively quickly. On this cruise, people had so many built-in friends, they either refused to make new ones, or just didn’t feel the need.

A bad cruise is still better than a week at work, and this was not a bad cruise. It was just disconcerting that it was so different from the previous ones.

If you check the calendar, I think it will be a while until Christmas falls on Sunday, the day many cruises from Miami begin. So, maybe next year, people won’t wait until the last night to acknowledge there are other families onboard.

If nothing else, 2011 has been defeated. Happy New Year!