Joys of cruising at tables filled with strangers

Cruise ship changes that allow you to pick the time for dinner — as well as the cuisine style and a table for two or a few close friends — are partly responsible for the continuing increase in the popularity of sea vacations.  Comfort food, casual dress and anytime eating are among the top draws for new passengers.

In Oceania Marina’s grand dining room, you’ll find any size table you want. (Photo by David G. Molyneaux)

For decades, cruisers had little choice in the matter. Most ships assigned passengers to a single table for the entire cruise, early or late seating as the dining room contained only enough tables for half the ship. Each evening, you dressed and dutifully trooped off to join your table, sitting for about 90 minutes, often with folks you never would have chosen on your own — or picked out of a lineup.

To veteran cruisers, making new friends at dinner was part of the fun, sharing stories and experiences. Some cruisers continue to request such tables on ships, though that request is decreasing in number each year, say spokesmen for cruise lines.

Breaking bread in the theater of travelFor me, breaking bread with strangers is a key element in the theater of travel. I have fond memories of some of the characters I have met, including oddballs I hoped never to meet again. Travel brings strangers together to swap feelings, images and experiences that may otherwise never surface.

My first of dozens of cruises was in 1982, a time, by the way, when cabins on most cruise ships offered only a pair of single beds, just like the bedrooms of married people shown on television sitcoms in the 1950s.  Today, you must specifically request two single beds in your cabin if that is what you prefer.

Through the years, I have swapped stories and passions with writers, actors, singers, scientists, teachers, plumbers, nurses, social workers, sailors, librarians, and a host of others I don’t remember as well.

Among the most memorable were a horse jockey who regaled the table with accounts of his race track adventures, some of which seemed to surprise his statuesque new wife who was twice his height; a Cuban freedom-fighting soldier who shared his memories from the 1961 unsuccessful invasion at the Bay of Pigs; Sydney Devine, Scotland’s rhinestone cowboy who seemed to know the lyrics of every American country song; and a married couple from Missouri, who explained to everyone at the table, several times, why they were cruising, as usual, in an inside cabin.

“We don’t like to see the water,” said the wife, “or be interrupted in our sleep by the sun.” I assumed they lived in a basement in Missouri.

I’m looking for a free, used couch

Then, there was my Caribbean cruise table for six, to which a cruise line assigned only three people – two men and a woman, all of us in various stages of tempestuous marriages.

My table partners included a man, who was a wealthy doctor owning homes in several states, and a woman who said she had lived for quite some time in a van in a Georgia parking lot.

In the van, she said, she spent almost nothing on herself as she saved money from her government disability checks so she could do a
Caribbean cruise every few years.

We were like strangers caught at a bus stop in a rainstorm, and spent the week swapping tales of woe and wonder.

I was caught up in the nightly banter between the multi-domiciled doctor, whose one and only marriage was costing him much of his fortune in divorce, and the divorced van lady, who recently had found a “good man,” though she was afraid to tell him so, as he might take advantage of her, like men in her past. She also feared that she might turn violent, as she recalled her past reactions to untrustworthy men.

The doctor was most interested in how he could escape from his married life while the van lady was trying, again, to nest. She asked me one night if I knew how to put out an appeal on Internet’s Craig’s List because she wanted a free, used couch to contribute to a sparse apartment where she had moved to live with her new boyfriend.

They were a nightly soap opera, with stories of trial and emotion, tinged with a hope for respect.

Thankful for tables of strangers

My life’s work as a newspaper reporter has taught me not to believe in the total of anyone’s words, that all of us see through our own filters and put a spin on our lives when we tell our stories to folks we meet. The truth, whatever that means, is somewhere between the lines.

Among strangers, the more accomplished tend to be the most self-deprecating. The newly comfortable talk much more about their wealth than the rich, who seldom mention it. Women more often talk of their lost men, while men tend to discuss their conquests.

Meanwhile, I am thankful for my tables of strangers. I collect their stories and experiences, which make my life richer. And truth is, I am more curious about how the van lady is doing than the doctor.

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One Response to Joys of cruising at tables filled with strangers

  1. Emily Birt April 29, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

    Great post, David. On our most recent cruise, we experienced “Freestyle Dining,” which I found to be far less satisfactory than sitting at the same table with the same people every night. We lost some of the personal interaction and very much missed getting to know other people in that manner. I also missed having the same servers every night – there was nobody to greet me by name or bring my favorite drink without asking. So, on our next cruise, we will look for a line that does the assigned seating so we can enjoy meeting and getting to know our table mates.

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