Crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2
"That's the kind of thing we'd do for each other in an emergency," the portly British man across the table says to me cheerfully as he sits down, referring to the fact that my husband and I have just made our 3-year-old son relinquish his seat. We're gathered in the Deck 7 cafeteria of the ocean liner Queen Mary 2, at Muster Station G, our assigned spot in the event of calamity on the high seas. Since we're all wearing life jackets and being lectured about what to do if we start to go the way of the Titanic somewhere out in the middle of the Atlantic, this statement strikes me as needlessly morbid and also patently untrue: In a nautical emergency, would you really want to sit down rather than run around in a panic? And if you did want to sit down, wouldn't it be in a lifeboat, where the rule about women and children first still applies, rather than at a Formica table?
Luckily, the sight of our kid in a fluorescent orange lifejacket that threatens to engulf his entire body, blowing enthusiastically on the alert whistle attached to it, is enough to distract us from our mortality and what our fellow passengers—roughly 2,500 total strangers, whose kindness, after all, cannot always be relied on—might or might not do to help each other in the event of chaos.
It is late June, approximately one hour before we're due to set sail on a westbound transatlantic crossing from Southampton, England, to Brooklyn, N.Y. Sunset will be at 9:24 p.m. The journey will be 3,072 nautical miles. (One nautical mile equals 1.15 statute miles, statute, like muster station, being one of the many new words and phrases I'll learn in the six days it takes to cross the ocean.) The dress code for the evening is elegant-casual.
My family and I have been living in Berlin for the last year, a destination we'd reached the previous summer after eight hours in cramped airplane seats that left us with backaches and jetlag for days afterward. There's nothing quite like trying to sleep sitting up with the head of a restless child in your lap and hardcover copies of The Cat in the Hat and Brown Bear, Brown Bear wedged in beside you to make you really hate long-haul airline travel. In light of this, as soon as we settled into our lives in the former Eastern bloc, just a few streets from where the Berlin Wall once stood, we circled back to an idea that had first presented itself over a year before we finally boarded the ship in Southampton.
Shortly before our departure for Germany, we were sitting in the outdoor cafe of a supermarket carved out of a 19th-century waterfront warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn, taking a break from our weekend grocery shopping. As we munched on popcorn and squinted out at the sun glinting off the water and the Statue of Liberty, our eyes strayed a bit further across the horizon to where a huge ocean liner was docked at the Brooklyn Ferry Terminal. Getting up from the table, I walked to the fence at the water's edge and hung out over it, hand shading my eyes, until I could just make out the words Queen Mary 2 running along its side.
"We should sail back from Berlin." I said dreamily to my husband after wandering back to my seat, though I knew nothing about the logistics or the cost of such a venture and had never even considered taking a cruise.
"We should," he said, somewhat to my surprise, as we watched our son feed the pigeons.
And then we didn't mention it again for months.
But after that plane ride with too much luggage and one hideous middle-of-the-night flight connection, visions of traveling on a luxury cruise liner and arriving home refreshed rather than crumpled and exhausted kept appearing in our heads. And so we found ourselves at Muster Station G, prepared for an emergency and dying to get out on deck to watch our departure for open water.
We'd only been onboard an hour or so, but I could already tell that the trip was going to live up to our admittedly somewhat vague expectations. Our stateroom was bigger than we'd thought it would be, and its balcony was also spacious and included two chairs and a table. (Have you ever once experienced a pleasant surprise upon arriving at your designated row on a plane?) We hadn't seen our suitcases since a porter whisked them away at the festively flagged departure terminal and wouldn't glimpse them again until they appeared in our stateroom after the emergency drill, neatly lined up and ready for unpacking. The ship's "Daily Programme" (we were strictly in England when it came to onboard spelling) for each day at sea listed not only a cocktail of the day but also a martini of the day.
From the moment a photographer snapped our picture next to a life preserver emblazoned with the words Welcome Aboard (we would later be offered a print for $24.95) and walked up the gangplank, we were deep into the much-touted "Cunard legacy," transported to "a more civilized era, the golden age of sea travel," a time when Cunard's ocean liners plied the waters with "art deco splendor and Edwardian excess … and getting there was half the fun."
After the emergency drill, miniature folding pocket maps in hand, we raced up to Deck 12, which, in addition to being the best place to watch our departure, was also home to one of the ship's five pools, a bar, a cafe, a golf simulator, and—paging Julie McCoy—the shuffleboard courts. (At 13 decks high and 1,132 feet long—more than twice the height of the Washington Monument—the QM2 is the largest ocean liner in the world and thus ridiculously easy to get lost on.)
The ship's enormous red-and-black smoke stacks loomed above us as we sipped the drinks we'd ordered to toast the end of our year away and the start of our trip home. All around us people crowded the railings. "We've pushed away from the side," a woman near me suddenly said as a great blast sounded from the horns. Without so much as a shudder, the gigantic ship began to edge away from the dock, all 151,000-plus tons of it gearing up for the long journey ahead, and slid out toward the open sea.
Melanie Rehak is the author of Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her and Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid. She covers food for Bookforum and is currently at work on a book about the uses of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” in the 21st century, to be published in 2013.