Are you a typical tea-drinking Brit? Can you spot a German towel from a mile off? Gabriella Le Breton gets to grips with Aussie BBQs and American fashion trends afloat.
The more time I spend on cruise ships, the more I notice how the maritime environment brings out the national stereotypes in my fellow passengers. I haven’t been able to establish yet why this should occur – perhaps being at sea encourages patriotism, or perhaps we feel an inherent need to express our nationality when surrounded by an international crowd – but it really is quite palpable.
I enjoyed a voyage along the western coast of Greenland last autumn on board Hurtigruten’s ms Fram, where I was among a handful of Brits, a smattering of Scandinavians and about 200 Germans. Together with a Kiwi and an Aussie, we Brits quickly formed a tight bond, tucking ourselves away at the same corner table most evenings at the virtually deserted ‘late’ 8pm dinner seating.
Naturally, language proves a barrier to seamless international blending, and from embarkation onwards we were grouped according to language for safety briefings and seminars. The daily disembarkation of the ship by an efficient Zodiac rota was also arranged in groups largely determined by language, thus ensuring the rapid development of a friendly yet tangible ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.
After a few mornings of jostling through lines of prematurely eager Germans to reach my Zodiac loading group, and having already braved elbows at dawn to secure muesli at the breakfast buffet, the friendliness started to wear off. By the time I was loudly tutted at for forgetting to shower before using the hot tub (it was cold, I was wearing a bikini, speed was of the essence!), we had descended into the ‘us’ and ‘ze Germanz’ stage, giggling childishly at their winning socks-and-sandals combos, and apparent inability to remove their blue Hurtigruten anoraks.
On the Dalmatian Coast, on board the French-owned ship Le Levant, a large group of Australian passengers quickly tired of the formal dinners, served in a sombre restaurant in the belly of the ship by desperately helpful staff. “I’m on holiday, not on show!” exclaimed Bruce, dramatically. Leaving the elegant French and austere Swiss to their silver service, the Aussies requested BBQ dinners each night, served on deck whenever possible, contentedly padding around in their ‘thongs,’ drinking ‘tinnies’ and bantering good-naturedly.
Closer to home, in the Scottish Isles on board the Hebridean Princess, I caught a glimpse of how we Brits are regarded by our American cousins. The only non-Brits of the 42 passengers, two brothers from Colorado travelling with their wives, were there to discover some of their Scottish heritage. Beautifully turned out in that smart-casual look that American cruisers do so well (sailing on board a Seabourn yacht is like being a runner in a Ralph Lauren fashion shoot), they were duly “impressed” by the durability of the tweed plus fours, flat caps and shooting jackets sported by the majority of the Hebridean’s passengers. They seemed equally impressed by the durability of the passengers themselves, who strode out regardless of inclement weather and countless replacement hips and knees. As one brother said, when the suggestion of a pick up by shuttle was roundly rejected in favour of more walking, “These Brits are one hardy bunch.”
Sharing a temporary home with strangers is never entirely easy, particularly when it’s afloat at sea, and adding a variety of languages, cultures and traditions to that mix could be a recipe for disaster. But experiencing the rich diversity of new countries is what cruising is all about, and if you’re up for it, it can be as interesting and fun to embrace that in your fellow passengers as at your destination.