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American on Board

Cheryl Blackerby - Cox News Service
Portland Oregonian-Travel Section, Sunday, February 15, 1998

Summary: A monolingual traveler cruises the Mediterranean as the Europeans do.

I felt like Clint Eastwood strolling into town in one of those spaghetti Westerns. Every time I walked into the public rooms of the Adriana, a tiny ship that cruises the Mediterranean, all conversations would stop. Then I could hear "It's the American," whispered in Italian, German, French and Croatian.

I was the only American on board -- the only one some of the 299 other passengers had ever seen at close range. And I had a huge responsibility. During 13 days at sea, I would represent my country and I, more than Bill Clinton, would show them what an American was. And I hadn't even brought a pair of Levi's or white Nikes.

Was I up to the job? Would my clothes pass the scrutiny of the French? Could I make them say hello every time they saw me? (This practice is very un-European but very American.) Would my knowledge of the ancient sights pass muster with the Germans? And how would I handle an eye-opening discussion about American vs. European ideas about circumcision? (More about that later).

I had chosen this creaky, 300-passenger ship, which went to Italy, Croatia, Greece and Turkey, because I loved the itinerary and because I wanted to experience it like a European. I wanted to tour Europe with the people who lived there.

In the past, I had the misfortune of being trapped on huge ships that catered to Americans. I saw the Mediterranean sights in a claustrophobic cocoon of Americans who rattled on about American movies, their jobs and families. The ancient cities and lovely seaside ports were just passing scenery, nothing more than a backdrop.

On the Adriana, I wasn't annoyed by conversations because, hey, I couldn't understand a word they said. Few passengers spoke English, and all instructions on the speaker system and in the daily newsletter and menus were in German, which I don't speak. Lucky for me the only word that was the same in German and English was the only word I needed to know -- restaurant. All was right with the world -- I knew when to eat. And I could read the names of ports and times of arrivals. What else was there?

My first night at dinner, I was seated with three young Croatian women who had saved all year for this holiday and were ready for a good time. Tall and gorgeous -- a redhead, blonde and brunette -- they dressed in tight Lycra and 4-inch heels. I felt as if I were in an Almodovar movie.

Nataliya, a model who worked in public relations, spoke excellent English. Renata was a banker and could speak only English that related to banking. At every port, I asked her the exchange rates for the four countries we were visiting -- she knew them all by heart -- and she would tell me the numbers and currencies in perfect English. Sonja was a poet; she could speak German and could translate the menus for the rest of us.

Luckily, they had a sense of humor, and after about two minutes we were friends. Nataliya translated. By the end of the trip we had discussed boyfriends, the pros and cons of dating older men, younger men, men our own age, marriage, illnesses and what we like to do on weekends.

As far as the other passengers, I learned how to say "Good morning" and "Good night" in all languages so that I could uphold Americans' reputation as FRIENDLY.

By the sixth day I had trained all 299 passengers on board to say hello to me on sight. None of the Croatian crew, who all spoke English, had seen an American on board in years. The cruise director, Igor, asked me the first day if I spoke German or French, and when I said, "No," he laughed out loud. "This will be an interesting trip," he said. Thereafter, every time he saw me, he made a point to have a conversation in English so I wouldn't go stir-crazy.

One morning, the purser blurted, out, "How did you get stuck on this ship?" It turned out I had been a topic of conversation among the officers and crew, and they had decided that I must have made a terrible mistake. I told him, as earnestly as I could, that the 35-year-old Adriana was a fine ship, and why would I want to see Americans when I see them every day of the week? I had been on the Destiny, the world's largest cruise ship, a few months before, I told him, and I preferred the Adriana. After that, the officers bought me drinks every night.

The highlights of the cruise were the ports, of course. There were Greece's lovely islands Corfu, Crete and Samos and the seaside Greek village of Katakolon and nearby Olympia, site of the first Olympic Games in 776 B.C., where you can see the Temple of Zeus and sit in the ancient 45,000-seat stadium.

In Turkey we went to Kusadasi, a resort town with white-sand beaches, which was a quick drive from the incredible ancient city of Ephesus, where St. Paul walked the marble streets. And we went to Dubrovnik, Croatia, a lovely medieval port that is being rebuilt after heavy damage during the war.

Everyone went on deck one morning to see the ship cruise through the narrow, 4-mile-long Corinth Canal, which cuts through the strip of land that connects the peninsula of Peloponnesus with the rest of Greece. Started in 1881 and finished in 1893, the canal is too narrow for large cruise ships. The Adriana slipped between the high cliffs with just a few feet to spare on either side.

The shore excursions were all in French, German, Croatian and Italian, so I didn't take them. That didn't bother me because I don't like to tour fascinating places with 60 people crammed on a bus. Port calls were longer than those on big ships -- generally most of a day -- and I made the most of them by hiring English-speaking guides and drivers at the docks.

In Ephesus, I took my time roaming the ancient streets in Ephesus and ate a packed lunch in the shade of olive trees near the temple. I studied my guidebook and gave myself time to imagine the city as it was. And I still had time to go to the beach.

I got plenty of advice about stops from the Europeans. The Italians -- one of them spoke English -- gave me a lot of tips about Venice, the Adriana's home port. The Croatians briefed me on Dubrovnik. The Germans knew everything there was to know about Ephesus and Olympia. And the French checked out my clothes from head to foot every night -- and smiled. Whew! We all learned about each other.

The circumcision conversation came up after the Croatian women and I had visited the museum in Olympia that had anatomically correct ancient statues of nude athletes. (In ancient times, Olympians competed naked.) In our discussion of these objects of art, the subject of circumcision came up, and I mentioned that most men in America are circumcised.

The women were as shocked as if I had said that most American men carry grenades in their back pockets. Nataliya was translating furiously.

"Really?!" Renata found her tongue in English.

"Like they do women in Africa?!" Nataliya said, clearly alarmed.

"Why do they do this? Why do they not want to be natural?" asked Sonja, her first questions in English.

"How can American women look at them?" Nataliya asked.

Then she suddenly looked really worried. "Oh, my God! Everything in America comes to Croatia. Put in the newspaper that we are against this operation!"

See, I told you the conversations on a European ship were more interesting.

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