Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Float Your Boat

Monday, August 23, 2010

I took my last work call in the kitchen, hastily toasting a low-fat English Muffin (bleh) and assembling some low-fat cheese and full-fat Genoa salame. Not exactly what you want to consume mere hours before spending 10 days floating around the Mediterranean amid the harshest critics imaginable. But my body needed food and I couldn’t bear the thought of peanut butter and jam.

I hadn’t really scheduled myself for this call – and the truth was I needed more than the 7 remaining minutes I had for it – but the message got across and the client got everything they needed to get them through Labor Day. Including, God help me, a number to call the cruise line.

Yes, folks, for those of you who’ve been faithful followers since the start – we’re back at the blog that started it all…the Atlantis Mediterranean cruise. From Athens to Barcelona – on a ship the size of a sideways skyscraper, more than 2,500 middle aged homos from around the globe (and 2 lesbians) will stuff themselves into nominal amounts of spandex, pour themselves voluminous amounts of liquor, and desecrate the holy lands of at least three cultures.

And once again, I’m blogging it all – every bad tour guide, tweaked out muscle boy, and repetitive meal – cause as they say in Steel Magnolias: If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me.

This year’s adventure starts at Kennedy airport, after two solid days of rain and nine solid months of travel. I’ve been so burnt out at work, actually dream about ways to position our software while I’m sleeping, and come up with financial models when I run.

The fact that I needed a break – and that I spend too much time in airports – couldn’t have been more evident where the fact that Air France gave away our Business Class seats nearly drove me around the twist. Not that we weren’t sitting in in Business Class – just that they moved us from row 4 to row 9.

I don’t know if it’s all the years of using miles, or charm, or luck to get an upgrade – but this year (after last year’s uncomfortable 9 hour journey home. In coach. In a middle seat. On Continental. I sprung for the real deal – paying, for the first time ever, for business class seats. If my mother knew, I’d not only get dis-invited to Rosh Hashanah, but I might be kicked out of Judaism completely. (You need to meet my family to know that we’re experts in getting more than we paid for and still, somehow, feeling wronged. It’s an art.)

Maybe it was that I picked those seats specifically – not a bulkhead – not the last row where you don’t recline all the way or you spend 7 hours smelling other people poop or hearing the flight attendants make coffee. Whatever it was, I wanted row 4 and I was beginning to become as irrational and unhinged as I sound right now.

I’ll spare you the rest of the tale – which doesn’t really make me look worse (as if that were possible) but is repetitive in a way that forces me to see the “crazy” myself – and since we’re just starting this vacation, I think I’ll avoid the self-loathing until at least Naples, where the combination of pizza and 6 days of liquor should have me pretty well worked up into a cheesy froth of insecurity. Suffice it to say, we were seated in row 4 before we boarded that plane.

You don’t spend half your life in airports and not learn a thing or two.

Karma’s a bitch, though, and our flight – which was scheduled to arrive at 6am in Paris, connecting to a 7:20am flight to Athens, sat on the ground with a delay of nearly an hour and a half. As the wheels left earth at 6:02 pm I turned to Neil and said, “I hope they’ve got another flight to Athens.”

I knew they did – I checked it before I booked. Two in fact –but the last thing you want to do is leave your travel to chance when you’re catching a cruise ship. I attempted to relax through 2 episodes of The Simpsons that I’d never seen, a rather entertaining viewing of Shrek Forever After, and enough brie to require a stent. Still, the time passed fairly quickly and at 6:48am as we stepped into Charles De Gaulle I looked at my husband, with all the tenderness I could muster, and said, “Move your ass.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

We walked in a way that bordered on running – past the throngs of overnight fliers arriving in Paris. Past the Africans and Americans and Pacific Islanders. We sailed past gate after gate. Through automatic doors and up and down escalators. We passed passport control (thank you Priority Line), down moving walkways and through crowded thoroughfare. We made it through security in less than 2 minutes. Sweating through our clothes and feeling both depleted and rather proud of ourselves, we arrived at the departure gate at 7:11am (and 48 seconds.)

And they wouldn’t let us board the plane.

Oh, it was there. And they hadn’t closed the doors. And they hadn’t cleared it for departure. But they had closed the flight – and nothing I could say (and certainly nothing I could say in English) was going to change their minds. Once again, given an opportunity to make a spectacle of myself in an airport, I chose this time to limit myself to a few grunts and groans, and went to customer service where we received rebooked seats on the 10am flight. We retired to the lounge for whatever meal you eat when it’s 8am in Paris and 2am in New York. I’m not sure what you call it, but comes with a cookie.


We finally slept on the second flight. Arriving at what would have been 1 am for us wasn’t really a stretch – but after nearly three hours cooling our heels at DeGaulle, we were out shortly after we hit our seats on the Athens flight – meaning we nearly missed our brush with royalty.

Apparently, the Queen of Denmark was on our flight – which came as a total surprise, since she was so unassuming. If it weren’t for the security detail who leapt from row 5 to escort her off the plane and into a Volvo (aren’t those Swedish? Does Denmark make a car?) we never would have known.

It’s embarrassing – I have an advanced degree in European History and I can’t remember if I knew Denmark had a Queen. I’m still not even sure if she rules, or is more of a figurehead in a Constitutional Monarchy, like Great Britain. Still, I’m not too troubled by it – I’m about to spend the next week and half with so many queens, that one more is really just a rounding error.

But, can we just say – for a minute – how cool it is that the Queen of an entire country flies commercial – and with a connecting flight. Could you imagine the American president going to Copenhagen through Paris? On Delta?

Even Oprah don’t fly commercial anymore.

Athens. Tuesday, August 24. 4:30pm.

The Athens-Piraeus Cruise Terminal is hot. And crowded. We have to clear passport check, submit health forms, clear Israeli immigration (3 days before we even get to Israel? If the US INS could pull this off we wouldn’t have that whole racist Arizona-immigration law thing where the police can now pull you over simply for looking Mexican – which means with my dark skin and affinity for guacamole, I can’t go to Arizona anymore.) Between the hoards of people crammed into too small a space, and the whole atmosphere of being processed from one station to the next, I begin to wonder if this is what it was like to be gay during the Holocaust. You know, without the Louis Vuitton luggage and the genocide.

Everywhere we turn we’re looking for familiar faces – friends we’re hoping to catch up with, people we might recognize from last year. I see a guy I once went on a date with in Washington and another who looks familiar put whom I can’t quite place (did we…? No. Not possible. Right?) Neil sees his little friend who worked last year’s cruise…then friended him on Facebook. Mmhmm.

When we finally board I head straight for the shower, having barely slept in 29 hours, while Neil changes clothes…then we head off to explore the ship. It’s a different boat than last year, though the same cruise line and the ship looks and feels exactly the same – a minor adjustment here and there, and we find ourselves in a life size version of that puzzle from Highlights magazine for Children – where they show you two pictures side-by-side and you have to spot the difference.

Otherwise, it’s like a big game of Old McDonald: Here a bear, there a bear. A couple. A thruple. A minor porn star.

At the welcome party, once again we’re moving before we even realize it. They’re pouring the drinks heavy and pushing doubles – the reason for which becomes apparent after we comment how much less crowded the party seems compared to last year: on a ship built to accommodate nearly 3,500 – our group is just over 1,700 – about a thousand less than last year. And here’s where I need a soapbox:

Last year, within a month of sailing, we get an email from Atlantis, asking us to refer a friend, and – if they book, they’ll get 50% off. Now that’s a lovely gesture, but the referrer got nothing – other than a vague allusion in the email that, maybe, we could split the discount.

Yeah, that’s not an awkward phone call. “Hey there! You should come with Neil and I on the Atlantis cruise – they’ve cut the price from $4,000 to $2,000 – but you should give us $1,000 for getting you such a great discount! Wanna come!”

Last year, I found Rich Campbell – the President of Atlantis and I called him on it…and he swore it was a one-time thing and that they NEVER give discounts. So, when we decided we wanted to come again this year – different itinerary – and we wanted to see Israel and Barcelona – we signed up nearly a year in advance for the “absolute best discount you’re going to get.”

So – of course – with the economy still in the toilet --- and with Atlantis having booked ten cruises this year, including back-to-back Mediterranean cruises, attendance has suffered. The atmosphere is fine – it’s not like we’re missing a thousand extra people – but it really burns my toast that folks who waited until last month got the same cabin for nearly half the price. Worse yet – Atlantis sent out emails offering the folks who signed up early a shipboard credit and some perks – and we never got the email.

So, you know I’ll be saying something to Rich again this year.

After the cocktail party and some dinner, we totally crashed around 10pm, only to find ourselves awake at 3am – thoroughly jetlagged. Neil went out to explore, but wasn’t really gone long – if there were evening activities, they had mostly died down.

Western Mediterranean. At sea. Wednesday, August 25. 10:30am.

Once again, our first full day is spent at sea, and once again the gym is the business place on the ship. I’d sarcastically comment on the dissonance of going on vacation, only to do everything you do at home – but since my own day began with a trip to the gym, followed by a breakfast of fruit and egg whites, I can’t really find a good place in this glass house from which to throw a stone.

By noon we’ve settled into lounge chairs and are surveying the crowd. In addition to some friends from back home, we see an old housemate from Fire Island – here with his boyfriend, as well as a notorious alcoholic I went to college with and who once hooked up with a friend of ours. Plus, this cruise still draws plenty of guys from Washington, D.C., meaning I’m constantly seeing people I recognize but can’t really place. What I find really disturbing is when they look like they haven’t aged a day. Because there’s nothing more fun than revisiting your 20s as a bald guy approaching 40.

The highlight of the afternoon is the Dog Tag Tea Dance, and I wish I could tell you that the reality of this event is more tasteful than it sounds. The idea is to dress in military garb (why do so many gay gatherings revolve around costuming?) which is generally translated as one of the following:

• One piece of an actual military uniform (as in, just the pants. Or the shirt.)

• A military-themed speedo

• Military-themed underwear.

The outfit gets paired with a dog tag, worn on a chain, and adorned with a sticker colored to correspond to one’s sexual availability. Red means “coupled,” while yellow apparently means “coupled, but we don’t really care about each other enough not to have sex with random people we meet on a cruise. So, we’re willing to engage in behavior that pretty much guarantees we either won’t be a couple by the time we hit Barcelona, or that at least one of us has low enough self-esteem not to care.” See – this is why we need colored stickers – because you can’t fit all that on a dog tag.

So, by now you’ve figured out that green means “Available,” though there is also an option for “Double Green” – two stickers, which apparently means “Don’t even introduce yourself, just stick your hands down my pants. I mean speedo.”

No wonder people think cruises are romantic.

We indulge in a couple of cocktails and some dancing, while we try to scope out some guys for our friend Mike, who has resorted to a pair of green stickers. It really is such a mystery to me how there can be some really great guys out there who can’t seem to find someone – especially when there are so many people going contently coupling off and going through life with a yellow sticker.

10pm. Deck 5. Blu.

OK – I wanted to try this restaurant last year. It’s not the main dining room, but the up-charge is less than the other “specialty” restaurants. It’s a more organic, simpler menu, with lots of grilled dishes and my New York Strip is a little tough, but otherwise quite delicious.

Plus: We made new friends. I love new friends. After the age of 30, you really don’t make too many new friends unless you’re a hooker or a Mormon. Yet, so far we’ve made friends on both cruises.

Mike and Patrick are actually friends of Mark and Todd (whom we’ve written about at least three times and, honestly, if you haven’t caught up by now I’m not going to bother. It doesn’t really hurt the story, so just keep reading.) We met them last October when we went to see Mark and Todd in East Hampton, but are just getting to know them on this cruise.

In a weird way, they’re us. Mike is in a high pressure career where he’s constantly working and he’s already spent a fair portion of their trip on the Blackberry. Patrick leaves his work at work, and is more detailed about the house. When we met them in East Hampton last year, they had thrown a party. Apparently, five hours before the guests were about to arrive, Mike went out for a run while Patrick was up to his elbows in party-prep. Plug in Eric for Mike, Neil for Patrick and New Year’s for last October, and Neil and I could tell the same story.

After dinner, we opt out of “Fanta-Sea” – the evening party (they really should just call the parties: Green Speedo, Blue Speedo, Red Speedo, White Speedo and Oh, Fuck It, Just Come Naked.) We’re tired, still adjusting to the time, and it’s nearly 11:30. We’re going to need to get up at 6:15 to disembark at 7:45 for Jerusalem.

So, I’ll bid you Shalom and see you tomorrow.

Jerusalem. Thursday, August 26. 8am.

We had a little sideshow getting off the boat, since the immigration cards we needed to leave the ship only had a stamp for me – not Neil. Bracing ourselves to try and explain that Neil was neither a terrorist, a Muslim, or even a fairly decent Catholic, we got the situation rectified fairly quickly and joined the private tour we booked. Ten of us boarded a bus for the Holy Land.

“GUYS! Now I am really serious about this…” began virtually every sentence for ten hours. Spiritually, this woman was the sister of last year’s Egyptian guide, leaving me to wonder that if we left peace in the middle east up to the tour guides, we’d probably have a treaty – but in order to achieve it we might all have to spend endless hours on a hot tour bus eating sketchy falafel and getting yelled at.

If Egypt was dirtier and more disappointing than I expected, Israel was far more wondrous. Until you’ve seen it, it is easy to wonder why so much has been made of such a small strip of land. Once you’ve seen it, however, it overwhelms you in a way that’s hard to explain. There is, quite frankly, something inspiring about being in the presence of such intense purity of faith. Quite unlike the fundamentalist Christians of the American south, or the ornate testament of the Vatican, Jerusalem somehow manages to seem less dogmatic and doctrinaire. Perhaps there’s been a resignation of sorts among the people who live there, and those who visit, that despite the rhetoric associated with the geopolitics, ultimately they’ve accepted having to share Jerusalem.

In the span of a few hours we witnessed a bar mitzvah at the Wailing Wall (the last remaining structure from the destruction of the 2nd temple,) a mass at the Church of all Nations (built in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested) and a daily incense ritual at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where the last 3 of the 14 Stations of the cross are located), including copts (an Egyptian sect that predates Islam), Armenians and Franciscan friars. The doors of the church are guarded by Muslims – handed down through the same two families for generations.

It is difficult not to comes away awed. And also wet. From the sweating. Ten homos who were bemoaning a day without the gym quickly changed their tunes as every stop seemed to require trudging uphill or up staircases in ninety degree heat. And I know at least one person was thinking that if they were dragging a wooden cross with them they might be able to add a little upper body conditioning to their cardio. If I get back to New York and Equinox is offering a group fitness class called Jesus Journey or Crucifixion Cardio, I’m cancelling my membership.

When we arrived back at the boat, we put our feet up for a few hours then rallied to head in to Tel Aviv for dinner and a night out. A friend recommended the restaurant at the Hotel Montefiore, and I can confidently recommend it to you. Decorated with simple modern touches – white walls and ceiling; dark wood finishes, palm fronds, leather arm less chairs and benches – it could have been any trendy restaurant in TriBeCa or South Beach. The clean look was accompanied by a menu of clean flavors, largely inspired by French Vietnamese and Mediterranean tastes.

Neil started with “small ‘noms’” – an array of spring rolls filled with shrimp, pork and vegetables. His entrée, a duck confit with fig and caramel sauce was surprisingly savory – the sweetness bringing out the flavors of the duck without going too far into sweet or gamey. I began with a classic pho, chock full of herbs like cilantro and mint, along with jalapeno pepper, glass noodles and sirloin. I could have made a meal out of a larger bowl of that soup – though I’m glad I didn’t. My whole roasted branzino was simply grilled with capers, lemon and olive oil, and adding a touch of salt gave me a meal that I could devour from head to tail without feeling bloated or guilty.

After dinner it was nearly midnight, and we eschewed the local dance club for the 12:30 bus back to the ship. The ride was nearly an hour and we felt we didn’t need to wait on a line and pay a cover charge just to dance shirtless with the same queers we’ll be dancing with our next two days at sea.

And since we have two full days at sea coming up, I’ll leave you here, since I know there will be plenty of antics to report tomorrow….

Western Mediterranean. Friday, August 27, 2010. 9:15am.

We got a late start on Friday – sleeping off the exhaustion and alcohol of the middle east – though as we compared our visits to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv we wondered whether the whole peace process needed less fundamentalist religiosity and more vodka. Everybody we met in Tel Aviv – Israeli, Arab, American, European – was friendly and open. And drunk. Hillary Clinton, take note. Hey – during her presidential campaign we all saw the B-roll of her doing shots with John McCain on Armed Forces Committee junkets. Girlfriend needs to break out the leftover champagne from Chelsea’s wedding (the bottle the groom’s family didn’t take home for Rosh Hashanah) and get some drunk Hebrews and Palestinians to get down to business.

Where the hell was I?

Oh, yeah. The cruise.

We’re also stalled this morning because we are already weary of the breakfast buffet. Somehow, the staggering sameness will actually make the staggering sameness of our routine at home seem fun by comparison. I simply can’t face another plate of cut up pineapple or half a grapefruit with a big red grape in the center. I can’t navigate the omelet station. I can’t dispense Froot Loops from a bin.

We reserve chairs at the pool, head to the gym, and – finally – go eat. Between the gym and the egg whites, actually, the only sign we’re actually on vacation is the floating skyscraper we’re aboard.

Meanwhile, the afternoon brings a déjà vu of a different sort – a repeat of last year’s entertainment. Wednesday had the rip-off of Project Runway; today had “Are You Smarter than a Straight Girl?” Since there are 1743 gay men on this boat, and only 4 straight girls, I’d say the answer to that question is clearly, “No.”

You know, I realize that not everyone on this boat is a repeat Atlantis customer, but they could really use some innovation and updating on the program. The same ship, the same team, the same use of venues, the same events – even the same questions in the trivia competition. The only thing different is the entertainment. And, seriously – last year we had a nice musical show, Pam Ann, and Patti Lupone. I’m sorry – but Courtney Act, the Austrailian Idol contestant who got kicked off as a man but made it to seventh place as a woman – is not great entertainment. Neither are the comedy stylings of Shawn Pelofsky – a cheap Barbra Streisand look-alike who isn’t funny.

And the ship’s headliner: Andy Bell from Erasure – which would have the potential to be a HUGE draw. If it were 1987.

Still, the liquor flows freely and we slid easily from tea dance (shirtless dancing with drinks at 6pm) to cocktails (shirted cocktails at 8pm) to dinner with Jaime and Tom, ex-boyfriends to each other and new friends to us, from New York and Denmark, respectively. Oddly, though, when we were seated at the main dining room, we ended up with a tagalong – Leo from Boston – who somehow got routed to our table (despite our indication that we were fine being a party of 4.)

Alright – I have been bound and determined on this trip to be charming and smiling and friendly. As a reaction to all those mean, superior, disdainful gays who think they’re too good for everyone else, I feel an obligation to be kind and make sure that my general attitude of superiority doesn’t get in the way of someone else’s joy on an expensive vacation. Besides, that’s what this blog is for.

But it is pretty awkward to be seated as a four, only to find an extra person seated with you. Or sort of with you. They sat Leo at the table next to us – alone, but not – and everything from his meal selection to the service happened about ten minutes ahead of us. And, not only did he refuse an opportunity to excuse himself as soon as the mis-step was noted, but he was difficult to engage our draw out during the meal. So, after trying several times – I just gave up. Sorry – but it’s been hard enough to leave my Blackberry off; I’m not in the mood for that much personal growth this week.

Somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. Saturday, August 28, 2010.

A time change sailing west resulted in Neil and I being up early – and since we resisted the late night party that kept our friends dancing until 6am – we had the gym to ourselves at 9am. We followed our workout with a departure from the breakfast buffet and tried Brunch in the dining room. I’d like to saw it was markedly different from the ordinary breakfast – but it was largely the same omelet station with a different backdrop. Well, that and the totally random assortment of foodstuffs: spinach and meat lasagna, right next to smoked salmon and cream cheese, next to French fries, next to marinated mushrooms next to waffles.

I’d love to say the afternoon included a ceramics class, or an opportunity to learn about marine biology, but it was really just laying around nearly naked – with small strips of spandex covering my naughty bits, while I fried in the sun, splashed in the pool, and started drinking at 5. By 7 we were dancing, and by our 9pm dinner reservation we were tanked.

If you are ever aboard a Celebrity Cruise – please avoid the Silk Harvest asian restaurant. Imagine, if you will, a series of La Choy frozen appetizers, thrown in a deep fryer and covered with packets of sugary duck sauce from the Chinese takeout place. That meal would be better – and more authentic – than what we ate.

But I was tanked and surrounded by cute boys, so who cares?

Messina, Sicily. Sunday, August 29, 2010

Picture it. Sicily. 2010.

I’ve been waiting all week to use that line. We took a bus from the port in Messina to Taormina (which Neil keeps calling, “Tiramisu”,) a medieval village high above the Mediterranean. Wandering ancient streets we visited churches and a Greek theater, then settling in an outdoor café where we dined on homemade pasta with eggplant and tomato, along with pizza topped with spicy salame.

It was a short day, and there isn’t really much to tell – particularly if I want to get to the good ports – so I’ll fast forward a bit. We got back on the ship around 5pm; went to the gym; went to happy hour for cocktails and dancing; then went to dinner with our new friend Ron (who has a home near our place in Sag Harbor), Mark and Todd (remember, I’m not going to remind you who they are. Pay attention.) and Mike and Patrick.

God – my vacation has the same predictable repetition as my life. I’m so fucking boring.

Naples, Italy. Monday, August 30, 2010. 4pm.

This is where it gets fun.

OK – I’ve done the standard sight-seeing of the Amalfi Coast, and last year our cruise stopped here so Neil got to see Capri, Sorrento and Pompeii. I suppose we could have taken a guided tour to Herculaneum. Or gone back to Capri, maybe spent more time shopping or went swimming out to the Blue Grotto.

Instead, however, we took Mark and Todd up an offer to rent a car from the Naples train station and drive up the coast to Ravello, a small Cliffside town set above Amalfi with a spectacular view of the sea. We disembarked around 9:30am, where a hundred cab drivers immediately descended upon us – all wanting our fare. I suppose these cruises are usually a feeding frenzy of fat Americans who only want to come to Naples and eat real pizza. Today, however, they got 2000 homos whose daily carb consumption is the equivalent of half a breadstick – many of whom have arranged tours.

So, I’m trying to be empathetic since the ride to the train station – a distance we’ll cover eight hours later, on foot, in fifteen minutes – cost 30 Euro.

The train station is your basic nightmare. Total chaos, no signage – in a word: Italy. We manage to find a National rental car counter and arrange for a car, and somehow weave our way through the streets of Naples to the autostrade.

The coastal route to Ravello took us almost to Salerno, then along the Amalfi drive where the height of the cliffs, the pitch of the turns and the lack of a shoulder had Neil basically scratching at the windows and chewing on Xanax like they were candy. But it was worth it: when we finally parked outside Amalfi and walked up the hill to Ravello (no cars permitted in the town) we found ourselves in a charming village with a central square, two historic villas with museums and grounds, and narrow cobblestone streets filled with shops. It was like Colonial Williamsburg. But nice.

After wandering through Villa Rufolo and taking photos of the sea, we strolled down a side street where I found some amazing wines that we shipped back to New York. Neil, meanwhile stumbled into a tiny restaurant while I paid for the wine, simply to use the restroom. Next thing I know we’re seated at a table for two, waited on by Netta – whose father originally ran Compo Cosimo (he was the eponymous Cosimo) – which has been covered by the Washington Post, the International News and Observer, among other publications going back at least three decades.

Compo Cosimo serves produce fresh from the garden out back, and a pomodoro salad of room temperature tomatoes, lightly bathed in Olive Oil and salt, and served with a smattering of basil and a hunk of cold Italian farmer cheese, was complimentary and delicious. Neil and I shared a dish of baked ziti and a scallopine of veal in marsala sauce that ranks among the best dishes I’ve ever eaten (I’ll place it in second place for now – wait until tomorrow!) And despite the lack of room in our collective stomachs, we somehow managed espresso and both tiramisu (the best I’ve ever eaten – hands down) and lemon cake (not bad – the lemon was divine, the cake, a little too crumbly and – somehow – too dry and too wet at the same time.)

After lunch we walked through the Villa Cimbrone (which boasts a hotel once occupied by Greta Garbo. Ravello itself has been home to numerous writers, artists and personages – including D.H. Lawrence who wrote parts of Lady Chatterly’s Lover here.) The claim to fame of the villa is its grounds, which include numerous gardens and a wide variety of foliage from Hortensia to a variety of Roses, as well as many masterworks of sculpture. An overlook faces the Mediterranean with busts of several gods, while a hidden grotto offers a famous marble sculpture of Eve. There’s a David here, too, which probably explains why we’ve randomly seen at least three other gay couples – only one of which is from our cruise.

How do we know they’re gay? Well, when you see two middle-aged men who are 40, but look 30 – those are gays. When you see two people spending $200 on lunch and $400 on table linens – those are gays. We two men strolling together down a European street share a serene, smiling expression that says, “I bet my co-workers are spending their summer vacation buying some fat kids a box of taffy at Ocean City or listening to them scream their way through DisneyWorld.”- those are gays.

We returned to the rental car we left at the bottom of the hill to find a parking ticket. We’re betting the Italian police aren’t going to be able to find us.

We bid goodbye to Ravello - with its terraced hillsides and bountiful produce and sweeping views of the Mediterranean, and headed back to Naples (this time through the mountains: more Xanax for Neil.)

I can’t even remember what the afternoon party was – they really should just call them all “Vodka and Speedos!” but I do remember dinner. A dozen people dining at someplace called Silk Harvest.

Imagine Chinese from the mall food court. Now let it sit for half an hour so it’s served at something near room temperature, with the shine that only industrial cooking oil can produce when it congeals. That was our dinner.

Considering that half the group was already experiencing stomach trouble, this was not a positive development (although, I have to say that the one thing I can’t figure out about the gays is that we’ll put our mouths in just about any orifice of the human body, but won’t touch a La Choy Spring Roll. WTF?)

I would tell you more about the evening, but I don’t really remember much. Our friend Mike took a break from filling in his Men of All Nations coloring book, and we were joined by two new faces (Peter and Patrick – a couple whose unfortunately alliterative names makes them sound like characters from a fable, but they’re actually really people). I spent most of my time sitting next to Todd and being snide (why stop doing what you’re good at), or traversing the table to sit between my friends Jaime and Jamie (who, sometime during the course of the evening had their names (which are not spelled alike, but sound alike – making them homophones as well as homosexuals) pre-pended with adjectives so we could tell them apart. I’m not exactly sure who got their name preceded by the word “New” and who got tagged with “Lickable” – but I’m not sure either would be taken as a compliment in the cold sobriety of morning.

Rome. Tuesday, August 31, 2010. 10:30am

Best. Day. Ever.

It did not, however start that way.

Our day began with Neil opting out of the excursion. Having experienced stomach difficulties across three continents and five countries, Neil was no longer willing to venture more than 10 feet from our stateroom. Slogging back to bed, he released me with a quick, “Have Fun.”

Fun is NOT what I was having with Mark, Todd and Mike as we sat outside the McDonald’s in Civitavecchia, the port city that serves as the gateway to Rome. Our ride from Fontana Del Papa had not shown up at the pre-arranged time, and we’d already killed over an hour exploring the village, drinking too much coffee, and wandering into a drug store that offered a cream that promised, if I rubbed it on my stomach, it would shrink.

I’ve been around long enough to know that the only kind of cream that changes the size of your stomach is whipped cream. And it changes it in the other direction.

Finally, a middle-aged woman in Italy’s equivalent of a Ford Pinto comes put-putting up to the McDonald’s and whisks us 20 minutes north to a 16th century farmhouse (Note to self, when filling out the US Customs re-entry forms, I will justify stating I was not on a farm or in the proximity of livestock, by thinking of this place as a charming olive grove. And assume that I hallucinated the horse.)

In all honesty, Fontana Del Papa was gorgeous. Gorgeous. A stone farmhouse set among groves of olive trees. In addition to Assunito and her family, the farm is home to birds, cats, dogs and an old horse. It’s so fucking charming I actually saw the German Shepherd grooming one of the cats. The cook, who was to be our teacher for the day, was right out of central casting. Seriously, everything was so much like a cross between a late 90s Meg Ryan film and a cartoon, that I would have been willing to believe the whole day had been cast by Disney if it weren’t for us four homos and the kid with Downs Syndrome playing guitar.

After a tour of the inn and the grounds, the true purpose of our visit began: a cooking lesson. You’d think it’d be hard to take a cooking lesson from an old Italian lady who speaks about 6 words of English, but it’s surprising what you can accomplish with pointing, grunting, and an unlimited supply of wine.

We chopped herbs and sliced vegetables and rolled dough. We made bruschetta and an apple cake and two veal dishes (involtini and scallopine.) We made homemade pasta with ragu. For two hours we bounded around the kitchen laughing and drinking and making relatively easy dishes that we can impress company with for years.

And then we ate.

Boy did we eat. Bread and pasta and meat and dessert and more wine and coffee. It all made me wonder why Americans place so much stress and pressure and intensity on their lives. Why our days have less pasta and wine, and more anemic salads in plastic bins eaten during conference calls and powerpoint presentations and company reports. It made me so happy to be there – and so very very very sad about my life back home, which feeds my soul in inverse proportion to this meal and the process of creating it.

At the end of the day, fat and tired, we bid farewell to Fonatana Del Papa – though I rescued the remaining apple cake to share with Neil, whom I so desperately wanted to share the day with. I hurried to the room, but he was nowhere to be found, so I headed toward the pool deck where I suspected he might be resting in the sun.

And there I found him – holding court amid a throng of friends old and new. And, to soothe his stomach – a cocktail in hand. Still, you can’t really get mad at Neil – he’s too damn cute. So I offered him some cake and sat down to tell him about our day.

I will say that the upside to his convalescence is that it gave us an excuse to skip the evening’s entertainment – the White Party. Basically the last big hurrah on the ship – a party where everyone is supposed to dress in white, but the costumes are more outlandish – and more revealing – than any of the other evenings. We did do a drive by, which was actually when I noticed that the entire sailing could have been called a White Party. I don’t think we saw more than a dozen African-Americans on the entire cruise, and outside of the occasional gaysian (an asian boy who is more West Hollywood than Far East) – not many Asians either. Further, with a few exceptions, most of the people we met were from New York, DC, San Francisco, LA and Miami. It really would be nice if the Atlantis crowd shook a little of the urbane sophisticate out of their targeting and exposed us to some homos from places where people still eat butter.

Aix-en-Provence. Wednesday, September 1, 2010. 6pm.

The last day of the cruise always seems to be the day with the best shopping. I guess they want you to have one last splurge before your see your stateroom account.

We took a shuttle into Aix – a university town not far from Marseilles – and basically couldn’t keep our credit card in our pocket for four hours. We bought stuff for the new house; stuff for the old house; stuff for the nieces. We bought lunch. We bought pastry. We bought sweets form a French candy store (which is pretty much like my crappy candy store at 78th and Broadway, but the whole language difference made it seem more adventurous.)

I loved spending the day alone with Neil – just talking about our house and our lives and getting a chance to communicate with each other in a way that doesn’t involve cell phones or yelling into other rooms. When we don’t have to yell past his laptop or my preoccupation with work. When we aren’t traversing the day-to-dayness of the cleaning woman, the insurance agent, or the mail.

I love knowing exactly what stores he’s going to want to stop at; which he’s going to wander into. I love knowing the colors and the patterns he’ll pick out for linens, or which knick-knacks will appeal to him. I know, a nanosecond before, when a joke is coming – or when his face is going to burst forth in a grin – or when a snarky comment is about to launch in my direction.

These moments make the rest of life bearable. Those awful days when you can’t get off the phone and the email piles up. The long flights, small planes and bad food. The frustrated clients and disengaged co-workers. I do it all to know that someday, some months later, in the streets of a medieval town or the backyard of our house, he’ll turn his head and smile at me like he’s the happiest guy in the world.

And that’s pretty much it. We left Aix and sailed for Barcelona. We had one final drink and said good bye to the friends we came aboard with, and those we made. We exchanged numbers and email addresses and promised to share photos on Facebook.

We’ve got four days in Barcelona – but that’s another post – another time. After four weeks off, I need to pace myself.

1 comment:

  1. WELCOME BACK! And what a comeback - shwew! VERY fun read. My comment may be broken into 6 parts:
    1) Your 8 AM/2 AM meal "I'm not sure what you call it but it comes with a cookie." LAUGHED out loud. Love it.
    2) Queen rounding error!? Laughed again. And I didn't know that's what your degree was in ... if I am ever lucky like Scott and I run into you in the airport, you're going DOWN for that one babe.
    3) Picture it. Sicily. God I miss the Golden Girls.
    4) This next one is a question rather than a comment: Why was there a Trojan on your windshield when you were returning from Ravello?
    5) Did you know that will allow you to upload your blog into a book? Boom! You have documented this trip and your last year. Order a copy for you and a copy for Neil.
    Thanks for a great read!!