Hi mum and dad! We didn’t sink! I’m looking at the Statue of Liberty right now!
Perhaps the most random call my poor parents ever received from me, even though in my case..that’s highly debatable. 23rd December, 2019. For most of you, the world looks still quite familiar. For us, the Great Deconstruction of Reality already started over a week ago.
Mid December, we joined Queen Mary 2, one of the most luxurious ocean liners in the world, on the Christmas Voyage to New York, Caribbean and back to England. Following straight up in January with a highly anticipated and - as it turned out - totally fucking doomed “2020 World Voyage”. To all of our friends and family, who are still scratching their heads as to why exactly we’d abandon our perfectly safe and perfectly sane London corporate lives in exchange for this deluded Indiana Jones type of adventure, this has only been about 8 days of confusion.
To us, a whole lifetime of human drama has passed.
We work as what they call here - ‘shopees’ - which is a fittingly demeaning umbrella term used to describe our fleet of about 20 (with my exception)young people running the ship’s luxury beauty/fashion and jewelry stores. 12 hours a day, every day, in a suit and tie which I quickly grew to despise, treated like children by your managers (who are, of course, younger than you) and like trash by the passengers. If you’re a genius like me, you thought you’d get away with wearing £18 Primark smart shoes, whilst constantly on your feet working an 80hrs week.
As an after effect of navigating together these exalted pre-industrial revolution working conditions, you very quickly create bonds that automatically kick you into the 'us versus the rest of the world' mindset, which is kind of like going to war with your comrades I guess. Yes, that might be a little bit dramatic and tone deaf, but that's literally what it says on my CV right after my name. Your colleagues might not be people you would normally ever choose to hang out with, but now you're in this ocean of shit (we’re talking Atlantic Ocean, so quite literally) together and there's a strange exclusivity to it.
You will grow to love these weirdos and you will fight for them fiercely, and you will keep on keeping on together, even though by the week three, none of you'll remeber why the fuck did you sign up for this bullshit in the first place.
Early this morning, after again almost no sleep at all, we quickly put on some civilian clothes (at long last!), grabbed some coffee and ran out on deck 5. There are just a handful of places the crew is allowed to enter, all of them strictly out of passengers’ sight, as our mission is to be helpful and invisible. Deck 5 is where the crew goes to smoke. This morning, there’s also a glorious smoke of sunlit New York, Brooklyn bridge on one side and the Statue of Liberty on the other. Crossing the Atlantic, you of course have no signal and we’re required to pay for the WiFi which only works for social media messages - no WhatsApp calls, no emails, no web browsing... I wonder if Google started worrying about us in these past few days. Out there on deck 5, we all start frantically dialing our families and I don’t even know why, the surprising tears start flooding straight away.
This joy, like any joy on sea, is soon drowned and sinks to the bottom of the sea. Our manager Holly tells me, before being allowed off the ship, me and two other shopees must attend a training for Bacardi. The only person who really could benefit from the training is this Hungarian dude obsessed with playing UNO, who works in the on board booze and tobacco store. The rest of us are not allowed to sell alcohol. Or drink it for that matter.
You see, I really believe she just had to save her own image by providing at least four people for this useless training, without really meaning to destroy our lives, because Holly: one of the rare examples amongst the managerial species - is actually NOT A BITCH.
Point in case: In just a few months, during which the mighty modern society of men will get brought down to their knees by a microscopic virus, Holly will manage to forward my skincare Ebay packages that arrived on the ship only AFTER they've kicked us out. At that point, we had no formal employment relationship anymore, she really did not have to do that. She never asked for any money for postage, the packages just randomly arrived one day to our friend's London address, where we've been quarantining in between April and May.. and thanks to that, my lockdown skin’s been flawless for NO ONE to see.
You might be shaking your head in disbelief, but I assure you - you've read that right: the old ways of the world might be dying, but even in April 2020, I'll still feel like not receiving my Clarins Double Serum is the world's biggest tragedy.
The Bacardi representative was not allowed to board Queen Mary 2, so we had to conduct the training in one of the ship containers on land. David and our new friend Millie said they’d wait for me, it can’t take that long anyway, right? So here we are. In an abandoned ship container of New York’s Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. At the place, where Russian or Italian mafia brings people before they're never heard of again, learning about the white oaks barrels, blackstrap molasses, yeast and fruit bats. The fruit bats are super crucial.
And every single minute spent here, is a minute less we spend exploring New York. I know, I know. It's only been eight days of 12hrs shifts working the hardest we ever did in our lives, and in exchange we get full 4 hours in New York (before rushing back onto the shop floor because yes - on port days you work too), but come the fuck on! Who wouldn't appreciate learning that the signature dripping red wax on the neck of Bacardi bottles is meant to represent the sweat, tears and BLOOD that goes into producing every bottle? Charming. Salut! Also, as per Melania's historically most memorable quote: 'I don't really care, do you?'
Now in total honesty, I am feeling quite ashamed about the treatment this company rep received from us, or let's say from me - cause nobody huffed and puffed, rolled their eyes and stomped their feet as impatiently and aggressively as me. Eight days ago, I'd never be this blatantly disrespectful, but the shocking treatment we've been (voluntarily!) subjected to over the past week or so, truly bends one's character out of shape. I do appreciate meeting this new facet of myself, and I also hate it, resent it and I need to punish someone, anyone for it!
Sorry, Bacardi man.
The training did take a long time. Plus, some new passengers will be boarding in New York, which means a mandatory safety drill for the entire crew: back on board at 3.30pm.
We’re left with two hours to explore New York, before rushing back to the ship that would otherwise sail away without us. In these two hours we managed to do the following: TARGET. Mainly Target.
I did not get away with wearing the cheap-ass Primark shoes. The soles of my feet literally fell off - and I do mean the whole thing - to reveal a super painful raw flesh that got immediately infected, so buying retail tested Sketcher shoes in Target is a number one priority.
We literally speedwalk around Time Square. I smile and wave at the 30 Rockefeller Plaza which I love for the reason called Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon, and spat in front of 1211 Avenue of Americas - the home of Fox News.
New Yorkers talk like someone trying really hard to sound American whilst being jagged up on too much coffee. Metro is as confusing as anywhere else and people do try to disappear into their seats when the musicians board the train here too.
The winter light here is super sharp, but wrapping distant skyscrapers in a golden haze. Everything is big and the 90 degree angle streets stretch out into forever. Happy to report that the steam coming out of sewers you know from the movies..is a real thing!
At the end of the day, I felt super guilty. Two hours into being back on the shop floor, it doesn’t even feel like you’ve stepped outside the ship at all. This brand new puppy young and innocent friend Millie, that we adopted on Queen Mary 2 just over a week ago (once again - a week of a shared ship experience really is worth of several months of intense relationship building bootcamp), got to have a super shitty 1st New York experience thanks to the fact I've been sent to this totally meaningless Bacardi training.
David is comforting me: we're doing a little Christmas round trip around Caribbean islands before doing another turnaround day back in New York: we’ll have a chance to do it again and properly this time!
Of course, writing this up retrospectively, I can already tell you: the second New York visit was a total next level shitshow. In a stark contrast to the sunny fairytale of about a week ago, instead of that golden haze, all the skyscrapers are shrouded in mist and rain clouds today.
No 'useless but mandatory' Bacardi training this time around, but instead - the free shuttle buses from the port to Brooklyn just wouldn’t arrive. Not having much funds to spend on a taxi (we're almost penniless until our first payday in January) and determined to not repeat last visit's fiasco, we decide to walk. Of course, it's raining and of course we take the wrong turn. It took us almost two soaked hours of speed walking in that rare combo of: freezing wet clothes on the outside and boiling sweaty and equally wet clothes on the inside, several attempts to ask for directions which made people run from us in panic, throwing their wallets at us, to finally arrive to civilisation and hey, it's the building from Ghostbusters! But you know what? At this point, we really don't care at all, Melania.
We made quick friends with a homeless person. He got some rolled cigarettes from David and in exchange escorted us to the nearest liquor store. Equipped with the tiniest cheap bottle of rum we could find, we waited in TARGET - yes, dear reader, in Target, AGAIN - trying to spot some of our ship people in the crowd, so that we could jump in the taxi back to the port with them.
As soon as we arrived back on ship, we sneaked some tea from the crew mess into our cabin, to top it up with rum. Oh sorry, 'crew mess'...that's a ship lingo for the communal dining area - and we had to sneak it in our cabins, as no food or drinks are allowed outside the crew mess. Our soaked outfits ended up on the bathroom floor (there are just a bunch of washing machines for a crew of around 3000, so you’ll usually need to wait a few days to strike lucky and find an empty one), and I believe we watched an episode of Sabrina, that I managed to download through the Target Strarbuck's free wifi, whilst sitting on the floor by the Starbuck's toilets - the only place with an electric socket that did not require you buying a cappuccino. I feel super accomplished in this whole adulting arena.
I wish you still keep enjoying those heavily edited travel pictures of ship and plane crew (I'm sorry but mostly)girls on Instagram. Allow yourself to get aroused a little, appreciate it a little, but also appreciate that they're not real, and believing otherwise could be quite dangerous to your mental health. You know, like with really convincing sex robots.
It's just that the real deal is not as easy to market, generate likes and follow up with adverts. I'd hope by now you realise that - like other media - social media were never intended for people to connect, but rather to sell you shit you don't need.
Right about now, I am midway through my thirties, and my #travelbliss and #workhardplayhard looks like: skin peeling off my feet, uncontrollably chattering teeth in our 1x1m cabin, sipping on the improvised grog, praying so hard that A = I won't get ill, because that would mean you get kicked off the ship in whichever random part of the world you are at the moment AND you will pay your own plane ticket home (this is not a joke, it's in that contract you've signed, you idiotboy), and B = hoping no one would detect it on my breath (breathalyser controls happen all the time and on random - and result in the same treatment as being ill, see above) - in about 50 minutes, when I'm back to full suite and tie, selling disgusting beach bags with flamingo print and repulsive straw hats that suit no one, because we're hitting Caribbean in a few days, during which Christmas will come and go.
This too is what ship life and travelling looks like. Bon voyage!