Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Critical Mom and the Perfect Vacation

"If there were no if," says a German proverb (Wenn das Wörtchen wenn nicht wär) everything would be perfect.  If only I hadn't bruised or cracked a rib while on board The Good Ship Might as Well Be a Palace.
Back up and I'll trace that line of thought while a pancake browns on one side:  I can highly recommend TUI Cruises, in fact, TUI the travel company.   They have a way of installing German efficiency in the most mañana of Mediterranean or Latin ambiences.   Everything is on time, hot enough, properly cooled, and radiantly polite, even in Mallorca.  The curious thing is that the way they do this is by hiring non-Germans.  The entire housekeeping staff of "Mein Schiff" (My Ship--every guest enjoys the illusion that the ship belongs to him or her personally) hails from a Latin American, Central American country or from Southeast Asia (mostly the Philippines).  
"You know, Mommy," said the eleven-year-old, "the white German workers were paid for being nice, but the Philippino workers were already nice.  The Germans were being paid for being extra-nice."  Now, the kid grew up in Germany and I do believe he's overlooking standard Northern-German reticence:  it's impolite to seem overly interested in one's neighbor in the chilly reaches of the Teutonic world.  But the nice lady from Nicaragua who cleaned our cabin, and the Philipino guy who took care of the unbelievable mess that only three children can create in a tiny cabin with bunk beds, behaved as though they loved us, as though, in fact, nothing could have pleased them more than wiping surfaces globbed with toothpaste, finding clean glasses, making beds . . . when my husband shoved together the un-romantic twin beds and made them up as a cozy double bed, the nice lady from Nicaragua--Isabel is her name--popped in and inquired, in shocked tones, "Who made your bed?"  Clearly she was out for blood and moved toward the bed as if to shield us from the sight of such shoddy workmanship.  
"My husband," I admitted, and she giggled and re-made the bed, and you could have bounced a dime off it. Within the first nanosecond of our acquaintance, Isabel--and Rüel, who took care of the kids--had memorized their names and seemed to know their quirks and to be as fond of them as I am.  The staff aboard TUI were almost pathologically friendly and helpful.  And the German faction of the staff--mostly in concierge and maître d' positions--were as friendly as Germans ever are to strangers, that is, icily polite on the surface, but they'd probably lay down their lives for you if called to do so.
The other thing I bet you would never find on an American cruise line is the German Sauna--temperatures run to 85º C (that's 185º F) and the custom includes dumping ice and buckets of cold water over your head and back after you're roasted, sweating, and red as a boiled tomato in what they call an "Aufguss" which roughly translates as an infusion, but that makes it sound like a tea bag submerged in boiling water.  
No.  You're the tea bag being submerged.  Here's what happens:  You sit on wooden benches atop your towel--your feet must be placed upon your towel, so that your sweat never dampens the wood--among all the other happily expectant naked German people, all looking past the hot sauna rocks through the picture window at the sea with its whitecaps.   It soothes the soul to see the wind whip the waves while you, broiling, remain indoors.  Into the room comes a gorgeous young man or woman from the fitness center, draped in a sarong, and he or she explains that today's Aufguss will be Lemongrass.  Or Citrus-Honey.  In their hands they are carrying a wooden bucket and huge wooden ladle.  The young person--in stark contrast to us blobby, overweight, middle-aged persons, is slim and lithe and walks like a dancer.  The young person ladles the Lemongrass or Citrus-Honey infusion over the hot rocks, which sizzle and belch forth an aromatic, and searing hot, steam.  Taking a towel, the young person whirls it athletically over her or his head, flapping the hot aroma at us, and then flips the towel toward each now profusely sweating person.  
Want to know how Gretel felt when she peeked into the oven and told the witch she didn't know how to climb in?  Try that last flap of the towel during an Aufguss.
After the Aufguss, your husband pours a bucket of cold water over your head, and you yell, "YEOWWW!"  He's coming up behind you now with some ice.  The second time around you try it yourself, without screaming, and it feels like the pleasant tingle of diving into very cold New England water and swimming vigorously.   
But you'd never get this experience on an American cruise. (The American Heart Association tut-tuts: "People with high blood pressure should not move back and forth between cold water and hot tubs or saunas. This could cause an increase in blood pressure.")  
Try telling that to Germans.  I can imagine the look of astonishment.  But "Schwitzen ist gut!" they will say.  It is the way, the truth, the Om.  Sweat your way to health.  And be sure to pour on the ice cubes after.  You'll feel limp, but fine, and after what an American might deem a shock to the system, you get to lie in a 45º C (that's 113º F, and by this time it just feels cozy) sauna whose air is flavored with lavender or rose petals.  Or you can sit in a salt steam bath.
And now we are in Stralsund, and if only I had not aggravated my bruised or cracked rib by turning over in bed and bending over to pick up groceries and reading internet accounts of How It Could Be Broken and Puncture Your Lung (although the ship's doctor was pretty sure it was just bruised) and if only (Wenn das Wörtchen wenn nicht wär) my daughter had not woken up with what would be appendicitis if it were on her right side (but now she's sleeping and probably just needs to go to the bathroom) everything would be dandy.
We are reading A Wrinkle in Time.  She is so mad at The Man With The Red Eyes (the one who is hypnotizing Charles Wallace) that she would like to kill him. If I want to, she adds, I may write that she is not aggressive.  I must say, I was shaking my fist at the Man With The Red Eyes myself.
It is lovely and sunny and everyone but my daughter has consumed blueberry pancakes.  I had some Ibuprofen so now can cough without it being excruciating.  It is a sunny, lovely day, and even though the very complicated German washing machine turned on its own dryer and threatened to shrink up the fourteen-year-old's Nike T-shirts, the day promises to be lovely and sunny.  Friends are a phone call away, the beach a few kilometers, but we are too lazy to move.

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