Things I Wish I’d Known, by Ellen T. White

“Only the traveling is good which reveals to me the value of home and enables me to enjoy it better,” wrote the philosopher Thoreau — an idea that has always been alien to me. I am the perpetual proponent of the new, new thing. The grass is always greener, is my motto, where you’re not responsible for cutting it. 

Yet all that changed on my recent cruise along the Mediterranean coast. In fact, if a renewed appreciation for home is the criterion, then my cruise last summer was an A+, a proverbial 10 out of 10, Success with a capital S. 

I’ll confess: Envy was at the heart of all bad decisions. Over the summer it seemed that everyone I knew was traveling abroad. As consolation I perused last-minute trip packages over the internet. I leapt at a small boat cruise that started in Nice and ended up on land in Florence two weeks later. 

Ooh la la! The Cote d’Azur! And, later, Portofino, Italy, was on the itinerary! I had always wanted to get to Florence to see The David “in the flesh.” Here was my fantasy getaway, I thought. If I could commit to an imminent departure, the $5,000 cruise would cost only $2,800. “Go!” said my husband, who couldn’t get a break from work, ever supportive of spontaneity on a budget. 

You get what you pay for, including a roommate. Herewith, the “Things I Wish I’d Known” before I started.

You could argue (though I won’t) that it was worse for Donna, my poor “roommate.” A veteran traveler, Donna had never shared so much as a Chinese meal — whereas I’d had countless roommates over the years. Yet the cruise line (which shall remain nameless) assured me that Donna, a senior from The Villages in Florida, always shared. Someone clearly had her signals crossed.

I had read the stories. Among retirement communities, The Villages has the swingingest reputation in the U.S. I pictured a hip senior, a cool survivor of the sexual revolution, with, I don’t know, novelty pointers on lubrication? What I got was a solid, no-frills, Canadian in her 80s without a trace of irony.

Donna was positively livid at having to share. “I snore,” she said, throwing it down as a challenge, “and I keep the TV on all the time for company.” What was I? An inconvenient truth, is what, with apologies to Al Gore.

In decibels, I’ve not yet met a man to equal Donna. I don’t mean to brag, but that’s saying a lot. The noise penetrated double doses of Ambien and earplugs. The din began as soon as she dropped off before 9 p.m. and reached a crescendo in the middle of the night. At that point, arms splayed, Donna dramatically flung herself across the bed, putting her within spitting distance of my eardrum. 

Tip: No need to worry about disturbing Donna. I could have been running an ISIS cell in the night without her knowing.

Our tour leader, Lois, was a zaftig, gorgeous, 50-something Brit, with a cascade of romantic languages under her belt. “I feel like I know you through our emails,” she said when we met at the Nice airport, as she clutched me to her ample frame. Her ravishing up-do was an architectural marvel, through which I gladly would have taken a guided tour.

To you I suppose this would have been obvious: Your leader is paid to act like your BFF, even after your continued presence on the tour is a migraine. It’s your leader’s job to solve problems on the tour, before they turn into catastrophes. An example of a problem might be: “My medication needs refrigeration,” or, more challengingly, “My headset is dead” (check the volume, you dunce). 

If, in your free time, you take a dive onto the pavement outside the Matisse Museum in Nice due to sleep deprivation, this is your bad. You would expect your actual BFFs to be all over it with bandages and sympathy. But your tour guide recognizes this didn’t happen on her watch. Her assistance is entirely optional. 

Tip: To avoid infection, pull the gravel out of your hands and knees and wash immediately. If you have trouble opening doors, remember to use both hands. Try not to be carrying a tumbler of bourbon as you go.

After several days of sharing with Donna, something had to give. I was on the verge of confessing to random acts of terrorism just to make it stop. Alas, the 30 or so staterooms on our good ship, the Arethusa, were all booked; Donna and I were bound for life — or what had come to feel like it. 

It came to me in an epiphany. I realized — hurrah — that the enclosed deck outside our stateroom was the precise width of the stateroom beds. That night, docked in Porto Venere, I hoisted my mattress under one arm and dragged it outside. To a lifelong sailor, I reasoned, sleeping under the stars is no hardship, but rather one of the great advantages of the cruising life.

“I hear you slept on the deck,” said Lois, who ambushed me the next morning, thunderclouds gathering on her expressive brow. What, was there satellite surveillance? A spy network? It had not occurred to me that this would truly be a problem until I caught her tone. 

“Do it again, and I’ll send you home,” hissed Lois, warming to her role as the punishing headmistress. Really, expulsion? Okay, so the goal was to keep Lois happy, not the other way around? 

I was going to get to Florence, come hell or high water, an expression that turned out to be eerily prescient.

Tip: Keep calm and carry on. A daily dose of the Lorazepam that you brought for fear of flying will keep you grounded. 

The cruise line was no luxury outfit. Yet they aimed to make travelers feel like they were getting a high-end experience — or else. 

In the interest of cutting costs, travelers ate largely the same meal — just like in school, except that you didn’t need to line up. But unlike school, complaining was not cool. If you can’t swallow the mystery meat on your plate, best to leave it until it’s removed. And btw, the fish is not actually bad — probably just fed up. If group members privately wonder if the tomato soup was thickened with kibble, keep it quiet. 

We observed what I came to think of as the “Omerta Pact” — fitting, as the bulk of the trip was in Italy. “Did you all have a great meal?” our guide asked, once we were all back on the bus. We learned to answer, “Fabulous!” with enthusiasm. If our response was less than resounding, she repeated the question until she heard real conviction in the reply. Pretty soon, you believed it yourself, particularly if you hadn’t slept the night before.

Tip: Your tour leader is always in a position to send you home. You won’t be getting a refund.

A warning like “Fire!” activates your fight or flight response — as would, “Man the lifeboats, we’re going down!” However, words like “learning” and “discovery” fill a traveler with happy wonder, which I guess is the point. It took a while for us to figure out that the words “learning” and “discovery” together meant we were probably f—-ed, big time.

We knew stormy weather was ahead when the good ship Arethusa made its way to the island of Elba, where Napoleon was exiled for under a year. “Trust me,” said Lois, which should have tipped us off, as if the fishbowl full of Dramamine on the foredeck didn’t send a warning. She called it “an opportunity for learning and discovery.” By then, we were Pavlov’s dogs. We knew the words meant unpleasantness ahead; we just didn’t know what. 

Half an hour in 10-to-12-foot waves crashing against the upper decks; the ship lurched through the squall like a toy boat in a bathtub with Dwayne Johnson. The few who weren’t throwing up were fixated on a knocking noise in the stern that sounded like the ship was breaking apart. Lois, smart girl, was nowhere to be found. Six hours later, we reached port, exhausted by the effort of staying upright. The next day our Croatian captain confessed to having been “terrified.” 

Tip: If your captain wonders aloud if the ship can handle high seas, time to locate the nearest airport.

Ten days into the trip I seemed to be suffering some form of P.T.S.D. “Who am I?” I asked my husband two or three times a day, after I’d upped my mobile plan to Verizon’s international bilking and roaming. But my salvation came in an app. In Florence, hotels.com offered a single room for $150 in our hotel, which I snapped up before we reached shore. 

I don’t need to tell you that this didn’t sit well with Lois, who had floated the room for 300 bucks. However, in a masterful stroke, she was able to seize the advantage, telling Donna that she had organized a “special surprise” for her in Florence. 

Michelangelo’s David — I am happy to report — brought tears to my eyes. My single room was bliss, though the ceilings were substantially higher than the room was wide. Still, I boarded Alitalia back to the U.S. as if it were the last airlift out of a war zone.

“We should come home from adventures, and perils, and discoveries every day with a new experience and character,” to get back to Thoreau. Or, I can attest, there’s no place like East Hampton in the summertime.


Ellen T. White is the author of “Simply Irresistible,” about great romantic women in history. She lives in Springs.