Cruising the Aegean with a company of bibliophiles.
Oct 4, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 03 • By THOMAS SWICK
My first morning on the Aegean Odyssey I woke up to find Capri outside my window. The great cliff rising from the sea reminded me of the cover of Shirley Hazzard’s memoir, Greene on Capri.
Photo Credit: Everett Collection
The fact that the island made me think of Graham Greene meant that I was on the right ship. Months earlier the cruise company Voyages to Antiquity had mailed to me, along with the standard packet of information on dining rooms and dress codes, a recommended reading list. I had taken seven Caribbean cruises and never once received a reading list. This one included, among other titles, Pictures from Italy by Charles Dickens (the cruise was starting in Rome and visiting Sicily and Dalmatia before ending in Venice), The Fires of Vesuvius by Mary Beard, Sicilian Carousel by Lawrence Durrell, and The Leopard, Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s classic novel of the coming unification of Italy as viewed by a world-weary aristocrat in Palermo.
Shortly after I boarded, I visited the ship’s library. The escapist fiction was shunted off to the side while sections on classical literature, history (shelves labeled Ancient Egypt, Byzantium, Roman Empire, Maritime), and travel took center stage. The last shelf held Nicolas Bouvier, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Norman Lewis, Jan Morris,
In the past I’d always felt a little out of place on cruise ships. Gazing at this shelf I felt more than at home; I felt as if I were in my home. Strewn about the table were British broadsheets and recent issues of the Spectator and the Oldie.
At that first night’s dinner I sat next to Mary Beard. (It is one thing to recommend books; it is another thing altogether to put their authors on board.) She told me that her son and his friends had spent the summer driving around Eastern Europe in an old Royal Mail van.
“In France,” she observed, “everyone fancies himself a philosopher. You go in bookstores and you see books on philosophy. In England, everyone fancies himself a traveler.” I tried to remember who it was who had called England a nation of shopkeepers. Mary asked Simon, who was seated on my left. “Napoleon,” he said, before returning to his conversation.
After dinner, Mary gave a talk on Pompeii in the Ambassador Lounge. She said that what makes the place extraordinary is the fact that it was so ordinary—a typical Roman town of little consequence that now, of course, coughs up secrets about everyday life. She also said that the erotic paintings on the walls of the brothel did not serve as illustrative menus—“a la McDonald’s”—even though guides inevitably say that they did. Then, exactly one hour after she started, she told her audience, “You must be absolutely knackered,” and brought the first onboard lecture to a close.
The next day in Pompeii our Italian guide led us to the brothel and told us the paintings were used as menus. On the bus ride back, we were given a postcard view of the Aegean Odyssey sitting alone off the coast of Sorrento. In Civitavecchia it had looked a little humdrum, dwarfed by the behemoths of modern-day cruising. Here it gleamed with a lovely, old-fashioned compactness. It reminded me of the liners—the Mikhail Lermontov, the Stefan Batory—I took across the Atlantic in the 1970s and ’80s. (Oh for the days when ships were named after poets and kings!)
What made the Aegean Odyssey different, other than its name, was its passenger list. On those affordable Communist-era vessels, you found an eclectic collection of travelers: students, diplomats, Peace Corps volunteers, backpackers, immigrants—people starting new chapters in their lives. The Aegean Odyssey, by contrast, was heavily populated with retirees, all speaking English (British, American, Canadian, Australian) and tireless in their quest for knowledge. Walking the decks you saw the inevitable Stieg Larsson on a lap, but you also found The Ancient Mediterranean. These were people who had taken the reading list seriously.
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