Being on a medium size cruise ship for a few weeks allows plenty of time to watch the human parade, and wonder about human behavior. Midsize ships are designed to entice one into the experience of a floating Downton Abbey world of luxury and entitlement. It only lasts for a week or two: a grown up game of make believe that can be great fun. Differential stewards keep every cabin freshly made up, flowers arrangements and fruit baskets are changed daily. Room service is available at the press of a button. Public areas are dotted with liveried staff cleaning and polishing. Elegant dining venues cater to each guest as if they were Lord and Lady of the manor. The same goes for lounges, pool side services, and informal Lido buffets. As in any well run manor, what goes on upstairs is separated from what goes on downstairs, and guests are not encouraged to be too curious about that.
Perhaps with a dash of inappropriate smugness, I enjoy watching how others play the game because the roles they take on may have something to say about the personality they might otherwise mask when out in public back home.
Some, usually those who have saved for a long time to take this once in a life time trip, appear giddy at having stepped into a world that existed for them only on television. It is as if they have moved from downstairs to upstairs and hardly know where to begin enjoying it. They ask lots of questions, ooh over each new discovery, and are hesitant to accept that, yes, they are entitled to be here doing this. They tend to be delightful people, easy to get along with, respectful of staff, and very much aware that this make believe dream will end in a few weeks, so they want to make the most of it.
There are a few exceptions who behave in petulant ways. Obviously and uncomfortably out of their comfort zones, they tend to over emphasize the symbols of their daily life back home in what appear to be defensive maneuvers warding off the ‘swells’ that might get too close. Most other guests seem to take things in stride, fitting in comfortably with a daily routine that suites them just fine. But there are others, and they are the ones of whom I take particular notice.
They are insecure men and women, often well into retirement, who posture at every opportunity to discover who had the more important career, had known the more important people, had lived in the more prestigious neighborhood, or had been to the more exotic locales. They play the Lord and Lady to the fullest. They are the marginally wealthy – poor millionaires as opposed to rich millionaires – who have taken the largest suites, and intend to make the most of it. They give terse commands to staff without a please or thank you. They mumble snide comments about their ethnicity and lack of fluency in English. They emit peevish signs at having to stand in line or wait for others. Where does that come from? Fortunately there are not too many of them, but they do make themselves known.
When two weeks are over, and they are no longer living in a floating manor house with servants at their beck and call, who will they be, and how will they treat others? Will they don their workaday facade of good will and good manners? Will they privately resent the lack of deference the world offers them? Will they retreat behind country club walls, or the gates of a condo community, there to be shielded from any unpleasantness that the rest of human kind must contend with every day?
I wonder. It’s a strange make believe world they inhabit. They are an uncomfortable people.
Having said that, in my long and checkered career, I have encountered many more persons of wealth and power who never took it for granted; who knew well that their privilege was earned through support from many others, and that they benefitted from fortuitous circumstances over which they had little control. They are comfortable in the halls of power, comfortable in the fields and factories that pay for those halls, and treat every person with unpatronizing dignity. The camel may not get through the eye of the needle, but I think they can.