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Tuesday, 4 September 2012

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR SHIP HAS SAILED (and you're not on it)

I have had nightmares about missing a cruise ship in a port.  Not that it would ever happen to me, because I’m anal about checking details.


However, that’s exactly what happened in Malaga on our recent cruise.  Loitering back to the dock after getting off the ship ‘just to stretch our legs’ - the irony is that we didn't even want to get off - we heard a familiar double blast of the ship’s horn and then stood dumb-founded as OUR ship appeared to be moving.

‘Hang on, our ship’s off!’ I cried to the kids.  Surely it was a mirage after that funny flat-looking chicken breast in the café.  But no, it wasn’t.  It was a living nightmare – one that every cruiser dreads.  And it had happened to me.  And how many times have I said ‘how can anyone miss the ship?’ because we have been onboard when people have done exactly that - the idiots.  Oh boy – the mother of the year awards are just queuing up to sit on my mantelpiece.

When something happens like this, your future appears in bite-sized pieces.  You can’t think ahead more than one step at a time.  My elder son, who appeared to have been smoking pot (because there was no other explanation for a thirteen year old boy to appear so calm) pushed us all towards the security guards where a load of smug Royal Caribbean passengers were going back to their ship with their el toro souvenirs and sombreros.

(Oh and a point here – our ship waited as long as it could, but there are massive fines if they don’t leave after a certain time.  Our fault.  They couldn’t have done anything else. )

‘Oh God, what is the Spanish for “I’ve been a tw*t (insert your own vowel) and missed the Azura”?’ I pondered, trying desperately to recall some schoolgirl Spanish.  The words for two beers and a toilet – and ‘on the table’ (don’t ask) are all that remained in my language arsenal.  Not much good when your head is thinking ‘Pants.  Pants – How can I cope without clean pants?’  Clean drawers and a make up bag were somehow on top of my immediate want list in my panic – even above the passports, cleverly left on the ship.

‘Mi shippo gone-o,’ I managed in Spanglais.  However, my wiggling hand movement was obviously an international symbol as a non-English-speaking port man made a call, led us all to chairs and a few minutes later handed over his phone so I could speak to the P & O representative in Malaga – Eduardo (which I now believe is Spanish for ‘superhero’).  He arranged a taxi to a hotel, where he had made a booking for us.  A clean, friendly and not too expensive place nearby (and trust me, this little adventure was ker-chinging by the minute).  In the morning, we would have to see the consulate in Malaga for emergency passports.  But a night in Malaga beckoned – and the hunt for supplies.

‘I don’t suppose you have a phone charger?’ I asked the hotel receptionist.  All attempts at Spanglais were gone now.  My gestures were far more successful not that Marcel Marceau would be worried for his job.  I wasn’t expecting a ‘si’ (excuse the pun) but he pulled a box out from under his desk FULL to the gills (lot of ‘sea’ imagery in this piece) of phone chargers and the first one I picked up fitted my phone like Prince Charming’s shoe fitted around Cinderella’s bunion.

As bad luck would have it – it was a Bank Holiday Monday in Spain so all the shops shut early.  We headed off down to get something to eat (which turned out to be a café were the speciality of the day was long black hairs and chips) and passed by an open shop which appeared to have clothes in it.  As good luck would even things out a bit - this shop could have been called ‘ The Ideal Shop for Idiot-women who have Lost Their Ship.’  This shop had everything a hapless traveller could have – undies, socks, shorts, toothpaste, deodorant (tension makes you very unfragrant) and a dress that I, Pavarotti and Demis Roussos could have easily all fitted in together and still had room for a party.  And if you think my Spanglais was bad – you should hear my Chinglais.  However, the Chinese woman who ran the shop and I communicated like there were no language barriers.  That emergency wardrobe cost me £30.  We aren’t talking catwalk but when you’ve got your hands on emergency drawers – you don’t care if they’re Prada or Primark.  'Have they got any hair gel?' my elder son asked.  'This is a time for emergencies,' I returned.  But I sympathised because I know how he felt - that was his luxury missed item, as red lipstick was mine.  The little one's was an ice-cream.  God he's so low maintenance.  Where the hell did he come from?

There is a less than flippant side to all this.  I’m asthmatic and seeing as we were supposed to be off the ship for 2 hours max, I didn’t take any medication out with me.  So I had to try and stay calm.  I did but I had a migraine from hell as a result because that tension has to come out somewhere.  Everytime my head touched the pillow, I saw that ship sailing off – I think that image has been tattooed on my brain I’ve seen it so many times.  I had a lovely night throwing up my hairy Spanish meal and how I managed to sleep is anyone’s guess,  but I did and woke up with a surprisingly fresh head. The air conditioning in that room was so strong it sucked our lungs out - I found them stuck on the ceiling fan in the morning.  But I have it to thank for kicking that migraine's ass.

A breakfast of Spanish bread rolls (this was no time for Atkins) and lots of coffee and I felt almost human again – well as human as you can with no lippy and no hairbrush – which we had - alas - forgotten to buy from the Chinese magic shop. 

Talking of Chinese magic.  When I pulled my new drawers out of the bag, I had moment of horror.  I’d only gone and managed to pick up some small boy’s drawers instead because those things were never going to fit me.  They should have been in Mothercare in the premature baby section. 

Nothing ventured – I put my leg in a hole and experienced magic.  These drawers didn’t just stretch… they were capable of closing above my head and knotting.  I could have used them as a sleeping bag.  I don't know what they were made out of - but NASA should be informed.  Never underestimate the magic of Chinese knickers.

The P & O rep had arranged a taxi for us to go to the Consulate.  The lady at the desk, I thought, looked too nice for me to start off her day with my Spanglais so I asked her if she spoke English.  ‘Yes, I’m from Rotherham,’ she said.  (Who said - 'well that's a matter of opinion then'??)

We needed flight times before they would issue emergency passports, we needed emergency passports before we could fly out.  The ship had to send confirmation that our passports were on board, our lovely friends at P & O booked late flights for us.  All the pieces somehow fitted together and our emergency passports were issued.  Bright yellow things which highlighted to all and sundry that we were ‘special’ – but not in a good way.  And my emergency passport picture in my Pavarotti frock and no make up isn’t one of my best.  With my sullen, tired face and bouffanted hair, I looked like a dark version of Myra Hindley.  Put it this way – I wouldn’t have let me into the next country.  Then again on the proper red passport I look like Rasputin.  Even the watermark is expertly placed over my mouth so it looks like a beard.

Eduardo handed me over to the Dubrovnik agent Maria then.  I thanked him for being so kind.  I’d have kicked my own sorry ass had the situations been reversed.  Eduardo summed it up rather sweetly.  He said that had it been his wife in this situation, he would want her to be treated well – and I SO was.

We went off to the airport.  It would have been easier to fly to Venice as there was no direct flight to the next port - but really, I couldn’t miss a day in Korcula – one of my favourite ports of call.  We had to hang around the airport drinking coffee before our flight to Barcelona was called.  Tez was itching to get through check-in because there was a Lacoste shop on ‘the other side’.   What a shame just as we did get through, it shut.

My metally sandals set off the security alarms and I had to be frisked. Fair really because under that Pavarotti frock I could have been carrying a cannon.

We couldn't hang about food-wise so we headed for a Burger-King - hopefully to get something without hairs in it.  We picked the wrong queue  which didn't get any shorter until a supervisor realised and sent our server off to clean some toilets.   It was the slowest fast-food I've ever had in my life.  By the time we'd got served, the kids had gone through puberty.

I’m a nervous flyer and the anxiety was setting in a bit, but as soon as I was sitting on that plane preparing to order a vino tinto I was fine.  The flight was smooth as a melted Galaxy and we landed at Barcelona where I told the lads that the 6 hour wait would fly by as Barcelona airport was just oozing with shops.

They were – but at midnight they were all shut.

We slept in the only café open like tramps on a park bench - only slightly upmarket ones who had ordered croissants - and then prepared to board the plane to Dubrovnik.  This time I took off my metal-studded shoes and put them through the security machine.  Our hand luggage seemed to be attracting a bit of attention as a couple of security guards were drafted over to look at it.  ‘Oh God my shoes are going to be confiscated’ I thought.  Turns out that what was of interest was a folded up page 3 of the Sun which my son had ‘saved’ from a paper we had bought to catch up on some news and waste some time.  He said there was an interesting article about politics on the reverse.

And I’m Keira Knightly.

Is it wrong to have a vino tinto at 6.45 in the morning on a plane?  No – because there are no clocks on a plane.  Or calories.  We landed in Dubrovnik at and as the plane doors opened the heat hit us like a smack.

God I’d have killed for some lippy.

Anyway – we plodded around a very very very hot Dubrovnik with our bag of emergency supplies – which had now been joined by a ‘Hello Kitty’ hairbrush we bought in the airport.  Every five minutes we were forced to take a pit stop as it was boiling.  It's so beautiful in Dubrovnik though.  We were due there on the ship in a few days.  I thought when we returned, we could wear the same clothes, go to the same cafes and see how many waiters thought they were having a severe attack of deja vu.  We had to wait around until 3pm when our bus to Korcula was leaving.  There was a lot of waiting around in this adventure.   Anything that broke up that interminable waiting around - like going to the loo - was a welcome diversion for three travellers with boredom thresholds as low as Barbara Windsor's neckline in Carry on Camping.

We took a taxi to the bus station.  The driver had obviously escaped from an asylum because that was the only explanation for his driving.  He didn't see the need for hands on the steering wheel because he needed them to use his mobile or to thump down on his horn at anyone on the road however far in front of him they were.  I just closed my eyes and prayed to the magic of our Chinese pants to deliver us safely - and they listened.  We stumbled out of the taxi glad to be alive and bought the tickets as directed by Maria who had given us an idiots guide: ‘the bus leaves at 3pm.  It’s 14 euros.  Stand 2.’  Only a complete berk could have missed it.


Only joking.

Anyway – at 2.30pm we were sitting on the bus and I woke myself up snoring just as the bus set off at 3pm scaring the poor bloke sitting next to me to death.  I comforted myself with the thought that I’d never have to see him again.

That two hour journey across Croatia was something I wouldn’t have missed for the world.  Stunning countryside – I only wish I had enough juice in my battery left to take pictures.  The bus drove onto a ferry and across to lovely Korcula, where we were picking up the ship the next day.

Slight problem in that there were no hotel rooms in Korcula.  Were we okay roughing it in an apartment, said Maria?

Er… yes.

Maria had arranged for us to be picked up and taken to the tiniest, most darling apartment at the side of the harbour.  This apartment was complete with its own cat – a gentleman with cat-plums the size of aubergines.  And the name of this testosterone-heavy beast?  Mitzi.

The rep who picked us up had to fill in forms for the police and arranged to meet us the next morning.  The evening was free for us to wander around that gorgeous island and soak up the first pressure-free night in what felt like months.

After a shower which felt like rain from heaven.

We found a café overlooking the sea, ordered icy drinks (alcoholic in my case) and 3 spag bols.  We sat and watched the world go by, the moon rise, holidaymakers shop in the markets.  It was bliss.  I think I slept the best sleep of my life in that little apartment.

The next morning we had to go and see the police and the customs people – who were satisfied we were just daft holidaymakers and not international drug traffickers.  And joined the long list of very kind people – I can’t tell you how lovely everyone was to us.  Then – after a lot of hand-shaking – we got on the tender to the ship and tried to look like holidaymakers who had just had a morning in Korcula like all the other cruisers.

Which we managed until there was a very loud announcement on the tannoy ‘The Johnson family are back on.  I repeat, the Johnson family are back on.’

‘Try to pretend it’s not us,’ I said to the lads out of the corner of my mouth, donning my Jackie Onassis glasses.  Although there is a fine-line between those and Carlos the Jackal specs.

Once on board I could have hugged our cabin.  Oh the sight of clean undies and my much missed lipstick.  I started to shake violently – delayed shock I imagine – so it was only wise to go to the Glass House and calm my frayed nerves with three glasses of Icewine drunk faster than Usain Bolt racing down a track. 

Then the leg-pulling started once everyone knew we were all right.  'I've got a title for your next book "When the boat comes in"' - and I couldn't get off the ship without someone tapping their watch at me.  But you have to take it – and I did, and I rather enjoyed it.  If you can’t laugh at yourself, then you shouldn’t miss the ship you’ve left your passports on.

The lovely captain - Paul - and the cruise director Neil were happy to see us back and I got a big hug from them both.  They're my two favourites - they helped me write my book 'Here Come The Girls' and apparently have signed as many of those books as I have.  My cruises always are a lot happier when they're on - and this one, in a strange and roundabout way - was no exception.

So, that’s my little adventure.  It was daft, it was careless, negligent and bloody expensive but I’m going to have to stand that.  But I’m a believer in things happening for a reason and I have a lot to take away from that little diversion.  I saw parts of Croatia I would never have normally seen and they were beautiful.  And I spent a night in Korcula – something I really have wanted to do for a long time (though next time I’ll do it on a more organised basis).  I experienced how kind people can be to others – even if they do consider them berks of the highest order.  If you find yourself on the shore waving to your ship - at least I know the recovery system works...  I found out that you might make mistakes but it’s how you resolve them that matters.  I discovered how bloody fantastic a cheap Croatian house white wine can taste when it's enjoyed al fresco.  I discovered that I got too comfortable in big floaty frocks and could end up going back to Malaga to buy more.  (Only joking kids) I also saw how grown-up my son had become (although half an hour after being back on ship he was scrapping with his brother again).  I realised how many simple things count in life – a flannel, a hair-brush, a bed with white sheets on, the calmness a big-plummed non-judgmental ginger cat can bring when it plonks itself on your knee.  And above all – clean pants.  You can survive anything when you’ve got those.

It’s all given birth to a new Yorkshire proverb.  ‘When your ship has sailed, may your paths cross with a Chinese knicker saleswoman.’  Neil the Cruise Director said that 'The Chinese Knicker and Sock-Selling Woman' should be the title of my next book.  I'm seriously considering it as homage to her.