1 February 2011

Always look on the bright side: the Northern Lights, a cruise and a conversation

I mentioned in the previous post that we were hoping to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights from a return boat trip from Tromso to Kirkeness, a few miles from Norway's northern border with Russia.

And 'glimpse', alas, turned out to be exactly what it was. Yes, we did see them, but not in the glorious technicolor to be seen on DVDs and from picture searches on Google. What we did see on a couple of nights were more like strangely-shaped moonlit clouds - good to have seen them, but hardly up to the sales blurb that had tempted us so far north in the middle of winter.

So here are a couple of handy tips for any readers who might be planning a similar trip

TIP 1: Find a more comfortable way of seeing them
The trouble with inspecting the Northern Lights from a boat is that, however warm and comfortable it may be, you have to go out on deck whenever they appear. Apart from the rush of passengers, many of whom were quite old and frail, the icy surface under foot made it quite a challenge just to remain vertical. Then, once you'd found a gap on the rail to hang on to, the freezing wind meant that you could only manage a few minutes of sky-gazing before the threat of hypothermia drove you inside again.

Another hazard, as unexpected as it was hilarious, was came from an idiot who came dashing out with a torch asking "where are they?" By the time he'd finished flashing his light into our eyes, none of us could see well enough to tell him where to look.

All of which suggests to me that a much more comfortable way of seeing the Northern Lights would be from a suitably located luxury hotel equipped with a heated greenhouse or conservatory, amply furnished with comfortable beds and/or sofas.

TIP 2: Beware of cruises that tell you where to sit
I've blogged before about people who routinely break the most basic rules of conversation (e.g. HERE). On the first night of the trip, we were allocated to a table at which, it turned out, the organisers were intending that we should sit for dinner on all four nights of the cruise.

It was a table for 4 people and, though I didn't have a stop-watch on me, I can report that the time spent speaking by each of us around the said table was not far off the following:

Speaker A: 94%
Speaker B: 3%
Speaker C: 2%
Speaker D: 1 %

After the first ten minutes, we'd had a full run-down of A's allergies and ailments, past and present. By the end of the meal, we knew how many times she'd been married, how many children and grandchildren she had, together with related face-sheet data on each of them (names, ages, occupations, where they lived + some of their medical histories too), why she and her current husband (Speaker D) lived where they lived, where it is in relation to the Tesco roundabout on the by-pass, which junction it was nearest to on the M1, what kind of house they live in, how much it had cost to buy compared with the one they'd sold, how much work had been needed to do it up (+ detailed costs of different home improvement projects), how she'd bought it while D was in hospital suffering from (cue more details about illnesses), which excursions they were planning to go on over the next few days (plus detailed explanations of why they'd selected some and not others), where the money to pay for holidays like this had come from (i.e. a late parent's estate, complete with details of how her share of it compared with that received by her siblings, about each of whom yet more details about etc., etc., etc.

During this unstoppable torrent, the only thing we managed to divulge about ourselves was that we live in Somerset (thankfully, a safe distance away from any junction on the M1).

I went straight from the table to the desk of the tour operator's representative, who confirmed that we were indeed going to have to sit through three more meals with Speaker A - and that no, this would not qualify us to get any of our money back. Nor was he able to provide any explanation or reason why the company saw fit to condemn its customers to such a miserable fate.

Luckily, he did have one useful tip: there were two separate sittings for dinner and it might be possible to arrange with the restaurant manager for us to escape to the other one - which I did and we did.

Needless to say, I shall be raising this matter if and when the company's customer-satisfaction questionnaire ever reaches me.

Looking on the bright side
In the meantime, the sheer awfulness of having to put up with this relentless violation of the most basic rules of turn-taking has spurred me on (yet again) to start planning the book about conversation that I've been threatening to write for at least 25 years. For that, at least, I am grateful to Speaker A, whose blistering performance may even provide the basis for a chapter (or two).


Kathy Reiffenstein said...

What an amusing rendition, Max, although I'm sure it wasn't amusing in the moment!

Good for you for finding a way around an otherwise unpleasant experience.


Max Atkinson said...

Don't get me wrong, Kathy. We had a great time (apart from that first awful meal) and a highly educational experience. Hadn't realised that civilization goes so far into the Arctic or that small matters like the sea being frozen in places doesn't deter the Norwegians from driving regular shuttle boats through the ice.

High spots included a fantastic meal of local cod in Tromso and the hilarity of the guy looking for the Northern Lights with his torch!

One 'excursion' we avoided was the opportunity of being lowered into the sea so you could go home boasting that you'd been under water in the Arctic - what my late mother would have described as "savage amusement"!

Anonymous said...

We went on a Nobel Caledonia cruise where the policy was that you should sit with different people every night. However the first night the six of us who had landed more or less by chance at the same table decided we quite enjoyed each other's company. So each night one of us was detailed to dart into the dining room and bag the same table.

And then there was the QE2 cruise which lasted 21 days and we were with the same couple every night.....