Cultural observations from my Mediterranean trip – the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Prior to this Mediterranean cruise, I’ve only been on Star Cruises covering Southeast Asia. As you can imagine I’ve seen enough of ugly Singaporeans and other Asians grabbing food at buffets and letting their kids run amok. You may be relieved to hear these behaviour traits are not entirely exclusive to us Asians. When things get desperate and people are tired, it’s ‘all hands on deck’.

Certain people lining up for the buffet liked to keep pushing forward into others. Firstly, some people took their time, picking away at each dish even though there was a long line behind them (they probably didn’t notice, or even if they did, they didn’t care). Still, that’s tolerable – we just wait for our turn. Then a middle-aged woman behind me got impatient and started poking her plate into my back! As if I could make the person in front of me hurry up. I looked back at the woman poking into me, but she didn’t seem to notice my annoyance.
The next day at breakfast, a European man pushed himself so far forward that his huge stomach bumped into my back. It protruded out so much that nothing else touched me (I really hope it was his tummy, eek!). I looked back sharply at him, but he didn’t seem to notice or care. Again, I couldn’t make the person in front of me move any faster. I was not going to stoop to their level and start poking people as well.
The worst experience encountered was when the tour buses came back from a hot afternoon tour all at the same time. The deck was packed with people trying to get back to their rooms. I was taking care of my grandfather, who was walking with a stick. Because he is a big man, he moves slowly, and because he is not an aggressive person, he tends to let everyone else go first. However, it got out of hand. Because I couldn’t make my grandpa dart to the next available lift, we would wait patiently beside one lift doorway. But when other people saw that lift approaching, they pushed forward and entered it first. By the time we got to the lift door, it was full.
The first few times it happened, I acknowledged it was because we were slow to get a foot in. However, it happened SEVEN f***ing times and I was really pissed off. People could bloody well see an old man hobbling with a stick, but they didn’t give a s***. I called out to get their attention, but those who noticed me seemed not to understand – or didn’t want to, because that meant giving up their space for us. Very conveniently, most of them didn’t speak English. But what’s there not to understand when you see an old man trying to make his way to a lift???
Granted, there were some tired parents with even more tired children, and each stroller took up a third of the lift space. I agree they should go back to rest ASAP. What annoyed me was that when we finally got into the lift at Deck 1, an able-bodied couple squeezed themselves in, and promptly got out at their floor, Deck 2. They could have just climbed one flight of stairs right beside the lifts. Our staircases are wide, bright, clean, with plush carpeting and air-conditioning. If I were going back to the room myself, I’d take the staircase too so I wouldn’t choke up the queues to the lifts. Mind you, our cruise ship holds about 3,000 guests so just imagine the crush we were in.
There was also a language barrier. The cruise comprised mostly Spanish and Italian tourists who didn’t speak English. We certainly didn’t speak Spanish or Italian. So the few times we did try to communicate it was in different languages and hand gestures. Most of the time we just looked at each other without saying anything, which probably made both sides come across as unfriendly. Once or twice I’ve responded to greetings with “Buenos dias”. I guided an elderly Spanish couple, who were lost, to our lunch venue. My query “Habla Ingles?” was met with a gesture that they spoke very little English (but at least they understood what I was saying, phew!). More often we’d chat with the Canadians or Americans, who also tended to be friendler.
On my last night on the open deck, watching the sun set, a couple came in with a baby stroller. As the husband was carrying the baby, the winds blew and the baby’s blanket was carried away, nearly skittering off the deck. The wife cried out but she was too far away, holding on to the stroller. No need to know any languages to understand what was going on there. I grabbed the blanket and returned it to them. The husband said “Grazie” and I figured they were Italian. I didn’t know how to say “You’re welcome” in Italian so I just smiled faintly and walked off.
At the airport, we had to resort to sign language with some of the porters and other helpers. My grandpa, who speaks mainly English and no Chinese, commented that the Spaniards we tried to speak to should have learnt English. However, I felt that if we were in Spain (which we were), we should try to speak Spanish. And of course, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Of course, the ground staff could speak English, but we shouldn’t expect the toilet cleaners and porters to be fluent as well – just as we wouldn’t expect expect the toilet cleaners in Singapore to speak French or any other European language, just because we also have tourists from those countries.
In the same vein, I recalled a punchline by Lucy (of “I Love Lucy” fame) when she went abroad for a holiday and lost her way. Everyone she met could not speak English. She finally found her husband and cried out to him, “They’re all foreigners!”

My self-made quote of the day: “The world seems to revolve around the tourist, but in fact the world revolves very well on its own.”

I learnt some Spanish thanks to the excellent language courses offered aboard Singapore Airlines. On my way back to Singapore I revised my French (scoring full marks, heh) and learnt to count in Italian, since I’m going to Tuscany next month.
Despite the hiccups and one nasty belch described above, there were many gracious moments too. I was grateful to all the people who wheelchaired my grandparents in and out of hotels, airports and tour buses. I was grateful to the tour guide who reserved the front bus seats for my grandparents so they could move more easily. And as I anticipated, there were more occasions when European men held out the door for us ladies gracefully! 🙂
Formal nights were really formal, which was nice. I feel Singaporeans tend to dress down because we’ve been able to get away with it most of the time, when it shouldn’t be the case. Imagine how glamorous the ballrooms were, with everyone dressed to the nines. Next time if I’m ever on cruise, I might very well bring a gown or two. I wouldn’t look out of place.
Even with apparent language problems, sports proved to be an icebreaker. On one tour we chatted with Spaniards and Arabs who liked football and Formula One respectively. Conversation with the Spanish family was limited but we managed to get by. The Arab girls spoke English. And for one week, I kept noticing a Bulgarian waiter who served our table because he looked a lot like Steven Gerrard. I told my dad what I thought; he agreed wholly, we told the waiter, who unfortunately does not watch much football. We told him the next time he did, he should look out for the Liverpool captain.
A few days ago, at the Ladies, a black attendant from Puerto Rico spoke to me. Looking thoughtful, she asked, “Are you from China?” I said no, I’m from Singapore. But she was pretty close – she knew I was Chinese, not Japanese. You have to see a number of Asians to start noticing the differences between each race. Quite often, in countries where there are few Asians, people tend to think we’re all Japanese, because that’s all they’ve seen.
Case in point: While on a tour of Chopin’s home in an abandoned monastery in Majorca/Mallorca, we passed a group of French tourists. Their guide called out to me with exaggerated motions that I can only describe as an attempt to look ‘Chinky’. He said “Konicheewaa!” His entire tour group was looking at me. I smiled and said I’m not Japanese. However his English was probably not very good because he looked triumphantly at me and his group, as if I had just confirmed that I WAS Japanese. Again, I said with a smile, “I’m NOT Japanese,” and shook my hand in a negative fashion. He finally understood – I think. We passed each other again and he still tried to smile at me, which made me wonder if he thought this was all a joke. On hindsight I should have said, loud and clear, “Bon monsieur, je ne suis pas Japonais. Je suis Singapourienne,” and walked off.
In the Barcelona airport, on our way back to Singapore, I struck up a chat with a senior American lady from Texas. She complimented my English. This is something I’ve heard many times before, which usually indicates the person has probably never been to our region and doesn’t know it is a language commonly spoken in this country (well, either spoken or broken). As usual I gave thanks for the compliment and left it at that.
What’s more surprising is finding out that your fellow Asians don’t know about your country. Our tour guide in Barcelona was a Filipino man who migrated to Spain in the 1980s. He was a nice enough bloke. We told him we were from Singapore, and he asked if it was part of China. I haven’t heard that in a long while – and most certainly never from a fellow Asian.
This is just my rant and rave about the meeting of many cultures. I’ll be collating my several hundred photos in the meantime.