NAPLES, Italy - The jet lag I was prepared for, with Italy being nine hours ahead of Los Angeles. But the culture lag on a 10-day cruise of the western Mediterranean was unexpected and unsettling.
Just when my travel companions and I would acclimate to a country and language, we'd be back in America each time we reboarded our ship, Holland America Line's Westerdam.
Most of the nearly 2,000 passengers were American, the food was American, the air conditioning and other amenities were American. Even the Indonesian and Filipino crew members were fluent in American idioms.
Our vacation began with two days in Rome, staying at a tiny hotel that shared a building with apartments. Canova Tadolini Residenza was just a few blocks from the famed Spanish Steps, and our window overlooked a bustling street that was lined with chic shops and apartments whose front doors looked like ours.
Maps and Italian phrase books in hand, we walked for miles exploring this frantic but fascinating city. We absorbed the atmosphere, some of the language and a fair amount of pasta and gelato.
But the moment we boarded the ship in Rome's port of Civitavecchia, Italy slipped away and we were back in the U.S.
Disembarking the next morning at Monte Carlo was like leaving home again -- this time with French as the official language, Italian the second and some English spoken by shop clerks in the touristy areas.
And so it went with each port of call, where
The exception was Tunis. It seemed that everyone on our tour bus gave a sigh of relief on leaving that North African city. It felt too foreign for comfort. The ship's air conditioning, ice tea and salad bar were especially welcome after the heat and crowds of the old souk (bazaar). Even the ever-present dispenser of Purell hand sanitizer at the base of the gangway was good to see.
Culture lag notwithstanding, we thoroughly enjoyed the luxuries of cruising. My friend Linda summed it up as we boarded on Day 1: "Let the pampering begin!"
Though we'd all been to Europe previously, for two out of our foursome this was a first cruise. We all tried to make the most of it: white-tablecloth dinners, abundant buffets, room-service breakfast; trips ashore to towns we'd longed to see; lazing by the pool in deck chairs; nail and hair appointments; movies, lectures, big-production musical shows, even a local flamenco dance troupe the evening in Barcelona, Spain.
Three of us checked out the ship's gym on the first day but opted to get our exercise with brisk walks instead. Three laps around the promenade deck equaled a mile.
In some ports of call we booked tours or simple transfers into town; in others we set out on our own. Monte Carlo and Barcelona were delightfully easy to get around; Palermo, Italy, and Palma de Mallorca, Spain, were disappointing.
The problem in Palma was that it was Sunday and about the only businesses open were a few cafes. The hop-on, hop-off tourist buses were overwhelmed, with long waits at each stop. Not inclined to stand in the hot sun, we simply stayed on and listened to the city tour narration until returning to the port.
Palermo gave us more of an adventure: The every-half-hour bus dropped us off and never came back.
We did have a stroll in a beautiful garden, Orto Botanico, but only saw a fraction of the city. The two strongest walkers in our group hoofed it back to the ship, while the other two of us shared a taxi with other shipmates - an extra expense on top of an already pricey bus ticket (20 euros each).
Later we learned that the bus drivers had gone out on strike at noon, while we waited under a small tree outside a Chinese restaurant. Ship personnel shrugged and said, "Well, that's Italy for you."
By the last port, Naples, Italy, I chose to avoid adventure. Sofie's, a cute restaurant a short walk from the pier, was recommended for its invented-in-Naples pizza. But the tour guide on the bus to Sorrento had shared too many tales of purse thefts. I would have had to walk Sofie's alone - Marjorie had stayed on the ship, Pat and Linda were on a longer bus tour of Pompeii.
Reluctantly, I consoled myself with the less authentic pizza in the ship's buffet. Call me a wimp, if you like, but I didn't lose my purse.
Not all adventures were onshore. On the next-to-last night of the cruise a hot water pipe burst in the hallway ceiling outside our cabins. It heated our bathroom like a sauna, soaked the clothes closet next door and during the night trickled water down the hallway and into a dozen cabins, soaking carpets and everything on the floor. Ship personnel hurried in to make it right, with heavy-duty fans and offers of free express laundry and dry cleaning.
Would we cruise again? Yes, indeed. Would we return here? Yes, to Rome, Florence, Sorrento and Barcelona. I tossed a coin over my shoulder at the Trevi Fountain in Rome to ensure it.