Where were we? Can’t remember, but let me tell you this: At some point in the cruise, I learn that a reporter from New York magazine is aboard. Gonna write us up (or do us dirty, or . . . we’ll see). This is becoming an old trick on the left. Been done twice before, that I can remember. Once in The Nation. Once in The New Republic.
The guy from The New Republic later had a comeuppance, in the form of a big scandal. (Big for journalism.) Was stripped of an award and all that. His article on the particular NR cruise was poison, just poison. Rarely do you see something so loaded with malice. I trust that The New Republic is proud.
Anyway, the malicious, we will always have with us. But that doesn’t mean one can’t enjoy a cruise, with nice people . . .
We arrive at the Honduran island of Roatán. Extraordinary place. Walking up to the main road, I encounter a gauntlet of taxi drivers, vendors, and other hopeful providers of services. This gantlet is maybe 150 yards long, and includes maybe 50 people.
I talk cheerfully to the first couple of guys, not slackening my pace. I don’t want anything. I’m set. Further ahead, a young man starts toward me, and an older man, who is probably his boss, says, “Let him walk.”
Music to my ears (as I tell him). And they do, to a remarkable extent, let me walk. A contrast with Ocho Rios, Jamaica.
I hear all sorts of exotic-sounding birds, off in the brush. Wish I could see them.
Lots of people fantasize about escaping to the Caribbean, for a few months, or a few years. Forever, maybe. Walking around Roatán, I think of Claude Lévi-Strauss (author of Tristes Tropiques, among other works).
He said that, when he was in the Amazon, all he could think of was being in Paris. That’s where he wanted to be. And when he was in Paris, he wanted to be in the Amazon.
I see a man bending over with a small blade, a small scythe, to cut grass. An arresting sight, in 2012. Couldn’t the scythe be longer, at least — like the length of a 4-iron?
Village life seems happy, on the surface. Is it truly happy? I would not say no.
There are many, many churches, of various denominations. I wonder if the religious life here is not more vibrant than in my slice of Manhattan . . .
And these churches run schools. Is the education sound? Sounder than that in, say, P.S. 136? I couldn’t possibly say.
A man tells me, “One hundred percent of the black people here speak English as their native language. The others speak Spanish. We [the black people] study Spanish in school; they study English.” And it works out. “We’re all bilingual, more or less.”
When he was 16, he went to work on cruise ships. At that time, Roatán had no electricity, no telephones. Miami was the first big city he saw. “All those electric lights, the place bright at night. I was scared to death!”
He worked on cruise ships for 20 years. Like so many others, he sent the money he made back to his mother, and other family members. “You in America, you have Social Security and things like that. But we have to work to support our parents in their old age.”
The people of Roatán do not appear to be keen environmentalists (and they have a lot of natural beauty to spoil, or preserve). I wonder what our greens would say. Would they condemn the people? Or excuse them, somehow, saving their condemnation for those norteamericanos who don’t sign on to every jot and tittle of the Sierra Club agenda?
On the ship, I have lunch with Bernard Lewis and his significant other, Buntzie Churchill. Bernard is the great scholar of the Middle East (and great scholar, period). Buntzie is not related to Winston — but she has a Churchillian spirit about her, I think.
We talk over many questions, from the important to the trivial. I have a not-so-important question for Bernard. “For a time,” I say, “the prime minister of Israel was Barak, and the president of Egypt was Mubarak. Are those the same name, more or less?”
Yes — both coming from the verb “to bless.”
(Jews and Arabs are cousins, though many don’t want to hear it.)
Onstage, I bring up with Bernard yet more questions — different ones. Did he ever have a leftist flirtation? He did indeed, “when I was an undergraduate.” By the time he got to grad school, however, he was cured.
“That was fast,” I say. “What cured you?” He answers: Knowing what was going on inside the Soviet Union.
Some people — lots of people — knew exactly what was going on. And remained on the left, supporting Communism and the Kremlin, nonetheless.
During World War II, Lewis served in intelligence (British intelligence). I ask, “During the Thirties and into the war, did you know Nazism was doomed? Or did you think it would conquer Europe?” “It did conquer Europe,” he says.
Oh, yes — had forgotten about that. I was thinking long term. But, says Lewis, he figured it was doomed, as it soon proved to be. (After millions of deaths.)
He makes a point about the Middle East too seldom made: a point relating to sexual frustration. There’s not much “casual sex” in the Middle East, says our scholar (and famed observer of human affairs). A man has two routes to sex: marriage and prostitution. Many can’t afford either.
So, Combustion City (as the first Bush might say).
Here’s something else from lunch — I enjoyed learning this. Bernard has “played with” about 15 languages, as he says: “played with.” He has a gift for “making noises.” That is, he can reproduce sounds in other languages, even when he can’t speak a given language very well, or at all. This can lead to awkward situations.
What do I mean? Well, a native speaker may think you know the language when you don’t. And he may suspect that you’re toying with him somehow.
I tell Bernard about Bill Buckley — who, when a child, learned French. I think he had a French governess. Into adulthood, he pronounced the language very well. But he didn’t speak it equally well. He could ask a question in excellent-sounding French — and not be able to understand the answer.
So, what did he do? Now and then, he put on an American accent, just so as not to mislead anyone (and create trouble). “Où sont les toilettes?” he would ask, in a marked American way. Then the people would be slow with him, indulgent of him.
Bernard understands entirely, of course — and “can relate,” as we used to say (in the Seventies, was it?).
Something else about language: Lewis says you can buy one and get one free — or two free. To take an easy example, Danish. He learned Danish, owing to a Danish wife. And this language led on to Norwegian and Swedish.
Same with some Middle Eastern tongues, he says.
I have 50 more things to say about Bernard Lewis — at least — but perhaps I should point you to his memoirs, published this year: Notes on a Century. A feast, an education, a treat.
We have a cruise passenger I’ve known for many years. She and her husband have come on maybe 15 cruises, something like that. Very nice lady. And sharp. From Wisconsin.
But not originally — this is something new to me. I learn it at dinner one night, on this cruise. She was born in Germany. Her father was in a concentration camp for eight weeks. They let him out, and ordered the family to leave the country — lucky them. They could leave with the equivalent of 20 dollars. If I have heard correctly, they sailed on the last German ship to leave Holland.
That was October 1939 — late, but not, for them, too late.
As you can imagine, my friend has strong feelings about America, and what it has represented, and deep concerns, about where it is going.
Mona Charen and her husband, Bob Parker, have three sons. The youngest, Ben, is along for the ride. After meeting and listening to him, many of our passengers want to start a political action committee for him. Ben is only 16 — but I agree: Let’s get movin’ . . .
I’d like to tell you about another longtime NR cruiser — and her daughter. Mom is a true-blue conservative; Daughter is a liberal. I have a talk with her, the daughter, on the last day of this cruise.
“How has it been for your mom?” I say. “Has she enjoyed the cruise?” “Oh, very much,” comes the answer. “It has lifted her spirits. She was so down after the election. I was happy and relieved, when Obama won. But my mom was so upset, I couldn’t enjoy the victory. She was just disconsolate. I hated seeing her in that condition. I would have thrown Obama to the wolves, just to make her feel better.”
That, my friends, is love. May we all have such daughters, and sons!
In the dining room, there is the traditional March of the Baked Alaska. The accompanying music is the Radetzky March. In former times, the marchers carried and waved sparklers. (Sparklers as in the Fourth of July.) But that has been cut out. Now they wave napkins. What a comedown. I blame the regulations of the Nanny State.
But I’ll be griping about politics soon enough — day and night — and I’ll now just say thank you: for cruising, either in person or, much less satisfyingly, through this lil’ journal. Plus: Happy Thanksgiving!
To order Jay Nordlinger’s new book, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.