On be­ing the youngest in a group

Australian Traveller - - Contents -

Over the fol­low­ing week , I lis­tened to and learned from more than 400 col­lec­tive years of wis­dom.

I CAN’T RE­MEM­BER the ex­act mo­ment I was adopted. I didn’t sign any pa­per­work, nor was there cer­e­mony or fan­fare. And, be­cause my birth par­ents are still very much alive, and I ac­tu­ally quite like them, I’m pretty sure it might have bro­ken a hand­ful of laws and could have me dis­owned one day too. It started as a bla­tant act of pity; a mercy-adop­tion, if you will. I was a wretched sight; ner­vously twitch­ing, not sure where to sit or which way to look. Ut­terly alone at a ‘spare’ ta­ble, I quaffed all the all-in­clu­sive Por­tuguese wine I could quaff, in the hope that Dutch courage would some­how launch me onto one of the cool ta­bles. I was fly­ing solo, on as­sign­ment for Aus­tralian Trav­eller’s sis­ter ti­tle, In­ter­na­tional Trav­eller, and the­o­ret­i­cally I should have been in my el­e­ment. It was my first ever cruise, along Por­tu­gal’s mes­meris­ing Douro Val­ley, the only place in the world where you can make port and legally call it that. Not a bad way to break my cruise cherry, right? Yes, in­deed, but a cou­ple of ‘com­pli­ca­tions’ soon bobbed up, both of them dis­tinctly math­e­mat­i­cal in na­ture. You see, I am some­where in my, ahem, for­ties. Let’s call it youngish for­ties, at least in body; although my men­tal age is akin to an im­ma­ture 20-some­thing drifter’s. Look­ing across the dining room of the long, low-slung lux­ury river­boat on the first day, there was a sky of grey-haired clouds on my sun-shiny hori­zon. I guessed the av­er­age age of my fel­low pas­sen­gers to be 74.6 years old. Not quite ‘Fairstar the fun ship’ then. The sec­ond math­e­mat­i­cal anom­aly re­lated to even num­bers: ap­par­ently cruise peo­ple like to cruise in pairs. Not one ta­ble of odd num­bers. Not one. Not that I was look­ing for a sugar-momma hook-up or any­thing of that sala­cious na­ture, but this per­fectly matched hu­man equa­tion ren­dered me the per­pet­ual third wheel (or slightly less-worn tyre, as it were) for a week. Dur­ing the day­time, this would be no prob­lem, with plenty of side trips where I could sheathe my solitude amongst the crowd. Only dur­ing set meal times would this lit­tle lost lamb have to come out to graze solo. At that first din­ner, I scoffed down three sen­sa­tional cour­ses in stroppy si­lence, pre­tend­ing to be do­ing some­thing re­ally, re­ally im­por­tant on my phone, even though the boat was nav­i­gat­ing a re­cep­tion-sti­fling gorge. Af­ter the cheese plate, I skulked off to the lux­u­ri­ous iso­la­tion of my state­room. On the sec­ond night, ‘it’ hap­pened: I saw ‘them’ as soon as I en­tered the dining room. Or per­haps they saw me first. Through swerv­ing wait­ers and shuf­fling din­ers, a weird warm halo set­tled on the ta­ble of six beck­on­ing coun­te­nances. At the ta­ble’s head, an empty chair, as if re­served for a long-lost com­rade. I shuf­fled my way across the room, where this squeaky sev­enth wheel screeched to a halt. “Take a seat young man,” was the ice-breaker. It was not quite an in­stan­ta­neous thaw. While there was no lan­guage bar­rier (ex­cept for my lazy Aus­tralian English), our cul­tural con­trasts and gap­ing vari­ances in vin­tages ini­tially shack­led the chat. But over the fol­low­ing week, I lis­tened to and learned from more than 400 col­lec­tive years of wis­dom. My in­ter­est­ing and in­ter­ested new fam­ily, from Cal­i­for­nia, con­nected through one, quite spe­cific, shared in­ter­est: the mens’ pas­sion for duck hunt­ing. Ev­ery morn­ing, the in-jokes would be­gin where they had left off the night be­fore; like a fam­ily Christ­mas, less the feud­ing and angst. We ban­tered about the rhythms and vi­cis­si­tudes of Cal­i­for­nian life while they took an in­ter­est in what­ever was on my mind. And so it grew. Through­out the day, when we crossed paths on our sep­a­rate ex­cur­sions to vine­yards and through UNESCO-pro­tected towns, they would make a big fuss. “Steve, see you tonight!” they would bel­low, their smiles colos­sal and familial. On night six, they even flocked to­gether to save me from what could have been a very se­ri­ous in­ci­dent. Dur­ing one post-din­ner ‘lounge ses­sion’, an amorous cock­tail-fu­elled wo­man (around 70) thought she would hone her flirt­ing rou­tine on the clearly vul­ner­a­ble baby of the group. My in­sep­a­ra­ble fam­ily unit swooped as one pro­tec­tive wing against this ma­rauder. Fam­ily cri­sis averted, we stuck to­gether that night, down­ing the poi­sons of choice to­gether, and tak­ing turns to ruin Rod Stewart and Billy Joel songs at the top of our lungs long into the night (well, we made it to 10.30pm). A glassy-eyed melan­choly sat at the ta­ble with us on the fi­nal night’s cap­tain’s din­ner. Con­tacts were swapped, earnest in­vites of “you have to visit” shot back and forth. But some­thing had changed and it was clear my three new moth­ers and three new fa­thers, all grand­moth­ers and grand­fa­thers them­selves, knew the felling all too well. This awk­ward lit­tle duck was leav­ing the pond and head­ing back into the big, wide world.

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