Life at sea is easy enough for the passengers...

Life at sea is easy enough for the passengers…

I was just looking back at some photos from one of last year’s cruises, when I stumbled across one depicting someone whom one of my fellow passengers referred to as ‘Grumpy Cat’, after the feline internet sensation of the same name.

This was her derogatory term for one particular, unsmiling east European waitress on our ship. And, on first, impressions, you understood how such a moniker might come around at the time.

Cards on table; neither of the two protagonists in this saga were remotely nasty or vicious people. What happened was nothing more than some gentle grating of conflicting cultures, and an element of misunderstanding on both sides, like tectonic plates that come into contact in a not overly harmonious way. But it did set me to thinking…

Eastern European serving staff are becoming more and more prevalent on cruise ships. For the companies, it’s a vast, relatively untapped market pool of cheap labour. For the people grabbing the lifeline thrown to them by the cruise lines, it’s a way out of a lifetime of drab, uniform misery that seems worth the risk of taking.

Many eastern Europeans seemingly lack the immediate warmth and empathy displayed by legions of excellent Filipino staff, and passengers do remark on it. But, look a little deeper, and ask yourself if that is really any wonder, all things considered.

When the Iron Curtain descended across Europe (a phrase first used not by Churchill, but by the charm free Josef Goebbels), half of the continent fell into the grim embrace of communism. It would remain locked in that death grip for half a century.

For five full decades, generation upon generation grew up in a sinister, soul less environment, where every expression of free will was stamped out with brutal alacrity. Individual thoughts, freedom and expression were rooted out in an all out attempt to create a series of national collectives, there to service the edicts and ambitions of a colossal, cold war empire fuelled by fear and conformity.

Imagine a world where you have never heard the Beatles or the Rolling Stones; you’ve never been exposed to Miami Vice, Coronation Street or even Scooby-Doo. A world where smiles and spontaneity are in even shorter supply than fuel, designer clothes shops, or even chocolate. A world in which even a McDonalds happy meal seems like the essence of freedom and liberty.

Decades of that would beat down any population into a kind of cowed, sullen stupour, and that is exactly what happened across the grim glut of the communist bloc. One generation after another inherited this poisoned chalice, and then passed it down to their own children like some kind of awful sleeping sickness.

Then consider how the whole thing suddenly came down with one tremendous thunderclap; how those same, stunned and conditioned folk must have blinked in the daylight, and wondered what the hell was coming next.

What came next, of course, was westernisation.

Decades of slow, sullen conformity were submerged by a tidal wave of fast food shops, 24 hour television, internet cafes, and all the instant, ‘me now’ staples of personal indulgence that is often referred to as capitalism. Sure, you’re now allowed to smile. But not so easy when you don’t know how….

So these young men and women- weighed down with the spiritual baggage of all that went before them- come into the cruise industry. If smiling is not their most obvious, natural state, is that really such a surprise?

Now I’m not for one moment advocating that any passengers should put up with rudeness. You’ve paid damned good money for your holiday after all. And, if there really is a genuine problem, well, that’s what a hotel manager is for.

So there might be the odd communication problem. Is that a game changer? A smile and a little patience can often work wonders here.

Of course, it’s up to a hotel manager to train and motivate his staff to the best possible standard. But no-one can wave a magic wand and make literally decades of ingrained, unsmiling conformity vanish like Atlantic fog. Humanity simply does not work like that.

My own personal experiences of eastern European staff are overwhelmingly positive. Sure, there’s the odd communication problem, but then I get that in North America. I have a Geordie accent that is thicker than Vicky Pollard glued to a whale, and I’m conscious of that. Not self conscious. But I am aware of it.

These people work long and hard, and are genuinely willing to please. If it takes them a little more time to understand and deliver, it’s not the Titanic disaster.

Time and tide will ultimately bring about an overall sea change in attitudes towards- and from- people from the former communist bloc. At the end of the day, they just want to get on with their lives, feed their kids, and have a happy life. Just like us.

Common ground there, I hope and pray. And, hopefully in here, there’s food for thought as well. Thanks for bearing with me on this one.

And, just so you know. ‘Grumpy Cat’ was a lovely, sweet girl. And yes, I did get a smile out of her.


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