Monday, May 31, 2010

Kon'nichiwa Asuka II Part One - 乗船

I have been traveling for twenty-three hours, and it didn’t take my body much coaxing to get slack jawed and slumped over, despite sitting in a non-reclining seat with no leg room. Suddenly a light haze seeps through my eye lids; opening up one eye I notice my seat mate had reached over and opened the window to watch us not move on the tarmac. Since I had been traveling for twenty-three hours and two minutes, this person’s needs are far outweighed by my own. In a fluid motion I slap the shade down and fall back to an open-mouthed sleep. My dreams are vivid, but a voice keeps cutting into them.

“Abierta la ventana! Por favor! Abierta la ventana!”

I pretend not to hear him, as he pretends not to notice that I am feigning being asleep. Fortunately, I also pretend not to understand Spanish. Screw him; I have been traveling for twenty-three hours and three minutes… but I am getting a little ahead of myself.

At the moment I am sitting in the Galaxy Lounge, deck 6 forward, somewhere between Tenerife and Bermuda, on board the beautiful and illustrious Asuka II.

Wait a second… what the hell? Asuka II? Don’t all these blogs take place in and around the beautiful and illustrious (and smelly) Norwegian Dream?

Usually, yes. Unfortunately, as many of you may recall, our Dream was sent out to pasture in November of 2008, destined to become a gambling vessel doing two and three day boozers out of China. So, as the sun set on the Dream’s service to NCL, so did my other life as a company singer. Since I had been deemed Dr. Dream by the brains of Jean Ann Ryan’s operation, once the Dream went out of service I became affectionately known as “Johnny-never-heard-of-ya.” After five years and five contracts sweating over a hot microphone, I had landed right back where I started… time to beat pavement.

So I auditioned for Carnival, got to round two, and was asked to sing “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” but, and I quote, “make it funky.”

Strike one.

Next, I audition for Princess, got to round three, and was asked to dance.

Strike two.

Stiletto came shortly after. “The Showroom at Sea” is their new concept, and right up my alley. Imagine a track where you sing golden era show tunes, jazz, and classical music. With my trained voice and affection for standards, this was a no brainer. Make it to round three, and dance. “We’ll call you soon!” they say.

Strike three.

Next up is Poet Theatricals. Email them links to my website’s audition page, and they send over some stuff to video and sing back. So, with camera and boom box in hand, I head over to the Casa del Prado at Balboa Park. After stealing into an unlocked dance studio and setting everything up, I begin to sing, only to be kicked out by the janitor. So, with my tax dollars dashed and nowhere else to go, I tape the audition in my living room… classy. E mailed it in, and am still waiting to hear back.

Strike… four?

Then came the audition for Choreography by Gail, a short drive from San Diego to Las Vegas. One tank of gas later and I am singing for Gail in a tiny dance studio that was converted from a living room in the company’s town home. After two songs, Gail and Gene, the musical director, look at each other. “What else ya got?” they ask. Round two, I sing more of what I got. The next day I drive over to a dance studio (not in a living room), and do some grape vines and catch steps. Round three. Soon I had a grip of CDs and sheet music.

Score one for the home team.

This was back in early April. Jump ahead to May twenty-third. Leaving Boston with my two “better be close to forty-five pounds each” monoliths of suitcases, I board a plane for Frankfurt. Sometime later I arrive, and with a little over an hour to spare, I stomp feet through passport security, out of the terminal building, following my nose to another terminal, through security, and to my connecting flight. Now I double back to Madrid. Same deal here: go through passport security, leave the terminal, figure out that my next flight is in another terminal that can only be reached by bus. Hop on the bus, go to that terminal, go through security, and discover in butt-puckering panic that my stupid belt and shoes make it through the metal detector, but not my backpack that has my laptop and PASSPORT inside.

“Donde esta mi… green backpack?” Spanish is spit back at me, but they don’t realize that what little Spanish I know can only be given out, not taken in. Finally, I figure out how to say “where is my green purse?” and they shrug their shoulders and point around to other metal detectors, like I somehow found myself in a different line than the one I put my stuff in. About the time my pounding heart made it difficult for my bladder to retain fluid, my green purse and laptop slide down the conveyor belt. Having peed in a brand new pair of underwear, I snatch my laptop and purse and walk away, still unsure of how the five people behind me got their things before I did. Screw you Madrid International Airport... wait a second... MIA? Guess that explains that.

Fortunately, I had four hours to calm down, so I paced around the terminal and waited for the chaffing and breeze to dry my pants. Finally, I board the plane bound for Tenerife, a small Spanish island off the coast of Africa. From there I find my suitcases (thank God) and get in a taxi. After, my taxi driver drove me to the seamen’s passport center, saying the guy with the stamp was his brother. Smiling, he takes my passport and walks in, yelling familiarities to the guy behind the counter. He motions to me with his thumb, slides the passport over, and it gets stamped. I am sure the passport feels a little tawdry, having been stamped three times in twenty-four hours, not to mention entering and exiting Spain in the course of five. My spinning head comes to a complete stop after one final quick drive to the afore mentioned Asuka II.

Okay, enough back story; on to the nitty-gritty. The Asuka II (pronounced Ask-a, like when Guido says to Guiseppe “Eh! Guiseppe, I gotta ask-a you a question!”) was originally christened as the Crystal Harmony back in 1990, where she sailed for sixteen years, after which she was given back to Crystal’s parent company, NYK, a huge Japanese shipping conglomerate that keeps a cruise ship around… you know, just for fun. Replacing the Asuka in 2007, the Crystal Harmony became the Asuka II.

I imagine that if you’ve read this far, you have probably enjoyed my other blogs, and are wondering what the similarities are to our dear departed Dream. (For the rest of you that made it to this point by accident, there probably won’t be any pictures, but there is a link to a video at the bottom of the page). Okay, so:

The Asuka II is longer than the Dream (Dream is 623 feet, and the Asuka II is 790) and is almost exactly the same width. While still a small ship by today's standards, she's the biggest ship I have worked on... by a hundred feet.

The Asuka II is a six-star liner, and is considered the crown jewel of all the Japanese cruise ships sailing today. Sorry Dream…

Even though her home port is Yokohama, there is still a varied mix of crew serving on board. As usual, the Filipinos run the joint, but there are a good many officers that are Asian as well. Eastern Europe also makes a strong showing. The production cast is typically international, with England, America, Japan, Russia and Spain being represented. On an interesting note, the cruise director is Hawaiian, and from what I have been told, only speaks some Japanese.

Speaking of which, the passengers on board are Japanese, and from what I can gather, only speak Japanese.

Are you Japanese? Want to join me on the Asuka II? Bring your checkbook. If you were to stay in a mid-range cabin (and only 20 something of the 460 something cabins are interior), you would spend somewhere between $1,500 and $2,000 a day. At the moment, we are in the middle of a hundred day world cruise… which runs in the ballpark of $250,000 dollars… two hundred… and fifty… tha-OUS-and dollars. Perhaps these passengers haven’t heard of one of those quaint “stay-cations” our local city tourism boards have cooked up.

Both the Dream and the Asuka II have a Bistro and Four Seasons... strange.

Most interesting, the Dream holds 1,700 passengers (on paper… remember those 2,000+ passengers in Bermuda?); the Asuka II, while bigger, holds a little over 800. While the Dream employed a little over 900 crew, the Asuka II cuts that in half, and then some. At the moment, we are just a smidge off being officially one to one with the pax.

Then there’s the food… I’ll be getting into the particulars of my can and cannot’s in other blogs, but I have access to the officer’s mess, as well as the buffet during the last thirty minutes of breakfast and lunch. I am sort of at a loss at how to make comparisons here, but I can safely say that the officer’s mess on board the Silver Cloud was amazing, and hard to beat. This mess, however, is nice on its own, and has a good enough selection of food. Some of the more memorable things I’ve eaten are a shish-ka-bob with yellow peppers, mussels, and a cocktail weenie; a clear sea weed salad; miso soup; pork dumplings; rice; rice; rice; rice; rice... and rice in miso soup.

Today, on the other hand, I had lunch on the Lido deck during our allotted half hour. Typically it’s a regular buffet, with some Japanese stuff mixed in with other typical food like baked chicken and shrimp scampi (conspicuously missing from the buffet was pizza and a nacho bar. Oh, wait a second... that's a Chinese buffet). Today, however, the buffet served hard core, bad ass Japanese food. I sanitized my hands, got my tray, and soon had six bowls, some with lids so as to not give away the surprise until I sat down. Let me see what I can remember: one bowl had some cucumber and a fruit paste; one had some squishy fishy cold salad type thing; under lid number one was two whole chunks of shiny silver skinned fish meat; under lid number two was some sort of foamy potato head floating over miso soup that contained rice, fish chunks, and horseradish. It also tasted like fish.

However, there is one dish I have eaten that I wish I had my camera for. If I cannot make it to the officer's mess or the Lido deck for the buffet, then I head up to the Grille, something that is akin to the Dream's Pizzeria, only it's located inside, is clean, the food is not greasy, and nowhere will you find topless hairy pax mashing their grimy paws into all the food. When you go to the Grille, you are given three options to choose from, all of which are made to order. On this particular day one of the selections was listed as something I can not spell here. Asking what it was, I am told it is commonly known as “Japanese pizza.” I order one and sit down. A few minutes later my culture shock on a plate arrives.

Let's start from the bottom and work our way up. The crust of the pizza was made up of some kind of egg and potato thing, with fish chunks thrown in for good measure. Note that this is not crust. On top of that was the sauce, which was some kind of brown fish paste. Note that this is not tomato sauce. Now for the topping... I want you to picture in your head how sea weed looks on the ocean floor; how it moves with the ebb and flow of the tide above. Now extend your hand out in front of you, palm facing upward. Squeeze your fingers back and forth in an upward groping motion without closing your fist. That, friends, is what the mess of dry fish skin shavings are doing on top of the fishy paste. The damn thing acts like a turtle on its back; all of these little gray fish pubes springing and moving on their own. The best thing about this is that they continue to do so until the very last bite, writhing as they wait to slide down your gullet. Aside from that, Japanese pizza, like most things I have eaten here so far, taste fishy.

The fruit on the ship, thankfully, is juicy, plentiful, and does not taste like fish... yet.

But the food isn't the only thing on board that's interesting; let's talk for a moment about the itinerary. Like I mentioned earlier, I am en route to Bermuda, in the middle of a world cruise. After Bermuda we hit the Big Apple, then down the East coast to the Eastern Caribbean, through the Panama Canal, up the West coast to Alaska, making land in Seward to celebrate America's Independence. From there, we hop over to tag Russia, then south to Japan by mid July. After that we just cruise around the rock, hitting all kinds of ports. Yokohama is considered home base, and we stop there quite often. There are far too many ports of call to list here, and many I have never heard of. Still, if you scroll up the page, towards the top you'll see a little list of the places I am visiting. Also note that as I get further into the summer, the sea days all but vanish completely. September, for example, only has four sea days. For those who don't know, that is far from typical. More than a handful of overnights will also be enjoyed.

Of course, the food and travel is not why I am here. I won't bore you with the details, but at the moment I am in week one of a six week rehearsal period. There are a total of six new sign-ons, including myself, who are joining four others to make up a ten person cast of eight dancers and two singers. Doubling the shows I performed on the Dream, we are in the process of learning six productions. I'll go into detail later, but in the batch are a musical revue, a love song revue, another whose through line is different country's music and dance, a ballroom show, a half show with classical style music, and a magic show. The six of us are working with Gail and her assistant, while the other four cast members are away on vacation until late June. Then we plug in, and by mid July we'll be up and running.

There's tons more to go into, but since I have been a little too busy to haul my camera around, I am going to leave it at that for now. Still, there is one nugget I can throw at you. Below is a link to a page that contains a promotional video for the Asuka II. Yep, it's in Japanese, but it gives a nice overview of the ship. Next time, I'll go into further detail about my cabin, the office, and what it's like to socialize with a bunch of people you can't understand.

Oh, and here's the video I was telling y'all about:

Keep on livin' the Dream,

Michael Lamendola (At an internet cafe in Bermuda, after seven solid days at sea, with Costa, half of our adage team)


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