Here is my first thought after stepping off the Queen Mary 2 and reuniting, after two long and lonely months, with my family: It is amazing how much weight the human female can gain in a mere 60 days. Especially so if the female in your arms was five months old the last time your saw her, and has since aged to the ripe old mark of seven months. Back in Hong Kong, when I bid Greta and her mummy a tearful goodbye, she weighed 14 pounds; she now tips the scales at 18. In the interim, she has mastered several impressive new skills: She can sit on the floor without toppling randomly over; she can stick her tongue out, and at 3 a.m., she is able to make a compelling and rhetorically sound argument — without uttering a single intelligible phoneme — that a crib is a cruel and unusual place for a baby and that where she truly belongs is in bed between mummy and daddy.
Two days earlier, in the early evening of May 22nd, somewhere off the coast of Newfoundland, the weather suddenly cleared. The grey ceiling of British dismalness that had been dogging me since Normandy was gone. The next morning, the captain announced we were approaching the Georges Bank, an oval-shaped, undersea plateau that's kind of like the last hurrah of the Grand Banks. Expect more marine life, the captain said, so Erik and I planted ourselves on the promenade on Deck 7, eyes glued to the green ocean water, looking for life. Staring at an endless succession of waves is enough to make you seasick — it's a wonder that bats aren't constantly vomiting.
Every now and then, however, the play of green and silver would be interrupted by a clump of seaweed. Something was going on down there. I imagined a sperm whale in a wrestling match with a giant squid, their grappling and body slams dislodging bits of underwater greenery.
Not long after, signs of life appeared. Garbage. A green milk crate floated by, on its way to France. Next, a cardboard boxtop, inches below the surface, an essay in sogginess. Finally, a Gatorade bottle. (Lemonade flavor.)
The ship was due to arrive in Red Hook at 7 a.m. on May 24th so Erik and I rose out of bed at 4 a.m., hoping to witness every moment of our slow but magnificent arrival. By the time we got on deck, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge had already floated by overhead, a mere 40 feet above the Queen Mary 2's vertiginous main funnel. Ahead of us, New York Harbor, which is very New York indeed: barges and ferries zooming up and down and across, police helicopters hovering over bits of shore, the skyline rising higher with each yard.
A few hundred yards off Governor's Island, just in front of its berth in Red Hook, the Queen Mary 2 displayed one of the more impressive feats of navigation you're likely to see. Firing its side thrusters, the ship turned around and then backed in. It was impossible to experience without imagining the yelling taking place on the bridge. "You're going too fast! Left! Left!
You've got 200 hundred feet, easy. Ease her in. Left! Turn the wheel! Turn the wheel! Right! Right!. OK, you're good."
The funny thing about slow travel is that it happens at such a measured pace that you end up having perhaps too much time to take in all the significance. By England, I had for several days been misty-eyed at the world-wrapping magnitude of my circumnavigation. By the mid-Atlantic, it had begun to recede into memory, and by the time I set foot on the parking lot in Red Hook — a parking lot I had visited 80 days earlier — it all seemed like a dream. Greta was thrust in my arms. She reached out and grabbed my nose, a standard move, something she has been doing since the age of two months.
(It's her gentle but direct way of telling me my nose is too big. What she hasn't realized yet is that she may end up with this very nose and the final irony is that I will have to pay for the corrective surgery.)
This, of course, is the part where you're expecting a grand and climactic summing-up of it all, replete with feelings of warmth and fuzziness. Not going to happen. I'm saving it all for the main feature, which will be appearing in the 20th anniversary issue of Condé Nast Traveler. It comes out in September and I haven't the slightest idea what I'm going to write.
Instead, I will take this time to thank everyone who has made this amazing experience possible. First off, thank you, readers. As much as I love the sound of my own voice, I wouldn't have written this blog if it wasn't for the fact that so many of you tuned in so regularly. I appreciate your supportive comments, your restraint in the face of innumerable errors and inconsistencies, and your Jesus-like forgiveness over my prejudice against . (The first step is acknowledging you have a problem. I've made it that far.)
Thank you to my benefactor, Klara Glowczewska, the editor of Condé Nast Traveler. It's a stretch to say I have the greatest job on Earth, but for the past three months, I did have the greatest job around the Earth, and it's all because of you. Thank you to my editor, Ted Moncreiff, who not only thought this whole thing up, but suggested that I actually get paid to do it. (And no, he's not getting any kickbacks. I do owe him a dinner, though.)
Thank you to my online editor, Tom Loftus, the man responsible for all the funny headlines and captions. Tom hails from San Francisco, and only a West Coaster can send the identical e-mail more than forty times — "Mark, you forgot to send GPS coordinates" — without betraying even a hint of anger.
Thank you also to Hyla Bauer and the fashion department at Condé Nast Travler. With your help, I was never too hot, never too cold and — far more importantly — I looked good enough in Italy that the locals did not laugh at me.
Nandita Khanna is Ted's assistant and she's busy at the slowest of times. For the past three months, while not only tackling her regular outsized workload, Nandita had to deal with sheaves of unmarked receipts printed in foreign languages, boxes of cashmere or salami held up at customs, and innumerable random, unreasonable e-mails saying things like, "Nandita, getting massage so time precious. Regarding hotel suggestions in Moscow: the last time at Swisshotel had bad dream. Does Four Seasons have availability? Check into turn-down service — request extra mints on pillow." Nandita, that you do your job so well is a credit to your ability. That you manage to stay smiling is a testament to your personality.
And I can't forget Joe and Tina and MSNBC.com and Ross and Rosanne at Condé Net.
Finally, a word to my wife. I don't know what that word should be, because "thank you" isn't nearly up to the task. For the past 80 days, you have kept house, managed the finances and paid the mortgage. You not only did my laundry, you did my taxes. All the while, you raised a little girl who shows some promise of turning out to be as beautiful and wonderful as her mother.
Meanwhile, your husband had the gall to travel in a meandering and non-direct path around this world, and all he could do was talk about the food. So to you, Laura, I say this: I may have drunk wine in Burgundy, eaten pasta in Italy, walked the Great Wall of China, traveled the breadth of Siberia, talked politics with the world's last feudal lord and snorkeled with tropical fish in Hawaii, but there is only one place on this planet that I truly long to be, and that is by your side. The world may be big, but it's meaningless without you.
Mark, you forgot to send GPS coordinates.
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