Author

Sibylle Berg

View Profile

They step into their cabins, the lucky ones into cabins with natural light, the others into ones without portholes; obviously these are rooms, where the owners wanted to save money, but please, they could have saved money on fluorescent lights. The design is like that of the hotel rooms in French budget chains along the autoroutes, the ones that can be spray-cleaned between guests, with a balcony and colours drawn from a green-brown palette. I stand in my room in a state of great confusion. It feels strange to put my clothes away in a floating closet.

I hadn’t understood before why the passengers on the Costa Concordia hadn’t simply jumped ship since they were so close to shore. Looking down at the water from my balcony, I understand. The water is a hundred feet down, and many people have only sealed portholes in their cabin, even none at all. But the TV works fine, and oh, look, here’s another disaster. Off Borneo a cruise ship is stuck in the open sea unable to move due to a fire. Cheers.

The alarm siren sounds. Seven long notes, and seven is a lucky number, I find the emergency staircase. I let myself be pushed up it to the fourth deck, very slowly, with hundreds of other people. We’re wearing our lifejackets, and properly too, as though there would be a prize. On Deck Four are the lifeboats. There is plenty of space in them for everyone on board, or so it says on various emergency signs. The kind of thing such signs always say. Theoretical space for alleged survival. How would you get four thousand people into these little boats? The passengers stand around fidgeting, they want to be having fun, not thinking about the lifeboats, they want their picture-postcard sea. The boys are checking out the girls, the adults are looking uncomfortably at one another. Imagining an emergency. Whom would you offer your seat to, reach out your arm for. How will they look – the elegant older Italian women, the blind man over there on the left, the cool young guys with their slick hair: how would they look, wet and without everything that defines them under capitalism. How will people look in lifeboats, without iPhones. After the initial distress comes boredom. The passengers talk among themselves, believing in immortality. Nervous-looking staff, loudspeakers making clanking noises. After probably twenty minutes they’ll be standing in lines, unsure what to do. Add to all this darkness and hysteria and they won’t exactly be feeling calm. But who really thinks it might happen to them?

Safety does not exist. Advance bookings on the Costa Line plunged thirty-five percent after the Concordia shipwreck and another accident at sea a few weeks later. Europeans didn’t let all the special offers sway them, but customers from Asia and South America proved undaunted. A cruise is in fact a relatively safe way to spend one’s vacation. There are 100,000 tourist vessels today, three times as many as in 1912, but the number of accidents has proportionately dropped by half. The greatest risk is human error, responsible for three quarters of accidents. The competing cruise companies sail as close to the wind as they can when calculating their staff levels, which is to say: the crew are overworked and exhausted. They mostly come from developing countries, the politically correct term nowadays for the Third World; more accurately, they have a migration background and come from areas with very different training requirements. Compared to today’s mega-cruisers, the Titanic was a toy boat. How to evacuate a whole floating city, or deal with potential terrorism, is presumably a challenge they haven’t yet resolved.

The first night. Human beings are competitive animals. For the first few days they rush around the ship top to bottom to conquer their new little world. It’s confusing, incomprehensible: five restaurants, three pools, slides, bubbly tubs, a spa, a casino, a chapel, a library, a disco, five bars, a gym, a shopping mall. Did I forget anything? Yes, the designer. Architect Joe Farcus has designed sixteen ships stem to stern for Carnival Corporation, which owns the Costa line. He presumably designed this one after some feverish dream involving mythology, gods, and flames, at which point there was no stopping him. The design makes the ship look like a campsite trying to emulate Las Vegas. Chrome plays a large and important role, along with brass, lights and sculptures of red flames, gods, plastic figurines, all green, red, sparkling, mirrors, glass lifts. The passengers are awestruck. None of them has seen anything like this at home.

The ship casts off. But almost no one cares about that anymore, there’s just four days on board, one has to do everything, take it all in, use it, exploit it to the fullest. It is possible to get through the whole cruise without paying anything extra. Three meals a day do the job of keeping people full and satisfied, and the pools, sundecks, and gym are included in the price. Everything else costs extra, in fact a lot extra. There are two-hundred-dollar massages, alcoholic drinks, anyone bored can lose their shirt pretty quickly.