Jane and I are hardly swashbuckling world travelers, but we have gone on a couple of ocean-going cruises on big ships with thousands of fellow passengers.
These cruise ships attract their share of ridicule for their immensity and tendency to pamper even those guests who, like us, opt for the smaller low-end staterooms.
Earlier this month we tried a different tack and signed on for a river cruise through France chugging serenely down the Rhone River on a so-called longboat. We retained our preference for a budget stateroom whose window rode about six inches above the waterline. It accommodated 190 passengers and that changed everything. If you put your mind to it, you could meet almost everyone.
This was facilitated by the layout of the dining room. Unlike the big cruise ships, where you could ask for a table for two, the riverboat had a mix of long tables of 12 and round tables of eight.
We are as good as the next yakkers at making conversation with strangers, but we developed a strategy early on of sitting at the end of a long table to minimize our exposure to new dining companions, mostly content to yak to ourselves.
At our first dinner we were at an empty round table when we heard a woman’s voice announcing: “We’re invading your space!” This was Ardith and her gnomic spouse, Sid. The chatter began immediately and we got a crash course in Ardith’s scorched-earth conversational style.
“You know why we picked you?” Ardith said. “Because you look Irish and liberal.”
I come from German stock. But I was wearing a green polo shirt that Ardith used for divining my heritage. As for the liberal part, that was just a wild stab that happened to be correct.
Sid had an appealing hangdog look and said almost nothing, other than stating the obvious that Ardith was the talker of the pair.
I felt lucky that our first shipboard dinner was going so well. All topics were hashed out and we were in sync on matters large and small. We bade Ardith and Sid good night and retired to our microscopic stateroom to note the Rhone surging toward the Mediterranean, six inches below our window.
At breakfast the next morning we had procured our omelets and were sitting defensively at the end of a long table. Ardith’s cheery greeting rang out: “We meet again!” Sid looked more mournful than the evening before and I detected the first touch of embarrassment at his wife’s gaudy extroversion.
Within five minutes Ardith’s nonstop palaver was growing thin. I slowed down my own responses in hope of mitigating the torrent of words. Ardith easily filled in the gaps I was leaving for her.
Sid and I glanced at one another and I saw the look of a husband who had witnessed 40-some odd years of Ardith verbally entrapping some hapless passerby. I gave Sid the slightest eye roll to express my sympathy for him as Ardith motor-mouthed ahead in full stream-of-consciousness mode.
We bade them good day to prepare for our first off-boat excursion, a guided tour of the lovely city of Lyon that everyone agreed was better than Paris.
“We meet again!” Ardith proclaimed as she and the dour Sid took up seats across the aisle of the tour bus. She started up and I kept quiet and gazed off into the distance, the beginning of my borderline rudeness strategy.
Jane played good cop to my bad so Ardith had a talking target. But even Jane shifted from good cop to barely O.K. cop after a while.
Ardith and Sid were on every on-shore excursion we had signed up for, except one, and soon my borderline rudeness strategy had become the established social order between us. Ardith prattled endlessly and Sid and I were silent comrades amidst the din, although at a winery he came up to tell me, “She talks too much.” I felt like hugging him. But I resisted.
At dinner, we fought back by sitting with one of two couples we had met and actually liked. But Ardith would swoop in — Sid never swooped — and elbow her way into every conversation prompting an epidemic of eye-rolling and pitying glances.
One time, we were supposed to save two seats for them and “forgot.” Ardith swiftly adjusted and plopped down at a nearby table and commenced her verbal bombardment. To their everlasting credit, the couple next to Ardith, perhaps having experienced the Ardith treatment previously, never so much as recognized her existence. Miraculously, that tactic worked. Ardith clammed up.
I felt like a fool.
Staring off into the distance was an insufficient tactic because Ardith would find a way to intercept your far-away gaze. Complete denial of her life as a person was the only answer.
I did tell Ardith and Sid goodbye at the end of the cruise and did so heartily. Ardith and I hugged soundly and I thought, in the generosity of parting — big mouth, bigger heart. I never wanted to say goodbye to anyone so desperately.
Sid looked none the worse for wear although he looked smaller and more fragile than the first night we met him. In his eyes I saw the obvious: His life would be meaningless without Ardith in it.
I gave him the smallest of hugs for fear of breaking him.