Napkin-Folding Etiquette

“What is it about being on a boat that makes everyone behave like a film star?” Lady Julia Flyte asks Charles Ryder as they’re crossing the ocean from New York to Southampton in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. She’s phoning him from her bed, having just had a massage, and he has just sent her a dozen roses. (They’re about to become lovers.) I was traveling with man who, although he loves me dearly, doesn’t need to send me flowers in order to get me into bed anymore, so I thought I’d better gin up some glamour on my own. About three-quarters of the way through our trip, I wandered over to the Canyon Ranch spa (Deck 7, Stairwell A) and got myself a body scrub and a massage, complete with flickering aromatherapy candles. In the manner of a true 1920s aristocrat, I also steadfastly ignored all the gym equipment and exercise classes going on next door to the spa. Lady Julia would never have broken a sweat in spandex.

As I drifted out of the spa in a relaxed haze, I heard the ringing of the ship’s alarm system and then an announcement that there was a crew-only emergency drill taking place. At first, this seemed harmless enough—the only sign that anything unusual was going on were people posted in the stairwells wearing the same kind of life jackets we’d worn for our drill on the first afternoon. Then I turned down the long hall that led to our stateroom and noticed fluorescent yellow cards that said “cleared” hanging on many of the doorknobs along the way. In an emergency, they were obviously intended to show that those rooms had been checked for survivors.

I got a book from my room and went down to the lobby to settle into a couch to read, but the lower I got, the more unnerving the scene became. On the second-lowest deck, several teams of people in jumpsuits and gas masks with oxygen tanks were strenuously hauling long hoses that I assumed would be used to drain water from the ship if it was damaged. One deck further down was another jumpsuited crew member huddled over a life-sized dummy of an unconscious person. Strange messages in code kept coming over the loudspeaker system: “H5 eggs hummus report to the bridge. Eco 53, Hotel 1313, call 29607 immediately.”

All this served to remind me that we were, in fact, in the middle of the ocean and not just in a luxury hotel on a street corner somewhere. And although I realized that these safety drills were a good thing, I was suddenly consumed with guilt. There I was, playing starlet when we could have been flooded at any moment. No doubt I would have been one of those people who kept insisting that the orchestra stay behind and play one more dance tune while the water rushed into the Titanic.

To make up for my sins, I went to napkin-folding class.

Up until this point, we had basically avoided the ship’s many scheduled activities. The result was that, other than chatting with the much older couple at the table next to ours in the Britannia, we had kept entirely to ourselves. This meant, I suddenly saw, that in the kind of crisis that necessitated jumpsuits and hoses, we would be without allies. Napkin-folding class seemed as good a place as any to connect with people—good, practical people, people who had skills—who might save my life at some point.

To my amazement, the napkin-folding class was over-subscribed. There were about 50 of us and not enough napkins to go around. As if that weren’t enough, the ship’s social hostess informed us that the ones we had were insufficiently starched, a discovery that produced lots of clucking and tsk-tsk noises from the class, whose members all seemed to have much more developed ideas about napkin etiquette than I did. (As you might expect, none of these people were American.)

Many of the women in this class, I learned, were taking the ship to New York, spending five days there, and then sailing back to England. “I brought 10 pairs of shoes,” one of my tablemates confessed as we all attempted to transform our white napkins into bishop’s hats. “I brought two empty suitcases,” another laughed as we moved on to the bird of paradise/Sydney Opera House design. “But they won’t be after I go to Macy’s.”

That evening, the Ascot Ball would be held in this room. Festive racing-themed banners were already hanging from the ceiling in preparation, and many of the women in my class were heading straight from napkin folding to the 5 p.m. hat-decorating class, because the ball would culminate in a hat parade at midnight.

I had bigger plans, however. It was my husband’s birthday, so after collecting my Xeroxed sheet of napkin-folding instructions from the purser’s desk, I went to the bookstore to buy some ocean-liner-themed wrapping paper for his gifts, then headed back to our state room to change for dinner.

We executed our usual evening sequence, feeding our son and then dropping him at the Kids Zone, where he had chosen a blond nanny roughly 22 years his senior as his voyage paramour (talk about behaving like a film star). Breaking with tradition—and by now it was hard to imagine that we had ever lived any other way or had any traditions other than those we created on the ship—I planned to come fetch him for the birthday-cake portion of the evening.

At the appointed hour, I retrieved our child and brought him to the Britannia. Our servers, who by now had somehow managed to memorize our names, the way we took our coffee, and our favorite selections on the cheese plate, were in a state of happy agitation about the impending table-side rendition of “Happy Birthday”—as though they hadn’t been singing it at least three or four times every evening for the entire cruise.

The candles were lit, the cake was brought and set down before my husband, whose name is Noah, and they raised their voices in joyful song: “Happy birthday, dear CHARLES! Happy birthday to you!”

My husband managed to wipe the look of surprise from his face in a nanosecond, but 3-year-olds aren’t quite as good at dissembling.

Click here to view a slide show about traveling on the Queen Mary 2.

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