Cruising with Norwalk

To this day, I don’t know how I got infected. Maybe I picked it up on our flight from Newark or on the layover in London. But by the time I boarded the riverboat in Mainz, Germany, I had a full-blown case of the Norwalk Virus: chills, diarrhea, nausea, and stomach cramps.

Gastrointestinal viruses such as Norwalk are becoming increasingly common among cruise ship passengers. They’re caught by eating food or drinking liquids that are tainted, touching contaminated surfaces or objects and then putting your hand in your mouth or coming into direct contact with someone else who is sick.

The cruise industry is quick to point out that infection can happen anywhere – in a plane, a restaurant, an airport terminal. And that may be true. Equally true, however, is that the reports of cruise ship passengers spending part of their voyage in the infirmary are on the rise. So whether they catch the stomach flu before they board – as I did – or on the journey is probably academic to most passengers.

Fortunately, Norwalk is mercifully short. Symptoms last between one and two days, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Which, in a way, makes it the ideal traveling illness. By the time you know you’re sick, the worst of it is over and you haven’t lost much vacation time.

But I discovered another reason why Norwalk is the most desirable travel affliction, so to speak, on my riverboat cruise from Mainz to Nuremberg. It applies mainly to those of us so wrapped up in our work that the word “vacation” isn’t part of our vocabularies.

Norwalk is nature’s way of saying: “slow down.”

Under any other circumstances, I would have been asking about the closest Internet cafe when we checked in with the Viking River Cruises crew. I’m obsessive about picking up e-mail while traveling, and I had several projects that were in the works back home.

Instead, I wanted to go straight to my cabin and sleep.

It was a postcard-perfect late summer day in Germany. Not a cloud in the sky. It was comfortably warm. Indeed, conditions along the river looked as if they were right out of a promotional brochure. As the riverboat chugged upstream, we saw trees – apple, pear, and plum – bowing under the heavy weight of their ripening fruit. There were people sitting by the shores fishing or just enjoying the day.

I opened the window to my cabin and fell asleep to the sounds of people speaking a dialect of German I hadn’t heard in many years.

There is no known treatment for the Norwalk Virus. Doctors recommend drinking plenty of water and resting, but there’s no vaccine, no antibiotic treatment, no elixir to cure the stomach flu.

You just have to sleep it off.

And I did. While the rest of the passengers were reclining in lounge chairs on the roof of the vessel, drinking beers and talking about the next stop, I slumbered under the intoxicating effects of Norwalk.

I don’t use the word “intoxicating” lightly. Sure, you suffer when you’ve got the stomach flu. Big time. You feel as if you’re sore all over, just like the day after you start a new exercise routine, and every muscle in your body aches. It’s as if a bomb went off in your stomach; food isn’t an option, and even the much-needed water feels like acid being poured down your throat. Every half-hour or so, you rise quickly from your bed to evacuate your bowels.

But for a day or two, the illness also puts everything into stark perspective.

You care about nothing else but being in your bed with the window open, watching this idyllic German countryside go past you in slow-motion. You’re not hungry. You don’t want to talk to anyone.

You certainly don’t care about checking e-mail – or, for that matter, even care what happens to the work you left back home.

Could it be that Norwalk is a virus ideally suited to our frenetic times? I first wondered about that in my irrational delirium. Afterwards, as I started eating solid foods again and drinking something other than water, it still made sense.

Was Norwalk necessary in order for me to have a real vacation?

Much has been written about the necessity of suffering, and even the desirability of suffering. Much of it was written by Germans, an irony that didn’t escape me as I journeyed up the river and through locks, toward recovery.

But this I do know: if you are going to get sick, a European riverboat cruise is the place to do it. Don’t look for any chain restaurants, rock-climbing walls or ice-skating rinks. There are no evening shows starring Broadway has-beens, just cooking classes where they teach you to make Apple strudel the Austrian way, with lots of cream.

What passes for entertainment happens after sunset in the lounge, where passengers play cards and trivia games, drink espressos and watch the lights of the shore pass by.

I kept to myself, mostly because I didn’t want to infect anyone else. You can do that on a riverboat cruise, too. Reservations are unnecessary at mealtime and there’s no assigned seating. Breakfast, buffet style, features lots of fresh-baked German bread and pastries, granola, eggs and fruit. Lunch is heavy on soups and salads, which for this recovering Norwalk case was ideal.

When it was time for dinner, I was ready to try the fish and (I’ll admit it) I even had a sip of Riesling. My privacy was respected at all times, which is something that can’t be said for the floating cities masquerading as cruise ships nowadays. No one tried to sit down next to us or to force us to dine with a large party.

If I wanted to, I could slowly eat my food and stare out at darkness with glazed eyes and say nothing. And that’s exactly what I did, much to the disappointment of my traveling companion.

The suddenness of your affliction with Norwalk is eclipsed only by the suddenness of your recovery. The following morning, almost all of my symptoms had disappeared, except that I remained a bit groggy – something I chalked up to jetlag. It didn’t stop me from staying in my cabin for yet another day and watching even more of Germany pass slowly by.

To be sure, the Norwalk Virus is a dreadful illness that I wouldn’t wish on anyone else. The cruise industry is correct to be worried about its effect on business and should be doing everything it can to prevent its transmission.

But sometimes Norwalk is necessary – if for no other reason than to make you tap the brakes, slow down, and enjoy what’s left of your vacation.

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