We spend a week every year on the Belgian coast. The kids enjoy building sand castles and their parents enjoy a bit of farniente. We travel by car. It is the most flexible solution. This means, however, that we have to take the ferry. I do not like being on boats. I wish I could enjoy being on boats. I like the idea of boats. But the sad fact is that I am sea sick. I have always been. Once my French grandmother thought she would treat me with a river trip on the Seine. I felt horrid, doubly so because I knew this was meant to be fun. With time I have learnt to breathe a bit better so that I am not always nauseous, but the nausea is never really far.
So we came back yesterday and the crossing was horrible. We usually travel from Dunkirk to Dover, which is a quiet crossing. This time we went from Calais to Dover, where the Channel is at its narrowest, and the currents strongest. There was storm at sea (well if it wasn’t a storm, it felt like one to me). Big boy T. turned pale, I fought off nausea; P. and Toddler G. seemed perfectly happy. Toddler G. just couldn’t understand why I did not particularly want ‘cuddles’ (Toddler G.’s cuddles are of the very vigorous type).
Odysseus on his ship, listening to the call of the sirens
For someone who studies the Greek world, being sea sick is a bit of a problem. The Greeks loved their sea-faring. They did, however, acknowledge the fact that some people might feel sick on the sea. Here is how Plutarch (first-second century CE), the polymath and historian, explained why one is sicker on the sea than on rivers:
Why are those who sail on the sea sicker than those who sail on rivers, even when they sail in calm weather? Is it because of all the senses, smell causes nausea the most, and of all the emotions, fear [causes nausea the most]? For men shake and shudder and their belly fills with moisture when imagining danger. Neither of these issues troubles those who sail on rivers. For the smell of potable and sweet water is familiar to all, and the sailing is without danger. But on the sea men are unable to endure an unusual smell and they are filled with fear, as they do not know what is about to happen. Thus the calm of the sea is of no help, but the soul, tossed about, confused and stirred brings disorder to the body. Plutarch, Natural Questions 11, 914e.
The sun sets on the North Sea in Koksijde, Belgium.
I like the idea of a stirred-up soul causing disorder in the body. I also like the references to smell, because when I feel nauseous, my sense of smell always seems so much more powerful than usual. I can smell every bit of vinegar on chips; every bit of artificial perfume or soap.
Ancient Greek medical authors weren’t particularly interested in the treatment of nausea (whether caused by sea travelling or other reasons). They recommended some ptisane, a thin barley porridge, but nothing else beside. It seems nausea was something one had to endure. Nothing has changed then…