washy, washy woman

The cruise promised luxury, a few days away from the ordinary routine of life and a break from responsibilities. It fulfilled the promise with one qualification. The smiling, energetic Asian woman greeting us at the entrance to the buffet dining room chanted, “Washy, washy.” She looked at each approaching diner with such a sense of humor, warmth and expectation that we really would want to cooperate that no one argued with her and that spray bottle of disinfectant.
She did not ask if we had washed our hands before coming to eat. With communication limited to one word in English, we could not protest. Nor could we go any further until we held out our hands for an administration of “washy, washy.” She made it such a game, such a joke we laughed and held out our hands for a “squirty, squirty” of “washy, washy” so that we could “rubbie, rubbie” our hands together.
We understood the necessity. Preceding our cruise, we read and heard story after story of guests confined to quarters as they contracted infections. The close quarters of a cruise ship serve as ideal petri dishes for sharing germs and viruses among the thousands of people on the ship. The cruise lines take pro-active measures to keep everyone onboard healthy, including gaining the full cooperation of their guests. Quickly, guests learned to anticipate and recognize the “washy, washy” woman and her infectious smile – not because we had any conversations with her … she was too busy greeting guests with her chant. Not because she put us on such a guilt trip … she made it too much of a joke or a game. We all knew her because she took a serious situation and made it fun.
With the dining hall open from sunrise to long past sunset, other crew members shared the task with the “washy, washy” woman. Some meals a more subdued woman greeted us with the spray bottle. Sometimes a pair of middle-aged men entertained us. One played a guitar and occasionally sang while the other held out the ubiquitous spray bottle. They did not chant “washy, washy,” they just smiled and played and the one with the bottle waited for us to hold out our hands. Guests smiled anyway and said the magical words “washy, washy” before entering the buffet. No matter who held the ubiquitous bottle of disinfectant, everyone cooperated.
Those who did not want to contend with the spray bottle could go to the other eateries. Only the entrance to the buffet dining hall had “washy, washy” greeters. The formal dining hall, the coffee shop and lounge offered a discrete reminder with dispensers of cleansing gel mounted on either side of the doors, but no one pointed guests to use them. With the subdued atmosphere and hostesses taking our names and numbers as they looked for a dining table to assign us, a more adult atmosphere prevailed. No one needed to remind guests of proper hygiene. Obviously anyone entering that room would know they needed to wash their hands, but if not, the only ones handling the food would be the wait staff who took our orders and brought us covered dishes of food and the carefully trained kitchen staff.
I enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere of the formal dining areas, but like the majority of customers I made it through the buffet lines at least once a day if only to sample the desserts at the midnight buffet of chocolate.
The young woman with the big smile and simple greeting became the icon of the ship. The last night’s program included the crew and staff parading across the stage or smiling at us from the video screen behind them. When the video showed the “washy, washy lady,” the audience roared. Everyone knew her. Few had had conversations with her but everyone enjoyed her enthusiasm, warm greeting and cheerful insistence on hygiene as if it were the biggest joke of all. Her smile and warmth made her the most popular person on a ship filled with staff, many who probably earned much more than she did, but none known to more or enjoyed more than she.
Sometimes, that’s all it takes to let people know you see them – a large, warm smile of welcome, a familiar chant in a cheerful voice and one simple lesson, “washy, washy before you eat.”