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Monday, August 16, 2010

Down to the Sea


Uncle Ziggy and Aunt Bertha aboard ship
My love of ships dates back to 1974.  That summer, my grandfather's sister and her husband departed New York on the S/S France, flagship of the storied Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, known simply on these shores as the French Line, on their way to spend the summer in Europe.  Retirees who never had children, they lived simply most of the year, but my uncle Ziggy was never one to scrimp when it came to food or travel, and they took some spectacular vacations for working-class people of the time. 

By the time I arrived on the scene, the jet age was in full swing and airlines had already won over most of the passenger traffic between the United States and Europe.  Ironically since the majority of leisure travelers were American, the United States Lines was one of the first to go.  The S/S United States, not yet 20 years in service, was laid up in 1969 and -- though still around -- has yet to carry another passenger.  One by one, the state-run steamship companies of Germany, Holland, Italy, Greece and France would give up the fight, and - in fact - the mighty France was abruptly withdrawn from service during my aunt and uncle's vacation.  But they were old-school, and -- rather than spend seven hours in an airplane seat -- they returned to the States aboard the last holdout, Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2.  That ship continued to offer regular transatlantic crossings (interspersed with cruises to other places) until 2004, when she was replaced on the route by the much larger Queen Mary 2.  My dad and I were aboard when that fantastic vessel finished a stormy crossing and arrived in New York for the first time, to a hero's welcome.  But that's another blog entry.

CGT poster advertising the France
Getting back to 1974, if the days of the transatlantic liner were waning, there is no evidence of it in my memory of that afternoon.  In those carefree days, steamship lines welcomed the family and friends of departing travelers aboard the ships on sailing day.  As had always been the tradition, all that was required was a token donation to a seafarers' charity.  It was good P.R., because --  at least in my case -- that short visit left me with a desire to pack up and go on my own ocean voyage, one that would not be fulfilled for another 25 years but which is only stoked, rather than quenched, by every day spent aboard ship.

I actually remember very few details of the ship itself. Oddly enough, one thing that stuck in my head was the placement of the bathtub faucets, on the middle of the long wall vs. at one end.

One story which I can't recall personally but is is stuck in the family lore relates to this or another such bon voyage party.  My uncle had several brothers, and -- like him -- each of them was "a real character" as my paternal grandmother would say.  Apparently one of these uncles had earned quite a reputation aboard ship.  A cabin steward saw him with our entourage and brusquely inquired, "Are you on this trip?"  Upon learning he was headed back down the gangway shortly, the steward rolled his eyes and sighed, "Thank god!  I still remember you from the last time!"

Carnival Victory berthed in San Juan
Hopefully my own reputation is better.  As I write this, a Certain Party and I, along with his entire immediate family and a friend of his mom, are somewhere in the Windward Islands aboard the M/S Serenade of the Seas, part of the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line.  This is my eighth ocean voyage (tenth if you count overnight ferry crossings), a fact that is hardly remarkable given the prolific cruisers and crossers of my acquaintance.  But no sooner did we arrive at the terminal in San Juan when I felt the same rush that came over me on Pier 88 in New York all those summers ago, a feeling that built as we explored our compact cabin, met the steward, verified our dinner table assignment, and underwent all the little rituals that mark the beginning of seagoing travel, culminating with our after-dark departure past the brilliantly lit Victory (even Carnival ships look pretty at night).  I could get used to this.

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