“Cape Town, 22nd June, 1974:
My life changed the minute I boarded the M/V Europa on a cold Saturday in Cape Town Harbour, on my way back to Italy after thirteen years in South Africa. Laden with coats and bags, my family and I made our way through the crowds, followed by the group of friends who had come to see us off, until we managed to find a quiet corner next to the bar. We left them momentarily while we checked in at the purser’s desk. Afterwards, a steward guided us to our cabin. We followed him down numerous flights of stairs, until I thought we were going to be stowed away in the ship equivalent of the torture dungeons. But it turned out to be stateroom 172 all the way down on C Deck. A basket of roses was waiting for us on the dresser, a bon voyage gift and card from my mother’s former employer.
Shortly after, we joined our friends back at the bar. They were gobbling down the complimentary sandwiches as if they hadn’t eaten in a week. You’d think they weren’t about to say goodbye to friends they might not see ever again.
At around 8:00 pm an announcement came over the speakers for all guests to disembark, and we hugged and kissed as they reluctantly took their leave. We had so much fun throwing paper streamers and confetti over the side of the ship as people waved us goodbye from the wharf. When the ship sounded the horn and finally pulled away, we joined our fellow passengers for the sail away party. White jacketed male officers mingled with the passengers while surreptitiously eyeing the girls as they passed them by. Most of the crew was Italian, I’d been told, so I wasn’t surprised at their shameless flirting. My father gave them the evil eye, dubbing one of these Rodolfo ‘Lavandino’ an anagram of ‘Valentino’ in reference to his ‘fresh’ manners. I braced for what was sure to be an interesting three weeks . . .”
No, this isn’t the description of a scene from the seventies’ TV comedy series ‘The Love Boat’. It’s an entry from a diary, one I kept all through my teen years. And beyond, if I have to be honest, though not as consistently.
Coming across these volumes, forgotten for years at the bottom of a keepsakes box, sent me on a spin down memory lane. A nostalgic one that made me realize how many enjoyable customs and traditions have disappeared over the years, for one reason or another.
It was my very first cruise, the one responsible for my catching the cruising bug, a bug that’s still alive and well today, albeit thwarted by the dreaded Covid-19 pandemic. I’m not so young that I don’t remember my very first cruise on a ship built in 1952. Yes, you understood that correctly. 1952. At the time of said cruise, however, it was the mid-seventies, and the ship was on its last legs, so to speak. Just two years later it caught fire and sank.
But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about how the fun’s been taken out of something that was considered normal fifty years ago. Tossing paper streamers and confetti over the side of a ship didn’t just happen on TV shows; it happened in real life as well. It was a custom dating as far back as the post-WWII era, when people traveled to distant countries by ocean liners, often to never return. Family members waved them off from the pier, each holding streamers at both ends that symbolized a ‘lifeline’, a last goodbye to their loved ones as the ship pulled away.
As cruising for pleasure became more popular, the custom of throwing streamers over the side of the ship lost its grim symbolism and became an integral part of the farewell celebration, a festive opening to sail away parties. This tradition was eventually banned for environmental reasons, but it was a lot of fun while it lasted.
Dining on ships, too, was an event. All meals were served in the main dining room, where the wait staff got to know the passengers and their preferences, and the maître d always checked to see that they were satisfied with the service. Nothing like today’s scurrying through crowded buffet displays, anxious to get to the next activity. The officers, back then, mingled with the passengers. Nowadays they avoid them like the plague, passing unobtrusively through hidden corridors and invisible passages. Today people actually pay to see crew members at work, signing up for special kitchen tours and chocolate sculpting classes, and they’re not cheap.
In those days, it wasn’t unusual for the captain to join passengers at dinner, or for the high-ranking officers to be seen at the nightly entertainment events dancing with the passengers, so dashing in their immaculate white dinner jackets and bow ties.
There was dancing every night – none of those long, repetitive, Broadway-style performances one has to rush dinner to get to, or risk not finding a seat.
Cruise ships weren’t these massive floating cities of today, and if cabins had portholes instead of balconies, and beds were either twins or bunks instead of king or queen sized beds, no one minded. It was everything that went on upstairs that made us feel like a million dollars.
And who needed pre-booked port excursions when there were experienced crew members standing by, volunteering to escort us young girls personally on a sightseeing tour?
Did anyone say romantic? You bet, it was.
How sad that a lot of the things we used to enjoy in the not-too-distant past are either restricted or no longer permitted, like watching planes land and take off from the balcony of an airport, or riding bikes without a helmet. It’s all for the best, of course, and perhaps mine is just a spell of pandemic-induced venting, but I’m thankful for having found the diaries. They reminded me of how lucky I am to have lived all those wonderful experiences, events that helped shape who I am, both as a person and as a writer.