Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"London Times - Part Eleven"

They told me, “Order kosher food.”

After fifteen-plus months in London, I was going back to Toronto. It was enough. How do you know when it’s enough? You just know. I was ready to return home.

To what? I had no idea. But I was getting used to that. My entire stay in London, I had pretty much no idea of anything. I took things one calamity at a time.

It turned out that, over time, I had accumulated too much stuff to carry home with me on the plane, or it would be too expensive, or something. Somewhere the idea came up of cashing in my return plane ticket and traveling home by ship, where I could transport as much stuff as I wanted. That’s what I did.

I’d be sailing to America (New York City) on the Queen Elizabeth, an enormous ocean liner, one of the most luxurious of its day. My limited finances prevented me from traveling First Class. I would, instead, be traveling “D” class.

When a Canadian acquaintance heard about my plans, she advised, I believe resulting from personal experience,

“Order kosher food.”

She told me that the kosher food on British steamships was superior to standard English fare. Having partaken of standard English fare for fifteen months, I had no trouble accepting her suggestion.

I packed up my accumulations and boarded this gigantic ship, little of whose space was taken up by my room. For the duration of the voyage, I would occupy a tiny cabin, with a closet-sized bathroom, and no window. You don’t get windows when your room is below the water line. There’s nothing to see, and there’s a concern about leakage.

The price of my ticket also bought me a roommate. An older fellow. I don’t believe he spoke English. I’m not entirely certain about that, because the guy never opened his mouth.

The crossing would take six days, Thursday to Tuesday. Somewhere, there was a map on the wall with a progressively extending dotted line, so that passengers could see exactly how much of the voyage we’d completed. There were times when the travel tedium rose to such a level, that you wanted to sneak up in the middle of the night and surreptitiously add dots.

The first dinner. I arrive at an enormous dining room. Hundreds of people, packed together, ten to a table. Being the “kosher food guy”, I am assigned to “special seating.” I am dutifully ushered to that table.

There is nobody else sitting there.

Apparently, I was the only person who had ordered kosher food on the entire boat. Or at least in “D” class.

I sit down, alone, at a table for ten. People are staring at me, wondering which communicable disease I am afflicted with. I try to act cool. But it’s hard when you’re sitting by yourself at a huge table, and everyone else is crowded together, barely able to move.

On top of that, my table looked significantly different. Arrayed in front of me was every imaginable item of Jewish paraphernalia – a yarmulke (a religious head-covering apparatus), a prayer book, matzoh (and it wasn’t Passover), Sabbath and memorial candles (should my trip coincide with the anniversary of the death of a close relative), and, of course, since I was having brisket, a non-dairy butter-like substitute.

I also had the only Jewish waiter on the ship. You could tell he was Jewish, not just from his appearance and his over-the-top accent, but by the fact that I was never allowed to leave the table without finishing every last morsel on my plate, and, when I finally was released, I went away accompanied by a small parcel of “something for later”, lovingly wrapped in an oversized napkin.

Six days. Eating alone. A solo citizen of Jewland. But my friend had been correct. The food was outstanding. And, understandably under the circumstances, plentiful.

Not everything ran smoothly. One evening, I was selecting my favorite parts from an entire chicken, when I noticed people from other tables getting up and exiting the dining room. Not in large groups, but continuously, a couple at a time.

I wondered where they were going. Perhaps there was a movie or some live performance starting, and I’d missed the announcement. It was very strange. It’s the middle of the meal, and people are walking out.

Then I noticed something else. Waiters were scurrying around the dining room, chaining the tables to iron rings bolted to the floor. Again, I had no idea what was happening. Had somebody, unbeknownst to the passengers, been secretly stealing the tables? I said to my waiter, “Moishey, what’s going on?” He replied, “Don’t worry yourself. It’s nuttink.”

I soon discovered it wasn’t nuttink. The dining room was emptying because passengers were becoming seasick. I guess seasickness strikes different people at different times, an explanation for the staggered departures. This suspicion was confirmed when, after about half the dining room had emptied out, the dreaded mal de mer suddenly attacked me.

There is no delicate way of discussing seasickness. The short version is, you simply want to die. The affliction is intense and unrelenting. There is no “break” from seasickness. You can’t, you know, get off the boat till you feel better, and then come back on. You have to ride it out. The words “ride it out” just made me feel queasy.

It was a “March Crossing”, which I subsequently learned was traditionally bumpy. The word “bumpy” just made me feel queasy. I was told that big ocean liners had “stabilizers”, which prevented seasickness. Not true. I was told it was better if you stood in the middle of the ship. Also not true. Nothing was true. Except you puked your guts up till you were empty. Then you barfed retroactively, tossing up birthday cake from when you were ten. Okay, I’ll stop now.

This also happened. This girl, apparently attracted to men who look green, took a shine and…I don’t know…maybe it’s the rhythmic rocking or something, but from the agony of seasickness, came something unexpected and nice. The specifics, I’ll keep to myself, but I’ll tell you this. That never happened to me on a plane.

Tuesday morning, I’m standing on deck as we pass the Statue of Liberty. I feel myself tearing up. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it’s because a chapter of my life was closing, and I had no idea what was next. On the other hand, that salt-water spray can really sting your eyes.
Sorry this didn't appear at the regular time. I must have messed up.


Joe said...

I totally get that whole seasickness thing.

On one such crossing the waiters started securing the plates with little hinged clips. By the time the sea was particularly bumpy the only people left still eating were me, my mom and the captain.

Had I been older, I would have stood on deck, waiting for some demimondaine to avail herself of the manly bounty that is me.

growingupartists said...

11:35 am? Not according to MY watch. Geez Earl, your secret visits to the president are becoming more and more obvious. And ya know what? According to my other records, which I keep separately filed, you're becoming more open about your religion. It used to be all about summer camp and now it's about you. Always about you Earl.

I like it though.

iwasbroughttomysenses said...

My husband vividly remembers being seasick on the NYC-Southampton sailing of the (original) Queen Elizabeth when he was 10. Being in the sea air,topside,did nothing to alleviate his wretched retching and vomiting.

When he/they thought he was better, he partook of tomato juice (not exactly a childhood favourite,is it?) and his Mom treated him to sugared almonds. He wasn't anywhere close to 'better' as it turns out...his agony returned and it was years before he could stomach tomato juice. Sugared almonds remain off the list of food welcome in our home! His brain automatically and powerfully recalls the nausea if these foods are even thought of.

Makes me wonder if tots of Pusser's aided pirates and privateers in the great Days of Sail with their maritime gastrointestinal suffering? :)

A. Buck Short said...

On the other hand, thank God you weren’t taken captive by pirates. As you know there’s a lot of that going around. The Barbary ones got as far north as Iceland (you can look it up), which was ripe for plunder while it still had banks. Of course those were the days when “booty” actually meant booty.”

All you hear about these days are those pesky Tamale Pirates – or at least I think that’s what they’re calling them on the newscasts. Apparently so named because they didn’t bother waiting around for their victims to be incapacitated by seasickness, but by the menu on Mexican night in the ship’s dining room.

Until President Madison dispatched Commodore Stephen DeCaterer on the USS Intrepid to straighten things out with the assertion, “Not one cent for tribute, but we do tip 15 percent.” Hence the lines in the Marine Corps Hymn, “From the halls of Montezuma’s revenge, to the shores of Tripoli. (OK, I’m no Richard Armour, but really, who is?)

Like you, however, I have always found it wise to accept cautionary Canadian culinary advice. Ever since dining one evening in an otherwise unassuming Prince Edward Island bistro, where the menu contained the notation, “Potato salad – when in season.”

Oddly, an acquaintance reported almost the exact opposite experiences of yours, as the only gentile sailing out of Sheepshead Bay for Hollywood, Florida on the Queen eliza-Beth Israel. Alone at a corner table, he was expected to finish an entire suckling pig. I never encountered seasickness, but can imagine the ordeal, having actually once been hospitalized for food poisoning. That made the kidney stone like a walk in the park.

I believe every word about your accommodations, and enjoyed, as usual, the understatement and sentence structure on how little of the ship’s space your room had taken up. But for true nautical claustrophobia, try a long weekend on the Queen Mary, without ever even leaving Long Beach. We thought it would be an adventure to book passage, now that it had been converted into a hotel. State room? It was barely a zip code.

I know this has been insufferable. Thanks for once again lending me your private-ear.