Sunday, June 24, 2007

Travel 2

I won't go into the details about life aboard a ship. Most people have read a little or a lot of such things and the doings on the Stefan Batory were no different. I will mention, however, that point upon which all else pivots aboard every ship I've ever was on: The dining hall (above).

When one books passage they are assigned a table. Unless a person asks to be moved, this is where you will dine morning, noon and night. I've sat at tables with as many as fifteen people and as few as five. On this my first voyage, there were seven, including Maurine and myself. There was Hanni, a shy Swiss lass returning home from her job in Toronto where she was a cancer researcher. Hanni was tall, slim, had a slight limp, and spoke perfect English. There was Hilda, a German lady who lived in New York City. At our first meal, Hilda sat at the end by herself and said not a word. Finally, I asked her a question and from that moment on she never stopped talking. Hilda had a 1940's hairdo, was fifty-five or sixty ("middle-aged," she stressed), and was a real world traveler who had sailed the high seas many times. Hilda was also one taco short of a combination plate. She was in the habit of interjecting the most contrary thoughts into a conversation. For instance, we might be discussing whether the dealers in the casino were cheating or how long the garbage strike in New York City would last and with wide, serious eyes she would jump in, "But you know, zee food on zee Mikal Lemmonkoff ezz much better zan here. . . . Russian sheeps are much better. An zee waiters? Ha, ha, ha. Zeez here are amateurs."

Lastly, there was a family of Yugoslavians–-father, mother and teenage son. Although the young man spoke a smattering of English, his ma and pa knew nary a noun. Hence, though the son tried to translate, his parents "spoke" with signs. The father was a sober, brick-hard man with large hands that looked like iron; obviously, he did some sort of serious manual labor back in the Balkans. Though he was having a fine old time, he smiled only rarely. I have never seen anyone enjoy coffee more than this fellow. Like some people seem to be having orgasms when they eat good chocolate, so too this man with each sip of java. Holding up seven to ten fingers to signify how many cups he drank each day, he then held up only two fingers-–"No go sleep." The mother was a plump, smiling woman who always looked a little embarrassed while slurping her soup.

Our waiter was a tall, handsome--if somewhat unctuous--fellow named Pogado. Although he treated me like the important person that I wasn't, his eye was mostly on Maurine; rather, his eye was mostly down Maurine's blouse. Pogado also had a drinking problem and something or other was always on his breath. One night when there was a little more on his breath than normal, he was showing our table a dance step when the ice cream he was holding (mine) plopped on the floor.

"I zink he's ttrunk," whispered Hilda in my ear. "On Russian sheep he would be fired in zee hour!"

Whenever Pogado, who also knew very little English, served Maurine or poured her coffee, he always purred "Yezzzz, pleeeeze." For Hanni and me it was the same but the word lost just a dab of its sweetness. For Hilda, the "please" was minus all sugar and for the Jugoslavs, the beseechment was gone entirely. "Yez," he said curtly, as if compelled to perform a distasteful task.

Although they were good people and we enjoyed them greatly, the Jugoslavs were very gruff with Pogado. Not once did I hear them say "please" or "thanks" in any language and when ordering their meals they would simply point to the menu and grunt "dat" or "dis." When the soup and first courses arrived, the family would dive headfirst into the food, leaving the rest of us to watch. Sometimes their faces were mere inches from the platter.

"Pogado!" ordered the father as he pointed to his empty coffee cup.

"Yez," obeyed the waiter with arched eyebrow.

I suppose our "etiquette" eventually shamed the family into better manners. After a few days, they seemed more self-conscious and began watching us when we ordered. Previously, when their meat course was served, no sooner had it hit the plate than a fork was harpooning it and a knife was sawing off a hunk–-never mind the potatoes, vegetables and other superfluities; they would be dispatched as they arrived. The rest of the table waited for everything to be set down before beginning the meal. And thus, so now did the Jugoslavs. But from that time forth, there was an air of nervous tension surrounding the folks; looking for the waiter with the potatoes and vegetables; looking down at the meat; to the waiter; to the meat, and so on, as if the meat would take legs and run or another person would snatch it.

But "manners" ended where eating began. With the meal before them, shirt sleeves were rolled up, an instinctive arm encircled the plate and the feeding frenzy was on. Poor Hanni. She was light-complexioned and any embarrassment was instantly registered on her pretty cheeks. The spectacle at our table kept Hanni's cheeks glowing alternately from red to white to red again like some flashing neon sign. Even our drunken waiter once paused beside the table, looking askance at the food fury for a stunned moment or two. Each day, however, the frenzy grew a little less and eventually the encircling arm retreated until only a protective hand sufficed. All the same, the parents never did get the hang of eating soup with a spoon. As strangers became friends at the surrounding tables though, the slurping was all but drowned out by the chatter and laughter. Still, every so often there was a lull in the racket, as when an officer or a pretty girl walked down the aisle, and like a few seconds of sunshine peeking through week-long clouds, sure enough from our table would come "sloupppphhh."

"You zee?" Hilda nudged me as she surveyed our waiter who stood eyeing the Jugoslavs. "He is zee only one without his brass buttons!"

(continued tomorrow)