Standing on the deck of the Europa, waving …
In December 1972, the Lloyd Triestino passenger liner, the Europa, sailed from Cape Town to Trieste via Barcelona. It left Cape Town harbour at around 11 am. Or was it 3 pm? I can’t remember – but I can remember that the sun was shining and that it was a bright spring day, a day filled with hope, optimism and great expectations. This is what travellers have in common.
And there stood my mother on the quayside waving, smiling her sad smile. I can no longer remember what she was wearing; a dress, or a skirt with a matching blouse, perhaps. I am not very observant. Of course, I do remember her maroon epaulettes from when I was five or six. Why? I cannot answer that question. But as always, she would have had her handbag with her. That handbag that held so many mysteries, it was the ultimate, unfathomable female temple.
My friend, Jack, with whom I grew up and who had been my neighbour for many years, was with me. We had been planning our voyage for a long time, from the time we were still at school and now, after years of daydreaming, imagining how it would be, we would be travelling together. Jack’s father and sister had some to see him off. We stood on deck, with our elbows resting on the balustrade, smiling down at the world below us. We were the brave ones, the travellers, the young men who wanted to explore distant lands. My father and mother were no longer on speaking terms so he, my father, was not there. My brother was not there either; he had more important things to do than coming to see off his younger brother. So now only my solitary family member stood there on the wharf. I smiled at her and she smiled back bravely. Yes, there were, as there always were, balloons, brightly coloured balloons to create a festive atmosphere, but for the parents and loved ones there was nothing festive about the occasion. Partings rarely are for parents who watch their children leave, as it is for the ones who are left behind. The tug honked cheerfully and the ship’s horn answered, a more deep-throated reply, as if they were performing a secret duet that only ships and tugs understood. The Europa began to move slowly away from its moorings, like a massive animal set free at last and sailed out of the bay where the tug veered off and the Europa headed deeper into the ocean and where, after a few sea miles it slowly turned to starboard. Table Mountain, that symbol of home was slowly receding. Freedom at last, as the Europa header up the West Coast of Africa.
It was my first sea voyage and what made it memorable, what was to become the centrepiece of our journey, was the presence of a fellow passenger in the form of a young blonde woman of Scandinavian extract. I guessed she couldn’t have been older than 21, or perhaps 22. Being an Italian cruise ship, with an Italian crew, she soon attracted the attention of the crew members because she was pretty. She spent many hours on deck, sunning herself so that the faint spread of freckles became more pronounced as the journey wore on. She was alone. The closer we got to the equator the warmer it became and the more passengers would take to deck chairs to strip to their bathing costumes and lie in the sun, confident of stepping onto European soil with beautifully bronzed bodies.
By this time we had become acquainted with Pippa, and we would meet on deck, and lie in the sun together. I decried the fact that I had so little money and could not freely order beers or wine or even, for that matter, espressos which were the cheapest of the lot. But I remember becoming distinctly aware of Pippa one morning, I remember it very well, that moment which was almost shocking. It was already warm, perhaps 25 degrees C or more. Her deck chair was next to mine. She wore an aqua-marine coloured bikini. As I was reaching down for my packet of Gitanne cigarettes, she rose, my head nearly bumping into her thigh. I mumbled an apology but at that moment the smell of Ambre Solaire suntan oil and a muskiness of sweat reached my nostrils and I became aware, just for a moment, of the tiny silvery fox hairs running up her thigh and the texture of her skin. Her thigh was an inch from my face. She stepped past me and, taking a few steps towards the edge of the pool, she dived in. Moments later she emerged at the edge of the pool, her hair clinging to her cheeks, holding onto the edge. The she heaved herself up, and out of the pool, water streaming from her body.
We befriended a small number of the passengers, among them a psychiatrist named Harry whom we thought of as being a bit ridiculous. Perhaps it was on account of his toupee. It was a really bad one and everyone could immediately see it was a cheap toupee. It was ginger coloured to go with his natural colour. Once it became dislodged as he dove into the swimming pool. We looked on in amazement as it drifted away as he quickly swam towards in, retrieving it and placing it once more on his head. We pretended not to notice.
Harry’s companion was a woman with mousy brown hair and watery grey eyes who was withdrawn and spoke very little in company. I thought she lacked confidence, perhaps because Harry dominated the conversations, was more ‘intellectual’ than her and often, even if a question was directed to her, he would intercede and answer on her behalf. And from Harry we learnt that she was a psychiatric nurse. Harry, mind you, was no oil painting himself, his figure squat and showing the beginnings of a belly and of course there was this abominable slightly ginger-coloured wig that looked like he bought it at a bazaar … How did they meet? I wondered idly from my deck chair. What made her decide she wanted to be with him? I assumed that they must have met in a psychiatric ward or hospital. She was, I have to say, not unattractive although far from pretty. There was a kind of appealing plumpness to her and I liked the diffident smile she offered when someone addressed her directly. She always first looked to Harry before she answered – if she answered for usually, as I said, Harry would answer for her. Her pale, unhealthy pallor suggested that, at least before this sea journey, she spent most of her days indoors. In hospital wards, offering kind words to the demented?
It was something Harry said that made me feel sorry for her and made me dislike Harry even more. It happened day when we were reclining, as usual, in our deck chairs. It was another day on deck, with the sun shining, there was music coming from loud speakers, cheerful Italian melodies, and we lazily observed Clare swimming in the pool. Harry, too was observing his mistress, when he turned to us and said: “She’s really my patient.” This remark was followed by a stunned silence but Harry did not seem to notice. He busied himself rubbing some more suntan oil onto his shoulders which were red from the sun. Tomorrow they would begin to blister.
As we crossed the equator, it proved to be an occasion that caused the (then) South West Germans to behave like animals. It is traditionally a time of celebration. It is a time for organised games and celebrations. The perser was in charge. There were streamers, balloons (yet again: probably the leftover ones from the time we departed Cape Town harbour) and piped light classical Italian songs, such as ‘O solo mio’. I have always resented this sort of thing and so did our little group and found it difficult to hide our disdain. I remember a fat German in his early twenties shrieking like a pig, as he and his friends downed beer after beer. Gemütlichkeit!
Years later, I recalled this incident when the Italian minister of the interior, in a spat with Germany, remarked that he wondered if the German foreign minister participated in burping competitions after devouring huge amounts of potato fries and guzzling vast quantities of beer.
What is it about human beings, possibly the majority of the human race, that they behave in such a way, sometimes to the point of becoming destructive. Is this how we are, really? When we enter the forest, is there a tiger that awaits us, ready to pounce and destroy our flimsy layer of civilization?
We looked on sourly as the Germans tossed beer glasses into the pool, screaming and shrieking with laughter. They were drunk, of course. We were not altogether sober ourselves but at worst we could be described as tipsy. Not content with the amount of havoc they were causing, the huge amount of noise and shrill laughter, one German hurled his deckchair into the pool while the Italian crew members looked on in bewilderment.
Year later, I shared a house for a short time with, of all things, a female German pilot. Her boyfriend came to visit from Baden-Baden, the well-known spa for the wealthy, immortalized by Chekhov in his short story, “The Lady with the Lapdog”. His name was Fritz. I cannot remember his surname, it was too long ago, but I do remember what he did for a living: he had the agency for Ferrari in Baden-Baden. Both names spelt money. One Christmas they had a party, he was telling us.
“We all got so drunk, it was unbelievable! There were these wall-to-wall carpets so we opened the taps of the wine vats and flooded the carpets. Then we got hammers from the garage and smashed up the Steinway piano!” He had become visibly more exited as he spoke, and by the end of the tale, which I have abbreviated, he was red in the face with excitement. As a climax they “smashed up the Steinway piano with hammers”. He was as red as a beetroot by this stage as his head swung from me to this pilot girl friend. Reaching the climax of his tale, he shrieked with laughter slapping his thigh repeatedly.
I think of civilized Germans as some of the most civilized people in the world – at least that I have encountered. But at times Germans behave badly; after a few pilsners they tend to become loud, blustery and arrogant. In some Mediterranean countries they are despised and at the time when I was in Spain, some months later, I heard them referred to as the Neckermann tourists, a derisory term, because a travel agent, Neckermann, offered package tours that were affordable to even low-salaried Germans. Of course, the German mark was powerful even then, in 1972, and so successful was the enterprising Herr Neckerman that his is today the second-biggest travel agency in Germany.
George Grosz: Fern im Sud das scone Spanien (Courtesy of Richard Nagy London)
George Grosz’s depiction of his countrymen in Spain
Even the Rand was powerful at the time and I think I paid a mere R300 for my passage there, which included a flight from Marseilles to London. A South African Rand equalled one Dollar at the time. Anyway, I hope you don’t think I am anti-German. I am not! I will have a lot to say about Germans as we go on this journey. Nice things. About most of them that I know.
I have some regrets about our voyage on the Europa.
One of them is that Jack behaved badly. I think this was because he wanted to impress Pippa. As did I, as did I, but I could not compete with his antics.
I had grown up in a home where good food, or good cooking was non-existent as was the case with Jack. They were our neighbours so I knew. We had no way of appreciating the feast we were privy to. Every night five or perhaps even six courses were served, each dish representing Italy’s regional cooking. The menu looked something like this: antipasto followed by a soup, a fish dish and veal piccata, and Italian Cassata, good Italian espresso for those who wanted. In between there must have been cheese as well, surely. But I can’t remember. We had no way of knowing that you could divide Italy’s regional cooking into even smaller denominations because village by village, recipes by recipe might differ for the same dish. And how otherwise, recipes were handed down from mother to daughter, for generations! They did not cook from cookbooks. I suppose that on farms, too, this was the case; each farm had probably its own recipe. Similarly, in Italy, in the end, even your neighbour’s recipe for a ragù might differ substantially from yours. Of this, of the subtleties of Italian cooking, we had not the slightest notion.
Luigi Versacci (Wikipedia)
One evening, at dinner, Jack arrived without a jacket, wearing only a short-sleeved shirt whilst I, dutifully, wore a light summer jacket. The maître d’hôtel, a tall, imposing figure with slicked black hair and dark piercing eyes came up to our table, a look of disapproval on his face.
“Excuse me, we have a dress code for dinner. Would you mind putting on a jacket, please.”
We sniggered as Jack went to change. After a time our attention was drawn to the entrance and what we saw made us burst out laughing. It was an apparition of a headless man, the collar of his shirt above his head and this apparition came staggering towards us. Of course, it was Jack and he had put on a life jacket. The rest of the dining salon tittered at the spectacle. The maître d’hôtel, flushing angrily, came to our table once more. “This is not funny. Would you mind going to put on a proper jacket, please.” He hovered over Jack.
Jack staggered away towards the exit and returned minutes later, this time wearing a proper jacket. He sat down. As usual, Pippa sat between us.
ragù alla bolognese
The Italians believe it is sacrilege to eat ragù with spaghetti. It is suppose to be eaten with tagliatelli. Mea culpa.
Veal Piccata (Saveur)
We were too young and inexperienced to know that the dinner table, to the Italian, is sacrosanct. Add to that the French, the Japanese … the list is long. I recently finished reading Bill Buford’s Heat about his sojourn first at Babbo’s, Mario Batali’s New York Restaurant, and then in a tiny Tuscan village with Italy’s most famous butcher, Dario Cecchini. The house, which also houses the butchery, is a 1000 years old, as is the trade of butchery, carried down from one generation to the next. The pride with which they practise their craft is immense; the same goes for the pasta maker to whom Buford was apprenticed, rolling out pasta so thin it was like air! And how indifferent we were, how ignorant, and to think that Jack wore a life jacket to dinner and we sat there, guffawing like idiots!
Of course, it was, in a way, all Harry the psychiatrist’s fault. But it would be too easy to just hold him responsible. No, we were all to blame and not exempt on account of Harry and his stash. But more on that in a moment.
And then there was the wine.
Night after night, we were treated to the finest Italian wines, among them Barolo. All inclusive in the cost of the fare of R300? Today it sounds almost absurd. R300 you said? It was unbelievable. Today I cannot even afford a Barolo. But there is something else. And it has to do with regret. My own personal regret. If I were to meet our Maitre d’Hotel today, the first thing I would do is apologise to him for our behaviour, and not appreciating what Italy, or Lloyd Triestino, had to offer us.
One day, on the foredeck, away from the pool (which the Germans had once again appropriated) we, Jack, Harry, Clare and Pippa were playing poker. Pippa wore a sun hat and Clare had some knitting in her lap, like a security blanket which she clutched in between rounds. After I dealt Pippa, arranging her cards into suits, looked up and let fall in a bored kind of voice:
“Harry, I would be careful if I were you. Those Spanish prisons are bad news.”
She was referring to his marijuana. We all looked up from our cards, eager to know why Spanish prisons were such bad news.
Harry too was interested. Sweat glistened on his forehead from the heat. His toupee was damp.
“I know someone whose cousin was sentenced to seven years in a prison in Barcelona,” Pippa continued, realizing that now she had the attention of all of us. “It happened after he was bust for marijuana. He went by ship, just like us, but they found the stash on him at customs and from thereon he didn’t stand a chance. Seven years, no extenuating circumstances!”
Even as Pippa spoke a ghost of a smile settled on the corners of her lips and I wondered whether she was making this all up and toying with Harry. But when she continued, I realised she was serious enough.
“They threw him in jail and told him he’d rot there …. On the first night he was raped. He got out after three and didn’t rot there but he was pretty fucked, you know? He had to have some serious counselling.”
We looked at Harry. Harry was not looking at her. He was staring into the distance, perhaps trying to imagine himself in a Spanish prison. Raped? By men? By hard, cruel randy men … from behind? And he couldn’t even speak the language. What was ‘help’ in Spanish, anyway? He didn’t know. He tried not to let on that he was worried.
“So, who’s to open the bidding,” he said in a strained voice.
The upshot of Pippa’s little tidbit on Spanish prisons was that, the closer we got to Barcelona, the more the level of Harry’s stash of marijuana dropped. Instead of going down into his cabin, or hiding in some secret corner on deck to smoke his dope on his own, he now began to liberally share his stash, kept in an old fashioned tea tin, a very beautiful and ornate tin from India. It became a race against time. He had to get rid of it before we docked in Barcelona (he couldn’t bear to toss it overboard, as it was, after all, DP (Durban Poison)). So he decided to share his precious stash with us. As a result we were all a little high for the rest of the voyage.
One night, close to midnight, Jack challenged me to a game of ping-pong on the deck. Of course, we were stoned and not too sure what we were doing. Pippa sat on a chair in the middle, like an umpire at Wimbledon with her head following the course of the little white ball. There was something atavistic about it, as if she was the prize that would be awarded to the winner. We began to play with some intensity.
The trouble is, we were high as a kite so the game turned out to be almost surrealistic. Everything happened in slow motion, on top of which the ship was listing quite badly. This meant that while the ball was hit at an inch above the board, by the time it reached me (very slowly) it was a full metre above the table. It was too much. We abandoned the game and retired to our respective cabins.
Pippa was the most desirable woman on the Europa. The fact that she was also highly intelligent was probably of secondary importance to most males on the ship. Jack, who went on to become a successful photographer in later years, took photographs of us in bright coloured oilskins, crossing the equator in a rain shower, laughing and carrying on, our hair dripping wet and clinging to our foreheads. After Jack had taken some photographs, he handed the camera to me and told me which button to press. Then it was Pippa’s turn to photograph the two of us together. We were all smiling at the camera but those moments, like a film frozen midway, told part of the story but not all because beneath the surface lurked something darker: the emotions of pain and longing, self-pity and cruelty, the baser emotions we generally refer to as ‘jealousy’. This was something that manifested itself not long after Jack and I befriended Pippa, but in subtle ways. But in later years became more manifest.
During the voyage we became inseparable. We met on deck, we played cards together and sat in the sun together, reading our novels; at dinner time we dined at the same table, with both Jack and myself flanking her. She always changed for dinner, and wore a dress. In the soft light she always looked so pretty; her face would glow from the hours she spent in the sun and faces turned to admire her. This did not escape Jack and I and it gave us a quiet sense of satisfaction.
One night, finding herself alone on deck after she had come up for a breath of fresh sea air, she saw a finger emerge like a periscope from behind one of the life boats and beckon to her. “Come to me, come to me, my pretty one” the finger seemed to call out to her in a whisper. It was one of the Italian crew members whom she later surreptitiously pointed out to us, a waiter, a tall and handsome fellow. The nocturnal vision of the blonde hair in the moonlight, the slender figure, proved to be too much for him and he cast aside all restraint, and on this warm balmy night, he decided to try his luck. Like with so many Italian men, he was ruled by the dictates of his loins rather than by common sense. Had she reported him, he might well have lost his job.
I played back those scenes often, the scenes with Pippa, and how Jack and I vied for her attention. I received her attentions finally because I was better looking. Jack was reduced to playing second fiddle. But my victory, if that was what it was, was a pyrrhic one as it turned out.
Anyhow, Pippa began to visit me in our cabin.
In terms of geography, it was four hours after we crossed the equator, when, technically speaking, we went into summer. Or late summer then. But as we crossed the equator, it was night time as Pippa ascended the steps to my bunk and at that time we passed the tiny but oil-rich country of Gabon, previously a French possession. Why on earth I made a mental note of this I have no idea.
To reach me, she had to climb up the ladder past Jack’s bunk. We would lie there, kissing and whispering in the dark, and sometimes just speak in undertones. I knew Jack was awake, I could tell. Nigh after night he was obliged to watch her climb past him in her short summer dress. I did not pause to wonder how this might have affected him. Not then, anyway.
The closer we got to Barcelona, the more frantic Harry the psychiatrist became. We were now within spitting distance of Spain and, as far as he was concerned, imprisonment. When we docked at Teneriffe in the Canary Islands, most of the passengers disembarked to explore the island. For once Pippa, Jack and I went our own way. I saw a T-shirt with the head of Paul Kruger emblazoned on his. I realized that being here I found myself in a time-warp. Nobody celebrates the old Boer leader anymore. He was a hero once, though. Even Isaac Deutscher, the Russian biographer who wrote a trilogy on Trotsky and Stalin, wrote glowingly about the ‘little man rising up against the giant’ at the time, the Boer republics against the might of Great Britain. I bought a packet of cigarettes named ‘Krugeros’ and nearly coughed my lungs out they were so strong. In amongst the shops and bars I came across Harry the Psychiatrist and Clare, his ‘patient’. I don’t think Harry recognised me he was so stoned. Clare, uncharacteristically, was giggling incessantly, announcing that she had ‘the munchies’. She was stuffing Spanish sausage into her mouth, as was Harry the Psychiatrist. Clare whispered something and they both collapsed into each other’s arms, giggling like school girls. I left them like that.
When we disembarked at Barcelona, Jack met up with an old school friend, whom I never really liked, and they continued on the Europa to Trieste. Pippa teamed up with two friends of hers, both sisters and, like her, blond. I was to travel with them to Marseilles in the kombi which belonged to the sisters. But from the moment we set foot on Spanish soil and she met her two friends, her behaviour towards me changed.
Ps. I shall be writing more on Heat, and of course on food, one of my great loves. (Will add links)