Our 4-berth cabin was rather small but then we were used to small spaces and it felt like real luxury to have our own space on a large, white boat, ready to sail. We didn’t mind sharing the cabin, after all we would be on deck and in the dining room and entertainment rooms most of the time. At 6.30, just a little behind schedule, the ship sailed away from Genoa harbour amid brightly coloured streamers and confetti clouds. We were on our way!
Suddenly we heard Signora, Signora in a rather loud voice and who should it be wildly waving at us? One of mum’s admirers, the same one who helped us with our luggage into our cabin and did not even get a tip. It was rather nice to be farewelled so enthusiastically by an Italian and added Italian charm to us leaving Europe.
The ship seemed to be moving rather slowly at the beginning and we could enjoy seeing the city of Genoa and the Italian coast from a different vantage point. After the view faded and the sky began to darken I went exploring before dinner and almost got lost, so big and disorienting was the ship’s space ( today my family would say it was my terrible sense of direction). Eventually I made my way back to the cabin where my mum was impatiently waiting for me and we went off to dinner. And what a dinner it was, I had never seen anything like the variety, colours, smells and abundance of food. There were soups and cold meats, chicken,beef, potatoes (of course), spinach and other more exotic vegetables, salads and so many more dishes that I could actually recognise; there were just as many that seemed strange and I did not feel ready to taste them just yet. Faced with too many choices, both my mother and I had two servings of cake after the main meal.We were so full and so tired that it did not take us long to fall asleep in this new sleeping space where the gentle waves lulled us to sleep.
First day on the open sea away from the coast and we weren’t quite sure what to expect, the ship was rocking slightly but I felt absolutely fine and ready to tackle the breakfast buffet. On entering the dining room the scene presented was, to this 12-year-old, something out of the land of wonders from a children’s story read at bed time. I had never seen so much food and such a variety of food; the typical Czech breakfast being one of tea and bread with jam and maybe a hard-boiled egg or a piece of ham on special occasions.
And so the first days continued, the sea was calm, the food wonderful and in between eating and exploring the inside of the ship we also ventured onto shore on day excursions to Naples, Pompeii and further south to Messina. Sailing along the beautiful coast of Sicily must have resulted in a dormant, subconscious need to visit Sicily later on in my life and I have not been disappointed by any of the three visits since that first encounter.
Daily life on the ship in that first week took on a familiar pattern, the three meals interspersed with swimming and some English lessons as well, mainly from textbooks we had bought along. Opportunities to practice what we had learned arose at meal times as there were many guests from English-speaking countries on board. I certainly learned the English word for ‘brambory‘ quickly as I would always get an extra portion of whatever potato dish was on offer. Hence, my nickname became Miss Potatoes, a name that could still be applicable today as that love of potatoes has never left me.
One day in the first week at sea, an emergency drill was performed, complete with lowering of life boats, donning of life vests and typical Italian (dis)organisation. It was quite funny and perhaps as novices at sea we didn’t take it as seriously as it should have been.
Emergency drill with photo appearing in The Sea Herald, the daily newspaper. Somehow the Italian name L’Araldo Del Mare sounds a lot better.
The first week on board ended with a stop in Port Said and a whole days sailing through the Suez Canal. Despite the heat outside on deck, it was fascinating watching the desert alternating with greenery, camels and in the far distance the distinct shapes of the pyramids. One more stop in Suez and then it was into the Red Sea. So far so good, meals are still excellent, I am learning English with a Japanese English teacher who offered free lessons because I was nice to her two small children.There is time for swimming, sun baking and children’s parties. At 12 I am considered on the borderline to attend those but being a very young (and ostensibly persuasive) 12-year-old I managed to talk my way into these.
“It’s bad” – so begins my mother’s entry in her diary on the day we sail into the Indian ocean. And it was bad, more than half the people on board were affected by sea sickness, me included. The ship was rocking quite significantly so that holding onto side rails was a necessity when walking through the corridors or on deck. The worst part was the inability to eat and keep food down. So whilst the buffet tables at lunch and dinner still looked extremely enticing, the only food I could eat during that time were dried biscuits and some fruit.
Our lovely, gentle sea-faring , beautiful ship had changed to a rocking, reeling, grey giant where being on deck and watching the white crests of large waves was infinitely better than below where the rocking was far exaggerated and the smell was often putrid. People moved about in an almost zombie-like way and tended to lie down on deck chairs every 5 minutes to regain their energy. One of regular our waiters came to see me, concerned that Miss Potatoes had not been seen at dinner and what should they do with all the potatoes they had saved for me.
Despite being seriously sea sick and not eating a lot, there were fun times. Another children’s party, crossing the equator with a celebration overseen by King Neptune, a prize in winning a twist dance competition, seeing films in the cinema, these were all interspersed with lots of lying down on deck chairs or in our cabin.
As with everything, the sea sickness also passed and we learnt that tomorrow we would be arriving in our first Australian port, Fremantle. Two hours of queuing up (worse than waiting for potatoes in Teplice) we stepped onto Australian soul, our ‘new world’. Four days later we docked in Melbourne where many Italians disembarked. This disembarkation was performed in typical Italian fashion with lots of noise, animation and general disorganisation. Little did I realise at the time that many years later Melbourne would become my home and that the Italian way and enjoyment of life would be an ideal rather than an irritation when in enclosed spaces. The boat suddenly became very quiet, there was no opening of doors at all times of day and night, no shouting at children and at each other. In a way it was quite sad too, as many of the people we became friends with had now left.We were no longer sea-sick so at least could enjoy the last few days just as we had started at the beginning of our journey.
Despite the seasickness it was an amazing journey, one that has left me with many memories and a newly discovered wonder of the big, wide world of which I had only dreamed and imagined in the 12 years I lived in Czechoslovakia. One unfortunate repercussion of the five weeks spent on the boat, with three of those feeling sea sick, was that it would take many years and many attempts to feel comfortable on a ship or boat, no matter what size it was or where it was sailing.
But for now my life was about to change, there would be many things to get used to, a new language to master, a different schooling system. On disembarking in Sydney, our new home, the excitement at Circular Quay was palpable, with streamers and confetti, hundreds of people waving and welcoming the many migrants who had decided to leave Europe for the ‘new world’. I was happy and felt welcome, not the least by my father , grandmother and my uncle and aunt, who had very generously enabled us all to make this long and rather expensive journey. To them I am indeed very grateful.
PS. To learn of the new beginnings in Sydney keep following my blog.