Last summer I decided at the last minute to accompany my daughter on a seven-day cruise to Bermuda. We had never been on a cruise ship before. I had vivid memories of my 1955 transatlantic crossing on the MN Roma of the Achille Lauro Line, a 15,000 ton Italian passenger liner that had been nicely converted from a World War II freighter.
On March 12, 1955 I departed New York City in a snowstorm, and we were punished by high winds and hard rain for days. I’d go on deck, mesmerized by the mountainous waves and by the wind shrieking through the lines. I held on tight. Now I longed to have a deck under my feet again.
The S.S. Summit of the Celebrity Cruise Line weighs 90,000 tons, six times as big as the Roma. A thousand feet long, the Summit barely fits the shortest lock in the Panama Canal. It looks like the Empire State building on its side, or like a ten story 1970s Miami Beach hotel sitting atop a hull. We’d be sailing in late July, well before the hurricane season. The thirty-six hour run to Bermuda would be a breeze.
My daughter phoned three days before departure to remind me to bring my passport.
“A passport? To Bermuda?”
“Yes, Daddy. Bermuda belongs to Great Britain.”
I knew that. Vaguely. Still, I was offended. No wonder Spain resents an English Gibraltar. I went to the desk and dug out my U.S. passport; it had long expired.
To renew it quickly would have cost me $155. Eureka! my Italian passport. The maroon one, stamped in gold. There it was, lying in the desk drawer since 2009, never used. I was eligible for an Italian passport because my parents were still Italian citizens when I was born in Philadelphia. I’d be welcomed aboard the Summit as Signor Calogero Perrone.
Calogero? Who’s he? In 1934 when my mother signed me up for kindergarten, the school secretary, spying the name Calogero printed on my birth certificate, casually registered me as Charles. “You don’t want your son growing up as Calogero, do you?”
Calogero derives from the Greek: kalos geros. San Calogero is the patron saint of Sciacca, a big town in the province of Agrigento. It means a good or a beautiful old man. Or a monk. The secretary changed my name to Charles and it has remained Charles – on my report cards, diplomas, social security card, military discharge, marriage certificate, my driver’s license. Fraudulent documents all.
In the Fifties, Charles became Carlo while I lived in Italy for three years. (In Sicily my cousins called me Calogero.) I returned to the United States in 1958, bearing a black beret and my new name, Carlo. I lost the beret – nice hat, it had caught Margie’s eye – but I kept the name. Margie always called me Carlo, or in jest, Chaluzzo, which was what my mother called me, a form of ‘little Charlie’, akin to Cholly.
Nanda and I embarked in Bayonne, New Jersey. The check-in area was a vast hanger-like room, hard by the water, with the ship berthed alongside. The ship overhung the pier like a cliff, eleven decks tall. It blocked the view to the bay.
We joined the long line of passengers snaking through the room. A Customs officer, checking passports, circulated among us. Her name was Mary Ann, a genial Italian American from Jersey City. When she examined my passport, she called me Signor Perrone. I was thrilled. However, she pulled me out of line.
“Your passport lacks a visa.” She saw my puzzled look: “There’s no indication in your passport how you entered the United States,”.
I laughed: “I was born in Philadelphia and I live in Medford, New Jersey.”
Mary Ann was very patient, she was serious. “This passport says you are an Italian citizen who has somehow, somewhere, entered this country, perhaps unlawfully.” She spoke firmly but not unpleasantly. She sensed my rising panic. I wasn’t afraid of being deported – deported to Italy? Lovely! No, I thought I’d have to cancel the cruise, lose my money.
“Don’t worry. You can download a document in lieu of the visa.”
She led us to a computer in a side room where she gave Fernanda the pertinent information. Twenty minutes later and sixty-five dollars lighter, I had the required document which I handed over to Mary Ann. In exchange, she stamped a visa into my passport.
“Buon viaggio, Signor Perrone,” she said lushly, with a hint of Naples in her accent.
Soon after I was in my cabin unpacking my bag: two pairs of Bermuda shorts, the older pair was nicely faded to Nantucket Red. . A pair of sandals and a pair of dressy moccasins. No socks. Some shirts, a pair of slacks, one necktie and my linen sports jacket.
My linen sport jacket is forty-five years old, double-breasted, double-vented in the back, not unlike the one the Duke of Windsor wore in Bermuda when he was its governor. I hadn’t worn it for years but I threw it into my bag anyhow – it’s style cried out Cruise Ship. I brought no books; I’d find something to read in the ship’s library. I knocked on Nanda’s door when I finished unpacking and we left our adjoining staterooms to explore the ship before lunch.
I have elsewhere described my brief encounter with a Las Vegas casino hotel. Aboard the S.S. Summit we seemed to have landed in Las Vegas again. Ah, but now I could turn my back on that grossness and face the sea, with the wind in my hair. The ship sailed past the Statue of Liberty with a long curving flourish. The open sea was placid. Ahead of us was a day and a half sail to Bermuda, then three days in the port of Hamilton, and finally a thirty-six hour sail back to Bayonne.
A ship’s architecture imposes a class system upon its passengers. The distinction was vertical on the old transatlantic liners: the uppermost decks comprised First Class, the middle decks were Second Class, and deep in the hold was the Third Class. Steel doors separated the three classes. In the evenings, attractive girls traveling Second or Third Class might be invited to the First Class deck to fill out the dance floor in the arms of the ship’s junior officers.
Today, those parameters – different decks for different classes have disappeared. The S.S. Summit was one-class, but distinctions prevailed, not vertically as in the old days, but concentrically. The inside cabins, with no windows, were cheaper. The outside cabins facing the sea, with balconies, were larger and they were dramatically more expensive.
We had inside cabins on Deck 9, toward the rear of the ship. It was a long walk – about 400 feet – to the elevators and the staircases. The opposing walls seemed to meet in the far distance. We searched for, but failed to find a deck that was open to the sea. Did ocean views come only with outside cabin balconies? We’d search again after lunch.
Lunch was served buffet style, in a big room that spanned the width of the ship. The food counters were in the center of the room. They formed a large oblong, segmented into stations, each offering the main cuisines of the the world. The stations were manned by servers of various nationalities. One could sample all the world’s cuisines by circumnavigating the stations. Their concoctions were heaped for the taking, or handed over by the happy servers. At breakfast, short-order cooks dished out eggs any style, pancakes, or waffles, you name it. I filled up on oatmeal and a bowl of fresh tropical fruit.
Many diners were in poolside attire because the swimming pool was just beyond the dining room. Earlier that morning these diners had claimed the coveted poolside deck chairs by leaving a towel, a book or some personal item on the seat – arrogant ploys that enabled them to hog the chairs all day long. We ate quickly and left the noisy, crowded room.
We did find the open deck, not easily, because the unmarked door leading to it was gained only by passing through a gambling casino. This deck was about eighty yards long, running under the brow of the outside cabins stacked above. We walked around and under lifeboats hanging from massive davits. These were large powerful motor launches that accommodated 200 people each.
This stretch of deck was the only area on the ship where smoking was permitted. It was the ship’s smoking lounge, so to speak. Some smokers were scattered along the rail, others occupied the five or six deck chairs. An unoccupied deck chair was festooned with the artifacts of an absentee squatter. Fernanda and I walked the length of the deck several times, passing through the wafting cigarette smoke. We returned later that night when the deck was deserted and smoke-free. We took a few turns while the ship glided through a calm sea.
“Suitable attire is required in the full service dining rooms”. I put on my olive colored slacks, my subtly striped shirt and my paisley necktie. I slipped my bare feet into my elegant loafers and finally, I put on the linen jacket. I glanced at the tall mirror by my door: very nice. I tapped Nanda’s door to indicate that I was waiting in the corridor. She emerged, looking equally nice.
“Daddy! You can’t wear that jacket, it’s filthy.” I looked down my front. Yes, there were a few spots and some wrinkles, and the lapels drooped a bit, but the overall effect was fine.
“The light will be murky in the dining room. Nobody will notice.”
“Daddeee, there’s a big sweat stain across the back!” I removed the jacket and took a look. Yes, there was a stain, but it was more like the shadow of a stain.
“This all I brought, Dear. Nobody will notice in the darkened room. I’ll sit with my back to the wall.” We started out, she keeping a half step ahead of me.. A tall man approached us as we neared the elevators. He was about sixty years old. He wore a dark business suit, a solid citizen. He spoke to me.
“Excuse me, Sir, may I ask you a question?” He had a folded newspaper in his hand. The Wall Street Journal?
Sir? Nobody had called me sir for years. “Of course,” I said, “ What can I do for you?”
“I wonder if you would advise me about my investments?” It was the Wall Street Journal.
I was astounded. Somebody asking ME about the stock market! I looked him over. Was he a con artist?
“You could not have asked a worse person about investments,” I said. “I don’t even believe in the stock market. I’m a socialist.”
He was taken aback but he kept his cool. “Thank you,” he said politely. “I’m very sorry,” and he walked past us. I looked at Nanda, smiled but said nothing. Was it my jacket? We entered the restaurant; it was dimly lit. Nobody would notice my jacket. The maitre d’, a South American from Colombia, met us just inside the entrance.
“Good evening, Sir. May I have your cabin number” He consulted his iPad.
“Ah, Signor Perrone, buona sera, a table for two.” The table was the size of a large handkerchief, twelve inches away from its twin. I sat with my back to a pillar.
Our neighbors were sitting inches away. We exchanged greetings, little more. After all we and they had requested tables for two. We wanted privacy.
They were in their late-forties, well dressed in a showy way. Her dress was appropriate enough but he wore slacks and a polo shirt, no jacket and tie. The dress code? I looked around the room in vain; then back to their fingers and wrists which were weighed down with jeweled rings and bracelets.
She was picking her way through a large salad out of which reared four colossal shrimp. He was eating a double order of roast beef, two thick slabs of rare meat. She was drinking white wine, he red. I don’t recall what Nanda and I ate, some kind of seafood.
The food was good enough. The waiters, drawn from the Second and Third Worlds, were pleasantly solicitous. Their banter was studied, the set pieces of their trade. The sommelier, a Balkan woman, was knowledgeable, with a nice touch of hauteur. Nanda finished her wine and we left the restaurant. Our verdict: bountiful banality. What next? Should we follow the other diners? To the night clubs? To the casinos? To the discos? To a blaring, copy-cat Broadway stage show?
We sought out the library. We found it, suspended between decks, reached by a circular staircase – a kind of eyrie, an architectural afterthought, with three glass walls and the fourth lined with shelves. The shelves held about 400 books – mostly mysteries and bestsellers, some of them quite old. Nanda had been wise to bring her own books. I, unexpectedly, found an old but lightly read collection of Thornton Wilder’s letters. I took it without bothering to check it out. Who’d miss it? We sought out our stretch of open deck, took a few turns, we stood by the rail and studied the moonlit sea. It continued calm. We retired to our cabins to read our books.
Next morning we attended a lecture given by the ship’s captain. Captain Leo, thirty-nine years old, seemed young for the job. His seafaring family had him sent to a marine academy when he was thirteen. He’d been at sea ever since. His talk was a highpoint of the trip.
He marshaled a great deal of information about the ship’s history, its technical specifications and its daily operations, interspersed with amusing asides. By the time he turned us over to one of several subalterns, I was convinced that the ship, our fate, was in good hands. Nanda and I chose the tour of the kitchens, that is, a tour of the food distribution system.
Below deck, out of sight, was a sprawling beehive of activity, a series of interconnected work spaces: storerooms, large refrigerators, food preparation stations, kitchens and bakeries, each area enveloped in the steamy effusions of its distinctive activities, all manned by a host of food preparers.
The cooks wore their tall, stiff hats, the others wore soft white berets with headbands of different colors, depending upon the nature of their activity. They wore identity badges dangling by ribbons of matching colors. They worked as teams, efficiently, quietly and in good humor, with the usual banter of happy co-workers. They came from all over the Second and Third Worlds. Our meals-in-progress traveled over moving belts that led finally to dumbwaiters that lifted the plates to the various serving stations of the ship’s restaurants. Where did these hundreds of hidden workers go when they were off-duty?
Our “smoking deck” had a seven foot barrier at one end. I heard voices spilling over it and I pulled myself up to take a look. There they were, the below-deck workers, taking their ease on their own stretch of deck which was better equipped than our barren strip. Their living quarters must have been located at that end of the ship too. Did they have a swimming pool tucked away somewhere?
Nanda was determined to have a swim. She had brought her bathing suit but she had been repelled by the ship’s crowded, noisy pool. We signed up for a tour that took us to the private beach of one of the island’s big hotels. Our tickets entitled us to an umbrella, two beach chairs and about three hours on the sand. I brought my book – good thing too – because it was a bad day for people watching. The beach was deserted, but Nanda was happy. It was to be her only ocean swim of the year.
On our last morning in Bermuda we took a bus tour to St. George, the old fishing port on the far end of the island. Our ship was departing at four o’ clock that afternoon. The bus was waiting on the pier but Nanda and I were the only passengers. No matter, said the driver. He phoned his office and within minutes a six- passenger van appeared, driven by a woman in her mid-twenties. We’d have, virtually, a private tour, an outing with the well-informed Diana, our driver, who chatted happily as we drove along.
She told us what it was like to live in idyllic Bermuda. Not so idyllic for many Bermudans because there were few jobs for the young. Some of her friends had found work in London and New York. Diana was lucky to to be part of a family business. She worked long hours when the cruise ships were in port but in the off season she’d fly to New York and to London, on shopping jaunts mostly.
St. George was settled in 1612, coeval to Jamestown, Virginia. However, St. George had survived even though few of its original buildings remained. An important survivor, much transformed, is St. Peter’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in the Western Hemisphere, continually in service since that year. Within this large, evolved building stands the wooden skeleton of the original church, a baldacchino of rough-hewn oaken beams.
The docent, an elderly parishioner, was pleased to show us around the church – we were the only visitors. She opened her heart to us when we told her that we had had tea the day before with Anthony Hollis, the Bishop of Bermuda. We had been referred to him and his wife by my daughter who is a parishioner of Trinity Episcopal Church in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Its minister, Joanna Hollis, was the Bishop’s daughter
The streets of St. George were deserted. The St. George Cricket team, with the bulk of St. George’s citizenry in tow, had gone to Somerset town to play against its arch rival, the Somerset Cricket Club. The match could last for hours. We strolled the town center which included a small 18th century square and little else. Many shops were closed.
We rendezvoused with Diana and started back to Hamilton. She made a detour to show us the little church where Bishop Hollis had begun his career. Then another stop to show us the Bishop’s house. I was concerned about the time. She wasn’t. Bermuda, population sixty thousand, has a small town mentality. Everybody knows everybody. If we should have been delayed I think Diana would have phoned Captain Leo. “We’ll be a little late, Leo. Please hold up the ship for ten minutes.”
The Cafe Normandie was the ship’s best restaurant. Its entrance was preceded by a large display case which contained artifacts from the S.S. Normandie, the great French transatlantic ocean liner of the 1930s. The most striking items in the case were two decorative wall panels which were deeply etched and painted, depicting life sized male figures against a maroon background.
We looked into the dining room. It was decorated in the art deco style – a 21st century idealization of a first class restaurant aboard the old S.S. Normandie. The lighting was discreet and the tables were widely separated. It was quiet. Nanda said let’s do it and I agreed. It was expensive but heck, it was our last night at sea. We reserved a table for two.
The Serbian maitre d’ was polished and the elegant Romanian wine steward, a woman, was urbane. Nanda ordered a rum swizzle cocktail – the best she ever had she said – and she ordered a white wine to go with her fish. I ordered Ginger ale. Romania didn’t flinch.
The décor, in ivory and brown, was very formal. It looked like a set in a 1930s Hollywood movie. The ceiling light was a great white disc about six feet across. The wall panels depicted classically robed figures gazing nobly into the distance. Sconces shaped like conch shells lined the walls and vintage bronze portholes stared blindly.
The Cafe was an oasis of civility. The room was very quiet – no piped in music – and our waitress was reserved. The food was good. The understated décor was boring. The room was lifeless. I couldn’t picture Marlene Dietrich sweeping into the room and calling out to Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence sitting over there, or to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sitting tete-a-tete in that alcove. Back in Medford, New Jersey, a few months later, I googled the S.S. Summit and I learned that the Cafe Normandie had been dismantled and that it had been transformed into a rustic Tuscan inn, a “fun” place to eat.
Nanda finished her wine and we left. We sought out our open stretch of deck and we took several turns of its length. We stood by the rail and looked out over calm sea. Nanda remembers it being a little rough but then she has never crossed the North Atlantic in winter. We returned to our cabins, to our beds, to our books. No more cruise ships for us. The QE2 to England might tempt us, but not in winter.