My memories before the age of seven are a collection of dreamlike images rather than stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Between 1955 and 1958 I traveled three times between India and England with one or both of my parents, and in 1960, from India to Greece with both parents and my baby sister Sally. All these passages were by ship, through Suez and the Mediterranean and across the Arabian Sea, a mode of travel in which the journey itself was a pleasure to be savored. As I return to these fragmentary dreamscapes in my mind’s eye, I catch glimpses of a much earlier era.
London to Bombay, P&O ocean liner, 1955: Bombay to London, 1956; London to Bombay, 1958. Travel time: twelve days.
A big, bare rock, presumably Gibraltar. Do I see monkeys, or is that another memory crowding in? A rough night passage through the Bay of Biscay, rolling and tilting on the empty wooden deck, passengers huddling below in their cabins. Someone vomiting over the rail. Everyone and everything green.
Loud roared the dreadful thunder, the rain in deluge showers/The ship was rent asunder by lightning’s vivid powers/The night was drear and dark, a poor denuded bark/
There she lay, till next day, in the Bay of Biscay-O.
Calm day dawns; fair weather and gracious living on deck. Bathers toss quoits back and forth in the pool. Passengers lounge in deck-chairs. Parents dress for dinner and evening entertainment, while the nursery organizes meals and activities for the children. My father still has a printed dinner menu from our first passage to India.
Navigating the narrow, high-banked Suez Canal. Calls at Port Said and Aden, where some passengers disembark, shop, and explore. The bulging, jocular, slightly sinister Gully Gully Man boards the ship, producing baby chicks from everywhere on his person and yours.
A house is on fire, flames raging out of control against a backdrop of darkest night. I see my very first movie on board ship, but only this once-terrifying scene remains, now faded and harmless.
And a lasting memory of standing on deck looking out to the horizon, with nothing but ocean and sky as far as the eye can see.
Bombay to Naples, Lloyd Triestino Italian passenger ship, 1960: No separation of children from adults at mealtime for the child-loving Italians. Sally and I order spaghetti bolognese every night for dinner, and the chef comes out to gaze on us fondly, missing his own children back home. He is impressed by Baby Sally’s spaghetti-eating prowess and pronounces her an “Italiano bambino.”
Our father accidentally jams his fingers in the thick, steel door of our cabin. It is terribly painful and the only time I have seen him cry.
Two days in Naples, and two memories: the most delicious, doughy doughnuts, and a store with sawdust on the floor, swept up and replaced daily. Again, we children are made a fuss of by the Italians we meet.
Naples to Piraeus, Greece, on an American ship: a short trip of which my sole memory is my first encounter with grapefruit juice, served at breakfast in a little can.
The era of ocean liners for passenger travel was nearly over. Our next overseas journey, three years later, was to be by air, as they have all been ever since.