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Atlantic crossings, then and now

One traveler's romance with ocean liners

Created date

August 22nd, 2014
Jane Durrell onboard the Ryndam ocean liner, 1953.
Jane Durrell onboard the Ryndam ocean liner, 1953.

"Life on board ship is my life, and obviously I was born in Indiana by a fluke,” I wrote in a letter to my parents in 1953, a letter that miraculously came to hand all these years later.  Air travel then was exotic and, at least to me, a little scary. My husband and I booked passage on Holland-America’s new, post-war liner the Ryndam to go to Europe, returning by the Ryndam’s sister ship the Maasdam.  

Landlocked at birth, it was now my intention to see the world by ship, an intention that would be thwarted by the usual things: responsibilities, cost, time. But meanwhile, at sea, I wrote to my parents of the people aboard: Dutch nationals going home, Army wives and children on their way to join husbands stationed in Europe, veteran travelers who liked this small ship; of the food: multiple courses, a kind of cooking that hadn’t reached Indiana; and of the weather: when posted as “rough,” the soup course was eliminated.     

I remember a number of young emigrating Europeans on the return voyage, nervously approaching a new life in the States and prone to seasickness. We wished them well; it made our own return to chancy careers in public relations and freelance journalism seem easier.  At least English was our native tongue. 

Life intervened, of course. My husband took a regular job as a magazine editor, and I found motherhood required creativity of a different sort. By 1960, though, we were ready to try Europe again. My husband’s job precluded ocean voyages for him, but young Jeff, 4, and I had time to spare. We settled that although we would all fly home, Jeff and I would travel there on the Queen Elizabeth, a ship that had a family connection. 

When Jeff’s father went to Europe as a World War II infantryman, it was on the Queen Elizabeth. Once, in New York at the same time she was in port, he and I took a tour of the ship, and he tried to locate the cabin he had been assigned to with many others. Perhaps he did or didn’t find it. Everything looked different once wartime alterations had been smoothed away.

‘Airmail’

What both Jeff and I remember of our voyage is being tucked into deck chairs by solicitous stewards, warmly bundled, spending hours watching the sea and the life around us.  One day, a sealed, addressed envelope blew out of the hand of someone on the deck above, circled and landed not far from us, to be rescued by an attendant steward. “Airmail,” said Jeff, nodding wisely. Had he just discovered (wrongly) the meaning of the phrase? Or was he making a joke? I couldn’t ask him then, but many years later I did. He claimed to remember and looked affronted. “It was a joke,” he said. It’s tricky with four-year-olds. You don’t know where they’re coming from.

We’ve made many trips to Europe since 1960, particularly after Jeff grew up and settled in London. “Do you live in London now because we took you there when you were four?” I once asked him. “Possibly,” he said. When his own son was four, they mostly stayed at home in Nottinghill. But air travel had become our mode and continued to be mine even after my husband died.  Until this summer.

Back at sea

This summer, our daughter—who hadn’t yet been thought of in 1960—and I sailed from New York to Southampton on the Queen Mary II. It was more than half a century later, but the voyage had all the cachet of the earlier ones plus more. Shipboard life exists in a time capsule of its own while time itself, between these two continents, expands or compresses by five to six hours over the several days, depending on the direction.

The Queen Mary II is a magnificent ship, with all expectations of atmosphere of luxury fulfilled and a certain dressiness in place. Our cabin was the nicest of any I had had. I’m not sure if either of my previous modest compartments even had a porthole; Amy and I could open sliding doors to an outdoor seating area with a view past the life boats slung along the side. 

Something for everyone

Entertainment now is a vital component of ship travel. Among famous people introduced on this voyage was the actress Tilda Swinton, who was featured in movies shown on board and in the exercise class Amy went to before I was up. 

We found two pages listing the day’s activities on our door each morning. Music, bingo, afternoon tea, iPad workshop, lectures, dance class, performances by a troupe of actors from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts—something for everyone.

Going places is important.  So is how you get there. I hope to go by ship again.

 

Cruising in style

Some of the amenities on board the Queen Mary II:

• 15 restaurants and bars

• 5 swimming pools

• Movie theater and ballroom

• Casino

• Library

• First planetarium at sea

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