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The Wall Street Journal: Secretarial Ladder
Off The Wall Street Journal: Pork Bellies Pie
The Porthole: M.S. Fantasy
                         Normannia in  Quarantine
                         The Mauretania Restaurant                          Legend of the Seas
                         World Ship Society at Sea
Key Magazine: La Bonne Soupe
                           Bill's Gay Nineties
                           Shah Jahan

Secretarial Ladder

I became a secretary after being "excessed" by the New York City Board of Education. When a fiscal crisis hit, I was one of the teachers let go.

Thinking a secretarial job would be a stepping stone to an executive position, I brushed up on high school stenography and typing, and proceeded to reassure scads of employment agents that I was not overqualified. Some advised removing higher education from my resume. I capitulated by removing B.A. and M.A. and just listing universities attended. I omitted study abroad.

I thenceforth "secretaried" in two different business climates: the fashion world where models parade about in lingerie samples, and the corporate headquarters of a major conglomerate where movers and shakers march up and down corridors.

I worked diligently, faithfully and overtime; served more coffee than I wish to acknowledge; washed cups; went to the deli, the butcher, the cleaner, the cigar store; waited at an apartment for a couch delivery; prepared peanut and raisin snacks; picked up vitamins; was kidnapped by a frantic public relations department the moment my boss left town; was drafted by a neighboring executive because his secretary left at 5:00 and I was working late. I'd grin and bear it all, thinking I was paying my dues, proving my loyalty. I was wrong. No ladder of success did I climb.

I couldn't get off the first rung. No assistant-type job ever materialized. I tried coaxing and cajoling one boss into promoting me. A simple title change would have looked good on my resume. No luck. Next stop: personnel.

Although empathetic, the personnel department gave me no guidance, Personnel managers traditionally don't go out of their way to help people advance from secretarial levels and, if anything, consider it a stigma. Former secretaries who "make it" do so despite their humble origins—because they are extraordinary or lucky or both.

But that shouldn't be so. A good secretary exercises management skills all the time: decision-making, supervising, delegating, organizing, planning, investigating, troubleshooting, negotiating.

I motivated the mailroom into super speedy service; oversaw hiring temporary help for special projects; coordinated a topsy-turvy research office into a modicum of efficiency; executed publicity mailings from proofreading through printing to distribution; assisted a top executive in running an annual meeting; was one part travel agent, thinking through each trip until it ran without a hitch.

I've known secretaries who carried these skills up the ladder in their company to become a trade paper editor, money market manager, assistant product manager, personnel administrator, public relations assistant and salesperson. Some were getting M.B.A.s. All had at least a B.A.

There's a labor pool of "overqualified" secretaries hoping to do the same: new college grads, ex-teachers, ex-wives, writers. Yet many are overlooked as natural resources and cubbyholed into secretarial doldrums. Wouldn't it be wise to give them direction and foster their growth? Channel their energies rather than dull or frustrate them? Use the secretarial experience as a training and testing ground rather than a burial ground? Cultivate them or they'll leave.

Look around. It's hard to find good secretaries these days. At a time when women are taking great strides in other areas of the workplace, secretaries are often dead-ended and low-paid. At a time when women are freer to direct their own lives, secretaries are still expected to mold themselves to their bosses' eccentricities. (More than most spouses would!) Secretaries are still often treated like chattels or perks, as when a corporate executive teaching an evening course (for which he was paid and I wasn't) had me preparing his course materials during my workday. No wonder there's a dearth of conscientious secretaries.

For many women, of course, being a secretary remains an honorable and even an enjoyable profession, with lots of personal contact and pleasant working conditions. It's still a step upward in respectability for many women from working-class backgrounds, and in fact in the late 19th Century, when women began to enter the previously all-male secretarial ranks, it was seen as a big opportunity for them.

There are also still opportunities for bigwig secretaries—people whose positions are challenging, exhilarating and powerful. Top-level secretaries demand and command respect and good salaries because they’re essential to senior management. So valuable are they that my company would retain them when their bosses left. If no lateral job existed, they would bide time working for lesser executives, at full salary, until a position of major responsibility opened up.

But not all secretarial jobs are at such high levels. And the fact remains that the supply of career secretaries for middle-level executives will not catch up to demand. Talented women who would have become secretaries a generation ago now have too many other opportunities.

That's where the overqualified, albeit available, secretaries come in. A ready source of intelligent young women—and men—is there to be tapped. But if business doesn't acknowledge their career aspirations, it will continue to force some of them to search for other options, to find stimulation and fulfillment elsewhere. Like I did.


Pork Bellies Pie

CHICAGO-The Chicago Board of Trade has awarded Alma Mae Culverson of Waterloo, Iowa, grand prize in its First Annual Commodity Cook-off Contest, for her Pork Bellies Pie.  

Pie Filling:

1 lb. chopped Pork Bellies, 12-14 lb
Mdw lb fob
3 Tbs. Grease, choice white, Chgo lb
˝ c. Alfalfa Pellets, dehy, Neb., ton
2 diced Potatoes, rnd wht, 50 lb, NY
dash Pepper, black NY lb 

Fry Pork Bellies and Alfalfa Pellets in Grease until brown. Add Potatoes and Pepper, simmer 1 hour. When filling has cooled off, spoon into dough-lined pie pan and top with remaining dough circle. Bake at 375° for 45 minutes.


M.S. Fantasy (written with Paul Immerman)

Our first encounter with Carnival's M.S. FANTASY had been a model we viewed at architect Der Scutt's gallery. With her flat bottom, shallow draft and slab sides, the vessel looked more like a river-boat than an ocean liner. How, we wondered, could a ship 13 decks high draw only 19 feet?

The answer occurred to us as soon as we boarded and found ourselves at the bottom of an atrium that was six decks high. Named the "Grand Spectrum," it was reminiscent of a suburban mall, right down to two glass-and-chrome elevators traveling its vertical length. Obviously this multi-deck cavity removes a lot of topside weight from the ship.

We marveled at the extensive use of tile and marble throughout. The marble was applied in very thin layers to reduce weight, and also has the advantage of being fireproof. This stood in marked contrast to the lavish use of woods on the liners of yesteryear, such as the QUEEN MARY, which was sometimes called "the ship of fine woods."

There were other wonders to admire on our three-night "Fun" cruise from Port Canaveral to Nassau. Our biggest question was whether we, aficionados of the QE2, would thrive or merely survive.

Our cabin was on the port side aft of the Main Deck, which interestingly enough was quite low in the hull—just above the lowest passenger deck. It had an immaculate bathroom with a very large tiled shower stall. A pneumatically-assisted toilet used little water but flushed with a mighty report. The room was commodious and had two large sealed windows (sorry, no portholes). Two single beds were set at right angles, yet there were three reading lights in the bulkheads. We thought this odd until our dinner companions, first-time cruisers, told us they pushed one of their beds under the extra reading light to make a king-sized bed configuration! We wondered how long it would have taken us to figure out that a bed on a ship wasn't bolted down! This unique benefit was never mentioned by the steward nor Carnival literature.

Our pre-sailing exploration led us to the ubiquitous Lido for lunch. We were off to an inauspicious start with a choice of hot dogs, hamburgers, fried rice and stir-fried chicken which had fat, gristle and skin still clinging to it. ("We will use every part of the chicken aboard this ship, Mr. Christian!") Luckily, the food quality and selection improved later.

Our departure from Port Canaveral was majestic. The ship backed away from the dock using its bow and stern thrusters, completely unassisted by tugs. Leaning out over the edge of the starboard sponson (just above the bridge), we held our breath as the harbor pilot descended the Jacob's ladder, jumped into the pilot boat and sped away.

The gym, which was located on the highest enclosed deck forward, had a ceiling so low the taller of us could touch it, but it also had floor-to-ceiling windows offering magnificent views of the sea. Owing to the height above the waves, the slightest motion of the ship was very pronounced, which the more coordinated of us dealt with in a step class. There was a full line of Keiser machines (which provide resistance by using compressed air instead of stacks of cast-iron weights), seven treadmills, two stair machines, two bicycles, and a very small selection of free weights. Unlike the QE2's spa, lockers and showers are available.

Before we debarked in Nassau the first day, we showed up for a bridge tour (at a vaguely defined assembly point) and the Italian officer of the deck politely informed our small group that he knew nothing about it and wouldn't let us in. Suddenly the social director appeared, announced that he was our tour leader and gave us entree.

Anyone expecting the gleaming brass and polished teak of the great liners is in for a disappointment. This bridge is carpeted and furnished with electronic control panels. It is completely enclosed and overhangs both sides of the ship. Glass plates, each about two feet square, are set into the overhanging deck on both port and starboard sides, near the thruster control stations. In that way, the officer operating the thrusters can see how close the ship is to the dock by looking through the glass plate beneath his feet. The ship's wheel is a tiny affair that looks like an airplane's control yoke and is rarely used since the ship generally relies on gyro, rather than manual, steering.

FANTASY is a twin-screw vessel with diesel-electric drive. The six diesels are fed from different fuel tanks to avoid a complete power failure should one tank contain bad oil. (Exactly what happened to the ROYAL VIKING STAR in 1989 on returning to New York Harbor. She lost power off Ambrose Light and floated dead in the water for several hours, surrounded by a flotilla of tugs. While the engineers cleaned the oil screens, we dawdled over a cold breakfast.)

The last full day was spent at sea, although rarely out of sight of land. As we cruised though the Bahamas, passing Freeport at a scant 10 knots in four-foot seas, the motion of the ship was barely perceptible. We toured the one centrally-located kitchen, which serves both dining rooms, while crew members made ice carvings and almond paste flowers, and hawked a cookbook. It was only 11:00 A.M., but the staff was already preparing the shrimp-cocktail appetizers we would enjoy at dinner that night.

The cuisine turned out to be surprisingly good and the themed dinners quite festive. On American Night, the entrees included prime ribs and turkey. The waiters wore red, white and blue vests and sang a multi-accented version of "God Bless America." And so on for Italian Night, when they sang "0 Sole Mio."

We made good use of the pizza bar, which churned out tasty, fresh pizzas 24 hours a day. Afternoon tea was another story. Despite the white gloves, our waiter wasn't polished and ran out of treats after the first round. But he got an A for effort. We were disappointed by the heavy fried foods and tiny selection of desserts at the midnight buffets, and by Formal Night because very few men wore black tie. We suppose this is to be expected from a line which emphasizes a casual cruise experience.

A little too casual it seemed, when it came to wake-up calls. Since our voyage coincided with the October weekend when clocks are set back, our steward left a flyer on our beds to remind us. Apparently no one informed the crewmember in charge of wake-up calls. So we, and we presume everyone else who requested a wake-call, were called one hour too early the next morning!

Docking back in Port Canaveral underlined a major drawback of sailing on a ship this size, because debarking 2,400 passengers took well over an hour. However, this and embarkation were the only times we felt the roar of the crowd.

All in all, this "Fun Ship" lived up to its reputation. Although it paled in comparison to the sophisticated QE2, it wasn't as downscale as we feared. The ambiance was down-to-earth and the service attentive and friendly. The ship even had one feature we would never expect on the QE2—an area marked with a sign reading, "Topless Sunbathing, Cameras Forbidden."


Normannia in Quarantine

Imagine entering New York Harbor after a trans-Atlantic crossing and being prevented from disembarking because other passengers are ill. It happened on September 3, 1892. Physician and medical historian Howard Markel describes the drama and subsequent media frenzy in Quarantine! East European Jewish Immigrants and the New York City Epidemics of 1892.

The author sets the stage by describing the western terminus of the immigrant trade: "During the year 1892, no American locale was more threatened by imported epidemic disease than New York City. New York boasted the busiest port in the country and, after Hamburg, the second busiest in the world. The port was so commercially active that tariffs charged on the goods delivered to it made up over half of the budget of the U.S. federal government. It was also the port of first landing for more than 75 percent of all immigrants coming to the United States. Pandemics of typhus and cholera raging in Asia, Russia and continental Europe during the summer, combined with the global village created by rapid steamship transportation, made New Yorkers unlikely to rest complacently on the notion that the wide Atlantic Ocean would protect them from diseased newcomers or, worse still, devastating epidemics."

Hamburg-Amerika's NORMANNIA, built in 1890, was one of Albert Ballin's first twin-screw liners, capable of crossing in six and a half days. This 8,242-ton, 500-foot-long ship carried 1,055 passengers (573 in first and second class, 482 in steerage) and 300 crew. During this crossing, there had been six deaths (five in steerage, one each in first and second class) and there were four ill steerage passengers. Diagnosis: cholera.

The origin of infection wasn't clear—records indicated the ship's water supply did not come from the cholera-tainted Elbe River. Steerage travelers most likely were exposed in Hamburg via contaminated water and unsanitary facilities in cheap boarding houses rather than HAPAG's Emigrant Village which provided showers, physical exams and fumigation of luggage. The unfortunate ones then spread cholera on board through poor personal hygiene. As to how the disease crossed class lines, Dr. Markel could not guess.

NORMANNIA was quarantined for nearly two weeks, by which time 53 more people died. Meanwhile, the healthy captives on board were restless: "It was the cabin passengers of the NORMANNIA who captured the attention of the press covering the event. For millions of readers throughout the nation, these wealthy, socially prominent passengers came to symbolize the cholera epidemic and the quarantine as both Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly scrambled to feature them on their covers. Their detention and treatment soon became a spectacle described around the world. Perhaps the angriest diatribes, directed at both the act of being quarantined and the man who ordered the detention, emanated from the pen of E. L. Godkin…firmly established as an important political commentator, journalist, and editor...From his first-class stateroom...Godkin composed a series of scathing articles entitled 'Letters from the NORMANNIA,' which were published in newspapers across the country...Godkin complained about the 'wretched table service' aboard the ship, which completely ruined one of the few pleasures he managed to find in Quarantine: sitting down to a rare beefsteak."

"Lottie Collins was another prominent passenger on board the quarantined NORMANNIA. The British music hall performer was scheduled to make her American debut…Her fame was largely dependent on her charming stage presence, her vigorous dancing, and her association with the song 'Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay!' Collins, like her shipmate Godkin, was particularly adept at self-promotion during the cholera epidemic. She shouted out a series of interviews, over the side of the ship, that were featured on the front page of the New York World and quoted in many others. But E. L. Godkin and Lottie Collins were just a few of many cooperative sources for the press. Indeed, the vocally strident NORMANNIA passengers were so cooperative in yelling interviews to the floating mob of media journalists that the newspaper reporters nicknamed them the 'Kickers' after the trademark 'high-kicking dance step' of Lottie Collins."

Nine days later, steerage was sent to a crowded quarantine station, while cabin class set off for a Fire Island hotel via pleasure boat. There they remained for three days, buffeted by a storm and virulent local protests. When they finally checked into the hotel, the ship's band played "Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean." The next day they were declared free of infection and released.


Mauretania Restaurant (written with Paul Immerman)

Imagine strolling through the R.M.S. MAURETANIA of 1907 and admiring the finely carved, highly polished mahogany paneling graced with gold leaf accents, and the fluted wooden pilasters crowned with gold swags. Crane to view the white wedding cake ceiling adorned with Cupid cameos and aswirl with leaves. While the initial "M" appears over the doorways in the main dining room, the initial "A" curiously appears on the ceiling, too. (Anyone know why?) There's a marble fireplace topped with a mirror on which "MAURETANIA" is scrolled in ghostly letters. Peer into it and fantasize that this looking glass enables you to observe the passengers and hear the bugler announcing dinner.

Listen to the rush of the ocean past the hull. It's likely to be the rumble of a bus outside on busy Park Street. And if that's not enough to jar you out of your reverie, the mirrored disco ball hanging amid crystal lightoliers certainly will. The MAURETANIA—the restaurant, that is—is in the middle of Bristol, England.

The lavish fittings, though, are authentic. In 1935, after 27 years of service—22 as holder of the Blue Ribband—the MAURETANIA, the ship, was to sail to the breakers in Scotland. But first she docked at Berth 108 in Southampton, where her glorious innards were removed and auctioned off on May 14th. Hundreds of buyers gathered in her main lounge, among them Ronald Avery, a Bristol wine importer. He purchased complete public rooms, stateroom paneling, light fixtures, fireplaces, plasterwork and mirrors.

In order to accommodate his acquisitions, he expanded the old Avery building in Bristol. Built with split-level entrances on a hill, it now extends five stories below and four stories above Park Street. Therein lie additional complete MAURETANIA rooms which are used as private offices and are closed to the public.

Last spring we were given a guided tour by Roger Durbin, the restaurant's very gracious manager. Stepping into the main dining room, which contains paneling and fixtures from the reading room, and seeing tables set with china and crystal (none original) for dinner, it was easy to imagine being aboard the great liner on a calm evening. It's now an English Heritage site.

The restaurant is fairly large, with several back rooms available for private parties. Open for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner, it then morphs into a members-only nightclub for the over-25 set. The MAURETANIA has seen its share of nightlife—during World War II, it had ten bars on four floors and many GI's as customers. Park Street was in the red light district.

Our host gave us some historical background on the city. Known as a floating harbor because the quays move with the tide, Bristol was an important harbor since Roman times. However, its 38-foot tides proved to be its undoing and shipping companies eventually moved elsewhere. A photo taken in the early part of the 20th century showed three ocean-going freighters resting in mud as a result of missing the tide.

Late-breaking news: Before crossing westbound on the QE2 in December, member David Hume paid a visit and noted with disappointment that the slanting brass letters that had spelled MAURETANIA on the ship's bow and then on the front of the restaurant, had been removed. Renamed The Met Club to emphasize the nightclub, the restaurant operation nevertheless remains open to the public during the day. And be reassured that they still use leather menu covers saying MAURETANIA.

9 Park Street, Bristol BS1 5NF, Telephone: (011-44)117-985-3313, Fax: (011-44)117-987-3235.


World Ship Society at Sea (written with Paul Immerman, January 2008)

This past Labor Day we again embarked Queen Mary 2 — this time with fellow World Ship members – for a four-day cruise to Halifax.  Mother Nature favored us with fair skies and calm seas, quite a contrast to our trip last year when 50-knot winds and 10 to 12-foot seas escorted us out of the harbor and followed us to Canada.

While QM2 offers a return to the golden age of ocean liners, the terminal in Brooklyn has a ways to go.  Tip: Arriving early is the way to avoid lines at the security checkpoint.  Once given our boarding cards we were ushered in to a separate room with vinyl chairs like those in the main waiting area.  One bare wall displayed a poster of an elegant dinner aboard an early 20th century liner.  "Return to Elegance" the poster shouted.  We wanted to return to elegance but the vinyl chairs got in the way.

Once on board, the customary crowd of elegantly uniformed porters greeted us and then left us to carry our own luggage.  Our cabin, mid-ships, port side, Deck 5, had a hull hole balcony.  The space was adequate but we doubted there was enough room for luggage for a round-the-world cruise.  We felt the cabins were comfortable but not nearly as roomy as on QE2.

Our impression of the ship as more Ritz Carlton and less Ocean Liner was borne out at the Kings Court for lunch.  Long lines and a shortage of tables were the order of the day.  Tip: We solved the problem by carrying our trays to the Winter Garden where plenty of set-up tables remained empty.

This trip we had an encounter with a member of the engineering staff.  One evening when we returned to our cabin after late seating dinner a sprinkler head started dripping on our bed.  He was happy to explain the operation of the system as he installed a new sprinkler head.  He told us that each sprinkler head has a glass tube filled with crystals.  If the crystals are exposed to a temperature of 56° Centigrade (about 133° Fahrenheit) they expand and break the glass tube at the end of the sprinkler head.  This allows the room to be flooded with a mist of water.

As he put a plastic cap over the leaking head and unscrewed it he explained that to remove a sprinkler head  they used a special plastic cap that is molded to the shape of the head, instead of a wrench, to avoid breaking the glass tube.  I asked why he didn't turn off the water before removing the head.  He explained that there is a valve in the pipe at each sprinkler head.  When the head is removed the valve automatically shuts off the water.  Installing the head forces the value open.  This saves time and labor when replacing sprinkler heads and also avoids having to install manual shut off valves.

He was quite proud of his ship and told us that he was a “plank owner” having been aboard since she was delivered.

The next day found us at sea fascinated by Ted Scull's excellent lecture on the five Queens.  He discussed the original Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth from their launching, to their career ends – Queen Mary’s conversion to a hotel in Long Beach, California, and Queen Elizabeth's fiery demise in Hong Kong harbor.

There was a noon-time reception for World Ship members in the Commodore Club [Deck nine forward overlooking the bow.]  We were joined by fellow member, Ben Lyons, now serving as a first officer aboard QM2.  Ben was justifiably proud and glad to answer questions about the ship and his experiences aboard.

There were several paintings on the walls in the Commodore Club.  Our favorite was the depiction of a pre-WWII yacht race off the English coast, observed by the Normandie, what appeared to be the Aquitania , an unidentified one stacker in Cunard colors and a British warship (perhaps the Hood or Warspite).

We tried a new venue for afternoon tea.  Instead of the chaotic and crowded Queens Room, we opted for self-serve tea in the Lotus, one of the King's Court stations.  Traditional down to the cucumber sandwiches, it was – as tea is supposed to be – relaxing and renewing.

In Halifax we walked past a statue of Samuel Cunard majestically posed beside an engine room telegraph.  Although the register indicated "Full Ahead," the course indicator read "Hard Starboard."  Doubtless this explained why Sir Samuel never moved from the spot.

Our group was invited to a lecture at the Museum of the Atlantic by John G. Langley, author of Steam Lion: A Biography of Samuel Cunard.  Sir Samuel, who we always thought of as the quintessential Englishman was actually born in Canada. Much to our surprise, we learned that his ancestors, who were originally from Germany, settled in America but were loyalists and fled to Canada after the American Revolution.

We toured the beautiful Public Gardens where there was a bandstand concert in progress.  Curiously a 5-foot-long model of the Titanic floated in the duck pond.  No one could explain its presence.  The ducks gave it a wide berth.

On the return voyage, we were treated to Ted Scull's lecture on the history of the port of New York.  Later we saw a matinee performance of a condensed "Great Expectations" by the embarked RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts] players who performed to a packed house.

We also engaged in another liner tradition, playing quoits on the sundeck, although the strong wind kept the doughnut shaped ropes suspended a little too long.

Finally we were able to experience the "Curse of the Planetarium" first hand.   What is the curse you ask?  Just this, the reclining seats are so comfortable that as soon as the lights go down and the seats go back we both fell asleep.  Asking others what we missed was fruitless since they all fell asleep too.  Has anyone actually seen the entire show in the Planetarium?  Is there even one?

For the first three evenings, we enjoyed dinner and socializing in the Britannia dining room where we met and shared stories with Carol Miles, Mario De Stefano and other World Ship Society members from as far away as Atlanta.  For the fourth and final evening, we shared a table in the Carvery in the King's Court (redone as an elegant restaurant at night) with First Officer Ben Lyons, his girlfriend Jenny, his mother Jane, Ted Scull and Bill Niles.  Ben and Jenny, who also works on the QM2, shared stories about the everyday functioning of the world's largest ocean liner and the myriad details that must be attended to insure the smooth operation of the ship.  Ben was due on the bridge at 4:00 a.m. the next morning to guide us into the Port of New York.

Tip: Bring your own alarm clock.  The 5 a.m. computerized walkup call came at 4:00 a.m.  The ship had set the clocks ahead enroute to Halifax and a crew member must have forgotten to set them back on the way home — two years in a row!

The final morning meant breakfast in the Britannia with a table of new faces and a return to land life.  Tip: Carry your own bags off the ship.  You will depart sooner, find the terminal almost empty and have no trouble getting a cab, bus or car service car.  Many of the passengers went to work the same day.  Ted Scull bested us all by taking the B-51 bus to the subway and arriving home by 8:30 a.m.

Thanks to Brad Hatry for organizing this fine trip. David Hume and Marjorieann Matuszek for hosting our group, Ted Scull for his lectures and Pauline Power and her staff at Pisa Brothers.


Legend of the Seas (written with Paul Immerman, August 2009)

We never considered ourselves Royal Caribbean types after lunch on a Caribbean-bound RCI ship in Bayonne, N.J.  We found the crowd too flashy and the ship too crowded.  So what were we doing on the LEGEND OF THE SEAS this past fall?

A fabulous itinerary seduced us…we couldn’t resist Rome to Rome with overnights in Venice and Livorno (for Florence/ Pisa)!  The mostly Italy, 13-night cruise also called at Genoa, Messina, Naples, Split and Dubrovnik, both in Croatia, and had three sea days, for roughly $90 per day (compared to our hotel in Rome which cost nearly $300 per day)!

Once aboard we did a turn on deck and were disappointed to discover that the promenade deck does not go all the way around the ship.  Our outside cabin — on two deck  — was small and our two large suitcases would not fit under the bed, so they stood in a corner the whole trip.  But it was clean and quiet and the bed was very comfortable.

The passengers were more sophisticated than we expected. The mostly retired crowd of mostly Europeans was very interested in culture and history.  We got to interface with many of them because we chose the new "My Time Dining" service.  You sign up for it on the first day of the cruise and then tell the maitre d' by 4:30 P.M. each day what time you’d like to dine that evening. The logistics were impressive, since the ship had passengers who spoke English, French, German, Italian and Spanish and each language group was seated separately. The benefits were twofold…we were able to alter our dinner times depending on whether we were in port or at sea, and we sat with different passengers each night and by the end of the cruise, as we walked through the dining room, we found ourselves stopping to greet numerous former tablemates. On two evenings we dined alone rather than wait for other diners to arrive.  Service was very attentive, but the food — while first rate — could not compare with what we had enjoyed in Rome! On the overnights there was no midnight buffet…only the pizza stand was open.

The dining room extends over decks four and five toward the stern but is not all the way aft, so there was no vibration from the propellers.  Our first night out we experienced rough seas (7.5 - 12 feet) and a strong gale hitting the ship perpendicularly from port, but there was not much movement noticeable in the dining room.  The Lido (Windjammer Cafe) is forward on deck 9 so the motion of the ship was more pronounced here. 

One night we tried the Indian-themed dinner in the Lido and were rewarded with a chance meeting with the captain, who was dining there with some of his officers.  The lighting was subdued and there were candles on each table, so the atmosphere was festive and elegant.

RCI offers a far less formal voyage than Cunard.  Although there were two formal nights, very few of the men wore tuxedos.  Paul compromised by wearing a dark jacket with a white shirt and bow tie.

LEGEND OF THE SEAS is a 70,000-ton cruise ship with a capacity of 1900 passengers.  We sailed with about 1600 passengers, but it was usually overcrowded at the Lido for lunch, forcing us to sit out on deck — not bad when the sun was shining but a real drawback when it was cold and rainy, as was often the case.  However, check-in was smooth and uncrowded, perhaps because we arrived three hours early.

The staff was very attentive. Returning from dinner the first night, we were locked out of our cabin because our card keys didn’t work.  Our steward noticed and tried to help and finally sent for the engineer.  This proved to be indicative of the helpful attitude of all of the staff we encountered.  We were intrigued by the many Chinese in the crew — they all spoke excellent English and were very friendly.  The reason for their presence became clear when we learned that the ship was scheduled to go to China next and sail out of Singapore and Shanghai.

Onboard activities were not nearly as interesting as those offered on Cunard.  One that did appeal to us was an Italian lesson given by a crewman from Mexico.  Although he had to look up the word "to teach," he was very enthusiastic
and entertaining. Adventurous passengers could climb the rock wall on the sports deck — three could climb abreast, and each got to ring a bell at the top.  There was also a miniature golf course and four shuffleboard courts.  The gym was small and outdated — none of the stationary bicycles or treadmills had video screens. A casual comment to a fellow weight lifter started a friendly conversation in which we joked about which was bigger…the gym or the locker room.

Most of the onboard port talks revolved around shopping.  The talk for Venice covered the history of the city in about two minutes and then segued to places to buy jewelry and glassware. Passengers who took the ship’s tour to Florence reported spending the afternoon at a leather factory.  They told us that by the time they were let off the leash they had only 1½ hours to explore the city on their own. (We were glad we took the train to Florence and stayed overnight in a bed and breakfast.)

RCI doesn’t have washers or dryers, so we brought a lot of CoolMax wash-and-wear shirts along with plastic hangers and clothespins, and gave the rest to be laundered.  (A large bagful cost $20.)

This was the first time we got sick at sea!  Ellen had flown with a cold and got clogged ears so she visited the ship’s doctors (there were two) twice.  They were top notch and it was such a relief to be sick onboard rather than on land because treatment was conveniently available.

Our first stop, Portofino, a tender port, was cancelled due to high seas.  Instead we docked in Genoa and serendipitously discovered the Galata Museo del Mare, a short rainy walk from the ship.  The museum features five floors of very imaginative exhibits beginning with the rise of Genoa as a sea power in the 12th century.  On the first floor is a full-scale replica of a Genoan galley.  An accompanying exhibit allows the visitor to try lifting and rowing a full-size oar while shackled (no, we're not kidding) to a rower's bench.

The high point of the museum was the "Age of Steam" exhibit which recreates the feeling of an immigrant's steerage voyage from Naples to New York aboard an early 20th century ocean liner.  We were even given reproductions of period Kingdom of Italy "Passaportos" and tickets.  We boarded via a wooden gangplank, and there was water between the "pier" and the riveted steel side of the ship.

Once aboard, we listened to the pounding of the engines while walking through replicas of the men's and women's steerage dormitories, lavatories and dining rooms.  The walls were lined with glass portholes showing a tempestuous ocean sliding by, and on arrival in New York, the Statue of Liberty slowly came into view.  At the end of the “voyage” we discovered the name of the immigrant on our Passaportos.  Paul had drawn Rudolph Valentino.

The most magic moment of the cruise was gliding into Venice at sunrise. The weather was chilly but one could grab a steaming cup of coffee or tea and stand at the rail on the sports deck watching the water traffic around us while the city's unique skyline came into view. We tied up at the ship terminal along with several other large cruise ships and then took a local water shuttle (vaporetto size) to St. Mark's Square.  Surprisingly, RCI charged us $10 per trip ($35 unlimited) for the shuttle.

The cruise was 13 nights, but — alas — we had to leave after nine to get back to work, so we missed a second day in Venice, a day at sea and one day each in Dubrovnik and Naples.  RCI had given us permission to debark early before we reserved the trip, but the purser’s desk wasn’t helpful in suggesting transportation to the Venice airport.  All they did was give us extra Internet minutes to search for a car service on our own.

All in all, the cruise was everything a good cruise should be: a great opportunity to explore fabulous ports and meet interesting people at an excellent value.


La Bonne Soupe

Step inside a charming French provincial cottage with white-washed facade, wooden shutters and sloping eave. That's the entry foyer of La Bonne Soupe, a delightful French restaurant where the price of a meal begins at $13.95.

Inside you'll find beamed ceilings, gingham tablecloths, flower boxes and café-curtained windows. The walls are abloom with Haitian landscape paintings in the primitive art style (all for sale). There are four intimate rooms, plus a tiny outdoor balcony on the second floor where multi-colored French umbrellas protect three tables. This adds continental spice to 55th Street.

The menu is varied from omelettes, hamburgers French-style, salads, quiche, fondue and paté, to main course specialties. The soup dinners are a real bargain. For $13.95 you get a big bowl of soup and bread, plus a salad or dessert and wine or coffee. Desserts range from chocolate fondue to fresh fruit or cheesecake. And then there's espresso, cappuccino and Irish coffee.

We ordered the Soupe Paysanne a l'Orge which was a hearty broth of mushrooms. barley, tender lamb chunks, celery, plus herbs. It had a home-made quality. A basketful of crusty French bread and toast was served warm. That's a special touch. And the house salad consisted of fresh, crisp iceberg lettuce in a creamy dressing made with imported French mustard. It had just the right amount of tang.

Chicken Tarragon, the daily special, was delicious. A thick, tomato-based, curry-colored sauce was enhanced by a sprinkling of chopped parsley, giving this dish eye-appeal as well as taste-appeal. It was served with a perfectly savory rice pilaf made with onions and chicken stock.

Desserts were special Gateau Maison was an airy chocolate mousse set in a chocolate graham cracker pie crust. All this richesse was then topped with whipped cream. A must for chocolate aficionados. The Pudding du Chef was a slice of heaven. Made with currants, raisins and a touch of Triple Sec liqueur, it was then drenched in a creamy caramel sauce.

Service was courteous, efficient and friendly. There's a full bar offering French cider, sangria and wine by the glass or carafe.

So, if you're in the mood for a cheerful, cozy, country-French atmosphere where the price is right and the menu is varied enough to please little and big appetites, visit- La Bonne Soupe at 48 W 55th St. (between 5th and 6th Aves.) 586-7650.


Bill's Gay Nineties

Bill's Gay Nineties is a wonderful slice of "New York-cana." Fifty years ago it was an honest to goodness speakeasy with a peephole and secret liquor storage room. The decor hasn't changed much since then. There's a fascinating potpourri of hand-tinted photographs, prints and memorabilia of an era past. Downstairs in the saloon, which used to be for gentlemen only, the photos are of boxers and horses. Upstairs in the dining room, the walls are literally covered with photos of early 20th century actors and actresses mounted next to programs from their plays. Today, Bill's Gay Nineties is a fine eating establishment with nostalgic, old-time entertainment.

The restaurant comprises several floors of a brownstone building. In the evenings, when you push open the elaborately carved swinging doors and enter the saloon, you'll be greeted by such strains as "If You Knew Susie Like I Knew Susie" or "By the Sea, By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea," emanating from a rinky-dink piano. There's a definite invitation to sing along (although one virtuoso I spotted was whistling-along!). Tommy Russ, bedecked in a boater, is the veteran piano-player. Then there is a can-you-guess slide show of old flicks, organized and accompanied by multi-talented Sal Terra Cina (he's also an artist and mind-reader).

The cuisine is top-notch American, fine steaks and seafood. We began the meal with a trio of delicious, warm rolls: plain white, sourdough, and raisin pumpernickel.

A salad accompanied each entree. The blue-cheese dressing was lip-smacking good.

Cream of chicken soup served in a crock was excellent, nice and hot, and creamy without being too rich. Rice and flecks of tart, fresh parsley were complementary condiments.

A shell-shaped dish bore troutlings and a tangy, creamy horseradish dip. The baby trouts were lightly fried so that they were crisp outside but tender within and made a good marriage with the dip.

A large sirloin steak was cooked to perfection and served with a delicious, buttered potato. Fresh jumbo shrimp scampi were attractively served on a bed of savory rice. And both entrees were accompanied by green peas cooked just enough to bring out their natural sweetness.

We finished the meal with a nutty dessert: pecan pie! And it was good to the last bite! Pots of demitasse and regular coffee were freshly brewed.

Barbara Bart, the owner, presides over a warm, friendly atmosphere. Aldo Leone gave us the cook's (or should I say waiter's tour) of the building! He showed us the big wooden bar from the elder Rockefeller's estate, and the silver-dollar studded entryway to the saloon.

For an excellent lunch or dinner, and for a joyous evening out on the town, visit Bill's Gay Nineties. Located at 57 E. 54th Street (between Park and Madison Avenues). 355-0243.


Shah Jahan

Shah Jahan is named after the Emperor who built the Taj Mahal. This tastefully elegant Indian restaurant is a treat to your senses. It is carefully decorated with Indian cloths, batiks, lamps and brass artifacts. You will find one rose and one candle on your table. Live Indian sitar music soothes you, and the formally attired waiters are quietly solicitous.

Indian cuisine is varied, and Shah Jahan offers a selection from all regions of India. You can have a gustatory voyage at one meal!

Tandoori chicken, a well-known northern barbeque dish, is first marinated in yogurt, herbs and spices, and then cooked over charcoals in the tandoor (clay oven). Our tandoori chicken was served sizzling hot, on a bed of savory onions. Its distinctive taste and tenderness made it an instant favorite.

We traveled south for Mutton du Piaz, chunks of mutton hidden in a wonderful, slightly hot, curry sauce. Also served were dal, a mild puree of lentils, and a deliciously aromatic rice pilaf. It was easy to tell that the chef took extra care with this side dish. Orange (saffron) rice and white rice were mixed together and then placed in a mold. The finished product was a flecked dome of rice pilaf. In addition, a platter of condiments accompanied the meal: two hot sauces, spicy pickles and coconut shreds.

There are several different types of bread on the menu. We chose paratha, a flaky flat bread, common throughout India. You can also choose from an appealing list of vegetables, which, when combined with spices the Indian way, gain a whole new life. All the food was served piping hot. And everything smelled wonderful, making this meal an olfactory as well as gustatory delight. Our Darjeeling tea was specially prepared in the kitchen with cardamom, cloves and cinnamon. It was fragrant as well as delicious.

You don't have to travel to India to experience the pleasures of Indian dining. Shah Jahan is located one and a half blocks from Central Park South, at Columbus Circle, 980 8th Ave. between 57th and 58th Streets. For reservations, call 586-4180.


Contact me at ellen@webstarlines.com