ROTTERDAM

Dear Diary, it’s 4am and I’m sitting in the Smoking Room. I’ve just come inside from walking around the deck for an hour or more. Every night for the rest of my life, before I close my eyes to sleep, I want to remember how it felt to stand alone on the deck in the darkest hours before dawn as my ship slowly nosed its way down a river towards Rotterdam.

I never want to forget leaning on the railing at the back of the ship, watching our wake, wanting to believe that it reaches all the way back to Australia like a watery umbilical cord, keeping me safe and connected.

I can feel the ship’s familiar tremble. It saddens me to think I might never again feel that gentle vibration. My hair is being whipped about by the icy wind. Tears sting my eyes. Is that because of the chilly air, or because I’m so nervous? Probably both.

I take a deep breath, trying to settle the fluttering in my chest. My stomach is turning somersaults. All is silent except for the familiar swish and splash below as we glide effortlessly through the dark water. Stars wink their encouragement and the moon’s reflection shimmers on the dark sea. From the back of the ship, I can’t separate sky from sea. I turn to look behind me and see the fuzzy lights of Rotterdam on the horizon. I think I prefer the view from the stern!

Am I ready for this? I shiver, pull my coat tighter around me, then slowly make my way to the bow to watch our progress. One of those lights belongs to the house where Peter lives. All the other lights in all the other houses are where all the other Dutch families are preparing to greet a new day. They’re unaware and unconcerned that for two people, this day will be different from any other.

I’m questioning my sanity again.

I have a sudden urge to run and hide.

Is my life about to be forever changed?

I remind myself that whatever happens next, it will be as it is meant to be.

The night before we arrived in Rotterdam, I spent an hour or more just wandering around the ship aimlessly. I missed my friends, I missed our routines, our conversations and private jokes. We’d spent a lifetime together in just a few weeks and now they were getting settled in England, without me.

The passengers I encountered now were strangers. They offered no smiles of recognition, merely glancing at me with blank expressions as they passed by. For most of them, this was their first night on board and the labyrinth of cabins, the sooty smoke pouring from the ship’s funnel, dinner gongs and other idiosyncrasies that made our ship special were still unknown to them. Would the Australis cast her spell on them, as she had for us? Perhaps not. Many were embarking on a journey to a new land and a new life. It was likely the destination was more their focus than the voyage.

When I finished saying goodbye (yet again) to every nook and cranny, I returned to my cabin, hopeful I’d sleep well and awaken refreshed. I should have been exhausted. I’d spent the day running excitedly around Piccadilly Circus and Carnaby Street, embracing the chaotic delights of London for the first time, then another 90 minutes on the boat train, listening as an elderly gentleman seated opposite pointed out historic sites on the way. Yesterday, I’d spent the day finding my sea legs in Southampton, then sleeping on two lounge chairs pushed together at a Chelsea apartment. The night before that, I’d sat up most of the night in the Smoking Room with my friends, reminiscing, promising, planning, all of us reluctant to waste our last few hours together in sleep.

Even so, sleep eluded me. I tossed and turned, then tossed some more. My eyes refused to close, staring through darkness at the underside of the empty upper bunk. At around 3am, I gave up, got up, wrapped my rabbit-fur coat over my pjamas, stepped into my fluffy slippers and headed up to the deck. A few early risers or nervous new passengers passed me in the corridor and I’m sure I made a comical sight.  I didn’t care. I knew it would be freezing outside. I shuffled through the doors and walked to the rail.

I could just make out a distant glow of blurred lights on the horizon. They looked to be at least an hour away. I stood shivering at the stern for a long time, questioning my sanity.

We docked at about 6.30am. As we slid closer and closer towards the wharf, I was disappointed to see that the eye-level balcony was totally devoid of humanity. I cheered a little when I noticed a few people gathered on the dock below. I leant over the rail and studied them carefully. Then one caught a rope and a second ran to help. They were merely dock workers.

Where was Peter? He had assured me he’d be there as we docked. “Believe me,” he had written 2 months earlier, “I am so looking forward to November 19th, I think I better take a carton of cigarettes with me that morning because I’ll probably eat them.”

How many times had I imagined this day? I’d be standing on the deck, bathed in glorious sunshine as we sailed into Rotterdam and were greeted by a cheering crowd. Of course, it hadn’t occurred to me that November was not Holland’s sunniest month, nor was I aware that daylight didn’t seem to happen in Holland at all. I had imagined how Peter would find me in the crowd as we glided in to tie up, and he’d smile and wave enthusiastically. Of course, I’d recognize him immediately too. I’d wave back excitedly, then rush down the gangplank (in a most ladylike way, of course) and throw myself into his waiting arms. We’d walk off, hand-in-hand, towards a glorious sunset. So much for dreams!

I returned to the deck after breakfast to find that daylight really did happen in Holland, after all. Not only that, the balcony was now packed with that cheering crowd I’d so often imagined. I scanned their faces. Still no Peter.  Had he changed his mind? What would I do if he didn’t arrive?

The queuing process began. By the time the passport inspection, document checking, permit stamping and other official paperwork was completed, it was almost 10am. I was finally allowed to disembark.

I gathered up my hand luggage, then turned to say a last, sad and silent farewell. Oh how I wished I could have stayed on my beloved ship. That first step was almost agonizing, but I pulled myself together and waddled off. And yes. I do mean waddled! One hand clutched my bulging handbag, the other a heavy overnight bag. My camera bag was slung over my shoulder and a bulky travelling wardrobe draped over an arm. I made at least ten stops on the way to blow into my palms and readjust my hold on everything.

What an elegant entrance to Rotterdam! It held absolutely no resemblance to the arrival I’d experienced in my dreams!

I entered a big hall with shiny polished floors and benches stretching ahead of me. A large sign emblazoned with letters of the alphabet hung above each bench. Of course, XYZ was where I entered, C way down the furthest end where a crowd of people were waiting and waving.

My luggage became heavier with each step. The handles bit into my sweaty palms. The strap on my camera bag cut into my sun-burnt shoulder. The smooth soles of my boots kept sliding on the slippery floor. I had no doubt that at any moment I would go skidding in spectacular fashion across the hall or drop everything and collapse in an exhausted, gibbering heap in front of what seemed by now to be at least half the population of Rotterdam.

Amazingly, I made it in one piece! I was almost to the C bench when I saw someone in a dark coat waving frantically at me from behind a wire gate. A photograph came to life. Yes, I’d have known him anywhere. I walked slowly towards him and he stepped through the gate to meet me.

We stood face to face, just smiling. Then I said “hello Peter” and he said “hello, Sandy” and we smiled some more. They were not really earth-shattering words, but it was all we could manage for now. We had waited six years for this moment.

Peter collected my 4 suitcases and placed them and my hand luggage on a trolley and we pushed it to his car. On our way, we passed a cafe with floor-to-ceiling windows. Andy and a group of other waiters from our dining room rushed to the window and began knocking on it, waving and beckoning me to come in.

I hadn’t been able to find Andy, Marci, Ianis or Victor the previous night and was sad that I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye. How I would have loved to run over and hug them all, but I noticed Peter’s frown. While I saw a group of sweet people who had shared my journey and became my friends, Peter saw a rabble of amorous Greek waiters and – I later learnt – had formed a few ungracious assumptions.

I waved, beamed an apologetic smile at them and shook my head. I was no longer a fun-loving passenger on my glorious Australis. The voyage was over. My new life was about to begin.   

But oh, please, couldn’t I just go around one more time before I have to face life in cold grey Rotterdam?

Swinging Sixties travel

I was there.

It is estimated that in the late 60’s and early 70’s, around two million Australian baby boomers boarded a ship or jumped on an aeroplane and headed off to Europe.

At least one person out of every seven who lived in this country at that time found innovative ways to bare their upper arm and proudly reveal their status symbol vaccination scar.

If you were born after 1980, you might think that’s not such a big deal. Today, more than half our population of 25 million owns a passport, and jetting off to distant shores is what most people do when they need a break.

Believe me, in the 1960’s, it WAS a big deal.

If Peter Allen had written “I Still Call Australia Home” three decades earlier, it would have been “I Still Call England Home.”

 Our parents and grandparents and those before them were proud British subjects who called England home, even though few had ever been there and most never would.

Heck, most Australians had never even been outside their own state!

Those who could afford to visit ‘home’ needed to be intrepid travellers indeed. The first Qantas flight from Australia to the UK in 1935 took 12 days and included 43 stopovers.

Shortly after the end of World War 2, modern aircraft cut the journey to a mere four days with just six stopovers, only two of those requiring overnight stays.

This hippity-hop to England became known appropriately as the Kangaroo Route.

Propeller-driven and noisy, these state-of-the-art (for their time) aeroplanes had non-pressurized cabins which prevented them flying high enough to avoid inclement weather. Delays were frequent, turbulence common, and air sickness bags absolutely essential.

Of course, if you really wanted to ‘visit home’, there was always sea travel, but ships in the late 40’s and the 50’s had little in common with modern day passenger liners. Most were troop ships hastily converted to carry the first wave of migrants to Australia from war-torn Europe.

The trip between continents was long and arduous. Passenger comforts were not a priority. Food was plain and often inadequate. Triple-tiered bunks were built into every available space — including the hold — and bathrooms were communal. There was certainly no entertainment to keep passengers amused.

Faced with the choice of clinging to a paper bag for 4 days or turning green for 6 weeks, most opted for the less painful Kangaroo Route.

Then, everything changed. To understand why, we need to go back to the end of world war 2.

At that time, Australia’s population was a mere 7 million, which was a pitifully small number for such a large and isolated country. Not only did this create a critical labour shortage for emerging industries, but the threat of Japanese invasion during the war had revealed our vulnerability. We desperately needed more manpower to defend ourselves in the event of another war.

The Aussie government formulated a plan. Invite migrants from war-torn Europe and the UK to settle here, give them a choice between air or ship travel and provide them with temporary (albeit basic) accommodation on arrival. As long as they stayed for a minimum of 2 years. it would only cost them ten pounds, or the European equivalent of that amount.

Between 1945 and 1982, over 4 million people took advantage of this opportunity to start a new life.

Flushed with this scheme’s initial success, our first immigration minister, Arthur Calwell, reminded Australians that we must “populate or perish.” Families were encouraged to produce more children and Aussies performed their patriotic duty more enthusiastically than any other country, resulting in a baby boom of massive proportions. The arrival of these ‘baby boomers’ over the next two decades (1945 to 1965) increased the population by around five million.

By the early to mid 1960’s, Australia’s economy was booming. For the first time, people had money to spend.

Shipping lines began to realize that filling their ships with paying passengers for the return journey to Europe would make the migrant trade even more profitable, so they began improving on-board facilities, turning dormitories into comfortable cabins with private facilities, adding air conditioning, cinemas, swimming pools and more attractive menus.

They also offered competitive return fares, and the airlines quickly followed their example.

The shipping lines were also astute enough to recognize that their most lucrative market would be found within the 18 to 25 age group.

How right they were! The first wave of Aussie boomers were now wage-earning adults with money burning holes in their pockets.

These were the generation born to parents who had struggled through the great depression and at least one world war, if not two. They had not dared to step out of line, but it was a line their children chose to reject.

It is estimated that between 1965 and 1977, around forty percent of baby boomers born or raised in Australia set off to see the world. They absorbed whatever Europe had to offer, then returned to share that knowledge with all who cared to listen.

As a result, Australia was dragged — kicking and screaming — from an isolated colony of Mother England into a vibrant and thriving cosmopolitan nation.

The baby boomer exodus flared for one brief and shining decade, then flickered out. It had served its purpose. Flights to Europe had become faster, more comfortable and less expensive. Future generations would think nothing of travelling to Rome, London or Paris for a three week vacation.

By 1977, it was mostly all over.

There will never be another time like it.

I was there.

My intention for this blog is to include brief extracts from my book, YESTERDAY : A Baby Boomer’s Rite of Passage, in the hope that it might stimulate others’ memories of those halycon days. If you’d like to contribute some of your own recollections, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Your memories will be as exciting to me and other readers as I’m hoping mine will be to you.

Note: If you travelled on a Chandris line ship (Australis, Britanis, Ellenis, Patris) you may also consider joining the Chandris facebook page, with over 3,000 happy and nostalgic ex passengers and crew.

Across the Universe

October 14, 1969

The waiting room at Melbourne’s Station Pier was buzzing with excited passengers and tearful families when we arrived at about 5pm. Mum, Keith, Suzanne, Ray and Judy used their visitor passes immediately and climbed the gangplank, while I stood in a queue for half an hour before I was allowed to join them.

Mum and I went to find my cabin and were greeted by a note on the door: “all of us are in the fwd passenger lounge.” It was signed “the boys & girls”.

I had no idea who “the boys & girls” were. I’d only been allocated 5 passes from Chandris and I’d given them all out. I dumped my hand luggage and we negotiated the seemingly endless corridors and stairs to the lounge to find that most of the staff from my office were there.

David had ‘borrowed’ one of my passes and made multiple (and very credible) copies at work, so I had 15 people to party with!

L-R: Mum, me, and a few work colleagues

At 7pm the announcement came over the loud speaker. “Everyone going ashore must leave now.” Help! We all had hugs, said our goodbyes, and then had more hugs. Mum was crying. I had a few tears welling up too, but I had to stay strong for her.

I stood on deck and watched them walk down the gangplank.

I had never felt so alone in my life.

People down below threw streamers. Passengers leaning on the rails tried to catch them and threw streamers back. Auld Lang Syne played over the loud speaker. Everyone waved and called to each other. It was all just as I had imagined.

Except … we weren’t moving!

By 8pm, a few well-wishers began departing. Then a few more. Suzanne gave me a wave and left. Mum, Keith, Ray and Judy stayed.

By 9pm, most of the crowd had disappeared. My loyal four remained.

Not quite the way I’d dreamed it would be –
my 4 (centre group) waving at 10pm

I knew Mum wouldn’t be able to stand for much longer. Not long after 10pm, she blew me a kiss and I pretended to catch it. Ray put his arm around her shoulders as they walked to the car, turning occasionally to give me another wave.

I knew she was crying.

I was crying too. But I couldn’t let her see that.

Dear Diary, Tuesday, 14 October 1969

I’m on my way! Today is the first day on board the Australis, and I can hardly believe it’s happening!

A quick peek to starboard (or is it portside?) reveals there’s nothing but water for a long, long way. A frightening but exciting thought.

It’s now 3am and I’m sitting up in my narrow little bunk-bed.

An hour ago, I was standing alone on deck as this big beautiful ship sliced through the ocean,
taking me further and further away from everything safe and familiar, closer and closer to who knows where and what, or for how long?

Oh God!

How did it come to this?