The Lovely ss Bremen
What would you say to a perfect stranger who comes out of the blue and claims acquaintance with you? It gets more complicated when the person is a woman. I faced that dilemma during my voyage on the ss Bremen.
Having spent an enjoyable week in London I was hoping that the journey on the next ship, the ss Bremen, was going to be better than the T/N Sydney. The Indian students I had met on the Sydney had departed to various places in Europe, so I had no idea who I was going to be sharing my cabin with. I dreaded the thought of getting seasick again and being embarrassed in front of people I didn’t know. One comforting thought was that this was going to be a short five-day journey.
I took a train from London to Southampton to board the ss Bremen. At first glance the ocean liner appeared much larger, more luxurious and spacious than the T/N Sydney. When I saw the cabin allotted to me I was in awe – I thought they had made a mistake. I had a small, independent, wood-paneled room with a window and a closet, a full-sized bed with long pillows, a blanket, and my own private bathroom. It was such a contrast with the bunk-bed I occupied on the Sydney.
I was assigned a time for dinner at a designated round table that could accommodate up to ten people. Breakfast and lunch was at whatever time I chose. On my first visit to the dining room I noticed that the plates, cutlery, glasses and folded napkins were already placed before we occupied our seats. The dining room had pictures on the walls that looked like murals. fluorescent lamps from the ceiling provided ample light. Waiters wearing black trousers and cream-colored jackets were standing by the table waiting for us.
Postcard showing a section of the ss Bremen Dining Room
When we were seated, each of us was handed a menu to select our meal and order a drink if we wanted. The menu had soups, salads, fish, meat, vegetables, desserts and beverages. I didn’t know many of the dishes by name. I had to request the waiter to point out the dishes that were vegetarian. I didn’t drink alcohol so I had to be content with eating bread, salads, vegetables, ice cream and tea.
In my group there was a young American couple, a middle-aged Iranian couple and an American family with two children. We always occupied the same seats around the table. To my right was the American family, to my left the young American couple and the Iranian couple sat directly across from me.
The Iranian man did most of the talking at our table. I was reminded of my travels in the unreserved train compartment in India where strangers would try to form a bond by asking personal questions, such as age, occupation and purpose of my journey. Upon observing that I didn’t eat meat and didn’t drink beer he told me that I didn’t know what I was missing from life. The Americans were friendly but didn’t engage in lengthy conversations. Perhaps they didn’t find any subjects of common interest.
On the third day, as we had almost finished our dinner, our waiter discretely handed me a folded paper under the table. I was surprised. I didn’t know, or at least I hadn’t noticed, that anyone I knew had boarded the ship.
“What is it?” I inquired softly.
“This is from the lady at the table across from you,” the waiter said, turning his head to his right. There was a hint of a German accent when he spoke.
Everyone at the table noticed what was going on. I felt my face turning warm. They wanted to know what was in the note. I said I would read it later. I didn’t have the courage to look at the table in the direction the waiter had pointed. I was sure someone had made a mistake. I kept the note in my pocket without opening it.
After dinner I went straight to my room, sat on my bed and read the note. It was written in cursive handwriting:
“You look so much like someone I know.
I would very much like to meet you and talk with you. Can we meet somewhere?”
It was not signed and had no name on it.
Was this a prank? The elders in India had warned me to be careful of people I may meet. They had said that there are a lot of crazy and evil people in the world who would take advantage of my youth. I was confused, slightly afraid and didn’t know what to do. I lay down on the bed and thought about the course of action. I couldn’t just leave the matter without doing something. I thought of asking the waiter the next day to point out the lady and I could go over and clear the matter with her once and for all and explain that it was all a big mistake.
A half hour later I got up and thought a walk in the cool open air would clear my head. I went to the deck upstairs. There were people walking around, some couples were holding hands. Some stood against the railing looking at the waves. The faint light of the dusk was vanishing on the horizon. It was soon going to be completely dark except for the lights on the ship.
I took a few steps and was halfway across on the deck when I got the feeling that I was being followed.
“Hello, hello.” I heard someone say behind me in a soft European voice.
I turned and saw a portly European woman dressed in a full-length blue dress and short shoulder length black hair coming toward me. She looked as if she was in her late thirties or early forties. I stopped until she caught up with me. For a moment I thought she must have been waiting for me to show up.
“Did you get my note?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
I didn’t know what else to say. Was it appropriate to say that I was sorry I didn’t acknowledge her at the dinner? I didn’t say anything. She continued speaking.
“I knew someone who looked so much like you back in London,” she said.
We continued walking at a slow pace. I was self-conscious to be walking in public with a woman I didn’t know well. In India it would be the talk of the town. It was perfectly OK in India for two boys to walk on the street with hands wrapped around each other’s shoulders. I used to see it every day in the crowded Sultan Bazaar market. But God forbid if someone saw you walking with a young girl in public unless you were married to her or she was your sister.
As we walked, this lady, I didn’t even know her name, told me how a young man (my lookalike) used to visit her everyday and how they had a great time together talking. She said she missed him dearly and didn’t know when they would meet again. All the while I kept my silence. After two rounds around the deck we parted without any conclusion. Again I was confused as to what was the proper thing for me to do. Should I have told her that I would meet her again the next day after dinner?
The next night at dinner, the Iranian man asked whether I read the note. I told him what happened.
“You are so naïve, young man,” he said. “You should have found out what she really wanted. You missed an opportunity. If you see her again, find out!”
I blushed and didn’t say anything. I didn’t dare to look in the direction where the lady was supposed to be sitting.
I was spared the embarrassment. I didn’t get any other note. I did go for the after dinner walk on the deck, half afraid that I would cross paths with the lady again, but it didn’t happen. She just disappeared.
The next day I ventured out on the deck and lingered along the railing looking at the waves and ruminating about my future. A young Indian man, a Sardar (Sikh) came over and started speaking with me in Hindi. He asked where I was headed and whether I had enough money. I told him I was headed for Oklahoma and I had enough money to get by for a few months. He was headed for Pennsylvania and wanted to buy a camera. He asked me if I could lend him few dollars to buy one in New York with a promise that he would re-pay me as soon as he reached his destination. I never thought a stranger would make a request like that. I politely declined to lend him any money.
On the T/N Sydney I was in a group with a chance to talk thing over. Here I was alone to make decisions by myself. I realized that life is full of surprises and more often than not one has to take a course of action dictated by his/her conscience. In my two encounters with strangers I acted to be on the safe side. I considered these incidents as life’s lessons towards becoming an adult.
The trip on the lovely Bremen was shorter than that on the Sydney. I enjoyed it and could have spent a few more days on the ship. But soon we reached New York and I had to get ready for the remainder of my journey – a two-day bus ride to Norman, Oklahoma.
- Image source for the ss Bremen post card:
- Image source for the ss Bremen dining room postcard: Image Source Page: http://www.flickriver.com/photos/kbreenbo/3248661899/
- A number of photos and information on the Bremen ship is available on the German web site:
For Chapter 7 click here Chapter 7