RETURNING from Europe by ship instead of by plane is still widely believed to be an ideal way to wind up a strenuous vacation tour — relaxing, restful, an interval of luxury and rich creature comforts. For days on end the ship is a carefree haven. Whether to see the new prerelease movie or take a splash in the pool or just to do a little reading and napping in bed is probably the most formidable decision confronting the traveler. Cards? Gambling? High life? Simplicity? Ah, welcome, passenger, to a world of your own choosing.
There is much in shipboard life itself that makes this a durable legend; indeed, on many ships it would be altogether true, provided the ship could remain at sea indefinitely and never arrive anywhere. For the early part of the passage the dream-state continues. At about the halfway mark comes the first horrid reminder of a destination, when the passenger list begins comparing notes on the subject of tipping. A full day is given over to all sorts of formulas of who gets what. One man declares that he gives five dollars for each day of the crossing to all who have served him. Those who count this as too much begin a splinter faction: Does he really or is he just talking? (Since he is obviously traveling on an open-end expense account and says so, it is decided that he is credible but foolish.) The ten percenters and the fifteens have their say, and the question becomes 10 per cent of what and to how many. Complicated methods of computing a barman’s tip are exchanged between the pay-as-you-go and the sign-for-everything factions.
The tipping flurry gives way to an even livelier hullabaloo on the subject of landing formalities and customs inspections. Like the spores of those mysterious molds that can traverse a five-story building a few seconds after they are exposed on a glass slide in the basement, any sort of rumor spreads through a ship in an instant. Most of the rumors are erroneous, they all concern money, and they generate a feverish interest among the passengers.
“I understand,” says a passenger who is not bringing home a car purchased in Germany, “that the duty on German cars is now a flat 50 per cent. Pressure from Detroit, so it seems.” His remark sets off the standard set of rumors on bringing back cars. That 50 per cent is boosted to an embargo. Will the customs allow a used-car valuation? Can the children’s exemption be claimed against the car or is the exemption just for clothing and stuff like that? What if we bought the car in New York for delivery in Liverpool? What about registration plates after the landing? Dozens of answers circulate to each of the questions; veritable seminars are held; the opinion of Boots or the assistant deck steward is quoted as if from Mr. justice Frankfurter. One passenger is especially troubled by a second spare tire in his car, an extra: Should he declare it or just say nothing and hope for the best? He has documents to prove where he bought it and what it cost. . . .
The tension mounts in the homestretch. The ship is still the same stronghold of pleasure that it always was, but there are few loungers around the pool, and even the bar is deserted. In their cabins the passengers are wondering how they ever acquired so many cardboard boxes and paper bags that some porter will soon have to lug for them at Grand Central at twenty-five cents each. What’s that? It’s now thirty-five cents? Heavens! Some passengers keep mislaying their vaccination certificates and finding and losing them again. More rumors sweep the ship: Customs inspectors have been ordered to get tough, to open every matchbox, rip out linings, squeeze every toothpaste tube. By the way, who carries the luggage from the customs to the taxi? There seemed to be two sets of porters the last time, and people had to tip twice. What? Yellow fever and typhoid shots if we’ve been anywhere in the Mediterranean?
It’s a wan lot of merrymakers who sit down to dinner the last night out. Their spirits are suddenly revived by a wonderful new rumor, this time a pleasant one, that the whole landing card flurry with the immigration men has been done away with, so far as U.S. citizens are concerned. There will be no waiting, no standing around; the Americans will simply go ashore, and that’s that. Passengers who doubt this cheering news will find it all on the bulletin board the following morning, the rumor concludes. All the American citizens brighten at the news, with the exception of one man who is worrying about his vaccination certificate. A woman passenger, old transatlantic hand, has just pointed out to him that he failed to have it stamped by the public health office, and it says so, right there in the fine print, that he should have done it. The man begins thinking about long distance calls to his doctor and possible detention in a quarantine ward. What if his doctor happens to have gone away on a fishing trip?
The great luggage hubbub comes and goes the next day. The luggage, placed by the obedient passenger in the corridor just outside his cabin, gradually disappears. So do the stewards, once they have been tipped. A crowd seems to be gathering in the first-class lounge, including a good many Americans. The passenger who decides to wait it all out in his cabin finds his cabin is bare, without even anything to read. He makes for the bar: the bar is closed, obviously forever. The passenger drifts back to the lounge, where the crowd is now immense. Can it be that these people are here waiting for landing cards and immigration men? Correct.
The passenger realizes, to his annoyance, that he is carrying a topcoat, a raincoat, a brief case (for no particular reason), and an umbrella. Shades of Piccadilly!
Laid out to accommodate some two hundred first-class passengers, the lounge now bulges with the whole list from all classes, and an overflow swamps the hitherto capacious foyer. Everyone is carrying unwieldy parcels, and harsh looks are exchanged here and there where a passenger has seen fit to pile burdens of this sort on a chair or a sofa instead of dumping them on the deck. But this is a minor matter, for there are seats for only a fraction of the crowd anyhow. They stand muttering and fidgeting and sweating. New York in late August is hot, and the passengers think fondly of the glacial bedrooms and wintry skies of Scandinavia or Scotland or the Brittany coast.
Just as their absence is becoming alarming, the immigration men do appear. Some semblance of a line begins to shuffle past them, and although they work quickly it does take time to rubber-stamp so many home comers. Finally, the gangway is swung into place, a ship’s officer is seen to descend to the pier, and the survivors of the landing-card interval now propose to bolt after him.
Not at all. Far from it. Those who jammed the lounge now jam the promenade deck. Another long elbow-to-elbow wait. No one is to budge, not a foot, until every last piece of hand luggage on the whole ship has been unloaded into the customs area. Tired? Hot? Feet hurt? Cheer up, you’ll be home again as soon as you’ve got through the customs, found a porter, found a cab, found some more porters, and so on and so on.
What the passenger really needs by this time is an eastbound passage and a chance to rest up all over again.