Saturday, June 30, 2007

Birthday on the Briny

There’s something special about a barbecue party in the middle of an ocean that simply can’t be reproduced on land. And last night’s one was no exception. It was a gross shindig!

It was 6pm takeoff, and by the time we arrived up on the bridge deck it was laid out with trestles and tables and chairs – fairly polite ones for the passengers, and one large (and, as it proved, not wholly steady) affair for the serious partiers. Which meant just about everyone. The trestles were heaped with salads, ferried up by Svetlana, Natalya and Viktoria from down in the depths, and Vladimir, our chef, was poised over a broiling barbecue turning vast heaps of bleeding meat of all descriptions in vast heaps of mostly much less bleeding meat.

Needless to say, we were also provided with plenty in the way of liquid refreshment – beer, wine, the spirits which are so hugely cheap at sea, and even a few soft drinks for the less hardy and those who were about to go on watch.

This ship’s barbie was a little different to any other I’ve experienced in my cargo-ship voyaging. On the one hand, instead of the English-speaking Filipinos of the Blue Star Line, the junior officers and crew here are Russian. And I don’t have two words of Russian. Unless you count Belka and Stroika. So how to make contact? How to party together?
Secondly, the girls. Ladies. Svetlana, Natalya and Viktoria. And that’s not even counting Lyndall. Nor Claudi from Paris and Biddy from Zimbabwe. Blokes party differently in a stag atmosphere than they do when there are ladies, especially young and attractive ladies, not only around but perhaps even to compete for the attentions of.

t started slowly. All the passengers and the cadets down one end, the Russians down the other. But there’s no way our Captain would allow that sort of thing to go on for long, and no way convivial creatures like K Gänzl, Ms L Soule, and Mr G Cole, not to mention our exceptionally lively young quartet of cadets, would allow that sort of thing to go on for long. The loosening up process would soon begin.

The climax of the food part of the party came with the arrival of the birthday cake – a birthday cake for two – Happy birthday Captain Peter (30 May) and Greville (31 May)..

And then the Captain sent for the vodka, and the party moved determinedly into a different gear. I have never seen a bottle of vodka vanish so quickly. A swift series of glugs, and a dozen or more not-so-little glasses are filled with an inch or two of liquor, a communal ‘clink’ and .. down the hatch! Once, twice, three times …
I grasped my can of Guinness firmly in my hand and clinked with that. After last night, I was steering way, way clear of real Russian vodka. Michael, the youngest of the cadets, got himself well and truly caught up in the clinking and hatching, and what! There’s Lyndall at my elbow clinking and downing with the best of them. Once, twice and three times…! Lyndall who didn’t know what Martini, Drambuie and Cointreau were until last week!
One more round of clinks, the now empty vodka bottle was promptly replaced by a full one ..


And little by little I began to discover that not a few of the Russian men spoke a little or even quite a lot of English. I chatted happily with Oleg, a huge, gently-spoken ‘motorman’ (surely this is not the man whose party piece is taking off a bottle top with his eye socket!), with Nikolai, another ‘motorman’, but above all with Sergei, an oiler and turner, whose command of the English language was quite amazing. We swapped family histories. He is 38 years old with a wife back home in Eastern Russia, a little girl of 11 and a wee boy of 5. I don’t know how many times during the night I was asked about my family. But every time that I said that, no I didn’t have a wife, and no I didn’t have any children, I could feel six gallons of compassion sweeping my way. But then someone said cheerfully: ‘But you are rich’. Well, I suppose I am by Russian standards. Anyway, that was apparently all it took. I was no longer a man to be pitied!

As the day flowed on into night, our numbers began to dwindle. Michael went first, sagely, realising that his legs had gone all bendy in the wrong places, and heading for a safe haven. Little by little, silently, almost imperceptibly, people faded out of the merry circle to duties or to a needful bed. Lyndall, I noticed, had disappeared. I should have known better than to be concerned, she was simply up on Monkey Island having a mid-party (but, I doubt not, vodka assisted) snooze on a sunbed!

By 11pm only the hard core remained. Grev and Graham, both definitely vodka tainted but plunging practisedly on, Nikolai and Natalya, Viktoria and someone I hadn’t officially met, all sort of dancing to the stereo, and Sergei perched what looked like perilously on the ship’s rail with a can of Tiger..

And then even the Tiger was all gone.
At midnight I put my watch back the necessary hour, and bid everyone goodnight. I can’t do that silent slipaway thing. It was handshakes all round, and a swift buss for Viktoria. I guess you’ld call it ‘making an exit’. If so, I mucked it up. I’d just got stripped off for bed when I realised I’d left my camera up on the bridge. What the heck, the die-hards would still be partying, I’d just slip on some briefs and hop quietly up the stairs and get it. And as I went up, the partiers came down. Some exit!

It had been a great, great party. The communication problem hadn’t been one, and the girls – well, they were great too. I hope by next time I get on the Tikeibank, Viktoria and Natalya have made large English progress, so we can talk. Svetlana is already the ship’s star linguist. Of course, I suppose I could try a little Russian study: but, hey! It’s they who are going to need the extra language, not me.

Amazingly, there don’t seem to be too many pale-faced people around the ship today. Maybe vodka is good for you. And the valorous Michael, although admitting to being just a tad off form, has reaped the reward for his timely retreat. Grev, mind you, who was just about the last man standing, is spending his birthday on Lyndall’s sunbed, up where the breezes blow strongest!

So thanks Captain and thanks Grev .. and whose birthday is it next?

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