Well, I’m here. I’m on.
Lyndall and I got our dinner at La Vague – panaché de poissons again, with a fine bottle of Gevray Chambertin and the odd aperitific and cognac frill (total: 86.80) -- and it was every bit as good as it had been the previous night, also -- this time – the place was full to the point of turning-away. On top of that, the taxis did indeed turn up at 9.15pm, and we and our luggage duly trundled off to the ‘Port Ouest’ of Dunkerque to rendez-vous with our ship, which had docked just fifteen minutes earlier.
My first impression as we drove down the dock towards her was: ‘oh heck, she’s SMALL’. And, indeed, compared with the Blue Star ships which have been almost the whole of my previous experience, I suppose she is. 18,000 tons as compared to 25,000 tons, it appears. She is also not terribly young, being a converted Finnish or Russian arctic ship – with ice-breaker prow and a closed-in bridge, pardi! -- which in her day has seen duty in many a North Sea capacity, including a potentially warring one. She is even equipped with a nuclear shelter and a decontamination tank: both now recycled, of course, to kinder uses as a table-tennis room and a swimming pool respectively.
My big ‘wonder’, after my unfortunate venture into a rather disagreeable German line after all those hugely happy years travelling on the Blue Star ships – reputed far and wide and rightly, in their time, as ‘the best’ -- was: just how much less wonderful than the Blue Stars she would turn out to be, and in what departments. Cabin, open deckspace, lounge and laundry facilities, food, and so forth and so forth.
Boy, was I in for a surprise.
In almost every area the Tikeibank is as passenger-friendly, if not even more so, than my deeply missed old favourites. I can scarcely believe my good fortune.
My cabin is really delightful. Of course, it’s not as roomy as the big double ones in which Ian and I used to travel, but it is definitely more spacious than the Stars’ singles were and, in fact, I actually like it better. It is a cosy accommodation for one, without ever being cramped.
I have a simple box bed, a day-bed, a fine desk with a fridge, tea & coffee things and a fruit and biscuit supply, a TV for DVDs and videos (library provided) and a CD-player. I have a double wardrobe and umpteen drawers into which I’ve been able to unpack my entire travelling bags, and I have a very small but sparkling new bathroom – basin, toilet and a very fair (for a ship, with -- of course -- limited water pressure) shower.
The whole is nicely, freshly decorated in autumn colours, sports a useful if rather ticky clock and an attractive water-coloury impression of Venice… and if the floral porthole curtains and Woolworths tea and coffee canisters aren’t quite to my taste, they nevertheless both do their jobs.
I have peeked into most of the other cabins – there are two large double suites, and a third less expansive double (all, since we are five ‘singles’, being sole occupancied) – and they seem all to be nice, but somehow I like my little “Suva” room the best of all. Tant mieux pour moi!
The open deck situation on the German ship was a disaster. Scarcely a square foot to plant a deckchair. On the Stars, it was brilliant, a vast wide double-sided deck with an open-air swimming pool and unlimited barbecue potential. The Tikeibank, alas, doesn’t have the swimming pool (it’s down in the depths, the old decontamination tank) but it does have a very nice selection of open decks ... one good semi-covered one and one open one, both on bridge level, as well as a larger-than-usual ‘Monkey Island’ above the bridge. Plenty of space for all of us to sun, without being on top of one another ... and I notice the barbecue equipment is already up there! It all promises well.
The passengers’ lounge is divided into a seating area with bar, and a games room with – o hallelujah! a free passenger e-mail connection to the real world. Here, without a doubt, the Star ships are simply outclassed. And since the library and the laundry (both of which I have already sampled) are well up to hopes, and the food shows every sign of being even better than hoped, optimism and joy are the order of the day.
All going well, the Tikeibank looks set to become a feature of my life for years to come.
We were first welcomed on board by the ship’s purser, Steve, a jovial bearded Liverpudlian of uncertain girth. A purser for heaven’s sake! Never had one of those before. Well, not since Roy Clarke on the Northern Star a hundred years ago (see the story concerning whom in EMILY SOLDENE: IN SEARCH OF SINGER and further than that I will not go). Steve welcomed us with bottles – Guinness, bedad! On top of La Vague’s whisky, Nuits Saint-Georges and cognac! And since he has subsequently magicked up extra coat-hangers, as well as heavy scissors and a screwdriver (to make slim man’s holes in my new belt) for me, and is evidently an all-round good humoured and good value guy, I am all in favour of Steve.
Our Captain, Peter Stapleton, as lofty as Steve is rotund, joined us too, and .. well, let’s just say this is evidently going to be a very merry cruise, with good-humour positively flowing. I can go with that!
After the Guinness, it was definitely time to retire. But I couldn’t quite yet. I wanted to unpack all my things and put them away so that, come morning, everything would be ‘home’. I don’t know what time it was when I sank into my box-bed. But there I stayed till 6am.
We are, on Saturday 20 May, still in Dunkerque. The cargo takes rather longer to load than the passengers. Especially as we seem to be loading zillions of small (?) white bags of flour from a large barge parked alongside. I wasn’t aware that we would carry anything other than containers. It seems an awfully old-fashioned and time-consuming (time = money) way of doing things. But hey! None of my business.
Apparently we load through the night into tomorrow, and sail out of here some time after lunch. So the ‘new’ travellers (and Lyndall, who is not new but confides she usually doesn’t start too well) are having a chance to get their sea-legs, so to speak, before we actually move.
I arose with the seagull, tested my little shower (not bad, not bad at all, and MUCH better than any other ship shower I’ve ever had) and immediately investigated the laundry which is, happily, right opposite my cabin door. A morning of washing and ironing was a must, to get my ‘home’ in order.
7.30am was breakfast, and yes, I did. Bacon, eggs and fried potatoes. I don’t suppose I shall be so rash every day, except that they turned out to be particularly good. Not quite Lucille of Jersey standard, but hey, this is a ship.
I should pause here to mention … OK, I know it’s useless to compare present and past, but one can’t help it… I should mention that our meals are cooked (I believe) and served (definitely) by young ladies. Ladies! On a ship. Never, ever, in my life at sea have I seen a young lady on a cargo ship. The only ladies heretofore were elderly and passengers. But here we have three young Russian ladies (one speaking fine English, her two subordinates, both very new to the job, not yet).
For I have not mentioned that this ship is, apart from the British senior officers and four cadets, manned entirely by Russian junior offices and seamen. I don’t suppose they will make music like the Filipinos, but who knows. Maybe they have other talents.
The morning vanished in laundry, library, Steve’s lifejacket lesson and guided tour of the ship, a little reading, a little computing, and a small doze. And I wasn’t the only one. I think a few of us took rather more than a small doze. I also investigated the e-mail thingy and bundled out a few ‘guess what’s to various e-pals.
The afternoon – umm – well, more of the same .. that’s the routine on board ship. I shall not be using the fearsome looking gymnasium down below. Definitely not its weight-lifting equipment (for Russians only?), and not even its up-to-the-minute treadmill. If I exercise, it will be up and down the stairs and around the deck.
Oh, there was of course lunch. Pork and bean soup and a nice bit o’plaice in light batter, with a glass of Heineken. The bar is full of Heineken. Maybe because no-one wants to drink it. Steve has just popped in to tell me that the Guinness has been loaded, so all will be well.
And so, it’s 4.35pm already. At five we have the traditional Captain’s Cocktail Party, before dinner. It’s steak night, Sunday. I wonder if I can get my scorched cow. I don’t think I can do my ‘walk the cow past the fire and chop a bit off’ routine in Russian. And I’m not sure that even the chief blonde lady (names will come) of the restaurant would get the gist, anyway. Time to wash ‘n’ brush up ‘n’ change for the evening…