Home > Cargo Ship Journey > Life on the Grande Francia

Life on the Grande Francia

Saturday 20 November 2010

Me on the upper deck

I haven’t written anything other than a quick update on the blog in the past 6 days on this ship. Besides with two stops – Antwerp and Le Havre, there was much activity and excitement of getting off the ship to warrant much thought process. Now on the first long-haul, I stood on the lower deck looking out at the English Channel and just spotted Jersey in the distant. And instead of feeling how large the world is, it struck me how small it really is. We are covering a large distance on this voyage, North to South, taking in three continents and eight countries, but somehow looking out at the ocean and especially listening to fellow passengers who have a much more impressive list of countries they have visited, I feel the world is really quite small. Whether we fly, or drive, or like me now, sail, one can reach the furthest corners of this planet relatively easily and with considerable luxury if one can afford it. Luxury doesn’t only relate to one’s sleeping quarters, or indeed food and entertainment on board, but also the time taken in completing that journey. When the Concorde was still flying, people spent very large sums of cash to get to New York in a shorter time than jumbo jet would take them. I am spending more money than it used to cost to fly on the Concorde to get to Argentina extremely slowly – in fact less than 20 noughts per hour. And I am loving every minute of it!

Very early this morning we left Le Havre for a 5-6 day journey to Dakar. We were scheduled to stop at Casablanca and Bilbao but such are the schedules of a shipping company that they might vary to include or leave behind scheduled stops. It’s a shame because I have never visit Casablanca or Bilbao and certainly at the latter, I was looking forward to visiting the Guggenheim museum. Never mind. Another time.

It’s now six days since we left Tilbury docks and life on the ship is punctuated by food. I have still not got used to waking up at 0700 since I finished work. But if I want breakfast I must visit the mess between 0730 and 0830, otherwise I can forget about the yummy tomato bread. Which is not a disaster because lunch is served at 1100 sharp. Breakfast is the only meal in the day which is not served by the steward Francesco, and instead is a buffet. Whilst the guests eat, Francesco cleans our rooms. Each day at breakfast, there is this lovely tomato bread which only Christiane and I like to eat. The others feel it is too much like pizza and hence not worthy of a breakfast look-in. Since a couple of days ago, the chef has added an onion bread to the basket. I now have a preference for the onion bread over the tomato bread which again the other guests find inappropriate for mornings! Other than the two types of bread, there are also plain bread rolls, one type of cold sliced ham, this morning we had mortadella, yesterday we had Napoli salami, the day before a parma ham. There is also butter, jam, cereal, tea and coffee. But no cheese, no fruit, no yoghurt and no juice! This astounds me for two reasons. One, because the chef calls this a continental breakfast which I would translate to have cheese and juice included. And two because there is so much care in the pulling together of the menu for the other two meals.

Nocolas - The ship's cook

Today, after the gruelling exercise (read military fitness) regime which someone (!) has put us on I forgot that lunch was at 1100, thereby arriving at the mess about 5 minutes late. The starter had already been served and the guests were halfway through the divine mussel risotto. 1100 is way too early for me to even consider what I might want for lunch, let alone to be sat down and served the first course, usually a pasta dish on the dot at 1100!

The chef, Nicolas – a Neapolitan, sporting the most amazing sideburns I have ever seen – has never turned out a bad pasta dish. The pasta course is usually very simple, fussily with basil, penne with tomato sauce, spaghetti with broccoli. The last was my favourite – simple, elegant and yet full of flavour! Today, perhaps because it’s a weekend, we had risotto for our first course. Perfectly cooked, al dente arborio rice cooked in fish stock and spiked with mussels, nobody could fault the loveliness of it. As soon as you have finished your plate of food, Francesco will whip away your plate, even if others at the table are still eating. As soon as everyone at the table has finished the pasta course, the second course is served. Usually this is fish. Today it was poached salmon with garlic, lemon and parsley. Yesterday we had a beautifully grilled red fish. After fish there is a meat course, almost always beef (as with dinner!). Today the thinly sliced beef had a piece of bacon on top of it, and in my opinion only just passing the test to be called a saltimbocca. I declined because even though I am doing 45 minutes of training each month, four courses at each meal is beyond the ability of my stomach’s digestibility! The menu always says vegetables (contorni) after this course which always means a bowl of chopped lettuce. This is followed by a piece of fruit and coffee. In the evening, well 1800 hours we are served dinner, always with a 330ml bottle of wine for each person (we get the same at lunch time!). This wine isn’t chosen for its appropriateness to the menu created by Nicolas, nor even to whether we have fish or red meat on the menu, but to the availability on the ship. The first 4 days on the ship we had red meat for second piatti at every meal but the wine was white in a little carton such as one you would drink juice out of in the UK. Last few days, we have seen red wine in a glass bottle. If like me, you want a little more wine with your meal and for later, a full sized bottle is only €6.50 per bottle – phew!

Sample menu

Dinner, like lunch consists of 4 courses always starting with a soup. Nicolas is great at soups and very creative. Second course varies, we have had scrambled eggs with courgettes one day and cold grilled slices of aubergines the other. I guess it depends on what is available to Nicolas. Third course has never varied from beef except a couple of days ago when we were served half a roast chicken with fried potatoes. Usually the beef course is thinly sliced (very Italian) with various sauces – mushroom and wine; black olives, marjoram and lemon. As with lunch, this is followed by ‘Contorni’, which is never more than sliced tomatoes or chopped lettuce. I am beginning to believe that Nicolas has an allergy to vegetables, or otherwise dislikes them. More likely that because he is alone to cook for the entire ship with no help whatsoever, he cuts down on the peeling and chopping of vegetables. Also glaringly missing is any dessert. We get a piece of fruit at lunch and another at dinner – never anything gore exciting than an apple, banana or orange.

Post dinner, the coffees are served in the Day room

Luckily I don’t have a sweet tooth but when we stopped in Antwerp and again in Le Havre, I picked up a box of chocolates for the fellow passengers (very few other passengers are as keen to get off the ship for an adventure as Craig and I) and gave to them at dinner. They seemed very grateful. As I am at it, I might as well get all my grievances out of the way and complain about the lack of cheese. Don’t get me wrong, there is always a bowl of parmesan at the table. And if I am honest we did get a dollop of gorgeous fresh ricotta for one of the courses at dinner a couple of days ago. But if I am missing cheese than it must be because I am not getting enough of it and I am not a big cheese eater! After the meat course at dinner, I would love a piece of stilton, or gorgonzola, with a couple of oat biscuits. And a glass of port. I am getting too excited now, and should remind myself that after all this is a cargo ship and not a dimly lit trattoria! Although you will never get port in a trattoria, perhaps Grappa?

Anyhow, I deviate from the talk of food onboard the Grande Francia. After all the talk of what is missing, I have to admit, actually I am really pleased with the food and what is provided is absolutely lovely and wholesome! Wine at lunch and dinner is a bonus, beef at each meal without any vegetables forces the Atkins diet without intending or trying, and the lack of cheese and desserts means that the gym-work each morning is beginning to pay off! Now, where is the pate and cheese I bought at the deli in Le Havre?!

Thursday 25 November 2010

The American (Philip) on Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving Day so I have made a little card for the only American (Philip) on board. It’s quite a cheeky card. I have drawn a table with 5 people, mirroring our dinner table with me asking – ‘can anyone say a quick grace’, and Philip replying ‘thank God!’.

I saw the most amazing shooting star today, second one I have ever seen and this one was huge, a massive orange ball flying across the sky!

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Monday was pretty nondescript! It was one of those days which makes you realise you are getting into the routine of things. Instinctively, without the use of any clocks or watches, to turn up at the gym, lunch, dinner etc. Today however was the best day of the trip and one of the best days of my life! Last night, the tannoy in every room and every corner of the ship announced that the next day will be another hour back – 2 hours difference from UK time. So, this morning I woke up and felt a little confused because the time on my laptop is set to the UK time and the time on my phone automatically changes to where it finds signal (last in Le Havre, France). Having got used to the time difference by mid-breakfast, I had to play six rounds of table tennis in order to be beaten by two points!

End of a beautiful day looking out at the sea!

The afternoon was amazing. Seeing dolphins playfully swim along with the ship as though wanting a little bit of our attention, ready to jump into the ship to play a game of cards, drink a little wine with us; porpoises swimming along merrily; a pack (I am sure there is a better word for this) of seals lying on their back sunning themselves; a tiny little bird (a canary?) circling the ship; but my favourite memory was one that I stole for myself. There was no one else hanging at the edge of the ship when I caught sight of a little tortoise, just under the skin of the azure water of the Canaries. The deck I stood on is 12 stories high so it may well have been a giant tortoise, however, etched in my memory is a little tortoise which swam inquisitively towards the cargo ship, looked up and saw me gazing at it, lifted his head out of the water, then disappeared into the opaque depths.

A few days ago, when the Eastern European security officer announced he would allow some of us on the bridge, I considered that would become one of the major highlights of this journey. Today, a few minutes after seeing the first set of dolphins and the little bird whilst rushing towards the front (and the bridge) and starboard side of the ship to catch sight of more dolphins, the same officer beckoned us to give a tour of the bridge. I had the torn look on my face of someone who has been asked to choose between a Chianti and a Rioja. Nevertheless, wanting to see the place where this laden ocean liner was being operated from, I cheerily went along. My eyes however were still on the surface of the ocean, where I could spy it from the bridge, to catch glimpse of any breaking water.

Friday 26 November 2010

Albrecht's Birthday Cake

I asked the cook – Nicolas – to prepare a cake for Albrecht’s birthday which is today. This morning I went to the galley to ask if the cake is ready and Nicolas took me to the refrigerator. Well that is an understatement. This was 4 rooms all refrigerated with loads of meat etc in them. Anyway, he has made 2 cakes because whilst decorating the first one, he spelt ‘birthday’ incorrectly! Last night was amazing. Out on the deck, warm with cool breeze and at midnight, some of the Filipino crew who is leaving today from Dakar were out with their guitar. They sang romantic English songs into the night. I also saw my first ever moonrise. Someone pointed it out to me and I thought they were pointing at a ship passing, but soon realised it was the moon. In the first 5 minutes it rose very quickly, like an orange egg rising out of the sea.

Sunday 21 November 2010

Last night was great! Six new passengers boarded on Fri at Le Havre and last night was the first time we came together as a group. More about that later. Whilst serving the risotto yesterday lunch time, Francesco, our steward informed us that we must all gather later that afternoon in the Day Room – a large room with TV, sofas, a small library and a few board games for passengers use – for a briefing. Given that the original five passengers had not been given any briefing till now (though we had been persuaded to sign a paper saying that we had received it!) we did wonder whether this would include induction & safety information, albeit 6 days after we boarded! At the appointed time, we gathered in the day room and were met by the ship’s Second mate (basically second officer to the captain, not to be confused by the first officer or first mate!).

Messing around with my safety gear - not funny!

After working at BP, the lack of any training, information or safety briefing felt strange given we are on a cargo liner in the middle of the ocean (well, entering Bay of Biscay as I write this). Without going into too much detail, the briefing he gave us contained very little real information on safety however they did promise a drill in the middle of the Bay of Biscay which will be unannounced and so we might well believe that the alarm is real. Seven sharp bursts for fire, two bursts for man overboard and continuous alarm with captain shouting ‘abandon ship’ to, well, abandon ship. It was there or thereabouts however I am afraid I didn’t understand much of what the Filipino second mate said.

He then introduced the ship’s security officer, a crew cut straight talking Eastern European chap, who started by telling us that we shouldn’t bother him if we have any questions after the briefing! He proceeded to tell us what a pain it is to have passengers on a cargo ship and how he would prefer it if we didn’t want to get off at any ports as it adds work for him. He also highlighted the grave dangers of getting off in Freetown and Conakry adding that he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to. At this a number of us raised our hands to ask a question.

Marianne, the Bavarian lady asked what was on all of our minds – “I certainly want to get off in both Sierra Leone and Guinea, what do we need to do to get this arranged?”. At this the Security Officer looked incredulously at the rest of us as if to say, what a pain, and asked if anyone else wanted to put themselves in mortal danger. More than half the group raised our hands! He has agreed to look into arranging a minibus with a couple of local security men through the port agent so we can have a tour – like a safari! A small number of us are more interested in making our own way around the cities. How dangerous can it be?

At lunch today our steward Francesco told us that we must finish dinner by 0650 and leave the dining room before the captain arrived at 0700! Other than the reluctance of the crew to acknowledge or even smile (not all I must say, the cook, stewards and a few of the crew are quite pleasant) at us, we are having a whale of a time. Talking of which, one of the friendlier crew members, Fabio, told us that we should be able to spot dolphins and whales once we leave Conakry! Last night Nicolas cooked pizza – it was square and not exactly the thinnest crust I have a preference for but it was covered with his special neapolitan sauce and lots of mozzarella and mushrooms, and was yummy! The second course was again beef – steak  this time served with sliced fennel. I ate the fennel!

Cluis & Christiane from Germany

After dinner, as requested at lunch by Francesco, the entire group – everyone who will be travelling to BA together – adjourned to the Day room for continued drinking. I had bought some chocolates for the group from Le Havre and Christiane decided to order a bottle of Amaretto di Sarranno! Little about the three passengers we met at Tilbury Docks. Cluis and Christiane had boarded the ship in Hamburg 2 days previous to our boarding. They are a German married couple, actually not married in the conventional sense because Cluis who lives in Potsdam and Christiane in Munich were college sweethearts who married but now been divorced for 20 years. They get on well and are but are travelling together to see their son, a media PhD student in Buenos Aires.

The other is an American from Sacramento in California who is a music-ethnologist and a concert pianist and very keen on learning and discussing cultures and languages! He is visiting his daughter who will arrive in BA from Rio and accompany him to Patagonia.

The six new arrivals on Friday make us a complete set like dominoes – 4 Germans, 3 French, 2 British (me included), 1 Italian and 1 American. I am trying to write a verse similar to Twelve days of Christmas to sing at Albrecht’s birthday coming Friday when we suggested we should have a party! Albrecht is one half of the other German couple whose wife Marianne is currently not happy about the state of affairs with the ship. Her gripes include food (beef at every meal and lack of desserts), Captain’s insolence at not talking or dining with us and the lack of activity on the ship. Albrecht and Marianne are from deepest Bavaria and arrived on the boat with their mobile home which they have used in the past 10-15 years to visit 40 or so countries. 22 of those countries they visited with their dog, called Cheetah for some reason, who died last year.

On the upper deck with the French and the Germans

Next is the French couple Pierre and Theresa. Pierre speaks negligible English so I haven’t talked to him much but have loads of respect for pulling a stunt when they were last in Mumbai. More about that later. Theresa speaks English very well and has become the unofficial translator for her husband, the other French guy and the Italian who seemingly understands French better than English. So to the French guy, his name is Christian and I know nothing else about him as we cannot communicate. The only contact I have had with him is when he patted the sofa next to him and said ‘Shelley’. I took that to mean sit down which I did but soon realised we couldn’t communicate. The Italian, Andrea, is quite young. I was the youngest in the group (by about 30 years) before he turned up. He is a photographer and is travelling with his big BMW bike and will cover the entire north of S America on it.

Monday 22 November 2010

Sunday dinner was fabulous, it’s as though Nicolas the cook heard my silent plea on all counts when it comes to food. We had something other than beef (chicken chasseur), cheese (provolone), vegetables carrots only I’m afraid!) and a dessert! The last was received with great oohs and aaahs by all the guests – profiteroles! Later we retired to the Common room for coffee chat and more wine the discuss the biggest highlight of the day – the ‘Abandon Ship’ drill.

Safety Drill

Saturday we had been given some information about alarms and Sunday afternoon at 4pm, listening to my Spanish podcast I heard the shrill of the Abandon Ship alarm. I had a good idea that this was a drill, so we picked up our wetsuits, lifejacket and helmet and rushed to the muster point. Here, the security officer called out everyone’s name and told people which of the two lifeboats they will be on. We are on lifeboat no 1 with the security officer, first officer and 15 other men. A number of the other passengers are on Lifeboat No 2 which will also carry the Master. As the Master will always be the last man to leave the ship, Lifeboat No 2 will be the last to leave. Obviously this is a drill and so we go through the motions, and for the passengers benefit, the security officer shows us what the boat is equipped with – pretty much everything – water, food, flares, smoke makers, oars, fishing equipment, rope ladders etc etc. Most useful thing I saw on their was a piece of device which sends out radio signal so that the boat can quickly be found.

Excitement over and we went for dinner. After dinner, and discussing the drill with everyone, I got chatting to the Bavarian couple – Marianne and Albrecht. These guys are also transporting their mobile home with them which is equipped with everything one could ever need plus lots of bags of pretzels. Albrecht is a bit of a DIY engineer – and to solve the problem of this large van being slightly too big to sit in a container – he built smaller metal wheels for the van which he changes just before driving into a container so it is not too tall. My favourite story about their many adventures was about entering Pakistan in their van, where having travelled from India and not having had any issue re taking alcohol with them, they found themselves in a situation where they might have to throw away all their wine and not have any in the days they seeped in Pakistan. They devised ingenious ways of hiding this alcohol all over the van. More about that later in the week.

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