Chapter 17. Sailing Home on the S.S. Conte Grande – an Italian liner making its first trip to Australia and carrying 14000 European migrants – and me! Dec.’60 to Jan. ’61
(Written on fine Lloyd Triestino notepaper)
” On board the Conte Grande. 15th of December 1960
.Dear family, one and all,
Well, here I am at last, first day homeward bound! I left Rome by train yesterday morning at 8.30, arriving in Genova by 2 o’clock, and the Genova representative of I.C.E.M. — the Intergovernmental Commission for European Migration and now my employer, met me at the station. All very exciting!
I spent last night at the hotel where my co-workers-to-be were also staying, and we all dined together, and then had an early night — final preparations to get away had been really hectic!
This morning we were all conducted on board, shown around, settled in, and the ship finally set sail at 1 pm. There was a great surprise waiting for me when I was shown my cabin. Cabin is not quite the right name for it — it is actually a suite! You should see it — it is enormous! It contains twin beds, a lounge daybed and comfortable matching chairs, all upholstered in a light green fabric, with matching green and white curtains. It has its own large well-equipped bathroom and shower as well; – all of this just for me. I feel like royalty! I am so lucky!
The ship is on her first and maybe only run to Australia. Up until now, she has mainly sailed to America and back. She is a fine ship, the same size as the Strathnaver, and even if she is no longer a luxury liner and just a little shabby, her name, the Grand Count, suits her well. Her grand touring days are over and she has been converted to a one class ship as nearly all of her passengers are migrants — all 14,000 of them! I can’t imagine how they will all fit once they all come on board! Her capacity as a luxury liner was said to have been 8000!
I learnt that she was built in Trieste, launched in 1927, and made her maiden voyage from Genoa to New York, and then many trips to South America until the 2nd world war when the US took her over as a troop Carrier. She survived that indignity and was returned again to the Italian line to resume service until now as the Conte Grande, sailing between Italy and South America.
My title is Trainee Escort Officer! and my main role is Assistant to the Education Officer, who is an Australian woman, Lillian Debenham, from Brisbane and I like her already. Her little son, just three years old, is accompanying her.
The Escort Officer is a French woman, Georgette Linaud. She is about 40 and has already done about 20 trips to Australia like this one.
We are all regarded as part of the crew, which means that during the voyage we have our meals in the captain’s dining room, together with him and the senior officers. They are a friendly and courteous group, all aged about 50 or more, and there is also a ship’s doctor.
I imagine he’ll be kept busy with so many people on board, particularly as many of them have been going through very hard times. I am not too sure what we will be doing by way of relaxation, though the Chief Engineer has already asked us to play Scrabble with him sometimes!
The food of course is excellent, and no limit to it — one enticing course after another being presented in true Italian style.. I had best refuse every second course to avoid putting on too much weight.
We will begin organising the English classes for the migrants in the next few days. We will be calling in at the port of Messina in Sicily soon after we leave Naples to take on the last of the refugees, and from there it won’t take long to reach the Suez Canal.
This looks like being a very different trip from my last one in many ways. We will only stop briefly at ports where necessary rather than for sightseeing. In the meantime, we will be checking through the people on board most suitable and willing to volunteer in assisting with the English classes.
I was feeling nostalgic and elated at the same time as we sailed out of the harbour at Genova. I always enjoyed my brief visits there, and also the good people I met early in the year at the CRS-Caritas office while exploring Southern Europe with Peppino.
As I stood on the deck looking back on the city, it looked quite beautiful – all the little boats along the seafront, and all the buildings nestling into the hills behind, with the snow capped Alps visible in the distance. Luckily it was a crisp clear day and I was well rugged up against the wind, and I was beginning to experience a growing sense of anticipation. There is nothing like the sound of water slapping against the sides of a ship as it moves forward and gathers speed — you know you are really on the move — no turning back, and not knowing what is lying ahead! I enjoyed spending a little while alone on deck just watching the Italian coastline slipping by. Only a couple of weeks ago I had been looking down at it from the air! Life is full of wonders! It has been such a lot to take in.
On checking the calendar again I’ve realised that if I don’t post this in Naples tomorrow it probably won’t reach you in time to wish you all a very happy and stress-free Christmas. Please pass these wishes on to everyone. It’s hard to take in that I have been away from Australia for three Christmases! The first one was a traditional English celebration, last year’s was regional Italian and very festive, both occurring in winter. This one will be Italian, at sea, in between seasons and hemispheres, and having 14,000 people to share it with! It won’t be an easy one to replicate!
Don’t forget to keep my presents under the tree till I get home. Lillian has just knocked on the cabin (or should I say suite) door to remind me it’s dinnertime, so off to the dining room. Can’t be late!
Lots of Christmas hugs and kisses “.
The Conte Grande. 19 December 1960.
Dearest Daddy, I had only just sealed my last letter when I realised that I hadn’t acknowledging your letter and the money arrangements you made to tide me over till I get home. Thankyou! you were more farsighted than me, anticipating that the refund for my fare on the Oriana wouldn’t come till the last minute.
I was able to collect the money without any trouble from the Bank of Naples, the only hitch being that the teller wanting to give me Italian currency, and I was insisting on pounds to avoid losing on the exchange. He surprised me by asking if I was a Catholic. I asked why that was relevant. He told me that it was because he found Catholics to be very tight-fisted! – more likely to do with a young woman getting the better of the argument, I suspect. I was so relieved to have such a healthy refund in my hand that I resisted the temptation to ask awkward questions about his religious affiliation!
It was so good to have spending money again before leaving, allowing me to do some Christmas shopping and replenish my wardrobe a little — I didn’t want to arrive home looking too down at heel. Unfortunately there wasn’t much to choose from in Rome because the shops were already stocked with winter clothes, so maybe I’ll wait till I get to Sydney, slip quietly in to David Jones and find one or two smart Continental looking outfits that won’t disappoint.
The last few days have been rather disorganized, having to take on more migrants both at Naples and Messina and help them settle in. I have finally unpacked my luggage though — both winter and summer clothes. It is such a luxury to have plenty of cupboard space – a rare thing when on board a ship.
I was so glad that we had a whole day at Naples. It was my first visit even though it is quite close to Rome. I really enjoyed sailing slowly into the harbour, taking in the gaudily coloured buildings along the waterfront reflected in the clear blue water and the mass of buildings of the thickly populated city pierced by the occasional church spires, with the fortress/castle of the mediaeval Kings of Naples standing out on top, and Mount Vesuvius looming ominously in the background.
What made the day really special was that Peppino made a surprise trip from his home in Chieti on the eastern coast to see me off. He came by car with his brother in law, which meant that we were able to drive around in a leisurely fashion and get some a feeling of the city. However, I have to admit that I wasn’t enjoying it quite as much as I normally would — we were both feeling rather miserable, faced with the fact that it would probably be a very long time, if ever, that we would see each other again.
He has been such a good and wise friend to me during the times that I have spent in Italy and has enriched my experience and understanding of the country and the people in many ways. It was a pity that romantically the relationship could never really go anywhere, mostly because neither of us could see ourselves being able to stay together in the other’s country in a permanent way. I will really miss him!However we were determined to make the most of the day together.
Naples is a huge city with its centre and business district right at the edge of the harbour, rather like Sydney. It is a very important port, one of the largest and busiest in the whole of the Mediterranean basin. Thousands of passenger liners and cargo ships are passing through there all the time. It probably has the longest history of any centre in Europe, covering 27 centuries. (Incidentally, the history book we studied in 2nd term at University for Foreigners at Perugia was a little paperback entitled “Twenty seven Centuries of Italian history! “).
According to Peppe, it began as a Greek city and Greek was its main language, and it still maintained its customs and language during the Roman era. the culture of both gradually blended and it continued to have a very strong influence in the arts and philosophies during the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras. At the beginning of the 19th century it was under French rule for about 10 years, and after that the Spaniards moved in, bringing the Inquisition with them. It seems to be a city full of contradictions and challenges. It was the most heavily bombed city in Italy during World War II.
The Mafia has a strong influence here and there is a lot of corruption, but it remains a very vital and colourful town. Neapolitan music is wonderful – think of Enrico Caruso and many other great singers, both popular and classical. The food is great – they say the pizza was born here – I’m going to introduce you to pizzas when I come home.
Tomatoes are a favourite ingredient of Neapolitan cooking – bought to Spain from the Americas and then to Naples. They use them to make delicious fresh sauces, creating their best-known dishes — pizza Napolatano and spaghetti Napolitano.
Everyone who visits is drawn to the huge Piazza del Plebiscipio. Surrounding it is the Royal Palace, the Opera house, the Church of St Francis and the Galleria Umberto –the latter is a great place to eat and browse through beautiful shops. We had lunch there — it was the perfect place to relax and take in the sights – took me back to the Piazza san Marco in Venice, where Peppe and I had a happy time together doing the same thing there!
There was no time to visit Pompeii, but we were able to have a quick look through the Museo Archelogico Nazionale and see some of the wonderful mosaics and frescoes from the site. We wound up the day by visiting the Duomo – the main cathedral, and then it was finally time to make our way back to the ship and to say our goodbyes.
The next day we sailed into the harbour at Messina. They call it the doorway to Sicily. We passed it back in 1958 when the Strathnaver sailed through the Straits of Messina on our way to Europe. The currents and waters around its entrance are a bit unruly, and you can see Mount Etna rising up from a wilderness area in the hills behind. The volcano never sleeps, just dozes — there is always some smoke rising from it.
Messina is a quite beautiful port city — constantly crowded, noisy and full of life. We only had a short time there – enough for a little shopping and a hurried look around the city while the last of the migrants taken on board were settled in. I didn’t stay long with the shoppers amongst us. I slipped quietly away to explore the art and architecture. The greater part of the mediaeval city has long since disappeared. Apart from earlier raids and conquests, much of the city and its population had been destroyed by a massive earthquake and tsunami in 1908, and the Allies had heavily bombed it in 1944.
However, there were still some lovely sights to see. The Piazza Del Duomo was right near where we docked. The beautiful cathedral had an original Norman design with an elaborately decorated pink and pale grey Gothic facade. Its bell tower boasts the world’s largest astronomical clock, designed in Strasbourg rather like the one I saw back there, and there was a beautifully carved fountain in the square nearby.
I strolled up the main street – the Via Garibaldi, passed by the lovely Victoria Emanuel Theatre, and admired the Church of the Annunciation, which has a facade reminiscent of an Islamic temple. I rested a little in the botanic gardens of the University, founded by St Ignatius Loyala, and then found just enough time before returning to the ship for a brief visit to the Contemporary Art Gallery of Messina.
One of my favourite painters, Caravaggio, had spent time there as well as in Rome and Naples. He was able to paint people very naturalistically and dramatically at the same time, using very strong contrasts in light and shade. His style broke with tradition, sowing the seed of Modern Art way back the 17th century. He didn’t create all that many works so I was quite excited to find several of his paintings in the gallery.
Messina as well has had a very long and rich history, being accessible to so many different races and countries around the Mediterranean. I learned that like Naples, it was founded by Greek colonizes, around about the eighth century BC.
I was surprised to discover some of its very recent history. Just five years ago, the foreign ministers of Europe came together here in Messina to work on a plan for Europe’s future. Two years later, in 1957, the European Economic Community, the EEC, an international organisation, was created through an agreement known as the Treaty of Rome. The signatories were Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany, and it is now referred to as the Common Market. You learn something new every day!
Just as we were leaving late that afternoon, a good old gale blew up which made for a rather unpleasant departure. The ship had quite a roll on — more like what you would expect in the Atlantic Ocean rather than the Mediterranean. I really felt for the migrant passengers, now 14,000 of them. Many were looking pretty miserable — a combination of homesickness and seasickness is pretty tough medicine! I have to admit that I wasn’t feeling all that fit myself. Fortunately it didn’t last too long, and even though it did mean missing dinner, that probably wasn’t a bad thing given how generous the meals are.
Mealtimes are quite a pleasant social experience.There are lots of courses but they are served in a very leisurely way and are accompanied with light wines and plenty of interesting conversation. Nevertheless I will probably have to watch my weight and my liver, and find ways of getting plenty of exercise. We all have our special places at the dining table. The captain is at one end and the escort officer-in-training, that’s me, is at the other end together with Lillian and the two senior engineers. They are great buddies, seem to enjoy our company, and are happy to give us lots of interesting information about the workings of the ship and bits of gossip besides.
It doesn’t take long to get to Suez, and I was hurrying to finish this letter in time to post it there, but I was advised to wait till we arrived at Aden. It seems that all mail going through Port Said and Suez i.e. Egyptian territory, will be sent to Cairo to be censored before proceeding on! At this rate, it may not reach you in time for Christmas, but you know that I have been thinking of you all.
Just for safe measure, I send lots of love and now wish everyone a wonderful New Year as well. “
“The Middle East, aboard the S.S. Conte Grande. December 1960.
This is letter is especially to wish you a very happy birthday on the sixth. Given all the strange things that have been happening with mail, and hold-ups while going through the Suez canal, I thought it best to write this in plenty of time for your big day, though we’ll soon be able to get together and extend the celebrations! – it’s hard to believe that I am finally on my way back home – exciting and a bit scary at the same time.
The trip began at Genova in northern Italy a few days ago. We had a brief stopovers in Naples and then Messina in Sicily, and across the Mediterranean, reaching the entrance to the Suez Canal later in the evening. Then we had to line up in a queue of vessels, waiting overnight before moving into the canal at 10.30 a.m. next day. At 1pm. we were stopped again halfway through to allow 30 other ships to pass us. That meant another six hours delay till 7 PM, and we didn’t arrive at Suez until 4.30 AM the next morning!
This meant that we missed our chance of going ashore at either port, even just to stretch our legs. This was really disappointing and trying for everyone, but I particularly felt for the migrant passengers, who have hardly had time to adjust to being on board and in fairly cramped conditions.
We all did our bit to maintain morale; the officers and crew were really thoughtful and good-humoured about it all, as nothing could be done to hurry things up, so everyone made the most of it. I wasn’t able to find out why so many other vessels were given precedence over us — I would have liked to know.
We are now in the Red Sea, of course, which means that we are sampling our first taste of really hot weather. It is feeling rather strange to go from winter to summer so quickly, and it didn’t take long to discover the swimming pool — not that there has been a lot of spare time to use it!
You have no doubt heard by now that I am having a temporary change of career – teaching Basic English to our European immigrants. First of all, we needed to organise the classes, and sift through the passengers to find some assistant teachers, and now that there are no more places to stop at before Colombo, we are ready to roll our sleeves up and begin the lessons. Theoretically, I will be teaching for three hours a day, though there will be a couple of hours more spent supervising the assistant teachers. They had better not find out that I have never done a day’s formal teaching in my life before now!
Actually, I am really enjoying it all so far, even though I have no voice left by the end of the day. This is such a different experience already to my trip over on the Strathnaver when we had nothing much to do for five weeks except socialize – I quite like the difference! The irony is that last time, there was a lot of time for dancing and romancing, but there was no one around that I was really attracted to, and this time, when I wasn’t expecting it, I’m already beginning a little ”shipboard romance”.
He is also called Francis! – Franco Russo, the 1st. Officer on the ship – a Neapolitan with fair hair and blue eyes — a rare combination. He has never sailed to Australia before. The officers are not encouraged to fraternise, and what’s more, are very busy with all their duties, which means that it is all the more fun because we have to be very discreet about meeting up.
We do go for long walks now and then round and round the decks when it’s quiet, and nobody seems to take a lot of notice. I am really surprised at myself for being so fickle, as it’s only a few days ago since I was standing on the docks at Naples saying goodbye to Peppino and shedding real tears. There is something strange about being on a ship — you feel so disconnected from the rest of your life and what’s going on elsewhere. Hard to explain, but a little bit like being in a play.
My colleague Lillian and I have been asked by the two chief engineers who sit next to us at dinner to play Scrabble with them some evenings, so this might all take a little juggling. Actually we have already played a couple of games — they are both good at it. Nothing like having a little variety in your life!
Sometimes there will be a movie to watch as well — I haven’t seen a film for ages, though when Peppino was in Rome just before I went to Spain, we went out to Cinecitta on the edge of the city – it is Italy’s Hollywood, where most of their films are produced and also some from other countries as well. It was very interesting seeing the huge cardboard sets, which looked so real. The one I liked best was the sort of street you see in a Western – just like in High Noon.
There didn’t seem to be much happening there at the time, but I did get to see Tony Curtis, looking very handsome but rather bored, even a little miserable. I was very tempted to introduce myself and cheer him up a little, but I am rather shy and I did think it must be quite annoying having people continually coming up to you that you’ve never seen before, just because you’re famous. Who knows?
The film Studios were actually founded by Mussolini in 1937 for his son Vittorio and others to make propaganda films, but then came the war and put a stop to that. After the war Italy became well known for very realistic films showing the trends and challenges of post-war life. Frederico Fellini became famous for films for such as La Dolce Vita and Roma. The film, Bicycle Thieves made by Vittorio de Sica was so good that a special award was created for it. The studio has also been used for making US films including the blockbuster Ben Hur.
I hope the New Year will be a good one for you. I know from reading between the lines in Mum’s letters that this last year has been a very difficult one for you in more ways than one, and I have thought of you often and wished that I could have been around to give you some support.
It will be good to catch up and spend a bit of time together when I get home. I’ll probably be needing a little help to ease back into Wagga’s social life again. Life has been so different for me since I left, and I admit to feeling a bit apprehensive about how I will adjust, and what awaits me in the future.
Have a great birthday — a big hug to you, young brother, and lots of good wishes to everyone for the New Year.
PS. Would you mind letting everyone know as soon as you get this letter that the next address where I can receive mail is The Conte Grande c/–George Wills & Co. P.O. Box 94. Fremantle.”
” Colombo, Ceylon “. 29 December 1960 11 PM.
As you see, we have finally reached Colombo and have now sailed into port. We were supposed to arrive here by this morning and finally have some shore leave, but we are already a good 10 hours behind schedule because of the fiasco at Suez, so we will be back at sea again first thing in the morning.
Just as well we were not counting on doing lots of sightseeing during the trip. We understand that the top priority is to bring the immigrants to their destination as soon as is practical. It is nearly midnight but I might just walk along the dock for a little while just to stretch my legs – it is well lit, and I will rustle up a friend to keep me company.
On reflection, I am not feeling too disappointed that we didn’t go ashore this time in Egypt. I found Cairo very interesting when I spent a day there on the way over to England but I had plenty of time while we were held up at Suez to remember a couple of things that happened there that were not so pleasant, including the camel ride at the pyramids, remember!
One event I didn’t include in my letter to you then was because being early days in my travels, I didn’t want to alarm you in any way. As we disembarked from the ship at Suez, we had to walk a little way along a horizontal gangplank just wide enough to allow people to pass one another coming and going. Halfway along I was shocked when an Egyptian man spat straight into my face just as he passed me going the other way.
I later asked one of the officers if he could explain why that would happen. ” It is simple”, he said. ” All of you Australians are carrying a British passport! And they have no cause to love the English.” I had no idea that having a British passport could be such a disadvantage. When I had had time to recover from the experience, I resolved to become better informed about the history and politics of places that I was travelling through. I had a lot to learn.
Much later I learnt more about the recent history of Egypt and the construction of the Canal, which had been built to connect Europe and Asia by sea.
The Canal started at Port Said — the Mediterranean gateway — and a series of lakes were connected up for over 60 miles, taking 10 years to reach the port of Suez, (still Egypt’s most important port). From there, there was still another 40 miles of land to be cut through to complete the project.
Very primitive methods were used to create the Canal. 20,000 Egyptian peasants a month were co-opted for digging and shifting soil in huge handbaskets carried by camels. A great many men died due to fatalities and infectious disease.
The Canal was finally opened in 1869, helping to modernise Egypt, but the funding had come from European banks at exorbitant interest rates, bankrupting the country, and most of the shares in the Suez Canal went to the British and the French, putting them in control for the next 80 years.
Finally, you no doubt remember, in 1952, just 8 years ago, a revolutionary Egyptian army led by Colonel Nasser seized power in a bloodless coup, deposed the corrupt monarchy which had been under British control, and sent King Farouk into exile. In 1956 Nasser became president of an independent National Socialist government. Later that year he nationalised the Suez Canal.
Britain and France, with help from Israel, then invaded Egypt in order to regain control. The military offensive was brutal and Britain in particular was condemned internationally for heavily bombing Cairo and causing the deaths of thousands of civilians – deliberately killing civilians with bombs was unheard of up to that time. The British were forced to withdraw by the United Nations and the USA.
All of this happened less than two years before I put foot on Egyptian soil, and learning some of this supplied some answers for me, I am told that President Nasser still remains a hero to his people, creating a republic with a true national identity and cultural pride, but obviously there are plenty of scars yet to be healed.
Anyhow, back to the present. We will be sailing for a full week across the Indian Ocean before we get to Perth on the 6th of January– a long stretch without seeing land – plenty of time for reflection and integration.
Melbourne comes next on the 10th, and Sydney on the 13th, and the captain estimates that we will have made up lost time by the time we arrive in Sydney. Hurrah! I could probably disembark in Melbourne if you preferred, though I’m on the list for Sydney, but somehow, for sentimental reasons, I would really love to disembark in Sydney It would somehow feel much more like coming home. Sydney is my special Australian city, as well as having family and friends there that I am really looking forward to seeing again. Claire is living there now, and there are the aunts and uncles as well, and as many of you who are able to come up from the Riverina. It would be a great reunion and wonderful to see you all, if that works out for you as well.
By the way, I wrote earlier to Denise Martin telling her that I would be travelling on the Oriana. I would be grateful if Claire would phone to tell her of the change of plans.
I mentioned to Frank in my last letter that I had become friendly with the 1st. officer – Franco by name – and I’ve come to know a few of the other young officers as well. They are a really nice bunch, well mannered and good fun — occasionally we have the chance for a little recreational time together when they happen to be off duty at the same time as us. That can mean some deck games during the day, or sometimes a dance in the evening — a special treat! They are all looking forward to having time off in Sydney, especially as they haven’t been to Australia before.
Franco is looking a little ahead and wondering if a group of us could go out together to dinner in the city once we arrive. Four of the young officers are very keen on the idea, and wondered if my grown-up sisters who they have heard me talk about would like to meet them and join in. I thought that maybe Denise and Frank might also be interested.
We are all looking forward to celebrating the end of the journey, but it could also be yet another of those ‘goodbye’ events that I seem to create for myself! – One of Italy’s favourite songs is Ciao, ciao Bambina – Bye, Bye Baby!!
Christmas Day has come and gone. Luckily it was not too hot. The chef excelled himself and created a wonderful Italian style Christmas Eve dinner with lots of courses. This was the only time that all 30 officers came together for a meal, and there we were — only three women present to keep them company! We were made to feel really special, thanked and complemented for our participation on board during the journey, though I did feel at times as if I was in a goldfish bowl. Later on, most everybody attended midnight Mass, and that felt very special. It seems to be the same the world over — people who rarely go to church often end up there on Christmas Eve.
On Christmas day all the children on board were gathered together and the Captain became St Nicolas and gave each one a little gift. It was very moving to watch at first — there were lots of decorations, and of course, a Christmas tree and much excitement as the kids jostled one another to receive their presents, but once they were unwrapped, some of them began making comparisons and wanting to exchange them — and believe it or not, I’m talking about the mothers more than the children!
The teaching days have gradually become longer and busier, mainly because three of the assistant teachers we recruited haven’t been up to the task. We have kept one of them on, and have taken on the extra workload, which means five hours tutoring a day, as well as preparation time, so I can certainly claim to be earning my keep – and proud of it! – It has been an interesting challenge, lots of learning curves, but with plenty of lighter moments.
Talking of work, it was thoughtful of you Mum, offering to see if there was any work available for me in the Wagga pharmacies. I will certainly need to replenish the coffers as soon as possible, but I know you will not be happy if I have to leave home to do that – and neither will I, as I’m sure I will need a good rest and some family time while Leonie is still on school holidays, before rolling up my sleeves again.
After that, perhaps you and I could take out a little time together and kick up our heels a bit — it’s such a long time since we have had a chance to do that.
It’s now time to get this letter into the mailbag before we sail. I will be looking forward to hearing from you next at Fremantle. I will send my last letter from there, and try to phone you as well.
Belated Happy New Year to everyone, much love to you all….. “
By way of winding up this marathon covering two and a half years of correspondence I have written “A brief Epilogue to My Letters from Europe.” Written in July. 20