THE LOVE BOAT
The primal cause of this Diatribe is a culinary discussion I once had with a friend about the origin of the Italian pasta sauce “à la Puttanesca.” Apparently, this literally translates as “the way a whore would make it.” The reason for the existence of such a stark, leave nothing to the imagination title is debated. One possibility is that the name pays homage to the sauce’s hot, spicy flavour and smell. Another is that the dish was offered to prospective customers at a low price to entice them into houses of ill repute. However, according to Jeff Smith of the “Frugal Gourmet,” its name derives from its propensity to be cooked by prostitutes as a quick and easy meal for their customers. After speculating that upon its introduction into Greece, this delectable fare would invariably be required to be prepared upon on railing according to the new EU rules on cultural preservation, I related to my friend the inordinately sad truism that my mother absolutely despises all forms of pasta. The reason behind her unnatural abhorrence and lack of respect towards this most honourable Greek wheaten staple is that she migrated to Australia at the tender age of twelve upon an Italian ship, where spaghetti was served to the hapless passengers for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day throughout the duration of the thirty four revolutions of the earth it took to arrive at our shores. Consequently, to this day, she cannot shovel a well turned, cholesterol-dripping spoonful of fettucine al burro into her mouth without feeling decidedly seasick.
My friend took this in with all the dismay of a North Polean reindeer learning on Christmas Eve that it would be retrenched owing to the transfer of Santa’s workshop to Guangzhou for reasons of efficiency. Then, jaw still masticating a forkful of ravioli in benign unison with the vibration of the elemental om, he mused: “Have you ever wondered what transpired during the boat ride? A whole month at sea. I mean, think about it. Whenever you hear people talk about how they came to Australia, it’s all grinding poverty, dire straits, (incidentally, have you heard the one about the Greek immigrant who was asked whether the boat would be sailing through the Straits of Malacca?) tears at the quayside, heart-wrenching waving of handkerchiefs as they board, and then….. they arrived in Australia, more hardship, hard work, counting of pennies etc. Very rarely do you get a mention of what actually happened during that journey. And what is doubly strange, is that, I mean, consider this… droves and droves of young hormone infested males and females in their late adolescence, most of whom had never been further than the village square, devoid of any parental control are herded on to this huge ….love boat and packed together. Don’t you think that they would have gotten up to at least some mischief? But you never hear a word of it. I’ve spoken to people who met and fell in love on the ship and yet not even they will explain the circumstances of how they came to be together.”
It was an interesting point, and one that simply clamoured for further research. Over the next few months, I would assiduously accost aging members of the community who arrived in this country in their late teens for their own boat stories. Apart from the few ladies, invariably sporting beehives who informed me snootily that they did not emigrate to Australia by boat, instead, they paid their own way and arrived by aeroplane, most emigrants were noticeably reticent about their transoceanic experiences, except for one inebriated patron of a questionable Richmond establishment named Heracles, who in the tradition of his heroic namesake, maintained that he was accosted by all the Thespian maidens on his ship and dispatched them and their ardour with gusto. What I was able to discern however, was that somehow, migrants arriving here on the good ship ‘Patris,’’ seem to consider that they enjoy the same status as the Pilgrims who arrived in America on the ‘Mayflower.’ The Klusian myth then, that obscures the art of seduction is that our young forebears were all sexless creatures, whose sole aim was to lift themselves and their families out of the cogwheels of grinding poverty and thus had no time for frivolous activities. Indeed the only clue I have been able to glean as to what may have transpired, is from a cryptic remark in a Greek-Australian book I am currently translating, where the author describes how a fellow passenger lured her on to the deck and tried to make a pass at her. Her screams were heard by a sailor: “My child, don’t ever come up here alone ever again… You aren’t like the other girls who spend the night in the lifeboats.”
What happens on the boat, must stay on the boat. Though it appears a good deal more was rocking than just the waves of the Indian Ocean.
Chancing to mention my conclusion to my landlord one day, a leather-hided, simian-shaped builder who appears to have never gone indoors ever since he arrived in this country, he spluttered: “Rubbish. The boat trip was Sodom and Gomorrah. Let me tell you a tale or two.” Taking a long sip of ultra fermented coffee that had been lying around his back verandah in full sun for three days, he proceeded to weave a fascinating tapestry of iniquity:
“When we reached Port Said, this marvelous beauty boarded the boat. Long, black curly hair, lithe, lissome, a fantastic pair of breasts, legs one kilometre in length….(here he started drooling coffee with a hungry expression in his face, making him assume an unearthly Uncle Fester-like quality.) Her name was Maria and she was from Egypt, I think from Alexandria. Anyway, she got on the boat and we were all crowding around her because, let’s face it, she was the hottest thing there. You know these Alexandrian dames really knew how to look after themselves, not like the muck-bred, cattle that we were used to from our villages. I mean plucked eyebrows! Who would have ever thought! Of course she wouldn’t pay attention to us because we were younger, I was seventeen and she would have been about twenty one. We used to place bets with the rest of the passengers as to who would get to sleep with her. However, even though we all did our best to seduce her with pick up lines and the like, none of us met with any success. One night, I had drunk a bit too much and I pounded on the door of her cabin. When she opened the door, I threw myself upon her and started kissing her neck. She screamed and pushed me out of the cabin. I remember being dragged to the hold by two burly crew members, shouting all the while: «Και ποια είσαι εσύ που δεν σου κάνουμε; Τι μας παριστάνεις, την Οσία Μαρία;»
The next day, I was taken to see the Captain. “I am going to make sure you are not allowed to enter Australia,” he told me. “Australia doesn’t need guys like you.” To cut a long story short, I had connections, an uncle who was the captain of another ship, who intervened on my behalf, so I weaseled myself out of the situation. However, listen to this: As we found out later, all the time that Maria the Egyptian was pretending to be prim and proper, she was actually entertaining the Captain and the senior officers of the crew. That’s why they were so angry with me and wanted to lock me up. Not because they wanted to maintain discipline and security but because I was impinging upon their exclusivity. Anyway, after spending one month like this, word got out. I think she felt pregnant but I’m not too sure. Somehow, when Maria the Egyptian arrived in Australia, her relatives had found out about her and locked the doors on her. She stayed there, banging on the doors for a while and then went away. I don’t know if she eventually had a child or what happened. One of my friends reckons he saw her in St Kilda one day. I don’t know. I saw her years later, in church at Easter, covered from head to toe. Apparently she had a religious transformation. So that’s what happened on the boat. It wasn’t a bad ride by the way. Plenty of pasta. I love pasta.”
I was astounded both by the tale and the complex and colourful way in which it was narrated to me. Lying awake that night, I reflected upon the vicissitudes of fate, the hormone-induced audacity of the adolescent male and my dubious success in eliciting smut from a cautionary tale, de-constructing a foundation myth in the process. In particular, I had a vision of an ethereal beauty, hair cruelly tossed by the winds hammering on the door of paradise and yet not being granted entry when….. The plot of this story seemed strangely familiar to me. I had heard, no read it once before. But where? A quarter of an hour of frantic head scratching, accompanied by another quarter of an hour’s frenzied examination of my pillow in order to ascertain whether my landlord’s assertion that I was slowly going bald could also be verified and my recall was total.
Opening the Great Synaxaristes of the Orthodox Church, I turned to the page dedicated to St Mary the Egyptian. St Mary was also a beautiful Alexandrian woman, whose unnatural lusts caused her to take a boat ride to Jerusalem in the hope that her carnal hunger could be satiated both during the voyage and at her destination. Arriving in Jerusalem, she decided to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre only to find the doors supernaturally shut against her. It was only the intervention of the Theotokos and her own repentance and subsequent good deeds that secured her salvation. Sure enough, arriving at work the next day, I withdrew discretely to my landlord’s office. There, on top of his desk was a slim, crimson and well thumbed volume entitled “St Mary the Egyptian.” Now wait till you hear the above about how his construction company decided to build a tower that would surpass the sky and reach the feet of God Almighty….
Diatribe leaves you this week, with the possible real reason why we shall never be told the seaborne deeds of our founding fathers, through the words of the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky:
“Love’s boat has been shattered against the life of everyday.