I embarked on Queen Mary 2 in expectation of twelve glorious days of ocean crossing from Southampton to New York. Travelling to North America on this magnificent ocean liner made me think of the immigrants of long ago who had crossed the ocean to the New World. It was, however, disingenuous of me to find kinship with them, for I was on this voyage, not to find a better life, but to celebrate my already better life.
I leaned over the railing of the open air deck, looked down, mesmerized by the swelling waves, and I thought about my Portuguese ancestors; a people once enticed by the sea to discover new lands. In the last century, so many left the Continente (mainland Portugal), and just about depopulated the Azorean islands; eager to make enough money to buy the American dream.
The Saturnia brought many to North American shores. Families had saved up enough escudos to pay for one passage fare for a father or a brother to make the journey. These men crowded the steerage below, felt sea sick, withstood the roller coaster ride of rough waves, and longed for their wives and children. They arrived tired and weary in Halifax, Boston, New York.
Later, when air travel became accessible, the ocean crossings were abandoned for the convenience of a seven hour flight to Boston or Montreal. But the journey out, whether by long days at sea or short hours in the air, always meant a tearing apart, a leaving of a home. The only contact with family was through the anticipated weekly letters sent back and forth, to share news and saudade. I am old enough to remember the letters my mother received from my father, telling strange tales of a world I could not imagine. It was only years later, when I came by airplane from the Azores that I saw Canada for myself.
It surprised me to have these thoughts as I explored QM2, where there were no signs of immigrants or hardship. But then I met the most extraordinary young couple, who were emigrating from the UK to Queen’s, New York.
I was intrigued by Michael and David from the moment I first spotted them during the pre-sailing ceremony on the uppermost deck where we had all gathered to watch the Irish Guard performing a ceremonial marching display. The young couple, perhaps in their late twenties or early thirties, clung to each other in a closeness that even in the thick crowd, implied a loving intimacy. The dark wavy haired one, wearing glasses, reminded me of me at that age, while his blond partner reminded me of my partner, who stood next to me, snapping photos of the guards marching back and forth in a display of rhythmic synchronicity. I envied this younger version of “us” for doing something that would have been impossible for me to experience decades ago: having my partner put his arms around me while standing on a magnificent ocean liner.
Two nights later we docked in Liverpool to the sounds of Ferry Cross the Mersey from the quay, where people waved up to the ship, as we, the lucky ones, waved back from our cabin balconies. The next day we were in Liverpool Cathedral for a commemorative concert to celebrate Cunard’s 175 years of service. The Triumph of a Great Tradition – two hours of readings by dignitaries, solo performers, The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, The Liverpool Cathedral Choir, and the Band of the Welsh Guards. It was an emotional event that dispelled any notion of British coldness. The singing of Jerusalem, Rule Britannia, and a boisterous singing of God Save the Queen by everyone, floated up to the cathedral’s vaulted sky.
We all enthusiastically waved our Cunard and British flags, and for a moment I felt a knot on my throat and a tear welling up, emotions that betrayed loyalty to my very own Pátria. Ah, to be British! And finally, the somber entrance of the Band of the Welsh Guards playing Finale 81, a hauntingly beautiful, ethereal piece that confirmed my love for “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”
Later that night, hundreds of Liverpudlians crowded the quay, singing and waving flags, to see us off. Firework lit up the sky. As QM2 sailed on towards the ocean I could still hear Time to Say Goodbye sung by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. Soon we were out of hearing distance and I felt a lonely silence around me. I went down to the King’s Court to console myself with a late night “snack” of a little sirloin steak. Our lives on board returned to normal but everyone still talked about Liverpool for days after.
By now I had almost forgotten the young couple until I finally got to meet them at the Friends of Dorothy LGBT cocktail hour in the Commodore Club, where a group of men mostly from Germany, Australia, UK and USA, socialized. My partner and I were the only Canadians. Michael introduced himself to me when he heard my name, curious about confirming my ethnicity. He, too, was Portuguese, originally from Lisbon, with family still living there. He and David, his British spouse, were celebrating their one year wedding anniversary, as we, by coincidence, were also doing. Perhaps it’s a generational thing but the word spouse still sounds unreal to me, growing up during a time when even the hint of my sexuality was unthinkable.
They married in Portugal, in a Palácio in Sintra, with most members of their families present. They were both graduate students who had chosen this ocean liner as their preferred method of moving their belongings to North America. They had, Michael said, boxes and boxes stacked up in their cabin, since Cunard allows passengers to bring on board as much luggage as they can fit in the cabin. They were excited about starting a new life in Queens, New York.
It gave me great satisfaction to know that two Portuguese men, of different generations, are now living at a time when they can marry their male partners and afford to travel in luxury. I suspect that Michael comes from a wealthy family and that for him to travel this way is not something extraordinary. But mine had been a family of poor immigrants who paved the way for me to, 50 years later, have the opportunity and the means to travel the Queen Mary 2.
My modest success is due to my parents’ daring, a long time ago, when they left their home and embarked on a life changing journey. I wished my father, my aunts and uncles, and my grandparents, who are all now gone, could have seen me on board, waving from my balcony cabin, sipping champagne in my tuxedo after a formal dinner. I know that if they could have seen me, they would have shaken their heads in disbelief and wonder how much the trip had set me back, and what a waste of money it was. A good down payment on a house back in 1973. But I think that they would ultimately smile with triumphant happiness. Sim senhor, Yes, sir, I could hear them saying, nodding their heads with pride.
QM2 made pilgrimage stops at famous ports, a homage to all this immigration of the past: Halifax, Pier 21, where so many Portuguese immigrants had once arrived; and Boston, where that night 2, 500 passengers stood on the various decks, in their finest formal, drinking champagne to watch a spectacular firework display before heading out to our final destination: New York.
It was early morning when the QM2 crossed beneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, surrounded by serious helicopters, homeland security at their tightest; I am not sure if to protect us from the enemy or if they assumed we were the enemy. Even on the water, police with big guns rode little speed boats, escorting us to our final docking and disembarkation. We finally saw the iconic Statue of Liberty greet us into Lower Manhattan and the voyage was over.
We had a few hours left for a final breakfast, and goodbyes to people we had met. I did not see Michael and David again, but I could imagine them fussing with their boxes and wondering how they would transport them to their new home. They will face challenges, but they have the protection of privilege on their side to help them make it, unlike the uncertainty so many other immigrants face when they arrive at their destination with nothing but perhaps their souls intact. The leaving of home and those we love, the challenges of starting a new life, are what we share in common. What we don’t all share is the luxury of taking the Queen Mary 2 to get there.
Also posted on Comunidades