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THE INVISIBLE ARMY

*

‘Is the Riesling a white or a red wine?’

It was a really dumb question, but young John was just new. So was I. We’d both been on board exactly the same time: five days, quite long enough or us to learn that the Eastern European mafia that ran the waitstaff didn’t take kindly to keen Singaporese – or Dogster, or that matter.

Another waiter scoffed. Cruelty came naturally to this failed man. With all the pig-enthusiasm of the stupid, he couldn’t wait to put down smart.

‘Pfft, he doesn’t know a red from a white…’

Young John’s eyes filled with angry tears.

‘Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?’ he gasped, ‘isn’t that how you learn? Ask questions?’

John was a level one assistant bus-boy – which is about as low down the food and beverage hierarchy as you can get. He was barely a week into a whole new world. Not only did he have to learn the rudiments of the dining room but he had to learn them on the job, away from home, surrounded by strangers; three meals a day, seven days a week – into what must have seemed like infinity – well, six months at least. Now he was being bullied and humiliated. The fat Macedonian laughed.

‘He won’t last…’

Dog felt an unexpected attack of kindness coming on. I called the new boy over. He looked startled. I smiled.

‘Just know this. If you are strong you will win. I am old. I know these things.’

His cheeks were burning, eyes glinting. One hand shook as he took my order.

‘Are you strong?’

He nodded.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes, I am strong.’

‘O.K. Strong John, then I’ll have the ravioli…’

*

The Azamara Army is a little bit like Switzerland; very small, very compact and determinedly neutral. It’s an equal opportunity employer; black, brindle, yellow or green, if you’re good at your job, they’ll use you. Jew, Gentile, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist, you’ve got a gig. Straight or gay, lesbian, transsexual or neuter – come on board.

There appear to be over seventy-five thousand different nationalities and all seventeen sexes living on the ship, co-existing somewhere out of sight; trapped ‘below stairs’ in a secret servant enclave. Not a jot of what happens below stairs leaks out. Not one word. They are all one big happy family, living together, as all big happy families do – without strife, without pain, held in place by a big, thick book of rules; a Love Bible administered with varying grace by a Human Relations Officer.

HRO’s come in three sexes and several sizes. I had a breakfast meeting with one of them once on Azamara Journey. She was the scariest woman I’ve ever met. After a few excruciating minutes, she feigned an important meeting and fled, seething. I don’t blame her really. I think she perceived a threat.

All I did was ask her who wrote the book of rules.

*

Deep in the belly of the beast Elvira sat watching the screens. She saw the guests weaving back to their cabins, the private touch, the gentle lurch, unexpected visitors. Elvira sees it all on the screens. She holds the key to the tower.

We know we are monitored, every waking second of every day – we just forget that it’s there. There are security cameras on every inch of every deck, all the obvious forms of surveillance – but, if you stop to think of it, the spy network extends into infinity; the butler, the housekeeper and the cleaners see the results of every private moment, every spillage, every stain; they see the pills and preparations, the product and the potions;  see you early in the morning, bring you breakfast, take your laundry, know your habits, slot you gently but politely into your shipboard role.

Everybody watches. Everybody knows.

In a pure stroke of theatre, we don’t see them.  They are the invisible army; Bunraku puppeteers discreetly delivering cocktails, elegant multi-colored mufti to be patronized – then ignored. We forget that our loud chatter is precisely that – loud – that others can hear – on Azamara the very walls have ears. Don’t ever forget it – every conversation, everywhere. Passengers crane to eavesdrop, hoping for a clue; tables fall silent at critical moments; the secret Bunraku can’t help but overhear.

Nothing is private. Everybody talks. They talk about us, they talk about each other.

It’s a sweet, soft aqua-Stasi, a network of self-interested spies. Better be good. Better fit in. There are no secrets from Mamma Azamara.

*

Sommelier Svetlana fitted a little too snugly into her Maitre ‘D uniform but that only added to her strange allure. Simultaneously sexy, terrifying and friendly, it was like waking up to Nurse Ratchet.

She would scan my face at breakfast, intuiting my morning mood; send a flurry of junior waiters to appease. She was generous and attentive, chatty and smooth, a Mama Nanna Angel who could kill. Perhaps Svetlana drugged my food.

‘Svetlana, did you know that those two pashmina ladies… aren’t?

She chuckled.

‘I’m not allowed to talk about the other passengers, Mr. Dogster.’

Here’s the line, the one you mustn’t cross. Nothing negative must be said – not in front of the punters. Other guests must not be discussed, other staff members likewise. We can have all the opinions we like – but for the staff; well, they couldn’t possibly comment. It’s all a bit like a Doris Day movie – everything is said, but in code.

Then she smiled broadly.

‘Of course we do.’

I didn’t.’

‘I know,’ she said and laughed and laughed, ‘we watched your face. We saw.’

*

Dinner at ‘Discoveries’ is an amazing performance, a dinner-dance of waiters, bus-boys, maitre ‘D’s, sommeliers and stewards, all choreographed by the ebb and throb of the kitchen-beast below. This is the main restaurant on board; capable of handling about six hundred covers a night. If everybody has four courses, that’s two thousand four hundred separate platings, minimum. More like three thousand. This is cuisine on an industrial scale.

Dog found it strangely thrilling to sit at the end of the assembly line, snug and solo at the number one table with the level five waiter, right at the pointy end of the stick. I liked to time it so that my order was in and secure before the seven o’clock swill. Then I sat back and watched the spectacle. It was a feat of pure logistics in motion, the full Diaghilev.

Really, it wasn’t so much the quality of the food I was consumed by – it was the miracle that any food arrived at all.

*

Even the threat of Rudi looming wasn’t going to keep me from the galley tour. We’ve been avoiding each other. He was especially nice to people whenever he saw me looking, just so I’d know he was really a great guy. I must have met another man called Rudi. I love Rudi.

Into the belly of the beast, a hissing, streaming, clanking machine, an assembly line of food, all aimed at one thing; our satisfaction. There are six hundred food-critics on board.

What was it Rudi said before…?  Pfft.

Rudi thinks I’m a food critic.

It was all guest Relations’ fault.

Since Madame Pong’s discreet ‘Beware of the Dog’ I’ve transformed from Cruise Critic to blogger to journalist to restaurant reviewer without doing a thing. Chinese Whispers.

If I just continue to do bugger all, soon I’ll be an astronaut.

*

The galley is divided into hot and cold. Not surprisingly, the hot galley includes all types of cooking; vegetable, fish, soup and grills; the cold includes salads and buffets, baking and pastry. It’s all run by a man in a black lanyard.

The big cheese is the Executive Chef: directly under him the Chef De Cuisine, the Executive Sous Chefs, the Sous Chefs, the Chefs De Partie and the Demi Chefs De Partie – all this to accommodate my gourmet whim. Gawd.

But there’s more; the First Cooks; the Commis, then the Second and the Third, then the lowly trainees, all slaving over my grilled salmon. The Pastry Chefs, Assistant Pastry Chefs, the Pastry Men, the Pastry trainees, the Baker Supervisor, the Bakers and the Baker Trainees do their thing. There are walls of photographs to show them how.

Lined up, neatly posed on a demure blue plate with a precise description, is every dish on the changing menu, each to be reproduced, exactly, minutely and created afresh for the ravenous throng. There are assembly lines of Philippinos who do nothing but sort salad, a troupe of Taiwanese who just do dots. Mauritius does the frying, India does the roasts. There are meat rooms and fish rooms, a boudoir for the bagels, a sausage sizzle suite.

It’s a living, breathing food machine, crammed with antiseptic passion; the invisible Corps de Cuisine. Everything is relentlessly clean; there’s a utility division; a Galley Steward, Galley Cleaners, Dishwashers and Pot Washers who clean all of the dishes and tableware, change the table cloths, vacuum the floors, and clean the windows and bar areas. One man just washes pots all day. I’m glad that’s not me.

Having watched reality TV, I assume there must be shouting, swearing and tears as well – but as it turns out, that was just the passengers.

As they spy on us, so we spy on them…

On the wall in the galley is the Holy Grail, a snooper’s paradise.

Ever wondered what happens to all those little ticks and crosses on your comment form? Here they are, processed, collated and squeezed, turned into art and hung on the wall. I love a chart. Every department, divided, sub-divided into easy, bite-size chunks, cruise by cruise – a running low chart of customer dissatisfaction.

It really is a two-way street. Better stay in the blue.

Departments are marked on a score of three hundred. Last year the overall score for cruise experience was 258. By the end of 2010 the Azamara Army was achieving ratings of 290+/-. That’s about a ninety something percent approval rating.

This is a New Azamara.

‘We learn from everything you say,’ the Cruise Director will coo.

‘Anything you want, just come to us!’ Guest Relations will positively drool, ‘without you we are nothing…’

‘Just tell us – we can’t read minds…’

‘We consider every suggestion…’

Well, maybe they do.

He was confident, professional, completely on top of his game, serving my many courses and wine with considerable aplomb.

‘Remember me?’

‘Yes, I do,’ Strong John smiled, ‘you are the kindest man on the ship.’

Two years later. Aw-w-w-w.

‘Now, I am a level five waiter.’

‘Congratulations! See? I told you you’d win.’

Next contract he might be promoted to level one Head Waiter. Then he’ll work for Level two, then three, then four and five – soon he’ll be Assistant Maitre ’D. He’s happy; he has prospects – with luck, in a few years he’ll replace Rudi.

‘You don’t have to like the people you’re working with,’ he said one day, ‘you just have to work with them, that’s all. We’re a team.’

After extensive research, I have to report that it really is one big, happy family.

‘Shipboard life is addictive,’ I heard over and over, ‘after a month or so on leave, I start to miss it. Can’t wait to get back on board…’

*

© NIGEL TRIFFITT  2011

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