With all the recent goings-on, election, economy, environment and personal activities, some still find time not only to read these posts, but also to email questions. This latest one stirred up another grey cell or two in the hinterland of my memory chamber:
“Is it possible for you to paint us a picture in words about how after WWII you became a dining-room steward on board ships?” Yes, it all began when Europe had to be rebuilt. “Benelux” was born, NATO came into existence, and then there was the Marshall Plan.
We had a choice (as young men): either join the military for a couple of years, or do something like enlist with the merchant marine. The last thing I wanted to do was join the military. But the merchant marine? Now that was music to my adventurous ears. This would be a splendid way to see the world and visit far-away places.
In 1946 the venerable Holland America Line had resumed its Transatlantic crossings from Rotterdam to New York (Hoboken, New Jersey, to be exact), plus cruises to Bermuda and the Caribbean.
WWII had broken out when I was just 10 years old, so I had no formal school education. Thus, officer training was out. Another option would be a deckhand, but lots of cleaning and scrubbing didn’t interest me. Then, how about a dining-room steward?
However, I had no experience and knew Holland America Line was very selective in hiring crew. So, I had to obtain experience as a waiter in one of the five-star hotels in Amsterdam which had re-surfaced after the War. My first job in this new environment was at luxurious “Hotel Pays Bas”.
We had to sign a contract agreeing to a minimum of one year. This hotel was so “posh”, just to give you an example, the Maitre d’ and all the waiters had custom-made outfits. Even though this was my very first job as a server (and didn’t know anything about it), I too got decked out in “black-tie” outfit, formal swallow-tail jacket included. The staff all looked as if we were at a permanent New Year’s Eve gala, the only item missing – a top hat.
It was at the Hotel Pays Bas that I met the infamous art forger, Han van Meegeren. (It was van Meegeren who fooled Goering into buying a “Vermeer”.) van Meegeren was fun, and often insisted that I serve him. He more or less lived in the Hotel and was always surrounded by ‘belles of the ball”. His favourite dish: caviar washed down with champagne. You can imagine the impression all this made on me, a young man who had just come out of five years of deprivation and hardship during the War. It seemed like a dream, except my feet told me otherwise!
Art of the Great Masters from the Lowlands, Spanish and Italian schools were always nearby, be it in Amsterdam or Antwerpen. However, meeting van Meegeren was my first encounter with a living artist.
Later, van Meegeren was sentenced to jail for 1 year by the Netherlands justice system. Sadly, he died of a heart attack while awaiting an appeal, age 58. Sadly because sure, he was a forger (and a very good one, who specialized in the Old Masters), but it came about because no one was interested in his own paintings. This set him on the path of forgery, where he wanted to fool the experts. And to fool the experts with a “Vermeer”, you really need to be skillful, and know something about the art of painting! Here is a link from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Han_van_Meegeren
After a year at Hotel Pays-Bas, I looked for other restaurant positions. Over the next 1 ½ years, worked at three different 5-star restaurants in Amsterdam, a few of which, after 60 years, are still there.
Finally, with these experiences, I was ready to approach Holland America Line. HAL’s “Nieuw Amsterdam” was the only ship in the fleet with air conditioning in the first-class dining room. My goal was to sail with this ship. And so another chapter in my life began. After a rigorous selection and interview process, in May 1948 I set sail from Rotterdam to Hoboken, New Jersey, aboard the “Nieuw Amsterdam” as first-class dining room steward. Next installment, coming up soon!