Passengers demand different things from a ship anyway. Some of us hold that returning from Europe by ship instead of by plane is the classic way to wind up a strenuous vacation devoted to sightseeing or funmaking. It is the ideal way to unwind, to get the digestion back on schedule, to relax and finally to get some rest before submitting to the daily grind back home. People making a business trip to Europe sometimes like to take a ship both ways. It gives them a restful interval of luxury, a respite from jangling telephones and pestering secretaries; for days on end they don't have to make any decisions more momentous than what they will order to eat or whether they will have consomm� at 11 or ice cream with their tea at 4.
There is a second group of passengers aboard every ship—and sometimes it seems to predominate—which wants gaiety and action and is willing to turn the ship upside down to find it. These passengers want a party every hour on the hour and many of them also want to splash in the pool, play table tennis or shuffleboard, or wham golf balls on the driving range and shoot skeet from the sundeck. They also want to drink champagne and dance until dawn and they like to wear paper hats and throw paper snowballs and pop balloons.
There is always a tiny third group of passengers aboard every ship. They are usually making their first voyage and they are not quite sure what they want, except that they don't want to be overlooked or forgotten. Usually they are either very elderly or very young. Sometimes they are schoolteachers or working girls who have saved up for a fling. Often they are widows or widowers. Almost always they are alone, and sometimes they are bewildered or embarrassed by shipboard routine and they are not sophisticated enough to realize it is permitted to ask questions.
Sprinkled among these three major groups are always a few passengers de marque—travelers who, because of their wealth, influence or celebrity, merit special attention from the shipping lines. These are the people who sit at the captain's table or have drinks with the purser. If they are entertainers, usually they are prevailed upon to display their talents at the captain's gala, a festive party that always is held two nights before a ship docks. But ordinary passengers, too, require vast attention. On rare occasions they are born; on more occasions than one might think they die. Oldtime card sharks have almost disappeared from the scene, but there are a few around still and ship officers must do what they can to see that passengers stay out of their clutches. Passengers sometimes require medical attention; they always need barbers and hairdressers and tailors and stenographers. And there are always minor emergencies—a lonely poodle in the kennel refuses to eat, or a queasy passenger gives up the struggle and gets sick in the middle of the dance floor.
Blending so many different groups into a harmonious and manageable whole, seeing that they enter a shipboard world of their own choosing, feeding them and supplying their myriad demands, seeing that the lonely meet people and the celebrities get buttered up, that nobody is bilked or embarrassed or simply ignored, requires a bit of a miracle. Yet all the big ships pull it off on every voyage. Furthermore, most of them manage to do it with a flair or a graceful little twist that is a hallmark all their own. On the French Line it is called l'atmosph�re Transat. It leaves passengers with a warm glow, a feeling that nothing is important except their comfort and everything they want done will be done well and done quickly. It does not necessarily involve an unusual or spectacular service.
For instance, when my wife and I embarked on the Libert� off Southampton in June, we were weary, disgruntled and ready to snap someone up for the afternoon of discomfort we had just experienced. A railroad strike in France had delayed the boat train so that the Libert� was more than three hours late sailing from Le Havre. This meant a similar delay for those of us who were waiting to board the ship at Southampton. Finally, we were herded aboard buses and taken to a local hotel and fed the kind of poorly prepared and unimaginative dinner that has given English cookery a bad name—gray and greasy lamb, stone-hard roasted potatoes and watery vegetables.
When the Libert� finally did arrive for her rendezvous, the tides were not right, so she had to anchor much farther offshore than she does normally. For almost two hours our tender had to feel its way slowly up one channel and down another to reach her. Probably because they also were tired of waiting, some of the British crewmen aboard the tender had hoisted too many and were un-Britishly plastered, bawdy and noisy. When we finally boarded the Libert�, chilled and gloomy, hungry and tired, I was prepared to complain to someone on the spot. But somehow, after one glance at the Libert�'s polished decks, the brightly lit chandeliers and the bright smiles of welcome, it hardly seemed the time. A scrubbed-faced little mousse in red livery, who acted as if he had been eagerly awaiting our arrival all afternoon, quickly guided my wife and me to our stateroom. A blue-smocked porter delivered our baggage within a few minutes, and a smiling steward was making soothing inquiries. "Ah, Madame and Monsieur, I hope you are not fatigued. How unfortunate. What a bother for you. Is there anything you desire? A snack? Certainly, Monsieur—in one moment, Monsieur." He disappeared and in an incredibly short time had returned with a tray loaded with a variety of cold cuts, freshly baked brioches and creamy butter, and a bucket of champagne. L'atmosph�re Transat began to glow just then.
It is not what is done so much as it is how it is done. It is based on tradition, intelligence, training, pride, a considerable amount of sensitivity and, unquestionably, cunning. The man chiefly responsible for keeping l'atmosph�re Transat burning brightly on the Libert� was the chief purser, an urbane, thin-nosed and rather handsome man of 55 named Robert Bellet. Pursers start with a rank of seventh grade and work their way up. La Transat has only four who rank as chief pursers, and M. Bellet was the dean of this select group. He was purser of the Libert� when she made her maiden voyage for the French Line in 1950, and he was still her purser when he retired this summer, having reached La Transat's mandatory retirement age. M. Bellet will be remembered as long as the Libert� is remembered and, in a sense, he was the Libert� to some people because he was primarily responsible for the charm that made her unique. M. Bellet, with La Transat for 34 years, spent 33 of them as a purser aboard 24 ships. He could summon up a kind of Quai d'Orsay bland charm when dealing with passengers, but he was basically an uncommunicative, almost taciturn, man who looked as if he had seen a great deal of human frailty and fully expected to see more at any moment.
M. Bellet believed a good purser is always on duty, and although his well-trained assistants could cope with almost any conceivable emergency, he was on call 24 hours a day when the Libert� was at sea. He could detect the lightest malfunction in l'atmosph�re Transat, and though most of them wouldn't know M. Bellet if they met him, many a lonely or moping passenger on the Libert� suddenly found himself in the main stream and enjoying all sorts of delightful activities simply because M. Bellet had detected his unhappy state and issued a command to do something about it.
L'atmosph�re Transat requires a great deal of manpower as well as know-how. It required 263 officers and sailors to run the Libert�, but it took a staff of about 700 stewards, stewardesses, barmen, waiters and what is known as service personnel, to keep the passengers happy. On a seasonal average the Libert� transported in the neighborhood of 1,000 passengers per crossing and, at first startled glance, it sometimes appeared that there were more uniformed attendants aboard than paying customers. At least 90% of La Transat's employees are careerists, and most of them work on the same ship regularly. La Transat sets surprisingly high standards for its help, and whether he was passing out paper hats, decorating a birthday cake, polishing your shoes, or tucking you in your deck chair, you could be certain the attendant on the Libert� had spent a long time in learning the rudiments of his trade. Most started at a tender age in a merchant-marine school and they had to shine brightly and survive a thorough screening before La Transat hired them and sent them to an �cole h�teli�re for two years more of polishing.