I remember when I arrived in the United States for the first time, with excitement in my heart … and a small ache in my back from being crammed into an airline seat for the long flight between Milan and Miami. I was on my way to Fort Lauderdale to start my new life working for Princess Cruises.
Fast forward more than 10 years and finally I was able to make the reverse trip in considerably better style – by ship. I set off across the Atlantic aboard Emerald Princess, my first ocean crossing.
Transatlantic sailings have been legendary since, well, at least the time of the Vikings. Still today there’s something momentous about crossing the incredible expanse of the Atlantic Ocean by ship. Regardless of which direction you go, this journey from one vast continent to another, between the New World and the Old, is filled with great lore, history and adventure.
I dreamed about travel adventures for most of my early life. I was born in the small village of Dervio, which sits on Lake Como, in north central Italy, close to the Swiss border. It takes a sailor all of 20 minutes to sail across the width of Lake Como and maybe only an hour to cross its length. It’s a long way from an ocean, and I knew I did not want to spend my entire life in this beautiful, but provincial, town.
I was a night receptionist at the Hotel Royal Victoria in Varenna, another small village on Lake Como, when I came across a magazine advertisement for a cruise ship. I decided I would see more of the world working on a ship than standing in a hotel. I had one connection to the industry, a person in my village who was a maitre d’ for Princess Cruises. He directed me to Princess’ European offices and in less than a month, I was on the flight to Miami, en route to my new life in the cruise industry.
Over the years, my assignments took me through the Panama Canal, sailing along the very different coastlines of Mexico and Alaska, and even had me exploring parts of Brazil and much of the Caribbean. How exciting it was to be away from home, experiencing a new place every day.
Finally, the opportunity came to sail on Emerald Princess’ transatlantic repositioning cruise in April of 2008, working as a shore excursion manager. I realized that many of the passengers, although American, were European in origin. Perhaps they were thinking of their fathers and grandfathers who left the old country to travel to the New World for work.
For me, a transatlantic crossing has two aspects. First there’s the incredible physical experience of crossing the Atlantic – the motion of the waves as the ship cuts through vast expanses of ocean for days on end. But secondly for many there’s also a mental journey, imagining what it was like for generations of explorers and early immigrants as they crossed this same huge body of water under very different conditions.
There’s nothing else like the physical feeling of being at sea, especially on an ocean crossing! Even on a ship as large as Emerald Princess, you do feel the ocean’s waves. It’s a gentle, rocking motion as the ship cuts through the powerful Atlantic. Most passengers love the light motion and say the rocking is pleasant and especially relaxing when going to sleep. But trying to work at a desk on a computer!? Not always so easy.
The crossing took six days, and for most of that time, no land was in sight. I experienced a sensation of peace being surrounded by nothing but those gently rocking waves. The occasional sighting of a whale or pack of leaping dolphins was a delightful thing to see. The captain and his team on the bridge announced sightings so passengers wouldn’t miss anything.
As the journey progressed, I noticed that people tend to bond even more during an ocean crossing than they do a traditional cruise. Both passengers and crew felt a greater camaraderie and interconnectedness. I think we became a tighter-knit group because out on the ocean, a thousand miles from land, you create your own little moving world.
With nothing but deep, blue water and sky in the background, sunrises and sunsets took on a whole new dimension of beauty and majesty. At night, the moon appeared to be magnified and much brighter. Each night, I had to stop and gaze at the moon, along with the dazzling display of stars.
During the day, I loved going out on the outer deck of the ship and taking a walk. There’s nothing like the feel of the wind in your hair and breathing clean, fresh air. It’s just an invigorating mix of pure air, water and sun.
My thoughts during this crossing took me on a different journey. As an Italian in America, I couldn’t help but think about the people who left Italy, like I did, to find work. Crossing the Atlantic, their experiences came to life for me more vividly.
At the heart of everyone who leaves the old country there’s a dream to return home one day a new person, a success. As I sailed on toward Europe, this immigrants’ desire came to mind again and again.
A day or so out of Portugal, we spotted our first sight of land, the Azores Islands. The ship docked for a while and from there, our journey continued through the Strait of Gibraltar, on to Seville, Sardinia, and finally to the Italian mainland with the end of the voyage in Civitavecchia.
I had made my own epic journey home, after years of creating a new life abroad, like so many Italians had done before me. It was an emotional homecoming, and I wondered if I had met the immigrants’ dream of coming home a new person. As I took one last look back at Emerald Princess, I knew that yes, I had succeeded.