Fresh Off The Boat.
By Heide Martison
Our boat docked on Wednesday at the pier inNew York City. That Friday we crawled along the LIE towards something called “The Hamptons”. Our new American friends, returning from a European vacation, had selflessly invited us to spend the weekend with them. A “Motel”, inAmericahotels are called motels we assumed, was just a stone throw away from their cottage. On board we had asked to be seated with Americans to get our ears accustomed to American English to which we’d had scant previous exposure. Lucky for us, T. was a professor of English literature and his wife spoke, or rather whispered in barely audible decibels (her husband considered this a handicap non-native New Yorkers suffered from) knowledgeably about American history, something else we knew next to nothing about.
It was August 1967 and for the next two years my husband was to oversee the somewhat opaque finances of a client of the European corporation he worked for.
Having both willingly embarked on this adventure (I had an additional incentive but thought is wiser not to broadcast it at the time) it seemed less of a good idea once we stepped off the elegant MS. Bremen’s gangway into Manhattan’s heat radiating canyons. For creatures of the northern latitude, hot summers with little rainfall were what we yearned for. This, though, felt like a blast from a steel melting furnace. At ten in the morning.
At dawn approaching the gracefulVerrazanoBridgewas awe inspiring. The mist shrouded Statue of Liberty surprised by being more modest in scale than expected. As symbols go, it was certainly more appealing than the towering, monolithic statue ofBismarckthe tug boats pulled us past on our way out ofHamburg’s harbor.Lower Manhattan, in a yellow haze, like a mirage, appeared to float on water.
CrossingManhattanfrom west to east to our hotel was shocking: The seedy shabbiness, the garbage piles, the rats I mistook on first glance for cats. Of course, we had been inoculated as required by theUnited Statesto protect its citizens from imported diseases. Hmm.
Getting away from this first impression was appealing. After all, we had another seven hundred and twenty-seven days to explore this city. On Friday afternoon, emerging from the Midtown Tunnel, our friends announced, “Now we are onLong Island, this is ‘Queens’”. Which visually was not that queenly. Through the hermetically closed windows of the air-conditioned car, another first, we appraisedLeFrakCity, pointed out as “a socially progressive noteworthy housing development” apparently achieved without undue distraction from it’s primary mission with un-noteworthy architecture. “Good location to rent an apartment,” our friends said, “close to the airports.” I threw a glance at my husband: Were they serious? Or was this culture specific humor? I thought back to our centrally located, balconied apartment inHamburgoverlooking a lush (plenty of precipitation) green park.
A couple of hours later, the air coming through the slit of my surreptitiously opened window – I could not yet bring myself to rely on Ersatz oxygen – was fresh and sweet. Then the first glimpse of water approachingRampastureIsland. Idyllic! Saturday we went to the beach lugging a chest size red and white “ice box”, two umbrellas, chairs, a couple of bed sheets and a small library. A gorgeous white empty beach. No obligatory “Strandkörbe” as wind/sun protection anywhere. Now the schlepping made sense.
Having arranged everything on and around the sheets just so, we saw two policemen approaching. A startling sight to one who had once lived as a “subversive” under Communism. But this wasHamptonBays/America, an unfettered, model democracy. Eyes hidden behind mirrored shades, or pulled down visored caps are sinister reminders of nasty governments.
My bikini was too small. This was “a family beach.” Our friend, suddenly in a thick Irish brogue: “Officer, this is a standard size bikini. They are fresh off the boat fromEurope, Officer. Would you, then, like her to take it off, Officer?” Avoiding deportation so soon after arrival we made a show of covering me up as they turned to leave.
Later another, painful, lesson: Throwing myself into surf that looked no different than on the Atlantic’s other side, I was knocked over, tumbled about, pulled under and finally spat out with loads of sand in the three triangles of said bikini.