To America across the Atlantic

Written By: Mikis  Nicodemou

I embarked for America on the RMS Queen Mary on Thursday, August 12, 1965 from Southampton, England. This was not a trip I planned or imagined when I left Cyprus two years before. I first went to Paris to study painting for a year on a French government scholarship and then to Bournemouth, England, for another year on a loan my sister made for me. They were two good years but I wanted an opportunity to complete a full program and earn a degree in art.

At the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris I met Roy and Marietta, two American artists and teachers, who also came to Paris to study painting on sabbatical leave. We enrolled in the atelier of the renowned French painter Maurice Brianchon and became good friends. When the year ended, they returned to America and I went to England. Throughout my year in England, they kept trying to convince me to go to America next where they believed I would have opportunities to realize my dreams. I was excited but America was a long way. What if I went so far, I thought, and it didn’t work out? How would I get back from America? It was hard to decide.

While contemplating my decision, I remembered my mother crying before I boarded the ship for France. She had a premonition I would not go back. But I also remembered that my youthful spirit (I was twenty-two) made me say that from Paris I wanted to see the whole world. In the end, knowing that my loan money ran out, I decided to go for it. It was a bold and risky move but also a new adventure. If deciding was hard, it was even harder to figure out how to find the money to live on until I leave and for my fare to New York. The solution was more hours of dishwashing in a restaurant owned by Cypriots who befriended me through the year. I needed to make as much money as possible before my trip.

At first, it looked promising that a friend, an officer on a Greek freighter, would get me free passage on his ship. But it changed itinerary. Then I remembered seeing an office bearing the sign ‘Cunard Line.’ From pictures of ships outside I thought it was a shipping company and I went to check it out. That’s how I found out about the two English ‘Queens’ (Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth) which made regular trips to New York from Southampton via Cherbourg in just five days. A tourist class ticket cost about ninety pounds, twice my monthly expenses. I couldn’t do it with my dishwasher’s wages. Thankfully, my American friends offered to lend me the money and I booked passage on the Queen Mary. On the pier, I remember counting the money I had left over. I was about to cross the ocean on the biggest ship I had ever seen with seventy-five dollars in my pocket. Fortunately the fare included food!

Even in tourist class it was a classy ship but a peak in first class showed old style luxury. We had three great meals plus tea with all the finger foods the British serve during this afternoon tradition. For me, every meal was like a banquet, especially dinner. Most passengers dressed elegantly in the evening. Looking at pictures of me wearing a white linen jacket and bowtie I looked distinguished and well-off. But the contents of my pocket said otherwise: I was only a poor student traveling on borrowed money.

The trip was a dream with many unforgettable experiences. I still remember the old Polish man in our cabin with his bag full of salami and bread. He seemed content eating that and often skipped the ship’s meals. We managed to figure out in the end that he had a sister in America and some of the salami was for her. A cabin mate who took a liking to him tried hard to tell him that meat products were not allowed into the country but he didn’t seem to understand anything. Once he persuaded the old man to come with us to see the show after dinner. He even tried to match him, though unsuccessfully, with a heavily bejeweled American lady! But this young passenger did more than joke with the old man. He clandestinely brought his friend’s wife to our cabin one day for a tryst and locked the old man out.

On one of the decks the popular music of “Zorba’s Dance” could be heard after breakfast. It was a Greek dance group I formed after a young woman asked me to teach her and her friends the dance. She had a record player and I had the record. Admittedly, I was not very good at this Greek dance, but I knew the basic steps and my moves were as good as Anthony Quinn’s! I regret I did not own a camera then. But pictures of me dancing on the deck with all the girls are still embedded vividly in my mind.

By far the most memorable event happened on a sunlit afternoon as we were on the upper deck. In the distance we saw the Queen Elizabeth on her way to England. The two ships greeted each other with blasts of their horns. Of course we heard Mary’s blasts in their full volume as we waved excitedly to the people on the other ship. But each time Elizabeth returned the greeting to her sister we heard it as a muffled echo from the distance. It was a special treat for us to have witnessed this in the middle of the ocean. I now feel as if I took part in a historical event with the two ‘Queens’ as protagonists.

When we finally saw land on August 17, I overhead other passengers saying it was Montauk Point, Long Island, where a lighthouse piercing the sky in the misty morning horizon looked like a tall figure welcoming us. Soon after, the ship sailed past it going westward, hugging Long Island’s south shore which we could clearly see. I knew nothing about Long Island and Montauk Point then. And I had no clue where Merrick, NY, my friends’ town, was. But a passenger I was talking to about my destination pointed to the shore and showed me Merrick.

Not long after, we entered New York Bay and a majestic bridge appeared hanging over the water like a work of art. It was the Verrazano Bridge, as I heard from others, which opened the year before. For a moment, an illusion of perspective made some of us wonder half-jokingly if the ship would have enough space to go under. Of course, it was a silly thought and the ‘Queen’ had no problem clearing it.

The Statue of Liberty was now visible. With an outstretched arm holding the torch, Lady Liberty in all her majesty welcomed us to America. Ahead, New York’s skyscrapers reaching upwards through the brilliant sky looked like ceremonial figures standing in formation to receive us. Entering New York Harbor was an unforgettable thrill! Everything I knew about immigrants who sailed to America long before me unfolded in my head. My own hardships at that time were nothing compared to what thousands of them suffered. I was about to arrive in New York after a fabulous voyage on a luxury ship. And soon I was to be welcomed by good friends in a language I spoke well. I was lucky and privileged indeed.

We docked around noon on Tuesday, August 17, 1965, and soon after I set foot on American soil. My friends were waiting for me and our reunion was a happy event. Outside, a porter loaded my luggage in their station wagon and we headed for Long Island. When we reached Merrick we first stopped to eat at a local McDonald’s. That was my first meal in America and my initiation to American fast food.

After so many years, I am still here, but sadly not my friends. Long Island became my home where I realized my dreams, just as Marietta had predicted. My roots are deep here: I completed my studies, had a professional career, and raised a family. Whenever we visit the East End with family or guests, we often include the Montauk Point Lighthouse and instantly I replay the scene of seeing it first from the deck of Queen Mary that summer of 1965. Being in this area fills me with nostalgia and stirs my emotions because this was the first place of America I saw. I feel the same walking around Southampton because it reminds me of the port of Southampton in England, where my memorable trip to America started thanks to my friends. And if by a miracle they could read this, “Thank you again for changing my life.”


In Memory of Roy and Marietta-Warner Siegel