Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Letter 15: Aboard the "Conte Grande"


[Letter 15]
Aboard the "Conte Grande"
Alexandria, Egypt

January 24, 1933

Dear Folks:

This letter will not be mailed before tomorrow or the next day. We have been in a different port every day but one, so naturally there has not been much time for letter-writing. Nevertheless, I believe you have been getting more letters than you expected. We got to Alexandria this morning and waited a while for the Egyptian officials to examine and stamp the passports. These dark-skinned guards take your passport away from you when you get off
the boat and give it back to you when you get on the boat. Rather odd. Well, that isn't the only odd thing to report.

From Naples our ship headed for Phileron, a port of Athens the capital city of Greece. Cook's had a big group at five dollars a person, but we decided to take in the sights in our own way. We took the electric train to Athens and then engaged a taxi. Soon we arrived at the famous stone hill, the Acropolis and were climbing the steps after paying a fee of fifty drachmas each. The weather was perfect. I left my overcoat with the gateman. Then we wandered about looking at these marvellous ruins. The Parthenon was built or rather completed in 447 B. C.; the buildings are therefore nearly 2400 years old. In the brilliant sunshine, those columns made a picture never to be forgotten. In my enthusiasm I took fifty feet of moving pictures. The views down to the city of Athens were also very striking. Again we took a taxi and stopped at the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter. Then the chauffeur pointed out various other sights, such as the Olympic Stadium, the President's home and so on. Then to a good hotel for dinner.

We had an excellent meal of which the chief item was a delicious steak. After the dinner we walked through the streets of Athens, but things were quiet: Stores stay closed from 12:30 till about 3:30. Suddenly I spotted a bit cut-out figure of Charlie Chaplin. The play was "City Lights". Well, we walked in, much to the delight of Marcus. Dora and I had seen it before,but we laughed more this time. The sub-titles were in Greek and in French. When we got out we found ourselves near the train station so we took the train -- it looked just like a subway -- and went back to the port and so back to the ship at 4:45 for tea and a rest.

Times are bad in Greece. The cost of living has multiplied thirteen-fold in ten years. The drachma used to be 19 cents. Now you get 180 to 200 drachmas for a dollar; so a drachma is a little more than half a cent. Our day in Athens including taxis, trains, meal and liberal tips was about 450 drachmas (of which 150 were for the Acropolis tickets). Let's move to Greece. We met an Armenian and his Greek wife who had lived in Larchmont [New York state] for twenty years who was now making his much reduced income do nicely in Athens. But she misses her Frigidaire, radiator etc.

The next day the "Conte Grande" reached the Island of Rhodes, as per schedule. Again we chose to see the sights without the help of an agency. However, a boy of fourteen directed us and started to walk along with us. We spoke in French; it came out that he was a Sephardic Jew and he seemed pleased to learn that we also were Jewish. Since the War Rhodes has been under Italian rule. We met his sister and he introduced us. She spoke English. In all these Eastern countries almost everybody, especially tradesmen, must know several languages. All the signs in Haifa were in three languages--Hebrew, English and Arabic. The agent for the Cairo trip knows nine languages. Well, returning to Rhodes, we ambled in the sunshine down to the native section. What a treat! Again we saw the narrow streets, crowded with shoppers. Almost everything is out in the street. Each street was inhabited by a different race--Turks, Arabs, Spaniards, Italians, Jews. We visited the Museum which had a fine open court and a very interesting garden. Later we saw about thirty autos in a long stream come tooting through the town. We had a better view than they did. We engaged a buggy and drove around. Marcus noted many new things and added to his stack of coins and stamps.

From Rhodes we steamed eastward to Haifa. Most people got off here to take a four-day land trip to Jerusalem, Cairo and so back to catch the ship at Alexandria. We took in Haifa instead. The big hand of [Jewish] Palestinian pilgrims also got off at Haifa. The night before they had had a gala celebration. Some are staying a few months in the Holy Land; others are buying orange groves and settling there. Only a handful of people are left on the ship, chiefly some well-dressed cheerful Italians. Signora Ravelli is a statuesque Juno, who owns a very small chunky husband and a happy smile. We call her Quelle Tete. There's a story to that.

We met some very friendly New York and Chicago folks. There must be some money left in the United States. At Haifa a very nice little lady got on, a Miss Kramer formerly of New York, but now teaching in Jerusalem. She speaks Hebrew fluently. She has a year's leave and is going to see all her brothers and sisters. She was with us on our two trips by taxi in Alexandria and she is in our overnight party in Cairo.

After waiting quite a while for our tender to start (the delay being due to the passport formalities of the pilgrims), we finally were landed in Haifa. We strolled out and soon we saw real Oriental scenes. Marcus clutched my hand a bit tighter as we passed the dusky Arabs sitting in rags and snoozing in the sun. They were a fierce and picturesque lot. Laundries, baths, shoe-shops would lose money if they depended on them. An old clo'es man would die because clothes are worn till they fall off, piece by piece. Much to my surprise no one asked for alms. Again we wandered through the old section of the town. Many different costumes were seen--turbans, veils, American clothes. Here I show with my machine one of the fashionable articles of dress for gentlemen: a light-colored or white pair of pants, tight around the legs with a very loose, low-hanging "seat" flapping below. Another is a long one-piece gown reaching from neck to heels. An American coat often goes with this.

All sorts of queer foods are sold such as flat dried fish, great big flat cakes and strange nuts. There are so autos, but more often small donkeys and occasionally camels. We found someone who spoke Yiddish and got directions for a carriage to Mount Carmel. Three people were about all the small rig could hold. We went up the steep road and watched, below us, the new portion of Haifa with its rich green fields, neat straight roads, and new houses all with red tile roofs. The hills beyond were beautiful with their many shades of light greens, blues and a hint of lavender in the shadows of clouds. At the top there is a monastery. There are no other buildings all the way up.

When we got off at Alexandria, we were importuned by a great many guides. They could not be shaken off. One fellow stuck, telling us he would thus prevent our being annoyed. Well I gave him three piasters or five and then we engaged a taxi after walking about a mile. Well, if you please, our friend got in too. We saw the town and returned to the steamer for lunch after again crossing his palm with silver. I think "plaster" would be a more accurate term than "piaster". In the afternoon we again took a fine car and went to the shopping district. It was quite city-like an done might as well be in Brooklyn. There are dozens of money-changers with their quotations. Egyptian piasters were quoted at 28 for a dollar; Palestinian piasters 29 for a dollar. The man makes a cent on the deal.

Now we are all set for the Cairo trip by auto, train and donkey or camel to the Pyramids and the Sphynx. My next letter will be dated around February 3, 4 or 5, from Italy.

We all feel well. Hope you do, too.

Affectionately,

Morris

Cairo
Jan. 25

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