ON BOARD THE MERMOZ — While other passengers are sunbathing or doing marathon wine tasting sessions, 16 of the 35 Americans aboard the 500-passenger ship Mermoz from Paquet French Cruises are going to school.
We have signed up for a Berlitz course in French conversation, and we spend 2 hours and 15 minutes every day of this leisurely transatlantic crossing in class with our teacher, Madame Grenier, struggling to speak the language. Eight are in the intermediate class 9:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m., and eight attend the beginning sessions every afternoon 2:30 p.m. to 4:45 p.m.
At the end of the crossing from the Caribbean to Europe (Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe, to Rouen, France), we will spend three days in Paris trying out our French on waiters and taxi drivers who we hope will be as patient and understanding as our fellow passengers.
Contrary to the popular image of the impatient French speaker who cannot tolerate an American voice mispronouncing the syllables of his beloved language, we find everyone intrigued, sometimes amused, at our efforts. One elderly man comes into the room regularly and watches with delight as we struggle with the verbs and prepositions, nodding his encouragement when we falter.
Everyone seems to want to help us. The young woman who runs the popular afternoon crafts classes--they make "cuddly toys" of stuffed cotton at a long table where they stitch and chat--has made a special effort to ask the Americans studying French to join them "and we will speak in French slowly with you."
A real estate agent from Missouri and a housewife from Colorado dine every evening at a table of French passengers from provincial towns such as Tours and Orleans, carrying on a conversation with no English spoken.
A young stockbroker from Cincinnati tries out his French with young women from the staff and a civil servant from New Mexico sits through all the lectures and films in French to see how much he can understand.
We dined one evening with an amiable couple from Lyon who made every effort to understand our French.
There are about 350 French people on board, all of whom seem to be having a marvelous time, dancing before lunch and again at teatime to a trio with an accordion playing the sort of songs one associates with Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf. If there are too few men inclined to dance, the ladies dance with each other.
For us Americans, it is particularly enlightening to see the interest the French passengers have in the daily programs that present the arts and culture of the French provinces. In between, we have films in French and English and live stage entertainment, mostly in French but easy to understand, with a Marcel Marceau-trained mime, singers, classical musicians and folk dancers.
Every evening we sit down to a seven-course dinner spotlighting a different French province with local dishes and wines included. There is also a two-hour wine-tasting lesson every afternoon attended primarily by the French, who eschew the small fitness center in favor of topless sunbathing and brisk strolls around the deck.
The food aboard the Mermoz is excellent, classic French cuisine, but there is a low-calorie dish featured every day at lunch. A buffet breakfast and lunch is also available in the Lido Ancerville Cafe daily along with a grilled steak or hamburger on deck on sunny days.
The ship is registered in the Bahamas, with French officers and staff.
While most of the cabins are on the small side, they are quite comfortable and the housekeeping and cabin service are very good. Many of the cabins have bathtubs, and all provide terry cloth robes as well. A basket of fruit is replenished daily, and our steward delivers small snacks of fresh fruit in the late afternoon.
Meals are served at a single sitting with complimentary table wines at lunch and dinner. Two dining rooms serve the same menu. Passengers are assigned, depending on cabin category, to the upper-deck Renaissance Grill with its wide windows facing the sea, or the larger, lower-deck Massilia Restaurant with portholes.
It's best to specify twin or double beds when booking, since the built-in wood desks and closets preclude moving the beds together.
With a draft of about 23 feet, the Mermoz travels smoothly through the sometimes choppy Atlantic. The ship is named for the charismatic French aviator, Jean Mermoz, whose plane disappeared over the Atlantic in 1936. It is the only cruise ship in the world named for a man.
The next Berlitz transatlantic cruise aboard the Mermoz is scheduled for May 2, 1992, another 18-day voyage from Guadeloupe with three days in Paris. Passengers must sign up for the optional Berlitz course (it cost $400 this year) at least 60 days ahead of departure and should specify whether they are beginners or intermediates.