As his name tag will tell you, Christian is from Romania. If you want to know more you’ll have to catch him when he’s standing still. Good luck.
He moves around the dining room with the ease of a dancer and the precision of a surgeon’s blade. One minute he’s noting down a wife’s request to hold the salt please, her husband has hypertension, the next he’s refilling waters for a group of overenthusiastic tween girls reveling in their measure of independence at a table one away from their parents.
Tonight Christian recommends the porcini mushroom soup to start, the red wine braised beef short ribs for our group’s entrée, and the bananas foster flambé to finish. He enunciates with a short, clipped accent that lends him an automatic air of legitimacy. With his thin figure, deep-set eyes, and sharply angular nose, he reminds me of Ratatouille’s finicky food critic Anton Ego.
I ask Christian if he minds if I informally interview him while he cleans up after the dinner shift. He wrinkles his nose and gives me a look as if to say, “Really?”
“I don’t want to disappoint, but my life is not that interesting,” he says with a wry smile.
I tell him I’ll try my best to stay out of his way. No response. I offer to help fold tablecloths, carry dishes–
“No, no that’s not your job,” he chuckles and rolls his eyes. “Fine, if you insist.”
At last count, Christian has traveled to ninety-seven countries and logged over four hundred thousand nautical miles. In his current position as head waiter of the Michelangelo Dining Room aboard the Crown Princess, he oversees a fifty-two person wait staff that serves upwards of three hundred people each night.
“It’s like being a choreographer in a ballet, in a way. Everyone needs to be in a certain position at a certain time. Now this one…” he pauses and gestures at Giraldo, who’s walking by with a stack of plates. “He needed a lot of direction,” he ribs good-naturedly.
Christian’s hometown is Bucharest, the capital of Romania. He studied for a year and a half at the Bucharest Academy of Economic Studies before dropping out. “The financial pressure was large. It was difficult to keep up with courses and work full-time.” He rubs his temple. “Do I wish I had continued? Yes. But that is, how do you say, water under the bridge now.”
He worked odd restaurant jobs for the next two years. At the time he had an uncle who was a first cook for Norwegian Cruise Line. Excited by the opportunity to travel, Christian applied and easily secured a position as a buffet steward. He spent four years with NCL before leaving to go to Princess Cruises, where he has been for the past eight years.
The contracts for European crew members have six month terms. This means living half the year on board a ship without seeing your wife and two young daughters back home.
“Non-Europeans have ten month contracts,” Christian remarks.
“Do you miss them?”
“Oh, no.” He gives another wry smile.
Dinner service starts at five thirty and runs until ten o’clock, though Christian must usually budget two hours of prep and clean-up time before and after. During the day you can often find him at the computer, calculating and tracking each waiter’s orders and profit numbers.
I ask if his real name is actually Christian. I’ve met enough Filipino crew members named John to know that a good portion of the staff adopt easy-to-pronounce English names for the benefit of passengers.
“Yes, it is. But the real spelling is with no H.” When I looked puzzled he adds, “I changed it because it’s more common to see it that way. Before some people would try to make it sound Spanish.”
Over the years, Christian has fielded a lot of questions from curious passengers.
Favorite cruise ship destination? Probably a tie between the Maldives and Geiranger, Norway.
Favorite dish? Musaca (not served aboard the ship), a traditional Romanian pie filled with eggplant, potato, and meat.
Where does the ship’s drinking water come from? Filtration tanks located in the hull.
“One time I had a table of American students, about your age, who came in after some drinking. They talked the entire dinner in very bad British accents, I think it was some kind of game. They thought they were very funny.” He waves his hand. “It was interesting.”
We enter the Michelangelo Dining Room on our last night to find the wait staff dressed like Venetian gondoliers: black pants, red and white striped shirts, red cravats, and straw boater hats with red ribbon.
“I feel like Where’s Waldo,” Christian jokes.
Today he’s training Olesya, a new waiter from Hungary. “I’m lucky he’s very patient,” she remarks, stopping to chat in between entrées and dessert. “He looks after all of us on staff. I think we are like his family away from home.”
At the end of our meal we ask Christian to take a picture with us. Giraldo fills in as photographer. When he’s finished, Christian runs over to inspect the result. “Oh we have to do it again, what is my face doing?” he exclaims. Ten minutes and about as many tries later, we finally have our perfect shot.
As we leave the room I glance back over my shoulder. Christian is already back in action, stacking chairs on tabletops. The ship docks at Ft. Lauderdale tomorrow morning where the next wave of passengers will board and start the process all over again.