Part 2: Meditating on the Mediterranean

This week’s video looks kind of casual but the strong winds didn’t make for easy playing!

“Land ahoy!” were the words we shouted ecstatically, as we spotted the coast of Israel on the horizon. We had been on the Grande Europa for almost a week and the prospect of the terra firma was enticing indeed. For a week we have been living like hermit kings, stuck on an almost two-hundred-meter-long cargo ship without internet, slowly sailing across the Mediterranean Sea from Salerno, Italy to the port city of Ashdod in Israel. Life slowed down to a crawl, consisting of eating (as the Italian crew take both their lunch and dinner warm in a minimum of three courses this comes down to an astonishing average of eight courses a day), sleeping, reading and going to the gym. Neither Edu nor me is a natural sports fanatic but facing the colossal imbalance between daily caloric intake and (lack of) physical exertion, we decided to hit the gym daily in order to feel a bit better about ourselves. We seem to be the only ones using it anyway. Although we duly performed the lifting, stretching, crunching and pushing up expected of one attending a gym, we displayed a particular fondness for playing ping pong. You see, ping pong is generally a game where one’s ability to predict the movement of a ping pong ball is crucial to success. Playing deep in the bowels of the ship, with no portholes for external reference, where the constant swaying of the ship influences the table and the players alike, it feels like time and space are conspiring to make a fool out of you. The Grande Europa is a 190 meter long, 10 storeys high cargo ship that transports thousands of cars but does not seem built for stability.

The problem is, though, that apparently the weather is not suitable to allow port access and the Israelis have steadfastly denied us access to the port so far. So since that day, two days ago now, we have been drifting in limbo, feeling marooned on a small island, a cramped, boring island inhabited by Philipinos on one side and Italians on the other, neither group liking the other overly much and blacktalking each other when boredom struck, which was often. In between the two separate mess-halls there is the kitchen with the Italian cook, who gets the unthankful job of brokering information between the two groups and the equally unthankful job of trying to make food that either side likes. In fact, the cook really gets a disproportionate amount of unthankful jobs, as the emergency procedure boards illustrate: in case of ‘man overboard’, the cook (who is second lowest in command of all the staff, above only the poor steward) is charged with ‘Arranging warm drinks and foods / In the hospital at disposal’. Even in the case of total evacuation of the ship the cook needs bother only with ‘Putting sufficient food in the lifeboats’.

Life on the ship is a life of regularity. We are the outsiders, just here for a brief visit to the peculiar culture that flourishes here. Of course, we hold numerous advantages, like not having to work ten hours a day, being here for a week instead of four to eight months and being allowed to drink alcohol. With lunch and dinner we are served wine, which we carefully stash in our cabin to have about a liter of it every evening to consume while watching shitty movies, of which the crew living room has plenty. While drinking wine in the crew quarters, we gathered a good understanding of the communication channels here. There is a ship intercom, but it is used only to alert everyone to the shifting time zones and the required changing of the clocks. Supposedly important matters like when we will arrive at a given port is handed down from the captain to the lower ranked officers, which rarely goes smoothly. At the time of our embarkation from Salerno, we were given various estimates by various crew members as to when we would reach Israel, which ranged from five to ten days, a problem doubtlessly compounded by the lack of English skills in both the Italian and the Philippine crew. On various occasions, we were actually able to inform crew of updated info which they had not been told yet.

We were able to get a breather though, as we had a couple of hours in Pireaus (next to Athens) and in Izmir to leave the ship and take a walk on the shore. On the first occasion we made it our mission to find a music store to buy a pack of strings and fix up the ships’ neglected guitar. We found a great luthier in the old town called Christos Spourdalakis who was kind enough to let me play a couple of his instruments and gifted us a set of nylon strings, while talking enthusiastically about the revival of Greek folk music and his recent stint at the Musikmesse. In Izmir we spent a dreary afternoon appreciating how much fun this city could be if only we had more time and better weather, hopping around the pools in the semi-covered old bazar, drinking tea and haggling with the locals, before returning to the ship for yet another huge dinner.

So here we are, watching a particularly worn copy of Interstellar as for the second day in a row we are anchored about 15km off the Israeli coast, without internet, watching the time slip by. It is certainly a rewarding experience, getting off the grid for a couple of days and just reading, playing games and watching movies on malfunctioning DVD’s like it was 2002. Not to mention the overabundance of food and all the crazy sailor’s stories, this is really not a bad (nor an expensive) way to cross the Mediterranean.

Postscript: It’s just that we’d really like to visit that alluring land that has been winking at us seductively lately. Well, we almost got more than we bargained for. Late Sunday evening our ship was finally admitted in the port. The Israeli immigration team boarded somewhere after midnight, calling us in to the impromptu interrogation room for questions regarding everything from our destination to my grandfathers name to my favourite kind of pasta (it’s spaghetti, in case you were wondering). After being sent back to sleep we were recalled for more questions some hours later, and they kept this game up until we were finally allowed to enter old Judea at eleven in the morning. Turned out our visa rejection had initially been rejected, and if it wasn’t for the help of our friend on the other side of the fence we would have been forced to turn back on the very ship we arrived on! The exact reason is unknown, but the best guess is they didn’t much like the islamic country stamps in my passport, nor our lack of a confirmed flight out of the country, nor our intention to visit more islamic countries afterwards. Anyhow, yours truly is going to sleep in this fascinating, multi-faced country with a view of palm trees and a lovely, welcome twenty-odd degrees celcius to caress him to sleep. And Edu’s snoring. That man snores like a whale. If the Israelis had rejected his visa because of it I couldn’t have disagreed in the slightest. And he falls asleep in seconds. Hits the bed and slam!, the decibels start flying. Sometimes you travel to see the marvels of the world, sometimes they end up traveling with you.



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