The ship is on Pier 13, the furthest away from the harbour master’s offices. Almost as soon as the tourists enter the port’s waters it is behind them and they will not see it again until they leave. Almost no-one realises that there, almost in open sea, there is an abandoned crew. I will be told on the ship that the fact that they are hidden i n this poorly sheltered berth is no accident. It is a “deliberate act of camouflage”. If they are out of sight they will not spoil the views of a bellisima Italy. If they are hidden where no-one can see them no-one will think badly of the port. “Hiding us was a political decision”, I will be told by the ship’s captain.
The ITF coordinator drives me to the ship. We pass through customs, various metal barriers and we embark on a journey towards the sea via a narrow pass. It has two physical borders, the cruise ships on one side and a cement wall on the other. The wall is what protects the port from waves and the open sea. On the way we see buses that are as white as the cruise ships. They are the land based connection for the tourists. They operate a continuous service during the day and an intermittent one at night.
My ship is at the very end of the pier and it is the most dilapidated vessel I have seen in my life. Even Faisal’s ship in Barcelona was in a better state than this. The ITF has explained to me that six men are living aboard – three Ukrainians and three Bulgarians. The Bulgarian owned ship arrived on 3 August flying the Cambodian flag, the latest flag of convenience. When the unloading of the fertilizer had been completed the captain returned home with his money. He also stole food that the manager had sent earlier. A heart attack was the excuse but the crew are absolutely sure that he faked it. He was Bulgarian, meaning European, and he had the freedom to cross European Union borders. A few days later another three Bulgarian sailors also left. Of those left behind, the sailor with the highest rank assumed the captaincy.
I am at the foot of the gangway. To my side there is a noisy little generator which I imagine provides electricity for the crew. I ascend shouting “hello, hola, hi, ave” and I find myself faced by some cuddly toys (a giraffe and a teddy bear) hung up with string. No-one is on deck. An old man appears from nowhere. The first things that I notice are his gold trainers sporting the Italian flag. He is friendly and greets me in English. He says he is Bulgarian and that he is the captain. Without asking he takes me to his office. I know I have just entered an abandoned ship because I can smell the stench of confinement.
They argue about the dreams of el Quijote, they talk about Hemingway and they hide the numerous conflicts by smiling and sleeping more than fifteen hours a day
The man is about seventy years old but he has the youngest spirit that I have encountered to date. He is also more agile than he appears, so much so that I am left behind. Other men appear from other parts of the ship. A bearded, unkempt forty year old nods a greeting and waits silently in the corridor. A door opens and a very white, fat young man comes in. He looks as if he has just woken up. He stares and closes the door again without saying anything. An even older man than the one who has introduced himself as the captain follows me upstairs. We arrive at the office in silence. A very large man turns up before the ITF coordinator starts speaking. He has huge feet, enormous hands, a smile and a jar of Nescafe in his hand. For me, Nescafe has become an indication that I am welcome on board a ship.
The work that I am doing is explained to the captain who agrees to have me aboard. “Perhaps it will be of some use” he says. His face reveals what he is thinking. At the very least his mind will be occupied and perhaps the lads will calm down. This is how the story of this crew begins. They argue about the dreams of el Quijote, they talk about Hemingway and they hide the numerous conflicts by smiling and sleeping more than fifteen hours a day.
Before the office fills with men, the captain helps himself to one of the packets of cigarettes that I have brought him and puts the rest in a drawer. With a smile I tell him that they are for the whole crew. He sneers and laughs.
The captain is called D and he never stops smiling. This makes him difficult to read. I have learnt not to leave anything unsaid and to speak clearly from the start. I am hoping to establish a dialogue between us and this approach makes things easier. I avoid small talk as a result and ask him directly what has happened. He lights a cigarette and looks at it before putting it to his lips. It is the first cigarette, of his preferred brand, that the man has had for a long time. Any smoker would recognise that. This includes me as at that time I still smoked like a chimney. He drags on the cigarette, inhales, fills his lungs, looks up and exhales the first cloud of smoke.
His tale is not a complaint. It is a literal narration of what has happened, almost a summary of the ship’s log. They boarded the ship on 14 March in Italy and sailed to Turkey. Half the crew left the ship there as they had finished their contracts and new crew members arrived to replace them. They sailed to Libya and then on to Tunisia. They had to unload in Italy and they did so on 3 August on another pier, closer to the harbour master’s office. No-one aboard had been paid for some time so they went on strike and contacted the ITF. At that time there were ten of them. It was the captain along with another three sailors who abandoned ship. They are on strike because they have not received anything from the owner for a long time. Now and again a woman calls but D is not clear who she is or from where she is calling. The captain has not been paid for eight months and other crew members, for three or four.
He assumed the captaincy and they now survive thanks to the Stella Maris. This organisation gave them the generator and provides them with food, drink and clothing. They even wash in the offices of Stella Maris in the port. They reported their situation to the ITF and they are waiting for things to be resolved. When? He does not know. No-one knows. The Cambodian flag, of convenience naturally, is a pennant of globalization. They are used by two third of the vessels that sail around the world. How can they obtain the money owed to them? By selling the ship at auction and using the money to pay themselves the wages that are owed to them. However, the ship is too old and the market is in crisis.
It is noticeable that this is a story that has already been told to me on many occasions. It is almost routine and, to be honest, it already seems fastidious to repeat it to strangers. The captain is more interested in knowing who I am than revealing to me who he is. He is about to ask me a question when the ship starts to rock. “A cruise ship is entering Civitavecchia”, he says. He and the white-haired old man that followed me up the stairs look at each other and jump to their feet. The swell passes under the ship. The cables creak and tense against the bollards and the kettle containing hot water vibrates on the table. For a few seconds the ship sways from side to side like a badly constructed building during an earthquake tremor. My heart is in my mouth because the chances of returning to a vertical position seem slim to me. The picture of the muted television is the only thing that remains unaffected by the movement.
Gradually, the sea becomes still and the ship returns to the static time and rhythm of limbo. I see that there is a calendar behind the captain that shows the date that they arrived in port. Monday 3rd August is circled in red. The captain raises his eyebrows and the tone of his voice hardens. It is no longer friendly. This sudden personality change frightens me more than the movement of the ship. Now I understand why the captain complains about those who moored them as far away as possible. No-one has considered that, compared to the force of the cruise ships, this ship is a flea. “An accident could happen”, he shouts. “They wanted to send us out into the open sea but I opposed that. So they sent us to this pier without considering how dangerous it is. Anything could happen, to other ships as well as us. This cannot be happening. They say that this is a global economic crisis but for us sailors, it is the end. I don’t know if we will ever receive our wages. Some here have not been paid for five months, another for four and others like me, for eight. Is that humane?”
He has just repeated what he said five minutes ago. The only difference is that he is now furious. Some of his deep rooted feelings of aggression have just surfaced. This is a senseless tragedy and he hides it behind a beatific smile. Before, it was a tale of daily life aboard, of life based on a plan. Now it is the narrative of a man who cannot take anymore, who denies existentialism and who makes empty gestures. He still feels that he can wage war against injustice and misfortune.
Their only contacts with life are vessels’ horns, music emanating from cruise ships or the picture on a television that is constantly on yet permanently muted.
The two elderly men look at each other. The big man arrives and asks if everything is alright. The captain calms down so quickly that it seems to be more an atmospheric change than one of mood. He starts smiling again but more for his benefit than for mine. I cannot do the same. For me, nothing is alright. Aboard this ship there is a very fine line that separates serenity from a violent explosion. They are confined in a corpse and they are on a lifeless pier. They are disconnected from reality. Their only contacts with life are vessels’ horns, music emanating from cruise ships or the picture on a television that is constantly on yet permanently muted.
I do not know them so I still do not know what this exile means for them. However, the isolation in which they are living makes things worse. It was less unbearable in Ceuta where they were next to the shore or in Gibraltar where they had the admiralty marshal fighting their corner. I am reminded of the loneliness and alienation of the ships in Istanbul and the craziness and desperation that touched Faisal in Barcelona. Here in Italy I am witnessing tangible insanity (Faisal had already recovered when we met.) Its presence in a group like this could easily lead to violence. I can see that the possibility of litigation or dialogue with anyone other than themselves is remote. And I feel that they tired of complaining to each other months ago.
“This ship has changed its name various times and it has sailed under the flags of Panama, Liberia and Cambodia. The manager has also changed his name and address. I no longer know who these people are and whose hands we are in. A woman calls but who is this woman? I don’t know. It’s the second time that I have been in this situation. I was abandoned in the sixties but it was different then. In Italy there are twelve abandoned crews. They have told me that in Istanbul there are more than one hundred ships adrift. Who know how many there are in the world?” the captain continues.
Isolation, confinement and the misery are very evident on this ship. I am worried that one day a cruise ship entering or leaving this port will move the ship thus unleashing the madness of both the ship and the men. Merchant navy operations are worth $380 million per year according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). This is equivalent to 5% of world trade. Each sailor aboard generates about $650,000. However, this captain is owed $26,000,
There are already three men in the office. The captain encourages them to talk as he knows that talking with a stranger is a release. “I don’t know if this is real or my imagination”, explains V, the white-haired old man who followed me up the stairs. He is the chief engineer aboard and seventy years old. He is dressed strictly in black and he is serious, really serious. His skin colour is different to those of the other sailors I have met. It is whiter and more like the skin of those who live on shore. His face is also less wrinkled. He worked as a teacher until he was sixty. He likes to teach. He says he put to sea because in Bulgaria you cannot survive on a shore salary. He was a navy officer when he was younger.
The big man finally sits down. We all have a cup of Nescafe in front of us. “I worked on submarines as an electrician. Now I do the same on ships. I couldn’t survive as an electrician on shore.” He is called L and he is sixty two years old. He is used to being in enclosed spaces but he prefers submarines (being surrounded by tons of water many metres below the surface) to being on a ship that is being held in a semi-aquatic, semi-terrestrial purgatory.
I am seated on the sofa. There is always an elegant sofa for two on ships. Who knows where sofas like this come from. It is like a piece of furniture that has been inherited from a great-grandmother and which clashes with everything. However, it is kept as an heirloom due this very human need to be rooted in a family tree. The other three sailors arrive. The captain has a sideways glance at the drawer where he has put the cigarettes. He knows he should bring them out but it is clear that he does not want to. I wait without saying anything. For now, they are left in the drawer.
A is an unkempt man with an angry face who appeared on the stairs when I arrived on board the ship. He is the most willing to speak. He says he is fed up and tired of being confined. He has had his fill of abandonment and, what is more, he is conscious that he will not be able to stand much more of it. He uses himself as an example of what it is to be on the edge. He has an unkempt beard, sallow skin, tangled hair and borrowed clothes. He is permanently irritated, his gestures are empty ones and his words are cynical. He is a sailor, a chief engineer, and he has a wife and children. He is a man and he is a human being. He has a house and a life that he lived to the full before being put in this state of limbo. This is his recitation. Then he looks at the calendar that is frozen in time and says: “This is not possible. Nothing works here. This is a cadaver, not a ship”. A, the angry sailor, is forty four years old and he does not want to celebrate his forty fifth birthday in this prison. He can no longer find reasons to justify his confinement. He just wants to leave. His wages? He does not reply.
In limbo there are neither assurances nor emotions. As a result, no-one feels in control of their own destiny anymore. No-one takes decisions that will lead you to do one thing or another, which is what you would normally do. Procrastination leads to apathy and this in turn to disenchantment. Men and ships that have made a career of fighting the sea and the clock are now living in constant anguish and in heavy weather. Their mood has been anaesthetised. If it was not they would noisily and violently explode with fury. Up until recently they stopped in each port for 12 hours or for two days if they were lucky. Now they are in a state of limbo with aquatic roots. Another cruise ship passes by. Once again there is another small earthquake and once again the only thing that continues with normality is what is happening on the television.
The angry sailor snaps out of the hypnotic state provoked by the tremor and points to a young man. It is the young man who peered out and then slammed the door shut when I passed him in the corridor. He is wearing a wedding ring and he is the second officer aboard. He is twenty five years old, his name is R and for now, he does not want to talk. The angry sailor does so for him. “He sleeps twelve to fifteen hours every day to avoid seeing what is happening”. The young man takes umbrage and snaps. “What is better? Being awake and seeing this? Being awake and living this? The sea? I prefer rivers to the sea” he says, finally looking me in the eye. The young man seems ravaged by the effects of a sudden depression. He has an empty look. He is staring at the captain with disdain. He is fed up of this man who declared himself in charge and who, as a result, has the most comfortable cabin. He is fed up of his smile and his stories about the ports he has visited just like his grandfather, father and uncles before him. Before boarding their ships, tourists discard their half-smoked cigarettes. He picks them up just to be able to have three drags. He is fed up of this too.
“My wife is 32 years old and she works as a microbiologist. She calls me and says that we don’t need the money and that I should come home. I just want to close my eyes and not be here”. There is fear in his words and gestures, and disdain for everything that the old man represents. It seems as if this young man never ever wants to like this elderly man. In his dreams he sails the freshwater rivers because there is a goal, an end. The sea spirals, as does insanity.
Everyone is silent until the captain recalls another sailor. He shouts out his name and their expressions change. The big man leaves the office and the captain goes to look for him. O, the Ukrainian sailor who speaks Portuguese, is the crucial link that keeps them united. It is he who calms the angry sailor when his nerves are frayed or when the awful atmosphere affects his mood. It is he who encourages the young man to get out of bed. It is he who mediates between the three older sailors and between the two younger men. This prevents the latter two from mutinying, insulting each other and punching each other unconscious.
Friday, pasta, pasta and pasta.