[I'm sorry for the delay. I have been celebrating my first wedding anniversary and I made a programming error]
Fighting against the windmills (24 of 32)
When I arrive at the ship they are already waiting for me. I have arrived fifteen minutes late because the white bus that I took (I pretended that I was a cruise ship passenger) left me about two kilometres away. The captain has gathered them all together in the control room. I was not expecting them to be together but that is how it is and I cannot do anything about it. In fact, in this room they have improvised a meeting. I am seeing them together for the first time. Normally there are five as the Portuguese knows how to make himself invisible. He is never where I am.
The captain is in the middle. He is sitting in a chair and smiling. The big electrician is next to the door. The Portuguese arrives late and does not know where to put himself. He ends up to the left of the captain. I am going to film them. I first ask them to explain why they became sailors. There is an argument in Russian and the captain says that he will speak on behalf of them all. The monologue begins.
“Wait.” He lights a cigarette. Behind him there is another clock indicating that it is 13.00. There are three such clocks on this ship and I still do not know why they all stopped at the same time. The man smiles and does not bother to clear his throat. “My grandfather was a sailor which is why I became one. He told me stories. I wanted to see the world and to get to know other countries and people. I went to naval school and worked in the Bulgarian fishing fleet until I retired. Then I started to work for private companies because in Bulgaria you cannot live on your pension. Did I see the world? Yes. Now I can see that the world is in crisis. We are shipwrecked. The first officer, V, has had the same experience as me. He studied at naval school and then he enlisted in the fishing fleet. Then he left and worked as a teacher for many years. This was his real passion. He retired and, like me, had to start working for private companies. This is what capitalism has given us. This passionate fan of el Quijote here says that we are like el Quijote in front of the windmills. He says that we don’t know who we are fighting against. We are dreamers just like el Quijote and Sancho Panza.”
Everyone is the room is still. No-one wants to interrupt or spoil his speech. A, the angry sailor is only one who is not looking straight at the captain while he is speaking. He is looking out of the window.
“A is the second engineer aboard. He says that he read Hemingway and that is why he enlisted. Our electrician worked on submarines. He retired and like the first engineer and myself, he had to sign up to work on this type of ship. They belong to private companies and are the crudest tools of capitalism that we have encountered either as men or sailors. All of the second officer’s family are in the navy. O? O became a sailor because he wanted to see the world. On the 8 October his daughter was born and he still has not been able to hold her in his arms. No-one here is having a good time but none of us can change our profession. I wish we could work on shore like many people do!”
Another cruise ship passes close to the vessel and he stops speaking. They all turn to watch it, alert to the danger. The camera registers the brusque movement. The captain turns: “Seven cruise ships enter this port every day. They are experiencing real life. We are not. We hope that waiting has been a good decision but we don’t know”.
The man stops speaking. I want to say something but Sancho Panza, El Quixote, windmills and Hemingway are still on my mind. I ask if anyone wants to add anything to this man’s words. It is the only thing that occurs to me. The angry sailor gets up and sits in the captain’s chair. He lights a cigarette. It is the same ritual. He looks towards the window and then starts tapping his right foot on the floor.
“We only see life passing by. We don’t live it like other people do. We don’t have anything to do. Nothing works here. Nothing has ever worked. We had a fire when we crossed the Dardanelles Strait. The engine caught fire and we shut it down as best we could. The engine heated up so much that the temperature became unbearable. Since we started this voyage it has been impossible to work and here we are. My wife sends me a text every day. What can I say in reply? Nothing. I am no longer an honourable man.”
Here he becomes angry. He says that these unanswered messages are a reality check. They have become used to reciting a litany of complaints to themselves. There is a fine line that separates sanity from madness. It is now unclear if they have stayed sane or whether or not they have strayed over that line. The meeting finishes in silence.
No-one reacts until the captain announces that they will prepare the barbeque. We head down to the deck. The Portuguese and the river dreamer are in charge of the lunch. The big electrician and the white-haired old man are going to make a table. The angry sailor is sure that they will do a poor job as “nothing they do turns out well”. They ignore him. The captain sits in the sun and does nothing.
For the next two hours there is a lot of movement around the ship. The captain is the only one who stays seated. He smokes as he watches them make a table out of abandoned wood. They are worried that I will not want to eat at it. I laugh. “We will eat meat”, says the captain who is oblivious to the hustle and bustle, the work and the table.
Each one now wants to tell me their own story in private. The white-haired old man takes me to his cabin and takes out a pendulum. His father was a farmer and something of a magician I gather. He shows me a black and white photo of him holding a prize winning rooster. He was also a cockfighter. The man prepares his pendulum and says that he can move it through mind control alone just like his father used to do. He focuses. An old man’s stick is hanging on the wall of his room next to naked woman. I watch him narrowing his eyes and the pendulum moves. I congratulate him. I am not worried whether or not it is an illusion. Here you can no longer distinguish between what is real and what is fake. “Everything changed when capitalism arrived in my country. It didn’t give us more freedom. It’s not ethical, it’s just about accumulation. You are not fighting for freedom but for the right to consume.”
He does his best to stay anchored in the past. There are piles of novels in his cabin. I do not understand the titles but from the covers I can see that they are history books about the cold war. I know that their heroes are not the ones that my father grew up with. They are from the opposing side. The elderly man looks among his papers and finds a small postcard of the Stella Maris. He places it in my hand and tells me that it will protect me while I am working to recount stories of lost men and the sea. I look at it. It is a beautiful gift. It includes a prayer that talks of winds, the sea and arriving in port. It describes a journey as a crossing and the need for a divine power to protect the ship and its crew until they return to dry land. In the oration, the person praying begs the sea not to hypnotize them and not to force them to forget their family.
The white-haired old man’s face lights up and he tells me that he will show me something else on deck. He points to some lines that are hung from the ship. He pulls them up and I see that there are little buckets tied to them. It is how he fishes. It is the source of the dried fish that are hung on the deck of the ship.
While I am with him I learn that this ship speaks a tired old language that I do not understand. However, I do listen to it. The many lines, ropes and cables that keep the ship tied to the bollards rub against each other. Anything more than a ripple will provoke a battle between them as they fight to keep the ship still. You can hear the waves that break against the old rusty keel. The angry roar of the sea can be heard in the space where the cargo once was. Be it a small boat or a cruise liner, every time a vessel passes close by the ship creaks and groans. Then there are the unidentified sounds whose provenance is unknown. Every ten minutes there is an audible screeching sound. I am unsure if it comes from inside or from under the ship. The wood creaks desperately and I am worried that the screws, if that is what they are, will loosen.
The table is already made and the young man that dreams of rivers and the electrician are embroiled in an argument. It has ended up twisted. You can see the nails and you can see that it is a bodged job. The young man is laughing at the other one for being elderly. The old man has taken this badly and has become angry. I am worried that they will explode in a choleric fury so I intervene. I look for some paper and place it on top of the wood. The matter is resolved without more seeds of discord being sown. There is something that continues to surprise me. Ships always give you the solution to a problem if you approach it in the right way.
Before we start to eat the electrician explains to me what the submarines were like. “Quick”, “disciplined”… I do not really understand very well what he wants to tell me but every phrase begins and ends with “the cold war”. He makes me go downstairs and he asks me to note down that the ship is sailing under a flag of convenience and that this is “a big problem”.
The river dreamer takes me to the kitchen. The area is illuminated by just one miserable light bulb. There are plastic bags everywhere. There are boxes of pasta on the table and on top of the fridge. It is more of a storeroom than a kitchen. They cannot store anything fresh because the fridge only works during the day. At night there is no electricity. There is an old gramophone on a shelf. It is covered in grease and it does not work either. I know that the river dreamer just wants to be alone with me for a while and that he will not say anything more than he has already explained.
We eat on deck and pretend that we are a family. Although it is not exactly a party everyone is wearing their best clothes. Everyone has a place and everyone has the hope of being part of something. Everything changes at the speed of human thought on this ship. This includes moods and humour. Serious conversations can be light-hearted seconds later. There is an argument. They want to put their money together so that one of them can go and buy some drinks. They are four kilometres from the town but in reality, this is not the problem. Some of them do not have papers, they are not European and they do not want to be stopped by the carabinieri. Neither do they want the harbour master to cause them more problems and to delay their departure. Legally, whoever is a crew member of a ship is allowed ashore. However, for this particular abandoned crew problems occur without warning.
The white-haired old man has changed his black shirt for a red and black checked one. He prepares a little trolley for his suitcases and he leaves. He is old and almost no-one challenges the elderly whether or not they have the correct paperwork. “He is a specialist at making himself invisible”, the captain assures me. I remember the racist graffiti that I saw on the wall when I arrived in Civitavecchia.
We continue with the dinner and they ask me to tell them where I have been. The captain already knows so he lets me speak. He smokes and smokes and smokes. I look at him with a face that says that this is the time to fetch the cigarettes and finally, at this family dinner, he does so. He returns with a packet of Camels and shares them out, one cigarette per man. I stay silent. I know that this is his way of showing his authority. Except for the other old man and the big electrician, he knows that the rest could mutiny at any time. The Portuguese will not but the other two are running out of patience. The captain toasts Anastasia, the daughter of the Portuguese. The baby unites them all. He then explains that he had a dream last night. The new ship owner came and put the vessel up for auction. If this man does appear they will be able to go home because the ITF will repatriate them. They start to argue.
They prepare the torches as it gets dark. The generator is turned off at night and you have to blindly move around the ship. For this reason, each one of them goes to their cabin before it is completely dark and they wrap themselves up in a blanket loaned to them by the Stella Maris. If it is very cold, they make a fire with bits of wood that they have found.
One sunset I decide that I will not come back tomorrow. Why? Because I cannot do anything more in this limbo. I have tried to call the woman that speaks to the captain from time to time but no-one has answered the phone. This number was blocked days ago according to the captain.
When I leave the ship the big electrician gives me a hug and wishes me luck. The white-haired old man is not there. He almost always goes to the offices of the Stella Maris at sunset to find something, to go online and to have a stroll. The rest of them shake my hand and say goodbye. I tell them that I will look them up if I am in Italy again. However, they know very well that I will not. I now have to walk four kilometres on my own and, as always, they are concerned. I tell them not to worry and I disembark. It is the first time that I do not sign out but I did not sign in when I arrived either.
It is a dark night. I walk for half an hour before a car stops and a girl offers to give me a lift. I explain to her what is happening on Pier 13. She knew nothing about it even though she commutes several times a day to the town where the pier is located. She works for the cruise companies. We pass the white-haired old man. He is pushing a trolley full of something or other. He does not see me and I do not say anything. Neither do I explain to the girl that this grandfather is one of the sailors from Pier 13. She drives in silence. Tonight I take my suitcase and I retrace my steps from the city to the train station. I am going to Rome. I take the last train and I fall asleep. I have not seen Civitavecchia but the town features in my dreams. To me it is half town, half village; half Italy, half over-run with cruise ship passengers; and half Berlusconian, half in its seventies.
I wake up and note down the bizarre combinations. It could be an interesting place but a fondness for money unites everyone. The panorama is becoming something depressing. They have given me some information in the hostel about a route around the town. In reality it is not a non-place. It is just like Italy and Spain. It lives in the past without knowing how to face the future and it lacks imagination. In Rome I want to see the oval marble plaque that is thought to be the first map of the Mediterranean. It was made under the order of Agrippa and represents the Mare Nostrum. It shows the borders of the Roman Empire. I am already back in Barcelona preparing for a trip to the Suez Canal. As I listen to my recordings I learn that the captain, the white-haired old man, the angry sailor, the big electrician and the Portuguese that is actually Ukrainian, arrived in the Italian port on Monday 3rd August 2009 at 13.00.
Friday. Blood on the notebook.