Friday, August 31, 2012

Traveling Dr. Seuss Style

August 31, 2012 – Traveling Dr. Seuss Style

I’ve crossed an ocean, taken taxis, gotten on a train in Germany, ferried—train and all—across Mecklenberg Bay to Denmark, changed trains in Copenhagen, watched the farms and cities of Sweden pass by for hours, switched trains again in Stockholm, and finally made it to the last leg. I’m sleepy, wishing I wasn’t. I’ve been tired all day, worn down from all my debauchery; drinking with officers and the late nights that came with that, my excursions out with the crew and the late nights that came with that, my staying up through the midnight to four watch to lie to second officers after crane adventures, and getting up too early to squint out into the darkness at distant city lights and chitchat with pilots.

“Would you, could you,
 on a boat?”

There’s so much to see and I don’t want to miss a thing. I’m cursing myself lightly and wishing I could just let go and shut the world out. My body craves rest and I’m fighting my eyes to stay open. As the scenery continues to change outside the window of my train car, I can’t help but feel I’m traveling Dr. Seuss style; On a boat, In a car, On a Train, Going Far. It’s nothing near One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish, and certainly not a masterpiece like Green Eggs and Ham, but it’s what I come up with as the wheels churn out the kilometers and take me closer. Ever closer. 

“A train! A train!
 A train! A train!
 Could you, would you
 on a train?”

The past month has been so amazing and I’d gotten so wrapped up in ship life that I almost forgot that I’d planned this summer adventure around a visit to a friend I met online and whom I’ve never seen in person. “Is your friend a man or woman?” several of the Filipinos had asked me. I don’t know what assumptions they made when I told them he was a man. I’m not even sure what assumptions I have. What I do know is that I’m going to Sweden to stay an unspecific amount of time with a guy friend. It had seemed a perfectly natural thing to do until I said it out loud. Suddenly I wonder, just what kind of friends are we anyway? My imagination is worse than the Filipinos’ gossip.

“You’re gonna stay in Sweden, aren’t you?” my sister-in-law asks me by phone. She’s seen pictures of my friend. He’s a good looking guy. She’s seen pictures of Sweden too.

“No. I don’t think so,” I reply with a laugh, but I don’t know what will happen. The future is a nebulous and shifting cloud. I’m also a fiction writer so What Ifs get played out a lot in my mind. An infinite number of things could happen.

The train pulls into the station and I grab my bag from the hold above me. I’ve got a swirling nervousness in my stomach, in my head. It’s more than just the exhaustion of sixteen hours of travel. I feel like some type of backward mail-order-bride, only there was never any old style mail between us, I’m not a bride, and Pontus and I really are just friends. Good friends. At least by phone and email.

What if we don’t like each other in person? What if we don’t get along? What if he hates me?

“I do not like them,

Out the window I catch sight of my friend. He’s seen me first (is my hair okay?) and his smile is complete, his wave joyous. I smile big and wave too. Most of my trepidation dissipates. After all my planning, after years of talking about it, I’m here. Next to him stand two blond headed boys. They wave shyly back at me. One is Pontus’s son, Isak, I recognize him from photos. The other boy I don’t know.

I make my way out of the train and step on the platform. Pontus and I exchange a hug and I turn to say hello to the boys.

“This is Isak and this is his friend Mio,” Pontus says. He’s already told them who I am.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hej (hi),” Isak says. He doesn’t speak English and my Swedish is relegated to things like, “Excuse me, where is Sigels Plaza?” and “How do you do?” and “I only speak a little Swedish.”

We fit my bag into the back of the car and I get in the front seat. I’m getting situated as Pontus starts up the engine. Isak says in Swedish, “She hasn’t put her seatbelt on.”

“I will,” I promise. I think of the song we used to sing when we were kids: Buckle up for safety, buckle up! Buckle up for safety, buckle up. I buckle up and we drive off.

“I would not ,
 could not,
 in a car.”

I’ve arrived a couple days in advance of the Raw Life Festival that Pontus and his friend Tom are hosting for the second year running at a place called Ängsbacka.

“Since you’re here a little early,” Pontus tells me, “There are a couple options for where you can sleep before the festival starts.” He’d done the booking for me and put me in one of the dorm rooms at the time when he thought he’d be staying in a tent. “I can see about finding you a room in one of the buildings or you can stay in the trailer with Isak and me.”

“I would not, could not,
 in the dark.”

“Whatever is most convenient,” I say. But I’d rather stay with them in the trailer. I’ve just come off a ship with a family of people around me and being isolated doesn’t sound like much fun. “I don’t mind staying with you guys if that’s okay.”

Pontus double checks with Isak and it’s arranged. Soon I’ll be able to add in a trailer to the list of places I’ve slept. In a cabin, in a train, in a trailer, they’re not the same. Just that quick, both my imagination and my gossiping mind take that thought and run rampant with it. “Ooooh, sleeping in a trailer,” they say.

Calm down, you two, I think. All of you, I mean it. Everyone is just out of control.

I don’t know what’s worse, all the assumptions or the fact that I talk to myself, my imagination and my gossiping mind. At this point of the evening I don’t care. I’ve made it to Sweden.

“Thank you!
 Thank you,

[*Text taken from Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham]

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Signing Off

August 30, 2012 – Signing Off

The cadet and I go into Hamburg together. Our cab driver is a sixty-seven year old German woman who talks aloud the entire trip; to us, to herself, to other drivers, to no one. She speaks in English at times, and in long thick streams of German at others.

“Where are you from?” she asks.

“Russia,” Nadezdha says.

“America,” I say.

“America!” Our driver comes alive. “It’s been my dream to go to America!”

“It’s not too late,” I tell her.

“I’m sixty-seven,” she says, as if that means it is too late. “It’s expensive.”

I know about traveling expenses. I nod my head. “Yeah. It is.” But I also know about dreams. “If you can you should go. You should visit.”

“Visit you?” she looks surprised, taken aback by the offer.

I meant visit the country, but visiting me is fine. Who needs a permanent address to host? I smile. “Sure!”

She seems touched in her brusque way. There’s an interval of silence as she travels in her mind.
There’s an interval of silence as we travel from street to street. She breaks it by asking, “What time do you want me to pick you up?” She weaves through traffic, scans through her GPS screen and starts to find a number on her phone. I’m glad I’m not driving but in this moment wish I was. She adjusts the wheel in time to avoid switching lanes into another car.

“Um,” Nadezdha and I say together. We don’t know what time we’ll want to go back. “We’re not sure,” I say.

“You have handy?” our driver asks me. She gives me a stern look from the rearview mirror. 

“Handy?” I ask.

“Handy! Handy. You have handy? How you call me if you no have handy?”

“Oh.” Nadezdha and I exchange a look. Neither of us have a cell phone. “No. But we could call from a payphone or a café or something?”

Our driver mumbles and shakes her head. I imagine that she’s saying, “Oh this is bad. Bad.” While we wait at a red light, she stamps her name and number on the back of an old receipt. Then she hands it back to me.

Nadezdha writes down our ship’s location from the GPS screen in her notebook so that we can tell another driver how to take us home if we ride with someone new later on.

When the light changes colors, our driver takes a left hand turn. “Scheiße!” she says. Mumbles. Shakes her head. She’s holding an involved discourse with herself as she makes a U-turn and takes another left turn, putting us back the way we’d been going. Nadezdha laughs silently from her seat behind our driver. I’m trying to keep a straight face so I don’t get in trouble if I’m caught laughing. Our driver can see me. She’s nice, but a little scary too. In a safe moment, I grin over at Nadezdha and she smiles back.

Eventually, we get to our destination in the shopping center of Hamburg and our driver drops us off. I arrange for her to pick me up early the next morning. I have a train to catch.

Once together and alone, Nadezdha and I compare thoughts. Neither she nor I have any specific places we must see.

“What do you want to do?” I ask her.

“Maybe find a park, have a beer,” she says.

“Alright,” I say. Sounds good to me.

We wander for a while. Up and down business streets, past shops, through a plaza with a garage-sale like market going on, down some residential streets. We’re just travelers getting an introduction to a city. Simply two girls out day tripping. As if our countries had never held a Cold War between them. Because what would that have to do with us, after all? We’re enjoying being outside. Nadezdha asks an old man the way to a park. He points us in the right direction. We find it no problem. It’s a nice day. Although the clouds are hanging around with stormy potential, the rain is holding off. For now.

In the park, Nadezdha absorbs the green. She stops to touch the leaves of a tree. To brush her hand over a shrub. We walk in silence. We walk in brief spurts of conversation.

There’s a restaurant across from the playground. It looks closed. But there’s a man milling about so Nadezdha asks him if they’re open. He shrugs as if considering opening just for us, glances us over as if to see if it’d be worth his while. He must decide it is because he puts some chairs out around the plastic tables, uses a cloth to wipe off the rain water from them, puts a yellow tablecloth on and with a wave of his hand invites us to sit.

Nadezdha orders us dark beer.

Over the foam, we talk about travels. She’s served on Russian ships in the past, but this is her first time on a world route ship. We talk about language. “It’s like I’m child in English,” she says. “I don’t know how to say the words. I don’t have the vocabulary.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” I say, thinking back to all the ways I’d learned to talk roundabout in Spanish in order to express a word or a concept without knowing the specific term. It’s exhausting. It’s frustrating. “Your English is really good though.”

“I got really good marks in school,” she says. Conveying with her expression how different school learning is from actual usage. “But it is very difficult speaking. I don’t know how to say what I want to say.”

“Speaking is different,” I say. “It’s so much harder.”

We talk about work, the past, death, the present, life and the future. After we’ve finished our beer we get up and go. The streets lead us to nowhere, to everywhere. We cross a busy road because we’re lured by the sight of green—trees, grass, bushes—and the river Elbe lying just behind all this like a blue promise. Along the Elbe, stretched the length of Hamburg (I’m sure), lies an inviting sidewalk. It’s busy. It’s the weekend and everyone is out for a walk, a bike ride, a run, an ice cream, a sit together on a park bench, an outing. We’re part of everyone.

The afternoon lengthens, grows older.
My stomach growls. Nadezdha must be feeling hers growl too because she mentions wanting a snack. We don’t find anything suitable at the kiosks down the river walk so we head off back towards the center in search of some food. Nadezdha wants something like peanuts to have with another beer. I’m thinking second lunch sounds good.

Although we can’t find a place that serves peanuts, we finally find something that suits us both well enough. We select an outside table, glance up questionably at the sky—maybe the rain will continue to hold off—take our seats. She gets nachos. I get a veggie bruschetta. We both get another dark beer.

A guy takes the table next to us and lights up a cigarette. I just finish thinking, I wish he hadn’t sat there, I wish he didn’t smoke when Nadezdha swipes the air in front of her face and says, “Cigarette. I used to smoke, but now after I quit I can’t stand the smell.”

I give a surreptitious glance over and see the guy smile. He heard. Oops. He stands his menu up as a smoke barrier, switches his body to face more away from us. He and I catch eyes over the menu. I smile. It’s not an apology for my friend; I’m not responsible for that. But it’s a smile that says I know you heard and understood and you’re kind. He and I become friends in that instant.

The sky decides it has held back long enough and opens up and lets go. The rain shimmers down in pearls, in sheets. Nadezdha looks behind us to see if there’s a free table inside and I’m about to pull out my rain poncho when the small awning above us suddenly, automatically, magically extends to cover the entire patio. Ah! These Germans know how to make things. They’re efficient. They’re practical. This is wonderful. We’re still outside, but we’re dry.

It’s me and Nadezdha. And in this moment, I’m filled with amazement at my life. Here I am drinking dark beer in the center of Hamburg with a Russian girl. I like how all the conceptions I’ve had and have been taught, of nationalities, of nations, of people, are being stripped down and refinished as I go along. We’re two, sometimes three when the guy joins our conversation. He asks us where we’re from. We ask him where he’s from because his skin color and dark hair don’t advertise Typical German. He tells us that he’s originally from Afghanistan but that he’s been in Germany since he was ten or so. His parents had moved them all to get away from the war, to find a safe place to raise their family. This guy is beautiful. He’s got a gentle way about him. We could be friends easy. I think, I’m sorry my country has had such a part in keeping that war going. I don’t know if I’m responsible for that apology or not. He finishes his coffee and his cigarette and gets up. He was just on break. When he heads back inside, back to work, he takes our empty plates with him. But before that, we shake hands, “It was nice talking to you,” I say. The world is a simple place when there are no politics. People are wonderful. I discover this over and over again with each new person I speak with.

The rain stops as if just for us. We walk down a few more streets, take some pictures at St. Georg’s Church, and then wind up back where we started at the Hauptbahnhof Train Station. Nadezdha and I are both content with how the day has gone. It’s enough. We find a taxi driver who will take us home for the same amount we were charged on the way in. It’s fair.

This driver is also talkative. His English is more fluent than our morning driver’s. We trade off the usual “where are you froms” and then he tells us of how he used to work on a passenger ship. He knows all about the seaman’s life. He gets caught up in memory and tells us story after story, which usually involved lots of pot smoking, a love-at-first-sight experience in a foreign port that he couldn’t pursue because he had a pregnant girlfriend back in Hamburg, and more pot. He stops the meter before we get to ship.

“Thank you,” I say, surprised and grateful. The fare is just under our agreed upon amount.

“It’s been really fun remembering all that,” he says with a happy light in his eyes. He pulls up next to the gangway. “Best of luck,” he and I say to each other. Nadezdha and I get out and go aboard.

“Thanks for going outside with me,” I tell her. “That was nice.”

We go our separate ways.

I head up to my room. I’m worn out. It’s still early evening, but that doesn’t matter. I take a nap and get up long enough to put my pajamas on and go to bed. I’m glad I have my cabin and my bed this one last night, the comforts of home for just a little bit longer. Tomorrow will start the next phase of my adventure. A hint of trepidation sits in my belly next to the dark beer there. I’m heading into the unknown again and I have a conflict within myself; I want to stay here forever and I want to move on.

I set my phone alarm and fall asleep knowing that even if I sleep through it the gangway on-duty guy will get someone to wake me up when my taxi arrives if I’m not out there to meet it, knowing that the second is going to call me around 5:30.

“What time you want me to call you to wake you up?” Domin had asked me the day before when we’d been talking about my leaving.

I wake up before my alarm. I wake up before Domin’s wake up call.

“Good morning,” I say into the receiver.

“This your wake up call,” Dominador says.

“Thank you!” I say.

I’m up and ready now. I shoulder my bag. I give a final double check to make sure that I’ve got all my stuff and that I’m leaving the room clean behind me. I put the key on the table and shut the door one last time.

I’d said my goodbye and thank you to the captain the day before. I’m more or less set. In the stairway I cross paths with the AB whose name I never learn. He won’t let me carry my own bag and takes it from me. I follow him to the poop deck. Domin is in the ship’s office and I stop to wave goodbye. The AB tells me he’s taking my bag all the way out. “Thank you,” I call after his retreating back. The third is just up to go on duty and comes into the office looking bleary eyed and sleepy. I probably look the same. I don’t get off with a quick goodbye. Both the second and third escort me out. Just as I open the door to outside, Jake reaches for the handle. We all stop in the entryway. I shake Jake’s hand. “Take care,” I say. I’m glad there’s no chance for a more sentimental moment from him and feel a little bad that this is all the goodbye he gets. I don’t know if he watches me walk across the deck or if he goes right inside. I don’t look back.

There’s a bunch of guys hanging about the gangway. All of them my friends. I shake hands down the line. I say things like, “All the best.” “Thank you.” “Take care.” They stand shoulder to shoulder shipside and watch me take the metal steps out then walk across to the waiting taxi. They watch and wave and watch me leave.

I record their faces in my memory. The third, still half asleep and serious. The second, my good friend. Charlton, with a smile for me. The other guys who are used to goodbyes, trying to give me a nice sendoff. I’m going to miss them all.

My bag is put in the trunk. I get in the car and twist around to look back one more time. I wave.

I blink a couple times hard.

Behind me the boys fade from my sight, the DALIAN gets smaller and smaller and smaller. Then she’s out of my vision, and I’m out of her life maybe forever.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Last Stop Hamburg

August 26, 2012 – Last Stop Hamburg

It’s crowded on the bridge when we ride up the Elbe into Hamburg. We’ve already passed the Rickmers main office. The CFO, at the Captain’s instruction, sounded the horn in greeting as we passed. Three times short, one time long. We all waved. But it’s Saturday and, most likely, no one was at the office to hear. “I’m not there anyway,” the CFO said. He’s enjoying his brief sea adventure with boyish enthusiasm.

Nadezdha and I are standing shoulder to shoulder watching some ducks scramble-swim out of the way as the DALIAN edges close to the dock and the lines are tossed out and tied up.

“The sun’s out!” I exclaim. It’s been cold and cloudy since Belgium.

“Yes, it came with us. It’s out because we’re here,” Nadezdha says with a smile.

We’re friends now.

“Are you staying on ship until you leave Hamburg?” she asks me.

“I think so,” I tell her. “If the captain will let me. If they don’t need my room. It’d be better than getting a hotel.” My train leaves out Monday morning early, two days from now, and I’m not ready to leave the comfort of my cabin, I’m not ready to venture off into a hostel world. 

“It’s good,” she says. Then she pays me the greatest compliment. “It’s like you are crew,” she says.

“Are you going outside here?” I ask her.

“Maybe tomorrow. Maybe if you go outside, I go with you,” she says.

“That’d be fun,” I tell her.

And it’s more or less arranged.

This night though, I’m going outside with Ian, Francis, Val, an unnamed AB, and Jake. There’s a complimentary transport for seamen here also, like in Antwerp, to and from the Seamen’s Club. Earlier in the day, Ian had asked me if I’d go outside with them and I’d agreed.

For now and until our leaving time, I’m content to hang around the office area and watch the activity while I wait for the immigration officers to come and stamp me into the country. There’s a lot going on. “It’s always like this in Hamburg,” someone tells me.

I take a seat out of the way but with a good vantage point.

When Josko comes in and sees me in that spot he shakes his head. “Just like a spy,” he says. “Always watching.” He perches against the desk and I finally get a chance to ask him how to totally destroy all the world’s water.

“You can’t find something nicer to write about than this?” he asks me.
I have the decency to look sheepish. He tells me that electrolysis is the way to go. I nod. I’d collected a lot of information about electrolysis when I’d done my research bout in Antwerp. Then he’s off to initiate the new second engineer and I’m left to my observations.

Immigration comes and goes. I’m Germany official. I run upstairs and grab my bag.  

I’m heading down to the gangway when I realize I’d better find the chief engineer and tell him goodbye. He wasn’t sure if he’d be staying on ship tonight or not. There’s a shortage of rooms with all the inspectors, Hamburg Rickmers guys who always flood the ship when it’s here at home base, the HR lady who is conducting interviews with everyone, new crew coming on and old crew still around. Josko’s flight home to Croatia leaves early in the morning and I don’t know what time I’ll be back tonight, or if he’ll even be here or awake if he is.

It’s the first of the official goodbyes.

I stick my head inside the office on the poop deck level. The captain is there.

“Have you seen Josko?” I ask him.

He hasn’t, but he knows that Josko’s still showing the second engineer last minute helpful things. He calls down to the engine room. “The passenger Amanda is about to go outside and she wanted to tell you goodbye.” He listens for a second then hangs up. “He’s coming up,” he tells me.

“Thank you,” I say. I lean up against the wall and wait.
A few short beats later, the hall door opens and Josko steps in. “Ah,” he says, smiling, “it’s my favorite American spy.”

I grin at him. “Well,” I say. I want to tell him he’s been my best ship friend and that it’s meant a lot to me, but that seems girly and sentimental. Besides, I dislike goodbyes. I prefer see you laters. I think we say, “All the best,” or something along those lines and then we shake hands like gentlemen, like officers. I turn and walk away, wave my hand behind me in a goodbye salute.

The door clicks shut behind me and that’s that.

I leave emotion for my writing and walk down the metal stairs. The complimentary van is idling, waiting for us. Francis is by the podium, there ahead of me. I climb up to the where the gangway is set up. It’s higher than usual to account for the changing tides.

When Ian arrives he tells me to throw down my camera so he can take my picture from below. Jake rushes up to get in the pictures with me.

These are my boys.

We make our way together, a posse, to the van. The driver greets us with genuine friendliness. “Who all do we have here?” he asks.

“Four Filipinos, one Ukrainian, and the princess,” Francis tells him.

I feel like their princess. And, against all that I am, all the tomboyishness I’ve made to be me, this title doesn’t ride me wrong, doesn’t rile me up. It makes me feel special. What’s happened to me? Who am I?

“Are you a ring?” Ian asks me, he leans up from the back seat to touch my shoulder. I turn in my seat to face him.

“Why? What?” I say.

He grins that infectious grin. “Because you are My Precious,” he says.

I laugh.

“Are you Santa Claus?” he continues.

“Why?” I ask.

“Because everywhere you go people are happy and joyful.”

“Do you have an endless supply of these?” I ask him.

“I’m always making thing up to make people laugh,” he says. He gets a serious look. “I just have one thing to ask you. Can you make me a character in your book? I can be—I don’t have to be a good one, I can be the bad character,” he says.

“Don’t worry,” I tell him. “You can be a good guy.” He already is.

At Duckdalben, Francis and I take our computers into the internet room and he goes to pay for our access privileges. He won’t let me pay him back. We sit side by side and check our emails. He shows me pictures of his sisters and his fiancée. I show him pictures of my family. The other guys go to call their families or find some kind of diversion. Eventually we all end up together on the patio. Ian comes out with beers for all of us.

“How many beers until you are drunk?” he asks. He’s already had a couple.

“I don’t actually know,” I say.

“We can find out tonight,” he says.

Val, the Ukrainian, joins us around the start of the second round and he buys us a darker, better German beer. Jake is full of restless energy. He finally alights at the table and I lean across to hand him the second light beer that had come my way before the dark arrived. It’s still full. I can’t drink them all.

“Did you talk with your wife?” I ask Val.

“Yes,” he says. “She said it hailed and much of the garden is ruined.”

“Oh no,” I say. “I’m sorry.” I have a silent moment for the passed away vegetables. But the guys are too full of silliness, fun, and stories for anything serious to stay serious for long.

The sun disappears and the air chills.

“Here, Amanda,” Val says from beside me. He’s taken off his jean jacket and helps me into it. I don’t even try to protest. I can’t turn down his gentlemanliness. I wouldn’t want to hurt his feelings. But I watch him carefully to make sure he doesn’t get cold in my stead.

Snacks are eaten, beers drunk and jokes told and laughed over. We’re the last group taken back to our ship. We watch the other crews leave. We enjoy our time together. Eventually though, the time is out and we climb into the van and get driven back to the familiar beauty of the ship.

I give Val his jacket back. We part ways at our various floors.

As I step over the threshold, I close the hall door gently behind me.
Not sure who’s sleeping.

It’s late, but Josko’s door is open. I don’t know if the new chief is moving in or if Josko is still around. I look in as I start past, nosy as always, and see a familiar figure.

“Hey,” I say. “You didn’t leave.”

“Hey,” Josko says. He’s standing in the middle of the room and looks a bit bored.

“You want company?” I ask him.

“Yes,” the word is out of his mouth almost before my question is finished.

“Sweet,” I say. “I’ll be right back.” I go dump my bag in my room and then go back and get in my usual chair. Josko’s already got the glasses out and has poured the very last of the Johnny Walker. He’d told the replacement chief, “This one destroyed my bottle of whisky,” when he’d introduced us. Now it’s completely gone.

I’m thinking it’s a good thing we’re out of alcohol and that it’ll be not too late of a night when the captain comes around. “I’ll bring something nice,” he says, and soon returns with a bottle of white wine and some spritzer. “This is how we do it in Romania,” he says. It won’t be an early night after all.

The guys gossip about everything that’s happened. The ship’s drama. The meetings they’ve had all day with the lady from HR. Of the time between when they’ll work together again, the overlapping months between duty and holiday. I sit back and enjoy this last night. This last wild round of drinking. Try to keep up.

The captain drinks the wine like it’s juice. Josko and I go at it a little more slowly. We’re not as big fans of white wine. When we’re near the end of the bottle, the captain looks at us, at Josko, and demands, “What are your intentions?”

At first I’m taken aback by the question, but Josko knows what he means. “I’m done after this,” he says.

“Me too,” I say quickly. Right right, drinking intentions. I can’t hold much else.

While they’re exchanging contact information I go grab my camera. I snap a couple pictures when they’re not posing then the captain takes my camera, tells us to sit together, and says to Josko, “Don’t worry, we won’t show these pictures to your wife.”

When the captain’s drink is gone, he bids Josko goodbye and me goodnight.

I don’t know if it’s the beer, the whisky or the wine that’s gone straight to my head. The room spins and I sit back in my chair for a last time moment with the stories, told and untold, connecting the space between me and my friend. 


Sail On, The Last Leg

August 25, 2012 – Sail On, The Last Leg

The days we spend in Antwerp stretch into lifetimes. I’ve never known any other way. My home is this ship. My house is this cabin. My family is this crew. My world is bus rides and walks with Filipinos, brick buildings, cathedrals, outdoor cafés, dark beers and wandering. I pretend the future—my signing off—is someone else’s reality, a dream, an imagining.

But it’s not. It’s mine. Time catches up. The mooring lines are untied, the door to the bridge unlocked, the stations manned, the pilot called and the tugs put to work. We sail away for Germany.

I’ve only got a few days left on the DALIAN. I want to lengthen the moments. I want to stay a little longer. I want to give a small thanks to all these guys for making me feel a part of things. I want to thank them for their friendship and their love. I don’t want to leave. But I know that things won’t stay the same. The chief engineer is signing off in Hamburg as well. “We sign off together,” he’d said with a grin. He’s been a good neighbor and my friend. It wouldn’t be the same on ship without him around. A new chief officer and new second engineer are coming aboard along with Josko’s replacement. New people, new dynamics. Part of me is glad to leave with the change. Nothing stays the same. That’s one thing I learned from the ten day Vipassana sit I did so long ago in June. Things rise and fall. Things are born and things die. Each here and now I can enjoy, knowing that it’s transitory and fleeting and leaves a mark on me like the imprint of a pillow on my face when I’ve slept too hard. And as the future slides into the present I slide with it as gracefully as I can.

It’s tradition on a birthday or when a magnanimous officer is about to sign off for the celebrator or officer to buy a beer for all the crew. It’s a way I can say thank you. Just before lunch, I find Joe and tell him what I’d like to do. He’s in charge of the ship’s store and of arranging the set up at the tables. We both agree to double check with the captain that a beer for all is okay, and leave it at that.

Later that afternoon, I’m writing, maybe pretending to write in my room with the door open when I hear the familiar jingle of keys. That sound tells me it’s the captain and no one else. I jump up and go into the hall. The captain and Joe are arranging things in a box and searching through the storage closet for tape to send gifts back to Romania for the captain’s one year old grandson.

“Is it okay if I buy a beer for everyone tonight?” I ask. “Because I’m signing off soon….”

“Of course,” the captain says. “I’ll add in some good wine or something with it.”

“What kind beer you want?” Joe asks. He lists two beers.  

I shrug. “Whichever one the guys like the most,” I say. I’m not really a beer expert. I can order a Bolleke now, I know what I like when I taste it, but other than that I’m pretty much at sea.

“The Becks,” the captain dictates. “That’s a better beer.”

“Okay,” I say. Joe and I exchange a look and it’s all arranged. “Thanks!” I skip off and they resuming the packing.

I’m the first one in for dinner. The beers are next to the water glasses at every seating. Joe comes in. “Good evening!” he sings at me, uncaps the beer and pours it for me before I can tell him I’m going to save it for later, give it to the chief engineer. Too late. “Salamat!” I tell Joe (thank you).

“Salamat po!” he returns in Tagalog (thank you very much).

He goes back to the kitchen. I’m suddenly nervous. I feel left out in the spotlight. Too much in the open. Like the center of attention when I’ve got mismatched socks on. I prefer to be backstage, observing or doling out my thanks one to one. I can’t go back, the beers are there. Just then, in my mid-embarrassed thought, the cadet rushes in, hovers near my elbow. “Happy birthday!” she says. She has her unopened Becks in hand.

I hadn’t anticipated the misunderstanding. “It’s not my birthday,” I tell her. “It’s because I’m signing off soon.”

“Oh,” she says, a little relieved. “I was thinking I needed to get you gift.” We smile at each other. It’s our first real connection. “Thanks for beer,” she says, and floats out again.

Right after her, the bosun comes into the officers’ mess room, stands next to me, and shakes my hand. He smiles his shy, shy smile. “Happy birthday,” he says.

“It’s not my birthday,” I tell him. It’s going to become a much used phrase over the course of dinner and the next day. “I wanted to thank all you guys, I’m signing off soon.”

“Okay,” he says—I’m not sure if he understood me—and he’s gone.

I fill my salad plate with salad. Pile the olives in a mound. Drizzle on some olive oil.

The third officer and the electrician come in together. “Good appetite,” we all say like a choir. I twist around so my back isn’t completely turned at them.

Charlton leans through the window separating the kitchen from the mess room. “Happy birthday,” he calls in at me.

“It’s not my birthday,” I say with a smile.

“Joe said it was your birthday.” Charlton turns around to talk with Joe in Tagalog.

I just shake my head. Third and Marius chatter in Romanian. I dig into my salad.

Third eats rapidly. When he’s finished, he takes his plate in to the kitchen sink. He comes back through, stops close to me. “Thank you for the beer,” he says.

“You’re welcome,” I reply. I want to tell him thank you for everything; all the conversations, the explanations, the jokes, the easy camaraderie.

“Good appetite,” he bids again and steps over the threshold and out.

The newest passengers, the father and son arrive at the same time as the captain. I’d met them when I went on bridge to meet the river pilot and watch us leave Belgium. Best I can guess, the son, not a young child like I’d anticipated, is in his early forties, and he’s actually the CFO of Rickmers, the company who owns the shipping line. He’s traveling partly for fun--bringing his septuagenarian father along for the ride--partly because he’s never traveled on one of his ships before, and partly for business.

I want to sit him down and tell him how to make things better for the crew. I want to tell him all the guys should have cabins at least as nice as mine. That the Filipinos shouldn’t have to share rooms unless they want to. But I’m not quality control. I’m not the HR manager. I’m just a passenger with four week’s experience. What do I know? 

He’d told me of his very successful life and told me that persistence pays off. Given me his card.

I’d been reminded of the contrast between workers and management. Between the crew and those in glass buildings who’ve never been to sea, never oiled a crane’s coils, never battled rust or heights, only crunched numbers and made executive decisions. Reminded that I’m just an observer of both worlds.

But I like the CFO. He’s personable. He’s well intentioned. He’s working at something he’s good at and enjoys. He’s a business man.

As they settle in their seats the electrician turns to me. “That’s what I like about you,” Marius says, he stands up, taking his beer in hand, “you don’t buy the cheap American beer. You buy the quality kind.” I puff up at the compliment. Thanks to the captain, I think. Don’t forget that, I remind myself.

The captain has brought two bottles of wine with him as promised. They’re good ones. A Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon. He opens them both and we sample them, decide which ones we’d like. Joe brings in my food. Joe brings in their food. We talk of wines and business and livelihoods. Or mostly the men talk and I listen. The CFO’s father sits in the cadet’s seat at my right hand side. He and I trade whispered sentences. “This is very good,” he tells me of the wine, holding up a thumb, “very good.”

The mess room door opens and the third steps in. “I need to make your photo,” he says. I look up. “Of all three of you,” he motions me, the CFO, and the CFO’s father. “To make IDs.”

“Okay,” I say. “Now?”

“No, no, you can finish up,” he says.

“Now is okay by me,” I say. It’s okay with the other passengers too.

Dan runs off to get the camera and is back soon. I stand against the wall and get my mug shot taken. Dan shows me the result and I say, “It’s good enough.” The CFO follows and then his father.

We linger over dinner, finish off the wine. The CFO, the father, and the captain leave their beers and I snag two of the bottles to take up for Josko. When I’d gone into Antwerp on the last night I’d asked him if he wanted me to bring him anything back. “A cold beer,” he’d said.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I’d replied. The seeing hadn’t done a thing and I’d returned empty handed.

When I get up to our floor, his door is closed. He’s busy working, filling in the hours, unusual at this time of night, but necessary for the work that needs to get done. I leave the beers in the plastic mail inbox outside his door.

A bit later, I hear the hall door wheeze open. I poke my head around. I trot down the hallway and nearly collide with Josko as he steps out of his door. “You give me heart attack,” he says.

“I brought you some beer,” I say, pointing at it.

There’s a red mark on his head. I stare up at it. A trail of blood is in the process of drying. “What happened?” I ask.

“These Chinese made ship,” he says. “My brain is leaking out.”

“Head wounds bleed the worst,” I say. It’s not dripping in his eyes. It’s not gushing. Ancient female nursing tendencies bubble up from somewhere deep inside me, but I sweep them away. I’m one of the guys, not Florence Nightingale.

I pull the beers out of the inbox and start to hand them over. Josko takes one and steps back inside. I keep the second one and follow. We settle into our spots, open our drinks. He tells me stories of the ships made by the Japanese and the Chinese. How they don’t fit well with his six foot four height. How on one Japanese ship he’d had to sleep cattycorner on the bed and even then he’d draped over. We finish the beers.

Josko touches the trail of blood where his hair meets his forehead. It doesn’t leave a mark on his finger that I can see.

“Is it still bleeding?” I ask. 

He looks at his fingers. Gives a negative motion. “Maybe I get stitches tomorrow,” he says. “I don’t tell my wife…”

“Or she’ll freak out,” I put it.

The hall door opens and the jingle of keys heralds the captain’s entrance. His figure silhouettes between the frames, and he comes in. He sits with us for a moment, makes a quick assessment of Josko’s head, tells a story then is off to do more captain things. It’s busy times.

“You want Johnny?” Josko asks me. He pushes his empty beer bottle to the center of the table. I push mine to join it and shrug an okay. Why not? We’ve nearly worked our way through the Johnny Walker whisky bottle. We’re all old friends by now.

The hall door opens and the cadet zips by, heading for my cabin. She sees me and come to a halt, backs up.

“I need your thumbprint,” she says. “For ID.”

She places an inkpad on the table and I stick my thumb down in the red and press it against the paper next to my printed out photo. It’s light, faint. “I don’t know if that’s good enough,” I say.

Nadezdha (pronounced Nadia by us all) looks at the result and says, “Maybe do it again.”

It won’t be an accurate print, but what the heck. I double print it. It’s not like I’ll be using the ID to get on or off the ship. It’s more for a memory.

She takes the paper, the inkpad, and is off.

Before we’ve gotten half way through our drinks, Nadezdha returns. Dan had decided the double print was a no go and reprinted my photo. So I make a better mark this time. Use more force, more ink.

The captain passes Nadezdha in the hallway on his way back to kibitz with us.

“Did you get it?” he asks me of the ID.

“Not yet,” I say.

“She only has one day until she signs off and now she get ID?” Josko teases.

“Nadezdha just came to get my print,” I say.

“Why doesn’t she like you?” the captain asks me.

“She likes me,” I say, without defensiveness. But I know what he means. There’d been a hint of wariness. There’d been the possibility of jealousy. The touch of resentment at not being the only girl on ship, of having to compete. Only I’d taken myself out of the game, removed any type of threat I could have been to her, stepped into the shadows. I did this because I’d tasted the bitterness of that resentment for one tiny moment when I found out another girl was onboard, and then I’d laughed myself silly for being absurd. I’d left the window open for friendship and realized that most of her standoffishness was a language barrier problem. I know what it’s like to be limited by words. She and I had orbited each other for the past four weeks and only now, with days left to go, is a true rapport starting to form. 
All this rushes through my head. I feel it’s too wordy to explain and wonder how to sum it up simply.

But the captain is past the IDs, past Nadezdha and me, and into another story.

Josko pours us more whisky. The captain waves off the offer to serve him some. Says he has to leave anyway.

I’m mixing a lot of drinks tonight and I wonder if I’ll feel it tomorrow. I’m certainly feeling something right now. Something like a mixture of contentment and the sentiment I sense in the captain’s words when he and Josko and I are standing in the hallway the next day talking about future plans. “We will miss you,” the captain says, and pats me on the arm.

It’s the best sum up possible, simple and truthful. It’s exactly how I feel.

I’ll miss you guys too.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

End of the World

August 22, 2012 – End of the World

The world didn’t end in 2012. Nor did it end in 3012 is how I begin the second short story chapter in the book I’m writing. I type up a few pages and then get stuck. I need a manmade disaster. Two, in fact, that occur sixteen years apart. Something not cliché, not previously used, and one that is shameful. How the heck can I make stuff up without the help of Google? I lean back in my chair and stare out the side window at the ship that’s parked across the water there.

The answer to this is easy. Ask an expert.

Josko, the chief engineer, will know. But his door is closed. He’s in the engine room working. Damn. Everyone is working. Double damn. I take my notebook up to the pilot deck and sit in the sun and let my own slow thoughts clink into place, thick clog by clog. I’m working too.

End of the world? Why? What is Lila’s importance? Instant world-wide water vaporization? The tragedy of 3080 has to be something shameful in order for it not to be talked about. These are some of the musings I write down and thoughtfully chew upon.

Nuclear disaster. Natural disaster. Pollution. No more water.
Josko will know how to vaporize water. I’ll wait and ask him.

I take my chair around to a new spot, in the sun or out of it at varying intervals, it’s a warm day. I’m watching the cranes work. Their stringy arms move slowly, the stevedores or crew who hook them up to the giant objects we’re taking on board wait over half their working time. Wait for the crane to grab, to release. It’s slow, slow work. It’s dangerous work. It’s no wonder these ships are filled up with ghosts. A Belgian is running the shore crane. I can’t see through the ship crane’s reflecting glass to see the operator’s face, but I know he can see me. I shade my eyes and glare. It’s no good. I wish I’d brought out my binoculars. I wave at the ship’s crane operator anyway and hope it’s Ian. He’s the most fun of the ABs (Able Body Seamen).

What is Lila’s importance? It’s a hard, but extremely vital question. I leave it to tumble in my head and go to lunch.

Marius is at his place. First as always. No one else is there.

“Good appetite,” I say, and take my seat.

“Good appetite,” he says.

Before he can tease me about Texas BBQ, I twist around and ask, “I need your help for a story I’m working on. If I wanted to vaporize all of Earth’s water how would I do it? Does it have to be a nuclear disaster?”

He’s an electrician and should know a lot of the same things an engineer knows, I figure. He should at least know about the power of sabotage, about people’s propensity to create mishaps. Marius isn’t taken aback by my question. This endears him to me. He pushes back into his chair and thinks. “An asteroid,” he says.

“That’s a good option,” I say. Poor dinosaurs. I pause for half a beat. “I need it to be human error though.”

“Oh,” he says. He eats a couple bites and ponders. Joe brings me a plate of vegetables and I dig in.
Over our lunch, Marius and I talk about catastrophes. The heated core of the Earth. Of ways to make the water sit in a never-raining cloud just above the ozone layer. Of nuclear mishaps that tear the Earth’s atmosphere in order to make that never-raining cloud possible.

He’s a perfect brainstorm companion; willing to play my What If game.

Lunch doesn’t last forever and we bid each other good afternoon and I take my ideas and go work a little more. It’s no good. I need more solid information. I need time to let these suggestions take root.

I leave my computer and go sit at the gangway.

One of my nameless friends (the “I like you very much” guy) is on duty. He greets me shyly and I take a seat next to him. He reads a seamen’s magazine and I sit next to him, comfortably silent in his company. There’s a swarm of activity. Filipinos pass by, pausing to get a smile from me or exchange some words, on their way to and from tasks, stevedores come on ship to complete or start jobs, inspectors and supervisors come and go, a group of Filipinos including Charlton and the bosun come up the gangway from outside.

“How was outside?” I ask them.

“We went to Sunny Europe,” Charlton says. Sunny Europe is a Duty Free shop where seamen can buy all sorts of things for themselves or to send to their families. Charlton had told me about it earlier.

“What did you buy me?” I tease. Then they’re gone.

The chief officer marches by, walkie-talkie in hand, he pauses when he sees me. Not sure if he should banish me from the deck or make me wear a hardhat. He decides I’m safe where I am, but tells me not to venture out on the working part of the deck.

“I’ll stay here,” I say.

I-Like-You and I exchange a look and he goes back to his reading.
Ian walks by. Full of energy, smiles, laughs. He sees me and I-Like-You and asks me, “Are you a library?”

“A library? A librarian?” I’m not sure where he’s going with this.

“Are you a library?” he asks again. I’ve got a deer in the headlights look in my eyes. “You say

‘Why?’” he instructs me. He tries again. “Are you a library?”

“Okay… why?”

“Because this guy is reading a book and being quiet around you.”

I laugh at his joke and he leaves happy.

I-Like-You notices my tattoo. “You have tattoo?” he asks.

I turn my foot to show it off better and say, “Yeah. Do you have any?”

“I’m a good boy,” he says.

“No earring?” I ask, looking at his ears.

“No,” he says again, “I’m a good boy.”

I wonder what that makes me with a tattoo and two earring holes in both ears. I revel in my sudden wickedness. I should spike my hair.

A Sunny Europe van pulls up and I stand up when I-Like-You does to watch the guy walk up the gangway. I squeeze up against the check-in podium so I’ll be out of the way. The delivery guy is young and open-faced friendly, we strike up a conversation while he waits for the papers to be signed by the bosun and for the guys to come get their boxes.

I feel this is my house and I’m in position to be host to all who enter, to bid good luck, good living to all who leave. I love this place. I love this ship. I love these guys.

Jake walks by. He has his full facemask on. The Filipinos cover up when they work, long sleeves, head wraps, facemasks. To keep cool. To keep the sun from burning them. That’s just the way they do things.

“Are you cold?” Sunny Europe asks Jake. It’s a warm day and there’s a hint of incredulity in his voice.

“It’s because I have an ugly face,” Jake says, and walks on by.

The bosun and Charlton and the other guys show back up and the paper gets signed and the boxes brought on ship. Sunny Europe and I wish each other Best of Luck and then he’s gone.

I leave my duty just before dinner. “See you later,” I tell I-Like-You. He nods in response.

I’ve decided I’ll take my computer, catch the 6:30 bus, and go to the Seaman’s Club to get online. I need to know exactly how nuclear energy, fusion, and fission work. I need to search for ways to completely vaporize water. I want specifics, scientific facts, nerdy language. “Need more input!” as Johnny Five said in the movie Short Circuit.

Val, the Ukraine crewman is waiting at the stop already with a cloth bag in hand.

“Good evening!” I tell him.

“Good evening, Amanda,” he says. 

The bus arrives soon and we sit next to each other and talk about cargo ships and container ships, his garden in Ukraine, his wife who’s tending the garden, his daughter, of dark beers. He tells me that I should try Köstritzer, a good German beer, when I get to Hamburg. I write it phonetically in my notebook. He also recommends Leffe, another dark beer, and I store the name in my head. He shows me the book in his bag that he’s going to exchange for a new one from the free library at the Club.

When we arrive he steps down off the bus first and when he reaches his hand up for mine, to help me
down, I take it. It’s an old courtesy, an ancient kindness, a chivalry, an unknowing (not contempt) of modern feminism. It’s not a disregard of me—not a commentary against my ability, it’s just old world kindness. And I’m okay with it. He treats me with a respect that is antique and doesn’t strip away anything that I am. I have nothing to prove.

Val pauses to let me go inside first. I feel like his daughter, his sister, his friend. He’s being decent and I’m thinking up ways to destroy the world.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Alone in Antwerp

August 21, 2012 – Alone in Antwerp

About coffee time I get a call. It’s Josko. “I can’t come outside with you,” he says.

“Okay,” I say. This doesn’t come as a surprise. I’d had a premonition.

There’s been a problem with one of the engineers and Josko has to fill in his duty slot. “You come down and take coffee?” he suggests.

“I’ll be right down.” I’d already made some coffee in the lounge and I take my cup with me as I descend into the bowels of the ship. I only get turned around once in the labyrinth of levels, machines, and stairs before I find the engine room where Josko and Marius the electrician are.

I step inside and take out my earplugs. “So you’re actually having to work now?” I tease Josko. I take a seat and get comfortable. “So what’s going on?” I ask.

They tell me in full gossipy detail and then move on to speculation. From there they segue into tales of death, accidents, and officers who’d been sent home early for all variety of reasons. I listen. I don’t even need to put in a word in edgewise to keep them going. It’s better watching, better listening than TV.

Soon enough though, break time is over and Marius stands, replaces a vent cover on an open shaft and holds up a screwdriver “See what these guys did to my screwdriver? It’s always like this. They don’t take care of anything.” The screwdriver is bent and looks a bit stripped. I smile and keep my mouth shut. I don’t tell on the guy I’d seen yesterday who’d tried to fit a giant hook back into place with the aid of a very small screwdriver. It can’t be the same one.

Josko stands too. “I go up to my room for something and then I’ll be back,” he tells Marius.

I follow Josko through the maze and we head upstairs together.

“Ship needs elevator,” Josko says when we’re at the top.

I’m catching my breath and trying to pretend I’m not. It’s a lot of stairs. “You want anything from outside?” I ask, huffing.

“Some good chocolate,” he says.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I say.

I collect my stuff and go to the gangway. I’m feeling lethargic and unhurried. Lazy.

Jake is on duty. “You go outside?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say, and take a seat next to him on the plank bench against the wall. At this rate the day will be over before I do anything. The air is not too hot, not too cold. It’s easy to sit here. Comfortable. I joke with the guys that walk by on their way to new tasks, on their way back from old ones. I smile at the stevedores that come onboard. Eventually I get up.

“Don’t go,” Jake says, catching my hands.

“I’ll come back,” I say. I pull my hands away. “See you later.”


I cross the dock and knock on the window to the guard shack. The guard is kind enough to call the taxi service for me. He lets me sit in the small lobby and we chitchat in between his business of letting trucks in and out of the area. Then my taxi arrives.

“Have my guys been good?” the driver asks. He’s the owner of the company.

“Yes, they have,” I say. I don’t mention that all his drivers drive fast like hell (as Josko would say) or that the first of his drivers that had taken Josh and me to immigration had had a touch of a road rage problem. He’d mellowed by the end of our trip and actually worked it out with his boss (my current driver) for me to pay a little bit less for my trips. Every euro saved is a euro I can use somewhere else. How could I tattle on him after that?

The owner drops me off at the café I’d selected. I bid him thanks and bye as I hand over the money and get out of the car.

I make myself at home at the Café Berlin. They’ve got free Wi-Fi and Kombucha. It’s a good combination. I call my mom, my grandmother, my sister, my sister-in-law, check up on emails, post pictures, work out my next trip step itinerary and exhaust myself at the computer screen. I have a late lunch of veggie lasagna with a glass of wine and feel grown up and sophisticated.

When I can’t stand sitting any more I pay my tab and venture out into the daylight.

One of the drivers had given me a good list of things to see which had compared very well with what the Flemish pilot had suggested. The Cathedral is a must see according to all, the MAS (Museum Ant de Stroom) is especially appealing with its panorama view of the city from its rooftop, and there’s the central transit station set in the center of a pleasing plaza.

I can’t make heads or tails of the map I have. The street names are long as my hand and none of the streets seem to actually connect to others. The names on the map don’t ever appear to match the street names I see on the signs or sides of buildings. My head is too fuzzed from computer work to think any more. I fold up the map, stick it in my bag and decide I’ll just wander around.

The cathedral is easy to find. It sticks out. But it’s just after five o’clock and the inside is closed off to those who aren’t coming to worship. I take pictures from the outside and from a small patio I sneak into. The doors that I try are locked. This is okay by me, I’m content enough to stay in the open air. I make the full circuit, seeing the cathedral from all angles. The side streets are lined with cafés and restaurants. They all have outdoor seating with people eating, drinking, chatting. This is exactly as I’d imagined Europe would be. I can’t believe I’m here.

In the square in front of the entrance to the cathedral I find a chocolate shop and buy some dark chocolate for Josko. A saxophone player is playing his own concert from the center of the square. He’s good. He plays the Pink Panther theme song, something jazzy, and as his last song, John Lennon’s Imagine. When he comes around to collect change from us listeners I give him a couple coins.

“Can I have your body too,” the sax player asks me, “or just your money?”

“Just the money,” I say quietly, wonderingly, and he’s already gone.
People are so strange, I think. I look for my reflection in a window to try and see what he’d seen. It’s fleeting and shadowy. And I’m easily distracted.

I find a bench facing the central transit center’s plaza. I sit and people watch. I listen to the Babel diversity of languages. Occasionally I write something in my notebook. I take a picture every now and then. The benches are arranged all around the plaza and people come and go. Sit next to others, sit next to me, and leave again. Two guys have been sitting together at a bench several benches away from me since I arrived. I’m cautious to not catch their eyes, to not be too friendly, to not smile at them. I don’t want conversation right now. I just want to observe.

A flush of guilt warms me. I should be up exploring. I should be finding my way to the MAS—I do want to see that panorama—then I realize that it’s Monday and the museum is closed. I shoo the guilt away. Take regret with you, I tell it. I have no use for either of you.

I sit where I am and Be. I want to enjoy the moment for exactly what it is and where I am.

So I do.

The cathedral’s bells chime the hour. It’s six. Maybe it’s seven. I steal a glance at the watch the guy on the bench next to me is wearing. It’s almost seven. I’ve sat here long enough. I’ll find a patio to sit on. I’ll get a beer or a coffee. I’ll be European too.

I’m halfway down the street when I see a word on a sign at a pub. Bolleke, it says. I laugh out loud. Not ball licker. Not bolleker. Bolleke. It’s the nickname for the De Koninck ale I’d had at the Irish Pub. I take out my notebook to write it down so I won’t forget it, won’t lose the word. I’ve flipped to a blank spot and started to write when a guy steps in front of me and starts talking. I’m only four letters into my scribing. I look up from the page and I recognize him. It’s the guy whose eye I didn’t catch. Who I didn’t smile at. He’d followed me. I don’t feel alarmed and wonder if I should. He’s talking to me in a language I can’t comprehend. It doesn’t sound Flemish, French, or German. It’s certainly not English. It’s probably Flemish.

“Sorry,” I say. “I don’t understand.”

“Oh, you speak English.” And he talks to me. Almost so fast I can’t keep up, his accent is tricky to follow. “Where are you from?”

“I’m American,” I say. “Where are you from? Here?”

He shakes his head. He tells me where he’s from. I don’t understand. But I think it’s somewhere Middle Eastern. He tells me he works here at some business he’s made.

“What were you laughing at?” he asks me.

I’d laughed? I’ve already forgotten I’d just laughed over Bolleke. I think back. Laughed? I’d smiled several times from my bench vantage point. At people’s interactions, at my own thoughts (which are usually too complicated or obtuse or silly to try and explain the humor of), at life.

“I’m just enjoying myself,” I tell him. It’s the best explanation I can come up with at the moment. It’s the truest one.

I write the “eke” to finish the word in my notebook and close it up, put it away.

“You’re very busy,” the guy tells me. He talks in paragraphs, in pages. He seems to think I’m friendlier than other women. That’s what I catch from his sentences. I don’t completely follow him although I’m trying. Friendlier? I think, it’s because I let my guard down when I’m in my own company. It’s because I smile when I want to. Most times. It’s because I laugh when something strikes me funny. Maybe this isn’t usual. Maybe this isn’t adult. It’s just me.

“Are you here alone?” he asks.

This I understand. And every now and then I can lie when I’m supposed to. “No,” I say. It’s not really a real real lie. I have a ship full of friends I’m here with. “I’m here with friends. Actually I’m just about to meet up with them.”

He looks disheartened. It’s taken a lot of nerve for him to follow me. To talk to me. I know this. It breaks my heart.

“I said to my friend that I was going to talk to you,” he tells me. “He told me to get you to come

In another life I would, I think. I can’t now. I kill this potential with my words. “I’m meeting up with my friends.”

“Okay,” he says. Rejected. Let down. Rejection. I know that pain. I’m so sorry, I think. I’m sorry. “I understand,” he continues. He does and he doesn’t.

He goes back to his friend and I go to my imaginary ones. It’s hard to be a girl.
Then I shrug off my remorse at not being able to make all people happy. I tell myself that he’ll find some prettier girl. He’s find some girl who can understand his words. He doesn’t realize now how much a plus that’ll be, I reassure myself. He’ll be happy somewhere down the line. You’re not responsible for that.

Thank goodness, I reply.

I find a patio café filled with people and select a seat for myself. I order a Bolleke.

With my feet stretched out and a drink in front of me, I look out at the statue of Brabo throwing the giant Antigoon’s cut off hand into the river and smile. I’m so European.