November 16, 2012 – A Ship and a Star to Sail Her By
After things like going with my hosts to an Italian reading of a Greek tragedy in an old Roman outdoor theater, avoiding a transportation strike, walking down the Via Appia Antica (the old Roman Road) where I skid my feet across stones that chariots used to ride over, and running up the Spanish steps while humming the Rocky Theme song to myself (to recount a few), I take the train from Rome to Civitavecchia where I catch a shuttle that transports me to the dock. I’m about to get on a Cruise Ferry and go the twenty hours from Italy to Spain.
This wasn’t a set thing in my itinerary. In fact, I was supposed to get on a flight from Rome the next day to head back to the United States. But while at La Torriola, sitting on the balcony looking out at a version of paradise, I’d done a hard evaluation of my budget and realized I had done a pretty good job of staying under my limits.
The smart thing, I told myself, would be to take that money home with you and use it wisely as a little bit of a buffer before you have to get a job.
I don’t really want a job, I replied. I just want to write.
All the more reason to play it smart.
I thought about this for a while. I also thought about what I’d regret if I left Europe now. What else did I want to see? What else could I do? Where else could I go? I’d already had the unexpectedness of a spontaneous trip to Croatia. How much is too much?
I don’t know, I said in answer to the last question, but I set a high bar.
My other self just shook its head.
I looked at my hand drawn map in my notebook. I readded, resubtracted money. I looked at the notes I’d made before leaving the States. I looked at the words that said the Tate museum in London and the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Why those places? Because there are spiders there. Not just any spiders. Giant sculpted spiders.
See, I have a slight obsession with Louise Bourgeois and her spider sculptures Maman. There are six (or nine, I never can get a definitive answer) of these permanent spider sculptures at museums around the world.
I’d seen one of the temporary ones in Washington D.C. several years ago when my sister and I were there, and ever since wanted to see the even bigger renditions. Wanted to --like toys from a cereal box--collect them all by visiting them.
The blurb on the National Gallery of Canada’s site says: “Inspired by the artist’s own mother, a tapestry restorer, ‘Maman’, the great egg-carrying spider, is a nurturing and protective symbol of fertility and motherhood, shelter and the home. With its monumental and terrifying scale, however, ‘Maman’ also betrays this maternal trust to incite a mixture of fear and curiosity.”
With an advertisement like that, how could I not want to see this spider in person?
I chewed my lip and said, Don’t be crazy.
All I need, I replied quoting Willy Wonka, is a ship and a star to sail her by.
I looked at my map again. Spain isn’t that far, I said. I mean, if you discount the Mediterranean Sea.
You haven’t even gotten to Rome yet, I countered. You haven’t even left the countryside. One thing at a time. Can’t you just be in the moment?
Maybe. I tried to be in the moment, to experience the Now, but there was a seed of thought spreading some tentative roots through the dark soil of my mind. It’d be incredible.
Well. You don’t know if it’s even possible, my rational self said. The whole crazy scheme is contingent on if you can alter your flight from one country to another.
Yeah, there is that.
I put the scheme on pause, finished out my last night in the Umbrian Countryside and got to Rome.
A day or so later, from an internet café in Rome I call my aunt. She used to work for an airline and still has the ability to use the airline for herself and to share affordable flight options with a certain number of people. I lucked out by being one of those, and it’s because of her magic that I’m able to afford to get home. It’s because of the standby nature of my travel that I can be so flexible and spontaneous.
I tell her my crazy idea and ask her if it’s possible.
“Just email me the city you want to fly out of and the dates and I’ll make it happen,” she says.
We talk a while longer, but I’m in a kind of frenzied shock. Oh my god. I’m going to Spain! How did this life become mine? I want to ask the girl sitting next to me, but I contain my emotion and keep my thoughts to myself. The next couple hours are spent booking trains, a ferry, buses and hostels. I hope I’m not missing something.
Apparently I’m not. For less than a week later I find myself going up the escalators to the main level of the ferry Cruise Roma. It’s like a shopping mall. Glitzy. Shiny. Clean. Impersonal. So different from the DALIAN and its utilitarian and homey construction. I feel out of place, like I don’t belong in something so posh and cruisy. It’s not my style. I don’t know how to fit into this.
There are uniformed stewards standing at attention near the front entrance. They’re like guards and I hope I don’t do anything wrong.
“Where do I go?” I ask one of them, showing her my ticket. She points me to a common room with rows and rows of seats like a movie theater (though not in stadium tiers). I’ve only reserved a seat for the trip and not a room. It was much cheaper, though I’m sure not as comfortable for sleeping. I find my seat number and put my bags out of the way. I sit for a while and then realize I’m not buckled in, I don’t have to stay put. I go out to explore.
The glittering shine of the boat intimidates me a little bit. I sidle up to one of the stewards. I don’t know what the ship’s language is, but I go with Spanish when I ask him if I’m allowed to wander around (there was no third mate to orient me to this ship).
“Mijita,” he says, looking down at me and giving me a smile as if shocked that I don’t know how a cruise ship works, “You can go anywhere you want.” He tells me of the upper decks, the pool, the common rooms, the restaurant and the casino. “You can go anywhere. Except the sea,” he says and laughs. “Any place you want except the sea.”
I thank him and go up the stairs.
Eventually I find myself out on the deck. There are other people cluttered together near the bar at the far end. I find a place aft side, out of sight, where I can watch us leave port.
I should say goodbye to Italy. I’d longed for it for so long. But it didn’t call me home. There was too much of a restless energy in the air like all that the Romans achieved was still something to strive for again, to keep active, to push onward with. Not like the peace of Sweden. Not like the comfortable life I found on board another boat. Maybe it was because I was going from place to place so quickly, maybe it was a restlessness on my part and not the country’s. But as I leave, I’m content with the time I spent there. I don’t know that I’d need to go back. Maybe I’m heartless. Maybe I’ve learned how not to become attached because I know I’ll be leaving. Yet, I do have emotions to places, the feeling in my soul says that it would be Sweden or Croatia I’d come back to, not Italy. I stand against the railing and watch Civitavecchia’s lights fade into tiny specks. I cross my arms, jacketed against the wind and twirl my hair to keep it out of my face.
A while later, I walk around to the other side, to make sure I’m not missing out on a view. A ship’s employee, a bartender, comes to stand by me at the railing as I gaze down at the pilot’s ship leaving the side of the Cruise Roma.
“It’s the pilot ship,” he tells me in Italian.
I smile at him and nod. What I could tell him about pilots and ships and standing watch with officers on the bridge. He might not believe me. Maybe I wouldn’t tell him even if I spoke the language, and just let him have the honor of instructing me. It’s a choice I don’t have to make.
“I don’t speak very good Italian,” I tell him in Italian when he’s made a break in speech to give me a chance to talk.
He doesn’t care. He talks to me for the length of his break. Then he introduces himself and waits for me to say my name. We shake hands and he goes back to work. Left alone again, in the comfort of my own company, I turn my face back out to the far horizon.
I’m not heartless.
I’ve come in an egg shaped curve back to my beginning point. Okay, it’s the Mediterranean and not the Atlantic. It’s a giant cruise ferry and not a freighter. But I’m walking the deck of a ship, feeling the cool outside, watery air, seeing the half-moon haze behind some clouds and trying not to cry. For happiness. For the heartache missing of the familiarity and the known of the DALIAN, her crew, her officers, and my part in it all.
I’d said only the other day, “All I need is a ship and a star to sail her by,” and look, here I am, once more on a ship with stars blinking into view above me.
I’ve never been sadder. I’ve never been happier.