It’s late morning and we stuff our backpacks into the boot of Giuliana’s car. The children say goodbye to the animals and run in circles on the grass for the last time. The sky is lead-coloured and the sun, relenting behind its smoky screen, has had little chance to wipe up the nighttime dew that has puddled itself across the garden. Their little feet get damp and I worry about our sea voyage; The Sailor Man’s words had been circling around my head all night and the clouds aren’t looking too friendly.
Just before we leave we do our customary ‘Russian Sit Down’. Russians are deeply superstitious and this tradition – one that is allegedly over 1,000 years old and still practiced by many Russian folk – was bestowed upon us by The Mother-in-Law’s very good friend, Evgenia, from Moscow. It simply involves sitting down (on a chair, a doorstep, a suitcase, or whatever’s on offer) for no more than a couple of seconds before going on a long journey. Everyone in the household must partake in this moment together, even if it’s only one person doing the leaving. I am fond of our ‘Russian Sit Down’ because it connects me to my grandfather’s Russian roots of the past and to the place I am leaving in the present. But it also reminds me to breathe, which is quite easily forgotten when packing up a family of four.
Giuliana screams, “I know this!” as we invite her to sit with us. She explains that she hasn’t done this peculiar little ritual since her childhood, when she used to do it with her grandmother who had a Russian friend. Having forgotten all about this funny practice, I am glad we could bring life to a sweet memory for her on our departure. And it is a testament to the extraordinary paths that we are crossing on our adventure that we have met the only other non-Russian who doesn’t look at the four of us playing a brief and badly-played game of musical chairs like we are very, very odd.
At Lecce station, we unload and say goodbye to Giuliana, our curious and wonderful host. Our train leaves shortly so we make our way to the platform, although the journey is disrupted by a brief and annoying diversion at the station shop whose window full of communist-era toy cars and Barbie doll merchandise had both children sucked-up and breathing against the glass like angel-faced parasites. The Husband and I conclude that a small parting gift would be a good way to embark on a long two days of traveling ahead and remind them of their time in Italy. So little Roo chooses an ambulance containing small dangerous parts and Zippy opts for a hideous pink magazine about princesses doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING (but it has a free plastic handbag!), both of which were made in China.
The two-hour train journey from Lecce to Bari, Puglia’s capital city, flies by. The carriage is empty (how does Italy afford to run its trains?), the children are engrossed in their new purchases, and we snack on pistachios (or ‘spidacios’ as Zippy likes to call them) watching as the coast disappears and reappears through the window.
Seeing as we’re a family now accustomed to swiftly boarding and alighting trains, we expertly jump off at our destination, cockily throwing out our bags and children, only to then find that Bari Stazione Centrale is one of the most terrifying places on Earth. Well, at least the most terrifying place The Husband and I have been since sitting in the Green Fields at the Glastonbury Festival. Outside, it is full of crooked-looking men and unhappy, underdressed women, all of whom seem to be glazed in the throes of addiction. It is here that I am reminded that Italy is suffering its worst economic crisis in nearly two decades, with the highest number of children living in poverty in Europe. (And the eternally impoverished south is always hit hardest.) We have spent the last weeks in the country’s most visited and polished places, and before that in the protective bosom of our friends in Hungary and Austria. In Bari we are reminded that modern life is, sometimes, rubbish.
We carry both children and shove the pushchair laden with our belongings across to the main bus stop and information point. There is no information at the information point, other than a scrap of paper taped to a wall. There don’t seem to be any other tourists and if there were, they’d probably be getting taxis. Luckily, there is an incredibly informative, hugely overweight, unwashed man who clearly spends all day every day standing by the information point counting buses. From his reckoning I am able to roughly translate that we need to catch the ’00’ to the port, so we stiffly wait whilst grasping on to our children in bone-crunching holds as a man stands in front of us staring at me. This is fun. This is Europe with a family on a budget.
Finally our bus arrives. We know this because The Husband and I have taken it in turns to run in front of every single one that pulls in to check the number at the front, in an adrenalin-pumping game of ‘Get Run Over, Miss the Bus’. We board the sweltering and dirty ’00’ and sit down for ten minutes waiting to leave whilst trying to stop Roo from licking the window.
A young man jumps on and, noticing we speak English, uses the opportunity to practice his. He asks us where we are going and when we reply, “the port”, he urgently ushers us towards the ‘20’ parked in the next bay. (It then occurs to me that “due zero” does not mean ‘two zeros’ – it means ‘two zero’. ) Sometimes the world has a wonderful way of providing.
And sometimes it doesn’t. Being a feminist, I am always very happy to see a woman driving a bus. But the ‘20’ is driven by a woman who may be imaging she is Enzo Ferrari’s daughter. It is now raining hard and she throws her vehicle around corners as if it has one of those bendy concertina middle bits. It doesn’t. Having assumed that there is an official stop at the terminal building, we had told her that we need the port when we boarded. But she attempts to guess our ship and tries to drop us off at a random boat, which involves her hurtling the bus towards to the sea. Admittedly I am probably the world’s worst passenger but she is probably the world’s worst bus driver.
I thank her (for not actually killing us) and request that she instead drops us at the more convenient location of the terminal building. Thankfully she agrees and performs a hair-raising U-turn on the quayside before pulling up next to a very closed looking port building.
It is 5 o’clock and we are some of the first passengers to arrive at the terminal. Our ship sets sail in four hours but we can board shortly, so we head to the check-in desk. We hand over our tickets to the clerk, who types our details into the computer before saying something to her colleague in Italian. Finally, and quite calmly, she turns to us and says, “You were meant to catch the boat in August. Your tickets are not valid for today”. Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit shit SHIT.
The children are swinging off the chairs next to a group of travellers sleeping on their rucksacks. I have awful visions of us having to spend the night in this purgatory. I had booked our tickets and it’s all my fault. I am a terrible, terrible mother. And I am an even worse tourist. And then I remember that our ship is the last of the year to set sail for our destination until next summer. I really screwed up.
We take back the tickets. I check them. I double check them. I four million check them. And every time I do they very clearly state today’s date and time. The Husband and I are confused. We leave the check-in desk and head to the cafe at the end of the harbour in the relentless rain, hoping to pick up wifi on our laptop and the emails I had sent to the ferry company’s office.
Zippy and Roo sit grumpily under the rain cover of the pushchair. The Husband and I sit in raincoats nervously downing coffee and desperately trying to inhale the smoke puffing out from a group of fishermen and sailors sucking on cigarettes under a parasol. Then finally we are able to access our emails and pick up the messages from the man who had booked our tickets. It’s a coup. It’s a coup against disorganised travel companies everywhere! Our tickets are valid for today!
We rush back to the check-in desk and show the clerk our laptop. It is agreed that we can travel and she hands us our boarding passes and the keys to our cabin. The relief is overwhelming and The Husband thanks the gods of wireless connectivity for our salvation. That is until it dawns on us that perhaps we shouldn’t be boarding the ship. The signs were all there – The Sailor Man’s prophecy about the storm, getting on the wrong bus, the crazy bus driver, the ticket saga, the rain – and they do not bode well for our crossing. What went wrong with the ‘Russian Sit Down’? Oh the doom, the impending doom…
And then here we are, standing in a queue to get on the boat, next to a young Danish woman traveling alone, a group of Italian tourists, a handful of Greek people going home, and lots of Albanian men. The Husband and I had talked each other out of our superstitious silliness; it’s an easy crossing that is done all the time and what’s a little bit of rain. And thunder. And lightening. Urgh.
The ship has no lift so we carry all our things up four flights of stairs, which clearly pleases the ever-growing queue of people behind us. The lack of lift does not amuse me: surely this is a sign of an ageing vessel. And surely today is ‘International Paranoid Traveler Day’.
We go to our cabin, which is actually very nice and very clean. We have four bunk beds, our own bathroom, a telephone down to reception, and a wardrobe. This is by far the most exciting part of the day for the whole family, partly because it signals that sleep is not far away for The Husband and I who are exhausted by the day’s dramatic events, and mostly because the children are so happy to be in a bedroom on a boat.
As is customary, I have made a picnic, and we go and sit on the empty deck to eat our sandwiches and watch the juggernauts wrench their enormous bodies onto the ship. The sun is setting and the lights in the harbour throw dancing colours into the water. The deck is noisy and shortly fills up with the stench of fumes from the lorries below and the many cigarettes being smoked by the people who have filled up the tables around us. We go inside and eat pastries in front of a gripping Greek soap opera. It appears that everyone on this ship is also drunk.
Bedtime is upon us and, making our way back to our cabin, we stop at reception to ask for a wake-up call. The ship docks in our port, Corfu, at 5am and the frighteningly efficient and bullish receptionist makes sure we understand completely that we have no more than ten minutes to leave the boat before it continues its course onto mainland Greece. What with the looming storm and the impossible feat of offloading two small children from a liner (not to mention our bags and pushchair without the aid of a lift) in the middle of the night, sleep is looking to be off the menu. And fear – the cold, sweaty, gripping fear – is, instead, setting in.
Back in our little cabin, we brush our teeth and get into bed. (In our short experience of traveling with young children, overnighting on sleeper trains and boats must never involve changing into pyjamas. These are the sorts of home comforts that can very easily be done without when time is biting at our ankles, and it is absolutely imperative that we instead have very little unpacking or packing to do. Toothbrushes and teddy bears are the only things that come in and out of our bags.) Four pairs of shoes form an orderly queue across the floor by a bottom bunk, warm clothes are folded and ready at the foot a bed, the pushchair and rucksacks are standing guard at the door. At a very respectable 8pm, it’s lights out (The Husband with Zippy on one bunk, and Roo and I on the opposite bunk across the bedside table) and we’re ready for anything. Like a well-oiled scout camp, we’ve got this traveling malarkey down to a tee.
That is until the trilingual announcer starts piping out a series of insincerely cheerily-toned messages through the speaker above our bedside table. Delivered every couple of minutes in three languages (including very badly translated English), and intermittently bridged by a jingle that may be played by a primate on a xylophone, the four of us first giggle in the dark to the floating voice. But then the harbingers of dread begin to show themselves again.
If anyone from the shipping travel industry is reading, the last thing that neurotic parents traveling by sea during a storm need to hear is that you have special miniature life jackets in reception (which we promptly order). Whilst we try to explain to the children that they can not wear their life jackets in bed (although inside I am wondering whether they should in fact wear them, in anticipation of hitting a freak iceberg in the middle of the Adriatic), the announcer asks if any of the passengers on board are doctors. Oh lord. Oh god. Oh shit.
The broadcasts from hell come to a close and the children fall asleep to the lulling sounds of inebriated men screaming at each other down the hallway. The Husband and I whisper to each other that we can smell smoke, but he manages to assure me that it’s probably said drunk men enjoying cigarettes in their room during a game of Russian roulette.
But then the rocking starts. I have been on ships before, but not during a storm. And definitely not in the run up to Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, which is beautifully illustrated by the epic story of Jonah and the Whale. You know, the one where the boat sinks because the drunk, debaucherous people of Nineveh are having too much fun, and the protagonist is swallowed by a large fish. And here we are, on an old Greek passenger ship with a bunch of Ninevens. Great.
The Husband and I hold hands across the cabin as the ship quivers, and I try to recall if I’d seen any lifeboats when we were out on deck. A horrible image of Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet from ‘Titanic’ (my least favourite film of all time) has etched itself across the darkness of the cabin. If we’re going to go, can I not at least have a decent screen grab. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ maybe? Or Patrick Swayze in ‘Dirty Dancing’. I’d even be happy with ‘National Lampoons Christmas Vacation’…
At 4.40am the phone rings. We slept! We survived!!!! We just have to get off the boat. We wrap up, I put a sleeping Roo in the sling, and we bundle Zippy and our bags into the pushchair. Making a dash for the stairs, we are helped down by a young man who had been sleeping on the floor of a corridor. I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having survived the boat journey, and as we shuffling down a narrow and dimly-lit passageway with all our belongings and our sleeping babies, I try to imagine the reality that some families face crossing the most dangerous of the world’s waterways every day on wooden rafts, to escape an even worse fate at home. Many, as we know, do not survive, including over a hundred Libyans who only this week perished trying to cross the very waters we have just traversed. I hug Roo close to me as my feet touch the earth on the island that Poseidon loved, as Thor strikes his hammer and lights up the black sky with thunderbolts.