Wednesday, April 29, 2009

After the Storm

Appolonia, the ship from Haifa, left under calm seas and sailed through the silent Mediterranean night to Limassol. We were glad to be aboard. Caterina, who had left Israel in tears, had little to say as we walked the narrow Cyprian lanes in the early morning. We chose a small cafe along a row of whitewashed shops, sipping thick and strong Turkish coffee, planning our stays in the ports that the Appolonia called on her way to Venice.

We were poor, having saved very little on the kibbutz in the Galilee, and when the Appolonia steamed from Limassol that evening, we berthed in the bottom deck, a cavernous room in the prow of the ship decked out with airline seats where you reclined in your sleeping bag. There were no portholes in steerage, and the room pitched and rolled with every wave. The better alternative was to take your sleeping bag on deck and sleep on the gangway beneath the stars. We had bought honey yogurt, fresh baked bread, blood oranges, goat cheese, and honey wine in Cypress and shared our dinner under gathering clouds. She didn't mention the man she had left behind, and neither did I.

Sometime after midnight we woke to a storm, our sleeping bags soaked through, the rain pitching down in thick sheets and the Appolonia rising high by the bow and dropping like a stone. Water swept across the deck, slopping out the scudders and up the sides of the coamings, and the crew darted across the afterdeck to batten the hatches. They called out in Greek, shouting above the wind.

We had warm clothes below decks, so Caterina and I hurried down ladder after ladder until we stood dripping and shivering in the dim red lights of steerage where fellow travelers moaned with every swooping pitch and descent on the waves. It was hot and stuffy, and you could hear people choking down their nausea until you could barely keep down your own supper. When, finally, someone lost their stomach across the pitching floor, the smell was unbearable, and I bit down tight against my automatic urge to join in the chorus, racing up-ladder, seeking fresh air, wet still and cold, and looking for the hatch that led to the howling winds. Topside at last, I held tight to a camber thinking I had missed the worst, until I saw several of the crew, bent over the rail, moaning, and I lost it at last, surrendering.

The next morning the winds were calm, but I still felt the rocking in my bones. The clouds broke into quilts of reds and dark purples and the prow of the Appolonia curved through a cool, clear sea. She was bound for Rhodes, an island frequented by Swedes, and so Caterina chose it for an extended call so she could hear her native tongue again. We showered, packed our gear, leaving the sleeping bags to air on deck. It would be days before I could eat hearty.

By then, we had a room overlooking a tranquil bay in the village of Lindos. The hill town curved around a stunning white beach and aside from taxis and donkeys that hauled tourists around, you got around on foot. The acropolis and temple of Athena stood atop the bluff, facing the sea, and the fishing village looked much as it had in the second century, save the bright blue and green umbrellas set along the broad strand.

We shared so little talk, but we agreed on a daily schedule that suited us: mornings, we went off for fresh bread and honey yogurt and coffee before a swim in the lagoon so clear you could see down into dark blue depths where huge boulders sunk into the sand. In the afternoons, we'd nap in the room, escaping the heat of the sun that angled down through the rows of whitewashed inns and glittered on the chipped mosaic tiles set into the narrow walkways between the shops. In the early evenings, we chose a cafe at the base of the acropolis to sip brandy and work up an appetite for grilled chicken, fresh calamari, and roasted eggplant.

We played a game--Caterina seemed too ashen to do much else--wherein we eyed the rows of tourists descending the serpentine path from the acropolis, guessing their nationalities by their clothing and mannerisms. The Americans were loud and gaudily dressed and as they came down along the wares sold by Greek women in their black cotton chemises, you could hear them talking nonsense. The Italians were an easy call, too, with their clean pressed, bright colors and oversized gestures; the Germans, their clothing plain and functional, their bodies large featured and fresh-scrubbed skin; and the English, complaining about everything in tones that echoed off the whitewashed walls and across the square.

After supper, we sat on the patio with our separate thoughts.

Caterina wore a grim determination now and was already checking the schedule for the return of the Appolonia. We shut out the light and tucked into our separate beds in the little room with the tile floor. On our last day I snapped a photo of her, standing before a field of bright green grass, the hills dotted with sheep and olive trees in the mid-day sun. She smiled for the camera.


Char said...


dutchbaby said...

That boat ride truly sounds like a Dr. Bob's Nightmare.

I love your nationality-identification rubric! You nailed it.