Aphrodite and the skeletal remains of her love Temples were painted in neon and hung prominently on the broad beige wall across the lounge. These were just part of a series of paintings adorning the ferry's restaurant lounges. All paid homage to ancient Greek art. They displayed the classics remixed, and acted as just a subtle reminder of where this boat was headed and why we should be happy we were on board.
The paintings were only one of the many beautiful and surprising details to be experienced aboard this ferry heading east to Greece. In my campout on the deck, I witnessed many of them - the inky night, the playful but skilled crew, the comfortably plush deck chairs, and the sound of gusting wind. This journey was the final leg of a long European adventure where I headquartered in Rome.
Greece, and a brief dip into Istanbul, was my final trip before heading home to the United States. I selected the ferry as my transportation for this holiday jaunt from Rome to Greece for two reasons. One, the practical reason, was my sincere anxiety about flying. The second, more imaginative reason was that the ferry offered the aroma of adventure and romance. The passage lasted just under a day. It was a mini-cruise, a brief reenactment of the Odyssey, and a popular plot development in Italian romantic comedies.
Since mid-morning I sat in the nearly empty lounge on the elegant upholstered sofas, pox marked by stray hot ashes, reading and nursing cappuccinos. I enjoyed the paintings, puttering waiters, and view of the expansive Mediterranean. Tranquility presided until noontime heightened the buzz in the ferry's lounge. On the lunch menu: conversation and cigarettes.
As if called by a silent alarm, elderly men slipped out of their hiding places and congregated to settle in for a mid-day meal. With lit cigarettes, small tables merged with each other in an energetic possession of the restaurant. Puffing out clouds of dense smoke, men lifted chairs carefully over other's heads to add them around tables and greeted latecomers with kisses and audible slaps on the back.
With the room in order, dominoes materialized. Clusters sunk into the game, cheering and jeering with their progress. Waiters stopped by to take note of who was winning. Intense with concentration, the games continued without stop. As soon as a round finished, a new game commenced. Pieces changed hands and new winners were revealed. The gaming tables created a current in the lounge, pulling stray men into a drifting loop around the domino matches.
Elsewhere in the restaurant, men leaned back in their chairs and spoke genially in Greek. They conversed with booming voices, hoping to be heard by their deaf friends over the din of two televisions broadcasting different Greek programming from opposite ends of the restaurant. Speaking, they shimmied and swayed to emphasize a point. Those who listened sat serenely with their hands folded atop plump bellies, occasionally offering a nod or a grunt as encouragement. Others, usually the oldest of a group, attentively followed the thread of conversation, swinging rosary beads absentmindedly in their wrinkled hands.
Waiters with firmly pressed black aprons waltzed between tables like honeybees over a flower field, delivering meals and endless little cups of strong black coffee. They chatted amiably with passengers, speaking without haste before going on to fetch a check or bring change.
At one table, a younger crowd feasted. They were truck drivers, regulars of this particular route, their trucks and cargo sitting below in the parking garage. It was a reunion of friends. Resting from hours of solitary driving, they treated each other to pitchers of frothy beer and ate freshly tossed greens and substantial sandwiches. Eating enthusiastically, they swapped stories and laughed heartily. When a waiter brought them their bill, they protested the fee a bit, but after realizing just how many pitchers they had finished off, pulled a thick wad of bills from their wallets and acquiesced with a chuckle.
As plate began to empty, a new face appeared. Switching off the televisions, the crewmember announced he would demonstrate safety procedures in case of emergency. Amid the hum of dominoes, smacking lips, clattering flatware, clacking prayer beads, and giggling waiters, he proceeded methodically through the presentation. Here is how we wear a life vest. Here is how we leave the boat. Follow the posted escape routes and take note of alarms.
Finished and having flipped the televisions back on, the crewmember slipped out with minimal acknowledgment. After his departure a new crowd began to arrive in the lounge. A few gray-haired women scooted into clusters of old men. Several families took their seats at cushioned booths. Little children pulled out decks of cards that they thumbed through and shuffled pointlessly. Games subdued, voices softened. Again, the scene of the ferry's lounge shifted into something new, this time something more familial. I ordered a slice of chocolate cake and settled in to watch.
In Italy, the clean, glittering seaside town of Ancona sent us into winter waters after significant delay, but we had long ago abandoned the shallow, lacy waters of coastline. Sometime in the night the seawater morphed into a dense, gelatinous mass. Our mammoth iron tank of a boat inched along over the white-capped waves, held up like a fork in a wobbling plate of gray Jell-O. The windows framed sea and only sea. Deliberately, our ferry swam across undulating waters, cruising at a sluggish pace, but without great angst.
This ferry hardly provided the scene I imagined, rooted in frothy Italian films. In summertime, a steady stream of ferries and boats connect Italy to Greece, toting natives and foreigners to their sunny getaways on the Greek Isles. I envisioned each of them overflowing with sunbathers - sunbathers on the deck, sunbathers in the lifeboats - and smashing into one another because the sea is so crowded with boats. In the off-season, when I traveled, ferry service across this thin strip of the Mediterranean slims down to a few giant vessels occasionally cruising into select Greek ports. In the middle of December, the scenery was not beautiful exactly, but stunningly wind-whipped and stark. The passengers were not tourists or sunbathers, just plain folk headed home for the holidays, their company transforming this ferry into a movable Greek island.