Wednesday, July 10, 2013

You’re Freezing Me Out (Corfu to Bari)


We drove onto the docks in Corfu Town at 11:22 pm and asked about the boat to Bari, scheduled to leave in twenty minutes. We had tickets we’d bought in Igoumenitsa, Greece two days before, and hadn’t talked to anyone in Corfu, so there were questions: Were we in the right place? Were the tickets legitimate? Would our boat show up?  —the type of semi-paranoid doubts that cross one’s mind when traveling in a foreign country with no knowledge of the language. ‘It’s all Greek to me!’ echoed the cliché-part of my brain. In broken English, the port authority officer told us to wait in front of a dark, abandoned building where only three other cars were parked. 11:45 came and went. Soon it was midnight. It didn’t seem right: only four cars waiting to make the ten hour journey to Italy, and the boat nearly thirty minutes late.

All these doubts were forgotten when the huge ferry lumbered into the port ten minutes later. With industrial-sized engines blaring, the ferry backed in, lowered its loading hatch onto the dock, and the pedestrian travellers went in first. The semi-trucks backed in next, and we drove on last.

It was exciting—taking a ferry from Greece to Italy—but we dreaded it at the same time. Because the difference in price between a private cabin bed and a ‘numbered seat’ was 130 euros ($165), we opted for the budget choice. We figured it would be slightly uncomfortable to sleep sitting up, but the savings would be worth it. What was one night? We had no idea we’d be relegated to what looked like a refugee center.

The refugee lounge wasn’t all that bad at first. It reminded me of a conference room in a once nice, but severely dated hotel. Most of the passengers who boarded with us moved on to their private cabins in a different section of the boat, but we stayed with the refugees. The majority of chairs and boardroom tables were free, but the passengers who’d boarded in Igoumenitsa two hours earlier-- some with sleeping bags, others with sweatshirts on, hoods pulled over their heads--  were already sprawled out, claiming the few couches in the room. Small groups of travelers huddled together on the floor, curled into a variety of fetal positions. My girlfriend and I took a seat in the faded, armless chairs to let our new surroundings sink in. In those first moments of acclimating, one thing became painfully obvious: it was cold—very cold. The air-conditioning was pumping chilled air at full blast, and it didn’t seem accidental after hearing the PA announcement in Greek, Italian, and then English:
“Attention: Cabin beds are still available. Passengers in cabin C who would like to purchase a cabin should report to the reception desk.”
“I bet they do this on purpose!” my girlfriend said.
“The air-conditioning?”
“Yeah, they’re trying to freeze us out, so we’ll cave in and pay for a room.”
“Hmm, maybe,” I said.
“Those bastards are trying to freeze me out!” she said.
The shameful idea of a ferry company intentionally making our already uncomfortable sleeping situation even worse (just to make 130 extra euros) seemed curiously plausible, but Itoro’s choice of words and tone were what really caught my attention. ‘Freeze me out?’ I’d never heard that phrase before, and she uttered it with such disgust. Indignant, she said it with the same traumatized emphasis I would expect to hear if she’d been attacked: ‘Those bastards tried to shoot me!’  It was as if she was accusing whoever controlled the AC of attempted murder. 

As I set up two rows of four chairs facing each other to create a makeshift bed, Itoro went to talk to the people at the reception desk. She asked if they could turn down the air conditioning in the refugee lounge (Cabin C). They said no. She asked if she could have a blanket or go down to our car below deck to get a sweater. They said no. She asked if we could move to the warmer cabin near the cafe. Again, they said no, and added that the warmer section was reserved for those with private cabins. Salt. Wound. A minute later, Itoro told me about her reception desk rejection. By that time she had accepted defeat. I loaned her my socks, turned our backpacks into temporary pillows, and laid down.
“This is going to be impossible,” she said, as we squirmed to find tolerable positions. “They’re definitely trying to freeze us out,” she added, as if judge and jury had unanimously decided.

When I first closed my eyes, I imagined myself complaining at the reception desk on her behalf.
‘Can you please turn down the AC?’ I’d say.
‘No,’ he’d say, matter-of-factly, his English limited.
ME: ‘Do you realize what you’re doing?’
HIM: ‘Please, sir.’
ME: ‘You’re freezing my girlfriend out!’
HIM: What? Excuse me?
ME: You heard me: Freezing her out.
HIM: What. I sorry. I no understand.
ME: Never seen someone frozen out, eh?
HIM: No response. Confused look.
ME: Well, it’s not very pretty.
Now that I think of it, this imagined dialogue might have been a full-blown dream. And it might have been Jerry Seinfeld, not me, doing my end of the talking. I don’t remember much more of it because I soon fell into a deep Dramamine induced sleep. The only other thing I recall from the rest of that ten-hour trip was waking up every few hours to pee. I’d stagger down a fifty-meter-long hallway, almost hit my head on the ceiling a few times, and pee in a public stall before staggering back down the hall to our makeshift eight-boardroom-chair-bed. When I woke up we were five minutes from docking in Italy. Itoro was awake, shivering. Frozen and zombie-like from not sleeping more than five minutes at a time in that refrigerated room, she didn’t look happy. I felt an understandable hint of resentment and envy from her as I yawned, stretched, and tried to fully awake from my relatively good night’s sleep.

I didn’t realize how cold cabin C actually was until we walked down to the oven-like hull packed with cars. The temperature shock was welcoming. And the same loading hatch that we’d entered the night before lowered again, which meant we’d be backing onto dry land in reverse. It seemed a strange start to the day, but after dodging some luggage-toting pedestrians, I made a three-point-turn on the dock in Bari. First at the exit gate, an Italian customs official greeted us.
“Buon giorno” he said.
“Buon giorno,” we both said with unpracticed, unconvincing accents.
“Do you have anything funny in your car?” he asked. I think he meant ‘illegal.’
“No,” I said.
“OK. Ciao!” he said, waving us through the gate.  
It was 10am and almost 33 degrees C (90 F) in Bari.
Itoro waited ten minutes before taking off her sweater, warm again, grateful to be back in vacationland.

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