We were somewhere outside of Igualada when the pastries began to take hold. It was our last visit to Barcelona and naturally we needed provisions for the grueling forty-five minute bus ride. We had a shopping bag filled with six croissants, six cream filled and six plain Catalan donut holes, two peach covered mini-pies that tasted suspiciously like pizza, and four pain au chocolates. Not that we needed all this, but once you get locked into a pastry addiction, the tendency is to push it as far as you can. The only thing that worried me would be the amount of time in between our next cup of coffee. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than two Americans in the depths of coffee withdraw.
We had just finished a 2 week stint working for Catalonia’s most eccentric family, taking care of their bamboo problem almost as well as they had taken care of us. The proof was the dark color in our faces and the way our pants fit properly again. We had eaten like rotten imperialists, making sandwiches out of everything in sight and slathering home cooked delicacies with cheap, Spanish made hot sauce.
Jason managed to pry his nose out from under a calendar to ask another one of his ridiculous questions, “How do you plan on writing about Manel, Marta, the kids, and the whole Workaway experience?”
“I don’t know man. I’m apprehensive that the whole thing is just gonna be one big bidet spray full of crappy descriptions and over-digested adjectives like ‘wonderful experience’, ‘delicious food’, ‘dazzling accommodations’.”
“You like the bidet spray metaphor don’t you? You keep using it. Although, you are right in not wanting to give the people some cheap travel writing expose. It’s like what Tom Waits said, ‘The world is a hellish place and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering.'”
Under the heavy weight of an over-eager obligation, I had made some lofty promises to our host about the sort of story I would write about our time at the farm, the kind of picture I would paint, and how many newspapers and magazines would feature the article. The truth was I didn’t know what I was going to say about the experience, maybe I never would.
My memory of Manel and his family was already growing fuzzy. I flipped through my notebook, checking to see what I had written so far. Scattered thoughts, mostly full of scribbles, a few names and addresses, a recipe for tortillas, and a doodle of Sonic the Hedgehog. The last page read:
My political advisor leans over and says something obvious like, “Tortilla de patata bocadillos are my new favorite food.”
I had to agree with the dirty pinko, but I didn’t want that going to his head.
“Needs more Piri Piri,” I mumbled, stuffing half the sandwich into my mouth and sipping straight from the bottle in between bites.
At the pace we were going, we were well on our way to ending up like all those children of destiny, those proud American Mavericks who gave up on walking the day Rascal scooters came out in red, white, and blue.
The 9 year old daughter has been begging for a puppy every single night now. She has spent the better portion of a week playing psychological head games with her father, using the full gamut of girlish treachery – the crocodile tears, occasional bursts of affection, and pious promises so sweet you can taste the diabetes from across the table. When that doesn’t work she’ll cuss everyone out in Catalan before storming off to her room to observe the aftermath from her window. I suspect she takes notes on her father’s reaction and plots tomorrow’s strategy.
“Yes, yes, yes Carla. I will get you a dog,” Manel says, “And then I will kill the stupid dog.”
It was in no way an accurate portrayal of the family. They were lovable like drunks who guzzled Coca Cola instead of whiskey. They teetered on the edge of kissing a stranger or sucker punching their closest friend; they were open and honest, forgiving and sometimes bitter. They rubbed their hearts against the barbed wire, staring boldly into the flames of an uncertain future where promising factories built on stable foundations once stood. My memory of them was already fading, like a feeling long since passed, vague and ethereal but buried somewhere deep, crying out for purpose, desperate to be defined.
We spent one more night and a day in Barcelona devouring onions and lingering around pallet board campfires. From there we heaved our stinking bodies through 2 feminist meetings, breathing on everyone, and getting shushed by one of the sex workers who didn’t take kindly to a couple of stupid Americans who had to rely on the assistance of a translator. We hit the streets, said goodbyes in the rain, and made our way to the port. Jason reminded me that we had forgotten to stop at a grocery store, but I assured him that the loaf of bread and two oranges in my bag would hold us over.
“Our ferry tickets include a self-service breakfast,” I said with great confidence.
“You think bread and oranges are really going to last?” Jason asked.
“Why wouldn’t they? Breakfast on the boat and then bread and fruit for lunch. We land in Genoa at 18:00 so I figure we grab dinner there… assuming that the Italians keep better time than Spaniards do.”
We stopped to ask directions from a slender man dawning all the fine entrapments of the upper class. He straightened his tuxedo and tipped his top hat as we stammered half in Spanish half in English.
“Grimaldi? You want to ride on Grimaldi,” he said with a tone of finality, “You just walk to those lights way out there, and boom, you have arrived.”
We thanked him like aristocratic heiresses, bowing and curtseying our way back into the dark damned evening.
“Do you think we can trust him?” I asked, stepping over a vagrant sprawled out across the walk, “People like that only speak in dollar signs and we didn’t tip him. Perhaps we should go back explain our religious convictions, see if his directions change.”
My overconfident friend assured me that we were fine but suggested we look over the map anyway. There were only road signs to mark our route, and not one seemed vaguely interested in the port we were looking for. A truck driver parked on the side of the road craned his head out the window curiously to watch our slow procession, no doubt waiting for the rest of the pallbearers. We eventually saw an unimaginative box shaped building made entirely out of glass with the proud Grimaldi logo branded along the top. A few pages of a discarded newspaper blew across the floor like tumbleweeds in a ghost town as the automatic doors slid open to greet us.
We approached the empty queue line and waited for our turn at the window. After an appropriate amount of time had passed, the lady behind the glass partition called us forward. My associate apologised profusely for our lack of understanding, the language barrier and so on. His strategy was to begin every confrontation by immediately throwing us both to the wolves, hoping the savage beasts excluded clowns from their diet. She looked at us like condemned men, shaking her head in obvious disapproval as she handed us our boarding passes. My associate scribbled something on an old napkin and slid it through the narrow opening. It read “Wifi?” The question mark was emphasized. She glared at us both like a woman who had given too many favors in life, pointed at the escalator with a long silence dangling from the point of her finger until we eventually got the hint – we were unwelcome. The only reason they didn’t throw us out was because we had paid in advance for our tickets.
We marched upstairs like solemn little soldiers too dumb to be branded as brave and noticed the four other travellers who had been passing the time staring vacantly at the blank walls.
“Genoa?” I asked.
A cautious looking Italian clutched the handle of his rucksack and nodded slowly, taking a single bite out of his sandwich like the period at the end of a sentence better left un-muttered.
Two bathroom visits and half a loaf of bread later, a guard with ambiguous intent shuffled heavily upstairs. There is little to distinguish his position at Grimaldi other than a wrinkled navy blue jacket that read “Guarda”.
Pointing to everyone in the room he asked, “Genoa? Genoa? Genoa? Genoa?”
We all said “yes” in one way or the other and he beckoned us to follow him a few steps forward to the center of the room. We all crowded around him, listening intently to the four-minute argument he conducted with someone over the radio. I couldn’t tell who won the debate, but by the look on his face I would have to guess the Grimaldi guard lost the wager of another year without sleep. He clipped his radio back on to his belt and instructed us to follow him directly past the baggage check and security screening station. The station was nothing more than decoration, I thought, or possibly an elaborate prop to dissuade half-hearted terrorists, or perhaps if someone of a dignified nature, someone rich and important had chosen to go with Grimaldi Lines, only then did they break out the standard security measures as a sort of courtesy. We made our way through an unlocked door out of the back of the building and descend the stairs where a large touring bus was waiting for us.
“Grimaldi has an interesting definition of the word ‘ferry’,” Jason said, laughing in astonishment.
The bus driver and the guard had another argument, probably over the sheer absurdity of transporting four passengers no more than half a kilometer away in a vehicle designed for long distance travel.
All six passengers piled into the bus, the doors closed, and our muttering driver followed a white security vehicle around an unguarded perimeter of parked cars, all lined up neatly to board whatever apocalyptic world we had unknowingly entered. A solitary figure standing out in the rain waved us in with two lit batons as though it was necessary that he guide our bus along the clearly defined road to the obvious boat docked in the harbor. Was this all just an exercise in futility? Or had the head of Grimaldi been cut off long ago leaving nothing but a body still reenacting the motions life? My partner and I look at one another in the back of the bus, asking whether or not the time had finally arrived to cast off our bags and take to the sea as pirates. They hadn’t checked our luggage, patted us down, found our hidden knives, or even questioned our motives. We could have easily smuggled assault rifles, grappling hooks, and gas grenades. I was feeling rather sorry that we didn’t.
“Did we even need to buy tickets?” My financial assistant asked, checking the contents of his wallet.
The answer to his question was a single help desk that would be easily avoidable should we have strayed away from the designated path and taken any number of alternate routes. The man at the counter directed us to our Pullman seats numbered 001 and 002. This is a misnomer however as all of the seats were ours. The entire room was empty except the espresso bar that had been gutted and gated off. Large plasma televisions were bolted to the wall and the power cords severed as if the televisions were gateways to a black hole. There was a lingering smell of imitation luxury still hovering in the air, but whatever former glory the boat had once possessed disappeared with all the other passengers. I could hear the Twilight Zone theme in my head and waited for Rod Serling to poignantly sum up whatever lesson it was that we were about to learn. Jason decided to go exploring, saying that he wanted to see if there was an open cabin. The boat was scheduled to launch a minute before midnight.
At three in the morning we finally pulled out of the dock and headed to sea. I woke Jason, informing him of our great fortune and the timeliness of our captain, headed outside, and watched the twinkling lights of Barcelona recede slowly into the distance.
Eris must have switched Poseidon’s coffee with decaf because the whole of the Mediterranean was a grey, churning, angry mess. Rain pelted against the windows and the blue ocean spray seeped in through all the windows as our boat rocked back and forth like an addict going through withdraws. Jason woke me from a terrible nightmare to an equally disturbing version of reality.
“Breakfast will be ready at eight,” he said.
I put on my boots and followed him down to the restaurant deck where we waited impatiently on the whims of Grimaldi’s finest kitchen staff. At nine the crew had finally managed to put their day old pastries behind a glass case. After a long argument in which I pleaded with the stern looking clerk that we had in fact paid the five euro for breakfast, he ran our boarding passes and said something like, “You miserable creatures have two options: You can choose a single croissant or a single biscuit.”
“What about coffee?” I asked.
The tyrant of the breakfast line clicked his heels together and handed me a thimble of instant coffee, wiped a booger on the rim, and told me to have a nice day.
Much to my surprise, we weren’t the only ones on board. Morning had brought not only a fierce storm but a migration of middle-aged men who wandered around the deck, owning the breakfast line, pointing at this and that, loading up trays of pastries, absent-mindedly swiping their credit cards, and smoking in fifteen minute intervals. A few of them stared longingly at the stern from behind the safety of leaking windows, watching the rain clouds, and no doubt sharing a similar wish – that a rogue wave would blind side us, rolling the boat, killing everyone and sinking the SS Florence to the bottom of Davey Jones Locker.
Jason and I had barely spoken since breakfast. We had grown moody and pensive, bordering on the cusp of insanity with thoughts that rattled around in the hollows of our empty heads. Jason and I had already eaten the last of the groceries and oddly enough, one meager croissant is hardly enough to sustain even the most destitute of pastry dependents. I made my way to the restaurant deck to see what the crew had microwaved for lunch. The same delightful clerk was back behind his register, grinning like a snake oil salesman, ready and willing to answer any question about cost.
“Stale noodles with canned tomato paste is 6,50, for 11 euros we’ll let you pretend that this pale sliver of mystery meat is chicken, a dead fish that our first mate scooped out of the water is 12, and this brown wilting lettuce that we’ve taken to calling ‘salad’ is 4.”
We had been going about this pirate fantasy all wrong; Grimaldi makes Blackbeard look like Gandhi.
“I’d get better service in the belly of a whale,” I said, before returning to the seating deck. Sea sickness was starting to get the better of me and I needed to lay down for a while.
When I woke up I was surprised to find that absolutely nothing had changed, that everything was still just as miserable as I had left it a few hours before, and Jason was snoring in his sleeping bag a few seats in front of me. Better to let that poor bastard dream, I thought. Down at the restaurant deck the television sets were showing the weather across the Mediterranean. The forecast showed a wet blanket of thunder storms stretched across the better portion of whatever concentric circles our boat had been making. I eventually broke down and bought a package of crackers priced at three euros from the bar. The crackers did little to boost my moral however. I had become convinced that the ship must have sunk at some point, or else somewhere between entering the port and embarking, I had died and was haunting the Grimaldi Line. I ran back to the seating deck.
“It’s a ghost ship. The Ghost Ship Grimaldi! We’re all dead here,” I yelled, shaking my comrade from his nap. “Don’t you see? We’re dead, we’re never getting off this boat. We’re doomed to float through this storm for all eternity man!”
He had taken the news better than I thought, although he had shelled out the euros for pasta so it was highly possible that I had finally lost my mind.
There was an announcement over the intercom, the same kind they played at breakfast and at lunch. I couldn’t tell if it was in Spanish or Italian or maybe the captain had decided to broadcast himself practicing the kazoo. I was desperate for food and decided that even waterway robbery wasn’t worth dying over, besides I was a bit curious to see just how low the bar gets on this boat.
The clerk showed us his middle finger when we asked what was for dinner saying something like, “There is no dinner you stupid American pig dogs. Why don’t you just do us all a favor and go kill yourselves. Or perhaps you’d like to buy some pizza from the bar.”
“Hara kiri or pizza,” I said, “I can’t decide. How about we flip a coin?”
The person who made the pizza must have pinned the dough to a wall, loaded up a Super Soaker with cheap tomato sauce and sprayed it from across the room, then the dough with its occasional splatters of sauce are thrown to the ground where a group of bullies from a nineteen-sixties comic are employed to kick cheese on it until its good and ready for a once over with a hair dryer. For two slices the end total was 12,50.
“Which one you want?” The bartender asked.
“Oh, we get to choose which slice we want,” I said, “How generous of them. I’ll take the slice without pubic hair please.”
Our ship finally pulled into port at two in the morning and my first guess is that we’d arrived back in Barcelona to pick up four more passengers. Jason and I packed up our bags and marched down the steps to the hull where a line of truckers were fighting for the exit. I immediately sprinted down the ramp, into the rain, trusting that my companion was directly behind me when one of the crew grabbed my shoulder and said that I cannot leave and something about the tide.
“He said that they’re going to give us a ride,” my advisor corrected.
“I don’t believe it for a second,” I said. “You told him we are Americans didn’t you? Get your knife ready man, we’re being Shanghaied.”
The crew blocked us in a corner near the exit, so deliciously close to the outside world I could almost taste the freedom, the freedom for all humankind, the freedom of a sandwich for you and me, the freedom of coffee and of endless pastries, and the freedom that a citizen can afford it all for a reasonable price. The fascists had us trapped and decided to gas us for another hour as we were forced to watch somewhere between forty and four-hundred semi trucks exit the boat slower than it takes a sandwich to run a marathon. We didn’t die easily though and the goose stepping thugs stood around smoking cigarettes, trying to decide what they were going to do to us next. They eventually elicited the dumbest looking one of the bunch to fetch the company van. The vehicle wasn’t suited to transport passengers, unless those passengers happened to be prisoners on their way to the Colosseum.
“Do you think gladiators ate sandwiches?” I asked no one in particular.
Our sandwich-for-brains driver insisted that six people, eight large pieces of luggage, and three dogs would easily fit into a five seated van. Thankfully the other passengers spoke Italian and explained the glaring error in both math and spacial reasoning. We were driven to the outside edge of the port and directly past the security gate. Our driver, thinking that this was a brilliant place to drop passengers off in the rain, in a new city, and two kilometers from any public transportation or known shelter indicated that this was our stop. One of the passengers came to our rescue and explained that the only way this would have been a reasonable place to drop a person off is if that person had been kicked out of a moving vehicle right after being fatally stabbed. The driver, being blessed with a rich hospitable nature, drove us to a nearby highway tunnel, opened the door, and kicked us directly onto the cold Italian streets four hours before dawn.
My comrade and I had walked to the end of the tunnel trying to decide where we would go, what we would eat, and what sort of sandwich it would be. We found shelter under an awning in front of a pizza place. There was a bag of stale focaccia bread that someone had left out for the birds.
“Look at this trash,” I said excitedly, stuffing my face. “If only we had some tomatoes and maybe some cheese. We could make stale sandwiches.”
The sandwich eating Italian passenger I had exchanged a single word conversation with the day before crossed the street and made his way to where we were seeking shelter and eating garbage. He spoke almost no English and very little Spanish, but we gathered from a patchwork conversation that he knew of a hotel nearby. He asked if we wanted to walk with him and since neither me or Jason had any bearing on Genoa, we agreed and followed behind him and his two dogs. We turned a corner and I saw a light beaming like a vision from heaven, illuminating the street, and the music of angels echoing out into that rainy Italian night. What could be open at two in the morning? I was almost too afraid to ask. It was a bar and there were people still inside, the doors were still open. And lo, I saw a sandwich and there were many sandwiches and they were indeed reasonably priced and I knew that this was good because they also had pastries and coffee for sale.