After spending two full days somewhere, I start putting serious thought into what the next town will be. Then it’s time to check flights everywhere, train schedules or, as was the case in Barcelona, the ferry schedule to North Africa or Rome. The following evening, I was boarding a huge ferry boat/small cruise ship at midnight. The trip would take nearly 24-hours and head first to Porto Torres on the north coast of Sardinia (Italy) – providing stunning views of Corsica (France). We’d then head along Sardinia’s eastern coastline and dart toward the town of Civitavecchia, just north of Rome.
Back in Barcelona, at the Grimaldi port, I’d met a kid named Jaron while we both tried to figure out where the hell we were supposed to be. Try finding the right passport line while you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with one culture of people that doesn’t queue for anything and another that thinks it’s cool to leave the line and come back an hour later to their same spot. I quickly learned two things: Jaron speaks five languages fluently and he plays chess. I’d been traveling with a chess set and hadn’t had many chances to play and fluency in five languages could be a bit more beneficial than my none. We became friends.
It was my first time on a large ferry boat as evidenced by my calling it a ferry boat. Evidently, the expert travelers call it a “ferry.” They’re truly bizarre, especially this particular Grimaldi vessel. Labyrinth-like staircases came from and led to everywhere, often nowhere. The lobby area was tiny and the Pullman Chair Theater was dark and ominous. This was normally where movies were shown, with thick, comfortable leather-ish chairs. But there would be no film on this voyage, for some reason. Luckily, I had reserved a Pullman Chair, the poor man’s version of a cabin. Jaron had not but said it wasn’t necessary, you could pretty much come and go from this room as you please. Awesome.
And people did come and go as they pleased. A young hippie couple from Scandinavia – based solely on their looks – pretty much made sweet, sweet love the whole time on the floor at the front of the theater. A mother traveling with three children let them know what she thought of that, which was fun to watch. I’d decided that the Pullman deal wasn’t much of one and spent just about the entire voyage on the deck with the painters, photographers and drug-infested raver types who probably thought we were headed for Ibiza.
[Scandinavian, based on their looks = white hair, sturdy frames and the only flags NOT sewn to their backpacks were those of Scandinavia. Oh, and they were speaking Swedish, according to Jaron. Sweden’s in Scandinavia.)
Jaron would pop up every couple-few hours and see what I was up to. On his final check-in, I had the chessboard out. This German kid, who speaks five languages and is already studying Electrical Engineering, wiped the board with me. Every single time. Saved by the bell, I put the board away – we were pulling into Sardinia’s Grimaldi port. I wanted to watch this; the semi trucks, tourist rental cars and walking individuals would disembark.
It was close to noon so this leg of the trip had taken approximately 12 hours. Only 10 more hours to go. For a grand total of 22 hours on the illustrious Grimaldi Emerald of the Sea or whatever it was called.
Now the party really started. Here came gigantic portable speakers, a DJ, extra bartenders and swimming pool patrons. The music began, the DJ bounced to it, folks from all over the world now meandered about the deck, some checking out the starboard, inhabited side – others, the port, crystal water side. Occasionally you’d hear a group ooooh and aaaah as bottlenose dolphins performed their collective acrobatics.
Dozens of southern-European men gathered around the pool – decked out in gold chains, sunglasses and the obligatory animal-skin-Speedos. Yes, the kind that made their midriffs look like Richard Simmons wearing a golf visor. The deck pool was maybe five-feet by 9-feet and somehow drew a crowd of a hundred or so. It looked remarkably uncomfortable, sweaty and gross, then again, we Americans are used to personal space.
[Update: with the exception of Texans and Floridians during a pandemic, then we tend to gather in tight, unmasked groups.Which can also be sweaty and gross and lethal.]
I’d gotten a beer and grabbed a table in the July Meditterranian sun. Moments later, Jaron sat down with two fresh ones. “Where in the hell did you get beer?” I inquired. “International waters,” he said. It made me and still makes me chuckle then very, very concerned every time I think of it. What the hell else are people getting away with on “international water?” Then I wondered out loud, “What if someone else wonders where you got the beer and asks me if I bought it?” He, Jaron, once again was quick to reply, “In that case, you’re my dad. I’m legally allowed to drink with my dad anywhere in Europe.”
I was satisfied-ish. Still not sure if either reply was true and I’m scared to look it up as I’m also unfamiliar with the statute of limitations on ‘endangering a minor’ or whatever I was complicit in and my aunt could still go to jail for.
Ah, the soothing music. The 140-decibel music. The throbbing, pulsating, unbelievably annoying music. By the way, and this would be a recurring theme, Italians love (and I mean LOVE) the “musical artist” Pitbull. The DJ looked like a tiny Pitbull, who is already diminutive, and wore a crisp European golf shirt, several layers of platinum-colored bracelets, necklaces, chains and rings. Though Jaron (who was oblivious to the music) and I had to (I had to) move about 200 more feet away from the speakers, no one else on the deck seemed to be the least bit fazed.
[European golf shirts are worthy of comment. The collars are almost always popped, especially in Italy. And there’s usually something off about them by U.S. fashion standards. Say, the Polo emblem is 18-inches long, or the left breast pocket (which strangely exists in the first place) says something like “Captain Sports Teams Champion USA.” Even stranger, they’ll sometimes say “Hugo Boss” on them or proudly proclaim a specific Italian football team, in which case, I always expect the wearer to flail to the ground dramatically if a soft wind blows, moaning and wailing as they hug their shin.]
At one point, I would have sworn I saw tables and chairs vibrating and moving to the music. Even the elderly were unaware that their ears were being violated and since when can you not count on the elderly to complain about music? Really, really bad, extremely loud techno-pop music was something I was going to have to get used to in Italy. I was getting the sense that “cheap cruise ship/ferry boat from Barcelona to Rome” was not a top-tier DJ gig. But the fact that the DJ wasn’t a good one didn’t explain why no one cared that his selections were deafening. Ponderous.
The starboard, inhabited view of Sardinia is stellar, jaw-dropping. White sand beaches, clear, turquoise waters turning into a deep indigo, centuries-old churches, white chalk cliffs and rock formations and the occasional modern palace, complete with infinity pool and Ferrari. Yachts lined docks, and every two miles or so, we spotted people partying on their 50 or 80-foot catamarans. Things we didn’t see a lot of growing up in Omaha. The happy couples next to me were probably saying things like, “Must be nice.”
For hours, I’d been wondering how some of the fine citizens of wherever were able to afford the cheapest form of lodging on the ferry boat. A few of the kids looked a bit sketchy. They were the same kids actually enjoying the music, though they did keep dancing when it stopped. Their permagrins bobbing along with their head to a song prerecorded and now being, probably, filtered through some form of MDMA or another.
Jaron again clued me in. You could buy a ticket, as he had done, for 25-Euro and just kind of hang out wherever. This explained the hippies sleeping in the stairwell and a few other interesting tidbits I’d noticed. For instance, the people who looked like they lived on the ferry boat.
As we turned toward Civitavecchia, the sunset drew everyone to the aft deck. It was indeed sensational, quite a show, Sardinia barely visible on the horizon crowned with purples, reds and yellows fading upward into bright stars. It was more romantic than anything. Every now and again this would happen, I would see something unforgettably romantic and remember I was alone. Then I’d quickly shake it off and laugh at myself like a bro.
Pulling into Civitavecchia, Jaron pointed out that we were nowhere near Rome and was I aware of that? No, I replied. I just figured Civitavecchia was to Rome as Brooklyn is to Manhattan. It’s not. We still had an hour-long train ride to get to the central Rome station, where Jaron would continue on to Venice. This news came when I had no cell service, again, which I’d paid for, (thanks AT&T or Cell-Italia or Middle of the Sea Telecom). So I couldn’t contact the AirBnB host, who was going to be less than pumped about me messing with his Roman Friday night plans.
This is what I worried about, ruining someone’s good time, which would later become an underestimate.
The arriving train to Rome changed tracks four times as Jaron and a group of Australian girls laughed and ran down stairs and back up others to adjacent tracks. Four times. The laughing stopped after the third descent/ascent. “Was that one our train?” I asked more than once. We sincerely thought we were watching the last train for Rome pull away, rapidly, when our train pulled into the station. At the track across from us. Once more unto the breach…
Jaron and I exchanged information in case I was ever to be in the “south of Frankfurt” area. Then he entertained our new friends from Australia while I mapped out how to get from the train station in Rome to the AirBnB for the tenth time. Jaron is an honest, very wise-for-his-age, incredibly intelligent young man with no plans to take over the world or be a cyber-billionaire or acquire millions of instagram followers. He knows where he wants to be in ten years and I believe 100% he will be where he says. He’s a good kid and I kind of missed him after we went our separate ways.
Now in Rome’s Central Station, I needed wifi, a beer and to get the hell away from the station… STAT.