Above a single desk in the cabin a laminated list taped onto the wall states the compensation for lost and stolen goods. Key from the cabin — $5. The cabin door — $50. I try to imagine the circumstances in which the cabin door could be lost or damaged. There are other ordinary articles: sheets, towels, chairs, the cabin carpet ($20 per square metre). There are also items which are absent anyway: a shower robe ($40), a “Bohemia” whiskey glass ($20). Those two particular things make me think of the late 1980s film ASSA and the scene of the ferry arriving in winter Yalta in Crimea, and of the vision of luxury which belongs to the same late Soviet era: of restaurants with tropical pot plants, of wood paneling and “Bohemia” glasses.
At around 2am my luggage was picked up by a bulldozer at Ilychevsk port 30 minutes drive from Odessa on the Ukrainian coast. While my cases travelled in the bulldozer’s scoop, I got a lift in an old white minibus with only nine seats which drove us into the depths of the stationed ferry. The minibus and the bulldozer made a handful of roundtrips to load all the passengers — thankfully there weren’t too many. The place we were at had no address, the key landmark for the taxi driver a tower-like business centre called Boreas like the ancient Greek god of the Northern wind, after which one had to take a few obscure turns and drive through a corridor of lorries to an unremarkable small parking lot and an even more unremarkable white shed-like building to board the ferry straight at midnight.
To obtain tickets for the ferry I had to go to Ukrferry’s office in Odessa with a stash of money — the only payment method accepted is cash in hryvnias, 5800 ($226) for two. It felt like an achievement in itself after a few unsuccessful attempts to extract any information from their helpline: during my third call a woman told me to stop calling. In the waiting room institutional award certificates shared a wall with a map outlining the route across the Black sea. There were a few naval-style souvenirs — it felt like any minute someone from the National Geographic society would storm in. One could sense the atmosphere of travel that belonged to earlier centuries, with the element of unreliability and unpredictability still in place. 30 minutes after we walked out, I got a call with the news that the ferry had changed its destination from Batumi to Poti (“it’s only 70 kilometres, no big deal”, the voice said), and the next one to Batumi is not for another five days. “Something tells me there isn’t a cash point at this ferry,” ran through my mind as the bulldozer gently rolled in the luggage.
We were far out in the open waters, but here you wouldn’t find the cruise atmosphere of hedonism and freedom
“Dear passengers, we would like to invite you for breakfast which is served at the restaurant,” the voice of the woman says on the radio. “Please don’t be late, I repeat, don’t be late.” It’s 8am and it feels like a scene from The Lobster by Yorgos Lanthimos. I get out of bed, and in the pothole, behind an edge of the lifeboat, there it is, the Black sea. It rolls, calm and serene, glowing in the clear morning light, blue tint over the full-bodied darkness. For the most part, Graeco-Roman tradition refers to the Black Sea as the “Hospitable Sea”, which is a euphemism replacing the earlier “Inhospitable Sea”, dubbed so because its waters were so hard to navigate. In ancient times the Greeks sailed over it to Colchis which is present day Georgia. Jason crossed it with the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece. As a child I loved the story of the Golden Fleece. Born under the sign of Aries, I’d constantly get charms of golden rams from my mum and aunties, and I still wear one today. Now in the cabin of an ex-military German Greifswald ship, I could look out to the sea and think of the ancient adventures.
The main clientele for crossing the Black Sea today is Georgian lorry drivers. It saves time and means avoiding the drive through Russia, as getting a Russian visa for Georgians is still next to impossible. Wearing tracksuits and slippers with socks, they play backgammon and watch bad Russian crime dramas on two TVs in the common areas. The Black Sea keeps ancient legends, but it also keeps gas and oil, and the undercurrents of contemporary politics. Like in ASSA, this ferry could have perhaps sailed to Crimea — but not since 2014. On a ferry there is a group of Ukrainian tourists and occasional bikers and cyclist from Europe. We share a dinner table with a Moldovan family who are going to Batumi to spend the approaching winter.
We were far out in the open waters, but here you wouldn’t find the cruise atmosphere of hedonism and freedom. The usual cruise crowd — drunk teenagers and gambling elders — is also absent. There is no internet, no phone signal, nothing apart from the open deck and crime dramas, the day punctuated by meals included in the price of the ticket: breakfast 8am, lunch 1pm, dinner 6.30pm. The restaurant with tables for eight people has blue office-like chairs and is decorated with romantic paintings of white swans and birch tree groves, with an occasional touch of fake red roses echoing the colour of fire safety instructions. The menu is composed of slightly modernised Soviet dishes: scrambled egg or an omelet with a processed sausage and semolina or sweet oatmeal for breakfast, buckwheat and meat in gravy or chicken with plain pasta for lunch, fish with boiled potato in dill for dinner with a desert of chocolate-coated marshmallow or wafers and large quantities of black tea with lemon. Not only does food here seem stuck in time — but so does the very experience of travel.
Through forced digital detox, time reverts to its outdated slow pace
Contemporary travel experience is quite often designed to take one’s mind off the very process of moving. On a plane we’re entertained by films, meals and drinks; in airports we’re guided through endless aisles of duty free shops; on the road we’re lured by roadside cafes and malls; on the sea we’re usually seduced by cheap alcohol and gambling. But here, drifting on the Black sea, you get nothing. Not only can you not use the internet, you can’t even acquire anything for money, stripped of the usual capitalist stimulation. There is coffee and drinks at the usually empty bar, there are crime dramas, backgammon and the open sea.
Over the course of two days, the sea is changing constantly: from azure green to black and blue to glowing silver. It shifts from joyful quick waves of the morning to the thick oil blackness of the stormy afternoon. On the second day we go out on the deck a few times. We see a dolphin playing in the waves rushing along with the boat. We see a ghostly rainbow on the horizon. We see an owl circling around the ship, then it disappears — no idea where it came from. The beautiful vast waters, usually seen from the plane window, keep posing complex questions of resources and borders. Through forced digital detox, time reverts to its outdated slow pace.
Life in the end, when free from the exciting montage of holiday photos, is full of waiting, boredom, backgammon and crime dramas in the middle of the open sea, in the vast nothingness. The bright stars are flickering red in the sunset skies. All The New York Times articles you saved on Pocket are read — and you are left with things we don’t rely on much anymore: think, look at the waves, sleep and make love. The next morning, as the sun comes out, and there are more dolphins following the ferry, there is one more thing we rarely experience: the excitement of arrival. Arrival which follows the boredom, the passage, the transition — land finally showing in the distance.