…we live in a universe whose age we can’t quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances we don’t altogether know, filled with matter we can’t identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don’t truly understand.
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson (Broadway Books, 2003)
You live in a house. Next to another vaguely similar house. In a homogeneous row of houses that make up a neighborhood in a town or city where everything points you toward getting through the day. There’s no time to think about anything but getting up for work so you have money to go shopping so you can eat at least two to three times a day to continue working to pay the bills on the house you have. The one that’s next to the other vaguely similar house, wherein resides the kindred folk who much like you, don’t really know their themselves, let alone their neighbors. There’s no time.
Wherever people live, in whatever country, rich or poor, nomadic or sedentary, the overriding theme of modern living is get born, get a job, get dead. No thinking allowed. There’s no time. What with taking care of all of the little problems nipping at your heels like hyenas waiting for their chance to rip you to shreds since the day you realized you were a living thing, what else is there to do but tough it out, keep your head down and weather the storm. When those fat cumulonimbus thunderheads pass the vultures will circle back waiting for whatever is will be that does you in to do you in so that they can get theirs. There is no variation on life in which this scenario does not play out. But who’s got time to think about all that depressing muck when the bills are due? Again!
More than mere bills, we are plagued by questions: What do you do? How much is it? Who am I? What’s for dinner? What’s this thing on my neck? More than coming up with creative machinations to the incessant questions, if we were to have the time, what would we think about? What we would like to be? How can you just be? There is work to do. Bills to pay. Joneses up with whom to keep.
This is common—not knowing what time it is. I haven’t known what time, let alone what day, or sometimes even what month, it is for longer than I can say. Of course I can tell you roughly what time it is if I have to. I can also tell you how to figure out what direction you are heading (Point the hour hand of your watch—if you have one—toward the sun and find the midpoint between that and the twelve o’clock: that is south in the northern hemisphere). You could too if you had the time to figure it out. The point is not how to figure these things out, though that is useful, the point is how quickly you can recall knowing where you are and what things are like there, for example, the sun doesn’t set in Europe until ten or eleven pm in the summer, even later the further north you venture. In fact, so long does the sun linger in the French summertime, eight pm feels like two in the afternoon. And, though I didn’t know it, eight pm was when I finally arrived at the harbor where the ship I had booked passage on was being loaded with cargo containers by three massive machine arms, sliding in mechanic fluidity along a guided track back and forth, a beautiful repetition which mesmerized me from my D Deck cabin porthole for longer than I can remember.
The clock on the wall read just after nine before I realized that I was no longer in France or Europe (though technically I was, my mind was toiling about in Nomandsland*), but was actually on board the ship that was to take me across the Atlantic ocean to Boston and my port of call in New York. Whereas now I saw a sea of cargo containers fading all the way to the eastern horizon, and to the north and south just more mechanical arms waiting to lade the bellies of the steel whales lining the port’s mouth, it would be from this window that I would see nothing but western ocean and sky, waves and clouds for the next seven to ten days. No more the days a succession of buses, trains and ferries toward some faraway target. No more stopping at the corner markets and produce stands, picking up cheese, sardines and bread, fruit and vegetables for the day’s meal. No more beers washing down soggy sandwiches made hours or even days before while sitting on cement stairs and sidewalk stoops leading to apartment buildings filled with people I will never meet in cities across Europe and Asia I may never go to again. I popped the cork on a bottle of Jenlain, an especially fizzy amber French beer, and pouring myself a glassful, shouted a toast of, “A votre sante!” to the sky, the sea, and nothing in particular, still and always alone, and as usual, I drank it down.
Having never been out to open sea before, at some point I expected to emerge from my cabin to panoramic blue skies filled with armadas of puffy cumulus clouds combining with the bracing aroma of salt coming from the slight lapping of the otherwise glassy Atlantic waters to descend upon our small party of internationals and escort us ladylike into Boston Harbor. One of the first things you learn about the sea is that any and all expectations should be like so much flotsam to be jettisoned overboard the first sign of troubled waters. I should have known what I was getting into when I was notified one week prior to our departure date that “MSC regrets to inform you that the Tanzania will be delayed by at least one week and you will be informed in the next few days as to when your exact date should be. Here is your ticket…” which, under departure, read, “Approx. 03/07/10 – 05/07/10.”
Luckily, after deciphering the nebulous French payphone system, I ascertained that the ship had sailed from Antwerp earlier than planned (which is to say it left on time) and as such were docking in Le Havre near midday as possible on July third, and departure would be 23:30 of the same day. My question, “When do we arrive in Boston?” was finally answered, in a way, after arriving in the quaint port city of Le Havre, and wandering around lost in the harbor area, reading over and over again the large flag-shaped sign “La Porte d’Europa.” I finally managed to get a taxi, make it out to the freighter ship area outside of town, board the ship, find my cabin, get drunk on the last of the Belgian beer I had while watching Under Siege, pass out, wake up in the middle of the night not knowing where I was (somewhere in the English Channel), miss breakfast, stumble about the ship sobering up on sea-spray until I fell into the depths of the engine room only to be led back up to the officer’s mess where I missed lunch but found the captain, dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, who introduced himself in German-accented English and said we could be arriving in Boston anywhere from the tenth to the fifteenth, and, depending on scheduling, cranky, self-important American customs officials, immigration restrictions, union trouble, or any of a host of other specifically North American issues, we could have problems, so who knows, actually, but anyway, tomorrow we will smoke some fish we caught in port yesterday, so that will be very okay. Good? Good.
“Javol Kapitan, das boot ist gut, nein?”
“Wunderbar, sie sprechen Deutsche!” I smiled and feigned comprehension with nods and laughs timed to match his as he machine-gunned German at me like a Krautrock record played on 66. I used the Filipino steward’s pidgin English interruption to switch back to English, mentioning that my skills as a photographer were at his disposal. Smiling oddly, he handed me off to the third mate, who had just approached, as big eyes and wide grins led to pats on the back and promises of smooth sailing, and before disappearing up the stairs toward the bridge, he offered a final, “Willkommen an Bord das Schiff. Wir werden einen Wein und Käse Party heute Abend. Hier bei 6.00.”
“What was that all about?” I asked the third mate. The dark-haired German, who was just out of engineering school and wearing a faded 2Fast 2Furious t-shirt and well-worn blue jeans, motioned me out into the hallway, “He’s always excited when we have cheese. The party tonight…it’s at six instead of the usual 5:30 dinner. Wine and cheese…lots of cheese! In the meantime,” he gestured me toward the starboard deck with big bright eyes, “this is the muster station. This is where we meet in the event of an…”
My mind wandered to thoughts of the gold-rinded Epoisses as he explained the emergency procedures which I would need to know in case of an engine fire, hitting an iceberg, or anything else which would necessitate abandoning ship. As he spoke about the typical procedures I would eventually have to sign off on, I transplanted our freighter, once composed of riveted and welded metals but now a warm crusty baguette, to floating upon an ocean of Morbier, which connected the seven seas of Livarot to the aged Roquefort continent, through which flowed the well-known Brie river out of the snowy Camembert mountains. Before our departure onto the sea of fondue, standing upon the great Gruyere plateaus one could see for miles the vast Gorgonzola plains leading to the thick forests of Chevre beyond which lay the eastern gold of Mimolette valley. Despite the refined elegance and artistry, not to mention the lusty provenance of old Europa, ahh, how I longed to see the melting pot of my birth. Famous for the numerous and delicious blends of new age Cheddars and Jacks which might go far in boldly finishing off the gringo-style quesadilla I had grown up with and longed for once again, my arrival on that cheese-whiz cracker of a country would not hold a cheesecake candle to the depth and flavor in the brass Fondue pot of our Old World roots: Edam, Gouda, Comte, Parmesan, Pecorino, Reggiano, Mozzarella, Tortadellazar, Escharenne, Emental, Havarti, Swiss, hell, even Dananbleu, curds, and more, so much more.
Like a swell overtaking smaller set of waves, I felt them coming long before the effects could be seen, but like animals before a storm, I knew what was about to take place. Excusing myself from and ignorant of the mostly finished safety tour of our container ship tour, I nodded quickly to the mystified third mate still in mid-sentence, “There is no doctor on board, so in the case of a medical…” darted out the door to the ship’s deck and jogged along until I reached the bow of the ship. Hidden by a wall of shipping containers, with that steel arrowhead lurching forward through the formidable blackness, like cheese-wire through a room temperature Maroilles, I found the solitude I needed to let out the tears which had for so long, through deaths of loved ones as well as emotional break-ups with lovers, stayed pent up inside. I wept tears unrepentant as any man may for two reasons: out of joy and out of sorrow. Out of joy, for soon I was to be reunited with a giving, if inexperienced new lover, and out of sorrow, for soon I would find myself a partner in one final night of romance with my faithful European mistress for who knows how long. As we sped toward some unknowable dead reckoning through the aqua-blue tinted waves, the cresting white peaks of which broke upon our hull and, in seeming defiance of gravity, rained down on me with a persistent and fine mist of sea-spray in the wind, that strong gale force having just arrived with a fog as substantial as if distant land dawning on the horizon, and with it, out of the approaching bank, on the low end of the spectrum sounded the words, “Beware: bittersweet are the long days and longer nights at sea.”
*Nomandsland – A place where you cannot stay, but can only rest as you slowly pass through to the other side. This place is not for any man, but for the wanderers, vagrants and the nomads.