By Land and Sea

Marie Barski

© Copyright 2020 by Marie Barski

Photo of a Gaudi building in Barcelona.

It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at the port. I had never been to a port before. We were met by an imposing security gate and guards who meant business. Everything seemed formal and intimidating. There were cranes and ships and people in uniforms, and cars and people without uniforms, and big metal containers. Everyone moved quickly with purpose. We parked our car and walked a distance to meet the ship that would be our home for the next three weeks. Our possessions had preceded us by truck and were already stowed within its enormous bowels. This was a cargo ship with a small passenger-designated area designed for frugal travelers. My father knew the captain and we got a deal on the transport.

The ship was much taller than I had imagined. The disproportionally high bottom half was painted black; the smaller top was white, as much of it as I could see. I had the urge to reach out and touch the large bolts sticking out, all arranged in neat rows. I got as close as I could only to realize that there was at least another ten feet of ship below where I was standing, floating in black, greasy water. I backed away from the edge slowly and decided to follow my parents closely. We walked alongside the vessel when unexpectedly, a narrow metal staircase presented itself and we climbed at least one-and-a-half stories straight up. We found ourselves in a tight passageway dotted with multiple slender doors with small round glass windows. Young men were rushing past us in both directions and I tried to stay out of the way. A little while later, a tall, older man appeared with curly salt-and-pepper hair. He was dressed in a striped shirt and pants, and there was an air of authority about him. He was the captain. Behind him stood a younger man with very short hair, wearing a white uniform. My father talked with them briefly and we were shown to our cabin. We only caught glimpses of the captain and the first officer for the remainder of the trip. Once during the voyage we were given a tour of the bridge, but the captain was elsewhere at the time.

Once in the cabin, we said a tearful goodbye to our father. We didn’t know when we would see each other again. The plan was for him to work for a while longer, save money, and then join us. He said a prayer for our smooth passage. Mother was stoic during the entire episode. With all the excitement my parents forgot to feed us that day and by dusk we were quite hungry. The ship’s kitchen was closed but someone brought us bread, butter and strawberry jam. My father left shortly after. I was anxious to get going. It was dark when the ship left port, moving slowly and steadily as I fell asleep.
That is how we left Canada in the early autumn of 1975, my sisters, two-year-old Chris and six-year old Lucie, eleven-year-old me, and our mother. We sailed up the St. Lawrence to the Atlantic Ocean, accompanied by all our worldly possessions stowed away somewhere beneath us: clothes, books, my father’s paintings, some furniture, our Kenmore stove and my purple bicycle.

In the early morning fog we passed Quebec City. After breakfast we explored our limited surroundings. The passenger area consisted of one living/entertainment room, one modest dining room, and about six cabins in all. The cabins were arranged in a horseshoe pattern, with the dining room at one end and the entertainment room at the other. Our cabin was in the middle of the curve. The cabin to the right of ours was occupied by an elderly American couple. The one next to them was shared by an older man from Spain and a blond man in his mid-twenties. To the left were another elderly couple, and a young attractive couple who kept to themselves. We saw each other at breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner, which were served in the small dining room, always at the same times, with exactly enough tables for the small group of passengers. The rest of the crew ate elsewhere and we rarely saw any of them except for the cook and server. The seating arrangements were established that first day and from that point on we always sat at the same place. We had our own table as there were four of us. The food was bland but edible. At least it was a break from Mom’s cooking although not much of an improvement: stringy pot roast and chewy flavorless octopus. I liked tea time best, served at four o’clock with store bought cookies, because it made me feel grownup.

By night time we were on the open ocean and rocked to sleep by waves and the ship’s engines running at full capacity. It was frightening to be on the open water in nearly total darkness. The only lights were those on the ship. I thought about Dad praying for us. Then I concentrated on the rocking motion and went to sleep. In the morning when I tried to get up I felt an odd sensation like I had been spinning and spinning and suddenly stopped—I was dizzy. It stayed with me all day. Nearest I could tell Lucie and Chris felt it too because they seemed wobbly on their feet. The other passengers were commenting as well and some stayed in their cabins at meal time. By the next day I felt fine and I learned to walk on a moving surface. The living/entertainment room had a small TV that stopped working the moment we left land, a bookshelf with old magazines and books and a chessboard, a couple of small tables with chairs and a long bench bolted to the wall. Since there was no entertainment to speak of, we spent most of our time in our cabin, which seemed like the biggest one. We had two beds, a foldout sofa, and coffee table; a small bathroom at one end and a closet at the other. We passed the time by playing with a portable cassette player and Barbies. Dolls held my interest less and less but there was nothing else to do and it made Lucie happy. We created stage plays and stories. Our Barbies would perform the various songs I had recorded. When the ocean was calm we were allowed to step outside onto the deck. It was covered with traces of fine salt crystals left by waves that didn’t make it all the way back. I carefully approached the railing and stared out over it into the depth of beautiful blue. I tried to imagine how far down it went.

We were heading to Morocco, Casablanca to be exact. The other sensible passengers who had planned their trip well in advance were inoculated for whatever terrible diseases lurked there. We, of course, weren’t. My parents neglected to inquire about the ship’s itinerary and only cared about the final destination. The closer we got to North Africa, the hotter it became, and we were back in summer clothes. As we approached the port, dolphins followed us while performing a live show, about half a dozen on each side of the ship. They jumped repeatedly out of the water and back in a perfect arc. Then they disappeared and shortly after the ship docked. Over the next three days, the sailors we hadn’t seen before were everywhere, busy unloading cargo. We watched the activities from our cabin through a couple of small windows. The ship’s body opened to reveal a cavernous space. A crane was standing alongside ready to reach inside. Crates and containers of various sizes appeared, hoisted up and over the edge. On the second day, military vehicles that looked like dark green jeeps were unloaded one by one. It took all day to unload about forty of them. By the third day we were bored and claustrophobic. The American couple felt sorry for us and brought us a box of dried dates from town. That is when Mom made the bold decision to take us to explore the city. “How often does one have a chance to see Casablanca?” she reasoned. With a prayer as our protection instead of the dozen vaccines our fellow passengers had received, we ventured past the guards, the gates, and into the city. It was bright and hot. I was struck by the tall palm trees that I had previously only seen on TV. We walked straight down what appeared to be a major boulevard. Sunlight was bouncing off the white facades of the buildings, giving them an exotic glow. Within a block or so little shops presented themselves. They were small with no storefronts but completely open to the street, offering a full view of what was inside. Each was staffed by men, motioning for us to come closer and pointing at the various goods. Most of them wore traditional clothes and a red hat with a black tassel, which Mom said was called a “fez.” I remember lots of colorful carpets, jewellery and trinkets. We stared at the many objects from the safety of the sidewalk, but when we came across a booth that sold beaded jewellery I could not resist. Spellbound I approached the table laden with brightly colored treasure. The shopkeeper saw the desire in my eyes and addressed my mother in French. They talked for a bit, probably bargained, but all my senses were captivated by the display of riches before me and I did not hear them. To my delight, mom told me to select my favourite item. That was very hard to do. I wanted them all but I was thrilled that I could take one with me. After deliberating I made my selection— strands of yellow beads joining into a beaded pendant with a blue, green and orange geometric pattern. Lucie and Mom each chose one as well. She paid for them and we continued on. A group of five boys approached us and addressed us in French. I felt a hand slide across my behind. I was stunned. I looked up to see the tallest one smile and wink at me. He looked to be about fourteen. It felt like an insult but I didn’t know how to react. I was too shocked to speak. While I considered my options, Mom pulled us away and we moved on. After a while we were getting tired and hungry and all the shops started to look the same. I was still upset and humiliated because of the earlier incident. We veered off into a side street. Unlike the spacious boulevard, the street and sidewalk were narrow, barely large enough for a small car to get by. There were no palm trees or any other vegetation in sight. The buildings were mostly two-stories with narrow windows. Women peered down at us as there were no other tourists on the street. We didn’t get very far when we saw an older man holding a young girl by the hand. She appeared to be about three years old. Her hair was messy. Her pink dress was dirty and she had no shoes. They barely looked at us. Then the man bent down and picked up what looked like a crust of bread from the street. The flies that were examining it took off instantly. He rubbed it against his shirt as if to clean it, and gave it to the little girl who put it in her mouth. This was enough for my mother. She announced abruptly that we should return to the ship. There was no argument from the rest of us. We walked briskly back to the boulevard and straight to the port and back to the ship. Mom reminded us to wash our hands and we all took showers. By then it was dinner time. We ate in silence. There were no complaints about the food.

The next day we left for Spain. We docked in Valencia then in Barcelona. There were no vaccinations required for Spain. In Valencia, we wandered off the ship and into the city. We saw as much as we could on foot. The weather was beautiful and warm. I liked the city. The sidewalks were wide lined with buildings butting up against each other with rows of windows and flower baskets. There were many well-dressed pedestrians. We strolled for a good part of the day then made our way back. Just before we entered the port gates, we saw huge multicolored blocks of marble. Mom said they were waiting to be exported all over the world. I understood that things, like people, could come from different countries. The Spanish man came to say goodbye and brought us lollipops. This was his last stop. He was home.

When we docked in Barcelona, Mom asked the friendly American couple if they would take me sightseeing with them. They graciously agreed. I wish I could remember more of Barcelona. We saw so much that it became a bit of a blur. I remember a smelly outdoor market. There were lots of people around and no one else seemed bothered by the odour of fruits and vegetables left in the sun for too long. There was an impressive cathedral with blackened stone walls. I remember climbing the really tall spiral stone staircase and looking out from the open tower to the beautiful courtyard below. There were stone benches, roses and vines creeping up the walls.
As in Valencia, the day was warm. The couple explained to me that they collected tiles from all over the world and had some from each of their many trips. They were retired and apparently travelling and collecting tiles was their hobby. We went in search for a particular tile merchant and eventually found him. Tiles were everywhere, even spilling outside the shop into the adjacent garden. The ones they were looking for were hand-painted. In the end they selected four that were then carefully wrapped and we continued exploring the city. We came across a shop that sold beautiful glass beads. I had a couple of dollars with me but there were so many to choose from, I found it difficult to pick just a few. I kept counting my change trying to decide which ones to take and which ones to leave behind. The man asked me to hand him over my change, which I did. He counted it and paid for my beads. Only later did I realize that he added his own money so I would have enough.

The next stop was Livorno in Italy. The port authorities would not let us get off the ship as we had come from Morocco without having been vaccinated. It was disappointing not to see the city. It was also a bit disconcerting to be considered a risk to public health. The couple of days spent in the port seemed to drag. We were bored and anxious to get going. The weather continued as it had been, perfect. We passed Sicily, where Mom pointed to a mountain she said was a dormant volcano. I was sure I saw smoke coming out of the top and was happy to get away from it. The next stop would be the last, the port of Ploce, Yugoslavia. The coast was beautiful and close enough that we could see stone houses with their red clay tile roofs lining the shore, a colorful interruption between the deep blue sea and the bright blue sky. We spent most of the afternoon on deck watching it glide away. As the sun began to set we docked. I was excited to have arrived. After twenty-one days on the ship I was happy to get off and get on with our next adventure. My uncles, my father’s younger brothers, were waiting for us. They spoke briefly with the captain who was a friend of the family. He told them that in his thirty years of sailing he had never experienced a calmer ocean. We said goodbye to the remaining passengers and found ourselves whisked away in a car. It was dark before long and my sisters and I slept for the five-hour drive to my grandfather’s home. Our possessions would follow later by truck.  


My formal writing experience until now has been in marketing (website content, promotional television script, newsletters and copy editing), however, this is where I hope to direct my energies instead. David Sedaris was kind enough to read an essay I wrote a few years back and commented that he enjoyed it, and that from the writing itself he would never guess that English is my third language – something I have been self-conscious about. 

Marie lives in beautiful Victoria, BC with her husband of 35 years and their two dogs. Her interests include writing, painting and photography. The themes she likes to explore are: order emerging from chaos, good and evil, and human.

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