Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Ikarus Palace

These big, ocean-going ferries are usually about thirteen storeys tall, and after manhandling our luggage up to the top deck, on a series of escalators (all non-functioning), we arrived at our destination. In a flash of inspiration, I had booked our passage several weeks beforehand, and our travel agent in Australia had assured us that our accommodation for the two-night, one day cruise to Venice would be in "airline-style" seating. Fair enough, we thought - we can handle that for a couple of nights. As it was my only contribution to our travel plans (the T.P. had insisted on doing the rest, me being 'pathetically incompetent'), I was enormously chuffed at my vision of a romantic cruise for two up the Adriatic to Venice, the city of love - and, I must say, as a testament to my pre-eminent organisational skills.

I handed our boarding passes to the bloke at the door to our deck and asked him to show us to our seats. He scrutinised the tickets, for a bit, then looked around the outside deck where we were standing. It was a steel deck, painted green, and had some circular tables bolted to the floor. Other than that, it was completely bare, and open to the seasons. Stacks of white plastic garden chairs were roped to the bulkhead (that's 'wall', for you land-lubbers). 

"Anywhere here," he replied, indicating the acre or so of green steel.

Somewhat taken aback, I remonstrated mildly, "You've got to be fucking kidding, mate!" I pointed to the cabin I could see through the doorway, where rows of very comfortable-looking easy chairs adorned a tastefully-decorated indoor cabin. "That's where we are booked," I corrected him.

He looked at the tickets again. "No sir, it says right here, 'Deck D', and this, I assure you, is Deck D. Your ticket booking does not assign you a seat. You must do that separately, through the shipping company itself. See? It says so right here." He pointed at a paragraph of fine-print on the ticket, then gave me one of those European shrugs, and moved off to deal with some other passengers, who I noticed had begun the 'Look at this, another moron from the Antipodes'-type of eye-rolling. 

I looked again, across the vast, green space of deck, where a rather strong and quite cool breeze had begun to blow, then turned to see the Titanium Princess eyeing me off rather sharply.

"You. Great. Fucking. Idiot."

Now, dear reader, I know those full stops. I've had thirty-five years of those full stops. When the T.P. starts to punctuate, it's time to either start inventing stories or run. Alas, I had nowhere to run, and the cat had, indubitably, been let out of the bag by that jumped-up little ordinary seaman I was going to find, later on, and issue with a stern rebuke in the form of a knee to the gonads.

"Well, I don't know about you, Laurie," she declared, "but I am going inside to find some sensible man I can offer myself to in exchange for a decent bed." She turned on her heel and whisked herself through the doorway, quite regally, and disappeared. I pondered these unsettling events for a moment or two, wondering what the best course of action might be. Of course, the answer had to be found in a bottle of Heineken or two, so I clambered up a flight of stairs and found a congenial bar located on the upper deck. Just to be on the safe side, I ordered two Heinekens. The barman quizzically, but uncomplainingly, opened both for me and placed them on the bar.

"Seven Euros, please," he asked. It was only then that I realised I had left my little tote-bag with passport, tickets, and money in it in the hands of the T.P. "Oh, sorry, mate - my wife seems to have taken all the cash. Just put it on a tab and I'll fix you up when she comes back."

The barman gave me one of those heard-this-one-before looks, and said "May I see your ticket or boarding-pass, then?" I had to admit to him that these, too, were in the hands of my beloved, who, I refrained from adding, was currently undertaking a search for Aristotle Onassis. He looked at me dubiously, and turned to pick up a telephone, into which he mumbled several words of Greek.

Presently, two very officious-looking sailor-types with guns on their belts appeared at the top of the stairs and sauntered over in my direction. "Sir, are you a passenger on this ship?" asked one. I explained the situation as best I could. "And where is your wife now?" he persisted. "Er, I'm not quite sure, but she's certainly somewhere on the ship."

He spoke into a two-way radio, and presently a loud, booming voice announced over the ship's PA system "Would Mrs Christine  _______  please come to the aft lounge immediately!" We all settled down to wait, me eyeing off the two unconsumed beers with a strong feeling that they, and four or five whiskies, would be better consumed right now, and they looking over me with undisguised contempt.

About ten minutes later, the Titanium Princess arrived. She sized up the situation pretty-well straight away, then casually walked to the bar and put a ten-Euro note on it. "My apologies, gentlemen," she purred. "My husband is a little, er, unwell." She faced the senior marine guard, put her index finger to her temple, and slowly rotated it, her eyebrows raised in a 'you-get-the-picture?' kind of way. "I'll look after him now - thank you for your concern." The gendarmerie, duly mollified, traipsed away, and the T.P. sank into a chair with a beer in her hand and said, quite casually, "Why did I ever marry you?"

As it turned out, her solo efforts had not been in vain. Not that I'm suggesting she met Aristotle, of course, but she had charmed a purser she'd found, who had assured her that it would be quite OK to park ourselves in the lounge for a couple of nights, as the ship was nowhere near capacity-loaded. And so, as the Ikarus pulled out of Patras, we found ourselves ensconced in a warm cabin, drinking wine and listening to Greek pop-music being piped over the air.

So passed the first night, with the Princess happily snoring beside me, while I snatched a few minutes here and there. As a consequence, when dawn came, and the ship's passengers began to rouse, I was still sitting up, hard-wired on coffee and cheap wine. I must have looked rather bleary, as the T.P. woke up, looked at me and said "Fuck." I decided a shower was in order. Gathering up my kit, I stumbled along the corridor to the men's bathroom. The sight that greeted me almost had me losing what was left of the wine and coffee. The floor was awash in a grey, viscous and evil-smelling solution that I guessed was sewage. I backed out and returned, unkempt, to my seat.

"That was quick," mumbled the T.P., as she opened one eye, and then the other. "Jesus, Laurie, you smell worse than you did before you went to the bathroom. What happened?"

I explained the problems I'd encountered, and suggested we both go to the ladies', where she could play cockatoo for me while I got cleaned up. Unfortunately, the women's facilities seemed to be in almost constant use, so the only wash I got that day was courtesy of some bottled water I threw over myself. Things were not looking good.

We made our way forward, to a set of sumptuous dining-rooms, looking for breakfast. As it turned out, the ship laid on a magnificent repast, and I was duly lining up with a tray in hand when I saw a notice on the wall: "All breakfasts 15 Euros." Now, the thought of spending that sum on a plate of scrambled eggs took me aback somewhat, but not so far as it did the Titanium Princess. "I think we can forget about breakfast," she opined severely, "and did you bother to check before you booked me on this colossus whether meals were included in the fucking life savings you handed over to this company just for our fare?" When my beloved starts to speak in italics I start to quiver, and if she'd started to punctuate those, I swear I would have just made a run for the side and hurled myself into the briny.

I placated her with two Mars bars I procured from a machine down the corridor, at about five bucks a pop, and decided to go up to the top deck and get a little sun. The Leader of the Opposition, meanwhile, enjoyed a relaxing, and no doubt cleansing, shower in the ladies' bathroom, from which, you'll remember, I was excluded.

There was a swimming-pool on the top deck, so I thought I would have a quick plunge and rub a bit of the miasma that had accumulated in the past twenty-four hours off the old body. There were about twenty passengers in the pool, all German by the sounds of them, frolicking and chatting and generally having a whale of a time. And boy, were they brown. I learnt later that many of them simply cruise up and down the Adriatic for about four weeks, never getting off the ship, just so they can work on their tans, then go back to Hamburg or somewhere and show off for a while before they go down to the melanoma clinic for some radical surgery.

As an Australian, of course, I have permanently brown head and arms, but the rest of me is lily-white. In Australia, the sun is your enemy - we grow up with that fact ingrained. (By the way, a few years ago I had a basal cell carcinoma removed from my chest. Not a big deal, but enough to seek attention. When I got to the clinic, a dermatologist came into the surgery, ordered me to strip, then looked over every single square inch of my body with his little spy-glass. He then told me to wait, and called in a female colleague, who did exactly the same thing. When she got to the nether regions, she casually lifted all of the wedding-tackle and began to scrutinise something I didn't even know the name of, but found out later was called the 'perinium'. "Bloody hell, Doc," I protested, "the Sun has never even shone down there!" She looked up at me. "Oh, you'd be surprised where these little bastards appear," she confided.)

Anyway, I stripped down to my Speedos and was just about to plunge in when yet another uniformed person laid his hand on my arm and said "Excuse me, sir, but passengers must shower before they enter the pool." He indicated a sign which said exactly that in about four zillion languages, so I guessed it was important to them. I dressed, and made my way to the bar, where several Heinekens never saw the light of day again. It was nine o'clock in the morning.

At some stage of the morning, the Titanium Princess finally found me. She looked radiant, having showered and changed, and availing herself of breakfast somewhere else on the ship. I, on the other hand, must admit that 'radiance' was not a word that one would willingly throw in my direction. Apprising the situation, she simply snorted in disgust and took off in the other direction, no doubt attracting the attention of several Greek shipping magnates along the way. Of course, this was all fine with me. Everything was fine, at that stage - why, I had even fallen in love with the bar-stool next to me. I decided to rest my head on it.

I awoke, sometime later, in a cool room with white walls and a green floor. I was lying on a bed, and could see a small, barred window over my head. There was a door to the room, and it appeared to be rather solid and locked. I got up, and tested it. Sure enough, it was going nowhere. Suddenly I heard voices outside and began to yell, "Hey! Hey! Who's there?"

A key rattled, and the door opened. There was the Titanium Princess, looking rather stern, surrounded on two sides by a couple of very heavy-duty looking dudes. "Laurie," she said, "these gentlemen are happy to let you come with me as long as you behave yourself, and don't drink anything more."

Well, it was news to me that it was nine o'clock at night, and I'd been asleep for nearly twelve hours. But I felt in tip-top condition, and happily bounded out of my bunk and into the T.P.'s arms, whereupon she effected one of those nauseated expressions and pushed me away quite firmly. "Just behave, for a change," she admonished, leading me through a labyrinthine set of corridors to our suite. I collapsed into a chair, and the rest of the night passed without incident (I think.)

I woke up as we came into Venice, cruising along the Grand Canal to the port. There it all was - this majesty of a city: San marco on one side, the island of Murano on the other. I was impressed, as I leant across the starboard railing. Finally, we were in Italy. I'd not had a wash, shower or shave for three days, and was desperate to find Il Gazzatino, our hotel, and luxuriate.

We traipsed our bags down the still-silent escalators, and came out into the sun of Venice. The T.P. was ahead of me a little way, and as I struggled to catch up to her, a man dressed in a suit approached me from the dockside. 

"Your passport, please," he demanded, holding out his hand. Now, by this stage of the cruise, I was in no mood to fuck around with anyone. I was tired, worn out, in fact, and looked like shit. 

"Fuck off," I remonstrated, "who are you? You're getting shit from me." He continued to badger me to give him my passport. "Listen, you arsehole, I have no idea who you are. Get out of my way. I'll give my passport to that cop over there," I pointed to a uniformed officer standing nearby, "but you can get fucked."

The uniformed officer made his way over to us. "He's the Inspector," he informed me, gesturing in the direction of Mister Suit.

They kept me there for three-quarters of an hour, with Mr Suit on his two-way almost constantly. "Where is your travel itinerary?" he asked me at one stage. "Fucked if I know," I replied. They had obviously formed the opinion that I was a terrorist engaged in the bombing of the Rialto Bridge, or something. Meanwhile, I could see the Titanium Princess, perched on her bag about fifty metres away, giggling like there was no tomorrow. Thanks, T.P., I kept thinking.

Eventually, after many questions and calls to headquarters, it was established that I was not a threat to the modern world, but just a down-and-out drunk from Australia.

Mr Suit made a big deal of handing my passport back to me. "Welcome to Italy," he said.