Wednesday 31 March 2010

The Southern Cross

Souvenirs from Sicily, Part II
Brigitte and I are about to embark on the next leg of our journey to Sicily: the ship.
Mr. BlueEyes has given us directions as to where we will find the vessel that is going to carry us down the length of the Mediterranean, and there it is: huge, white, massive, gleaming in the early afternoon sun.

While we stretch our necks to see to the top and try to figure out how to get aboard, a man walks by.
He is wearing crisp naval attire, a uniform of some kind, a cap in one hand; his age is difficult to tell because he is so well groomed, but in retrospect, I estimate he was in his early to mid forties in 1987 - I wasn't yet 20, so he would have seemed relatively old to my young eyes.

Smiling at the two girls who are so obviously foreigners here - we could have just as well have been carrying around big signs saying "TOURIST!" - he asks whether he may help us.
He may, and Brigitte politely asks him how to get aboard this ship on which we have just booked our passage to Palermo.
Upon hearing that it is this very ship we intend to get on, the man's smile grows wider, and even I understand that he is one of the officers, and there and then he decides to make it his mission to take care of us before, during and after the voyage.
Nothing in his demeanour suggests a vested interest, and so Brigitte and I graciously accept, following him onto the metal bridge that links the ship to the quai.

Our meagre budget does not allow for a cabin, and so we did not book one.
The plan is to stay close to our bags at all times, finding a bench on deck where to sleep, because the journey will take around 20 hours, reaching Palermo the next day.

Of course, our self-acclaimed body guard does not allow for such nonsense.
We are shown a small store room for the crew's items, and gladly leave our bags there. Not for one moment do we think we can not trust the man - and what would he have to gain from our bags full of girly summer clothing anyway?

He quickly shows us to the deck, where we are supposed to admire the view across the port and get comfortable, and then he has to dash off - duty calls; he is, after all, a busy officer.

Happily we stretch our arms, finally rid of the heavy bags for a while, stroll across the still rather empty deck and find ourselves a good spot in the sun.
With the progression of the afternoon, more passengers come aboard, and we find it interesting to watch the mixture of people and see what they do first - some head straight to the little "restaurant", others are desperately looking for the toilet, while others still settle with all their possessions and start getting out panini and coffee from their bags.

Finally, the time of departure is here, and depart we do!
Good-bye, Genua - I have never come back to this day, although I didn't know it then.
For some hours, nothing worth mentioning happens.

How it came about I can not recall, but at some stage, we find ourselves talking to (or, rather, being talked to) two Palermitans who curiously inquire about the two girls on their own who are serious about wanting to travel to Sicily without any male company for protection.

Brigitte feels at ease talking to them; they are not being unpleasant or the kind of slimy git you sometimes come across when travelling alone. Gianni and Luca are both teachers at a school for disadvantaged youths in Palermo. They are not 30 yet, but Gianni is already as good as bald, while Luca has very fair skin and ginger hair - yes, Federico Barbarossa's heritage is still very much alive in a good part of the DNA of today's inhabitants of Sicily, especially in the West.

At some stage in the evening, our officer walks past in a brisk manner, shooting warning glances in Gianni and Luca's direction. We are his protegées, and he will not hesitate to intervene if he notices anything untoward going on.

Gianni and Luca have a cabin, and eventually they retreat for the night, leaving Brigitte and myself to enjoy the spectacular sunset over the Mediterranean.

The officer is back. He asks us to follow him, and although Brigitte understands where we are going, she is suddenly so excited her stuttering gets to a level that makes it impossible for her to explain anything to me. I have no choice but to tag along.

Up we climb, first outside, then inside, the steps becoming smaller and the staircases narrower. And up again, and then some more, until a white metal door is opened, we step over the high threshold, and are... the most holy - on the bridge!

For the first time in my life, I set foot on a ship's bridge. Here, everything is done to make sure that the journey goes according to plan. Quiet, serious men in impeccably white shirts work alongside reassuringly buzzing devices; at regular intervals beeping or blipping sounds can be heard, someone says something into a microphone, someone else does something mysterious at a console of instruments, and all this is happening in almost total darkness.

The green glow from the navigational map and the radar sweep give a strange illumination and contribute to the overall atmosphere.
Our officer shows his white teeth in the glow when he smiles at our awe - that surprise really worked!

I am impressed, and do not dare to utter a word. Brigitte only nods at the whispered explanations given; she is beyond speaking.

And then - another door is opened for us, another high threshold requires for us to step carefully, and we are outside the bridge, on the highest and smallest deck, right on top of the ship.

The view is breathtaking - especially of what is high above our heads: the starry skies, far from any brightly lit city, so full of stars that I swallow hard; I don't know why, but to see all this out there, lightyears away from our little planet, almost moves me to tears.

Nothing I can see at first glance looks familiar here, and then I remember: I am a lot further down South than I have ever been before in my life, and of course the patterns our human eyes have assigned to the stars are different here from the ones I know so well from looking at the night sky over my hometown in South Germany.

Our officer points at a particular formation. "La croce del Sud", he explains.

Even I understand that - The Southern Cross, Das Kreuz des Südens...
Silently repeating the words in my mind, a shudder runs down my spine, and I feel goosebumps on my arms. The sound of that - Das Kreuz des Südens - is the sound of adventure, of sea-faring people, of travels and troubles and rewards alike.

Then it is time for us to leave the most holy and go back to where we, as normal passengers who can not afford a cabin, are to spend the night: on deck.
Brigitte and I thank our officer for taking us to the bridge and find ourselves a long bench, long enough for the two of us to stretch out.

Until then, I had not noticed, but now I realize: the night air has suddenly become warm!
We settle with our jumpers as pillows and our coats as blankets; after all, the month is October, and we needed those jumpers and coats when we started our journey in autumnal Germany.

I fall asleep, but it is not a deep sleep. The bench is not very comfortable, the sounds and smells are different, and the excitement of sleeping under the Southern Cross too big.

The morning comes, and we get up stiffly, and search for our officer. We need our bags, where we have several portion packets of muesli for our travel breakfast - anything to save money, so that we do not have to buy the expensive cornetti from the ship's cafeteria.

Of course, he is not far - nothing is far here, even though it is a big vessel - and takes us to the small locker room where our luggage is.
Dry muesli is difficult to eat, and Brigitte asks if we can have any milk.
The officer looks at her, hesitates a moment, then nods and walks away. Brigitte and I look at each other, shrug and decide to wait.
Minutes later, he comes back, with a rather embarrassed look on his face - he makes sure no-one is observing the scene and quickly hands us a half-litre carton of milk.
Brigitte and I thank him profusely, but he only makes a dismissing gesture with his hand and escapes, leaving us to get back to our bench, where we sit in the morning sun and have our muesli with lukewarm milk.

Why was he so different with us all of a sudden, I ask, and Brigitte starts to laugh and explains to me how deeply embarrassing it must have been for this man to be seen with a carton of milk in his hands - milk is for babies! Not for Italian men, and certainly not for Italian men who are officers of rather high rank!

While we are both laughing and finishing our muesli, Gianni and Luca reappear, politely asking whether we had a good night.
Brigitte tells them of our visit to the bridge, and I can see they are impressed. Being a young woman does have its advantages - it is highly unlikely that we would have ever got to know our officer in the first place, had we been male tourists.

The rest of the journey goes by without any event that I remember.
When we approach Palermo, Gianni and Luca are there with us again, standing at the railing, and waiting to get the best view of the famous Conca d'Oro.

It is a spectacular sight: Monte Pellegrino in the background, the big city sprawling in all directions but the Sea, and the curve of the Conca.

Gianni and Luca smile at each other, at their hometown and at us. Our officer shakes hands with both of us, and is finally convinced that the two teachers are not going to do us any harm. We take our bags and follow Gianni and Luca who insist on taking us into Palermo in Gianni's car, and to a hotel they know is "safe" for "girls like you".

Brigitte does not object; she knows that it is wise to listen to someone who knows the place inside out, and once again, not even for the fraction of a second do we think that there could be any danger from these two men.
The only thing she does object to (later, when they have left us at the small, cheap but clean hotel in a very old building in the old town of Palermo) is that Gianni has called her "figliola" - "little daughter"! She is 25, after all, and finds this "title" quite condescending of him.

After a shower and a change of clothes we set off to explore Palermo.

More Souvenirs from Sicily to come!
(All pictures shamelessly nicked from elsewhere on the web)


  1. The Southern Cross is about the only constellation in our sky that I can recognise. Unlike the Northern Hemisphere we don't have a star to show us which way the pole is. About the closest thing we have is the Southern Cross.

    Near to the Cross you'll find the two Pointers (Alpha and Beta Centauri). Draw an imaginary line down the axis of the Cross and another at right angles from the midpoint between the pointers and where those two lines intersect is our Southern Celestial Pole (where our version of the Northern Star would be if we had one).

    Whenever I look up into the night sky I always look for the Southern Cross.

  2. Thanks for the explanation, Warwick! Which star sign would then have a similar effect on you as the Southern Cross has on most Northern and Middle-Europeans?

  3. Sorry, I didn't realise that you'd replied! ^_^;
    I'll have to pay more attention after making a comment in future!

    I'd guess that the main things would be Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Especially Ursa Minor seeing as it has Polaris at its tail (and because Little Bear sounds cuter than Great Bear!). I wouldn't really say that I know any northern astronomy beyond that. :)

  4. My favourite constellation is Orion. "He" can be seen in the sky here from autumn onwards, I think, and when I spot "him", it is like greeting an old friend.
    Ursa Major and Cassiopeia are visible all year round, so yes, I guess these are very typical constellations for this part of the globe.

    1. Hello There,
      My name is Lynn and I'm a Professional Blogger. I have more than 3+ yrs of experience writing for the web and have covered plenty of interesting topics.
      I came across your blog and was wondering if you would be interested in allowing me to write relevant & useful topics on your blog at no cost.
      At this point of my writing career, I simply want to get more visibility for my writing and I will write for free as long as you are fine with me adding a small author bio section following the blog post about myself.
      Please let me know if you are interested and if you'd like for me to submit a sample blog post for your approval.
      Thanks a bunch,

    2. Hello Lynn,
      according to your latest blog post from November 26, you are way too busy to write anything for anyone else ;-)
      As you have probably seen from my blog, it is an entirely personal, non-profit blog, and therefore I would never pay anyone for their contribution to it. If you want to write about a subject that you think could be interesting for my readers (you can pretty much tell what they like by looking at the number of comments on certain posts), let's give it a go.
      - Meike.
      PS: It is a bit puzzling that you call yourself Carrie on your own blog, and here you say your name is Lynn.