Photo courtesy of Bjorn Larrson.
An alternative to driving the long way around from Ancona, Italy to Patras, Greece, is to go by car ferry. On the day we wanted to make the trip, many years ago, third-class tickets for the “Mediterranean Sea,” were sold out, so we had to buy first class. After waiting in line for hours, our VW van was crammed aboard into one of the last available spaces, a cubbyhole with a low ceiling and steel walls on three sides.
Three days later, when it was time to unload, this cubicle became an oven. Temperatures soaring over 100 F. and the chaos of impatient passengers and disorganized unloading practices had us nearly suffocating on the engine exhaust of cars started way too soon in the closed-in car deck. (In those days in Italy, there were no safety regulations such as we already had in Canada and still do.) An overeager passenger in dire need of driving lessons backed up his trailer at a weird angle behind us, making it impossible for us to move. Trapped in the scorching cubicle I felt like a chicken in a slow cooker.
But let me backtrack two days. Long before the unloading fiasco, we learned that paying first-class prices didn’t translate into first-class service. Because of having first-class tickets, we had to take our meals in the first-class lounge. We put on the best of our jeans and T-shirts and took a seat at the end of one of the long empty tables in the middle of the room. The waiters leaned their shoulders together and muttered something to each other. Then one of them asked us to join a couple at a small corner table. We regretted spoiling their privacy at this secluded table, but it wasn’t our doing. We said hello. No response. Mrs. Ageing Princess dropped her eyelids, smoothed her long white silk gown, and stuck her nose in the air, up and away, presumably to draw fresh uncontaminated breath on her farther side. Mr. Heir-to-the-Throne shot his cuffs from his tuxedo and patted her hand consolingly, making no effort to control the twitching of his upper lip and nostrils.
We directed our attention to the meal—served to their royal highnesses first—and watched the choicest morsels being loaded onto their plates. The swarthy waiter then came to our side of the table. I didn’t know whether to cry at the inadequate dinner of tired leftover bits he tried to serve us, or laugh at the way the tiniest remnants of French fries kept slipping from the fancy tongs he was obliged to use. So much for first class.
“I think you need to go refill the platter first,” my husband said. I watched as the waiter returned to the kitchen. At first I’d been annoyed that he tried to give us the dregs of the platter, but now that I saw him being jostled out of line at the kitchen pass-through window, I wondered if this explained his sparsely laden serving tray.
After that day, I watched the swarthy one at mealtimes. The other waiters scolded and bumped him, treated him abominably. On the second and last night of the trip, the grand finale after our meal was a surprise. The lights were suddenly shut off and the waiters filed out carrying plates of flaming Baked Alaska. Like soldiers on review, they stood, proudly displaying the Bombe Alaska. The diners applauded politely and the waiters extinguished their fiery platters, blowing out the last of the dying flames —all except our swarthy waiter. He blew on his flaming dessert in increasingly frantic puffs, eventually slapping at his scorching sleeves.
“Uh-oh,” I said. “He’ll be in the doghouse now.” And sure enough, the suave-looking head waiter grabbed the unfortunate’s burning plate, hissed something as he swept past him, and the two disappeared into the kitchen. “Poor guy! He’s getting an earful now.”
The next morning, before we had both eyes open, we were rousted out of our bed to pack and get ready to disembark. No showers, no breakfast—grab suitcases, leave the cabin. Sure enough, land was in sight, but it would be a while before the tug could maneuver us into the harbour.
“I’ll get us a cup of coffee while we wait.” I found our swarthy waiter friend wiping down the bar in the lounge.
“Can I get a cup of coffee, please? I’ll pay.” Other meals had been included in the ticket price until now, but I could see that they wanted to clear us out and further meals would not be included in the fare.
The waiter snarled at me, “Bar’s closed!”
I took a step back. “Wow!” The cycle of mistreatment would perpetuate itself. He was getting ready to move up in the pecking order.
*Note – Both of the ferries travelling between Italy and Greece (the Mediterranean Sea and the Mediterranean Sky) are no longer in service. The “Sea” (later renamed Mediterranean Sun) was dismantled and the “Sky” was sinking at the wharf in Athens and so was towed across the bay to sink in a more private (out of the way) place.
You can see the “Mediterranean Sky” lying on its side in the waters of Eleusis Bay, near Athens behind the island of Salamis. Just click the link for a satellite view of it.