Two ferry boats were anchored in the port of Vlorë. I cycled to the seaside to look at them, then paused on the handlebars with a last-moment hesitation, as thoughts carried me back one year past. I was in another port, facing another ferry that I had hesitated, until the very last minute, to board. It was April but snow patches still covered the docks of Otaru, and I was having a really hard time to leave Hokkaido, a place that I had called home for a year. I had consoled myself with a promise to come back, but all my attempts had failed.
Note: I have moved parts of previous post here for balance. I am back on track with photo work, but still a bit late in my writing.
To board or not to board
Today, the stakes were of course different. The previous evening, I had finally come to relax from my one-way conversation with the Greek border police in Kakavië and to slow down after the racy ride through the Albanian mountains. I had then informed Jean-Miguel and Simon that they did not need to attempt the Greek border or to take expensive Covid tests. They now both planned on cycling eastwards to North Macedonia and Bulgaria, and then Turkey. I had then spent the rest of the evening looking at photos of beautiful Lake Ohrid and the seemingly gorgeous road that led to it through the mountains of Albania until I fell asleep. I had not considered this route earlier, but I was now very tempted to follow them.
Yet I still aimed to cycle to Greece. I was committed to reach the Aegean Sea by the end of the month. Taking the road east through North Macedonia and Bulgaria was quite of a detour to start with, but what I feared the most were new border complications and administrative delays on the way. So I got back to the guy I had talked to the previous day after all, whose job as it turned out, was to buy a ticket for me on-line and to walk over to the company’s office, now that I could see which it was, for check-in. I was curious to why there were two boats docked in the port, so I asked where the second one was going. To which he replied “no. That one is not good. This ship is much better, you will see.” Two ferries competing for the same deserted line on the same timetable, and half-a-dozen boots competing to sell tickets to these two ferries. What a funny world we lived in.
The boarding process was quite complicated. I received identification and temperature checks, and had to take my bags through a scanner. At nearly every occasion, I asked the police, the port staff, and the crew, whether ferries ran from Brindisi to Greece. To which they all said yes, though they also asked “why did you not take a ferry from Sarandë to Corfu?” Or “why don’t you just cycle to Igoumenitsa?” Even them apparently, had a hard time to keep an overview of the current travel restrictions. So I explained the whole story again to each of them.
Eventually, I went onboard and I walked up the stairs to the passenger decks where a crew member helped me to fill up an entry form for Italy. After a few questions, he wrote the last concluding remark: “I am going home. I am transiting in Italy.” I warned him again that I planned to travel to Greece afterwards and asked if this could be a problem. To which he answered “well, I don’t know. But don’t worry, you can go home anyway you like.” He could not be more accurate.
The ship was full of signs in Norwegian that were completely out-of-place but that nobody had cared to remove. They said things like “30 percent on all but clothes and accessories”, but the shop had neither clothes, accessories or anything else to sell. Another sign permanently advised that “the restaurant is fully booked” where there was clearly no risk of that happening. I walked upstairs again to the sun deck and sat against the town of Vlorë thinking “ciao, Albania, or maybe see you soon. Let’s see how this goes.” Four hours later, the ferry was still in the port. The schedule apparently did not take into account the fact that the contents of each truck had to be manually checked by dogs and people.
On the wrong side of the sea
“I’m going home. I’m transiting in Italy.” I handed my entry form to the Italian police. A few minutes later, the officer came back with my documents and wished me “bon voyage“. Nobody asked if I had been to Montenegro in the last two weeks, or whether I had taken a test. I was back into the European Union. Thank you Italy for making this simple.
The whole Brindisi experience was quite weird. The ferry had docked in the Italian harbour with a delay of three hours and it was almost midnight when I eventually cycled into town. Accommodation prices here were twice those on the other side of the sea, but I had not risked booking any before making sure I would be allowed to disembark. As for wild camping, I could choose between industrial areas around the port, and the airport north of the city. Eventually though, I found a little hotel where I could check-in late and even push my bike into a ground-floor room. I connected to the internet and, before midnight, still managed to register a new online entry form for Greece with information I had picked up at the port, planning to arrive there two days later. Then I fell asleep exhausted, no longer used to stay up so late.
I woke up to a breakfast I had not realized was included in the price of my room, a delicious cappuccino, and a very strong feeling to be on the wrong side of the sea. From the first minute of the day, I regretted that I had not changed my mind in Vlorë and headed eastwards to North Macedonia and Bulgaria after all. There was a TV in the breakfast room showing images of snowfall, probably in the Alps, which was not surprising for late September, but somehow felt surreal. Besides, the ferry transit was a painful reminder that, with a bit of oil and money, the distance I had travelled in three months would be easily covered. But it was not even any of that which bothered me. What bothered me was the impression that I had not come here. I had been transported here, and this felt very different. Because after three months of bicycling, the ferry crossing just felt like black magic.
In Brindisi, it was of course not snowing, but the skies were grey, and a few drops fell every now and again. Italy, the country that I always kept coming back to, and systematically welcomed me with rain. There came other news that morning. News that I had been dreading for a while, and then stopped caring about. News from my last application for a university job, which I had submitted five months earlier. The position had been opened by an exiting group with which I would easily find common interests and complementary skills. It was a two-years contract with prospects for a permanent employment at a dynamic university, with good funding opportunities and some of the best university working conditions in the world. But none of that were my true motivations. The main reasons I had applied to the job, was that first, friends had pushed me to do so, certifying it would be a good place for me. Second, and most importantly, I had met a few people from this group at scientific conferences over the years, and everybody I knew there seemed to have a good heart. Which is, by the way, not the typical thing to write in a ten-page application for a university job reviewed by an external panel.
I had been thinking about the job a lot in the early part of my cycling tour and eventually decided for myself that, in the unlikely event that I would be preselected, I would decline it, explaining all of the above, along with the fact that, at the present moment, I did not feel in an emotional state to readily move alone to yet another new place in the world and begin yet another new life there. This, at least, is what I had been thinking while I riding my bike under the sun, but of course I did not know how I would react, and feel then, if I was confronted with an interview. The question did not come up though. Out of twenty-four applications considered, mine was among the five who were directly ruled out as incomplete.
A few more applicants were out-listed as being specialized in the wrong field, but the remaining selection was largely based on crude statistics of how many papers the guys had published in the last few years and how many times they had been downloaded. Which did not surprise me, but still felt odd to see written black on white. While I was a bit disappointed to know that I ranked so low, I was glad in a way, that the matter was settled. I would not need to bring this uncertainty along to Greece. It was another item I could take off my mental luggage. I probably should have been applying to many more jobs if I had really wanted to know where I ranked. But this rejection would be the last in a while, maybe the last in my career. A little voice in my head said: “hey, lazy bum, now you are on your own”. And I was fine with it.
Camping on the decks
I think I felt more uneasy there than anytime previous on this tour. I cycled to the port to buy a ferry ticket. Everything here was well organized. In Brindisi unlike Vlorë, there was one ferry terminal building, and one booth for each company. There were signs all over the place pointing to the direction of Grecia, always accompanied with a little reminder that I was welcomed back to Albania. And yes, I was in fact tempted for a while to just go back to familiar-feeling Albania, no matter how ridiculous that was, cycle back up the homely streets of Vlorë and from there up across the mountains to Lake Ohrid and North Macedonia. But instead I lined up with the truck drivers in front of the counter for Igoumenitsa. The employee who sold me the ticket to Greece appeared very annoyed that I did not speak Italian, and refused to give me cabin prices before I had chosen what I would book. She seemed to say that it did not matter which date was written on my entry form as long as I had one. Nevertheless, I booked a ticket for the overnight ferry to be sure to arrive in Greece on the correct day. She then insisted that I should be ready to board at seven.
I cycled back to town for another cappuccino. The streets of Brindisi were surprisingly quiet, but perhaps this had something to do with the drastically reduced ferry traffic of these days. I was back into the European Union, and in comparison with Albania everything here was thought-through, organized and somewhat familiar. People spoke German, English, and of course Italian, which I don’t understand but is close enough to French. But despite all that, I strongly felt that I did not belong here. A demonstration if needed, that the feeling of not belonging depends at least as much on one’s state of mind as one’s environment. Since this was Italy, I ate a pizza for lunch, which was evidently far superior to anything I had eaten in the Balkans. I tried to convince myself hard that this delicious pizza was the reason why I had paid more than a hundred euros in ferry tickets and hotel lodging, because even that would feel more acceptable than the truth. But it did not work. I had to come to terms with the fact that I had spent all that money just to circumvent nonsensical travel restrictions, in fact even putting myself at risk by using public transport.
A little before seven, I cycled back to the port, only to end up watching long-haulers board the ship and beating away mosquitoes for an hour and a half. When this was over, I had a beer on board with money that could have bought me a small meal in Albania. The night was stormy, and as soon as the ferry exited the port, it begun rocking so hard that it looked like everybody on board was drunk. Passengers were few and mostly truck drivers. The interior of the cabin was full of “no camping” signs, so I went to sleep outside. I set up my sleeping mat on the southern, downwind walkway, under a bright neon lamp and loud engine noise, but shielded from the rain by the upper deck. On the positive side of things, there was definitely enough ventilation here to feel protected from viruses. In fact my mat and blanket would have instantly flown off if I did not keep them anchored at all times. Somewhere between Italy, Greece and Albania, in the middle of the flat black watery world, I eventually found sleep in my noisiest, brightest and windiest camp site to date.