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 Übersetzungen / Translations   englisch / english     Around the World in 180 Days

 / englisch / english Around the World in 180 Days

Around the World in 180 Days
Logbook of a Voyage Undertaken by Johann Gottlieb Fichtl

Translator: Sally-Ann Spencer 2000
Original title: In 180 Tagen um die Welt - Matthias Politycki
published in: marebuchverlag, 3/08
About the Book

“Well, lads, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it myself!” Most passengers on a round-the-world journey have a story or two to tell. But a tax official who ends up on a luxury cruise ship because of a lottery ticket...  Well, Johann Gottlieb Fichtl has more to write home about than most. A member of a winning lottery syndicate, he leaves his native Bavaria with a borrowed dinner jacket and a collection of novelty ties, and embarks on a voyage of discovery that takes him from the bilge to the penthouse deck and across the seven seas.
     Fichtl records the strange events on board the five-star Europa in his logbook: 184 days and 184 incredible stories. Dinner at the captain’s table, a caviar gala, baptism on the line, a titmouse that nests in a passenger’s hair net, a hog that lives in the keel, a geriatric skydiver, a compass that goes haywire in Tasmania and a legendary concert with seventeen tenors that makes a fatal impression on the piano tuner’s watch – life on the cruise ship is never boring, but are the stories too fanciful to be true?
     On a deeper level, the liner is a cabinet of curiosities, a floating magic mountain of our times. Most of the passengers throw themselves into the frivolity of the five-class lifestyle, chasing after the champagne, rumours and gossip, and sailing past the questions at the heart of real life. But one passenger is changed forever by the journey. By the time the vessel comes into harbour, Johann Gottlieb Fichtl has found his calling, and his incredible story takes on a life of its own...
     Around the World in 180 Days is a modern-day picaresque novel, an inspired tour de farce, which brings the idiosyncrasies of our society into hilarious focus. Matthias Politycki uses his satirical talents to send the reader on a rollicking journey.

“Few travel(ling) writers scrutinize the strange and the familiar with the perceptiveness of Matthias Politycki: three cheers for the king of dark comedy!”
     (Alexandra Kedves, Neue Zürcher Zeitung)


I first set eyes on Johann Gottlieb Fichtl (“Fichtl Hannes” as he called himself) on the first evening of our cruise. He was in the Sansibar on deck 9, elbows on the counter, facing away from the stern, while the lights of Istanbul glistened in the windows behind him – a shimmering, ethereal backdrop of which he was unaware. He had the beginnings of a bald patch and was probably in his early forties, a wiry fellow with bus-driver glasses and a suit designed for someone twice his size. But the really striking thing about him was his incredible bib-like tie. Printed across the front was a grinning Cheshire cat that winked at us jauntily (sometimes with one eye, sometimes with the other, depending on the angle) whenever we looked at it, which was almost all the time. The fatness of the cat stood in contrast to the scrawniness of its owner, who was already quite drunk – drunk enough to feel at home in these surroundings and to cling to his glass with spindly fingers while he steadied himself on the counter or a gentleman’s shoulder, a handbag, or a stool...
     Rather than retire to his quarters, Fichtl was chatting with abandon as if he were a regular drinker at the bar. He even asked his neighbours, and anyone who cared to listen, whether they could guess how he came to be among them. “On the M-m-S Eu-eu-ropa,” he said, speaking in a guttural dialect from deepest Bavaria that obliged us to extrapolate his meaning from the occasional intelligible word. Communication difficulties notwithstanding, he was “w-w-willing to b-b-bet” that no one could guess his reasons for booking the cruise. Stuttering and stammering, he issued these and other bold pronouncements, sometimes breaking off mid-sentence and lapsing into silence for minutes at a time. Then, just as the magnificent lights of the Bosporus were fading into inky blackness behind him, he came to life and announced with unexpected clarity that his cat was thirsty too. More specifically, the cat, who was exhausted from the journey, was gasping for a drink of Operator, which his “friend” – a reference to the bartender who maintained a judicious silence – was kindly pouring on his behalf. Operawhat? Surely not in the Sansibar? One of the regular passengers must have ordered a keg of it, but Fichtl had a nose for strong bock beer; a nose, but not necessarily the constitution – his malted tongue was st-st-struggling and st-st-stuttering to keep up with his ideas. Fichtl’s syllables were running away from him, but his actions were purposeful and controlled. No sooner had he finished speaking than he lowered his tie into his pint glass so the cat could drink its fill. And there he sat, waiting pensively while the cat quenched its thirst. Time went by, then he hauled up his tie and, paying no attention to the dripping beer, left the bar abruptly on his way “h-h-home”, as he put it, at which point there was a general raising of eyebrows and a lady who, judging by her grey-and-black checked suit had missed her vocation as a teacher of religion, ventured to comment that a fat cat like Fichtl was bound to have some weight behind him and was obviously “really, really big”.
     I never saw him as drunk as he was that night. A few days later, when I encountered him for the second time, he was wearing a polyester tie printed with an assortment of local icons from Bavaria with a soaring spire entangled in the knot. As for Fichtl himself, he seemed daintier and more fragile than before, and I realized that his awkward speech, which I had put down to his enthusiasm for Operator, was one of his enduring traits. “S-s-so you’re our sh-sh-ship sc-sc-scribe, are you?” he asked me. Yes, Fichtl Hannes had a stammer! Needless to say, I wasn’t the only one who took an interest in his case. Everyone on board was intrigued by his circumstances and his reasons for boarding the Europa, but he dodged our questions or answered them evasively, which merely heightened his mystique. No one guessed that Fichtl confided exclusively in his logbook and with a facility that belied his stuttering speech. In fact, his written record is astonishingly fluent – proof, in my opinion, that he wanted to make up on paper for the silences and ellipses that characterized his speech. Who would have thought that a man of such appalling taste should write with such flair? I for one misjudged his intelligence on account of his novelty tie. Typically, Fichtl’s logbook makes no mention of the misunderstandings and embarrassments resulting from his stammer, which is revealing and regrettable in equal part.
     Was it a case of the wrong man on the wrong ship? One thing is certain: on the MS Europa, Fichtl soon became a mythical figure: “really, really big”. Little is known about his life before the voyage. He was born Johann Gottlieb Fichtl in Oberviechtach, a small town in the Oberpfalz region of Bavaria, not far from the border with Czechoslovakia. During the week, he worked as a mid-ranking official at a subsidiary branch of the Munich tax office in Passau, his place of employment for the past twenty years, but at weekends he drove home to visit his mother in Oberviechtach and meet his friends at the Adabei, even in summer when the beer garden at the Kramerl was by far the more popular choice.
How did a man like Fichtl come to be on board? As we found out later, it was a mixture of luck and chance. He and his friends at the Adabei weren’t just drinking buddies; they were dedicated followers of the lottery and the pools. The declared aim of their “syndicate” (for that was what they called themselves) was to hit the jackpot and see the world together – on a luxury liner, no less. According to their line of thinking, there was no point in scrimping on a trip of a lifetime, a principle that had far-reaching consequences when all six numbers were drawn in summer 2006. You see, the money sufficed for only one ticket! Naturally, they could have settled for a cheaper ship or a shorter route, but not without sacrificing the grandness of their plan, and so it was decided that one of their number should travel in their stead. Without ado, they booked one of the last remaining cabins on the ship. The question as to who should be the lucky traveller took rather longer to resolve. At last, only a few days before the liner was due to sail, a means of selection was agreed on, and the winner was our own Mr Fichtl, who hastily arranged a leave of absence for the duration of the trip. Thus he was free to travel the world on one condition: that he furnish his friends with a photographic and written log that would allow them to accompany him, if not in person, at least in spirit, on the voyage. For their part, they helped with his wardrobe, which was put together in considerable haste, and so Fichtl was loaned a complete collection of novelty ties and a dinner jacket belonging to the municipal authorities of Oberviechtach and cut for an overweight mayor. The suit was so obviously too big for him that rumours abounded on the Europa about his tragic past: big feathers make interesting birds.
     Some people in my position may have been tempted to visit the Adabei in person, but I took a conscious decision not to acquaint myself with Fichtl’s friends. Fichtl “converses” with them directly in the course of his journal and he mentioned them frequently to members of the crew. To spare the reader confusion, I shall take the time to introduce them here: “Fonsä” (Alfons Fendler, owner of a hire car company), “Veit” (Veit Rottensteiner, a glassblower), Zenz (Zenz Dinhobel, an organic farmer) and “Wolfi” (Wolfgang X, surname unknown, publican at the Adabei). It was with these four men in mind and not the wider public that Fichtl wrote his logbook, hence the somewhat quirky nature of his chronicle and his disregard for fact. It could almost be considered an “anti-log” in its glaring omissions and haphazard treatment of certain events. I was tempted to expunge or annotate the occasional reference to the “shipscribbler” (whom Fichtl claims was cut adrift in Iranian waters – an outrageous assertion and patently absurd: I was the one who disembarked with his journal at the end of the trip!), but I persuaded myself that intervention was unnecessary: the whole logbook consists of obvious distortions of the truth.
     I shall leave it to the reader to decide whether Fichtl’s chronicle, rationed into daily snippets for his Oberviechtach comrades, should be regarded as a balance sheet or a love letter in disguise. What is certain is that he compiled his log exactly as he had promised, recording the day’s events over precisely two pages, with never a line too many or too few. The accompanying photographs were taken as per the syndicate’s requirements as soon as he woke up (hence the caption: “A First Impression”) and later developed by the resident photographer who followed Fichtl’s instructions and printed the snapshots in the format of commemorative stamps. They appear in the top right-hand corner of each double spread. And what of the meteorological data in the opening rubric? Readings were taken at six in the morning on the bridge and published on the internal server for individual passengers to consult. Fichtl experimented at first with different formats, but from day six onwards he settled for logging air temperature, humidity, wind speed and wind direction. The brief descriptions of the weather (“cloudy”, “fine” and so forth) are generally the work of Fichtl himself. Later, he appended the distances covered in a nautical day – the number of nautical miles travelled from noon until noon – which he obtained from the ship’s official log.
     The precision he displays with regard to scientific data contrasts greatly with his fanciful descriptions of life on the ship. I have touched already on Fichtl’s tendency to invent or distort the events of the voyage. Was he hoping to impress the Oberviechtach syndicate or did he feel obliged to provide his fellow ticket-holders with excitement, regardless of whether he was experiencing it himself? Indeed, on perusing the logbook, I find myself wondering whether Fichtl and I were on the same boat. Any attempt to compare his chronicle to the journey as I recall it leads to the same conundrum: much of what he writes is patently fabricated but at the same time astonishingly accurate, while other events are recorded with shocking precision and are wholly and utterly false.
     After considering the matter carefully, I resolved that his logbook, including the supplementary list of “Everyone On Board” compiled in the course of the voyage, should be made available in published form. For the record, I would like to state that my decision was based on weightier considerations than an offhand comment made by Ludwig, our headwaiter, when he handed me the notebook on the last day of our voyage. How could he have suspected, when he remarked that I would surely find a “use” for Fichtl’s jottings, that the personal diary of a tax official from Oberviechtach contained material that would make the basis of a book? At this point I should mention for the sake of accuracy that my definitive log of the journey, which paints a different picture of our voyage and serves as a corrective to Fichtl’s fantastical account, will be published shortly by another press.
     I mention Ludwig (or “Fasthuber” as he is referred to in the following pages – Fichtl calls him by his surname) purely because of his role in the proceedings and not to draw attention to his conduct vis-à-vis the notebook, which Fichtl specifically asked him to deliver to his friends. Besides, it seems to me that Fichtl may well have lost interest in repaying his debt to the syndicate. The last time I saw him he was standing at the railings and his voyage as a “fat cat” was over. The sea was smooth as glass and it was a sunny afternoon. He had his eyes closed and was paying no attention to the cloud formations passing overhead. I observed him from a distance, sensing at once that he didn’t want to be disturbed. He was wearing one of his oversized suits and his tie was the novelty number from that fateful first night. Perhaps I was mistaken, but it seemed to me that the cat had closed its eyes as well. It certainly wasn’t grinning – just smiling benignly. I wish I had taken the opportunity to ask him for it – it would have made the perfect bookmark for this tome.

Ingo Jonatzki.

Hamburg, 28.10.2007

Logbook of a Voyage Undertaken by Johann Gottlieb Fichtl

DAY 1. 5.11.06, Oberviechtach/Bavaria – Istanbul/Turkey
Departure: 22.00hrs
Conditions at 06.00hrs: 11°c, November drizzle
A First Impression: Headquarters of the Local Rag, Oberviechstach ((photograph))

Damn! In the morning, I stop outside the town hall and read the notice board as usual: “by-law for the protection of poultry from bird flu” officially extended until 31.07.07 – I’ll be home by then. Exactly twelve hours later, I’m waiting for my suitcase to appear on the belt. A splash of my favourite aftershave, and it’s time for the welcome drinks. Second and third drink at the foot of the gangway, then met by Lena, my cabin stewardess, who apologizes because the champagne in my “suite” (her words not mine!) isn’t fully chilled. Quick tug on my tie and I follow her up the gangway. Well, I’ll be blowed: one moment I’m boarding a ship, and all of a sudden I’m in a hotel! Not a porthole in sight; just king-size windows, kilometres of carpet, and above us, a ceiling so high I can barely see it, made of clear glass. A cluster of people at the bar (hang on a minute, they’re raising their glasses to me!) and in the reception area, a grand piano and a black pianist in a white suit, dressed Louis Armstrong fashion, and playing foyer jazz. I tell myself not to stare: I don’t want to seem like an absolute novice. The pianist glances across, ... “and I think to myself...”, flashes me a grin, “...what a wonderful cat!”, and I see his shiny white teeth. He even meows. Flustered, I rush to my “suite”. Too busy exploring the walk-in wardrobe and trawling through the profiles of the officers and entertainment crew (CruiseNet, our personal entertainment system) to notice that we’re casting off. Leave suite shortly after 22.00hrs to go to the Sansibar, but the boat is a maze – long walk towards the stern down a never-ending passageway, and I wind up in the bow. Solve the problem by taking one of the twin glass-walled lifts from reception to deck nine, then onto the outer deck and follow the railings to the stern. Damn! There it is in front of me, the Sansibar with floor-to-ceiling sliding doors and a panoramic view of the wake. Not bad for my local! No expense spared on the inside: crossed pirate’s swords on the walls, giant champagne bottles masquerading as sculptures, and gleaming ice buckets that change colour in the light – a person could get half-cut just by looking. I’m on my third or fourth Pilsner (I asked for Operator, but the barman said Pilsner at sea is like bock beer on land) when a fellow says to his companion, “Have you seen his tie?”. And the other says, “Could anyone miss it? I’m worried I might go blind.” I reach into one of the bowls on the counter and take another handful of lurid green nuts (apparently, it’s essence of Japanese radish, but it’s making me sick). “What a wonderful cat,” purrs someone (the barman?) as I make my way out.

Day 2. 6.11.06, Black Sea
Conditions at 06.00hrs: Air Temperature 11°c, Sea Temperature 13°c, Pool Temperature 28°c
A First Impression: View From My Suite (The three bouquets of orchids were too big to fit into the frame) ((photograph))

No more Operator – or at any rate, no more Pilsner pretending to be bock. Or should I be blaming the curry sausage that I ate before bed? It came in a soup bowl: pre-sliced sausage (neat little discs like chocolate money) covered in curry sauce. If you ask me, it was more like stew than hot dog, but the sauce was all right. That reminds me... I was eating my late-night snack when a fellow – a turnip dealer from Switzerland – came up to me and said I was sitting on his stool. He reckoned it had his name on it (which it didn’t – I checked) and that people couldn’t waltz in and swipe the best seats without “earning” them first. I moved over and sat next to a well-dressed character, who looked straight past me and said to the other chap, “I say, we all like a beer or two, but hasn’t anyone told him the rules?” I think he was a banker by the name of Charles Pauw.  – This evening: “welcome dinner” in the Europa restaurant (dress code: formal), followed by shake-hands-with-the-captain and a “welcome show”. Quick glance in the mirror before I leave the room: my dinner jacket is creased all over! I don’t suppose it matters because it came from Aldi (remember what you told me, Zenz? I’m bound to get noticed in a jacket like that...!). More passageways with identical blue carpet and I turn up late. The maître d’ puts me at the end of a table – ten settings, and I’m the eleventh, but I don’t have a choice in the matter, and in any case, he’s right: I’ve got an unobstructed view of the captain’s table. Everyone is talking or bustling around. Best of all: the waiters (“stewards”) place our napkins in our laps! Next they bring round tiny rolls on silver platters – one roll per person and we’re allowed to help ourselves. I meet my fellow diners of the next six months: “Ah, Mr Cat!” says Professor Something-or-other. Then, “A bow tie this evening, I see. What a shame!”. He asks whether the moggy is on holiday. My reply: it’s a tom, not a moggy, and it comes from our Fonsä. “Our what?” enquires a gentleman who has a talent for sleeping upright, even mid-mouthful. He cups a hand to his ear. Did I know that “people only hear what they want to”? To be more specific: Anna is apparently “directly beneath us”... No idea what he’s on about! Handkerchief in his breast pocket, huge eyes behind his glasses – he must be really longsighted. Where was my tie from? “He probably got it from the same place as his suit,” says a gentleman who introduces himself as a count. Then, turning to me, “From Milan? The next big designer, I dare say.” I busy myself with my caviar and a bowl of prawn foam. The lady to my right (complicated double-barrelled name) keeps the waiter busy with special requests: tofu sausages, tofu lobster and for afters, low-fat ice cream and pumpkin seed oil. The upright dozer wakes for dessert, turns on his hearing aid and says, “I couldn’t agree more, my dear fellow. You marry them and when you’re dead and gone they blow your savings at the tables in Baden-Baden.”

Day 3. 7.11.06, Trabzon/Turkey , 07.30 – 18.00
Weather at 06.00hrs: 12°c, SW 6, “fair”, 513 nm
A First Impression: Trabzon Harbour ((photograph))

Protein Shock! Before breakfast I get out my jackets, dress shirts and ties and sort them in order of creasing. Decide to get them all ironed. Lena stares at the laundry pile, swallows, then grins: “So this is our famous cat! How about some milk instead of beer?” Oh yes, she’d heard about my cat: it was a celebrity already. And to think that the tie was a one-off from Armani! I notice too late that the dress code for this evening is “evening wear”. The ship’s bible states, “In the Europa restaurant and speciality restaurants on deck 4, gentlemen are politely requested to don suits or blazers and a tie. Women should dress accordingly.” Cripes! It’s too late to fetch my clothes from the laundry, so I make do with one of Wolfi’s traditional Bavarian shirts and a neckerchief. The maître d’ sees me, raises his eyebrows and tries to block my way. I’m saved by a white-haired gentleman propped up on the arm of a butler who barks at the waiter, “Young fellow, you’re in the way!” The latter shrinks back and I hurry through. At my table, Frau Wallosek turns to her husband and shakes her head, “Doesn’t anyone pay attention to the dress code? Honestly, Fritz, would you call that a tie?” A man who likes to be known as Consul, says, “Congratulations, Herr Fichtl! You’re always one step ahead of the crowd!” The waiters and waitresses are wearing tailcoats; they’re from another century. The ship starts rolling as soon as we get our prawn cocktails. The lady to my right (the one with the double-barrelled name) goes pale and excuses herself. Everyone assures each other that they’re hardened sailors: they’ve been practically living on the ocean for years. Someone asks for details of my cruise line experience, but the consul jumps in: “I dare say Herr Fichtl owns a liner of his own!” They raise their glasses and go back to discussing high winds and fearsome waves. The Black Sea can be “awfully choppy” at times, o yes. Someone divulges the sure-fire remedy for seasickness: coffee! Or an “apothecary” (Fernet-Branca, cognac and crème de menthe); or standing outside and staring at the horizon; or eating an apple and pressing your wrist... A property magnate travelling incognito and known only as “P” turns to me as if I’d asked for his advice: “In your case, I’d recommend sticking to bananas.” The widow who hasn’t lived on dry land since the death of her husband pipes up, “Why bananas?” P: “They won’t scratch your throat when you chuck them back up.” Later, I vomit, but not because I’m seasick or because I’ve drunk too much (quite the reverse). A double portion of scallops, a double portion of king prawns – a sure-fire recipe for protein shock! In the middle of the night the biggest vase in the cabin falls off the table: revenge of the killer orchids!

Day 4. 8.11.06, Yalta/Ukraine
Arrival: 20:30hrs
Conditions at 06.00hrs: 11°c, Wind speed 8 or 9 (not sure which), foul weather, 401 nm
A First Impression: Boats Putting Out From Sochi Harbour Before It Closes ((photograph))

The pong! And pale green faces everywhere. In the morning, sea still very rough and instructions from Sochi port authority not to proceed. Surely they’re not battening down the hatches? Aren’t harbours supposed to be open in bad weather? Not in Russia, it seems. We give up and head for the next port of call. Bad smell in the passageways. What sort of smell? That sort of smell. Announcement from reception: most of the performers are seasick as well. The entertainment manager will be putting on a “special” show and everyone (or anyone who can hold a recorder) is invited to join in: music, the unifying force in the war against seasickness. Do you want to know something strange? The ship keeps “rolling”, “pitching” and “heeling” (I’m not sure of the term – the self-appointed experts keep coming up with more), but it doesn’t affect my stomach one bit. Since we won’t be disembarking, I use the extra day at sea to explore the vessel deck by deck. Apparently, there are 7 bars and a jogging track (253 laps for a marathon), but I’m on the lookout for something else. According to property magnate P., the halfway gala will feature a surprise appearance by the lovely Dunja (P: “Of course I mean that Dunja! Dunja Rajter from Winnetou...”), who’s supposedly in our midst. In which case, where is she? I check the fitness centre on deck 9; the machines are all switched off. I try the pool on the lido deck; closed for maintenance with a safety net on top. I go into the craft room on deck 7... and end up in a workshop on Japanese flower arranging. The course leader, a bona fide Sumo wrestler, is demonstrating “super ikebana”, the art of manhandling flowers with stems the size of bulrushes. The wrestler uses a spear-throwing action to land the flowers in the vase and lets out a series of war cries. Each time he yells, the flower arrangers jump. By the time it’s over, I’m desperate for a coffee. 16.00hrs+: cake available in Club Belvedere where the pianist is playing – this time in a black suit on a white Steinway. Still no sign of Dunja. 18.00hrs: “Singles” cocktails in the Havana Bar. Sudden brainwave: if Dunja is on board, she'll definitely be on the penthouse deck. I take the glass lift to the top where the suites are named as well as numbered: “Beethoven”, “Bach”, “Chopin” and so forth. The “grand suites” are directly right above the bridge: Lena tells me they’ve got 85 square metres of floor space and private saunas to boot. A butler appears and I read the names quickly (numbers 1001 & 1002: “Hapag” & “Lloyd”) before he shoos me away.

Actually, he’s not a butler: he’s the shipscribbler! I recognize him from the “welcome show” when he was introduced with the rest of the troupe. Back then he was wearing a tatty leather jacket, but now he looks truly dreadful: walking sandals and pallid white feet. I’m tempted to offer him a Euro to buy himself something to eat, but he gets in first: “Have you heard / From a little bird / Dunja Rajter / Where to find her?” He flashes me a smile and waits for me to congratulate him on his genius. Did I mention that his breath stinks of wine?

Day 5. 9.11.06, Yalta/Ukraine
Departure: 18.00hrs
Conditions at 06.00hrs: 8°c, SW 3, “fair”
A First Impression: View of Yalta harbour with the gold domes of the Alexandra Nevsy Cathedral and the cable car to the top of Darsan Hill. ((photograph))

Landsick. The hunt for Dunja continues, with a contingent of passengers keeping vigil throughout the ship (P: “no one can evade detection on the Europa!”). The rest of us join the official tour of imperial architecture – the White Palace, the Swallow’s Nest, and everything in-between. Our guide informs us that Ukrainian strawberries grow on trees! A Herr Abel sits next to me and prattles throughout the journey as if we were old friends. Had I been to last night’s “special” concert? And to think that was the best they could do! A chorus of sailors from Sebastopol singing German folk songs about hunters riding through the forest, grapes ripening on the vine and sweethearts left at home – Ukrainians singing folk songs in German! At the end of the concert, he had to take a walk on the quayside to get some “air into his ears”. And the quayside... what a sorry sort of place! Waiters and kitchen staff on a quest for a disco, the Filipinos from the engine room in search of a brothel, and all of them hunting in packs.  And to top it all, a caricaturist who had the audacity to berate him when he refused to sit for a portrait – at midnight, for goodness sake! The villain threatened to mug him if the opportunity arose. Herr Abel’s verdict: “Poor people aren’t necessarily virtuous, I’m afraid.”
The bus drops us on the aforementioned quayside and we finish our journey on foot. Pavement now crowded with spangly Lurex micro skirts and stilettos. “Boy-oh-boy, the Crimea!” says Herr Abel, who’s never seen so many “serviceable” women – a daunting prospect, even for a man like him! Meanwhile, I’m trying not to fall over: the pavement is rising and sinking, and I’m wondering how you get seasick on land. Who would have thought it could happen so suddenly? I try walking with my legs braced like a sailor, but I still get the feeling there’s nothing beneath my feet. At last we reach the red carpet leading up the gangway and I breathe a sigh of relief, but the bouncer (he calls himself a “security commissioner”) won’t let me aboard until he’s swiped my ID card, which takes him forever to do. Can’t he see what I’m going through? Next we’re invited to disinfect our hands, then we’re herded to the atrium (that’s what they call the foyer) where a phalanx of stewardesses are waiting with orange juice and rolled-up towels that smell of spice. As if I cared about hand towels! According to Herr Abel, some suffer at sea, others on land: everything in life, even on a luxury liner, balances out in the end.  – Before bed, I stand on the balcony to get some “air into my ears”. I hear waves and a faint grunting noise. Surely there aren’t any hogs on the ship?

BTW: I found out from Lena about “nautical days” – I’ll add our daily mileage to the rest of the log.

Day 69. 12.1.07, Panama Canal
Conditions at 06.00hrs: 26°c, 77% humidity, SE 2, cloudy, 200 nm.
A First Impression: Approaching Gatun Locks.
(Clearly, the rumour about the canal authorities banning the Europa was unfounded.) ((photograph))

Panama Canal. Gales rise to force 6 overnight. We pitch and roll in spite of our stabilisers. Woken by an announcement from the bridge, “Crew to Atlantic Deck, aft!” – it turns out Frau Stäblein is in need of assistance, having fallen into the bath (she was brushing her teeth when the bow hit a wave). The night steward hauls her out. Woken again at 05.00hrs when our alarm clocks go off. Within seconds, everyone has grabbed a camera and is jostling for position on deck 8 in the bow. Muggy heat and drizzle. We wait at the mouth of the canal while 19 pasacables (white helmets) and a líder pasacables (red helmet) come aboard. The líder takes up position in the pulpit, leaning casually against the foremast, and watches his men hitch our vessel to six trains. An hour later, after three sets of locks, we’re 26 metres higher than before. You think you’re sailing uphill, but really you’re being towed. Actually, it’s more like going through a car wash – we’re all on a conveyor belt and they’re trying to slow us down. Further up the canal I see a Greek container ship, two other vessels and a car transporter (Panamax class). Enforced stoppage at 08.00hrs when we anchor in Gatun Lake to let a passenger steamer go past. Lively breakfast with the other early risers in the Lido café. Knut Edler von Hofmann, our resident lecturer, has ascertained the cost of our Panama passage: “a hundred thousand dollars all told!” He also informs us that Moritz Kienast, who thinks crocodiles don’t like water, has gone swimming in the lake. At any rate, we’re due to weigh anchor at ten o’ clock. Count Harro and the Consul are bored already (they’ve “done” the canal a million times, or so they say) and pass the time with a bet: each is to start a rumour by sharing a story with a passenger of his choice, and the winner is the one whose story gets back first. The Consul adopts Herr Drescher’s suggestion: “Don’t tell the others, but the Pacific leg of the voyage is horribly overbooked!” In other words: in Acapulco, the extra passengers will occupy the officer’s cabins, and the officers will be relegated to windowless quarters like the rest of the crew. The Count chooses a rumour concocted by property magnate P.: “I shouldn’t really be telling you this, but the captain is sleeping with one of the waitresses!” The background story: over Christmas, the Count was on a tour of the bridge and the captain was nowhere in sight. Later, when everyone had been shown his quarters, he emerged from another cabin, looking like he’d just got out of bed. “Guided tour, eh?” he said, rubbing his eyes and buckling his belt calmly. A moment later, the door to the cabin opened and a red-faced wine waitress bolted from the room.

Day 83. 26.1.07, Pacific Ocean
Conditions at 06.00hr: 23.5°c, 87% humidity, ESE 5, fine. 466 nm.
A First Impression: the Southern Hemisphere! ((photograph))

Baptism on the Line. Crossed the Equator at 04.12hrs. Celebrations kicked off at 21.45hrs on the Lido deck. Official programme promised a “stupendous spectacular” to be attended by all (strictly no excuses –equatorial baptism compulsory, even for aquaphobes and members of other faiths). After a mock serious speech from our skipper, we’re treated to the First Officer in a Neptune costume – pirate hat, gold gumboots with green tassels, and a trident. He barks at the stewardess to baptize the captain first. Then it’s the turn of Neptune’s “astronomer-in-chief” who illustrates the equatorial crossing by dividing the water in the pool. His demonstration, several hours prior to the event, is interrupted when everyone’s favourite dog bounds out from behind the Evergreen Juniors’ drum kit, flips himself onto his forelegs and waves his hind legs in the air. Someone (probably Sarah) says, “Hello Lisi, you pig!”, but for once the poodle isn’t grunting; he’s balancing on two legs like a performing animal and piddling on an ornamental palm. No sign of Mr Dressing Gown, the owner, but gasps from the assembled crowd. A moment later, the foghorn sounds, and we’re surrounded by mermaids and devils who drop salted herrings down our throats (ugh!) and wash our gullets with colourless alcohol – “a stiff drink to strip away the northern grime”! With the baptism over, the dancing can begin (carefully chosen music – classic hits of German pop), followed by more shots of vodka, and in some cases, gradual loss of the mother tongue. Frau Igelbrink (I’ll be damned if I call her Britta) is more penetrating than ever: “Hansi darling, no one can be that bad at relationships!” Thank God I don’t have to worry about Frau Schachtlmacher, who’s too busy lining up her partners on the dance floor: first Moritz Kienast, then Tonio Kröger, followed by the catering manager, then Wostock, and Moritz again. Meanwhile, Lisi shows no sign of tiring (someone should ask the doctor to take another look at him) and when we get to the equator most people don’t notice the flashing red buoys. At last we’re in the North-South sluice and the real Neptune (trident, pirate hat, gold gumboots – who would have thought it?) appears in the pulpit, leans casually against the foremast and supervises his mermen, who hitch us to six white loco-whales. The question is, are we sailing or being towed? We cross the line in an all-important millisecond, rapidly ascending through three sets of locks, but in the end we’re not a centimetre higher or lower than before. Can you believe there’s a sluice at the equator? It’s just like the Panama canal... only it ends the next morning with a pounding head.

Day 93, 5.2.07, At Anchor nr Avarua, Rarotonga* / New Zealand
08.30 – 19.00hrs
Conditions at 06.00hrs: 26°c, 84% humidity, ESE 2, overcast.
334 nm.
A First Impression: a South Sea Storm ((photograph))

Hungover. We’ve seen all kinds of graveyards on our voyage so far. At the top of the list, a village cemetery on the slopes of a volcano in El Salvador, hidden in the jungle and completely overgrown. The gaudy plastic flowers look creepy in the twilight, especially with the cattle trampling through the undergrowth and stepping on twigs. On Rarotonga, we come across a little cemetery right by the sea – plain tombs about hip-high, cemented into the ground, and painted white or blue, and in some cases, tiled. The islanders go by names like Martin Takutaiti Ngaro Tuano Marama or Metuatoto Kakometua (Koko) Tiahore and mostly they die very young. “Yaele la e ta mana tama” or “E Akamaara-Anga teia I to matou vouvou”, say their graves. Alongside the usual plastic bouquets, I find knickknacks and leis made of shells. One of the black marble tablets is as high as my head and shows a full-size image of a bodybuilder, muscles bulging, in bodybuilding pose: Felix (Charlie) Tunganekore Jeanie Enoka, 47 years of age – “A champion in body / Sweet loving in mind.” Engraved in gold and silver across the rest of the grave is a eulogy to the much-loved husband and father: “He was pumpin, flexin, sweatin for the next ascension of victory...”. The verse culminates in the assurance, “The No. 1 contender, no pretender, you’ll always be our Father figure”. Now that’s a proper send-off! There’s probably a by-law against it back home. A few metres away I come across the opposite of a beach: brown water, broken coral, mouldy coconuts, crumpled coke cans, and the constant pounding of two-metre-high waves. Could anyone grow old here? I doubt it. The sea is roaring and crashing, but I’m sitting here quietly, with the cemetery behind me and dark clouds scudding overhead.

The moment is spoilt by Herr Abel, who appears out of nowhere, sits down beside me and launches into conversation as if we’d known each other for years. Had I been on the scenic flight this morning? Such a shame to miss it! A fabulous flight on a Cessna, if only Herr Gubick hadn’t rabbited on incessantly. (BTW: Had I heard Gubick was travelling incognito as well? His daughter-in-law is always nagging him about his “extravagance”...) I feel strangely weary on the short trip back to the Europa. Sitting next to me is a Herr Wegensteiner who must have joined the cruise in Papeete. Introduces himself as an “unreconstructed scholar of the belles-lettres”. He hasn’t lost any time stocking up on souvenirs: religious effigies, letter openers made of bone, flask of banana vinegar, and a genuine headstone. He asks in parting whether Dunja Rajter is really on board: the lovely Dunja.

Day 113. 25.2.07, Sydney/Australia.
Arrival: 07.00hrs
Conditions at 06.00hrs: 21.5°c, 90% humidity, SSW 4-5, overcast. 328 nm.
A First Impression: the Opera House ((photograph))

Skydiving. A proper city again at last! And undoubtedly the most attractive ex-penal colony in the world – stunning from the mouth of the harbour, but even better from our berth. Directly opposite is the Opera House (!), and diagonally behind us, a vast arch of steel rising 134m above the water and straddling the shores – the emblematic harbour bridge. Knut Edler von Hofmann explains about the berthing fees: 100,000 Euros per day... and in some parts of Latin American we’re paid to use the harbour! The decision is unanimous: forget the Blue Mountains, we’re staying by the bridge! Unless of course... A quick show of hands, and we decide in favour of the “Climb of Your Life” (189 Australian dollars). The climb starts with a safety briefing, during which Frau Riebenstein, who hasn’t missed a champagne reception since Turkey, fails the breath test and has to go home. Our “climb leader” kits us out with overalls and safety harnesses. Everyone takes the bit between their teeth, but Herr Laufkötter is screened out at the metal detector and Herr Gubick nearly faints during the “climb simulation” and asks for a nappy, “in case the excitement gets too much...”. A final glance at the screen: wind speed 24.8 km/h, relative humidity 100%. Our 45 minutes of “climb preparation” are over and the journey through the girders can commence. We reach the first grating and look down at the ferries in the harbour, whereupon Frau Laufkötter starts crying and has to be guided back. Ninety minutes later, we’re at the top of the bridge between two flagpoles, admiring the view: our ship, a shimmering white bunkhouse, moored on the wharf diagonally below. The breeze is pleasantly cooling, but Wostock shows no respect for the moment and lets out a primordial scream, which seems to be the cue for Herr Gubick to throw up. Meanwhile, Professor Billhardt is debating Sydney’s reputation as the world’s most striking city – why not Kapstadt, Hong Kong or ... Münster? As for me, I’m peering down at the quayside and... good heavens! Is that Lena and the Consul? Surely not! Herr Drescher, the calmest among us, unfurls an MS Europa umbrella (all those safety checks, and he’s carrying an umbrella!), smiles mischievously, and asks us who we think will get down quicker: him or us.  I don’t think he hears our answer because he wishes us a “splendid” afternoon, unhooks his static line and swings himself over the side. We watch him floating through the air, gripping the umbrella with one hand and waving with the other – he’s having a whale of a time. He does a loop of the ship and lands on the lido deck, probably on one of the stools by the waffle bar. Frau Lührmann asks: “Do you think an ordinary brolly would work just as well?”

Day 137. 21.3.07, Semerang, Java/Indonesia
07.30 – 18.30hrs
Conditions at 06.00: 24°c, 84% humidity, NW 3-4, rainy. 218 nm.
A First Impression: It’s All in the Mind... ((photograph))

Flexibility test. Another high point in our series of onshore adventures: a day trip to Borobudur. Our bus is sandwiched between a police car with flashing blue lights (handy for intimidating the oncoming traffic when we’re trying to overtake) and a pack of policemen on motorbikes who can barely keep up. Lining the roads are yet more police officers whose sole purpose is to look important and bully the waving crowds. Needless to say, we don’t get a single red light. Meanwhile, our Indonesian tour guide is lecturing us on palaeontology and the problems of dating “antique” fossils, including the Java Man. To finish off, he demonstrates the classic Buddhist poses while standing in the aisle. Particular attention is paid to all 180 different hand positions, which he expects us to identify when we get to our destination, the 1000-year temple of Borobudur, with its 9 platforms  (why stop at 9?) and 72 stone stupas, one for each Buddha. We finally get there at half past ten. So this is Indonesia’s greatest tourist attraction... It’s certainly very big – one of the biggest Buddhist buildings, a UNESCO world temple. Our guide regularly ascends to the top with groups of tourists, which for him is an indescribable honour – from lowly humanity to nirvana several times a week. Everything goes smoothly until we get to a stupa with a Buddha whose fingers (for men) and feet (for women) are said to bring good luck. Everyone reaches through the stone grating to touch the statue including the chaplain, our man of the cloth. Does this mean he’s superstitious? “Well, well, well,” says Herr Pauw. “I wonder what the Vatican would say...” Our Reverend Father tries to wriggle out of the situation. “I didn’t think I could reach that far – I was testing my flexibility!” But the damage has been done. Hermann, our cameraman, is already waiting at the bottom of the pyramid of platforms, snapping up juicy dragonflies with his forty-centimetre tongue. The chaplain promises to do penance by buying a batik cassock from a souvenir shop, but he ends up haggling in an unchristian fashion over the price of some apocalyptic masks. (Sarah: “I didn’t think chaplains were supposed to...”). He buys the masks for a pittance and comes away with enough to start a new religion. The monsoon holds off until we’re in the bus, which seems like a good sign until we realize that the rain is coming through the roof – directly above the Reverend Father’s head. The rest of us are unanimous: we wouldn’t want to be taking the rap on his behalf. It comes as no surprise when the chaplain, a militant anti-smoker, is banished that evening to the smokers’ table for allegedly looking (too frequently? too intently? too indiscreetly?) at one of the ladies’ chests.

Day 161. 14.04.07, Nr Aden/Yemen. Arrival: 07.00hrs
Flight departs 09.45hrs for Sana’a/Yemen
Conditions at 06.00hrs: 27°c, 85% humidity, NE 2-3, cloudy. 602 nm.
First Impression: Sunrise Over Jebal Shamsan, Aden ((photograph))

Qat. Two-day trip to Sana’a. In spite of numerous precautions, Frau Wallosek won’t stop worrying about getting stuck in a tribal war. One of her bags contains headscarves: “What if we have to stay for a while?” She hasn’t grasped that we’re in Yemen, not Iran, and foreign women aren’t required to wear the veil. We’re whisked away from Sana’a airport and driven to a mountain village. The sign at the entrance shows a Kalashnikov crossed out in red: messing with firearms forbidden. Every building is a fortress and they’re crammed in as tightly as their crooked walls allow: a medieval tenement town, Yemeni style. “German Brick Gothic, reinvented for a land of clay,” proclaims our resident lecturer, while Herr Abel wonders, “Are the houses half-finished, or just ruins?”. We keep encountering wounded veterans who try to sell us their medals. One of them, a cripple being pushed in a wheelbarrow, follows us until the road runs out. He doesn’t beg, just looks at us grimly. “O boy,” says Herr Schladitz, “these guys are the spitting image of the wicked Jew – hooked noses, daggers under their cloaks and up to no good!” Herr Wöstenkühler, full of newfound energy, strides ahead, outpacing his butler and forging a path through the crowds: “Coming through! Coming through!” The no-longer-blonde Frau Wack complains about the litter, then about the lack of safety fences on the mountain roads (“It wouldn’t be allowed in Germany!”), then about the fenugreek soup. When it comes to the last point, everyone agrees with her, and we push back our bowls. But what’s this? The bus driver is opening his qat pouch! Leaf by leaf he folds his midday ration into his mouth until his cheeks are bulging dangerously, then he sets about the business of chewing his qat. Herr Wöstenkühler immediately orders a pouch for himself. In no time we’ve all switched to qat and everyone is chatting merrily, their hunger quite forgotten. Well, boys, I know you love Operator, but these leaves are something else! The bus driver negotiates the twisting roads without holding the wheel (curved dagger in his right hand, a mobile in his left) and we cheer him on. By the roadside, a muffled figure – a Yemeni woman, dressed head to toe in a veil – gives him the double thumbs-up. Someone suggests we skydive to the bottom, but our MS Europa brollies are safely on the ship. Hours later, we’re still high as kites. The effects wear off at dinner time when we’re back at the hotel. Terrible timing: the German ambassador is delivering his pre-dinner speech and all of a sudden we’re ravenously hungry. He’s talking about water shortages and illiteracy, but his voice is drowned out by the clatter of knives and forks!

PS. I know, I know. You want to hear about my trip with Dieter. I’ll tell you another next time because I’m running out of—

Day 169. 22.04.07, Nr Suez/Egypt. Departure: 05.30hrs
Port Said, Egypt: 16.30 – 18.30hrs
Conditions at 06.00hrs: 19.5°c, 50% humidity, S 1, hazy. 93 nm.
A First Impression: Approaching the Suez Canal (with pilot boats in the distance) ((photograph))

Plagues of Egypt. Lying at anchor near Suez. The pilot boards at 05.15hrs and initiates us into the “Marlboro Channel” by doing his best to swipe a cigarette from the First Officer’s mouth. The Europa enters the canal at 06.02hrs at the head of a thirty-strong convoy. Total cost of the passage: 150,000 US. As a special perk, the round-the-world passengers are allowed to watch from the bridge. On our starboard side we have Asia / desert sand, and on our port side we have Africa / military camp (waving soldiers and sentry boxes painted in Egyptian colours). We chug along steadily at a speed of eight knots to Great Bitter Lake. There are dozens of bollards marking the fairway – comment from Frau Wack: “If Jesus walked on water, it had to be here!” We stop for an hour because a ship in the opposite convoy has just broken down. At 10.20hrs we’re off again – view to the left: pontoons, skeletal buildings, palm trees and goats. Flitting between the lines of traffic is a host of ferries and fishing boats (aren’t they worried about collisions?) and sailing towards us, a schooner flying the German flag: the Bagatelle. A moment later, we’re in the Egyptian Riviera: the president’s residence, surrounded by cypress trees, and the holiday homes of the Cairo elite, fenced in by scrap. Meanwhile, there’s alternative viewing from one of the forty surveillance cameras operated from the bridge: six Egyptian boatmen (their job is to moor us to the bank in case of an emergency) are running a full-scale bazaar on deck 3. They’re selling – and while we’re watching, the captain zooms in and the items appear on screen – “antique” religious objects and a selection of reading glasses. I’m sorry to say that the atmosphere in the bridge is occasionally spoiled by the pilot, who spends his time guffawing on the telephone and stuffing himself on the sandwiches made in his honour. We spot war memorials on both shores including an outsize bayonet erected in commemoration of the 1973 “victory” against Israel. If only it weren’t for the blasted insects – thick swarms of giant flies. Someone wonders how they made it as high as the bridge (28 metres above deck), but Count Harro says they took the lift instead of flying. The pilot swats a few of them with his hands, leaving unattractive marks on the walls and prompting our skipper to pass him the “handy vac”. The pilot is delighted and hoovers the flies from the controls, then opens the dust bag to check that they’re inside, which they... We take refuge in our cabins, and the Europa runs into the next Egyptian plague: a sandstorm. Drastically reduced visibility. I can’t say for sure how we found our way to Port Said (arrival ca. 16.30hrs), but Herr Born, the only passenger to stick it out on the bridge, says Hermann the cameraman appeared out of nowhere and cleared the visor with his forty-centimetre tongue.

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