Translated by Anne Fisher

Friendship Won

I met Luka by the lifeboats. Bright orange, with orange tarps lashed over them, they were suspended over the deck and in a way reminded me of dirigibles. The hatch cover on one of them had come open a little and was banging in time to the gusts of the Black Sea wind, which had strengthened as the evening drew on. Without really understanding much about nautical matters, I was able to show him where the engine and propeller were and where the shell had its capacity information stenciled on: 42 people. “Well, if people want to be saved, they’ll make it in,” I explained, somewhat lamely. The boat was maybe nine meters long at most. Luka climbed up the ladder to look overboard and see where a boat like this would go if something happened and we had to use it. Eight stories below us something gray flashed in the waves several times. Maybe a dolphin. “Are there sharks here?” asked Luka. Without waiting for an answer, he said, “Megalodons. They’re the biggest sharks in the world. We’d take a megalodon.” “What would we need it for?” Luka considered this for a second. “They’re defenders! One of them can hold forty people!” “Pretty much everything in the ocean is big,” I say. “In comparison to it, we’re little bitty…” “Yeah, we’re little,” agrees Luka. “And Russia’s also a little bunch of hooey.”

We are on a cargo ship crossing the width of the Black Sea, from Burgas in Bulgaria to Batumi in Georgia. The ferry goes straight across in three days, no stops. It’s called Friendship, which smacks of Soviet times, even though the ship itself was built in 2002. There are a lot of passengers, mostly long-haul truckers. The lower decks are packed tight with trucks, among which are also inserted the Swiss man Urs’s bicycle (he wants to ride it to Japan) and a car with Ukrainian plates that’s seen better days (Luka’s parents’ sedan). Luka’s mom is from an Armenian-Georgian-Russian family and grew up in Ukraine; his dad is a Russophone Ukrainian from Odesa. They met working on cruise ships in the Caribbean. Luka was born in California, then the family lived for a long time in Florida. The conversation with Luka reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s essay about the luxury cruise, where Wallace makes his tablemates uneasy with his musings on sharks. For Wallace, sharks were a threat he’d shoved to the edges of his thoughts but which circled relentlessly around his five-star floating hotel. Sharks swim around our modest vessel at night, checking whether a Russian warship or an errant mine turns up. The ferry’s past few scheduled departures have been canceled because of the war, so the fact that we’re now en route continues to feel like a miracle.

There’s quite a lot that’s miraculous here. The dolphins leap out of the water in whole groups, and you can see them not just in profile but facing forward: you have enough time to see both flippers spread wide, and both their curious eyes. The horizon spreads all three hundred and sixty degrees, with clouds above. At night, waves and stars. And a little landbird living somewhere among the trucks that flies out to sea in strong winds but always comes back again.

The famous “No!” poster, with the Soviet youth in a suit and tie pushing aside a proffered shot glass, is hanging in the dining room. No one here is following the young man’s example. The multilingual murmur gets louder and somehow more comprehensible the closer we get to finishing the evening meal, and Russian starts to outstrip the other candidates for a shared language. In Russian, I meet a group of Armenians from various countries who’ve been planning to meet here on this ship, the Georgian long-distance truck drivers, and Luka’s parents. In English, I meet Urs the cyclist, not realizing at first that he’s from Zurich. And in German, I meet a family of IT specialists from middle Germany who took parental leave and have been traveling around the Balkans for the past year with little Katrin. The variety of discourse apparently makes for a high-growth situation. At breakfast, which was around ten AM, the German IT guy tentatively nudges my shoulder and out of nowhere offers me a shot of vodka. The Georgians from the next table sent it. We don’t know them, but one of them is celebrating a birthday. It goes without saying that we’re required to offer our congratulations. My German acquaintance refuses my offer to interpret and quickly runs away, but late that afternoon I spot him in the corridor with a bottle of beer in one hand and a shot of chacha in the other. He’d just emerged from the scariest cabin of all, the one filled with a constant cloud of cigarette smoke, where the drivers, who always remain at a safe distance from sober, pound out games of backgammon.

The neighboring group cabin is where the slightly older long-distance truckers sit in front of a big TV, occasionally exchanging lazy phrases in Georgian or Bulgarian. On the screen, a beauty with ice-cold eyes is saying, “We can’t get anything done if you don’t trust me, Timothy.” Russian films are popular. But, except for two Bulgarians and me, nobody’s watching this Bulgarian show, where these peppy old guys have to saw a wooden beam in half and bend iron bars before their time runs out.

Russian is the shared language here, but it’s generally nobody’s native language. Although it is native, to be sure, for Pavlik… though it’s not clear whether this is a plus or a minus. Pavlik’s so big he barely fits into the ship’s corridors, and the resounding tones of his verbalizations are matched only by the ambiguity of his political convictions. He lives somewhere in Bulgaria where Russian TV is evidently pretty easy to get. Other long-haul truckers take him under their wing: Yura from Transcarpathia in western Ukraine and an older Georgian whom everyone calls Nikolay Mikhaylovich. “What?” says Pavlik defensively. “They stuck a Uke in my cabin, so I go ‘Hey there’ and right away he’s all ‘Where are you from? Who do you support?’ What’s wrong with everyone?’” They’re sitting leaned in, with their heads nearly touching, and look like three rugby players. The conversation goes on for a long time, in half-tones and without vodka. I catch bits and pieces: “He’s a stand-up guy. I vouch for him. I know him…” “Look at us, all our vehicles say ‘Slava Ukraini’ on them…” I head up to the deck for some hot water and only half an hour later do I notice that all three of them, finding common ground somewhere in the neighborhood of family values and orthodoxy, have finally relaxed. “There’s this priest I know,” says Pavlik—now back to his usual volume—”I hung a lamp in his church for him…” Nikolay Mikhaylovich, the Georgian, suggests that Orthodox people shouldn’t fight each other. Pavlik appears to agree.

At the evening meal, I get into a conversation with Luka’s mother Alyona. Her mother is half-Georgian and half-Armenian, her father’s Russian; she was born in Poltava, Ukraine, and she went to college in Odesa. Luka grew up in Odesa and America and speaks Russian and English. Now they’re headed from Odesa to relatives in Georgia. “In Moldova, I was stunned,” Alyona’s saying. “Odesans were arriving there, you know, in their Toyotas, and there are the Moldovans in their little old Zhigulis, all ‘How can we help? What do you need?’ We wouldn’t help like that in Odesa if refugees were coming to us…” Although I then find out she’s got refugees from Mykolaiv living for free both at her home and at her dacha. She’s got relatives in Russia, too. “My aunt calls and says ‘Come stay with us.’ I go ‘But, Auntie, you’re the ones I’m fleeing from,’ and then my uncle goes ‘Now, I understand that, but those little Nazis have to be stopped!’ And then my aunt chimes in: ‘Look, when we take Odesa, I’ll come visit you.’ But, if you take Odesa, I won’t be there anymore!”

Periodically, everyone goes out on deck to smoke. It’s already dark out there, but the lights aren’t on yet. The group of Armenians is testing out a phone app that identifies constellations. Something’s not working, it’s not getting the constellations right. Luka goes over to them, points to a star near the horizon, and says, “That one’s not a star. It’s a drone.” “How did a drone get out here? We’re on the open sea.” “It’s a drone!” repeats Luka. “Have you ever seen a drone?” “Yes. Over the courtyard of our building. Misha and I were walking along and it was hovering up there.” “What’d you do? Did you start running?” “No, we just kept on walking. I mean, they’re not going to kill us…”

Back inside, the evening has shifted conclusively from dinner to party. Several groups of truckers have collected next to the information desk, aka the bar. “To Poti, yes, I’m headed straight there. The swamplands of Poti, as they say. But I don’t go to Sukhumi or anywhere in Abkhazia. Never.” “I haul a lot of different stuff. Why do you want to know?” “Wine, yes. On the return trip it’s always wine. To Dusseldorf, Hannover… no tasting, no. They’re sealed. But the stuff in that plastic bottle there’s homemade.” “Where was I stuck? At customs!” “We could be like Europe, put in your eight hours and you’re done.” “The pass in Chernovtsy’s closed.” Nearby, the Georgians’ hubbub is occasionally drowned out by Pavlik bellowing “He’s my *** friend!” or “He’s my *** brother!” Was our persuasion really that effective?

The next day, I see Luka on deck and ask him where he’s from. Luka eagerly begins counting it out: “ Fifty percent Ukraine. Forty percent America. Seven percent Armenia. Five percent Georgia…” He’s already past a hundred, but I’m not stopping him. “Three percent Russia. One percent the Union…” I don’t get a chance to ask Luka about “the Union” **because his parents have been looking for him all morning and, now that they’ve found him, are marching him off to the cabin to pack his things. I manage to find out he was born in 2012.

The evening before we arrive in Batumi passes quietly. Urs the cyclist has made friends with the Armenians and might even go visit them in Yerevan, though he might not have time since he’s only got one year for this whole Japan thing. The German IT guy is drinking beer with the gigantic Pavlik. God only knows what mova-Sprache-yazyk they’re speaking to each other. Luka’s dad is chatting about work stuff with some sailors from the crew, every bit as colorful as the passengers. Yura from Transcarpathia appears to be asleep. Nikolay Mikhaylovich the Georgian is in the middle of a group of drivers explaining something to them in Georgian. Yesterday’s birthday boy and the rest of his group have scattered and are looking at their phones; we’re near the coast and are picking up the Turkish network. I look around again. The lights of the distant coast twinkle on one side, the sea lightens toward the horizon on the other. Friendship reduces speed so it doesn’t arrive too early. It has already won.

September 2022

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