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Genoa Postcard: A Tale Of Modern Sailors, Echos Of The Ancient Mariner

Many seafarers are hired and fired every seven months. Some keep up this lifestyle for 40 years while sailing the world. Some of those who'd recently docked in the Italian port city of Genoa, share a taste of their travels that are connected to a long history of a seafaring life.

A sailor smokes a cigarette on the hydrofoil Procida

A sailor on the hydrofoil Procida in Italy

Daniele Frediani/Mondadori Portfolio via ZUMA Press
Paolo Griseri

GENOA — Cristina did it to escape after a tough breakup. Luigi because he dreamed of adventures and the South Seas. Marianna embarked just “before the refrigerator factory where I worked went out of business. I’m one of the few who got severance pay.”

To hear their stories, you have to go to the canteen on Via Albertazzi, in Italy's northern port city of Genoa, across from the ferry terminal. The place has excellent minestrone soup and is decorated with models of the ships that have made the port’s history.

There are 38,000 Italian professional sailors, many of whom work here in Genoa, a historic port of call that today is the country's second largest after Trieste on the east coast. Luciano Rotella of the trade union Italian Federation of Transport Workers says the official number of maritime workers is far lower than the reality, which contains a tangle of different laws, regulations, contracts and ethnicities — not to mention ancient remnants of harsh battles between shipowners and crews.

The result is that today it is not so easy to know how many people sail, nor their nationalities.

What is certain is that every six to seven months, the Italian mariner disembarks the ship and is dismissed: they take severance pay and after waits for the next call. Andrea has been sailing for more than 20 years: “When I started out, to those who told us we were earning good money, I replied that I had a precarious life: every landing was a dismissal.”

Between two worlds

It's hard to understand how sailors manage to divide the world and their lives into two parts: “I have land friends and sea friends,” says Cristina.

“Do you know what Plato said? That there are the living, the dead and the seafarers,” Andrea adds. He has been working on ferries in the Mediterranean for 25 years.

Andrea is a philosophy graduate. But he says, “Philosophy doesn’t pay the bills.” So it was better to wash dishes on the Genoa-Porto Torres route: “They paid well then. You never went ashore except to make phone calls. There were no cell phones. On the dock was the token booth.”

I ask him how he managed such a life for over 20 years. “You get sick. On ships they call it ‘iron sickness.’ If you don’t get off after two years of work, it means you won’t stop. Socializing and affection become difficult. Land friends must be cultivated with great patience, like seedlings in the desert. Otherwise the land rejects you and it becomes harder and harder for you to understand. So you adapt to working for seven months without ever getting off. And then to wait for the next boarding.”

Families ashore

Cristina wasn't happy with how her life had ended up: “I was a clerk in a supermarket, earning 1.2 million liras a month (about €800). It had become unbearable for me to continue my everyday life. I embarked out of reaction, for a change. I was at the lowest rank in the shipboard hierarchy, washing dishes, but earning more than twice as much as before. Today I am in charge of passenger assistance. My life has improved. I have the right to a single cabin.”

It's hard to maintain connections with family and children.

I ask her how important that is. “Eh, after a while it is very important. Your whole life takes place on the ship, really your whole life, inevitably. Sharing the same cabin with a colleague for seven months is not so easy. Besides, let’s face it: not everyone is as heterosexual as I am.”

In the sailor's life, it's often hard to maintain connections with family and children.

Augusto, 61, is counting down the time until retirement: “I’ve been a grandfather for eight months. You can’t imagine the joy... I have three children. Do you know how many birthdays I’ve missed?”

Adventures at sea

“There is a strange relationship between ship workers and ship owners,” Andrea says. “When you sail, you can’t wait to go ashore. Then, after a few weeks, you hope the company will call you to come back on board.”

Someone who no longer has these problems is Luigi, 51, who has been at sea for 32 years, first on the great ocean routes, now on the port’s tugs.

“I embarked when I was 19. I dreamed of exotic voyages, and I got them. I worked on freighters, we went around the world. Months without seeing land. We visited distant countries and had good wages.”

He says, “I used to kill [boredom] by composing songs.”But there was no shortage of adventures.“There was no shortage of those either. Those who were married used to say back home that the trip would last five months — instead it lasted four, and they would stay a month somewhere in the world.”

“Things happen on board, too,” Cristina says. “It’s just that on board, there is always someone who snitches. So at the end of the trips, it used to happen that the wives would take the children and they would all get on the ship to see their husbands. But now, after the pandemic, strangers are no longer allowed on board. For safety reasons.”

Retirement plans 

The things that concerns Luigi today is safety at work.

“I have been on tugboats for years now. You work in all weather and in all sea conditions. And there are people in their 60s who keep jumping from the tug to the dock. Not to mention the pilots who flank the hull of the ships and climb up the rope ladder to the entrance hatch. If you fall, you risk your life — but there is no age limit for performing these tasks.”

I have no family, no children. Why not?

Marianna has been ashore for a few days and is happy: “I finally got to spend Easter ashore with my sister. When they notified me of the shifts, I couldn't believe it. It happened because of the Filipinos — they pay them two euro an hour, you know how it is.”

I ask if she's already thought about retirement plans. “Of course, I’ll sell my house, the one I bought near Genoa with tip money when I worked at the ship’s restaurant and a mortgage.”

She has plans to buy a place with friends. “I have already agreed with two of my friends: a house in Madagascar. We have done the math. With €600 a month you can live well. Then, sun, sea, relaxation and fun. I have no family, no children. Why not?”

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