"I'm taking the overnight ferry to Marseille," I told my traveling companions.
"Oooh, that sounds wonderful," they sighed, novices all.
I'd been on enough Mediterranean ferries to know that while they can be a cheap alternative to flying, they are usually marked by boredom, truly bad food and always, always crews so lecherous they defy biological explanation.
On my first Mediterranean ferry, from Brindisi, Italy, to Greece, I was with a dozen or so backpackers in the ladies' room trying to wash and change one morning when the door banged open and a crew member walked purposefully through the room of partly undressed women, his head oscillating from side to side like a fan, and placed a mop in the far corner. A few minutes after he left the door banged open again and another crew member with oscillating head strode through to retrieve the mop, ragged from much use.
That was my first ferry. The ferry to Marseille was my last. I promise myself.
The ferry to Marseille left at dusk. As I stood watching the north coast of Africa recede, a crew member leaned against the rail next to me and identified himself as the cook, suggesting we get together later that evening.
I explained politely that it would be impossible because I was married to a jealous French wrestler who did not like crew members and that I had a serious illness and was, in fact, getting a kidney transplant the following day.
He listened intently, clucking his tongue in sympathy and shaking his head sadly. When I finally finished, he brightened. "So you meet me tonight? Here, after dinner?"
I moved on, but I had to keep moving. If I stopped to slide into a deck chair or lean again on the rail I got approached by a crew member, each bearing cigarettes and all identifying themselves as the cook. I walked briskly around and around the deck, faster and faster, outpacing them all until I was exhausted and went to find my cabin.
The ticket agent had told me there were no private cabins available, and I was discouraged to discover I was sharing a small room deep in the bowels of the ship with a veiled Arab women and her two male protectors, who looked at me with something akin to disgust.
They went to bed at 7 p.m. and I wandered up to the main dining room.
There I chatted with a French student who thought all Americans were pigs and watched a pirated Italian game show on the ship television in which a horsy woman with hair down to her ample thighs and a miniskirt up to them presented a case of sausage to grinning contestants.
Back in the cabin I wriggled into my top bunk, lay back and realized I was dying by suffocation.
The air was hot and oily and no matter how deeply I breathed I could not get enough oxygen in my lungs.
I began to hallucinate headlines on the ceiling: "Death Boat Probe Ordered."
I wriggled out of my bunk and went up to the main salon, where a guard told me the air conditioning in the lower decks had been broken for 10 hours, but would be fixed in 10 minutes. He promised.
Somewhat skeptical, I took my blanket and pillow and made a nest on a too-short couch outside the dining room and tried to doze, but within minutes a crew member was at my side, identifying himself as the cook, obviously a position thought to hold great sex appeal. Perhaps the real cook had scored once.
He clucked sympathetically and offered to let me share his cabin. I declined. He insisted. I stopped being subtle and threw a magazine at him. It fluttered like a behemoth moth and struck his knees.
Only minutes after I got rid of him, another appeared. This one dangled keys and told me that he was the steward and would take me to a first-class cabin, even though he could get in big trouble for it. He actually pantomimed a knife being drawn across his throat.
He led me through a maze of hallways, peeking surreptitiously around corners and glancing quickly over his shoulder as if he were hijacking the Achille Lauro instead of leading a paying passenger to a place to sleep. He triumphantly unlocked a door to a cabin almost identical to the one I'd left behind, except this one had a small cloudy porthole and was icy cold. No wonder there was no air conditioning in the lower decks. Every molecule of cold air was being blasted into this single small unit.
Putting his finger to his lips, the steward pointed to the lower bunk and with much gesticulation let it be known that I was not to sleep under the covers and I would have to leave before dawn.
I pulled the thin blanket I'd brought with me over my shoulders and slept fitfully for a few hours, waking with a start when I heard the key jangling in the lock. It was the steward. Looking meek and again with the finger to the lips, he half whispered, half pantomimed that he was going to sleep on the top bunk, putting his hands together as if in prayer and laying them against his cheek with his eyes closed.
I acted a lot more shocked than I was feeling.
Not to worry, he told me, nothing happen. He put his hand across his heart and stood at attention. A real Marcel Marceau.
Actually, I believe nothing would have happened, but that's not what he was going to tell all the cooks the next morning, and I still had another 10 hours on this boat.
I threw the blanket, the pillow and the magazine at him, and he retreated, coming back just before dawn to throw me out.
Following his motions, I knelt on the floor to straighten out a few wrinkles in the covers of the bunk, wondering if while I was down there he wanted me to kiss his feet too and how he would pantomime it.
"I took a ferry to Marseille," I say to friends, explaining a blurry snapshot of the North African coast. "Oooh, that sounds wonderful," they sigh. Gayle Young is a writer living in Cairo.