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Sibylle Berg

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The Death Ship

At Sea, August 3, 2012

Still safe ashore. The light is extraordinarily bright, it is March, and it doesn’t help that the sun is glaring down mercilessly on a white heap of metal in an otherwise innocuous corner of the harbour. A crowd of people presses around it – the sort of crowd none of us wants to be part of, the crowd that always consists of other people. Around four thousand other people, who are all able to pay more than a thousand euros for a mini-cruise. There it is, what used to be the solid middle class, the foundation of society, nowadays more of the foam padding that globalization’s winners jump up and down on.

They are ticket inspectors, clerical workers, post office personnel managers, women in charge of power stations. They have come from Korea, Brazil, China; there are a lot of Italians here in Savona, now more than ever, to support their own local cruise company, Costa (owned by the Americans). They are nervous and excited when faced with this technology, with the Titanic – it is so big. Extraordinarily large, absurdly large; this thing seems to cast a shadow across the whole of this tranquil Mafia city. Twelve storeys high, nine hundred and fifty feet long. Just over four thousand passengers, eleven hundred crew. Significantly more people than in a high-rise, and no one drives one of those around on the water, dammit. People of all ages, a few in wheelchairs, a group of the mentally disabled, lots of young people – lots and lots of young people, and they all look the same. That’s what’s shocking, because you think the world revolves around you; it’s shocking that everyone looks so similar, because their producer can’t do much more with such a face than fit it out with eyes, a nose and a mouth.

In case you hadn’t already guessed, the truly strange thing is that by boarding a cruise ship, in other words one that potters about the ocean totally senselessly and pointlessly, a person gives up their individuality, which they probably never had in the first place: well, you know it now. After handing over their passport, with no further possibility of escape, that person is photographed. Against a painted backdrop of an ocean scene, between two grinning stewards who pop up in every photo. A thousand times over they salute, they laugh: at the end of a day like that you know you’ve accomplished something. I let myself be shoved up a gangplank with the others. A bewildering cornucopia of hammered brass makes me nervous: around every corner a human signpost points the way, impassive-looking crew members, and they all seem to come from the Philippines. They show the guests to lifts painted with naked gods, which seem to whisper: “Get in, I’ll take you down to hell.”

About five and a half million people a year go on cruises in Europe. That is only one percent of the total number of holiday-makers, so there’s a lot of room for growth. Experts say that the U.S. market is much more developed. There, eleven million people go on cruises, and ship-owners in Europe are working towards 15 million a year as a realistic goal. I predict a number more like seventy million, and that before long we’ll be spending our whole life at sea, but more about that later. If I’m still alive, but more about that later too.

On board. My accommodation is on the seventh floor, off an endless corridor receding into the distance. It’s a perfect place for cabin fever or claustrophobia. The fluorescent light doesn’t flicker, it only blinks quickly; the tubes are gathering strength: that night they will crowd around my bed. The passengers have become a little quieter, overwhelmed and almost frightened by the magnitude of what they have only begun to suspect, perhaps their impotence in the face of the material world.