On Friday, on board a museum ship docked at Hamburg, I met Ernest Hemingway. He was sitting inside a small cabin with a window that opened to the visitor’s path. The cabin exterior had posters detailing museum tariffs and bulletins, and inside, on his desk, there sat a few devices with earphones, audio guides to go with a museum tour. The man, portly, grey-haired, and bearded, was turning the pages of a girlie magazine, and he wasn’t pleased to see me.
I had come for a reading, and I was early: the Harbour Front Literaturfestival event would not begin for another hour. The ship, Cap San Diego, which I reached by crossing on foot the Überseebrücke, was a permanent fixture on the harbour, and despite the water all around, despite the ominous grey warship docked alongside, despite the wind and the rain and the seagulls cawing, I did not have the sense of being on a ship. There was no one around when I climbed up the gangplank, and on the vacant main deck this solitary man in his cabin was the first person I had seen since I left the shore. He looked at me with a penetrating gaze, his large forehead dominating a seaman’s face weathered by adventure: a striking resemblance to Hemingway I could not put aside.
The man spoke in German. Yes, a reading was scheduled here, he said, but only at 9 pm. When I replied that the time announced in the festival catalog was 7 pm, he looked up a chart cello-taped on the cabin wall in front, and answered without turning: yes, the time listed here is 7 pm, but this was the time for yesterday’s event too, and actually it began only at nine and went on until eleven. But, he added, now turning toward me and pointing right with his thumb, you can wait in the Bistro until then.
Behind me now stood a couple, a lean serious-looking man in a blue suit, a woman in a large yellow raincoat. She asked about the reading, and Mr.Hemingway gave her the answer he’d given me: the event would not begin until 9 pm. The man then took out a ticket, large and yellow-bordered, from an inner pocket of his jacket, and pointing to the time printed on it he asked if this was a mistake. Mr.Hemingway shook his head and repeated his story of the previous day’s session. Then, in an uncanny repetition of the gesture I had seen moments earlier, he pointed to the right: you can wait in the Bistro until then.
I did not want to go to the Bistro yet. Curious to see the hall where the reading was to take place, I asked Mr.Hemingway to show me the way. He pointed left now, a mirror image of his previous gesture, and said a lady would arrive and sell tickets next to the door leading downstairs, into the ship’s hull. But I was not to go in there, he added. Why? Because the event was hours away, and the lady was not here yet – that place was off limits right now.
I told him I was a friend of the author reading that evening, and this author was probably in the reading hall already – may I go there? At this point his phone rang. He turned around to pick up the receiver, and I chose that moment to slip away toward the door leading down. A young lady stood there now, arranging ticket booklets on a narrow steel table. She was a short woman with dark curly hair that fell on her shoulders, her skin was the colour of chocolate, her eyes almond-shaped, and she listened to me with the stillness of a statue. She did not allow me inside. The event begins at seven, she said, with a poise that precluded any further question. We open this entrance for visitors at six-thirty – you may want to sit in the Bistro until then. She pointed right, with her thumb.
The Bistro was empty. I had seen the couple walk in this direction, but now there was no sign of them. Perhaps they had wandered off elsewhere, exploring other sections of the ship. I chose a table next to the bar counter, and sat on one of the high backrest chairs upholstered with inexpensive black leather. It was a small hall, rectangular, low-ceilinged, with round portholes opening a narrow view to the city. Light bounced off the shiny wood-paneled walls, all painted white, giving the room an artificial sheen, a film set appearance. The door behind the bar counter opened and a tall middle-aged man with a mustache appeared. He wore a waistcoat over a buttoned-up white shirt, a combination that, with his mustache, made him look old-fashioned. After a formal greeting he asked if I wanted something to eat or to drink. I asked for tea. Which flavour? Camille, I replied. We don’t have Camille, he said, eyebrows raised. I took that to mean a question (any other preference?) and asked for Pfefferminz. We don’t have Pfefferminz either, he said. So what do you have? We have Schwarztee, and a few others I’d have to check inside. Black tea was not what I wanted, so I tried another flavour common in Germany: Rooibos? Sorry, we don’t have that one. He looked straight at me, without another word, as though the onus was on me to come up with the right choice. It was at this moment, as I stared back at him, I began to see how much he looked like Thomas Mann, bearing the same dignified presence and the ironclad stare of a man who seemed more an inspector than a writer.
Schwarztee, I said. He nodded, and soon came to my table carrying a transparent cup and saucer with water and a tea bag already dipped inside. The tea had just begun to mingle with water, dark swirls rose to the rim like wisps of smoke, and as I sat watching this strangely soothing effect a song came on air. It was a jazz piece, in French, probably from the early 20th century, and it reminded me of the music in Wood Allen’s Midnight in Paris, when the young writer Gil travels back in time into the Paris of the 1920s, where he meets Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Piccasso, Dali, and others. Cap San Diego, at that moment, seemed such a place, docked at the harbour but moored in the past, and at some point in the previous hour I had crossed the invisible line that separates our world from a world conjured up by an artist. I was close to the truth here, but this would become clear only later.
Sugar on the table was inside a glass jar crowned by a steel spout, and this piece did not work: nothing came through the spout when the jar was turned upside down. I tried another sugar dispenser from the next table, and the one after that – the result was no different. I let it be. Mr.Mann had left, and I drank the sugarless black tea sitting by myself in this small room that now seemed like a large coffin. The couple I had seen earlier appeared at the Bistro entrance, holding hands, and promptly settled into a table nearby. The woman smiled at me, the man continued to sulk. They spoke in soft voices, scanning the menu, deciding what to eat, and during a pause in their conversation I asked if they had gone around the ship, if they had seen something interesting. Not exactly, the woman replied – they had only been to the reading venue below, a wide dark hall with creaky floors. So the woman at the ticket counter had let them in? Yes of course, she replied, puzzled at my question. I did not know what to make of this. I was glad the author that evening was a friend of mine: without this connection I probably would not make it for the reading.
Mr.Mann did not appear and the man in the suit, tired of waiting, stood up. The woman signaled him to sit down, but he had had enough. Let’s go to the reading hall, he said. I wanted to follow them, but I had not yet paid for my tea. Minutes passed. At one point, a man appeared at the Bistro entrance, and, seeing no one but me, walked away. I stood up and stepped near the bar counter, looking for a bell to ring, but found only an assortment of German newspapers lying there. The music had stopped, and now and then a shrill seagull cry pierced through the wood, bringing with it the only sign that we were on, or near, a body of water. Finally, after what seemed like many minutes, the door behind the counter opened and a man in red overalls walked in. I’d like to pay, I said. What would you like to pay for? Schwarztee, I answered. He looked up a card and pronounced the amount: two Euros eighty. Make that three, I said, handing across a fifty Euro note. You’ll have to give me change, he said. I did not have any, and I said so. Sorry, neither do I, he replied. Do you accept cards? No, we take only cash. Well, then I’ll have to come back later with cash, once I’ve found someone to exchange this note with. You could ask, he said, the man in the cabin near the ship’s entrance. Mr.Hemingway, you mean? He gave me a puzzled look. I smiled, and told him I would be back soon.
Outside, the sky had cleared somewhat, and in the soft evening light the deck seemed longer and wider than before. I had the illusion that it extended along my line of sight all the way to the tall buildings next to the harbour, a continuity that explained why I felt I had never left land. But the illusion broke as I walked further and saw the ship’s rim: beyond it, in a patch of grey that mirrored neither the grey of the sky nor of the ships nor of the buildings on the shore, there was water, heaving like a gigantic animal trapped beneath the harbour. I stood there a long time, watching the scene unfold, the ships below and clouds above changing their positions slowly, deliberately, as if playing a great game, until I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Mr.Hemingway, smiling and carrying in his eyes a look that said he knew something I did not. You coped well, he said. Coped well? With what? Well, what you experienced in the last hour or so was a museum exhibit, a work of art that engages visitors in conversations with chosen actors playing by the script. Hope you enjoyed it, he said, and turned around. I stopped him: what’s the script called? He smiled again, before answering: Kafka on the Ship.