Sea of dreams: a voyage on the truckers’ cruise

Notes from a truckers’ ferry

Dispatches
Truckers hang around on deck, waiting for the “Drujba” to enter Batumi (©JACOB JUDAH)

The Black Sea is the ghost in Europe’s imagination. Here, the ideas that formed the core of the European self-image: civilisation, order, arrogance and the idea that only civilised peoples can explore and sail, were nurtured as Aegean fisherman and peasants colonised the edge of the Steppes. Through the Greek colonies that rim this toneless sea, Scythian nomads, Thracian drunkards and Colchian loners became the first foreigners of “European” history.

This mentality survives: you just have to look for it.

Burgas, Bulgaria’s second port, is a city of neglect. Dingy streets are lined by crumbling communist estates, pockmarked by neo-Nazi graffiti and rusting steel frames jutting out of broken concrete. The roads and railways that converge on its docks, built for an era of Soviet plenty, reflect the straight lines of the past onto an abandoned warehouse at its entrance.

The Drujba (Friendship) is the weekly sea link between southern Bulgaria and Batumi, Georgia’s tourist boom-town to the east. In the 1980s, the Black Sea was criss-crossed by dozens of state-owned truckers’ ferries and passenger ships linking Romania and Bulgaria to Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and Georgia. Now, there are far fewer.

It is two in the morning. The truckers are restless. “We aren’t leaving until tomorrow,” says a Ukrainian. “We’ll be gone in 15 minutes,” says an Azeri. They file onto the deck in ones and twos, clutching the thin plastic bags of clothes that they carry with them for weeks on the road. They fidget with lighters and drag nervously on cheap Bulgarian cigarettes. Their agitation is infectious.

We are waiting for the universal smell of movement: the tang of low-octane fuel.

In the old Eastern bloc days, truckers were known as the “Tsars of the Road”. They were the slightly subversive, semi-independent workers who could travel abroad, mysterious loners who drove the roads that their neighbours only dreamt of. The mystique is gone but this ship’s odd community has a distinctly post-Soviet feel, recalling a world long-gone. The language is Russian. The films are Soviet. The routes follow trade routes dating from the communist era: Armenian vegetables and cognac for Sofia, Ukrainian sweets for Azerbaijan, Georgian cheese for Brno.

The truckers are Russian, Bulgarian, Armenian, Georgian. You can see the currents of Black Sea trade—and the visa restrictions, tariffs and politics that constrain it—by counting the passports. The Ukrainians, heading to Central Asia and the Caucasus, would have previously taken the much shorter route through Russia. Crimea and the war in the Donbass have kinked routes. The Armenians choose not to travel through Turkey, or are prevented from doing so.

Most of the truckers are heading to Georgia and Armenia. A few are going further, to the Middle East and Central Asia. The Armenians are the odd ones out, mixed in with the drivers of 18-wheelers, they are the diaspora going home.

The metal deck begins to shake and there is an echo beneath our feet. The engine is on and the ramp is closing. Depressed truckers sit around on the dock’s dusty truck-stop. They’ve arrived too late.

The Panamanian-flagged cargo ship moored behind us gives a monotonous blare and disappears into the misty sea. “I’ll send you a text on Monday, and I’ll be in Yerevan on Tuesday,” a man beside me whispers into a phone. “I’m sorry, I’m coming as fast as I can.” He has the tired eyes of a man whose mother is lonely and dying.

I start to feel self-conscious and spot a man watching me. He has buck teeth and bug eyes and makes me uncomfortable. I stare back at him. “What are you driving?” he calls out. “Take a cigarette. I’ll show you how these boats work.” This is Nemo, a trucker, and, as I observe him over the three-night crossing, the leader of the Bulgarian posse.

“You see these guys here? They are the Bulgarians, we have the right side of the ship and those cabins there.” He points down the grimy corridor. “Over there, are the Georgians, the Armenians and the Russians. They stay on that side and we don’t talk to them much.” He lights up. “Listen, they are just not like you and me. Georgians, Armenians and Azeris, they are nice people, but they just aren’t Europeans, are they?”

In fact, the Bulgarians are the worst. They’ll push a vodka across the table and start their rants: “The Ukrainians. You won’t see this if you read your newspaper,” I am reproached, “they are dangerous and poor. They are the real bandits. If I drive through Dnipro and Odessa, I lock my doors. It’s no surprise they have a shooting war there now.” Around the Black Sea, Turkish, Russian and European radio beam their broadcasts into truckers’ cabins.

Burgas’ lights are fading. Autumn’s Scythian winds, blowing across from the Ukrainian steppe, force me from the deck.

I head to the “bar”—a man sitting in front of a shelf of spirits and cheap beer in the ship’s canteen. In Varna, I was told that there is a favourite of the lonely trucker: a peroxide blonde who sells more than alcohol. The groups are coalescing, and introductions and reunions are being made. I sit down with Raoul, a third-generation Czech trucker, so obese that his body moulds to the rubber chairs.

“You’re a Jew, right? You look like one.”

Raoul, like me, doesn’t have a crowd. There are no Czechs.

“You people are fucking everywhere. Even here. Shit.”

He knocks back a shot and pulls out a cigarette. “I don’t have to drive, so it doesn’t matter,” he says when I ask him if he’ll have a mean hangover tomorrow.

Welcome to the truckers’ cruise. For three nights, they don’t have to worry about their wives telling them that their children are sick, or that their fathers have had a stroke. There is no mobile phone signal or WiFi. There is alcohol, cigarettes, and most of all, a proper bed.

The Bulgarians have colonised the central tables. The Armenians are shunted to the corner and are already drunk. The Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians have found each other and are three-quarters through two litres of whisky. The Georgians are playing dominoes in a smoky annexe; a Russian film from the 1970s plays in the background.

We awake to an overcast sky. Dolphins buzz the ship like torpedoes, swimming
perpendicular to it under the waves, before they crash into the hull and ricochet off in all directions. Drinking begins at breakfast.

Truckers are like cowboys. Mythical. Mysterious and dangerous. Independent and strong. The blue-collar heroes of the road. When I told my friends that I was going to spend time with the truckers, they asked for the wild stories of the Kazakh steppe. Just like the West, the truckers’ world is a world without women. The women they meet are those with something to sell.

Like the cowboy, the trucker, cigarette in tow, introduces himself by listing his conquests. “Manchuria, Mongolia, Pakistan, Tajikistan,” says Andrei, pausing at each name to make sure I am impressed. “Iraq, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia,” says Nemo, as he sketches a map—which he supplements with his theory of “strategic missile base locations” long stewed on Turkish motorways. “Holland, Russia, Poland,” are the boring, but more common answers.

Truckers are the first to know when the world is changing.

Just as the Genoese opened the Pontic Steppe and the cowboy the American West, truckers make new geographies plausible. Europe, Eurasia, the post-Soviet space, are abstractions until trucks, trade and TV realise them. Tracing the new and dying routes will tell you where is connecting and where is fracturing.

Eventually, the cowboys were unmasked as criminals and outcasts. The truckers are lonely and homesick. They show you pictures of smiling wives and share downloaded photos of the supercars that drive in the fast-lane. Their badges of conquest are meaningless: they’ve seen the world, but through the glass of a cabin window.

That night, as I lie in my bunk, there is a knocking at the door. I ignore it. “Open the door you fucking idiot,” a slurring man says outside. I open my eyes. He hits harder and my heart quickens. The door swings open. He collapses onto the floor. “Shit.” He looks up at me. “Who the fuck are you?” He tries to stand, but the boat is rocking and he is fat and drunk. I stare at this beached whale unsure of what to do, until someone helps him up and ushers him out.

For a brief moment, my phone buzzes. “Welcome to Turkey.” I rush out onto an almost empty deck. Fishing boats are just visible. Everyone has gone inside where a man is playing with a satellite box. In-and-out comes Bulgarian satellite television. Momentarily the ship is somewhere.

Sailing at night is a disorientating experience. The sea sucks in the horizon, which blurs invisibly into the water. The only flecks of light are stars: the Black Sea’s are the tiny fragments of plastic that float out from the Turkish coast and reflect back the ship’s floodlights.

“It’s really bad,” says Igor, as he leans against the metal railings. “Ships come past and they dump their rubbish in the sea.” He points to the glinting white specks. He flicks his cigarette into the sea. The closer we get to Georgia and the bottle-neck of the south-eastern Black Sea, the more plastic-packet stars appear.

Nearby, Artur, a sad Armenian, is pacing.

“The Bulgarians say we are not European.” His drunken eyes widen. We dance around the deck, my feet falling back as he stumbles with the rhythm of the rolling sea. “They don’t even have proper roads in Bulgaria, they aren’t smooth like in Germany or France, and they think that they are Europeans!” He grabs my shoulder. “I am French!”

We switch from Russian to French.

“I am a political refugee! I am from Baku! When the Azeris, the sons-of-bitches, started the killing and burning, I got in my cement-mixer and drove to Russia. That was 1987.” He remembers when the Soviet Union began to fall apart, when the Caucasus went up in flames and Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war. For the Armenians of Azerbaijan, and the Azeris of Nagorno-Karabakh, it was the end of the road.

By 1997, Artur had made his way to the banlieues of France, trading Europe’s edge for the French periphery.

He is spiralling. “The real sons-of-bitches are the Turks. They could see I was an Armenian and they didn’t let me into the country. My father is dying and they blocked me at the Greek border. They said that my documents were bad.” He drags on a cigarette so long I wait for him to choke, but instead he launches into 1915: the Genocide.

He reaches for a torn paper document. “Look, this is my licence, they said it was bad but they are lying. It’s fine. Look there. My French isn’t good.” I give it a glance.
Expired.

“You’re going to Georgia to work, right?” I nod. He writes down the phone number of his sons, one of whom runs a garage in Lyon. “You’re French, I’m Armenian, we’re brothers. When you come to Lyon, call my sons. We’ll hook you up.” Then, bemusingly, “You’re an engineer?” Inexplicably, I nod. “We’ll hook you up. You speak French and he needs someone who can do front-of-house.” He drifts off for another whisky.

Batumi comes into view: beaches, casinos and Turkish strip-clubs. A 21st-century boomtown swallowing its 19th-century grandfather. This is the land where Jason and the Argonauts came to find the Golden Fleece. Behind it, the mountains of the Caucasus that spellbound Dumas, and enthralled the Lermontovs and Pushkins of the Russian Empire, the dangerous intellectuals, spared Russia’s Siberian heart, but exiled to its Caucasian periphery.

In the distance, the black mountains of Abkhazia, and Anaklia, the future super-port of Chinese dreams. Most of the truckers have rolled-off here dozens of times, but they stay at a truck-stop a few kilometres down the main road to Tbilisi.

I crush into the canteen for passport control. “Soon, back to my home: Ukraine,” I overhear. Mobile phones start to buzz. I hear children on the lines. It is three days to Tehran, and Nemo is itching. The Armenians can make Yerevan before nightfall if immigration is quick. Everything speeds up.