Liminal Places

Between the Here and There

The Sea Is What Matters.
June 1998. I’m in the top bunk of a tiny train cabin, looking out of the small window. My mother is in the lower bunk, reading a book. A few hours ago, we boarded the train that comes from the North, and now we’ll be traveling south for the whole night, until we reach the sea. There, at the coast, the train will be disassembled and split into pieces (with us inside) on a ferryboat that crosses the strait - the few kilometres of water that separate the mainland from the island where my mother was born. Once the boat reaches the island, the train will be reassembled and, in the morning, it will continue its journey south, still with us inside. We do this every year.


Whenever possible, my mother books a night cabin for two, so we don’t have to worry about leaving out bags inside when we go to the bathroom, and we don’t have to deal with the smell of strangers’ bodies at night. The cabin is very compact, the bunk beds barely large enough to fit averagely sized shoulders, and the space between the beds and the opposite wall are so narrow that we need to move our bag to reach the window from the door. On the side of the beds the ceiling is shaped like a half barrel vault. Two safety belts connect the edge of the bunk beds to the ceiling, so if the train breaks abruptly during the night, the person sleeping on top—in this case me— won’t fall to the floor. Between the curve of the ceiling and the safety belts, my surroundings for the journey feel like a tiny den made to measure for my own body. I never get a lot of sleep on these journeys. I look out at the landscape that runs away too fast while I lie on my belly, my chin resting on my hands. I don’t want to sleep, as this will only last a few hours: the only few hours in which time and space are suspended, because we are on our way, not here anymore, not there yet either. Occasionally I doze off, but I always wake up whenever the train stops, as if the absence of the familiar movement shakes my body. The train guard whistles, and the metallic female voice announces that we have arrived at one of the stations.

“I don’t want to sleep, as this will only last a few hours: the only few hours in which time and space are suspended, because we are on our way, not here anymore, not there yet either.”



Towards the end of our journey, the stops get closer and closer to each other, as the big cities give way to the smaller towns, to the run down, to the south. Finally, I wake up to a different sound. Loud, metallic clanks echoing back to us from 360 degrees. The dark of the night has been replaced by a cold, unnatural but soft light. Outside the window, behind the filthy curtain that my mum must have drawn while I was asleep, a white landscape of gears, tiny staircases, and peeling paint appears. Every few meters, a striped orange and white lifebuoy hangs on the wall accompanied by a rope. We are in the belly of the ferry. Impatiently, I wait for the noises to end. I know the rules: until the standard maneuvers are complete, we can’t go outside. We are still moving, a few meters back, a few meters forward. The train seems fast asleep, still, and only the stomping steps of the train guard in the corridor outside our cabin remind us that we are not the last ones on board. Finally, the train is set, and the ferry begins its crossing. We put on our shoes and jackets, we leave the cabin, and we reach the door of the carriage at the end of the corridor. Outside, on the ferry, the air seems closed and open at the same time, and it smells like sea salt and naphtha, of industry and wilderness. We walk in the tiny space between the train and the ferry’s metallic wall. I take the lead and my mum follows behind, and we climb up the first ramp of stairs, and then another one, and one more, as I keep saying “Higher! Higher!”


Finally, we reach the top deck. The wind is fierce, the sun has just come up but it’s not strong enough to feel warm yet. I lean on the handrail, my hand firmly gripping the smooth and salty bar. All around me, the sea. We are halfway through, my favorite point. On the horizon, a sparkling castle floats in the air, just above the line where the sea meets the sky. As much as I squint, my eyes can’t distinguish anything of its profile. But I recognize it. It’s Fata Morgana’s. I let her play games with my mind. I recognize the sea, the wind, the air, the sun. We are crossing, and, for a moment, it feels like home.