Editor’s Note: Bangor Daily News reporter Eric Russell and photographer John Clarke Russ are aboard Maine Maritime Academy’s ship the State of Maine as it conducts its annual training cruise. The two will file daily stories and photos as they accompany 200 students and crew to European ports of call.
PALERMO, Sicily – Cory Byrnes and Nikita Leiba wandered the streets of Sicily’s largest city on Saturday, dodging intermittent raindrops and impatient motorists as they occasionally ducked into stores that caught their eye.
The two friends, both freshman cadets on their first Maine Maritime Academy training cruise, had no set agenda, just a desire to see – and eat – as much as possible.
“There’s no other place like it, especially the food,” Byrnes said as he meandered through a souvenir shop near the pier in downtown Palermo. “I’ve spent a lot of money, but when are we ever going to get the chance to come back here?”
Many crew members aboard the State of Maine have traveled all over the world and have been in ports most cadets haven’t even heard of. But the students – particularly the freshmen – likely are experiencing their first tastes of an exotic land during the 2007 cruise.
Cadets are given two out of three days while in port as liberty, and no two students spend their precious free time the same way.
In Palermo, Byrnes, of Standish, and Leiba, a native of Clarendon, Jamaica, shared an affinity not only for the local Italian cuisine but its culture as well.
“I love the way they greet each other,” Leiba said of the native Sicilians. “They kiss on the cheek, even the men. It’s nice. They’re not afraid to be affectionate.”
“It’s kind of sad to think of how much people really aren’t like that back home,” Byrnes said.
Byrnes and Leiba spent nearly the entire day Saturday traveling the crowded streets of Palermo, a city of more than 650,000 people. Both said they went through a lot of money, particularly Leiba, who bought gifts for her family: a bracelet for her mom, a ring for her dad and an ornate ashtray for her grandfather.
“I did get something for myself,” she said, describing a necklace with a cross on the end of it made of stainless steel and white gold. “I’m Catholic and I’ve never had a cross. Italy seemed like the perfect place to get one.”
Maine Maritime Academy’s summer cruise, a mandatory experience for all freshmen and juniors seeking a 3rd mate license or a 3rd engineer license, lasts 60 days from the day it leaves Castine to the day it returns.
During most of that time, students are training, whether it’s helping to navigate the ship or spending time in the engine room making sure all of the pistons are firing.
In port, though, it’s important to give cadets some well-deserved time off. Capt. Brendan McAvoy, the ship’s master since Capt. Laurence Wade suffered a stroke on May 27, said students’ impressions of Palermo seemed to be a mixed bag.
“We had very little time to research and find anything out about this port,” McAvoy said as the ship pulled out of the Sicilian harbor on Sunday. The State of Maine ended up in Palermo after Wade’s illness forced the ship to abandon its initial plans to dock in Odessa, a Ukrainian port on the Black Sea. “I think some people were turned off a little by the amount of congestion in the city, so they kept going further and further away while on liberty. It was almost like a competition to see who could go the furthest.”
Mark Gauthier, a junior from Salem, Mass., said he didn’t get the chance to leave the ship as much as he would have liked, but when he did, he escaped the chaos and smog of downtown Palermo.
“There were a bunch of us who rented scooters and kind of rode out toward the mountains,” Gauthier said, referring to the peaks that surround Palermo, virtually in all directions. “You really have to get out of the city to see the history.”
Cadets paid about 27 euros to rent a scooter for the day; a small price to pay, according to Gauthier.
Some crew members took a boat to a nearby island.
“It was beautiful,” said Margaret Brandon, a deck training officer on her first cruise. “It was much more laid-back than Palermo. We went to lunch at this little cafe and just sat there for three hours, talking, enjoying the scenery.”
Lori Berggren, a freshman from Scarborough, spent half of one day with some fellow cadets hiking a nearby mountain. She said the views were spectacular and her group even encountered wandering sheep near the top.
“When you only have a limited amount of liberty, it’s hard to get very far,” she said. “You don’t want to chance having something happen where you can’t get back to the ship.”
Above all, though, students planned their meals while in port. Palermo is known for its authentic, varied cuisine, and cadets like Byrnes and Leiba took advantage by sampling a little bit of everything when it came to the local fare.
“We had snails earlier today,” Byrnes said. “The people were really nice, too. They even showed us how to eat them properly.
“Last night, we tried pasta with squid ink,” he added.
For dinner Saturday, the pair stopped at a restaurant in the waterfront area of Palermo and ordered off a hand-written menu.
“What did you order?” Leiba asked her friend.
“I have no idea,” Byrnes said.
“I guess I’ll have the same thing,” Leiba shot back.
When their dishes came, their mystery orders turned out to be plates of spaghetti tossed with a sauce of garlic, basil and olive oil. Both loved it.
“I’ve gotten pretty lucky,” Byrnes said. “Most everything I’ve ordered has been really good. And if I don’t like it, I’ll still eat it, just for the experience.”
“The food was definitely the best part,” said Travis Chenevert, a freshman cadet from Fairfield. “It’s a lot better than anything you can get in the U.S.”
The one barrier in Palermo seemed to be language.
“Other than the port, it’s a working city, not really a tourist spot. So there isn’t a lot of English,” Berggren said. “You pick up little things in Italian, though, and people tend to talk with their hands a lot, which helps.”
“I went into a shop and when they realized I was American, they brought out one of their children, I think, who was like 10 years old and he spoke better English than anyone,” said Heather Swan, a junior from Washington, D.C.
As the State of Maine pulled farther and farther away from Palermo on Sunday, McAvoy stood on the ship’s bridge looking out over the Mediterranean Sea in front of him.
“Say goodbye to Sicily,” he shouted to no one in particular.
Blake Hynes, a junior from Rockland who was the student in charge of the bridge as it left Palermo, said he had mixed feelings about the Sicilian city.
“Any port’s pretty good, though,” he said. “That’s what’s cool about the ports we get to see: They are usually pretty exotic. You take advantage because you never know when, if ever, you might get back there.”
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