← Ulrike Juza
Earth Fell on my Sentences
ISBN 978-3-9502905-3-0


Order: Lost Borders Press, Big Pine, CA
USD 19,90



This is my journal about a chance journey around the world that happened to me as I stepped out the door one day. I followed a heartbeat around the corner and then around the next. I had no set plan, guidebook, or map, just my trust and whichever bus or boat came along. As I went, I wrote, and soil, salt, and sand mixed with my sentences. This is my gift back to the Earth and its people.

Cover design: Betti Sauter, Vienna
Page layout, typesetting:
Ana Inés Tau, Córdoba (AR)
Original German title:
Die Erde ist auf den Satz gefallen
English translation: Kimi Lum, Vienna
Website: Harald Niessner, Berlin

© Ulrike Juza 2011.
All rights reserved.
I believe that living is like writing sentences. You walk along, writing them as you go, constantly picking the most beautiful of all possibilities and in the process telling a story.

In 2001 there came a point when my story somehow felt dictated. I had to make a full stop and venture out onto a fresh page. See what would happen, what the world was like when you set forth into it blank and with an open heart. This is that story.


The little old suitcase. A cargo ship ticket to Montreal, an overnight train to Hamburg. Leaving Ober-Grafendorf.


Hamburg. The port is way out in the mouth of the Elbe. In the cafeteria, dockhands having breakfast. They go to the cargo port, take me with them. The ship is named Fortune, the crew is Indian. At the top of the gangway a Bavarian asks: Are you a passenger? That makes two of us. He has traveled almost clear around the world on cargo ships.

A crane heaves the cans, swings them onto the ship, a horizon of containers rising block by block outside my cabin window. The fans on the refrigerated ones whirr like lost insects.

At night seagulls sit there, the steward says as he makes the bed. The Fortune toots and leaves port.


Beneath the open sky you don’t feel the sway. Footprints on deck, oil and water. Passengers are allowed only in the green zones not the red.

Seagulls. Are they playing with the wind? Looks like pure fun. Water pushed up from the depths, clear, turquoise, crests and spume dispersed by the wind. The peaks trickle down the sides, shimmer. Rainbow colors.

[The North Sea]
The North Sea somewhere off Scotland. The third officer comes to my cabin, gives safety instructions, pulls the strap of my hard hat tight around my jaw still swollen from surgery two days ago. We’ll be hitting more turbulence once we reach the Atlantic, he says. They stretch each day by an hour, turn the clocks back at night.

Outside my window, containers groan. A slow grating, creaking. The hull rocks in circles. My body is pushed up against the wall – it rolls back and out of sleep.

I tiptoe out on deck. Night presses against the railing, above me, the sky bright with stars. I gape in awe, feel like a small child. Inhale, one star, two. Orange ship on a black sea.

Shivering in pajamas. The iron door is stuck, I have to use force. Wind whistles through the corridor, shooing the warm fragrance of incense away from a cabin door that says Able Seaman.


The ship leaves a bright silvery trail, a seagull flies across the morning sun. Northern Scotland is a washed-out green coastline. I sit in the lookout perch on the bridge, peering through binoculars over the tops of the containers.

Off the coast of Canada you can see whales, belugas too. The captain waddles up like a penguin in black leather slippers. The Fortune is a good ship. He is Dutch and speaks thirteen languages. He’d rather not know what is inside the containers. There are always storms to the west of England. That is why we are taking the eastward route.

Just the two of us sitting at the passengers’ table next to the captain’s table. The Bavarian watches the water jets and two- meter-long windshield wipers, says: It’s not how my mother does it. And: From Havana to Tahiti through the Panama Canal, that was the most beautiful thing I ever saw. I know what I would do if I were you. Go to Chicago, from there: Route 66 by motorcycle, San Francisco, the Panamericana, and then you’ve got the islands in front of you, Hawaii, Australia. Your face is symmetrical again.

Time to remove the stitches. The helmsman will take them out, says the captain. With the fireman’s torch, says the short helmsman. He stands in the hospital room, deep in the hull of the swaying ship, feet set wide apart, his stance at the wheel. Next to him, the third officer wearing white coveralls and a hard hat. I pull back the corner of my mouth, one of them holds the flashlight, the other snips at the back of my jaw with a pair of nail scissors, he says: Rough sea. We are not professionals.

Going down the steps as the boat pitches, can’t stop, go too far. Backtracking. Climbing the steep steps is effortless, the body is lifted and pressed upward. Until the boat lurches at the top of the wave. A moment of weightlessness.

On the bridge, gazing back at the sinking sun. It’s raining hard, the drops splash on deck. When the ship sways, the puddles sway with it. We travel through an expanse of water between sunrise and sunset.


The ship seems to stand still. Only the curtain zips back and forth in its track. It is four thirty, or three thirty. Time is different, the waves are different. The circular churning is now a horizontal swaying. My insides slosh in a circular motion.

Outside, the wind goes right through your bones into your heart. The seagulls still follow the ship, sometimes straying off, as if drawn away by the waves, buoyed by them. They dip into the wave trough, shoot up over the crest, plunge into the next one, turn, shoot upward again and away. And at some point they are back at the stern. They follow their nature. They simply are.

The helmsman stands in the engine room watching the wheel move by itself, right then left, in constant motion. If the GPS stops working, it is up to him to steer. He gives me a tour of the ship. He is the second officer. The third officer is responsible for safety, the captain for everything.

Long iron stairways connect the different levels in the ship’s belly. Engines drone, pound, everything shiny and clean. There are one thousand seven hundred containers on board, spread over seven levels. One hundred and sixteen meters long. It’s a small ship, says the chief engineer.

You must go to the bow! It’s the best place on the boat, gushes the helmsman and wraps a parka around my shoulders, fur-lined with a hood. I trot along behind him like a bear, passing under the pipes for diesel and steam that wind through the vessel like intestines. We follow them to the heavy watertight door and crawl up. Five seamen, their green wool caps peeking out from beneath yellow hard hats, stand on deck painting the boat reddish orange. The bottom of the ship gets a new coat every three years.

I fight the wind for a foothold. At the bow, the small stairway. I peer down, straight into the ocean, am engulfed by blue. It is a wordless blue. Because there is no comparison. Blue light. The Fortune glides over it calmly. Below, the keel slices through it; at the sides, churning white spume and froth. And the seagulls fly above. They are turning back, the helmsman says. But it’s such a long way by now.

Red cheeks, red nose, boat paint on my ear, as the steward with the melancholy expression points out. He serves dinner. The officers come in one by one, gobble their food down quickly; the seamen eat in back, in the mess hall. The Bavarian has the news from the teleprinter. Palestinians shot a minister, war in Israel, war in Afghanistan. The purple sea bobs in the porthole beside him.

I’ve memorized the containers outside my window, know every word by heart. Mixed in with the creaking are a grinding and a dragging. A lag in the pulse: sliding together, piling up, and then the rhythm tumbles over itself.

In my dream a blind woman: Sometimes it is hard to be scared if you can’t see what you are doing. You just reach out, stumble along, make mistakes, keep going. Wander through worlds and travel with your heart, she says. Just three more hours to America. I turn my watch forward.


The horizon shrouded in mist. Clouds hang low like walls. You can see the weather zones, the captain says. On the other side, the sun. Pink with white crowns, the ocean seam. Seagulls. What pushes them on? They follow the ship, never flapping their wings, maneuvering only occasionally. Tapping the force of the wind and the waves.

Look, says the third officer, a rainbow. He is from Bombay. The news on the teleprinter. Anthrax in Washington, D.C., foot-and-mouth disease in Japan, a seagull smack against the sun, big. Very close.

The ocean splashes deep black-blue. The color of octopus ink. Masses of mixed water and air, emerald and white, flowing marble, constantly changing. Air bubbles. Sometimes a big one pushes its way to the surface, gurgles.

On the bridge the black curtain swallows the lights of the monitors. Behind it, the first officer in a lumberjack shirt and sandals, he has night duty. We’re in the nice weather zone, he says. But never say it’s nice weather. The sea is listening and immediately you are in hell. He is in charge of calculating the loading and unloading of cargo, he never has time to go ashore when the ship docks.

The computer distributes the cargo. His wallpaper image is of his wife with their son holding his doll called Monica (Lewinsky). Once his son turns one, they’ll have him vacci- nated and then they can join him at sea. He has a sweetheart in London, Susanne from Dachau. But don’t tell my wife. The draft sucks me out the door. Good night.


Fog so thick you can’t see the containers in front of your own window. Standing on the bridge are the third officer, the Bavarian, and the deck swabber. Fog is formed when the cold water current from Greenland converges with still warm air. Icebergs could come along too, but our chances of running into one are slim. The captain is an expert in winter navigation.

By October it’s already cold, wild waters, the route north of Newfoundland starts to freeze. During the winter they cross through ice at temperatures of minus thirty-five degrees Celsius. The Indian captains leave their ships, go back to India. It’s too cold for them, too much ice. He laughs. This is their last trip with passengers this year.

Our last day at sea. We reach Quebec cruising at eighteen knots, then slow down at the river because of the ship’s draft. The navigable part of the channel is narrow. Large ships dock, let smaller boats distribute their cargo. Vessel traffic controllers guide boats through. Them! He says with a contemptuous wave. They act like kings! He opens a drawer and takes out maps with the exact depth of the Saint Lawrence River from Belle Isle to Montreal.

The sun breaks through the clouds. The water surface reflects its rays, blinds me. The third officer has been thinking. Wondering if I get lonely traveling around like this. Do you think about home? –No, do you? –No. I have no home. No friends in Montreal either. But the girl at the Seamen’s Club will help you. (It takes me a while to make sense of that: Why Siemens?) Vienna is beautiful. I’ve seen it in movies. War movies. (Why even think. You spend your life thinking, seamen know the whole world, cities, people, and then the port is so far out.)

A rough icy wind blusters ferociously from around the corner. I brace myself, fight my way to the other side. Inhale deeply, all the way in. Everything so vast. A sky from water to water, blotting me out. Impetuous winds roar and whip, the ocean rolls straight through me. The PRINCIPLE OF INNER BOUNDLESSNESS.

Dal is the lentil preparation of the day. The head chef is the only chef. He cooks lentils three times a day. Dinner is the color of the third officer’s skin. Day to day monochromy.

The Jell-O wobbles in the bowl and doesn’t stop. In the North Atlantic these waves are normal for this time of year, says the captain. The pear rolls away. Water splashes out of the glass in my hand. Pulsing jolts. Humps and bumps: the ocean. Dusk barges in, a black storm.

We get to Newfoundland around one. The captain says there isn’t much action. He was here once before, got as far as the end of the street, that’s it.


Walkie-talkies. Contact with land. Excitement everywhere, the bridge door is open. A ship passes. The first one in days. It’s a grain ship. He invites me to stay in Montreal and celebrate Christmas with him. A possibility: I wait for the third officer at minus thirty degrees Celsius plus wind.

In the lounge, the Bavarian sits in an armchair dreaming about lunch. In the morning he pores over the menu as if it were his crime novel. He imagines himself sitting there at lunchtime with his plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce and along comes the steward and dumps a ladle full of lentil goop over it. Sometimes the steward complains to him about being homesick.

Fire drill at four. Lifeboats with bars on the windows look like submarines suspended in the air. The Bavarian, his pink face poking out of a life vest, sings Calcutta lies on the Ganges, Paris lies on the Seine, but I’m head over heels in love, with a girl named Madeleine.

A birthday party. The crew lounges in couches, bare feet from olive to dark brown, we are playing guess-the-advertisement. When it’s my turn, I pick the one for porcelain toilets, the men snicker into their pillows, laugh out loud, throw their feet into the air, and I don’t understand Hindi. It’s because hardly anyone in India has a porcelain toilet the head engineer explains.