Athens: Saturday 6 March 2010

“A journey is like a marriage.  The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” – John Steinbeck


Distance travelled: 53km (total 19,584km)

Flights missed: 2

Sleep is deep, but too short and I awakenbriefly once when a text message arrives, and neither the wake-up call nor breakfast materialise.  Thank goodness I set the alarm on my funky new iPhone.

I check out and mention this failure, to be greeted by a shrug, and no apology.  Incredulous, I ask for one: “I apologise for my colleague”.  “No, you should apologise for the hotel.  This is meant to be one of the best hotels in Athens, and when you make a mistake it should be admitted.”  “But your wake up call was not in our book.”  “So what”, I snappily retort, “it’s the hotel’s mistake no matter who made it.  The service here needs to be better or no-one will come.”

They stare at me, blinking.  Of course, reliable Nick waits outside to whisk me to the airports.  Nick has had no sleep, but managed to grab a souvlaki in the middle of the night.  He will go home after this and sleep, aiming to avoid the traffic in the busiest part of the day.

I arrived at the airport early, and checked in before wandering around and pondering getting a local SIM card.  I vaguely heard my name in a haze of names being paged.  But I wasn’t late!  Heading to security, there it was again!  “Could passenger Kareen Dun-Tool please proceed to gate 25 for the flight to Santorini”!!  I forced my way forward, desperately removing my boots, laptop, Kindle…get through get through, move it people!…to the gate only to find my fellow passengers sitting quietly.  The woman at the gate nods: she has been waiting for me.

Despite the initial impression of disorder in Greece, they do most certainly have their ways to ensure order amidst the general chaos.  In this case, they want you at the gate well before boarding and will harangue you over the PA to get you there.  Ten minutes later, the announcement: the flight to Santorini is delayed due to weather.  More info in half an hour.  Oh great.  Now it’s the weather.

Sure enough, an hour later, the flight was cancelled, and our confused group was pointed to the ticketing counter to have new flights booked, to the Hotels counter for a E12 voucher for food, and to the Lost and Found to collect our luggage.  Instructions were vague, and I met two equally confused travellers, Anna-Marie, a Canadian, and Taki, a Japanese student, to make sense of it with me.

Artifacts in the Airport

More old stuff, dug up from airport area

After we eventually found our bags, we checked into the afternoon flight, and I took a spin around the Airport Museum.  In Greece, it’s fair to assume that, when you go to dig something up to build, reasonably often you manage to come across ancient civilisations.  At that point, work on whatever it is stops and the archaeologists are brought in to dust off and dig up all the old stuff before the construction can continue.  Two good examples of this are the airport, and the metro, both of which display findings thousands of years old.

After my moment of culture, it was off to McDonalds cafe where I had a surprisingly good coffee.  The jet lag, though, was making its way over me, and a migraine topped it off.  I could not reach Erika at Chelidonia to say I was delayed, but could log into my emails to see her last email to me where she most helpfully sent me the number of their taxi driver, Thomas. 

I sat, migraine ridden, for about 45 minutes before it was time to head into Athens for the day.  I was so out of it, I took my tray and tipped my coffee cup into the garbage! (Sorry, Macca’s) 

I finally reach Thomas to tell him the morning flight is delayed, and remind him that we met at their church celebration in late 2008.  As the curtain was drawn on that season, he took me to the airport and spoke of his plan to buy a minibus – an entrepeneur!

Onto the train (E10 return) into Athens and visited the amazing Acropolis Museum.  It was wall to wall with locals checking out their amazing art and history: what is it like to have come from such adeep and rich history of achievement, to be the foundation of Western civilisation, only to find yourself front page news, and not in a good way.  I heard someone once say that the Greeks built the Parthenon, invented democracy, and called it a day.  I laughed, mainly because it seemed so true.

Photo of Acropolis Caryatids, taken illegally

View of the Acropolis and Parthenon from Acropolis Museum

I felt my legs, heavy with the type of exhaustion you get from a flu, and my foot, still clamped into the walking boots I wore most of yesterday.  My toes were hurting (it was later revealed that my nail broke and a blood blister formed…so I wasn’t being too big a wuss).  Going up the Acropolis was not even in my contemplation.  Although I love being there, staring at one of the pinnacles of human achievement, today it just seemed too far up.

So, it was off to the Plaka to visit Laura at my favourite jewellery store.  And what a welcome I got!  She screamed and hugged the breath out of me, and we caught up like you can’t do on email.  She bought me lunch (back at Psara’s) and we agreed that the service had become surly (although the eggplant fritter and the octopus were still to die for).  As usual, Laura talked the leg off most of the tables in the room, and made me agree to come back in May for a proper visit and to meet her new boyfriend and maybe even her two young cousins who would visit from the US.

My friend Laura. If she knew I was putting this photo on a blog, she would ask me to tell you she is far more beautiful than this

We talked of how Greece was coping in the crisis.  She told me that many shops in the Plaka (the very pretty main tourist area, just under the Acropolis) had closed down, and tourists didn’t want to spend even a small amount of money on trinkets.  The rents in the area, though, had continued to increase, with some shops paying E9,000 a month.  To put this in perspective, the Greek minimum wage is around E600-700 a month, and a great many people earn this sort of money.

As we walked back to her shop, I asked about the grafitti: sure enough, it had become worse in the past 18 months, and younger people were angrier and much worse behaved.

I trudged back to Syntagma Metro station and JUST missed the 2.00pm airport train – the next was along half an hour later, crowded and standing room only.  I tried to keep my mind off my poor feet and listed to happy Greek music and podcasts. 

At the airport, as I head to the gate, an announcement is made: the flight to Santorini is delayed due to bad weather.  

News at 11.

I can’t be bothered going downstairs, back through security, and figure that the number of travellers competing for a seat on the next flight if this one is cancelled will be getting longer (no flight has left now for 2 days) so make a strategic decision to stay put.  If they are serious about me being there, I will hear my name in an announcement (none comes).  I fire up the laptop in a cafe and eye the departures board suspiciously, waiting for the “Gate Open” to morph to “cancelled” at any minute.  It doesn’t take too long at all to come, and at least now I know the routine: to the ticket counter to be moved to the next flight, where they provide me also with a hotel voucher and instructions to be back by 6pm when a bus will deliver us weary travellers to a nearby hotel.   Anna-Marie, Taki and I head down to the familiar “Lost and Found” luggage section, where we collect our bags and head to Macca’s for a coffee.

I have lucked out on thenew friends front: Annamarie is fascinating and has lived in Uganda working on public health for the past 13 years.  She is meeting a colleague in Santorini to work, as her colleague works in Kenya.  She reports that it’s cheaper to fly from Uganda to London, Santorini, Amsterdam and then home again than it is to fly direct to Kenya from her home.

Taki is a sweet, Japanese uni student, studying Arabic politics a nd language.  He has spent a year living in the US, and most recently came from Cairo where he lived for 3 months studying Arabic.  He carries a large load of books bought in Cairo to avoid checking it into his luggage and getting hit with additional baggage charges; at each stop he either pulls the books out of or puts them back into his luggage.

All in all, two very nice people, so maybe the delay is worth it after all!

I ring Thomas again, and finally reach Erika.  They laugh, and say we will meet again soon.

We arrive at the hotel – a resort by the water, a tired but welcoming place.  Women with big hair perch in the lounge area waiting, as we later discover, for the wedding due there tonight.  The scramble for a room begins, as 30 people fill in forms and muscle their way forward to the reception to be handed the room key.  The elevators carry only 2 people and their luggage at a time, but this final wait delivers us to our basic but clean rooms.  So basic that the only soap is the liquid soap in the shower stall.  I wash my clothes (I’m so tired that I wash a perfectly clean skirt) and plug everything in I can manage to ensure maximum power in my long, crazy list of technology.

Dinner is a weird buffet-style arrangement – although the restaurant has only just opened for the night, the hot food looks dry and uninviting.  I pile salads and dips onto my plate, and cut some of the gorgeous bread.  The fruit, though, is beautiful.  I sit again with Anna-Marie and Taki, and none of us last beyond 8pm, when we head to our rooms.  Still exhausted, the TV in the room next to mine goes crazy.  I don’t care, and drift into sleep.


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