A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story. To begin at the beginning, go here.
Our accommodations on the ferry, which we had upgraded from “deck” (open air, hope-you-don’t-slide-off-into-the-Adriatic accomodations) to “dormitory,” closely resembled naval beds, but were slightly more comfortable than the apartment floor in Rome. I slept well and the sea was calm. However, at 4:30 AM we arrived at the first port-of-call, Iguomentsia. I might have missed this port were it not bored into my ears for thirty piercing seconds. “IGOUMENTSIA IGOUMENTSIA IGOUMENTSIA IGOUMENTSIA IGOUMENTSIA IGOUMENTSIA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Needless to say, nobody missed Iguomentsia, including those of us who would have gladly slept through it.
By 12:30 PM, we arrived at Piraeus, ready to catch our fast train to Athens. Unfortunately, Greece, arguably the birthplace of modern mathematics and philosophy, occasionally diverges from rationality and logic. The daily speedy train from Piraeus to Athens was scheduled to leave at 12:22, just minutes before the daily ferry arrives. This meant all passengers were forced to the next train, which didn’t leave for two and a half hours. When our ride finally pulled in, it was a sight to behold: dark black (no doubt from all the soot it was belching out), noisy as a cat on fire, and slooooooooooooooooooooooow. In addition, it stopped approximately every twenty-five feet from Piraeus to Athens. If we had the energy, I’m sure we could have beaten the train to Athens by foot. We eventually got acclimated to the rocking and the squealing and the stopping and the smells and began to enjoy our cliff-side coastal views, which were well worth all the inconveniences. I even became comfortable with the sheer hundred-foot drops off the side of the train. Some nice old lady who didn’t speak a lick of English could see me trying to glance out her ocean-side window, so she offered her seat to me and appeared to appreciate the interest I was taking in her country’s landscape. Just when it seemed we would be slowly touring Corinth for the entire day, we arrived in Athens. Our little-engine-that-could made the trip in just over five hours at an average speed of four miles per hour.
We were able to get a reasonable rate on the nearby Aphrodite Hostel. We grabbed some pizza and baklava and had a few drinks at the hostel bar, which was run by an ageing hipster Aussie woman and her pre-pubescent co-worker/son/lover. They were so clearly far apart in age but so flirty with each other, it was hard to tell what sort of relationship they had.
We spent the next morning walking to the Acropolis, past streets lined with merchants and newsagents. Near the Acropolis, we encountered a steep incline with many crisscrossing streets and small alleys filled with tourist shops. At one shop I noticed a place to buy little backpack patches that looked like national flags. In my post-September-11th delusions, I imagined that we would be putting ourselves in peril if we admitted that we were Americans, especially as we neared the Middle East. This inspired me to don the appearance of a Canadian who looked, spoke, and acted exactly like a Minnesotan but wore a little Canadian flag patch on his backpack so terrorists wouldn’t abduct him. Thus, I completed my foolproof guise and we were transformed from lost Americans to lost Canucks. After asking several people how to get to the top of the Acropolis, we found our way to the center of ancient Greece. However, ancient Greece (at least, its modern-day operating workforce) was on strike until noon. I never got a good feel for what the strike was about and it seemed meager to strike for only four hours, so I can only assume that a few key decision makers in the Acropolis union wanted to sleep in. To kill some time we wandered around the base of the hill and passed many workers placing bricks down in order to recreate some sort of ancient Acropolis road for the 2004 Olympic Games. It looked like an endless task and I’m sure that paled in comparison to the rest of the work that needed to be done in the next two years. I still have no idea how they completed preparation for those games.
Because it was so hot, we never really got hungry that day. Even so, it was nearing 3 PM, so we decided we better eat something. We found a nice café in town for lunch of mousakka, rice-filled tomato, and ouzo. While we were eating, our not-so-politically-correct restaurant owner sat on the opposite curb and cooed at passing women. He seemed to take special interest in Asian women, putting on his best English accent to greet them with calls of “Hello Chinese…. beautiful Chinese.” Though he did not have much luck winning them over, he persisted, undaunted.
In the morning, we took our time getting ready and did some last-minute sightseeing around the base of Acropolis hill. As I was taking a break from all the walking we’d done, I was accosted by a “fellow” Canadian who saw the patch on my backpack and wanted to chat about being Canadian. He wanted to know where I was from. “Thunder Bay,” I replied, which was the only city in Canada I’d ever been to.
“Oh really!,” he said. “We’re from Lake Victoria.”
“Wow, it’s nice there!,” I told him, and then realized the only place for me to hide was the bathroom, so I quickly broke away and prayed for no parting questions. It was a close call. I was quite impressed with my on-the-fly ability to fool even the most Canadian of tourists.
Our next destination was Piraeus. There are very few reasons to go to Pireaus. Unless, of course, your uncle wins a Mediterranean cruise but cannot use it because he won it in a raffle event for a charity that he himself is in charge of and he isn’t allowed to give it back to the raffle, so he gives you the cruise as a pre-wedding gift - which you cannot believe your lucky stars you got, especially after sleeping in dodgy hostels and eating pot noodles for 5 weeks – and you have to catch your departing ship in Pireaus. So it was with much joy that we left for Pireaus.
Piraeus is a small city that consists of a port and nothing else. But my-what-a-large-port it is. We trekked around ship after increasingly large ship for over an hour until we found ours at the far end of the harbor. By the time we made it, we were rushed on board minutes before the ship departed.
Our lives on board were in stark contrast to everything else we’d experienced in the previous four months. If we wanted anything anytime, somebody would come rushing to our side and smile and immediately give it to us. Every meal included thirty seven courses and pushed the elasticity of our stomachs.
At 8 AM on the first morning, the roar of the motors woke us up as we docked. We received a “USA News” packet so that we could keep tabs on what was going on back home. The top news for that day was that terrorists were planning an attack next weekend on Istanbul International Airport, the same airport we were going to use for our flight to Paris upon completion of the weeklong cruise. Fantastic.
Our first destination was the island of Mykonos, a fairy-tale island of white sand beaches, bleach-white homes, and the sort of cleanliness that you only find in vacation communities of the very wealthy. We wound our way around the small city, spent some time on the beach, pretended to blend in with the ultra-rich tourists, and came face to face with a live pelican.
We awoke again the next morning to the sound of the motor churning in reverse as the ship pulled into the harbor of Santorini. Santorini is an island in the shape of a doughnut, with the middle having been blown out by a gigantic volcano many centuries ago. According to legend, this is where the lost city of Atlantis once stood.
We took a small ferry from the ship to the island, then hopped on a donkey and zigzagged our way up a very steep cliff face. I hate zigzagging up steep cliff faces on donkeys, especially with Karie snickering at my white knuckles and my clever donkey enjoying the occasional lunge to the edge of the path. Somehow we made it to the top, which was covered in a cloud of mist. Again, we walked in and out of alleys, whitewashed homes, restaurants, and chapels.
On the way down, I convinced my wife that we didn’t need to take the donkeys. Overpriced, I said. Gravity is on our side, I said. I soon discovered the number one reason the donkey peddlers were able to do such swift business: the cliff path was covered in half a foot of donkey manure. We kept a keen eye out for clean footholds, but that only caused Karie to trip and slide several feet down the path, through some not-so-clean footholds. Tired and smelly, we made it to the bottom, where our cruise ship helped us quickly forget the trials of the donkey trail. We spent the afternoon onboard our ship in the Santorini harbor, swimming in the on-board pool and hot tub. Sometimes life doesn’t seem fair. It’s nice when those times work in your favor.
Our third day of cruise-life took us to Rhodes. Rhodes was a walled city filled rug shops, presumable because it is within shouting distance of Turkey. The moat surrounding the walls of the city were filled with gargantuan cannon balls, as if the moat had recently dried up and nobody had gotten around to cleaning the remains of the last battle. We toured a museum, where we started to notice that artifacts were getting much older than anything we’d seen to this point. Some of the pottery chips and spear heads and metal sticks with balls on the end were dated without numbers, just terms like “Late Bronze Age,” impressive even for a non-history buff like myself.