Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: Greece

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 “open air” to “dormitory,” closely resembled naval beds, but were slightly more comfortable than the apartment floor in Rome. The sea was calm and we slept well. 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 express train to Athens. Unfortunately, the daily speedy train from Piraeus to Athens was scheduled to leave at 12:22, just minutes before the daily ferry arrived. This meant we and all our fellow passengers were forced onto the next train, which did not leave for two and a half hours. When our ride finally pulled in, it was a sight to behold: black, no doubt from all the soot it was belching out; noisy as a cat on fire; and unimaginably slow. In addition, it stopped approximately every twenty-five feet from Piraeus to Athens. If we had the energy, I am sure we could have beaten the train to Athens on 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 slowly became comfortable with the sheer hundred-foot drops off the side of the train. A nice old Greek lady 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 at the nearby Aphrodite Hostel. We grabbed some pizza, baklava and had a few drinks at the hostel bar, then settled in for the night.

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. One shop sold little backpack patches that looked like national flags. In my post-September-11th delusions, I imagined we would catch fewer scowls as we traveled east if I looked, spoke, and acted exactly like a Minnesotan but wore a little Canadian flag patch on my backpack. 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. To kill some time we wandered around the base of the hill and passed many workers placing bricks down in order to recreate an ancient Acropolis road for the 2004 Olympic Games. It looked like an endless task and I’m sure it 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.

By mid-afternoon we were hot and hungry, so we decided we'd better eat something. We found a nice café in town for moussaka, rice-filled tomatoes, and ouzo. While we were eating, the restaurant owner sat on a nearby 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.” He did not seem to fare well, but he persisted undaunted.

The next morning, we took our time getting ready and did some last-minute sightseeing around the base of the Acropolis hill. As I was taking a break from all the walking we had 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 had ever been to.  

“Oh really!” he said. “We’re from 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 a return to Piraeus. There were very few reasons for one to return to Piraeus. Unless, of course, one's uncle won a Mediterranean cruise but could not use it because he won it in a raffle event for a charity that he himself was in charge of and he was not allowed to give it back to the raffle, so he gave one the cruise as a pre-wedding gift - which one cannot believe one's lucky stars one got, especially after sleeping in dodgy hostels and eating pot noodles for five weeks – and one was required to catch the aforementioned cruise ship in Piraeus. So it was with much joy that we left for Piraeus.

Piraeus was a small city that consisted of a port and little else. But my, what a large port it was. We trekked around ship after increasingly large ship for over an hour until we found our vessel at the far end of the harbor. By the time we made it, we were rushed on board minutes before departure.

Our lives at sea were a stark contrast to everything else we had 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 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 soon on Istanbul International Airport, the same airport we were going to use for our upcoming flight to Paris. Fantastic.

Our first destination was the island of Mykonos, a fairy-tale island full of white sand beaches, bleach-white homes, and the sort of cleanliness that one only finds 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 was an island in the shape of a doughnut, the middle having been blown out by a gigantic volcano many centuries ago.

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. I hated zigzagging up that steep cliff on a donkey, 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 through tight alleys bordering whitewashed homes, quiet restaurants, and blue-domed chapels.  

On the way down, I convinced Karie that we did not need to take the donkeys. Overpriced, I said. Gravity is on our side, I said. I soon discovered the number one reason donkey peddlers were doing such swift business. The cliff path was coated with several inches of donkey manure. We kept a keen eye out for clean footholds but still managed 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 pool and hot tub. Sometimes life did not seem fair. It was nice when those times worked in our favor.  

Our third day of cruise-life took us to Rhodes. Rhodes was a walled city filled with rug shops, presumably because it was within shouting distance of Turkey. The moat surrounding the walls of the city was filled with gargantuan cannon balls, as if the water had recently dried up and nobody had gotten around to clearing away the remains of the last battle. We toured a museum, noticing artifacts that were much older than anything we had 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 impressive eras like “Late Bronze Age.” As we traveled east, human history seemed to be receding before us.