Greece 2011

Sunday, June 26, 2011

My last trip was to Maui, very American, a few words of Hawaiian sprinkled around. Before that I went to China, inundated by the dialects, sprinkled with English, but mostly familiar to me. Now I’m flying to Athens, and the language/culture storm begins already at YVR. Announcements on the Swiss flight to Zurich come in German then French then English. Attendants and passengers try the 3 languages apparently at random, or based on physiognomy? And once I board the flight for Greece, I’m really lost linguistically – I understand exactly one word of Greek (efharisto = thank you). I’m not used to not understanding anything!

Zurich airport’s a cozy mix of languages, and expensive good coffee. Maybe it’s just my peculiar tastes, but so far I haven’t seen a particularly attractive or even fashionable person, after crossing a few thousand travelers. Ah, but in a few days I’ll be on the famous beaches of Mykonos!

Ride to Titania hotel in “Grandma” — Kristos’ beloved 11-year old Mercedes. 150 km/hr down the freeway, a little faster when he saw me smiling at it. The posted limit’s 120 but Kristos says “This is Greece, doesn’t matter, and after 9pm…” Illustrated with a wave. Rock music blaring, competing with his ring tone which is also some familiar rock music.

Late that first night, I take a blackberry video of the street scene, 3am and the music on Anaraxia Square is as loud as a nightclub. I buy a beer for 1 euro from an informal table set up in a corner near the sound system. Marijuana’s in the air. Some people are dancing, most people are just chatting – though having to shout to do it over the music.

Next day, walking around the Acropolis reminds me of Israel, the same overlapping of 21st century technology with 2000 year old ruins. Lots of old rocks full of ghosts. You look underneath the wear and tear, ignore the reconstruction scaffolding, and you can just imagine something deeply beautiful and impressive. I don’t know if a crumbling collection of marble is a symbol of permanence, or the opposite.

Speaking of 2000 years, it’s been a very long time since I ordered that espresso. It’s a tourist trap in the Plaka not McDonald’s, but… Ah there it comes! Ah caffeine!

While sipping my bitter espresso, I googled “where to eat in Athens”. Amid many warnings to avoid the Plaka 🙂 I found a restaurant guide by a Matt Barrett whose “top 10 things to do in Athens” had served me well. He pointed me to his favorite, Cafe Paradiso (spelled in Greek of course, so I’m glad I took enough math courses way back when that I got through the whole Greek alphabet) a few blocks from where I sat.

While waiting for my grilled Calamari and Greek salad I emailed a friend, and enjoyed the ambiance: sunshine, relaxation, conversations I can’t understand a word of.

Monday morning, struggle to get out of bed. Surrounded by jeans, shorts, and flip flops yesterday, would this conference be formal or not? Well, easy to shed, so I put on tie and sport coat, feeling foolish in the elevator. Haha, the lobby was full of conservative suits!

Ok, conference complete, time to party. Found a Salsa club, after internet, fruitless walk to closed club, persistence, and a garrulous cab driver who explained the problem with Greece is that everyone parties til dawn every night and sleeps while Germany works. Now I’m sipping ouzo waiting for dancing to start. 11:15 Monday night, it’s slowly filling in, the waitress says people start dancing about 12, and it turns out it’s not a Salsa night there, but some other Latin variant. About 12:30, the most gorgeous girl in the place walks over to me and asks me to dance… shows me a Latin dance I don’t know. Later, groups get up and line-dance. It seems almost nobody dances as couples; aside from the group dances, most people spend their time drinking and talking. This is a pattern!

I don’t see laziness in Greece, nor much wealth. I see joie de vivre, hard work, honesty and sympatico. Except if I try to use a credit card or get a receipt. The waiter yesterday looked like I’d shot his dog when I offered Visa, despite the Visa sign in his window. “Not today” he said. I gave up and paid cash for everything this trip.

Long long day Tuesday. Walked around Syntagma curious about the protesters, and looking for the Fantasy Travel Agency recommended by Matt Barrett’s Athens. I guess the recession killed the fantasy… That address consisted of a tired little bookstore. Another agency’s computer was down. Another sold me ferry tickets to Mykonos but didn’t do hotels. So I went to the National Museum of Archaeology to unwind. A few hours of looking at really really old and beautiful stuff, it was inspiring. My favourite was an erotic, comic marble sculpture about 2000 years old, of Aphrodite beating Pan off with her sandal while cherub Eros helps by pushing Pan’s horn. All three have some kind of smile on their faces, each different.

A long wander through the streets, and up scruffy Strefi hill to do a panoramic video of the city. More wandering, finally settling over bad 4-euro coffee in my hotel to book a Mykonos hotel online. Dinner on the hotel rooftop looking at the Parthenon change colours through the sunset.

Terrible insomnia caused me another interesting day! My phone freakishly ran out of juice overnight and the alarm didn’t sound at 5:15am… So when I woke up my 7:30 ferry to Mykonos had already sailed! Oh no! What to do? I searched online, found a noon flight, couldn’t book online, called the airline who said no problem, just buy at the airport by 10:30. Five times the cost of my wasted 30-euro ferry ticket, but at least I wouldn’t pay for two hotels! (Done that before, see earlier blogs for embarrassing details.) Walking to the metro to get to the airport, I stopped by another travel agent, thought I’d check on other ferries… Turns out there’s a high speed catamaran from another port, Rafina, leaving at 3pm, only 52 euros. How do I get to Rafina? There’s a bus. When/where? She shrugged, didn’t know. I just looked at her and chuckled. She realized I wasn’t going to buy the ferry ticket if I couldn’t get to the port. In a few minutes she had done a web search, and pointed to a vague area on my map, saying “there, ask for bus to Rafina.” How much? Shrug. Off I walked. Several directions later, I’m sitting on the bus. 2.4 euros (about $3). I’ll make it to Mykonos today after all! Who knows, maybe it’s fate. Maybe my nemesis was on that 7:30 ferry and a fascinating new friend will be on the 3.

Rafina Port is on the east coast, 30km outside Athens. the bus follows Marathon Avenue… I guess at least part of it overlaps the route of the “first marathon”. No BBM those days, had to run 40km to send a crucial message. I’m glad I have both options. And a bus!

The 2 hour fast ferry is an hour late, the seas are rough, the disembarking passengers looked greenish. I’m excited! Got the very front row seat, over beside the window, to maximize the movement — it’s pretty strong even sitting against the dock refueling! A crew member advises me to move back, but says I’m allowed to stay here if I want. Yahoo! Some video and photos from the ferry, but the windows got mussed with spray, and they don’t let you outside; that would be like standing in the bed of a pickup truck going down the highway at 100 kph. The catamaran seemed to be doing about 80 kph, through waves about 3 metres high. Way cool!
I notice that my writing becomes terse, when I blog on my blackberry, with its tiny keys. Here on my laptop I can type closer to the speed of my thought, and more words can pour out. I like it better. Years from now, keyboards will be obsolete and writing will become something completely different. In “The English Patient”, my vacation reading, the Englishman asks his Canadian nurse to read Kipling more slowly… because he wrote with pen and ink, slowly, probably looking up often and thinking… so it’s designed to be read slowly.

My thoughts are rambling like the chaotic waves in the Mediterranean outside my window. I’m homesick and lonely, but working hard to wring every bit of interesting experience out of this week in Greece that I can.

I spent a couple hours wandering the area of my hotel today, especially the beach. It’s fun to pick out differences from one country to another. The white houses on the brown hills make a beautiful contrast to the unforgettable Mediterranean blues of the sea, three or four distinct shades, the occasional splash of green from a palm tree. There’s human beauty to look at too… supermodel types sprinkled among the fat Americans. (I’m not just type-casting! I heard American accents from the collection of large ladies at the pool). There’s a tendency to sunbathe topless here, and lots of beautiful women doing it. I thought it might be just at one end of the beach, but on careful inspection, noticed quite a few the full length of the multi-hotel / restaurant / residence beach. At the northern end, just past an outcropping of rocks, was a local crowd of nudists, roasted a dark brown by constant sun exposure.

Walking back up the 100m path to my hotel pool, I craved a coffee. What an addict, huh? 30 degrees of brilliant sunshine, feet soaked in the Mediterranean with fine Greek sand in my sandals, sunscreen and hat barely keeping me from turning red, and I want a hot coffee??? Well, I ordered a double Greek coffee from the poolside bar, sat on the stool, and perused the sunbathers and swimmers. I could have just read my book, but I’m trying to meet people, right? I screwed up my courage, took my coffee, and walked over to the most beautiful girl I’d seen all day, bikini and sunglass clad, apparently entirely alone with her mobile phone. We chatted for quite a while; it was a pleasure to meet her. She’s Bulgarian. Her boyfriend’s a sea captain, taking cars from Japan to Europe, away for months at a time, but with her in Mykonos for a week. She’s studying design engineering in university, and they hope to emigrate to Canada after she finishes next year. Like me, they leave Mykonos tomorrow.

Took the bus into Mykonos town for dinner tonight. Chatted first with a boring couple from London, very pleasant and helpful, who are on their 12th Greek Island, their holiday tradition. She says they’ve tried other vacations, but “they just aren’t Greek islands.” “Every island’s a little different” he says apologetically.

Then Maria sat beside me, tiny pretty Maria with a silver bag bigger than her. She’s from a village two hours north of Athens, homesick for it, but working April to October at a hotel on Mykonos. Her day off today, she visited her brother who works another hotel. After October, maybe Cyprus, whereever she can find work. She says there’s nothing for young people in Greece, so she has to leave… Not to live, but to do more than sit on a couch clicking the remote. I liked her energy, desire to go build a life. No entitlement, no laziness.

Well, dinner alone, watching the sun drop into the Aegean. Taking pictures of all the Americans taking pictures of the sunset. Yummy spanakopita and a decent Greek lager. A clown makes balloons for kids at the next table. Waves crash along the knee-high wall beside me.

Next day, bus into town for the ferry ride home, with an hour to browse the shops. How can I bring loved ones a piece of Mykonos? It’s a specialist in atmosphere, beaches, sunshine, tame pelicans sharing a bench with you, hard-working restaurants, sunsets, partying late, tiny white churches, streets you have to squeeze so a pedestrian walking the other way can get by. Not stuff to bring home, not even good t-shirts. You just have to go there.

I did take pictures of a few shops, all kinds of art and jewelry. I chatted with a leather jewelry merchant as sweet Italian opera played quietly, he showed me mother of pearl embedded in a leather bracelet. Whole shop full of one style of jewelry and nothing else!

Got to the port with half an hour to spare, walked around. Got a little nervous not seeing my ship, the Nicos Mykonos, asked a port official — she said that’s at the New Port, way over there! You have to hurry! Take that bus, if the driver says he goes to the New Port, or take a taxi. The bus indeed goes to the new port. What time do you leave, my ferry is at 1:45! “1:30, no problem, it’s 5 minutes” hmm should I take a taxi? Nah. the bus leaves exactly on time. The new port like the old seems to have no gates no rules no security no problems. Bus pulls up on the quay just as the Nicos Mykonos pulls in. Mobs and cars pile off, mobs and cars pile on, all together. Someone checks tickets at the escalator. Ferry leaves exactly on schedule. Wonderful!

One more evening in Athens, homesick and lonely, I still spend my time absorbing and admiring the culture around me. The streets are buzzing, the coffee shop full of chatting friends and hard-working staff. The Heineken’s cold and prompt, there are beautiful women, the Greeks are among the hardest working people on Earth, and tourism is their specialty. I hardly bought any souvenirs this trip; Greece is not about stuff; it’s about the experience of comfortable sunshine, beautiful beaches, all-night social life, narrow streets, wide hospitality, and an awesome sea. You have to go there.