All Greek to Me
4th Aug 2011
Athens is crowded, noisy, polluted, chaotic and lovely. I’ve been to Athens a few times and would love to live there. It has an enticing rhythm and sense of self. Ignore the economy. The city from the Akropolis…
It is a city rich in history, proud and determined with a joie de vivre that outstrips the French. I don’t know what ‘joie de vivre’ is in Greek, I can only say hello, order two beers and inquire as to the cost of a room with a bath.
I think, however, that I may have been Greek in a past life. Annie sometimes calls me Iannis and it feels right.
I particularly love the Plaka. Yes, it caters to the tourist, but you can absorb the centuries and, with little imagination, become ‘Greek’. Drink ouzo (with a wee dash of water) and play backgammon with the locals, slamming the dice and moving the pieces with flair. You can take a siesta and return for dolmades, mousaka, kalamaris, bouzoukis and dancing.
Late one afternoon on the first visit, in 1978, I found myself in the Plaka, enjoying the company of Americans in an outdoor taverna. The sun set on the wicker chairs, loping cats and bold geraniums. More drinks, a meal, and more drinks. The owner of the tavern had lived in Melbourne, so he was our ‘adopted’ Aussie mate. Midnight passed and the owner was tired. Rather than ask us to leave, he threw me a bunch of keys, told us to help ourselves to more drinks, leave the money on the bar and, when we finished, lock up and push the keys through the postal flap at the bottom of the front door. The Americans had no understanding of how Australian ‘strangers’ can bond. We just do. And, can you imagine that happening in your part of the world? Needless to say, a couple of hours later, the place was locked up and a healthy tip was left on the bar.
Above the Plaka is the Akropolis. I studied the Parthenon, the Erechtheum (above) and the other outer buildings in both Ancient History and Art. I can still recite the dates they were built, not because of rote learning but because of my interest in the era. I think it is, quite simply, the world’s best tourist attraction. To date anyway.
The amphitheatre of Herod Atticus sits below the Akropolis. In 1987 Annie and I took a picnic and wine, sat on the ancient steps and enjoyed a performance by the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra with the well-lit Parthenon above us. There are moments that make travel so worthwhile. Here’s the Herod Atticus…
I have enjoyed things Greek like the Daphne Wine Festival (twice), the Corinth Canal, Cape Sounion and a visit to the lovely town of Naphlion to experience The Clouds by Aristophanes in an ancient amphitheatre (and in Greek, of course)… but the Greek Islands are ‘Greece’ for me…
On my first trip I discovered the arid but raw beauty of the Cyclades Islands – the whitewash, windmills and wild bougainvillea of Mykonos… the little churches, tethered donkeys and olive trees on the party island of Ios… the rugged, eerie beauty of Santorini.
Annie and I also made this journey in 1987. The plan was to fly to Mykonos and hop ferries from there but fog had grounded planes leaving Athens airport. Rather than updating the crowd of travellers waiting in the terminal, the employees just closed the shutters on their booths and ignored the waiting tourists. No angst on their side of the counter. If you stick your head in the sand, you just can’t be concerned about what is going on above.
It’s Greek, it’s irritating, but it works.
Annie and I played cards and waited. As the fogs cleared, the shutters began to reopen. Not for flights bound to Mykonos though. With no information as to whether the fog would lift and a desire to move on, rather than head back into Athens, we went to the check-in booth labelled “Crete” and parted with a bit more money to change destinations. Such decision-making can have major consequences and I still wonder what would have eventuated if the fog on Mykonos had cleared.
We only had a night on Crete in a pleasant enough hotel and hopped a ferry to Santorini the next morning. The seas were rough. Very rough. And we decided to head from our seated area below deck because of the smell of vomit. It’s a smell that can be contagious. Up on deck it was probably rougher, but the salty winds were refreshing. We heard a cheering and yelling from the stern and curiosity took us there. A bunch of Australian yobbos were making the best of a bad time. With Heinekens in hand they were in the lifeboats, ‘surfing’ and ‘singing’ the guitar chords from Bombora.
“Ding dang ding dang, ding dang-ga-dinga dang..”
That’s a great thing about Australian travellers – they never let a bad experience get in the way of a good time. In the South Pacific tourism industry this is well-known. If a resort property finds itself with a double booking they always ‘bump’ the Australians to another room or another resort. Americans will stand their ground, loudly, and demand their ‘rights’. Give an Australian a few beers or a bottle of wine as compensation and, ‘no problem’.
Annie bought a t-shirt in Greece that had that same motto on the front – ‘No Problem’. I have a photo of her, wearing the t-shirt, drinking gin and tonic through a straw with a wad of bandages strapped across her chin.
On Santorini we did something many tourists do. We hired mopeds to explore the island, with few riding skills or knowledge of the roads. This memory is almost slow motion – Annie heading towards a gaggle of Greek women in black, swerving to avoid them, catching one handle bar on a tree and the other on a wall and being flung over the bars, face first into the gravel. Locals rushed to our aid and Annie, propped against an ancient wall in shock, was unaware that her chinbone was poking through the blood and gravel.
Relief was all I could feel as we were ferried to the hospital by a helpful local man. The hospital wasn’t quite as sterile as the ones we were accustomed to. In fact, I asked the lady sweeping the dirt floor if she could leave the dust to settle until the doctor could attend to our needs. Eventually this happened. Dr Alex Kalekeridos was the attending doctor’s name. He looked at the wound, shook his head and asked me to leave the surgery. I said I would rather stay. He insisted, saying that he was understaffed and didn’t need a husband passing out to add to the situation.
I don’t know where he dragged the skin from to stitch the wound, but he did and, following a tetanus injection he drove us back to the Hotel Atlantis in his black BMW. It was the only BMW on the island and we figured he was sitting on a goldmine stitching up tourists who hire mopeds. Within ten minutes we were sipping gins and tonic (Annie through a straw), watching the sun set and Thira, the active volcano, in a shimmering Aegean Sea. No problem.
All the accident really did was slow us up a little, which was not necessarily a bad thing. From Santorini we went to Paros for a couple of days and then on to lovely Mykonos… touristy but wonderful – the maze of narrow whitewashed streets with bright blue doors and vibrant bougainvillea… the windmills, the fishing nets, bouzouki and the clack of dancing… dinner and wine at Little Venice, the waves slapping below…
Annie had the stitches removed on Mykonos, by a doctor who had practiced in St Ives in Sydney. Greeks like Australia, too and, outside Athens, the city of Melbourne has the next largest Greek population on the planet. Following the doctor’s advice we took out a second mortgage (well, it cost a lot) to ring friends in Australia and asked if they could find Sydney’s best plastic surgeon and make an appointment. The Mykonos doctor thought it would be a good idea to attend to this as soon as possible.
‘Home Sweet Home’ and back in Sydney we met the appointment. The plastic surgeon had rooms in Bondi Junction and the doctor examined the wound with a torch and magnifying glass. He then sat back in his leather chair.
“Dr Alex Kalekeridos,” he said. “Best in the business. He studied under me. You won’t have a scar.”
And he was right.
One day I hope to experience Greece again and I am quietly envious of a fellow MSer, Roz, who teaches English and lives on the island of Lesbos. Roz sent me this photo of her postman. Okay, I’ll own up… loudly envious.
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