Athens Interlude and Farewell

The only time to be in Athens during the summer is during the holiday of August fifteenth, when everybody but an intelligent few have fled the city. It seems like God takes mercy on those who stay behind and sends his finest summer weather. The days are hot of course, but the mornings and evenings are cool. At night, the cafeneons are full of people but the streets are not crowded and getting from here to there is easy.

This is the Athens we come back to after another harrowing flying dolphin trip from Kea. I realize that the Kea route must be the least coveted. Even when the wind is still the Cava d' Oro is still treacherous. They probably award the troublemakers and the most expendable crews of the flying dolphin company that route as punishment, giving them the boats most in need of repair so if something goes wrong (like the boat sinks) it won't be a significant loss to the company.

We take a taxi to Mary's and find to our delight that she is away. That night we meet Corinne and Patty at To Cafeneon. After a few ouzos Patty takes us to a nice taverna she had discovered. We didn't really have dinner, just snacks. Nostalgic for Lesvos I ate a couple plates of anchovies. Then we wander around the Plaka until after midnight when we all return to our respective homes. We make plans for one big final evening at the old taverna that overlooks the gas works of Egalion on Friday where Andrea and I had our first 'date' ten years before.

The other night while wandering around the Plaka we met a black couple from Baltimore. Joe was a banker, very interested in Greek lifestyle, particularly after I turned him on to Ouzo at Brettos, the oldest distillery in Athens. We all went to the shop so our new friends could try some. Rhonda was vivacious. She was a UNC graduate who is involved in film and television. They were both a lot of fun and we took them to Psaras for a late dinner. Niko and Carolina had proclaimed Psaras as dead, saying it was too expensive and the food had gotten bad. We found neither to be the case. The surly old waiters do attempt to intimidate you into ordering more then you want and when you don't they bring it anyway, but that's nothing new. All my friends at one time or another have said they would never eat there again, but all have returned to the fold, braving the rudeness and hostility for the sake of a good meal. When Rhonda's swordfish souvlaki was placed on the table, the waiter in his carelessness, spilled oil all ov er her dress, just as he had five years ago to Sue Marlowe, who made them pay for the cleaning. We consoled Rhonda but did not mention Sue's victory since we knew that Andrea would have to mediate.

After dinner I helped them find a taxi home and then went back to the apartment where Andrea was trying to find "Altered States" on Greek TV. We had a terrible time sleeping that night. Too much ouzo or coffee or maybe we ate dinner too late, but I felt like hell in the morning when we had to walk all over Athens doing our last minute shopping. I bought three more cans of sardines and a pound of big round Amfissa olives, my favorites. It was too hot to have lunch so we came back to the apartment and had tuna fish sandwiches. It seems like we are counting the hours until we go. It seems that way because that's exactly what we are doing. We've seen it all. Done it all. Drank and eaten all we want and we are ready to leave.

August 19th

So this is it. Our last few hours in Greece. Andrea is bathing Amarandi. Amarandi is screaming. It's miserably hot today. We were spared the last few days but the weather has come back with a vengeance, giving a taste of what could have been. For the last few days Andrea has been saying our flight is at 5:45. Today she looked at the ticket and discovered we are leaving two hours earlier. The reason she even looked at the ticket was because Corinne had been surprised that we were flying to Gatwick instead of Heathrow. She was under the impression that British Air didn't fly to Gatwick.

Last night we had an adventure. We were going to a taverna in Thission that was one of Andrea's favorites many years ago. In fact when I met Andrea in 1986, fifteen years after high school, that's where we went. She had just gotten a note from a guy named Stewart Thorne who she had gone out with in high school, who was trying to re-establish contact with her, just as I had. She was very excited about seeing him again and I was jealous and playing the devil's advocate. Two weeks later they were together and stayed that way for at least five years. So this restaurant had a history.

We met Corinne, Patty and Dorian's wife Francis at To Cafeneon. Holly had not wanted to come and Dorian had jumped at the opportunity to stay home rather then say good-bye to his old friend, so it was me and the girls. Andrea took us on an unforgettable journey through the ruins of the ancient agora, down little used paths through the dark woods with all the women in inappropriate evening dress with high heels. At last we found a dirt road that took us to the busy street that borders the Acropolis.

Thission was beautiful. They had closed one street to traffic and it was lined with fancy bars and cafeneons. They had exposed the trolley tracks that used to carry traffic to Pireaus when they had removed the asphalt to show the stone streets beneath. Unfortunately the restaurant we had intended to eat at was closed for the summer but we found another that was fine for our purposes. We ate and lingered for a couple hours and then took the more scenic route through the flea-market and past the tourist restaurants that looked so welcoming to us in the night. We fought the urge to sit and pushed on until we reached To Cafeneon where we drank and joked until morning.

Francis had a great idea. Because every flight out of Athens is delayed, one should always book trips that have connecting flights. That way you are entitled to a free night in a luxury hotel.

This next morning, our friend George the Taxi driver picks us up and takes us to the airport which is a madhouse. It takes a small bottle of ouzo from the duty-free shop to calm me down to the point where I can sit back and enjoy the pandemonium. By the time Lue, Ross and Lila, who are on our flights, get to the airport, I am in a state of complete bliss that will last just as long as the ouzo doesn't run out. Of course our flight is delayed and to torture the departing passengers we are led to the boarding gate and left there for a couple hours so we can get to know one another without being distracted by duty-free shops, bars, cafes or toilets. In fact there is nothing in this room but chairs and garbage cans and not enough of either. When we are finally herded onto the plane we heave a sigh of relief as they close the doors which usually signals that take-off is imminent. The bliss is short-lived as the pilot, in a voice that does nothing to hide his disgust with the system, tells us that we will be delaye d on the ground for at least an hour. He's wrong. We sit on the ground for 3 hours before being given clearance to proceed with our take-off. I can't help but think that this is the final thrust of the knife inflicted on this plane full of visitors who had been scorched by the heat, ripped off and insulted by greedy merchants, herded like cattle, inconvenienced by the strikes, and whatever other calamities could befall someone visiting the birthplace of democracy and modern civilization. There should have been a banner in the airport that bid their guests farewell saying THANKS FOR THE MONEY. SEND YOUR FRIENDS.

The truth is that no matter how much you are abused in Greece by people who have been taught that it's OK to exploit, who see you as a source of American dollars rather then as a fellow human being, you still come away with a feeling that you have been somewhere special. It's a feeling so powerful that not even the most mercenary of these modern Greek merchants can destroy it. And when someone asks about your trip to Greece you'll respond "It was beautiful and the people were wonderful". I suppose that's the secret of their success. Whatever goes wrong is eclipsed by what is right about the country. You may be yelled at by the man in the kiosk for touching a newspaper without buying it, but five minutes later the incident is forgotten and the slate wiped clean by someone else's hospitality and warm hearted kindness.

We finally take off and fly along the coast of the Corinthean Gulf, and then up to Corfu where we turn towards Italy. Dinner is excellent. We have the fish and several bottles of wine and a couple bloody Mary's. Even so our American neighbors in the row in front have outdrunk us by a ratio of four to one. Ross comes for a visit from his section of the plane and we happily complain about our summer in Greece. I tell him about the article in today's Athens News about the kid who had a motorcycle accident in Leros. He had a brain injury and the hospital called Olympic Airways to send one of the three helicopters they had available for such emergencies. Olympic said that two of the helicopters were broken and the third unavailable, perhaps being used by some rich Athenian while his was in the shop. So they wired the military for help. They sent a helicopter after a delay of four hours but instead of flying him to Athens where they had neurological facilities they flew him to the hospital in Rhodes, which had none . They left him there for twelve hours before anybody looked at him. Then they put him on an Olympic domestic flight to Athens. A doctor agreed to examine him on the plane but wanted a fee of 50,000 drachma first. When the boy finally arrived at the hospital in Athens he was declared dead on arrival.

End of story? Almost, except simultaneously a young man was knocked off his motorcycle in Patras by a judge who left the scene of the accident without rendering assistance. The injured man was taken to the hospital where it was decided he needed emergency treatment in Athens. But when they called the ambulance company they were told that all three of the ambulances were broken.

And that, in a the Greece I know. But I still love it.