06.05.2014 22 °C
“Every traveler deserves a holiday.” Those few words, declared by Flypaper when I was at my most vulnerable (immediately after my favorite chicken dinner – the one I declared would be my choice as a final meal should I find myself on ‘death row’), sent a shiver down my spine. Had I known ‘the plan’ I would have rushed out and assassinated a politician to get that chicken dinner. (With my luck that could have proved popular and resulted in a medal or at least my picture on the $3 note). Last years circumnavigation of the Black Sea turned out to be the toughest mission to date and I suspected ‘a holiday’ may prove to be even harder to survive. A few days earlier my European race team leader had suggested we could have 2 races to compete in this year – one in late May the other in late June. Flypaper immediately computed the opportunity for 3 weeks ‘holiday’ in the Eastern Mediterranean before the first event and a 3 week holiday in the Inner & Outer Hebrides Islands between the races. Two more extreme localities would be difficult to find. The Eastern ‘Med’ in spring is idyllic tending on hot & humid while the outer Scottish Islands are uninviting at any time of the year. The result of this travel mix is luggage that will test the strength of the burliest airline baggage handler.
Just a few months before departure, Malaysian Airlines MH370 went mysteriously missing. Not good – we were booked on a sister flight. While I studied all the conspiracy theories, Flypaper remained fatalistic saying, “Lightening doesn’t strike twice in the same place”. A week before departure news came of a guy in central USA that had been struck by lightening not twice, but 3 times. We needn’t have worried. Not only did we arrive in the UK safely but Malaysian Airlines were determined to make our journey memorable. Their strategy was to smother their guests with kindness and ply them with copious quantities of very good quality alcohol. As a result, their strategy for a memorable flight failed – I hardly remember a thing. The following day we flew on Aegean Airlines to Athens. Another experience entirely – although their Metaxa Brandy is superb.
Given the late afternoon arrival we decided the transfer from the airport into Athens would be by taxi. Usually the protocol is to take the cab at the head of the line. We had no chance. A driver, who I suspect is the Greek woman wrestling champion, lept out of taxi 5 and shouldered me aside. She grabbed Flypapers suitcase – the one that has likely caused multiple hernia’s since we left home – threw it in the boot and flicked my own more modest case into a spare corner with one hand while pointing to the back door of her cab. Naturally, being fearful of even little dominant woman, I dived past Flypaper into the car and begged her to follow. We just had time to notice the sign stating the new ‘standard’ fare into Athens – 35 Euro. The journey was uneventful and we didn’t attempt conversation for fear of saying the wrong thing. On arrival I tendered the 35E only to be told her rate was 39E. I paid – feeling that I had failed in an opportunity to make a stand for equality and mens rights.
It’s been 39 years since last in Athens. It’s changed. For a start it’s 4 times larger with 10 times the traffic. I could stop now but I haven’t offended the Athenians yet so I’ll continue. The architecture of Athens is a mix of bland and dilapidated with a smattering of nondescript. It doesn’t matter as it’s all covered in graffiti. The Acropolis is still being restored. The same scaffolding is holding parts of it up but there is an ugly crane hoisting new stones into place. It’s beginning to look like a bad jigsaw. The new Acropolis Museum is misnomer. It’s principally full of new replica rocks that show what the place would have looked like had we arrived 2,500 years earlier. I suggest travelers spend their time and money in other places – like Plaka where you will at least get some food and coffee that seems to have also been around for some long time.
Greece is considered to be the cradle of culture and knowledge. It has produced great thinkers like Socrates, Aristotle and Plato - but has never produced anyone that can build a sound footpath. They appear to be built new with cracks, missing chunks of concrete and people-traps waiting to hasten the unwary tourist into their medical system. Perhaps this is because a Greek guy named Hippocrates developed the science of medicine around 500BC and they would like visitors to appreciate that.
40% of the traffic is taxis that are surprisingly driven with quite modest ambition. I felt unusually safe in these cabs but perhaps Flypaper didn’t. Whenever we traveled in a taxi she sat with her hand on my wallet. The feeling of security takes many forms. The drivers were fluent in English and quite chatty. When one learned I was in Europe to race cars at Nurburgring he started calling me Uncle, together with suggestions that favorite nephews are usually accompany their relations on holiday.
There is a huge number of motorcycles in the city. 80% of the riders wear a helmet while the remainder ignores the law to do so. That’s not quite true as some wear them on their elbow or strapped to their backpack - so we will say 83% wear helmets. The Police are very visible on their motorcycles – 2 at a time / driver with pillion. The passenger cop seems to be continually yapping on the radio. When they stop someone for a chat, they both talk from opposite sides and inevitably 2 or 4 more cops will swing in with blue lights flashing to give them support. It’s common to see a cop not wearing a helmet and when they issue a ticket to a motorcyclist for being helmet-less its hilarious. I don’t speak Greek but I can follow the conversation quite easily.
When in Athens its compulsory to join a tour of the Acropolis – even if, like us, you have seen it previously in better times. Our guide was probably a cousin of our first taxi driver – with better communication skills. She still looked capable of a few rounds in the wrestling ring and none of her guests chanced a potentially misunderstood question. I resisted any attempt to make her laugh. However, her communication skills were tested to the extreme early in her repertoire when she told the joke … “Why did God make woman some time after man? The answer she offered, “Because he needed a practice run before achieving perfection”. Now, I’m not a sensitive type, but that’s surely sexist and I was offended that she was encroaching on my territory. I told her, “I do the sexist jokes – you stick to the propaganda”. (We are not friends and when she saw me 3 days later I was snubbed).
Athens and Greece generally, is a place which has so much for your guides to tell. They attempt to cram 5,000 years of greatness into a few hours but the result is too much information. One guide told us that Greece rose to greatness and success during both war and peace by being more intelligent that any other races. Then she paused to consider how the country recently became bankrupt, has the highest unemployment in Europe, the lowest savings and the greatest exodus of professional people in the world. Her confusion was evidence of an educated young lady who was starting to understand that intellect is not nearly as helpful as oil. There are enterprising Greeks who have attempted to reverse their financial plight. That’s why all the larger businesses scan your currency through a special machine before accepting it to pay for purchases.
Without realizing, we were in Athens on the 1st May – May Day throughout Europe. This is a public holiday – compounded in Greece by everyone who normally works on holidays being on strike. Fortunately we found a boat trip to 3 nearby islands run by people who understood that if they wish to become wealthy again they should continue to fleece the tourist at every opportunity. This turned out to be an excellent day. It started with our arrival at the boat during an enormous argument. Evidently 4 passengers believed they had a discount while the crew was of the opinion that nobody gets off lightly on May Day. The shouting and gesticulating was awesome. The disputing passengers attempted to leverage the argument in their direction by threatening to abandon the trip. The crew could see that may result in abandoning their bonus for working that day. As time for departure passed, more and more passengers entered the argument. I’m not sure if ‘hullabaloo’ is in the Greek vocabulary but we were certainly in the midst of a big one. Eventually the captain agreed to a compromise – one that involved free alcohol for the disgruntled for the day. That made other passengers question their own eligibility. By the time we departed the passengers, the crew and the captain were all highly agitated. The crew attempted to hoist anchor only to discover it was snagged on something below. After trying every option the captain furiously ordered the anchor to be cut loose. The end of the day was equally entertaining. Our bus driver back to the hotels was a very volatile character with an impressively descriptive and highly abusive vocabulary when in conflict with other drivers. The trip started badly when he became jammed in the carpark unable to maneuver his large vehicle around some parked cars. After much trying he enlisted the aid of 8 passengers and we simply lifted the 2 cars out of the way. With his dander well and truly up and being late for home, he abused every car that obstructed his progress. Often he lept out of the bus and ‘advised’ them at close quarters. Twice he left the bus to become a ‘points man’ when the traffic wasn’t flowing to his advantage. After each conflict the passengers gave him a rousing cheer – he was truly awesome. For an encore he decided to reverse up a busy 1 way street. Inspirational !!!
Observation of the Greek people, contemplation of their current financial plight and armed with new historical knowledge gave me cause to consider the rise and fall of many past great cultures and empires. The Romans, Hadrians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Ottomans, Moguls, Persians, Byzantines, Hittites etc all had one thing in common – like the Greeks, they all ate cheese made from Sheep and Goats milk. I’m claiming this as new researched evidence that explains the previous unexplainable. Do NOT eat Feta cheese if you want to be a long term winner.