Following the herd…

The place: a bus heading to Athens Charter Airport. The time: 01:15. Next to us, a New Man struggles to change child #3’s nappy as the bus rolls along, clearly desperately trying not to lose his cool with his wife and children #1 & #2. His speech has that strange stress-induced pattern where sentences.  Break. Up in funny.  Places.  Meanwhile, at the back, a bunch of Essex Girls and Essex Men are singing lustily. This upsets New Man’s extremely sleepy daughter #2, who starts to sob. In a probably mistaken attempt at pacification, the Essex mob switch to lullabies, albeit still at 120 dB. New Man stalks to the back of the bus, screams for them to shut up (please).  Essex Man leaps to his feet and threatens to punch New Man’s glasses into his face.

Occasionally, there are defining moments when you gain an insight into the inner workings of the universe. As these two low points on humanity’s scatter-chart glared at each other, I suddenly realised that the nuclear annihilation of mankind might not be an entirely bad thing. 

I had qualms about Greece as a destination for the 1995 TC holiday.  To me, the country had been snoozing on it’s laurels for a couple of millennia: the major contribution to world culture since the Romans took over was usually to be found in a pitta bread with salad. It also seemed an act of sheer insanity to leave London in the middle of the hottest summer since whenever-the-last-one-was, in order to go somewhere hotter. My counter-suggestions of Iceland, the Falkland Isles, or any one of Jupiter’s outer satellites were received with, ah, frosty responses.

But I have to say, it was a very pleasant holiday — heat is much more tolerable when you’re wearing shorts and a T-shirt, rather than a shirt and tie — even if the trash factor was inevitably kept low by my inability to read Greek. I can’t begin to fathom how even the Greeks manage, since the language looks like someone has been pulling mathematical equations out of a Scrabble bag (“well, I don’t know what it means, but I think I can solve it”). It becomes a little hard to track down video shops, comic stores, or any of the other, previously essential, holiday shopping venues when every sign looks like a prescription written by a dyslexic Dr. Jekyll on one of his bad days.

Instead, there was a lot of generic Wandering Around. Athens itself is a major-league sprawl of a city, which seems to be undergoing a perpetual program of carefully scheduled urban decay: the best-looking buildings are the ruins, and the streets are so narrow that gridlock is the rule, rather than the exception. Add in the smog, and lots of tourists who should stay the hell out of the way, and Londoners will feel entirely at home, although the beggars in Greece put our lot to shame by their sheer persistence. I was especially impressed by the boy with no feet, displaying his stumps for all to see. As far as commitment goes, it certainly beats a bit of cardboard with “hungery and hmlss, pls help” scrawled on it in blue Biro.

down to Greece…

Great mysteries of life: why did the Greeks only bother to put temples at the top of things? Perhaps it just seems like that: maybe they’re the only ones to have survived, because the Persians et al couldn’t be bothered to climb up and loot them. Witness the Parthenon, a complex of temples set right at the summit of a hill. This contains not only the Acropolis, but also the first example of corporate sponsorship, the temple of Athena Nike (not to be confused with Athena Reebok, or Athena Converse All Stars). A couple of hints: being cheapskates, we went on a Sunday when it’s free. Unfortunately, so does everyone else. Also, take decent shoes — maybe some Nikes? — as millions of tourists, looters and holiday program presenters have ensured that the steps resemble polished ice. I ended up clambering down one section in bare feet. Perhaps the best tip of all is that it looks a lot better from the bottom, nicely floodlit, seen from a comfy seat outside a taverna through a full glass.

Athens’ history is also reflected in a plethora of museums, which all specialise in broken pottery. Future archaeologists will thank us in this department, discarded burger cartons take a lot less piecing together than a Grecian urn. The first dozen pots are cool; the second mildly interesting; from the third on, your brain will start to go a bit numb. More interesting are the  artefacts which help show that the Greeks were pretty much like us, such as the slab detailing library opening hours.

Unless you’re very interested in this sort of thing, a couple of days in Athens is probably enough. It’s worth seeing, but life is far more pleasant on one of the islands that litter the Aegean Sea like, er, littery, island things. Our one was called Aegina, selected by a careful process that may be summed up as “where’s the cheapest?”. We flew with a company called PriceRight, whose symbol was a circle – appropriate, as they cut every corner possible. So we took night flights and went to the charter airport (think ‘Alcatraz’, with less creature comforts): you could probably get a few more quid off the price of a holiday if you hold a current pilot’s licence. The two hours after arriving were spent in the lounge of a hotel in Athens red-light district waiting for the first ferry to Aegina, because it was the least expensive option. Sadly I was simply too shattered to appreciate the experience.

However, Aegina had everything we needed within walking distance: restaurants, supermarkets and even it’s own ruined temple. For my money, this was rather more pleasant than the Parthenon — not only no trainer commercials, but fewer people around. Still at the top of a bloody great hill though. We heard a rumour one evening that a certain hotel was full of people in costume, intending to use the temple to perform some kind of sacred rite. No investigation was carried out: I was on holiday after all, and also, we be not from round these here parts. I’ve seen ‘The Wicker Man’.

Ritual sacrifice aside, it was a superb place, totally dedicated to tourists’ needs, to the extent that from October to April, the town is closed; everyone shuts up shop and moves out. Unless you’re actually going to the island, specific recommendations are a tad futile — though I’d suggest a visit to the “Genesis” night-club, if only for the barman’s pyromaniac tendencies. At odd moments of boredom, he poured spirits down the length of the bar and set them alight, turning it into a river of fire. Try this one at home, kids, but get Mummy to help you open the bottles.

From the food point of view, I can’t praise the place highly enough: we ate out in a different restaurant every night, barely paid more than a tenner each for three courses including drink, and had no complaints at all. It was amazing to see how despite a wide variety of restaurant styles, prices were almost uniform – the power of competition, I guess. Most exotic thing tried: swordfish steak; kinda like fish-flavoured pork, weird but nice – made something of a change to be eating a carnivore. Naturally, I also sampled the local kebab, called a ‘Gyros’ after the device they rotate on (never let it be said that reading TC is anything but an educational experience), and noticed several subtle differences from the Tulse Hill variety:

  • a) It came with mayonnaise rather than chilli sauce,
  • b) You could have chips wrapped up inside the pitta.
  • c) It was smaller
  • d) It was recognisable meat, far chunkier than the well-processed flesh seen back home.

We tried a few other islands — Poros, Hydra, Spetsis — and the main thing that struck me was how similar they were. The same shops selling the same souvenirs; the same restaurants offering the same menus; and maybe even the same horses offering buggy rides round the town. I’m sure they’re all very pleasant and have subtly different personalities, but to the casual eye (hell, being on holiday, my entire body was casual) they’re hard to tell apart, save the landscape, which comes in two flavours: ‘flat’ or ‘hilly’. Seen one, seen ’em all. 

To sum Greece up: brilliant place for a holiday, but unlike previous destinations i.e. the South of France and California, I don’t think I’d actually want to live there. With air-conditioning the exception rather than the rule, I’d simply melt; our rep gleefully told us of a heatwave where so many people died they had to requisition the local meat-packers as a temporary morgue. That, I think I can do without – quite put me off my kebab…

on holiday!

We finally reached the airport: our flight was delayed for two and a half hours; the wine wore off and the hangover kicked in; it was hot, crowded and people were slitting each others’ throats for somewhere to sit. D-day was about to be re-enacted between groups of German and British tourists (“Two World Wars and one World Cup, doodah, doodah”). But then a miracle happened.

We went to get an snack from the concession stand. Two, small, boring icecreams came to four quid, but I realised the guy serving us was actually embarrassed to charge this much. “Hey”, I said, “it’s not your fault, you don’t set the prices”, and he gave me my change. Stepping away, I realised I had too much money; looking back, I saw him grinning broadly and giving a big thumbs-up.  He’d deliberately only charged us for one ice-cream. Let me emphasis the importance of this event: here was an airport worker, not only unhappy with the casual extortion and outrageous prices, but one willing to stiff his employer in order to give fellow man a break.

A wave of warmth swept through me, crossing international borders. There was hope for humanity after all, we do have a common link, maybe we can live together in peace and under…
Bing-bong. Passengers on Flight NB826 please note, your flight has been delayed for another two hours. Bing-bong.
Aw, hell. Still, it was nice while it lasted…