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Friday, 10 June 2011

So I arrive at Athens airport, some 18km east of the city, with my final destinations of Delphi and Nidri in mind. Despite fifteen minutes on Google, I actually have no idea how I am going to cross the 350kms to Nidri from Athens, having resolved not to drive but to backpack (and having left my driving licence at home by mistake anyway). The internet has not been much use in providing advance information, neither has the Lonely Planet Guide because - not its fault - Greece's economy has collapsed, and when I ask at the Information Point at the airport, no one seems certain whether the trains, ferries and buses that are referred to are actually running anymore (or that day - I could not understand). The very grumpy person Information shrugs, tells me that there are riots in Athens and recommends I rent a car. She does not know where the central bus station in Athens is, but says it is in a bad area and I should avoid it.

I should mention at this point that the journey across Greece, while it cannot be described as adventure travelling was a new experience for me. True, I travelled to Canada and RHB and I landed in Canada knowing no-one and everything worked out fine, and I travel extensively for work, but this type of leisure travelling - backpacking - was not something I was familiar with. I have read lots of travel books, for example Bruce Chatwin's 'In Patagonia', but I have decided to model this sojourn on two different influences - firstly I decided that this adventure would be my Gap Year, wherein I 'find myself" and secondly, I adopted a persona for this sojourn that was a cross between Aragorn (one of the central characters of that other great travel book Lord of the Rings), Heinrich Schleimann (the discover of Troy) and Bronislaw Malinowsky (the anthropologist who described the Kula rings of the Pacific). As a persona, this was a complicated act to pull off, full of internal tensions, with the idealistic noble hero bits (Aragorn), Functionalist intellectual elements (Malinowski), and self-publicising adventurer of questionable integrity parts(Schleimann) making decision making a difficult process even before I left the airport. In fact this was the first lesson learnt : next time I travel solo, I will go just as myself, because for all my faults, I am at least quite familiar with the processes involved in being a hapless, accident prone Scouser.

Faced with being absolutely none the wiser after consulting the Information people, the fearless Aragorn character came to the fore, so I jump on a Metro and head for central Athens, leaving the tourists to their shuttle buses. The Metro is wonderful, clean, beautiful stations and announcements in Greek and English, so using the map I have I alight in central Athens at the station that (I have randomly decided because its quite near the Acropolis) will be circled with numerous tourist information bureaus from where further info can be obtained. However on exiting the Metro station, there are three surprises. Firstly, everyone is speaking Greek. Secondly, all the writing on all the signs I can see is also in Greek, which does not look like an alphabet, it looks like a series of mathematical equations. Thirdly, there are not hundreds of information bureaus surrounding me, just a load of mangy old dogs, and some 'exotic' looking women. I start wandering, a little bit perturbed by the rough appearance of the area. I am soon utterly lost.

The Aragron character soon decides this aimless wandering is hopeless and a plan is needed, but as there are no Orcs to attack, he is a bit puzzled as to what to do. Fortunately, the Schliemann character comes to the fore, seizing the moment, and decides, as a plan, to consult the (English language) map I have. The next part of my plan is a bit vaguer (eerily echoing his 'discovery of Troy), but suddenly the woodcraft I learnt in Canada comes to the rescue, and I have a brilliant idea. As I cannot read the street signs, I have no reference point, but if I can establish which way is North, relative to my position, I will then be able to approach various locals, map in hand. I can then shout loudly at them "Bus station. Peloponese. Nidri" until someone shows me on the map where the station is. I can then triangulate my position and hike across the city - a city that I later found out is currently the most dangerous city in Europe- to the bus station. Once there, I only have to hope its the right one, because one piece of information I do have is that there are two, each serving different regions of Greece.

I am consulting the map, when I hear an English voice. "How can I help you, my friend?". I look up, and a rather dapper older gentleman is offering me a cigarette and smiling kindly. Until this point, I was contemplating a return to tobacco (after mostly being free of it for some months), not really because I feel the need, but because observations made by the anthropologist character has revealed that smoking is apparently compulsory in Greece, and I had been unsure if I was breaking any rules by not indulging. I take his offered cigarette, and tell him I am utterly lost.

"Where are you from?" he asks kindly, and I almost tell him "Middle Earth" but decide on "Liverpool" instead. "Ah, the Beatles" he says "and what a great football team!" I agree, whole heartedly, and we chat about football for a few seconds. Then he says "Here, let me help you. Where do you want to go?". I tell him about the wedding, and Delphi and my desire to travel solo. I also tell him that I cannot call Lydia because my cell phone is out of charge. "Are you meeting people in Athens?" he asks. "No" I tell him "I am completely alone - my wife could not come". "Do you have tickets for the bus?" he asks and I reply that I dont but that I have is a few hundred Euros and my credit cards, so it should be no problem.

He draws on the map, and I think 'Brilliant! This is the adventure I wanted - meeting real Greek people, not waiters or pool attendants'. Having drawn on the map, Georgios, my new friend rubs his forehead, looking concerned "I have relatives in that part of the country, and I can tell you that the afternoon bus is gone", he says. "There may not be a later bus, so you might have to stay in Athens for the evening. You must be careful. Athens is a dangerous place" he says. "I have a little local bar right nearby - I can show you, its on your way anyway. Come in, have a little drink and we can ask. Then you can go the bus station, but if you have missed the last bus, you can come back and have a drink there tonight also - good company".

Georgios says he just has to make a short phone call, and while he is talking (in Greek), I think how brilliantly this is all going - in fact the Malowinski character hopes that I have missed the last bus because this - meeting and talking not as a tourist but in a friendly local bar, is surely the stuff of real anthropology.

We head off through old Athens, me holding Georgios' arm as we cross the lethal sidestreets, with scooters, buses, taxis pouring past, often on the sidewalk. We chat amiably, and I like the old charm of the place, the sheer authenticity of it. Georgios tells me about the war, about the economic problems of Greece and asks me about my family and what I do. We wind further away from the central squares, but Georgios points vaguely North East, saying that is where I will be going later. After about ten minutes, we turn a corner and he points down the street to a large wooden door, paint peeling, set into the endless jumble of stone facades and says "My bar". "Wow" I say admiringly "It really is a local, Georgios - no sign. In england, we have to have signs!" "No problem" says Georgios, then somewhat mysteriously "No Police".

We approach and he unlocks the front door with a key attached to the type of massive sets of keys that only older men seem to have, and seeing it is a bit stiff, I help him push it open. I walk in following his welcoming gesture and first impressions say 'local bar' - it is about twenty foot long, wooden floor boards, a bar along the lefthand wall and some tables with leatherette couches on the right. But there are also a number of anomalies. The first of these are the two open doors at the far end of the room that appear to be entrances to someones bedroom. The second two anomalies are two incredibly beautiful, sculpturally made-up and mini-skirted Asian women present - one sitting at a table, elegantly cross-legged, the other behind the bar, smiling broadly at us.

"Have a drink" says Georgios, slamming the door behind us. There is a moment of silence. "Er, no" I finally say. "What?" says Georgios, grabbing my hand "Its a good place. Clean." "Er, no" I say " Maybe another time" and gently withdraw my hand. Georgios' grip gets firmer "Just stay for ten minutes. Clean place" he says, as if my primary thoughts are about the cleanliness of his staff in any activity that might be implied by the setting either immediately or a bit later. In truth, my thoughts are following a different tangent and are primarily self directed. The first of these thoughts is "Stupid", but is not alone, as it is rapidly followed by "Stupid", "Stupid", "Stupid" and "Stupid". In my only moment of inspiration that day, I realise I have described that I am totally alone, have all my money on me, am lost, that no-one knows where I am, that my phone isnt working and that I dont constantly call my wife, and I am standing in what looks like an unlicensed brothel on what has rapidly gone from a 'quaint' to a 'seedy' area of Athens. I have, in other words, demonstrated to Georgios that I have that unique combination of gullibility and self-assured arrogance (believing bad things only happen to other people) that makes a perfect 'mark'.

A strange wresting match follows, with Georgios now clinging on to my hand and forearm with both his hands, while I am smiling and attempting to walk backwards while gently prizing his hands off me, and apologising for leaving (a bizarre feature of English behaviour is to hate causing offence to anyone and to apologise for everything, even when its "I apologise that I feel in danger for my life and you are, at the very least, a dirty old man, and possibly plotting my murder") and simultaneously noticing that the jaw of one of Georgios' staff is rather squarer than that of the average female.

Eventually, I break free of Georgios' grip, mumble something about "Maybe see you later. Sorry! " (I know, still trying not to offend - I have been in England too long)fumble frantically with the door and flee into the street. At a half jog, I reach a main square and see an official taxi rank. Establishing that English is spoken, and that the driver knows exactly where I want to go, I get into his taxi and am spectacularly fleeced (20 Euros for a five minute taxi ride) but happy to get to the bus station. The guy in the ticket office lets me charge my phone and I have dinner amid the aroma of diesel fumes, cigarette smoke and mangy dog. "Not very clean" I think to myself as I text Great Margaret to tell her that I have decided to come straight to Nidri that night.

There are two footnotes:
1. The only photos I have of the first day in Greece are the ones presented here of the bus station, where I spent two hours watching this dog chase buses. It was a nice dog though.
2. Thanks to the Legal Eagle and Great Margaret who stayed up till about 2.00am and picked me up when I finally arrived in Nidri , and Lil 'Than and Suzie Woozie who also stayed up and let me sleep in their place. Respect is due.

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