Settling in for some concentrated - or perhaps that should be extended - hell in Athens airport. I’ve been shopping, anyway, and probably bought bad things. I went to the cd shop and bought a cut price cd of rerecordings of rembetika tunes. This sounds like a really bad idea, the height of kitsch and inauthenticity, now I think about it. I also bought Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else, which I’ve heard tell is good. It has all sorts of good people on it. There is a tiny blonde toddler doing a stiff-legged walk over the shiny marble compound tiles while her mother in a backless top tries to eat and her father reads a newspaper.
Question: do you know how much the cheapest room at the Sofitel Athens International Hotel is for one night?
Answer: 213 euros.
No! That is the wrong answer!
It may be true, but the right answer is ‘No’, so that I can shriek ‘213 euros’ in a tone of outraged incredulity whilst jabbing an accusing finger at you and discharging gobs of spittle in your direction.
I walked all the way over to the Sofitel Athens International Hotel with my absurdly heavy rucksack, which has resulted in only one of my legs working, so that I could hardly walk down the concrete steps to the right level for the entrance lobby. I should have walked that bit further and gone down in the lift, but it looked like such a long way. Things do look a long way when only one of your legs works. I went and asked at the plushly accoutred, lushly bemuzacked reception of the Sofitel Athens International Hotel only when I felt I couldn’t hold out any longer, being too tired and uncomfortable to survive in an environment as uniquely hostile to life as an airport departure lounge in my weakened state. That was when I had a bout 13 hours until departure, so call that 11 hours to check-in. That means I am being paid roughly 20 euros an hour by myself to not book into the Sofitel Athens International Hotel, which is not a bad rate, even for Hell. Or look at it another way, the fucking hotel wants to charge me 20 fucking euros a fucking hour to breathe their recycled fucking air and walk on their mass-produced fucking carpet.
Mother and child play monster chase. This could lead anywhere, not all of which is a good place. Oh. There goes mother, pushing a 3-wheeled buggy at speed and looking around anxiously.
I really should try to recount the whole day, but I fear that would prove impossible, even though I have plenty of time to do it in, because I already feel the gritty mad eyes and vague disconnectedness that presages a dreadful hallucinatory tiredness.
Of course, I got up early, woken, I think by an industrial-sized fishing boat leaving Patitiri. I thought it was too early, had a wee, couldn’t get back to sleep, it was pitch black, but I could hear engines. I had ordered an early morning call from the Hotel/Booking Office and this should have reduced my anxiety but it merely transferred it back a step to wondering whether they would remember. Anyway, I woke up all by myself just like I usually do when required, had a wee, looked out of the window, put some clothes on, hobbled downstairs and checked the time on a phonebox. (Greek public phones tell you the time, you see – useful that.) It was 20 past 6. Perfect. I went back to my room, brushed my teeth, packed my remaining belongings and the morning call came.
I was ready. I picked up the bags and hobbled painfully down three flights of stairs again. I thanked the boss in the office from the pavement and went and sat on a bench near the boat. Flying Dolphin 23, my favourite number. Truly Beautiful was in charge, I noticed. Perfect. She could administer me some of her disdain. An ochre sandstone dawn was shambling up over the sea. People began to mill around the gangway, Germans, mostly, it seemed. I decided it was time to find my ticket, and looked in my wallet. I could see lots of credit card receipts. I could see bank machine slips. I couldn’t see anything that resembled the ticket, which I knew was a shiny computer-printed sticker affair in several serrated sections. I took my bags to the gangway and asked how long until the boat would leave.
I had checked my wallet, my pockets and my airline ticket folder with no success, so I decided I had to go back to the ticket office and get him to print me another ticket, if he would. There should be a record of me on the computer. I walked back to the Hotel as quickly as my uncertain legs would allow.
“Excuse me.” I said, “I’m supposed to be getting on the ferry and I can’t find my ticket. I bought it from here, and you should have a record.”
“What boat?” asked the grey-haired boss.
“Agios Christianou.” I said, “7 o’clock.” hoping that was right.
“With coach ticket?” he asked.
“Yes.” I said, looking in my wallet and pulling out the large pale yellow paper coach ticket. Realisation was beginning to dawn on me. I handed it to him and he unfolded it.
“But here is the ticket, the ticket you say you cannot find.” he said, looking at the shiny computer printed sticker affair in three serrated sections.
“Yes, yes, you have reminded me, thank-you.” I said, reaching out for it, turning, heading back to the ferry.
The ticket I had been looking for had been had been stapled to and folded inside the large unfamiliar coach ticket. I wasn’t as embarrassed as I should have been, really, at least I was leaving the island, and I went and took my place in the rear cabin, which Truly Beautiful made sure she told me my seat was in. I hadn’t known there was such a place. On the journey to Alonnysos I had ignored any seat numbering entirely and sat in the front cabin. The rear cabin had a door to the outside at the back, so I went and sat out there on a box and watched the dawn. It wasn’t long before the boat started, reversing out of the harbour, and then it realised it was going backwards and turned, giving a sudden burst of speed and lifting up onto its skis, churning the lead sheet of the sea white and plaiting it into an Arran sweater. It soon got too cold and wet out there for me, but getting back into the cabin proved more difficult than I had imagined as the boat was lurching around, and the door opened sharply and latched onto a bulkhead behind me and I was stuck straddling the raised lip of the doorway and had to go back out and unlatch the door and keep hold of it while I manoeuvred one incompetent leg after the other into the cabin and shut it behind me. I went and sat down in some relief.
There was a bloke with a big nose in a black and white tracksuit arrangement standing in the cabin holding onto the backs of two seats. Truly B. came in at some point and stared intently at the screen of a laptop behind a counter. The moon, which was almost but just past full shone brightly as the sun began to illuminate directly the highest points of the Old Village and we left Alonnysos behind. The sun was shining on Skopelos by the time we reached it, but instead of going to Skopelos Town we berthed briefly at Agnondas, which scarcely exists, and passed up that side of the island to Loutraki below Glossa. I think this was because the sea was quite rough, as we found on the way between Skopelos and Skiathos, when the boat banged alarmingly, but this did not distract Truly B. from her contemplation by so much as one crinkle. which was comforting in a way. Her disdain extended infinitely, encompassing not only indigent male tourists but also weather and sea conditions, and was imperturbable, magnificent.
Skiathos was almost all sunlit by the time we reached the coast, and the town looks lovely from the sea, as does Skopelos, of course. There was a windmill up on the hill, which I had never seen from the land. By the time we left the islands behind us the moon was being obscured by a thickening haze, no longer a bright lamp, but a misty gesture, uncanny, no more than a symbol. We passed between tiers of mountains, and on one occasion I counted nine degrees of distance, nine separately shaded horizons in the view as the mountain silhouettes receded into grey blankness without ever becoming indistinct. The light was somehow dispersed throughout the air rather than shining all in a straight line. We passed and passed through these distances.
Until eventually we reached Agios Konstanidianos and got on a coach. I sat next to a Greek of about 70 who had no interest in me at all. Behind me was an English fool with a beard as round as a dinner plate who might have been an academic, and who uttered the most dismally trivial, commonplace and tiresome remarks on everything in a mixture of English and German to his female companion.
I wasn’t expecting a two-hour coach journey, but that is at least how long it was. I was interested in the industrial buildings on the way which ranged from excursions into big shed theory in dilapidated concrete through late 20th Century modern to brand new shiny.
Loads of olive groves and loads of irrigation, either through arcs and plumes of sprinkler systems or networks of pipes actually suspended in the fruit trees. In Alonnysos I had seen buckets of olives soaking in the courtyards of houses, so the olive harvest had started in a small way, but I saw little evidence of it having happened or happening around Athens.
At a pitstop on the dual carriageway everyone pays for what they want before getting it, but I don’t know that and besides, I don’t know what they have, so I confuse myself and others and have to double back to pay, but in any case I get a Greek coffee and an apple pie and I am delighted. Everyone stands around and smokes, waiting for the coach driver to return. Then we all file back on board and resume our seats.
The whittering beard and I watched the world slide past.
“I suppose this is Athens.”
“No, is 25 kilometres.”
“That’s a very dirty car.”
The built-up area took a very long time, stopping and starting in queues of battered traffic. The very occasional small house in the traditional style, even on the outskirts, looked like an affectation. Lots of signs, lots of billboards and posters for television shows.
At one point the bus stops at the side of the dual carriageway with another road parallel and lets out the big-nosed youth who had been standing in the rear cabin of Flying Dolphin 23 this morning, and who now disappears into the wilderness of roadways. Again, later, the bus stops at some unmarked place known only to itself and lets off someone who is replaced by two louts who stand in the walkway, one leaning his bum against the seat back in front of me. This is occupied by the blonde head of a woman who clearly objects to having a bum projected into her at head level. So do I. But it’s his arse and he will do what he wants with it. She manages to get a message through to him via his companion, and without the slightest apology or hint of acknowledgement he moves more upright. Eventually arse, lout, blonde head, indifferent neighbour, the whittering beard and I are all deposited without fanfare at a bus stop outside the Ministry of Development.
I’m in danger of feeling happy again, having got off the coach at last and sat outside in the sun with the pigeons outside the Ministry of Development for a while. I managed to remember what the airport was called and work out what it looked like written down so that I could find the right bus, but my bags are still too heavy to carry. I’ve got a huge Greek coffee that’s going to blow my head off.
The Ministry of Development: ‘Building a competitive Greece’ has been attacked with red paint bombs. I’m amazed by the way the Greek men hit on the women, staring openly as if at a lost friend, oozing up and talking to them. An African carries around carvings of giraffes and elephants, trying to sell them to café sitters and passers-by.
I thought I’d worked out that busses for the airport would be going the other way, but this being a one way area I couldn’t work out where the other way was. I asked in the coffee bar and one of them said
“Cinema Square.” and gestured.
“Just up there?”
“Ek feristoh.” I said and stumbled off under my snail.
I walked up and along and across. Traffic was end to end and continuous. I eventually saw a 129 which had origin and destination reversed, and went to the stop it had just passed and waited. There was a youth sitting on a step. He looked at my bags and I looked at him and did not like him. We both got on the 129 and sat on the back seat. Neither of us paid, and I for one didn’t know how. The bus left the centre of Athens and climbed up the hill to cooler and less frantic regions. I enjoyed the journey, and when the bus stopped at a lay-by the youth got off, giving me a look. I realised that we had got there. It didn’t look like an airport, and certainly wasn’t Eleftherios Venezelos which I would have recognised. Instead, it was a residential street on the outskirts of Athens. I walked to the bus stop going the other way, back into town. I checked the route map and I was definitely at the right end of the journey, so there was no point in getting back on a bus. I asked a woman standing there if she spoke English, but she did not. The next one did, fortunately, and she told me to go to a big church down the road and ask again, but to ask for the Metro, because that was the easiest way of reaching the airport.
“I cannot tell you the whole way now.” she said.
I shouldered my bags and walked off in the direction indicated. When I reached the big church I was already tired and put my bags on a bench and took off my shirt and t-shirt and put my shirt back on. That was difficult enough. I sat on a bench and looked at the road. A taxi went past three times. Nobody walked along the pavement. There was a carpet shop opposite and a little park running down a steep hill behind me. I tried to work out a strategy and decided that if I kept asking ‘Paracallo? Metro?’ of those I came across that would probably work. I seemed to think that ‘Paracallo’ meant ‘excuse me’, or something similar. I had used it to attract attention in the Ikios women’s co-operative traditional products emporium in Patitiri, where I had stood around for ages as the women talked behind a partition and I looked at jars and bottles of inexplicable substances with indecipherable labels (although some were marked in English and described as ‘strawberry marmalade’ for example, or ‘mallow’). So ‘paracallo’ was my best bet, I thought.
It worked quite well, whatever it means. The first man I came across corrected my pronunciation “Metró” he said, and directed me along, left and downhill in a stream of Greek with useful hand gestures. The hand gestures at least I had some chance of deciphering. I think people were pleased to be addressed in Greek, and I gradually steered my way down the hill towards more populated areas. One kindly lady dressed in black stood at the corner of the road and directed me with further hand signals till I disappeared from sight. Eventually I saw a sign, I think a green M in a circle, and pointed at it, asking the smartly dressed young man at the kerb next to me “Metro?”
“Yes,” he replied “but you can also reach it down there through the subway.”
So much for my bus theory. I really couldn’t have coped with much more Athens. I sat in the cool marble of the spacious underground and waited for a train. When it came it took a long time to reach the airport miles out of town. The passengers’ tickets were checked by two burly policemen with guns, so I was glad I had one.
Then fourteen hours in the airport. I found a set of seats with no armrests dividing them on which I could lie down. Apart from the departure announcements and calls for missing passengers the speakers in the ceiling relayed a selection of the worst, most overwrought power ballads in the lexicon of American song, and 3 general announcements, one telling us not to leave our bags unattended, one saying that luggage trolleys were not allowed on the escalators which said ‘it would like to remind us’, and made me wonder why it didn’t just get on with it and remind us then and there, and a third which informed us that parking was not allowed outside the terminal building, where in fact there was a whole line of cars and some double-parking. I did see an Audi get lifted onto the back of a truck by a crane arm like a gigantic praying mantis. These punctuated our fitful slumbers. Flights which were leaving after mine began to show gate information and departure times on the television screens scattered around the place. After a while I began to get worried. When I got round to queuing at the Olympic check-in I was told that my flight had been cancelled.
“Your travel agent should have told you.” said the girl at the desk.
“But I was here, there was no way to tell me.” I replied. “Can you alter my ticket now?”
This she did, booking me on the next flight, which was two hours later than mine and going to Heathrow instead of Gatwick, thereby adding 40 miles, many Pounds and some hours to my journey. I was too battered to complain, and anyway there was nothing to be done about it. It did occur to me that I had lost my glasses at Gatwick, but at least I hadn’t parked a car there. So. I went back and waited again.
Time sludged past in the airport like glue trickling from a sock.
I went through the gate to departures and looked at the shops which sold identical selections of useless futility.
I bought some olives and some olive oil both in tins, but the only tequila they had wore a sombrero, and was therefore impossible to purchase.
I watched a man unpack everything from several shopping bags and thrust it into suitcases not large enough to contain it.
I asked another what the time was and he showed me his watch which was enormous and complicated by an excess of dials and numbers.
“But that’s a chronometer.” I said. “Can you interpret it for me?”
I saw priests with full black beards and long black dresses marching confidently through modernity like travellers from the Middle Ages accompanied by tiny aged women who pushed their shopping trolleys and pulled their suitcases.
I sat in anonymous vestibules with crowds of strangers.
Now I am on the wrong aeroplane and my feet smell, but it’s o.k., it’s o.k..
Not only is it the wrong aeroplane but it is going to the wrong airport, but it’s o.k., honestly, it will be fine.
The man who sat next to me spilt coke down his shirt, but that’s o.k. too.
I am phasing in and out of an hallucinatory state from what is now a chronic lack of sleep, but it’s o.k.. I’m even lucky because I found somewhere to lie down and stayed there, whereas other people wandered around in the night and looked unhappy and envious. A German slept near me propped between his suitcase and a seat like a saggy flesh bridge, snoring horribly. It all reminded me of hospital. I didn’t feel sick for ages, and then I did, and then I waited more and longer and then I was on an aeroplane and it was the wrong aeroplane going to the wrong airport, but it was an airport nearer my house than Athens is, so it’s o.k..
I got on the dirty tube at Heathrow and had to change somewhere. I looked at the people in the carriage with something like affection, thinking ‘I could talk to you, and you’d probably understand what I said.’ This was like a blessing from God. I had to pay an incredible amount for a single from Victoria back to Lewes, I couldn’t believe it was that much. When I got to the station I took a taxi to my house because my ankle hurt like bugger and my neck and shoulders and back and legs and eyes and brain hurt too. There was a lot of boring post on the floor and I hadn’t been burgled.
And it’s o.k., it’s o.k., really it is. It’s even good.
 The first one turns out to be good, I think, it’s called REBETIKO, 18 Classic Tunes, on the AERAKISKME label and track 4 sounds like Beefheart. Somethin’ Else is something else, as they say, is dominated by Miles Davis (my hero!) and sounds like an alternative version of Kind of Blue. So I was lucky. Must go back to that shop...