Another long day (with very few pictures)
Getting cash without using an ATM proved to be easier than we had expected. The teller, who ran the card through an old-fashioned credit-card slider, the kind that makes a carbon impression on paper, was surprised that I wasn’t asked to enter my PIN. However, I knew that it isn’t required for a cash advance not involving an ATM, at least with this card. Only a few weeks previously, I had gone into a bank in Summersville, West Virginia, looking for an ATM. They didn’t have one, but a teller told me to give her my ATM card and she’d handle the advance herself. I didn’t need to enter my PIN to get the money, nor—even though this was not a branch of my own bank—was I charged anything for the service. Of course today’s transaction was different, because it involved a currency exchange. No bank that wants to stay in business does those without exacting a commission, and the Alpha Bank was no exception.
We were ready for our surreptitious taxi when it showed up at 11. The driver’s name was Yiórgos (George), and he spoke very little English, but Dorothea had a long and interesting conversation with him in Greek, translating for my benefit as it went along. (I’m not betraying him by revealing his first name; a very high proportion of Greek males are named for the country's patron saint.)
We noticed right away that we seemed to be making swift progress through the city streets, where there was very little traffic. Where were the throngs of protesters we’d expected? George explained that, with all public transport shut down, few people had a way to get to the demonstration, so it had been called off. The result for us was a much faster than average trip out of Athens, rather than the reverse.
George told us (in Greek) about the economic trials the working people of Greece were going through. He owns a simple house, just big enough for himself, his wife, and their two children, and his annual property tax is currently set at €6,500—about $9,425 at the time we were talking. Most Americans would consider that fairly high, and for the sake of a crude comparison, the average per capita income in the US, according to IMF and World Bank figures for 2010, was about 75% higher than that of Greece ($47k versus $27k).
As we neared the airport, he asked us to pay him before we got there, so it wouldn’t be obvious that he was doing taxi business during a strike, and he pulled over in what happened to be an uninhabited rural area so that we could get this done. (Dorothea later wondered how it would have gone over with passengers who didn’t know Greek and couldn't understand his explanation.)
We said goodbye when he dropped us at the airport, and George told Dorothea that he felt as if he had driven us there from his home—a warm parting, as she noted.
As we headed for the door of the departures building, I noticed semi-consciously that quite a few people seemed to be sitting on the grass outside, looking rather glum in spite of the pleasant sunshine. But I hadn’t quite started thinking about that as we went through the door, where we found a crowd of people gathered in front of a big arrivals-and-departures display screen. A woman immediately came up to us, holding a microphone and followed by a cameraman. She told us (in English) that she was from Reuters, and asked if our flight had been cancelled. We didn’t know, but she informed us that the air traffic controllers had decided to go on strike too, and when we told her where we were going and when, she checked the board overhead and verified that Aegean’s 2:30 flight to Chaniá was among the many cancellations. She asked if Dorothea would mind being interviewed. When she agreed, and the camera was switched on (they no longer roll, in this digital age), the reporter asked how she felt about having her vacation plans interrupted by the strike. Dorothea’s response emphasized understanding and sympathy for the workers; even when the woman pressed her to comment on the wisdom of attacking tourism, one of the few sources of the money that Greece needs desperately, she said that it probably wasn’t the wisest thing to do, but she understood the emotions that led people to do it.
We have no idea if anyone anywhere in the world ever saw this interview on TV. The reporter might have been hoping for a more excitingly irate American who would denounce all Greeks as greedy layabouts. The interviewer might not have agreed with such sentiments herself, but they’d probably have had a better chance of getting on the air.
We were hesitant about trying this, however: although there were more planes going to Iráklio, there were also more people who wanted to go there. If we didn’t manage to get seats on the earliest available flight, it might take us longer to get to Chaniá than if we took the direct flight at 8:10. In the end caution prevailed, and we chickened out on their kind offer. Put it down to the timidity of old age—David and Carol were hardly kids, but we outranked them chronologically by at least a decade or two.
Our decision turned out to be a mistake. Although our fellow travelers flew to Iráklio, rented their car, and got to Chaniá by early evening, we didn’t make it until early (very early) the following morning.
Having been given new boarding passes for seats on the 8:00 flight to Chaniá, we spent the day in the airport, happily unaware of delays that lurked in our future. It had always been our plan to buy a Greek cell phone as soon as we got off the plane from Toronto, but after our encounter with the Eurobank ATM the day before, we had had bigger and scarier things on our minds. Not only that, but we found that the Yermanós electronics chain, where we intended to buy the phone, had recently closed its shop on the arrivals floor.
However, they still had a shop open on the departures floor, where we were now. It was in an area restricted to departing passengers—to get into it we didn’t need to go through security, but we did have to show our boarding passes. In the shop we bought the phone we had previously decided on when looking at the company’s website, with a SIM card and a prepaid calling card good for €10 worth of telephone time. As I had been led to expect by reports on the Web, a friendly clerk who spoke good English installed the SIM card for us and activated the phone, a simple ‘clamshell’ model by Samsung, which cost us €36, plus €5 for the SIM card. Although we didn’t need it often, this purchase (about $70 altogether) was well worthwhile. Our Verizon cell phones wouldn’t have worked in Europe, but this phone can be taken to just about any country in the world and fitted with a SIM card that provides a local phone number and the ability to make calls in that country at local rates, instead of paying international roaming charges.
Because of the many canceled flights, seating in the departures building was at a premium. But as we came out of the Yermanós shop, we spotted one free seat in a nearby cluster of six, and next to it was a low table on which Dorothea didn’t mind sitting. The five people occupying the other seats, as she soon found out, were all, like her ancestors on her mother’s side, natives of Sparta and vicinity. She had a pleasant conversation with them, speaking in fluent but, by her own account, faulty Greek. One of the Spartans was a young woman who had just earned a university degree in civil engineering, but, unable to find a job, had enrolled in graduate school instead. She was on her way to New York, where she said there were a lot of Spartans, to visit friends and relatives.
Our new phone had been delivered with only a light charge on the battery, so I followed the store clerk’s advice and undertook to charge it. There were a couple of charging kiosks in the hall—maintained for advertising purposes by LG (like Samsung, a Korean company)—where you could plug in almost any kind of electronic device and charge it up. Nearby seats allowed phone and computer owners to keep an eye on their property during the charging process, but all these seats were occupied, so I stood over our phone for a while until I was pretty sure that it had stored enough power to get us through the day. There were two calls I knew we’d need to make: one to let our Chaniá hotel know that we’d be arriving late, and one to give our new phone number to George Papadópoulos, the guide in Iráklio whom we’d engaged to take us around the archaeological sites during our stay in that city. We’d promised to make this call as soon as we got to Crete, so that he’d be able to get in touch with us if necessary.
I went back to our seats and got George on the phone. He told me he had sent me an email message several weeks before, asking if we’d object to a schedule change, but had received no reply. This message had never made it to me, but the change he wanted was a slight one and we arranged it on the phone without difficulty.
The Spartans were called to board their flight (or at least to wait somewhere else for it), so Dorothea gained a real seat. We still had hours to wait, and were determined not to surrender our territory, so we went one at a time to a nearby sandwich counter to buy lunch, and brought it back to our precious seats to eat. We both chose the same thing—a big slice of spanakópita. This ‘spinach pie’ as it is literally translated, made with spinach and feta cheese inside a phyllo crust, is familiar to most Americans; at least that’s true around Boston. This variety was classified as choriátiko [‘rustic,’ or more literally ‘of the village’] because the leaves of phyllo on the outside weren’t rolled as thin as kind we see in the US.
After lunch, as Dorothea chatted in Greek with various people who were sitting near us, I whiled away the time reading. Occasionally, one of us would take a break to wander around the shops in the area where we were sitting. Before leaving home I had loaded free copies of all Trollope’s Barchester novels on my iPad. (With a couple of Dickens novels for good measure, in case Trollope shouldn’t prove wordy enough. I got through most of the Trollope books during the trip, but was still reading The Last Chronicle of Barset when we went home three weeks later, and it kept me going for a while after that.) Dorothea also read Trollope, on her iPod Touch no less, something I thought would be impossible on such a tiny screen. I mean, just the words in some Victorian novels might be too long for that. Hemingway maybe, but not Trollope or Dickens. But she proved me wrong. (Not for the first time.)
Sometime between 6:00 and 7:00, we elected to abandon our seats and eat in one of the nearby food courts. We no longer needed to hold the seats, because a gate had been announced for our flight, so after eating we could go through security knowing that we’d find new seats at that gate. The food court had several counters with different names and menus, but all seemed to be part of the same enterprise. At a counter called Upper Crust, offering sandwiches as well as pizza, we each chose a sandwich on baguette. Dorothea’s was a chicken club (with the standard BLT ingredients supplementing the chicken) and mine had the Near-East-sounding name “Feta Fatoush.” In addition to feta cheese, it contained olive tapenade, tomato and radish slices, and an olive oil dressing. Both sandwiches were cut in two, so we shared them by exchanging halves.
At about 7:00, our meal finished, we made a long trek to the assigned gate, where we passed through security. The agents showed considerable interest in my iPad 2—not as an object of suspicion, but as a cool hunk of technology. We found the waiting area for the gate empty of fellow passengers and airline personnel, but it was still early. We sat down with our digital reading apparatus, and soon both categories of people began to arrive.
Shortly before 8:00, however, the airline staff announced that the flight would be delayed "because of flight traffic controllers' restrictions," and we would receive further information at 9:00. The information, when it came, was that we'd get information at 9:30. And that information was that they’d make an announcement at 10:00. But in the meantime, we were told, we should move to a different waiting area, two gates down the line. There were now quite a large number of passengers assembled, and our migration thoroughly shuffled the seating arrangements. At the new gate, Dorothea and I found seats in an empty row. It faced a row occupied by what appeared to be an Important Person and his entourage. The I.P. (or “Himself,” as one might say in Ireland) was an imposingly large gentleman with full lips and bulging eyes, the only man present whom I remember wearing a suit. When we sat down across from him, he gave us an incredulous stare as if we were trespassing barbarously on his official space, but soon turned to the business of making Very Important Calls on his cell phone.
Not being very comfortable in the proximity of this Person, we looked around a bit and found two seats together in a different row. There, Dorothea fell into conversation with a woman on her way home to Chaniá. They talked (in Greek!) about families, children, and grandchildren (one girl apiece). Sometimes Dorothea had to use the Collins Greek–English Dictionary on her iPod (which I also had on my iPad) to find words that she didn’t know in Greek—Polish, lawyer, and Buddhism are three examples she recalls—but otherwise managed pretty well, carrying on a conversation in Greek that lasted at least an hour and a half, this being the remainder of the time we had to wait before our plane turned up.
Each time we received notice of another postponement, Dorothea telephoned the Palazzo Hotel in Chaniá to report this to Iríni, who runs the small hotel with her daughter Anastasía. Iríni had promised to wait up for us, but after a couple of postponements she finally told Dorothea that she really had to get to bed, and would leave the hotel’s front-door key for us under the doormat. We would find our room key, she said, on the desk inside.
The time of the plane was finally announced at 10:45: it would take off at 11:40. This—the first solid information we had received—turned out to be accurate. The plane did arrive and take us all on board, and we got airborne at about the time promised. The pilot announced that the flight would take half an hour—the regularly scheduled length is 50 minutes—but when we were nearly there he announced that we had to circle until a couple of charter flights landed first. So our flight actually lasted a bit more than an hour between takeoff and landing, which occurred at 12:45am.
Tired as we were, I was inclined to feel a bit grumpy about our flight being prolonged on behalf of this culturally dubious enterprise. But I can’t begrudge people who have to live with the English, Dutch, German, or Scandinavian climate their share of sunshine. I just wish they had a better way to get it.
We got off the plane and found a taxi; fortunately for us, the cab drivers of Chaniá weren’t on strike. We thought they might have come back on duty only after midnight, but our driver told us that, although they had quit for a few hours in solidarity with their colleagues in Athens, that had happened much earlier, and they’d been back on the job long since. We enjoyed the Greek music coming from his radio as he drove us the 15 km (about 9 miles) from the airport at Souda to the city.
The Palazzo Hotel is on a picturesque but very narrow street in the Old Town. A small vehicle can get down it, and in the early morning some do, as supplies are delivered to some of the restaurants, but traffic is mostly limited to pedestrians and the occasional motorbike. Our driver took us around the outside of the Old Town to the point where the street begins at a public parking lot near the sea. He told us he’d take us as close as he could to the Palazzo, but was afraid that if he went all the way down, he’d be unable to turn his taxi around. In less than 50 yards we reached the last point where, in his judgment, a turnaround was possible, so we paid the fare, gathered our bags, and ventured forth into the darkness. It was 1:45 in the morning and everything was closed, but there was enough ambient light for us to make our way without having to grope.
To our delight, we encountered the Palazzo no more than a hundred feet ahead of us, and the key was under the mat as promised. We took it inside and exchanged it for the room key that we found lying on the desk, with a note from Iríni explaining that we’d have to stick the key into a socket inside our room in order to turn on the lights (or use any other electricity) while we were there. When we went out, we couldn’t lock the room behind us without cutting off the electricity. So our computers, camera batteries, and any other devices could be charged only while we were present.
We didn’t have much energy to think about that at the moment, however. We needed sleep.
But before turning out the light, I should point out two more reasons why we were lucky to have flown to Athens a day early. First, if we had spent the previous night sitting in cramped airplane seats and unable to get more than a few minutes of sleep, instead of reposing comfortably in Athens, we would have been barely human by this time. Second, as Dorothea pointed out later, our flight from Toronto would have been scheduled to land in Athens at 10:30am, right in the middle of the air traffic controllers’ strike. The plane might have been diverted to some other airport, perhaps even to some other country, assuming that Air Canada didn’t get advance word of the strike and cancel the flight altogether. If any of these things had happened, we would certainly have missed at least one full day and night in Chaniá, instead of half an afternoon and all of an evening.