That's Greece

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
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Trip End Mar 09, 2008


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Friday, November 2, 2007

Getting here was hell on earth. 

Iain seems to be keeping some kind of score about how many times each of us 'lose it'.  I would have to say that during a portion of this travel component I really, really lost it.

Lets not forget the fact that our last night in Istanbul was the night of the massive Halloween Party.  This means that nobody in the hostel got any sleep.  This includes me!

In Istanbul the friendly man behind the counter at Sirkeci Station responded well to our drawings of beds (rather than chairs) and drawings with 4 humans per cabin rather than 2.  We were a little sketchy on the bits where we might need to change trains but we figured we would work it out.  He was patient with us (despite our inability to clearly communicate in his native language) and all information was communicated with a friendly smile. 

Greek Rail could learn a thing or two from this man.

It started well with the Istanbul train.  After a few hours we were at the Turkey-Greece border and we were instructed to get off the train to catch another train.  We sat in the cold at this tiny little station for about 2.5 hours.  Here we were informed that we had to pay a supplement of another $20 to get to Thessaloniki (half way to Athens) despite our $180 train tickets to Athens.  What could we do?  Of course we would need to pay.

The train arrives to take away the small and ever-bonding group of international tourists.  It is warm, we are comfortable.  Life is good.

After midnight we arrive at Thessaloniki.  This is a small problem as our connecting train to Athens was due to leave at 11.45pm (one hour after we were originally due to pull in).  No problem, as we can pay another $70 and catch the next train at 2am.  We explained that the Greek train had arrived late which meant our connection was missed - so was there any chance that this supplement on the express train at 2am might be waived?  No!

Hmmm. This was fast becoming a very expensive and complicated trip.  I was annoyed, but still feeling a bit sick from my Shiraz headcold so was keen to get back on a warm train.  Iain, on the other hand, was keen to wait until the standard train at 7.35am.  The station was warm-ish so we would see how it went.  Our group of bonding tourists were divided.  Half were paying and half were staying.

We got as comfortable as you can get on hard, wooden benches under bright fluorescent lights.  I felt like a complete legend remembering my eye mask to ensure all light would be blocked.  It was approximately 4 minutes later that security came to move us along.  "No lying down on benches! And by the way the station closes at 2am so you will all be chucked out"...

Did I mention how cold it was?  Did I mention it was pouring outside?

Well, that settled it.  I was not planning on wet, rainy homelessness any time soon.  We were catching the 2am train.

...Except that it was now fully booked.

Hmmmm...  Not good.  I'm pretty sure my anger started about...... here...

Iain decided to pick a fight with security explaining that the reason we needed to stay was because their train missed its connection.  That just seemed to make the guard hostile.  We had a nice Brazilian guy with us who approached the police, the ticket seller and the station master to allow us to stay inside - but this was all to no avail.  Apparently they would love to improve the train punctuality but "this is Greece"; they would love to allow us to stay sheltered for the night by not throwing us out of the station "but with 5 of us staying, we could have a party!", they would love to be more helpful about things but "none of this was really there jurisdiction so they couldn't do anything at all".

As we were leaving the station, we met a Greek soldier who translated the announcements that the 2am train to Athens was running late (surprise, surprise).  He said it would not be possible that it was full and even if it was, we should just jump on and find a space and then pay the supplement when the inspector came.

We began to suspect that the only ticket seller (who had yelled at Iain earlier for being a "rude American!") was perhaps refusing to sell tickets to us out of spite and there were actually tickets.

Rather than trying to cheat the system, I decided to approach her smiling sweetly and ask her nicely whether there were any tickets left she could sell us.  She started saying that there were none left but we could spend the night in the station where it was warm.  Now just a tad frustrated, I asked her to speak to security (who thought otherwise and was in the process of kicking us out).  A barrage of Greek noise filled the air and they decided that "yes, please go outside, the station is closing".

I couldn't help it.  This is where I exploded.  I explained to them that my planned 4 week Greek holiday was now being contracted to only one night as this was the worst I had ever been treated - anywhere in the world.  I knew this was not gaining us anything - but i didn't care.

The lady blew up and screamed at me about how nice Greek people were. [And no,  I don't think she would have appreciated it had I pointed out the irony of the situation].  I continued explaining how I had just left Iran - a country which was incredibly hospitable.  Greece could learn a thing or two from these guys regarding how to treat foreigners.  This resulted in both security guards and the lady yelling at me.  Their only counter argument was that Greece had at least 200yrs extra history more than Iran.  Like I cared. 

By the time the screaming festival was over the train had left.

We walked outside.  I was angry.  The rest of our group were happy to sit under an awning on the street sipping wine with the Greek soldier.  I was too upset.

We asked at a few hotels for 5hrs worth of a room but they were all too expensive.  The cheapest place we managed to locate was the all-night strip club who seemed happy to waive my €10 cover charge if Iain still paid.  To be honest, I think they were just excited about the prospect of having a customer.

In the end we found a 24hr cafe playing Greek dubbed Lois and Clark.  I put my head on the table and instantly slept while Iain stayed awake all night (to ensure we didn't look too homeless).  When I awoke in the 'morning', Iain had a crazed look in his eye and had discovered a new burning love for Teri Hatcher.

We also spent 3 days in Athens.  It was alright. 

Next stop Ghana!!!!!  :)

* * *

Claude and I discussed doing two separate entries for Greece: one would cover our experiences getting in from Istanbul, the second would look at our time in Athens itself. Putting them all in the one entry requires two entirely different set of emotions, but we have persevered.

Over recent weeks we have been keeping a list of categories that we will complete as a 'His and Hers' wrap up of our trip: Best Meal, Worst Meal, Favorite Hotel, Best Destination etc.  We had toyed with Never Again as a national category, but as we know people who trace ancestry back to so many places we knew there was some danger in awarding this anywhere. But that award category will be in, and Greece will win it hands down, no contest.

We should have had an inkling of trouble when the Istanbul train information folks - helpful, ever smiling, never rushed, able to answer any question - sort of squirmed when we asked about the trains to Athens. Every time we asked the price, he pointed at his list of Greek rail prices a little bit apologetically and very much non definitively - in retrospect clearly conveying "you guys are in for a nightmare once you cross that border". I note now that although he was showing us a list of supplements (despite our ticket being theoretically for the whole distance) he did communicate that supplements would be applied randomly and repeatedly, and there was no way of knowing in advance. 

Some of you will be aware that I like to consider myself something of an avid student of government, and part of the intrigue of visiting Greece was to visit what is generally recognised as the worst of the developed world's democratic governments and to see how things work. This is stupid - really epicly tremendously stupid. This is akin to being academically curious about how the guy who comes out last from dental school treats his patients. Once you actually find yourself in his chair, mouth wide open and nowhere to go you start to think "what on earth did I do this for?"

So it is with Greece. Despite a wide ranging rail network, there are no direct links to any surrounding national capital. Genius. All require numerous (2-3) changes.  Despite only running one or two "international" services a day - and despite knowing that the only time a train has run on time here there were Panzers in the streets - they space the connections just an hour apart, and of course in the middle of the night.

I was partly enjoying the stupidity of the whole situation (knowing we could always buy the 2a.m. express ticket from our third change as a last resort). I wanted to tease things out a bit and just see if the frontline of Greek rail staff saw the stupidity of the whole situation ("So just to clarify, your train runs late so we pay a EUR40 surcharge for missing it"). Once again, a little bit of forethought would have made clear that the security guard and the ticket seller are likely related, possibly being both siblings and marital partners. So a playful, if dour remark, to counter the guard quoting regulations at me as to why I couldn't lie down on a wooden bench in the station backfired just beautifully.

We had been travelling 14hours at this point. The Turkish trains got us to the border on time and in comfort. The Greek connecting train to meet us was more than an hour late. It got later as it went and stopped randomly in the middle of nowhere. There were mysterious surcharges for each leg. We were enduring a stupidathon.

So to then hear at 1:00 a.m. that the Commissioner for Railways Himself had issued pertinent guidelines decreeing that no one shalt lay down in thine station absolutely begged the retort as to whether the Commissioner, in his spare time or anything, had considered that actually getting the trains to run anywhere close to schedule may not be the greater priority? Were the trains to be on time the problem of 30 stranded foreigners on benches would actually solve itself. A maximum of birds with a minimum of stones.

He chose to respond, straight faced and irony undetected, that that was not at all the Commissioner's priority, and given all we eventually we went through, it is abundantly clear he spoke the truth - Greek Rail may never get you there but by God you can rest assured you won't have to put up with the sight of someone reclining on a bench.

We later presented our tickets to get the 7:30a.m. onward train, were told it was an unreserved service, so got on. The train is full, and bar other seething touists everyone has a seat reservation (the only thing that would have been free ironically enough) and we foreigners are now standing for the remaining 7 hours to Athens, on no sleep. Even the Brazilian with the patience of Jesus, Mary and Joseph went a little postal at this final development. But I digress - that was all to come later, it was still late night in Thessaloniki with a storm brewing.

The ticket lady was refusing to sell us a ticket on the 2a.m. service. "All full now" she snapped and smirked. Then she sold the person behind us tickets, thereby showing us who was queen of her little fiefdom.

Outside it wasn't the nicest of evenings either.

Rain was sheeting down, and the hotels were holding on to EUR50+ prices. An enthusiastic strip club bouncer approached us on our sodden walk and I trust it conveys the desperation of our situation that Claudine not only entertained the prospect but started a negotiation on the door price. I fear the doorman had far less English than Claude assumed and may have thought he was engaging in a discussion about the chance of her performing and the necessary musical accompaniment. I flinched everytime Claude started a price negotiating sentence with "Doncha..."

We wound up in a coffee shop which served a pretty good hot chocolate and was content for Claude to sprawl like a drunken hobo over the table. I had a couple of coffees and did enough to ensure the proprietor wasn't tempted to report us as vagrants. Bless them man for having English language television. And to his eternal credit, he took pity on our situation and, come morning, dramatically rounded down the bill. I'm guessing we are not the first tourists he has seen in this situation.

The most galling thing of this adventure is that the ticket seller could arbitrarily decide not to sell us a ticket. She spoke good enough English, but it was my specific, and actually eminently polite, request (early on) for a customer service phone number or email that sent her ballistic (I had expressed surprise at the third round of surcharges which made this train journey the most expensive travel leg we have done, including flights). She then no longer spoke English, and demanded that I speak Greek or she just turned her back in her chair. Service.

When we spoke with other friendly local passengers on the morning train, none were surprised at our experience. None. "Thats Greece," was the uniform sad response. "At least you get to leave and don't have to live with it," was its common partner. Astounding. And doubly so having come from Iran where people would have fought for the honour to drive you the seven hours to Athens had any delay in the train service occurred.

Deep breath.

Deep calming, tranquil breath.

Athens itself is surprisingly nice.

Fellow travellers, guide books and international reputation don't rate the Greek capital particularly highly as a place to stay. Yet a random stroll in any of the precincts around the Acropolis was generally leafy and had a fun cosmopolitan feel to it.

The Acropolis itself is a pleasant surprise. Long reputed to have copped the horror combination of an early bad restoration and modern era neglect, the restoration taking place now is one of the best we have seen on our travels. They have gotten rid of the concrete used to 'make up the gaps' in earlier attempts, and in a method we haven't seen before, are replacing it with new marble (not aged or artifically weathered to blend in) from the same place as the original. The effect of this is dramatic and incredibly visually effective. Its one thing to see the Parthenon or the nearby Temple of Nike as a ruin, but to also get a glimpse of how startlingly white and heavenly it would have seemed back in 430B.C. was excellent.

There is also a surpisingly confusing War Museum in Athens. It inexplicably chooses to skip the Athenians proudest moments (which we came here to learn more about) of the battles with the Persians at Marathon and Salamis about 490B.C. Nothing at all between prehistory in 10,000B.C. and then - pop - hey its Alexander the Great. The Macedonian guy.  

I am incredibly curious why this isn't covered, and no, there isn't a seprate museum for it... This is a battle that is sometimes interpreted as the first triumph of democracy as free citizens fought to defend their way of life from a foreign emperor. Equally, that the democracy later voted itself into anniliation by pushing endlessly into other pointless wars was not looked at either. Sad to not get into this.

The War Museum also highlighted how history is always able to be sculpted by the writer. Visiting the British Museum a few weeks (home to the Elgin Marbles - being the original reliefs from atop the Parthenon), they reserve judgment as to how the Parthenon came to be in rubble... opining that it was perhaps a little careless of the Turks to store gunpowder in it back in Ottoman times. The Turkish version we saw points quite heavily to a lightening strike hitting the gunpowder stored there, something it is hard to not to interpret as "Don't blame us. Its clear God hates you. Which we find very understandable." And on visiting the War Museum here in Athens you come full circle and read that the Parthenon was destroyed by the savage Turks. No hint of any possible accident, carelessness, nor act of a vengeful, hateful God.

On the food front, Athenian gyros also rate very highly. Fearing more of the endless kebabs that dominated our time in Iran and Turkey, we were expecting something despairingly similar. Au contraire. A light fluffy pide style bread, a thick yoghurty chive butter, whole hunks of tomato and exquisitely marinated sides of meat made a gyros as close to gourment as EUR1.30 food can be. I disgraced myself and managed to put away four per day on average. Always a positive sign when any fast food establishment stops asking for your order but just takes your money and hands you over what they know you want.

We also spent some time heading out to the port city/ district of Piraeus to look at some Greek Island cruise options. They all look a little tepid and uninspiring, possibly a result of the consummately derelict vibe the city fathers have carefully shaped and attained for Piraeus.
A beautiful Parthenon, excellent gyros, and a world of hate if you decide to enter by train. That's Greece. Never again.

* * *

Having some camera/ virus issues so Claude's good photos of the Parthenon will be delayed a while... :(






 
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