Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Arriving In Greece

01 September

It was only a three-hour flight to Thessaloniki, but it took forever because we first had to fly from Manchester to London Gatwick, and that flight was very early in the morning. Then we had a three-hour layover before going the rest of the way. We arrived having slept very little the night before, and completely worn out. Plus, we were sad to leave England.

But here we are – in Greece! And suddenly, beginning from the moment we first heard Greek spoken in the airplane, the whole feel of life is different. We love the English feel, too; it’s just very different. Just to give you one example, on our way home from the airport, Demetrios and the cab driver were already into a lively political discussion within two minutes. (Today it took five minutes, with a stranger in the street.) The cabbie was upset because driving taxis used to be a closed profession, which means you had to buy a license, and that license cost 200,000 Euros! He bought one, taking out a loan to do so, which he is still paying back. And now the government has decided anyone can set himself up as a taxi driver, no license required, and no fee. So there will be lots of competition, and our cabbie is extremely afraid he will no longer be able to make a living from this job. He’s so upset he can’t sleep nights.

We immediately ran into a whole spate of minor problems, all of which we have solved. The first one was, our building has a new front door. We knew it would because the work was in progress when we left last year. And a much better looking door it is, too, with lots of glass and, instead of steel, wood that looks like teak . But the new door has a new lock, so our key didn’t fit. We rang a couple of buzzers until we found a neighbor who let us in.

The next problem was, we had no electricity. Demetrios discovered that all the fuse switches were turned the wrong way, so that was easy to fix.

There was no water, either. We had of course turned it off before we left, but Demetrios couldn’t figure out how to get it back on. We had to find a plumber(!), who came early this morning and took care of it. The water had been turned off from the water utility room downstairs on the ground floor.

Next was how to get HOT water; i.e., how to restart the natural gas. Demetrios solved that by tinkering with the various dials until the water ran hot. Note to self: after opening the valves, you push the switch to R, for “Reset” and then let it snap back into place.

Usually, my brother-in-law, Christos, does all these sorts of thing for us, but as he currently isn't speaking to us (since Demetrios declined to help finance the construction of Christos’ third home), we aren't sure if he even knows we’re here.

Our neighbor, Yiannis, lent us his key this morning, so we took it and had three copies made before returning it.

We have some Euros from the bank now, and we also have bottled water and milk and bread and butter and jam in the house. We’ve eaten dinner out both nights, too tired to cook and clean up. Tomorrow I will shop for more groceries.

For the first time ever, the flat here is exactly as I had left it. And I left things in a very particular order, too, so I would definitely know if anybody had cooked on our stove, used our dishes, done laundry in our washer, watched our television, or slept in our bed. Nobody has, for once. (Not that I would mind Christos using our flat if he would leave it more or less as he found it.) The only cleaning needed this time is a thorough wipe-down and floor cleaning; it seems that even our new, double-glazed windows can’t keep nine months of dust from building up everywhere.

It’s hot and muggy and we’re no longer accustomed to that, having used our radiators almost every day all summer in Ormskirk. It has been in the mid-eighties, Fahrenheit. We slept with the air conditioning on.

It’s also quieter than we remembered. The subway construction has necessitated making some streets around here one-way, cutting down on the traffic. The excavating equipment, however, the giant drills, are gone, so there isn’t that sound, either.

But it’s more than that. It’s the hard times. You can tell because even the Drunken Duck (bar next door) is reasonably quiet. It has fewer patrons; people are getting drunk at home instead. Don’t know if the bar will become louder on weekends.

The nearest vet/pet shop is closed, as is a café that was open last year. Nikoletta, at our favorite mom and pop grocery store, has fewer items in her deli section. Demetrios has heard countless small businesses have gone defunct, their premises up for rent, and not rented because nobody has the money to start up a small business.

I had expected to see more beggars than ever, but so far I’ve seen fewer, as if they had decided it is no use begging from people who feel they have nothing to give.

The feral cat population is also down this year. The cats we have seen so far seem healthier than some years.

We stopped at our favorite bougatsa place. Bougatsa is layers of paper-thin pastry filled with custard and dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon. We sat out on the sidewalk to eat it, chatting all the while with the young lady who works there. She remembered us, so that was nice. We asked whatever happened to the cat who used to frequent the place there last year, who had kittens in the store around the corner. She told us Lilitka has been adopted by someone in the north of the city and is now leading a very good life.

Pelagia and George are at their summer house in Halkidiki, together with Mena and Kostas. They telephoned us today to urge us to join them. So, although we were still bone tired, we did like the prospect of their company and I did fancy a dip in the Mediterranean.

Nobody answers the phones at the bus depot. So all we could do was take a cab to the bus depot and inquire there. We arrived just before 3:00, to learn the next bus would depart at 4:00 and arrive at our destination at 6:00. Frankly, that much effort didn’t seem worth it, only to stay there a couple of hours and return home in Mena and Kostas’ car. So we came home again, this time by bus.

Bus wasn’t very crowded, either, as in the past. It was air-conditioned, which most buses were not when we first started coming here in 2005. There’s one nice improvement!

We called Mena and explained, then sacked out for a much-needed nap. Mena called back at 5:30 urging us to come even at this late hour, as the party had decided not to return until tomorrow. Any other time, it would have been an offer we couldn’t refuse, but today we declined, being too tired to be able to enjoy it. Mena says they are hoping to go back next week, perhaps on Wednesday, so we hope to join them then.

Time for me to call it a day. Must go turn on the air conditioning in the bedroom and close up. I feel so reluctant to close off the world; it’s so much fun to open all the doors and windows and watch the world go by from our 5th-floor balcony, and to let it all in, noise and all. I miss other people’s cooking aromas, the clinking of glasses and cutlery, the snatches of conversations, the occasional marital row, watching other people’s TVs, hearing their music sometimes, hearing the cats yowl, and in general, participating in LIFE all around us! If you close it all out, you close out Greece, and your room could be anywhere in the world. You might just as well have stayed home.

Tomorrow I’m hoping to share with you a beautiful realization Demetrios had about the Mother of God.

P.S.) I forgot to tell you about a cool new gadget we saw in the airport the other day. It was a piece of carry-on luggage with hard sides painted or printed to look like cowhide, with four wheels on one of the long sides – and on the opposite long side was a seat. Upon this seat sat a toddler, crying, “Beep, beep, beep, beep!” all the way along the corridor. Her mother was pulling both the luggage and the little girl. The kid could never have walked that fast, nor otherwise have enjoyed herself so much. Why didn’t somebody think of this decades ago?


margaret said...

Glad you are back safe and glad too for Lilitka. And, btw, bougatsa is one of my favourite things in the world and I don't want my dinner now that I've thought of it!