TUESDAY, 5 MAY 2015
We’re seated in the café on the fifth floor of Foyles, the massive warehouse-chic bookshop along Charing Cross Road. S is clicking through the tabs she’s kept open, all of them possible options for accommodation in Rome. We’re having trouble finding anything cheap, and it doesn’t help that we haven’t booked our flights either. Likelihood is, either we’ll have to pay through our nose for our intended trip to Rome next week or we’ll have to scrap our holiday plans altogether.
‘What about the voucher deals?’ S asks, and accesses some voucher deals on a website that I’ve seen advertised on telly before. She linked me to some of them the evening before but to be perfectly honest, I have my doubts about voucher deals like these. I was, however, somewhat desperate to get away for a holiday before high season rolls around, and so I allow myself to pay attention anyway.
‘Two nights in Rome, two nights in Venice … no, that’s not we want.’ I sort of bat away at the screen to indicate my disapproval.
‘Well, I don’t really care. We don’t really have to go to Rome.’ S clicks back to the deals on travel, and we scroll through to see what other interesting locations are on offer.
I don’t imagine I need to explain how we ended up purchasing two vouchers for a three-night stay in Athens.
Athens is, admittedly, not a place I’d imagined visiting any time soon. It didn’t really have anything to do with the Euro crisis, necessarily: I was aware of the news, of course, though I didn’t exactly pay close attention to it, and I was also aware that there had been a significant amount of unrest over the past number of years. For some inexplicable reason, I’d had this impression that Athens was generally a difficult place for Asian tourists to visit because apparently we were often the targets of petty thieves and general criminality. Perhaps that’s not downright wrong, but I may have overestimated the significance of news reports that I’d read, word-of-mouth accounts, and curiosity-driven Googling when I’d been bored and had nothing else to do.
Either way, however, I found myself simply saying yes when S asked if we should just do it. We did.
That is why, if you’re an overly risk-averse and persistently paranoid person, you should go travelling at least once with someone nearer to the other end of that spectrum.
MONDAY, 11 MAY 2015
Getting to Gatwick Airport hadn’t exactly been the smoothest journey. We’d assumed that the train ticket we’d booked was for a train starting from Victoria Station: it was only after we’d gotten off the cab that we read the printed booking and realised we were meant to be at St. Pancras. Cue panicked search for another cab (and one of the straps on my gymsack breaking); somehow, S manages to convince a private hire driver who’d just finished a job to take us up to King’s Cross. I imagine he pitied the clearly flustered state we were in: certainly, the family he’d just dropped off looked very amused by our desperation. But desperation pays off sometimes, and you never know until you ask — which was what S did — and we reached St. Pancras in time to catch our Thameslink train to Gatwick Airport. It was almost smooth and uneventful from there: security at immigration wasn’t a massive pain in the arse, the queue wasn’t impossible, and I managed to find a simple, functional, and affordable Converse backpack to replace my broken gymsack.
Though there was that moment at the gate when I was desperately trying to squeeze said backpack into my carry-all and managed to rip the zip apart. Great. Managed to fix it, but it’s unlikely the zip will work perfectly ever again.
Well, I guess there are some compromises you have to make when you fly with a budget airline.
Are we in Greece? Bloody ‘ell, yeah, we’re in Greece.
The descent into Athens International Airport hadn’t been fun. Sure, the Mediterranean Sea yawned its twinkling blue mouth at us from below, but my ears also felt like they were being subjected to some sort of archaic torture ritual. My head had been spinning from the excruciating pain and I couldn’t help wondering if I would ever be able to hear properly again. I was reeling from the discomfort even as we were walking from the exit of the airport to the metro station after. The feeling of my right ear being completely blocked didn’t go away for at least the next day and a half, and it didn’t help that I was still dealing with an awful throat infection that had been plaguing me over the weekend. Nonetheless, I was determined that nothing was going to stop me from enjoying Athens.
I turned to S, my mind addled by pain, illness, and lack of sleep, punched both fists into the air and went, ‘We’re in Athens!’
And indeed we were. The view from the metro train as we rumbled along revealed a landscape carpeted in lush needles of grass over which the elegant shapes of cypress trees hovered like upward brush-strokes over a canvas of greens and yellows basked in morning sun, Van Gogh’s A Wheatfield come to life.
This was unmistakably Greece.
‘Επόμενη στάση: Κορωπί. Next station: Koropi.’
Yup, we were definitely in Greece.
I took a module in modern Greek during my second year of uni. We were taught by a wonderful teacher named Marina, though I suspect it was to her disappointment that most of the basics I knew had vanished by the time I bumped into her again on the Tube a few months after my graduation. I imagine I should attempt to salvage some of that soon by informing her that most of the basics returned to me not long after we’d touched down in Greece. I successfully ordered a butter croissant at the airport (granted, a κρουσσάν isn’t terribly hard to understand) and closed off the transaction with a ‘here you go’ (ορίστε) and a ‘thank you’ (ευχαριστώ). I basically couldn’t stop smiling to myself afterwards for having managed to get through my first real conversation in Greek. The next few days would see me doing my best to do as much as I could with the Greek that I knew, but for now, as our metro train left the rapidly urbanising landscapes of East Attica for the subway tunnels of Athens, I contented myself with reading the names of stations off the LED display and eavesdropping on locals talking over the phone who were within earshot — which, unfortunately, was still limited by the disgruntled state of my plane-tormented ears.
The yapping of someone’s small dog from the next carriage punctuated my thoughts as I began to formulate a plan for what we would do over the next few days. S busied herself with the Marco Polo guide I’d bought, making a list of things to see and restaurants to eat at (her primary area of interest). S is a remarkably talented actor, having recently been offered a role in a production touring the whole of the United Kingdom, along with a handful of stops in Ireland and in Europe; she is, however, of a particular character that significantly differs from mine in a number of ways. Primary among these is her almost unwavering belief that ‘it will be okay’, which stood at odds with my tendency to think worst-case scenario, something which fuels my habit of minutely planning things to minimise the possibility of nasty surprises. I’m not exactly the sort of person to craft itineraries that are correct to the second (I do believe one should allow space for flexibility and some degree of spontaneity), but at the same time I often prefer to know exactly what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. S, on the other hand, is far more willing to play by ear, relying on her almost instinctive ability to judge the relative positions of places and uncanny gift of being able to stumble across pretty much anything we happen to be looking for.
In fact, Athens is particularly suited for S’s navigational skills because maps are virtually useless in the city. That isn’t to say they don’t come in handy: at the same time, the area around the Acropolis is particularly confusing, given the fact that the “streets” as they show up on the map are, in reality, often not streets at all, but paths or series of steps and sloped alleyways that snake over the rocky, uneven terrain that defines the ancient centre of the city.
Though, of course, it’s a little hard to miss the Acropolis if that’s what you’re looking for.
End of Part 1 of my Athens travelogue. Stay tuned for Part 2, in which we explore the Acropolis and find ourselves staying in a hotel next to a porn cinema.