Several weeks ago, shortly after returning from a trip to Greece, I wrote about what is more and more becoming the mantra of travelers: travel by commercial airline is horrible. Thankfully, there are still good experiences to be had “out there.”
Greece is a troubled country these days, with crushing debt and 26% unemployment (50% of youth under 25) creating chaos and political unrest, so we would not have been shocked to find it inhospitable, even a bit scary. But the people and the general atmosphere remain totally welcoming.
My husband and I arrived in Athens exhausted from the run-up to the trip and from the awful flight itself. We awaited the arrival of a friend’s flight at the Athens airport. Unlike the U.S. facilities, it was clean, friendly and seemed to be functioning well. The travelers and employees hurrying to and fro were largely cheerful and helpful.
Our cabbie from the airport spoke little English and we spoke no Greek. Our colleague, Vern, gave him our apartment address and we wound our way through Athens’ hills for almost 30 minutes before stopping at an apartment building on a steep hillside. The driver unloaded our bags to the sidewalk, offering to help us lug them inside. We declined his assistance and paid him and he began to pull away.
Though the address was correct, Vern suddenly realized that we might not be in the correct place; at almost the same time the cabbie apparently began to think the same thing, as he returned to the curb where we stood. We got our daughter, who was waiting for us at the correct apartment, on the phone with the driver, and she gave him directions to the correct location. He reloaded us and our bags and drove us for another 30 minutes through the center of Athens to Zografou and the correct apartment. (Who knew that there were two streets with the same name and numbering system?) Dropping us off at the correct place, the cabbie cheerfully unloaded our bags, offered again to assist us in getting them inside, refusing additional payment for his 30 extra minutes of driving.
Our 3rd floor apartment, taken sight unseen, proved to be a nice 1 bedroom with living room, dining room, kitchen and large bath. It was full of art, books, music and plants and had a terrace that ran the length of the apartment. The building even had a small elevator. We sublet this space for six days for about $250. The electrical wiring and Athens’ 2000 year old sewer systems were a little quirky, and I managed to blow a couple of breakers the first morning while trying to make coffee, but we quickly got the hang of the situation.
On our second day, the wireless went down. We needed internet access in order to keep NAnewsweb updated and running. Without much hope of relief, we notified Garifalia, our local contact, who is a friend of the apartment owner, of the problem. When we returned from a late dinner that evening, we had a note from Garifalia, saying that a technician would come the next day to fix the wireless. (I had severe doubts that the wireless would be restored before we returned to Mississippi.) In addition, Garifalia gave us the password to her personal wireless (she lived down the hall) and told us to use it until we were up and running again, which, miracle of miracles, happened by midday the next day, just as promised.
Another ‘Garifalia accommodation” occurred two days later. Vern had checked out of his apartment and was at our place awaiting his evening flight to Denmark. We decided to go out for late breakfast at a nearby outdoor cafe. Upon leaving the apartment, I pulled the door closed, triggering the automatic lock and leaving the key in the living room, along with Vern’s suitcase and passport. None of us had a locally operative telephone, the building has no on-site “super,” and no neighbors were at home. Finally, it occurred to us that I could put my phone on “supercharging roam” and Vern could access Garifalia’s number. She was out of the city and using public transportation, but agreed to come back early and meet us at 6PM so that Vern could get his stuff and make his flight. We went out for waffles and ice cream and had a spontaneous visit with our daughter. A smiling Garifalia arrived on the dot and Vern made his flight.
The most amazing story of our trip happened to Vern. The day we arrived, we went out for a late dinner with our daughter and friends, then Vern and Elizabeth visited (and drank) until very late. The next day, Vern discovered that he’d left his cell phone in the cab that had taken him home. He called around wherever he could, trying to track the man down, but had no luck, not knowing a name or cab number.
Vern runs a business from his phone, and it involves personal information for many people. He was on the verge of “wiping” it when he learned that the cabbie had come back the night before, gone apartment to apartment in the middle of the night, awakening residents and trying to find Vern or someone who knew of him. Of course, no one knew Vern well, because he was only a temporary tourist. One lady listened to the story and thought she “might” know about the visitor, so the cabbie, hoping that Vern would also be searching, left contact info with her and several other people. Imagine how few people would typically involve themselves in something like this in the middle of the night, for a complete stranger.
To make a long, convoluted story short, Vern and the cabbie finally met up, and with much hugging (from Vern) and tears (from the cabbie) the phone was returned. The man had spent literally hours of his time trying to return the phone, asking nothing in return. He just wanted to do the right thing for some unknown American tourist. Vern rewarded him, and, perhaps more importantly, they exchanged names and contact information for future visits.
Walking at night on the narrow, hilly residential streets, one is almost constantly surrounded by the warm, friendly sounds and smells of friends and families enjoying themselves–laughing, talking, cooking, eating, drinking and smoking, always smoking. The neighborhoods remind me of growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s. People in and out of each other’s homes and lives. Mostly living one day at a time and enjoying life as much as possible. Not a perfect life by any means, but a good one.
Greece is a country with big problems, populated by people dealing with serious troubles on a daily and very personal basis. But the problems do no define their lives, and the experience of being there is warm and welcoming. God willing, we will go back, and stay longer.