Christmas in Greece – lively, lonely…
By TOM SMITH
THE POINT, Voula, Greece
Christmas Eve, 1986
Don’t come to Greece! Don’t camp here if you love dogs. Don’t come to the National Gardens in Athens if you love cats. Don’t come to Greece alone. It is a problem…
I had done it all – had my visa from the Egyptian Embassy, had the US$150 you are required to exchange upon entering Egypt, had my passport stamped by the Greek police and Customs. I had officially left Greece and was waiting to board the Espresso Egitto (a passage by sea to Alexandria, via Crete, courtesy of Adriatica di Navigazione S.p.A., Venice, and their distinguished representative in Athens, Mr. Massimo Lanzetta).
“Carnet, please,” the official said just prior to boarding.
“Carnet?” I said.
I first became aware of a carnet (pronounced “kar-nay”) at the Customs office in Gatwick, England, where I was asked to pay about US$700 duty for Melawend in lieu of producing a carnet. Having reviewed the nature of my visit, two senior Customs officials smiled and readily granted exemption. A carnet is a vehicle passport, as it were, which financially guarantees you won’t sell the vehicle in the countries visited. (Melawend would be worth twice her Canadian price in some of them.) It was not required in any of the 18 countries visited since.
But this was for Egypt.
“No carnet?” the official said. “Impossible to enter Egypt.”
He moved on. Other passengers produced orange-covered booklets – carnets. One learns to despise the word “impossible”.
Waiting to board ship there were about three people for each of five Land Rovers, those tough, no-frills, four-wheel-drive land masters as synonymous with Africa as the lion. There were three other motorcyclists. An English couple had a big old BMW, painted like a zebra. A young, wiry German carpenter had the same model but with a dark blue gas tank, deckled with an eye. A husky, bearded Austrian had monsterized his big BMW, like something out of a Mad Max movie. It has heavily laden. It was Melawend, however, and her carnet-less rider, which drew attention. There was camaraderie, especially among the motorcyclists. Unfortunately, the expletives expressed in sympathy for your reporter’s predicament cannot be printed here. We parted, brothers and sister in wheels. After bewildering the Greek Customs officials, Melawend and I rolled back into Greece.
Dad took on the burden of securing a carnet from the auto club. Peace Bridge Brokerage re-routed the shipment of parts and supplies noted in the previous story, to their affiliate in Athens – Intercontor Hellas GMBH. Mr. Werner Herman, the amiable company president, handled the shipment free of charge and extended that generosity by shipping no longer needed items back home.
The delay allowed for minor modification of Melawend – sort of a mini Mad Max. Nah. There was time to make more preparations for Africa. And there was time to learn and experience more of Greece.
In ancient Monastiraki, the flea market area of Athens, sandwiched between two souvenir stores on a pedestrian street, in a deep, open-fronted shop lit by one bare light bulb, so stuffed with army surplus clothes in those dull, dark colors, that you felt you were in a musty basement closet full of yesteryear’s hand-me-downs, and, in getting around the full-figured proprietress, you had to become personal, smile and excuse yourself, I hunted for a safari shirt for Africa.
“Hello, meester,” she said as I came in.
“Hello,” I said. We exchanged pleasantries. Her English was limited.
“I’m looking for a shirt with four pockets,” I said, drawing the sign of Zorro across my sweater.
“Please, meester,” she said. She yanked a couple of dark green shirts from the shelves.
Too dark. Too heavy.
There was a stack of tan-colored causal army shirts (if there are such things) made of that tough cotton material that has a slight sheen to it. There were no spaces between the stacks of folded shirts, side to side or top to bottom. You held others back as you pulled one out, not always successfully.
“How much?” I said, holding it like a worthless rag.
“Seven hundred drachmas,” she said. (Approximately US$5.00)
“It has only two pockets. Do you have one with four?” I said, Zorro-style again.
From a knee-deep pile, she pulled out a faded green shirt, like the new ones before.
“Please, meester, five hundred drachmas.”
“No thank you,” I said.
“Please, meester, four hundred drachmas,” she said, doing her own imitation of Zorro on the four pockets, which were almost worn through.
I shook my head. I took off my sweater and tried on one of the tan-colored shirts. That’s when I blew it.
“Ah,” she said, inhaling. “Beautiful!” exhaling.
Shocked and flattered, I thought: Mr. Casablancas, do you need any male models?
“Six hundred drachmas,” I said.
I took it off. Even at that price, it was half as much as in other shops. I figured I could sew on two pockets.
“Six hundred…the buttons are missing from the pockets,” I said.
From a pile, she pulled out a worn shirt of similar quality and color. She yanked off four buttons and bagged them with the shirt I had tried on. I paid her price.
We smiled and waved, then I was away, shirt-ready for Africa.
It seemed all Greece was out shopping for Christmas. Business was more brisk for the street vendors selling roasted chestnuts from their braziers as it was for the sellers of fruit and the sellers of coconut sticks.
In the stores, children tugged at the coats of their parents and pointed, wide-eyed, to something they’d always wanted. Men scratched their heads in perfume, jewelry and lingerie departments. Generally, the older the man, the less he scratched. Women seemed to be having less trouble in the men’s departments.
In the grocery stores, carts were bumper to backside and crammed with holiday foods. Shelves of sweets emptied and were quickly re-stocked. There were cellophane wrapped baskets of cheese, preserves, peanuts and booze, or what-have-you, made to order. The number you drew at the meat counter made you feel you had entered a lottery. Checkout lines became a test of patience, bagged purchases became a test of strength. The fingers of cashiers never stopped.
Street musicians were more lively and numerous. Beggars smiled more. At rush hour – three o’clock – you could hardly spot them in the crowds.
Everywhere was the sound of Christmas music, soft and low in the background. There were the old familiars in English or Greek, and some new ones. On the bus returning to Glyfada, a girl hummed “What Child Is This?” Your reporter hummed along in that not-so-loud-as-to-be-heard way. For him to have sung it may have emptied the bus at the next stop, but then you’ll hear a Greek singing just about anywhere, in key or not.
Hemingway wrote: “You do not know what Christmas is until you lose it in some foreign land.” He was right. It finds you, or you look for it, but not too hard.
When the beautiful crowded chaos of Christmas in Greece gets to you and your thoughts drift homeward to Christmases past, or to the present missing of loved ones, you can find inspiration in the lonely majesty of Cape Sounion with its magnificent ruins of the Temple of Poseidon. You can find quietude in the National Gardens in Athens.
(As I write this, I make a special dedication to my daughters of Neil Diamond’s “Hello, Again.”)
In the National Gardens, you are befriended by some of the dozens of cats that inhabit the luxuriant refuge. Some gather around if you bring a lunch. One may jump up on your lap, tuck in its paws and close its eyes. You’ll see every cat you’ve ever had or known. I’ve seen Samantha, Buffy, Sylvester, and Kali…
No so with the dogs of Greece. Bess, Kula and Rags were unique of their breed. They are loving and loved, but only in memory as they have all passed on. Still, the stray dogs here are, for the most part, a likeable lot. There’s Old Yeller, a sleepy-eyed version of the dog of Walt Disney fame, who greets you upon your return to camp, then goes back to sleep. Hopalong is a white coarse-haired little dog with a gaping raw wound in his right rear leg to which he will not let you attend (but he is getting better). He’s the proud defender, well versed in the Laws of Dogs. For a time, he would register title of his domain on the walls of my tent, in the way of dogs and fire hydrants, updating this notice as required. I’m very relieved to report he is now secure in his title, despite its removal from the record. One can be grateful the horses and cattle on the farms in the UK, Scandinavia and Europe were not so instructed or inclined.
This place is home for Christmas. I call it The Point. It’s on a much smaller scale and the point is barren except for scrub plants, but it is similar in layout to Abino Bay and Point Abino where much of the dreaming, planning and training for Cycle For Life – World Odyssey took place.
There is no snow here, hasn’t been for three years. Last week, a middle-age couple was sunbathing in the nude in a not-so-secluded cove on the east side of The Point.
Tonight, this special night, it’s cool and overcast. Thoughts drift back to the awesome sights of nature; to the inspiring works of humankind; to the faces of the 252 people who have signed The Odyssey Signature Books; to those who are simply remembered for their kindness and friendship to a stranger; to the people who got Melawend and I underway and are still supporting us; and of course to Melanie and Wendy – to whom goes the personal side of the dedication of the Odyssey.
Such peaceful memories filled a day here and gave rise to a dream that night, a dreamer’s dream. Here it is in verse that I wrote. Remember, this is only a fantasy…
The Isle of No More
They rediscovered our world
How dare we think of war!
There wasn’t enough before?
The world is people, not just politics.
The world is nature, not made all of bricks.
We loaded the arsenals onto a thousand ships,
And dumped them into the ocean, regardless the trips.
Mounded a lifeless island to bury war,
And called it The Isle of No More.
One big bomb, saved for last,
Blew it all away, into the past.
Monumental memory, epitaph for war.
God bless the world,
and the Isle of No More.
All is pretty well packed and ready for Africa. Melawend and I are itchy to rolling up the Nile. A pause… Kali, in the gardens… maybe there’s room… Hopalong and Old Yeller… maybe a trailer? A lovely girl, only just met: eyes warm, expressive and mysterious – like live and autumn in Greece… a sidecar! There’s the answer! But, no. That’s the problem here.
Next story: into Africa.
CANADA ~~ ENGLAND ~~ WALES ~~ SCOTLAND ~~ NORWAY ~~ SWEDEN ~~ DENMARK ~~ THE NETHERLANDS ~~ BELGIUM ~~ LUXEMBOURG ~~ GERMANY ~~ LIECHTENSTEIN ~~ AUSTRIA ~~ SWITZERLAND ~~ FRANCE ~~ SPAIN ~~ MONACO ~~ ITALY ~~ THE VATICAN ~~ GREECE ~~ EGYPT ~~ SUDAN ~~ KENYA ~~ INDIA ~~ NEPAL ~~ SINGAPORE ~~ MALAYSIA ~~ JAPAN ~~ HAWAII ~~ USA ~~ RETURN