Greece 2012: arrival

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Letter from Greece, touchdown edition

An uneventful flight. The interesting events in our two-legged flight from Vancouver to Athens were seat selection and AV problems.

We selected our seats relatively late, and as a result should have been even more screwed than we were. The YVR-YUL leg was on an A320, and we ended up with Rebecca on the aisle, and me one row behind in the middle (3-3 seating configuration). I asked the gentleman in my row's aisle seat if he would mind swapping with Rebecca, so we could sit together. He demurred, as the woman in the window seat in my row was his wife.

Yep, I was the unwelcome meat in a spousal sandwich. There's two rational reasons for a booking choice like this couple's: you hate your spouse, or you are trying to sneakily book your own private row of seats, aka ghetto first class. The down side is what happened, on a heavily booked flight where they got me in the middle.

Which was fine. This is some very borderline Seinfeldian system-gaming, at worst. They were perfectly quiet, and Rebecca and I got an accidental revenge when she tossed a snack to me and I deflected into my seat-mate's crotch. D'oh.

But on the long YUL-ATH leg, we lucked into ghetto first class: we had two of the middle three seats (767, 2-3-2 configuration), and to my right was my favourite kind of adjacent passenger, which is to say no passenger at all. Air Canada's revenue loss was our gain, and Rebecca was able to sleep stretched out across three seats for much of the flight.

We were also part of a block of seats in the middle of the airplane that had no audio for the in-flight movies and no working reading lights, either. iPad and Nintendo DSi to the rescue: we were not bored, and I got in a good nap, too.

Our connection in Montreal was uneventful (the Tim Horton's in the Montreal airport is as pure a bilingual workplace as I have ever seen, the behind-counter chatter being evenly distributed between English and French, sometimes even between the same co-workers). The flights were uneventful, too. Air Canada gets a lot of stick, and they charge for food on domestic flights, but the planes worked, the seat pitch was wastefully generous for Rebecca and I, wine is free on international flights, and they would have flown a bicycle to Athens for $50 had I been inclined to take advantage of it (and the biggest reason I didn't take advantage of it is because getting the bike from Athens to Syros would have been more hassle than getting the bike from Vancouver to Athens).

Rebecca's cousin Argiris picked us up at the airport, and we're now resting up at her aunt and uncle's place in Athens. We sail for Syros in the morning. We will in theory have been about 30 hours between bed-sleeps before this long travel day ends, but in practice Rebecca is sleeping now (early afternoon, local time), while a judicious combination of in-flight sleep, caffeine, and drugs is keeping me perky, for now.

Letter from Greece, on our way to Syros, Tuesday, 18 September 2012, 0955 Greek time (2355 Vancouver time), somewhere in the Mediterranean
We had a very early taxi ride to Piraeus, the port of Athens, to sail on the Blue Star Naxos to Syros (and here's a peril of naming your boats after ports of call: the Blue Star Paros was going to Naxos, while the Blue Star Naxos was going to Paros. Both were in port, side by side). an 0730 departure time had us leaving right at dawn. I hope the photos turn out nicely.

Greece is an easy habit for us now: arrive in Athens, spend a day or two with the Apostopolous family (John and Helen, Rebecca's relatives, a bit older than her parents, and our patient and generous hosts for many transits through Athens), and sail for Syros, a 4 hour trip on a Blue Star ferry. Even our stroll down to the shore in Athens, an easy walk from John and Helen's flat, took us to the same place, for the same walk to see the marina, and then along the length of the swimming beach, before we walked home, the same route we have done on previous trips.

You always see different things, though. One of the several men fishing off the marina's breakwater landed a decent-sized fish while we watched. John and Helen's yard is now occupied by five cats, a change from the turtle who was in residence last year.

When we got to the port, we hit up the vendor of sesame seed-covered bread rings for a sort of breakfast, as we always do. The rings were a tad stale; the giant sugar donut we bought as a chaser was much better.

The natural question in Greece, circa 2012, is "how is Greece doing?" Even the Greeks want to know. Greeks are a culture that is delightfully casual about questions like salaries and whether you have gained or lost weight, but there was a studiousness to the discussion I had with Helen about comparative salaries in Canada and Greece.

And how is Greece doing? It could be worse. Note that it has been a relevant question for at least 5 years. The seeds of what has been called The Crisis were manifest even then, but more acutely each year for the last three. It is glib, shallow, and wrong to judge an economy by the trip from the airport to your evening accommodation, no matter how familiar you are with the sights.

Let me be cynical for a moment and say "Greece is doing fine." Greece is, compared to the Greece of five years ago, absolutely not doing fine. Unemployment is higher, salary cuts among the still-employed have been substantial, and there isn't much optimism. My wife's cousin, a smart and hard-working businessman, is seriously considering transplanting his family to where his business opportunities are: Nigeria.

But his business aside, Greece is not Nigeria. I enjoy jokes (to TLO's annoyance) about Greece's status as a first-world Eurozone country, but it remains such: the concerns in Greece are mostly NOT existential: few people are poor enough that food is a concern. The medical care is at least adequate, and life expectancy is well in line with other non-Scandinavian countries in Europe. The city streets have as many cars as ever, and if it's the usual European mix of very small cars and very small engines, it was always that way (and with gas at €1.70, you get why). I don't have crime stats on hand, but my relatives are not very paranoid about crime or security, and no more so than in years past.

That said, here we are, TLO and I, traveling to Greece, while our Greek friends and relatives are decidedly not traveling to Canada, or many other places. In the past, many of them were active travelers.

For the tourist, Greece could not be finer right now. Most visitors from outside the Eurozone will find everything is 10% off last year's already low Euro prices. It's still a great place to visit, the food is still fantastic, the restaurants have not closed down (and knowing Greek culture, they'll be the last thing to close). and the weather and beaches remain in excellent working order.

As I'm sure I related last year, fall and spring are the nice times to see Greece. The greenery is actually green, the sea is still lovely to swim in, and the temperatures back off from the oppressive low-40s of the summer to the low 30s. Year round, the Greek islands we visit are about 10C warmer than Vancouver. You risk a certain amount of rain in the equinox seasons (and when it rains, it POURS), but it is my favourite season.

I type this while sitting outside on the ferry to Syros. The sun is shining, the Mediterranean is as ridiculously blue as ever. We're here for nearly a month, and I am happy.

Letter from Greece: Day 3, Syros
Thursday, September 20, 1830h

After settling into the house yesterday, shopping, and having dinner with Rebecca's aunt and uncle (Antouaneta and Dmitri), we spent today hiking and swimming.

Lia (Λια) beach is a quiet spot that has no road access. You get there on foot or by boat. The hike is not trivial: the trail is rough and poorly marked. But by now, we are used to the tricks of the route (and for most of the walk, you can see both your origin and destination). The trailhead is about 200m down the road from the house, and the hike is posted as 30 minutes, optimistic for anyone who isn't a fit and committed hiker.

TLO's yoga paid off this year: she had the easiest time hiking down and back of any trip. We swam and did yoga on the beach, and ate pistachios.

For some reason, the beach was especially busy this day, with a couple of guys camping on the beach, having motored in by boat, and then a pair of serious-looking hikers (Tilley hats, poles, boots) came by. Word is getting out about Lia beach, so please don't tell anybody about it, okay?

I took my bicycle wheel in to be repaired on Wednesday, and had an amusing translation problem: the proprietor spoke virtually no English (even less than I speak Greek, quite rare here among shopkeepers), and TLO doesn't understand bike jargon. It took a few minutes to figure out that he was warning me he had to re-true the whole wheel to fix the missing spoke, but I'll have the wheel back on Friday.