Things That Shouldn’t Work, But Do- Greek Holiday Part One

Greece has always struck me as one of those things that should not work- but do. Alright, I hear your complaints here, for the sake of all that is holy, they are teetering on the edge of collapse every fortnight. Which is of course true, but there is truth beyond that as well- in spite of the economical crisis everyday life has to go on, and it does, in its own, unique Hellenic way. 

Take Crete airport as a first example. It’s tiny, pretty dirty, and soul crushingly hideous- not just plain ugly, like many modern functional buildings can be, no, it’s horrendous, a dingy concoction of concrete and plastic that would probably have the ancient Minoans weep themselves into oblivion if they laid eyes on it. If some ancient volcanic eruption hadn’t pretty much wiped their civilization off the map, one look at Nikos Kazantzakis airport would probably do the trick instead. Being ugly is of course one thing, but the whole undertaking looks mindbogglingly unpromising when it comes to the business of sorting passengers and luggage, performing security checks, and handling the rather precise and complex kerfuffle of air travel in general. The approach itself is one of those hair raising projects Mediterraneans love to come up with for the entertainment of befuddled continental pilots- you hover over land, then some rocky bits, sea again, sea getting ever closer, oh Lord we will soon touch it with our wheels, but no, here comes a measly strip of concrete with more holes in it than a Romanian county road and there, we landed. In some pretty spectacular cross wind, mind you, which seems to be the norm in these parts of the world. 

Once landed though, the ahem, well oiled Greek machine wakes up from its morning siesta (yes, trust me, they have it, morning siesta, lunch siesta, afternoon siesta, evening siesta, and night siesta, which we silly continental Europeans call sleep) and snaps into spectacular action. We are quickly ushered into buses, delivered into the stomach of the concrete beast, our luggage promptly pops up on the conveyor belt and off we can go into the sublime heat of the Cretan morning. Since I am a bit of an air travel fiend, I must make a parenthesis here to mention our carrier, the charter specialists Travel Service, whose pilot did a grand job of the rather tricky landing and whose on-board food was far better than most I’ve had this year, and that includes some pretty big names in the flying business. So there goes our seal of approval for Travel Service and back we are to Nikos Kazantzakis the airport, not the writer. 

Departure from it promised to be a more complicated affair, as large numbers of aimless people seemed to be rambling around the hall with no precise idea of who they are, where they are, and most particularly why they are there. But this is something Greeks are utterly familiar with, it seems, because we soon found ourselves rather uneventfully at our departure gate. That is, most people did, minus the three to five idiots on each flight who usually got lost in the labyrinthine pleasures of the duty free shop and failed to show up on time. This did not faze the airport personnel either, as they patiently gathered these utterly lost souls- I must express my particular admiration for the young lady who valiantly spelled out the most phonetically diverse names possible over the loud speakers. 

To give some measure of these accomplishments, once landed on the airport I will forever call Ferihegy, we were greeted by the surreal sight of a plane load of Lufthansa luggage being piled up in front of the lost and found desk, with two sad faced girls rather hopelessly sorting through them. Now, I do not know who is to blame for the mishap (it’s pretty scary to think it was the Germans, actually), but it sure looked like a fine cock up, which is particularly unsettling given the measly amount of flights the airport formerly known as Ferihegy has to deal with since the untimely and sad demise of the Hungarian national carrier. As a completely useless but exciting snippet of information, one of Malev’s last incidents took place on Nikos Kazantzakis out of all places, with the plane’s tail hitting the asphalt during landing.

The longish airport story is of course partially fulled by my already mentioned air travel fiendness, but I do believe it is quite symptomatic overall for the Greek way- it’s all a grand mess that should not sort itself out, but eventually does. Take traffic as another example- if you want to be thoroughly entertained, google travel blogs in pretty much any language, and sooner or later you will find long, expletive ridden descriptions of Greek driving. Well, to be frank, driving is probably a euphemism for the kind of complex, absolutely irrational and borderline life threatening undertaking happening on Greek roads. Traffic rules and indicators are blatantly disregarded, any vehicle or pedestrian can make the most unexpected move at the most unexpected time, and some coastal roads seem to have been planned explicitly as news fodder for being yet another highway to hell. Yet in spite of this, naturally, there is a very low number of implements actually shooting out into the great wide open, which is further proof that in it’s inexplicable way, the Greek system is surprisingly functional. I was frozen stiff with horror when in the centre of Heraklion (or Iraklio, since transliteration to the Latin is yet another approximative and not fully regulated project) a woman confidently pushed a pram into the middle of intense afternoon traffic and peacefully progressed from one lane to another with the calmest and most serene look on her face. Needless to say, she made it to the other side completely unharmed- it’s probably one of those skills that is exclusive to the locals, and any foreigner who might attempt it will most probably become the next moron on a long list of people repatriated by their consulate with broken limbs and shattered confidence. 

In case driving in these conditions is not your cup of Greek coffee, here comes the great news that buses are actually mostly on time. Not that anyone knows their precise schedule, but once you get used to a particular line you will realize how certain points are reached regularly at pretty much the same times. I do however have the nagging suspicion that locals do indeed know the schedule, but simply find it the kind of esoteric information that non Greeks will be unable to fully comprehend and process- as a general rule, Greek instructions are always leafier than English ones, which is either because Greek fonts are Greekly comfortable and like to take up more space, or we’re just not being told some stuff. Like when, finally making some sense of the insanity of Heraklion’s centre, we made it to the long distance bus station and asked for a ticket to Rethymno, we were given one and then explained that we will need to undertake a complicated transfer procedure to another bus at some random point in the city, which will be forcefully yelled at us by one of the always seemingly irritated drivers. This seemed fair enough until the evening, when our bus arrived back at a completely different station and we discovered that the city has two main ones, aptly named A and B, situated within walking distance of each other. Given the fact that we were amply on time in the morning, my natural reaction would have been to send anyone in my situation to the other station to catch a direct connection instead of the whole transfer business. But then again, I’m not Greek. 

Now this might seem as (not so) veiled criticism of the Greek way, and that might sound silly from someone coming from a Balkan land of admittedly similar disposition, but I must insist it isn’t. I am sincerely amazed and entertained during any Greek stay by how they go about things. During the detailed and exhausting press coverage of the latest Greek near bankruptcy, I saw a graffiti which read ‘Europe without Greece is like a party without drugs’ and I cannot agree more. Just who the hell actually wants a bus arriving with Teutonic precision during their holiday? Being on time to the beach ruins the whole fun. It IS probably a tad infuriating when the same treatment is applied to some sophisticated monetary agreement, but luckily I am not the head of the IMF to bother with such petty details.

That’s probably enough deep analysis for one day, so here come the pictures, mostly of the adventurously approached Rethymno- spelled as Rethimno as well, because why not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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