Ouzo and Octopus, a European Travelogue
by Ed Collins/August, 1993
At a hundred feet below ground, in the London Tube. Across from us, seated side by side, as if in a group, 6 Londoners couldn’t be more different: A black guy in dreadlocks, dressed all in leather, with ankle-high work boots; two plump East European ladies in simple cotton dresses, each wearing socks and wrinkled sweaters, both clutching worn shopping bags; a pretty teenage girl with frizzy black hair that stands out from her head in all directions, plugged into a walkman, sporting a look that dares anywone to approach; a pale, gaunt, young blue-collar worker, returning from from his job at the plant, dressed in short sleeve plain white shirt, staring blankly out the window; a neerdish-lookng middle-aged guy wearing black horn-rimmed glasses, a cheap dark-blue suit, black wing tips, frayed white shirt and a wide tie, reading the London Oberver, whose headline is “Accused Murder Nabbed at Dawn.”
Today begins our journey to Greece. After checking out of our hotel, we take the 15-minute subway trip to the Victoria train station, where we purchase tickets for the 11:30 a.m. train to Dover, the coastal town from which we catch the ferry to Calais, France, then the train to Paris.
As we board the train, an official tells Judy it’s easier, faster and cheaper to take the 12:30 p.m. Direct to Paris. The guy takes us to the international ticket office, walks Judy to the window, inquires about about availability, then, while Judy purchases the tickets, says, “I enjoy helping my American cousins.” The tall 60ish man says that he’s been to California but not south of Los Angeles, plus Arizona, Palm Springs, Las Vegas, Maryland and D.C. I ask if he’d been to Arizona’s Monument Valley. “No, just Phoenix and near Flagstaff,” he says.
“You mean Sedona?” I ask. “Yeah, where Jane Russell lived,” he adds. I give him a puzzled look. “Oh I probably know more about America than you, and vice versa,” he says. “Never been to the Tower of London, you know.” He must’ve been a teenager when Jane Russell was in her Hollywood heyday.
Backpack-laden, we walk down long underground hallways, following signs to Victoria Platform. From a distance we can hear strains of the Everly Brothers’ Wake Up, Little Suzie. Turing a corner, we come across the source. The music and acoustics are great, but we pause only for a moment.
We take the train to Folkesone, the Seacat ferry to Bologne, and the train to Paris. On the Seacat, a big flat futuristic barge, built on huge pillows that look like an air mattress, we cross the English Channel. On the boat I think about Florence Chadwick, greased down and wearing those first-generation swimming goggles.
Across from us are seated a woman and young girl. We introduce ourselves to Mary and her 8-year-old daughter Leona, who is on her first trip to France. They live 150 miles north of London, in a town called Portsmith. As with most Brits I’ve met, Leona is articulate and her speech already has the pleasant-to-the-ear singsong pattern to it.
When we make our transfer to the train to Paris, Leona comes back to our seats. In her hands she holds a 6-inch bald-headded teddy bear. “His name is Teddy and he’s two days younger than I am.” I ask if there are more teddys at home. “Lots of teddys,” Leona sings. “My favorite is Augie. He’s a dog. I left him in my room, with cookies and the makings for coffee, in case he gets bored.”
From our Frommer’s Budget Guide to Europe we select a hotel in the Sorbonne, near the Seine, Notre Dame, and the streetside café district. The Hotel Facultie is located on Rue Racine, a block off St-Michel. Only two can fit in the elevator. With two backpacks you have to squeeze in. “Feel like I’m standing up in a coffin,” says Judy.
A side street leads us to a residential area where we can get a feel for how the locals live. For the most part, they live in silence. With no cars there’s not much noise. As we walk on a Satuday afternoon, we can hear kitchens in use, as lunch is being prepared. Saturday afternoon family meal must be a tradition.
Judy remarks that because the family laundry hangs in public it must be essential that no expense is spared on sheets and underware. Sure enough, the next sheet we see hanging overhead are embroidered with cutwork (Judy’s word).
On the train to Bologna, we share a compartment with a 31-year-old dance teacher from Rio de Janeiro, who is meeting her Dutch boyfriend in Milano, then going on to Venice. As we pass through the Swiss Alps, Denisse wants her picture taken with the snow-capped mountains in the background. “I’ve never seen snow,” she says.
Arriving in Florence, I decide, against Judy’s judgment, to walk to the hotel. It’s in a16th-century building, and I thought it’d be a fun challenge to find it on foot. After wandering around for close to an hour, we find the street but not the hotel. With Judy perturbed and both of us in a full sweat, I approach an old lady, and afer showing her the address, I understood her to say that the hotel’s owner had recently died and the hotel was closed.
Just down the street we come across the Pensione Alexandra. Beside the front door is a brass plate and four call buttons. I push the one adjacent to the Pensione Alesandra, and am buzzed in. While Judy waits on the street, I walk up 3 flights of stairs and find no sign and no people, so I walk back down. After a minute’s deliberation with an increasingly impatient Judy, I try the buzzer again. Back up the stairs I go, this time to the fourth floor. Bingo. In the reception room I call a couple of times before an old man finally greets me.
It was while Judy was washing her face in the living room sink that she claimed to feel a presence of someone, and the gentle pushing at her hip. She first remarked that she felt the room move, asking if I felt it to. “No,” I said. The second time, a few seconds later, she stepped back from the sink and said, “Something pushed me.”
A moment later she said, “Geez, that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.” Sure enough, there were goose pimples up and down her arms. “Guess someone wasn’t finished with the sink,” she said.
As we walk back to our pensione after dinner, on dimly-lit, narrow, cobblestone streets, I ponder how many people have walked these streets.
Men and women strut around like peacocks. The men seem only a little less self-conscious than the women who seem aware of their every move. Dresses are short, tight and give the impression that they’re uncomfortable. Even many of the older women, whose bodies are aging with them, dress provacatively. It’s a competition––they’re competing with women in their own age group.
Judy believes that Italian men like to pick out the clothes for their women. “They’re their showpiece,” she says. “They’re exhibiting their goods.”
“Watch me,” she says with her body, posture and the way she holds her head with that unpleasant pouty expression. They could not be as cynical as they look.
Boarding the train to Bologna, we’ll catch another train to Brandisi, then the ferry to Patras, then another train to Athens. This’ll take 36 hours.
For three hours the train negotiates the eastern coast of Italy. Nearly the entire way the train hugs the coastline, passing one resort town after another. Hundreds of beach umbrellas, no waves, most bathers standing in wasit-high water, talking, staring at each other. As we speed past the vacationers, Judy says, “Do you realize that less than one hundred miles away, people are dying daily in a civil war?”
Through the porthole of our $75 cabin, we are almost eye-level with the wake created by the ferry. The incessant rumbling of the engine makes for a relaxing night’s sleep. Sometime just after daybreak a bell rings, which is followed by a message announcing the ferry’s arrival in Corfu.
With the sun on my back, the Adriatic Sea at my feet, the coast of Greece on a stage in front of me, and Lyle Lovett gently crooning on my Walkman, the vacationers parade by on the deck of the HML: Dark-haired Italian women in skin-tight shorts. Stern-looking German widowers vacationing for the first time without their spouses. Four Swedes in their early 20s, on a budget, sharing bottled water, cheese, crackers and canned anchovies. A married Italian couple, both beyond 50, vacationing without their children for their first time.
A strong later-afternoon sun has passengers lined up on the shady side of the ferry. On patio chairs, with their feet up on the railing, they eat, drink, read, talk and peer out at the occasional passing cruise ship and sail boat. Hardly a sign of marine life.
At first thought, a sailing cruise in the Greek Isles sounded ideal, but now I’m not so sure. At 9:00 a.m., as we sit on the dock and sip our iced coffees, the group’s mood can defined in terms of anticipation and unbridaled excitement. Jokes and laughter follow being told our original boat is inoperable, we’ll be delayed setting off, and we’ll have to take a smaller boat. Nothing can dampen the spirits of this group. At this point there is absolutely no attitudinal problems of any kind—father, daughter, brother, sister, husbands, wives, family friend––all relationships are happily functioning. Beware, I think to myself. This trip has the earmarks of a social seagoing disaster, so to speak. The boat is 42 feet long and there are 7 people aboard––that’s only 6 feet per person. I’m curious if the Evans family has experienced living in such close quarters––without a television. Then there’s the sea travel and stomach thing. Judy, for one, gets motion sickness, just in a car on a windy road. And then there’s the inevitable problem of the Mediterranean sun and what it can do to one’s skin and spirits.
Before we leave the dock I overhear Kostas, our captain, talking to Dr. Ed about the boat. I assume he’s going to need assistance, and this, I understand will be everyone’s first sailing experience. I, for one, hope to learn a lot. I walk over and prepare for my first lesson. Kostas, speaking deliberately and with an edge to his voice, begins.
“Never, never thow toilet paper in the toilet.” I think he may be joking but soon I can tell that he’s not.
“Never, ever, ever. The first time, no problem, then to fix it takes a lot of time. And very dirty work. Then the boat stinks for maybe one, two weeks. I repeat, never, ever put toilet paper in the toilet.”
This is going to be interesting.
Not more than ten minutes out of the harbor, Kostas calls a meeting in the back of the boat. Here comes my second lesson.
Our captain begins slowly. “The first thing you must learn is how to tie a bow knot,” he says in halting English.
In less than 20 minutes Kostas manages to frustrate all of the adults. Nobody can get the hang of it. I imagine what he must be thinking: I’m going to spend 7 days on this boat with these clueless American landlubbers.
At this moment, Andrew has already turned green, is in his bunk, sleeping, I hope. Ruth has her had down and is cradling it with both hands. Suzanne is complaining of a headache, and Judy and Dr. Ed haven’t given up trying to tie a bow knot. The motor is still propelling the boat, and, from my position from the bow of the boat, I can only hear Kostas’ voice: “No, no it’s upside down…No, no, no. You must go under…No, the other side…Yes, yes… No , no, not over, under. Now pull it. Not this end, the other end. Now parallel…Yes, yes, no, no, over…First you make a 6, then you go inside, then you go that way…No, no, no…First you make a 6…Ok, again…You go inside, not outside…OK, you make a six…
After an hour of motoring, the boat stops at a small island not more than a few miles off the mainland. We anchor 20 yards off shore and everyone takes a plunge in the perfectly cool and refreshing water.
This is just the ticket.
On the first morning, just after the sun rises, before he has said a word, Kostas points his finger up, shakes his hand, and without looking directly at me, in a groggy and fitful state, searches for the words in English: “You, you, you didn’t put the cushion away last night.”
A place for everything and everthing in its place. I knew that, but in the middle of the night I was awakened by a strong wind, so I left my sleeping possiton on the deck and stumbled into the cabin to find my bunk. All in all, a good night’s sleep.
Poros is only a few hours sail from Athens, yet seems like light years away from Athens in terms of mood and feel. As we approach the docks the street lights of the island are suddenly illuminated, dotting the hills with specs of whiteness. I go into the cabin to get my camera, in slim hopes of capturing the scene.
Last night was another hot one. Everyone in the cabin suffered, but on deck it was near perfect. There were no mosquitos and I spent most of the evening uncovered.
Morning, day three: We have our first casualty. Returning from my walk around town, I learn that Andrew is still in bed. His mom blames the meatballs, I think it’s the sun.
It’s perfect here. It’s simple and quiet. A fishing village, probably has been for hundreds of years. There are only a half dozen other boats in the barbor, only a couple of hotels in town. A long mostly empty pebble beach circles this part of the island. After laying in the water for an hour or so, I invite the Evans for a pre-dinner drink, but only if I can pick the spot. There’s not much to pick from but I manage to find a bayfront bar, where we can watch the fishermen tie their nets and kids at play.
Kostas is intolerant of whatever he connsiders bad boat behavior. He’s quick to correct, always without tact or sensitivity. When Dr. Ed excused himself from dinner at a cafe, returning to the boat, Kostas asked why he was back early, then reprimanded him.
With glass in hand, and holding onto ropes with the other, Ruth gingerly walks to the bow of the boat, where Andrew is huddled over a book. “Andrew, I didn’t prepare this correctly, but here’s your iced coffee. Next time I’ll get it right.”
“Thanks, mom, said Andrew, who may be the most pampered Amaerican teenager who’s ever been on the Aegean Sea.
“Ruth, I’m having a hard time handling this,” I say, not even half jokingly.
“Would you like a sandwich, Andrew?” Ruth asks.
“A small one, light on the mustard, double up on the ham.” Andrew responds, also half jokingly.
Kostas is not a conversationlist but a debater. Every point you try to make is countered. There’s no such thing as a friendly chat with him. Even when he’s in agreement with you, he makes it sound like you’ve made a stupid comment.
While laying on a pebble beach next to the sea, I watch a moving scene unfold a few yards away. A middle-aged woman slowly walks her frail and elderly mother to a spot ten yards from the water’s edge. The mother grimaces as she balances herself with a cane while the daughter supports one arm. Even with help, it looks precarious, each careful step individually taken, in slow motion.
After putting their towels, bags and cane down on the beach, the daughter takes her mother’s arm in both hands and continues the short walk to the water. When they’re ankle deep, they stop and stare at the glassy dark blue water. Then, step by step they they descend, until the lady is finally submerged up to her neck. It’s then that I see her face, shoulders and body go flaccid. The fear gone, she’s young again. With the sea’s help, she’s agile, supple, buoyant.
After a brief swim, the daughter walks out of the water, lays down on her towel, leaving her mother alone in the water.
I want to believe that however burdened the daughter is with her own family and life, she brings her mother to the sea every morning.
Kostas at his lecturn, with Dr. Ed and Ruth at his feet: “You Americans are like nomads, he bellows. “I believe you don’t have roots. That’s the problem. How can Americans leave their families?” he asks, but doesn’t wait for an answer. “Few Greeks live more than 50 kilometers from his parents and family. I don’t understand how you Americans can leave your families. If you’re a public servant, and you move, because…”
Floating under a cloudless skies with an unperceptible wind, not enough to dry the sweat on your neck. The constant drone of the engine is broken only by the incessant chatter of Kostas. I would like to ponder the coastline, to daydream about sailing, and this ancient land, but the air waves are controlled by our captain. He seems to be saying, “This is my boat, you are my passengers, you are in my country, now listen to what I have to say.”
After a swim we begin a walking tour of the hillside streets and houses. Our first ascent leads to a dead end. So does the second. There are no street signs posted, so one is left to guess. I ask an elderly couple if the path leads up and around the harbor. After a short discussion, the man, speaking English, says it does.
While the man speaks with the woman, each pointing in opposite directions and talking fast, a cat fight breaks out on a cliff next to us. One cat has cornered another into an indefensible and precarious position; one more step backwards and the cornered cat will plunge 20 feet to the stone walkway below. Everyone––the man, the woman, two kids who were playing in the street, Judy and I––stop and stare. Both cats freeze as they take in the situation. The lady makes the first move. She steps forward, yelling “Shoosh” a couple of times. The aggressor gives her a cursory glance, then returns attention to his foe. A standoff. Everyone freezes for what feels like a long minute. Finally I pick up a pebble, take aim, then toss it at the attacker. He never sees it coming. When it lands at his feet, he jumps back, which gives his opponent time to dart away.
The man, woman and kids give me an appreciative look.
Amazing that we rarely encounter other tourists on these walks. Most everyone spends their time souvenir-shopping or sitting in cafes watching each other parade by.
The streets behind the harbor are cobbled, narrow and twisting. Whitewashed walls adorned with elegant doors and intricately-made door-knockers. Verandas perched on top of houses, ever-present patios overgrown with grape harbors, bunches hanging overhead. Family and friends relax, enjoying their late-afternoon tea and cooling breezes.
I’m awakened this morning with the presence of someone in my face. When my eyes crack open I am startled to see moving hands and a face almost touching me. Then I realize it’s a fisherman, pushing his small boat away from ours, as he leaves the dock.
It’s 8 a.m., cool and overcast as our bus winds its way out of Aegina up and down the narrow roads and into the hills. Seated next to me is a small boy on the lap of his grandmother. He’s watching me write this. We’re headed for the temple of Aphata, which is perched on a hill overlooking the Aegean sea and the town. The original building was constructed in 490 B.C.
Roosters crow intermittantly. Pigeons coo from the blocks that balance atop the huge columns.
It’s rare that you can contemplate a ruin site without listening to people.
When the sun breaks through, the serrated edges of the columns take life––the grey stone now appears yellow.
It’s comfortable here. Mostly cloudy skies and a gentle, warm breeze. The site is surrounded by trees. A Japanese tour group walks areound the temple, alternating looking at the temple, talking with one another, taking pictures.
I’m alone again, almost––a man stands 15 feet away, hands on hips, motionless. Is there a spirit here, that reveals itself to you only in moments of complete silence?
The nymph Aphala was worshipped on this island since the 2nd millenium. She was thought to be the daughter of Zeus.
At a harborside breakfast of toast, butter, jam and coffee we watch the locals and tourists parade by. You can distinguish the two groups by their gate. The locals walk with a purpose. To our right sit two retired Greek couples enjoying their morning ritual. The women drink expressos out of tiny coffee cups, the men share a bottle of ouzo. In the center of the table is a platter of fried octopus. With toothpicks they stab the fried tenaclesm popping them into their mouth. Ouzo and octopus. 11:00 a.m.
Headed back to Athens, Kostas stands on the stern of the boat, holding on to the jib sail as he stares off into the distance. He seems content to be away from family and friends. But watching him stand there makes me think that, after a week with us, he’s ready for home. I wonder how many relationships he’s tarnished with his loose tongue and contradictory nature. This job is his salvation, a respite. It’s the only place he feels in total control.
I once viewed a time-release film of a man sleeping throughout the night. Photos were taken every 5 minutes. The film revealed how many times he changed positions. Thinking about this now. There are 7 people aboard, and everyone is, more or lelss, in constant motion.
Ferries, cruise ships and pleasure boats dot the horizon just outside of Athens. To the north the sea is dark blue and somber. Pale blue skies with white puffy clouds make a picturesque panorama. To the south the sea is bright as light creates sparkling diamond shapes that reflect off the sea. To the east is Athens and its clustered concrete buildings with a backdrop of barren hillside that are clouded by a brown screen of smog.
We arrive at the Acropolis a few minutes before 9 and by 10 you can’t walk 3 steops without stepping between someone’s camera and their subject. I’m in a constant state of amusement watching people pose in front of the ruins, some wearing a “Don’t look at me” look, others a “Look at me” look. No matter what the nationality, the camera makes people self conscious. Me, and everyone else I see, cannot ignore the private act of strangers taking an “I was there” snapshot.
You’d think the awesomeness of the structure would overwhelm the people in its presence, but it didn’t.
Walk 10 minutes to the McDonalds, take a 45-minute bus ride to the airport, wait 4 hours for the 3-and-a-half-hour flight to London,take the 45-minute train to Victoria station, catch the District line subway to Earl’s Court station, walk 5 minutes to the Aaron House B&B, go to bed.
We’re sitting in the Athens airport waiting for our flight to London. We arrived 2 and ½ hours early and the flight has been delayed another hour. While I read, Judy nudges me to say that a man and woman left a suitcase next to us, then walked away. A couple minutes later Judy leaves to inform a security guard. I continue to read. When she returns I ask what they looked like. “Swarthy, tall, dark-haired guy with loafers and no socks,” she says. “The woman wore skin-tight Levis, a worn brown leather belt, a white croptop with little cups hooked to 3 strings. The cups were twice the size of her breasts; her breasts were floating in there.”
Amazing. She must have studied these two pretty closely.
While Judy sits on a chair, I sit on the floor about 15 feet away. “Ed!” she calls out, loud enough to startle me. I look up and she points at the lady walking toward us. She fits the description.
Above us is the departure board. Destinations: Vienna, Copenhagen, London, Zurich, Madrid, Kuwait, Moscow, Karachi, Rome, Istanbul, Johannesburg. Except for London, I’ve never been to any of those places.
When we’re buzzed into this 10 room former house, recommended in our tour book, it is so quiet. Feels like we are the only guests. First thing I notice when entering our room are the 12-foot high ceilings.
Judy: “What they call a bedsitter, we call a studio. It has a lovely little mantle with cupids and classic greek urns in relief in the tile. One of the cupids is playing the flute, the other the lire. On each side there’s a coat of arms, one for the army and the other the navy. We have half of a fabulous parquet floor. It probably has a fireplace on each end. I’ts probably a parlor where they played shist, an English card game.”
More Judy: “On the balcony overlooking an interesting looking spire on the other side of the square, are lovely clay pots filled with ivy geraniums and petunias, a little box hedge and a begonia off to the side. Two floor-to-ceiling windows with draperies with formal tie-backs and undersheers. Most delightful of all, an English electric tea kettle. A french style armoire sits in one corner of the room and in the other a writing desk. Eiter down comforters on each bed. Recoco ceiling molding is so fancy.”