A Greek Tragicomedy

crispydoc Uncategorized 16 Comments

23 years ago, I took my first international trip as a backpacker through Europe. It was my baguettes, bananas and drinkable yogurt tour, since these were the foods I could afford as I made my way through some pricey countries over a couple of months.

One of the highlights was Greece – I spent a couple of nights in Athens, then made my way south by bus to Nafplio, a charming coastal city that was the country’s first capital.

I loved the old man who ran the youth hostel, and who served as a human alarm clock to empty the bunks each morning with the few fragments of “Que Sera, Sera,” he knew how to play on the accordion.

I relished the multi-generational evening promenade through the old town square, where grandparents held toddlers, young couples strolled with an air of invincibility, and thirteen-year-old boys with carefully combed hair sat across from their female counterparts, who laughed confidently as they experimentally shared flirting glances with the boys.

I dreamt of someday returning to Nafplio, and to the Pelopponese mainland south of it. When I met my wife, she shared her dream of visiting Greece someday, and I knew I wanted to be the guy to introduce her to it.

Greece came into focus as we solidified our ambitious summer plans this spring – for the first time since our honeymoon, I arranged three consecutive weeks off with my group. Subtracting travel time, we decided to concentrate on three locations: Athens, Nafplio and the Ionian island of Kythira.

Why Kythira? That’s the spot on the map where the dart landed.

To explain: As I assembled an experimental itinerary, I considered traveling south of Nafplio along the Mani peninsula, and at its southernmost tip lay this island that I thought might make a nice ferry trip.

In the end, the bus connections were few and notoriously unreliable, and the commuting hours were long to reach the isolated places I’d hoped to visit, but Kythira turned out to be a short direct flight from Athens.

I read about Kythira online, and it looked like the timing would be perfect. The summer high season tended to be primarily Greeks from the island returning from the Western diaspora (New York and Australia primarily) to spend a month tasting home, combined with a few adventurous honeymooners.

The flight was booked via Orbitz, and was a bit nerve-wracking – there was no way to arrange online check-in via the pimple-sized airline that made the flight. Their website said to bring your printed receipt and show up in time to check-in at the counter to pick up your tickets.

Trying to hide the sickening feeling that I’d made an irresponsible mistake and screwed up our vacation, I put on my game face as a taxi driver resembling Kenny G’s long lost twin delivered us to Athens contemporary new airport. I could not have been more pleasantly surprised.

The counter for Sky Express had as many staff as it did passengers, and check-in was not only painless but pleasant. The staff were professional while keeping their sense of humor.

As part of the airline’s attempt to build it’s brand, we and the other 40 passengers were invited to a VIP lounge, where the family enjoyed a second breakfast as I sipped a cappuccino chased by an espresso (because free)!

We landed on the island an hour later at Aristotle Onassis airport, which for you youngsters is the name of the second husband of John F. Kennedy’s widow (Onassis is the “O” in “Jackie O”).

Turns out Kythira was a well-kept secret harbor for those with yachts and knowledge. You walk off the plane and onto the tarmac, where a few possibly related folks run the airport. They were courteous as could be.

Unfortunately, one of the 40 passengers on our flight (ours was the only plane landing that entire day) mistakenly took my wife’s checked bag. The plane was sufficiently small that her generic black roll-aboard, which would easily pass for carry-on in the US, did not fit in the tiny overhead compartment.

While I picked up the car rental, my wife acted out her private Greek tragedy by describing her circumstances to the agent. Our kids, a Greek chorus, divided down the middle – my son echoed the tragedy, my daughter the comedy.

After a 40 minute lamentation where we still had no luggage, I coaxed my fury into the passenger’s seat of a small but newish rental car, and we began the short drive to our airbnb rental villa.

On the drive, enjoying the breeze from open windows in 80 degree sunshine, my daughter commented on the multitude of insect life visible as we drove past fields of picturesque olive trees subdivided by crumbling stone walls.

Her statement was hubris tempting fate.

My wife immediately screamed as a wasp from nature’s abundance strayed in through the window and down the back of my wife’s shirt, where it stung her. As she reached back to swat it away, she was stung a second time on her fingertip.

Windows rolled up, with the air conditioning set on maximum, we cursed nature and her fiendish insect servants as we resumed our drive.

For under $60, we’d reserved a renovated 500-year-old Cycladic home in the tiny mountain village of Kastrionika.

We arrived to find stunning blue shutters set in whitewashed walls, hewn stone archways, and a courtyard of multiple impossibly arranged outdoor decks connected by stairs that I assume served to inspire M.C. Escher.

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There was even a preserved cistern in the middle of the entry way covered in thick glass.

Rainwater caught on the roof and decks was funneled via ingenious drainage systems to be stored indoors for cooking and bathing.

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Medieval streets were narrow, able to accommodate exactly one car and one pedestrian sucking in his gut.

Parking was 200 meters away, “near the trees by the church.”

Greek island villages, I soon discovered, typically consist of two families and three churches.

View below is from driver’s seat as I figure out how I’ll steer us through this tunnel with 6 inches of clearance on either side.

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Our hostess was generous, but her English and my Greek were equally under-developed.

My Greek vocabulary to date consists of “Thank you,” and “My children are driving me crazy.” I’m particularly proud of having mastered the latter.

Neither helped in trying to figure out the wifi code for the rental, which our host had never used, but my wife was counting on in order to conduct her consulting business remotely.

No luggage. Multiple wasp stings. No wifi. Kythira was turning out to be my wife’s personal foil, where Gilligan’s Island meets Dante’s Inferno.

Ultimately, our host recruited Stavros from around the block, the equivalent of the kid who helped my grandparents get the VCR working a generation ago, to discover that the wifi code was printed on the underside of the router. One problem solved.

At this point, the helpful airline employee called to inform us she still had no leads on the lost luggage and suggested we file a police report, adding fuel to the fire. My wife bemoaned the absurdity of having no bathing suit on an island. My son echoed my wife with a second grader’s variant of, “Oh, the humanity!”

My daughter and I conspired to be the optimists, suggesting a market run to get food and feed the hangry. As we stocked up on fresh bread, smoked eggplant and Kalamata olives (Kythira is ~50 miles as the crow flies from the mainland Greek town of Kalamata!) I got the call – the errant tourist had phoned in and the lost bag had been located. It was going to be returned to the airport within the hour.

We picked it up, ate a delectable and long overdue lunch, and took off for one of a dozen beaches. Having researched each of them in advance, I chose the one I thought offered the best chance of cheering up the Debbie Downers in the group.

We took sinuous hairpin roads slowly to descend from the central mountains into a dramatic coast, where blue domed churches and fortified castles (Kythira was a strategic stop for merchants in the Mediterranean, making it an ideal target for pirates, notably Barbarossa).

We drove through medieval villages composed of a single steep street, where the whitewash on the walls matched the white-knuckle grip my family used to hold on as they looked out the (still rolled up) car windows.

Our drive took us to a pebble and sand beach in a small harbor sparsely populated with fishing boats and yachts, all beneath the shadow of an enormous fortress. I took a swim with the kids in the surreal blues of the Aegean, while my wife read on the sand.

As we drove home, we stopped in one of many charming villages to order takeout souvlaki that smelled of roast heaven served on fresh pita.

Travel is not an entitlement to aggravation-free living.

It’s about learning to roll with the punches, not letting things beyond your control ruin your adventures, and learning to welcome the unscheduled detours as exciting itinerary additions.

These skills, and the perspective they contribute to dealing with chaos, are the gifts I hope my kids take away from our initial Greek Tragicomedy.

Comments 16

  1. Beautiful photos! I love those stairs.

    You’re good at taking things in stride. When it comes to travel logistics I’m not very comfortable with the unknown. Happy to hear your wife got her bathing suit back quickly.

    You may also need to describe Gilligan’s Island to some of your younger readers!

    I emailed you months ago with an open invitation to do a guest post on our site. Not sure you got it but the invitation stands.

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      Mrs. G,

      I see the email about your date with an Amway cologne salesman via Rockstar Forum, but did not receive (or check my spam folder for) a separate invitation to write a guest post. I’ll assume this was entirely due to my technical ineptitude (intechtitude? I know Mr. G likes neologisms).

      I’d be more than honored to contribute to the Groovy site – you had me at hello.

      I’ll get to work on it soon and reach out via email.

      Fondly, a guy who klutzes like Gilligan, fancies himself the Professor, and aspires to be a stealthier Thurston Howell, III,

      CD

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  2. So enjoyable. Imagine sitting in a spot occupied by humans for several millennia with buildings of similar age. Wifi? Kind of misses the point.

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      We had a lot of those impact moments. Walked a narrow cobblstoned alley in the Ottoman section of Nafplio where Greece’s first prime minister was assassinated in the 1830s on the way to church services by wealthy landholders fearful of land reform he’d campaigned on. Took in sunset on Mars Hill, where Paul first preached before heading to Corinth. Saw pottery shards inscribed with the names of history’s greats as they assumed their duty to serve in nascent Greek democracy.

      I think the wifi anxiety was mostly the fear she could not run the business from afar – a control freak’s withdrawal syndrome (I say this without judgment, as a fellow control freak with my own distinct withdrawal syndrome). Letting go was scary at first, then refreshing, then completely renewed her. She commented several times that, minor speed bumps notwithstanding, she couldn’t remember feeling as relaxed as she did on this trip.

      So the good news is the stress transitioned to a release that led to the ability to absorb the surroundings.

  3. Sorry the vacation didn’t turn out quite as planned, but honestly some of my best vacation memories were the ones that didn’t because my girlfriend and I now laugh hysterically whenever we recount our own little mini tragedies that happened.

    If everything went smoothly we would have had nice memories sure, but because we had to endure some curveballs (ex. I got hit with “Bali belly” real bad), we have some incredibly interesting tidbits that really solidify the adventure.

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      Xrayvsn,

      You, my friend, are the only person ever to successfully combine the words “Bali Belly” and “solidify” in the same sentence. Watch out for the street Nasi Goreng in Kuta, it’ll getcha.

      For the record, we had a wonderful vacation, just a rocky but memorable start. As the saying goes, comedy = tragedy + time.

  4. I love hearing about other people’s travel stories. And the imagery in your writing is wonderful. It makes me want to go back to Greece.

    I’ve only been to Greece once, and it was at Santorini for our honeymoon. Luckily there were no mishaps and everything was simply perfect. The country is so beautiful and one of these days I would love to visit the less-traveled, less-touristy places too. Maybe one day we will do something similar to what you did with kids.

    I will say, sometimes the mishaps make the trips all the more memorable. For example, while road tripping through France, my wife and I encountered a similar narrow alley way in Sarlat (Dordogne). It was night time, very dark, and we were trying to find our AirBnB apartment. For whatever reason, the navigation in our rental car took us to this alley. It was like the one you experienced in Greece, except for there was only maybe 4 inches on each side and kept getting narrower and narrower. While we were halfway through, I flashed the high beams and saw that the alley continues to get narrower. We thought “there’s no freakin’ way we are going to get through this thing”. So we decided to abort and back up. We backed up very slowly. But unfortunately, our passenger side rear view mirror clipped the edge of the alley and broke off. I’m not a terrible driver, it’s just extremely difficult to back out of a narrow alley at midnight! Needless to say, I was able to back out of the alley completely without further damage. We got out of the car, took out our cell phone flashlights, and picked up the piece that snapped off. I was freaking out inside, but was trying to maintain a calm, cool, collected exterior (you get use to that in anesthesia). My wife appeared calm too. I didn’t want to spend an arm and leg for the damages to our rental! Luckily, it was only the shell of the mirror that snapped off and a few broken pieces underneath. The mirror itself was not broken. We finally found our apartment and went to bed. The next morning we went to the local convenience store and bought some super glue. We glued the broken pieces together and snapped the shell (which appeared barely scratched) back on. It was perfect, like nothing ever happened. We continued with our road trip, had fun, and didn’t let this put a damper on it. When our road trip concluded at Nice, we dropped off the rental car at the airport. The guy checking us out gave a quick final inspection of the car, signed off, and gave us a thumbs up. PHEW, crisis averted as I wiped a bit of sweat on my forehead and gave a sigh of relief.

    Just like you mentioned, traveling can compel you to roll with the punches and deal with adversity in a creative manner. In this case, my wife and I had to use our resourcefulness and resiliency to deal with the potentially tragic chaos.

    Thanks again for the great read!

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      DMF,

      I’ve heard Santorini is just beautiful, and it sounds like an idyllic place for a honeymoon. I’d love to go someday.

      Only island I’d been to before Kythira was the free ferry layover in Corfu traveling from Greece to Brindisi, Italy on my post-college Eurail trip. It was spent at the notorious Pink Palace, and involved plates smashed onto heads, a hundred foot long bar, sleeping on a rooftop, and jumping from 40 foot rocks into the ocean. Those days are long gone.

      Love the mirror story! Backing out of a medieval tunnel at midnight takes cojones of steel – anesthesia must have been great preparation for that moment. Hercules had his 12 labors. You and your wife will always have the superglue car rental as a point of pride.

      Appreciate the kind words,

      CD

  5. Echoing what others have written in the comments, we also tell the stories of what went wrong when we travelled and lived overseas. Perhaps it’s because everyone has same great story of visiting the place; it’s the challenges met and overcome that make the trip uniquely yours. Or maybe it’s because we’re wired for hero stories.

    At any rate, looks like a brilliant trip. It’s been said that week three is when we truly achieve relaxation. Sounds like you all achieved that. Suspect a large contributor was your decision not to overstuff the vacation with too many destinations and sight-seeing trips. Sounds awesome and now we want to go!

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      JB,

      You’re right, there’s plenty of recall bias toward the aggravations. Your observations on overcoming challenges are borne out by experience – it’s what distinguishes our visit to the Parthenon from the other millions of visitors who go there each year, and let us personalize it.

      We settled on one agenda item per day when we began to travel with the kids, but it’s worked nicely for the adults not to be overly ambitious. This was our best family trip yet. There were also elements of risk – my wife is more of an urban vacation lover (NYC, Mexico City) and this trip favored rural villages and isolated areas. Even Athens has less to offer than most cosmopolitan centers of comparable population size. Luckily, she was able to appreciate those charms. Just need to learn to hack those airfares (perhaps I’ll hit up Dr. McFrugal for advice before he becomes a concierge travel agent) to save for the next big one.

      Look forward to hearing more about your travels and shared nuggets in the future!

      Thanks for stopping by,

      CD

  6. Hey CD,

    You write beautifully. Makes me almost want to travel…

    I have travelled with a small backpack for decades. The older I have gotten, the less I feel the need to bring on trips.

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      Dr. MB,

      Other than checking a bodyboard for a trip to Hawaii back in 2006, I’ve been a carry-on traveler. Even with small kids, we have yet to check bags. Hoping to maintain that habit to the grave.

      There was one point in orchestrating logistics where I thought, “Why do I bother?” We like where we live, there’s plenty to keep us occupied, and we have roots in the community. I think this was the usual activation energy needed to get things rolling. Once we’d arrived, the intensified living aspect of travel unfolded, and sharing the experience with the kids (as distinct from the solo or couples travel I’m familiar with) added a new dimension. Despite high costs (even when done frugally as we attempted to do), the rewards can be commensurate. As age will likely diminish my drive to travel, I’m trying to front-load these family experiences now.

      Thanks for the incredibly kind words,

      CD

  7. Some of the fondest and most indelible travel memories are made from gaffes and mishaps, not from viewing the Mona Lisa .

    Did the missing luggage ever turn up? Don’t tell my wife, but I secretly wish she would lose a suitcase now and again, to thin the wardrobe and to teach her to get by with less stuff (and to preserve my back!).

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      Could not agree more – the kids whining on the climb up the Acropolis in 90 degree weather was offset by the stunned look of giddy excitement on reaching the structures at the top.

      The missing luggage was returned. My wife is actually fairly unique in her ability to pack minimally, so it was not an issue of having too much baggage, literally or figuratively.

      I share your secret – there were times early in our courtship where I silently wished her Palm smart phone (which gives you an idea of my age) would fall into the ocean during our walks along the local pier, eliminating the competition since she at times seemed to favor it over me. Those days, I can happily report, are long past.

      Hope your back (and her wardrobe) are holding up okay.

      Fondly,

      CD

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