Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Strange Journey - Chapter 9


Continuing journey

As he lay back in the lounge trying to sleep Chris found it hard not to think that he really should have taken up Lotte's offer. It was not every day an attractive woman invited him back to her room only a couple of hours after meeting him. And even if she was genuinely just offering him her spare bed he would probably have got a lot more sleep there than he was getting in the lounge. The Australians now had several hours of drinking down and their arguments about which of them were sleeping where were becoming more heated. And louder, thanks to the magic of alcohol. And added to the cacophony were the cries of people calling on them to be quiet and let everyone get some rest. That so many of these cries were in languages the Australians did not understand (i.e. any language other than English) was not really helping to resolve the situation. On the other hand, here the only thing keeping Chris awake was the noise. He suspected that being in a bed in the same room as that beautiful German prove far more distracting to his need for sleep.

Eventually the arguments and conversations died down to an extent that it was possible for Chris to slip into the arms of sleep. But it seemed like he had abandoned wakefulness for only a few seconds before he was jerked awake once more by a series of announcements over the ship's tannoy system. It seemed they would soon be making a night docking at the port of Corfu and it was necessary to announce this repeatedly in many different languages. The insistent tones prevented Chris from dropping back off to sleep, but he thought to himself that once they actually docked he would quickly be able to nod off.

As the ship came into the port, the Australians roused themselves back into life. It seemed like they were all getting off here rather than journeying on to Patras. But one of the Australians seemed to have drunk herself into a terrible stupor and her companions were having terrible trouble waking her. Simply carrying her off the boat seemed not to be an option, so instead her countryfolk were trying a succession of ways of waking her up. These ranged from shouting at her (her name was Tina, as Chris learned from the repeated cries of "Tina! Tina! Wake up! Wake up Tina! You have to wake up Tina!" and variants thereof) to slapping her face to throwing water on her, often with several of these and other methods being tried in combination. Soon other passengers were getting involved and offering their own suggestions as to what might bring Tina out of her sweet dreams. Many of these were either nonsensical or thankfully incomprehensible to the stoutly Anglophone Australians. Chris was quite taken with the Orthodox priest who started offering up some loud musical prayers to bring the poor Australian girl back to wakefulness. Or maybe he was calling down some terrible curse on the Australians and all of their kin back home in the southern hemisphere; as Chris did not know any Greek the priest could have been saying anything.

Yet whatever the priest was saying, it seemed like his prayers did the trick. Tina suddenly and indignantly rejoined the waking world.

"What's all the fucking noise? I'm trying to sleep!" she cried out.

"Tina, you can't sleep now, we're in Corfu. Come on!" said one of her compatriots. The pulled her into an upright position and attached her rucksack to the back and then the whole tribe of antipodeans launched into a chorus of "Tie Me Kangaroo Down" as they marched out of the lounge. Their departure did lead to another bout of shuffling and scuffling as people moved into the spaces they had vacated, trying to grab a better seat than the one they had left. Chris also reckoned that a number of people who had not paid for lounge seats were now bunking in to get some free kip in the hours before morning. But the moving and arguments over places soon subsided and Chris was able to sleep once more.

He still woke early enough. Passengers around him were stirring and even though he would like more sleep, his body clock was confusedly telling him that it was much later than he wore up yesterday, so really he ought to be awake and up today by now. His fatigue protested, but Chris that resistance was useless - he was not going to get any more sleep now. He rested in his seat for a while and then he decided it was time to get up and see what there was to see outside now.

The boat now had land on either side of it. Chris was not one hundred per cent sure of the geography of the voyage. Possibly they were now moving up the Gulf of Corinth, with the land on one side being the Peloponnese and the other northern Greece. Or maybe it was the Greek mainland on one side and Ithaca on the other? He had read something on that train website about the boat going by the island of Odysseus in the morning, so maybe that was it?

And then Lotte joined him. She was looking radiant with her long hair clearly having been washed and dried that he was suddenly conscious of how stinky he felt after spending the night in his clothes with no chance to shower or change. He almost thought of finding some excuse to run away from her so she would have to turn her nose up at him, but he stood his ground.

"Good morning, have you slept well?" she said.

"Not really," he said. "But it could have been worse."

"You should have joined me," she said.

"I probably should have. Oh well. How did you sleep?"

"Soundly. Though I was able to hear sounds of sexual congress from the cabin next to me. The walls are not very thick."

"How unfortunate. I on the other hand was in a room full of argumentative Australians."

"Just be glad they were not Austrians," said Lotte, making reference to some obscure Germanophone stereotype of which Chris knew nothing.

"Do you know what that island is?"

"Why yes, I have looked at my map. It is Ithaca. You know, the island that Odysseus was from and to which he wanted to return after the Trojan War."

"It seems a lot bigger than I had imagined."

"Well he was a king, so I suppose he had to be king of somewhere fairly big. And there is the other island behind it, which might make it look bigger than it is."

They looked out at the view for a while. Lotte broke the silence.

"You are like Odysseus, making a long journey to see your wife once more."

"I'm not sure she will be as pleased to see me as Penelope was."

"Will you have to kill an army of suitors?"

"I'm not really much of a fighter," said Chris. He then thought of hospitalised Beppe, who might disagree. "And I don't think she has an army of suitors. Just the one. Well, she said she had met someone else. But you don't know Deirdre, beating up her new man would not really be the way to win her affections."

"It is so seldom like that in real life."

They gazed out at the islands some more and then went inside to get a coffee and croissant for breakfast.

"Damn good coffee," said Chris, engaging in a somewhat ineffectual impersonation of Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks.

Lotte looked quizzically at him.

"Ah yes, irony. It is hard in a second language."

"That's probably why Germans have that reputation for being humourless."

"Yes, and the fact that we are too hardworking to have time for making jokes."

She said this with such a deadpan expression that it took Chris several moments to realise she was making a joke. He laughed.

Time passed. Gav appeared and latched onto them once more, telling them more anecdotes about his life. Chris reflected on how nothing anecdotal ever seemed to happen to him. The ship inched on towards Patras. It arrived. They left the ferry and made their way out into the unprepossessing terminal. Chris liked how there seemed to be no arrival formalities here. The magic of Schengen, he assumed.

Gav insisted they take a taxi into the bus station. On the way in they passed where someone had written "This is Sparta!" on a wall. Chris wondered whether the slogan had a vague political significance or if it was just people echoing a line in a popular film. He also thought it odd that people would write graffiti using Roman script - it suggested they wanted English-speakers to read it. Or maybe some Anglophones had made the graffiti, confused as to where exactly in Greece they were. Chris wondered all these things but reached no definite conclusions.

The taxi rolled into central Patras. The town seemed a lot more picturesque to Chris than he had expected. The buildings nestled at the edge of hills whose name he wished he knew as they probably had some name evocative of the ancient history of the country. The sunny weather probably helped make the town look so appealing, that and it being the first place in Greece he had seen. But there was an unpretentious attractiveness to the streets and buildings. Chris was also struck by the people. They were far less stylishly dressed than the good folk of Milan, but they almost looked like they did not need to. The men and women seemed like the most beautiful folk he had ever seen. Well, the younger ones anyway. It was easy for him to imagine this once having been a land of demigods and goddesses. The handsomeness of the men also made the fabled fondness of the ancient Greeks for same sex relationships seem like a far more appealing prospect than anything similar in Ireland.

Not everything about the town was beautiful. They passed the train station, now boarded up and falling into dereliction, the north Peloponnese branch of the railway line a victim of the country's economic crisis. Overall though, the city did not show much in the way of obvious signs of Greece's economic woes. The central square was not full of ragged beggars, but Chris knew that the superficially calm and pleasant exterior might well hide domestic scenes of quiet desperation, as people struggled to survive in the aftermath of the economic tsunami that had swept over their country. But there was nothing he could really do about that.

The taxi dropped them at the bus station. They went inside and found that they were in luck - there was an express bus leaving for Athens in a few minutes. It was only as they boarded the bus that Chris registered that he had ended up both paying Gav's share of the taxi and buying his ticket to Athens. Come to think of it, he had also found himself buying Gav a load of beers yesterday, as well as picking up his food bill. But he decided not to make a fuss about it. Whatever else about his Welsh "friend", Chris suspected that Gav had far less money than he did. So subsidising his travels was for Chris a form of charity. Or maybe Chris's deep-seated desire to avoid confrontation was in play here again. Either way he reckoned he was right not to bother trying to get Gav to cough up. Gav would be unable to pay his share or else would use feigned inability to pay as a a tool to escape his commitments. Chris knew a waste of time when he saw one, and that's what trying to get money out of Gav would be.

Their bus pulled out of Patras and headed off on the way east to Athens. They were on a coatal road, which meant that on their right they had the majestic hills and mountains of the Peloponnese, their slopes looking parched and dry in the late summer. Sometimes they passed roads heading off south, looking like they had been cut into the rock. But of course they could just be following river valleys. On the other side they could see the sea and beyond that occasional glimpses of northern Greece.

Bus journeys have their own peculiar relationship to time. Before long Chris had lost any sense of how long they had been on the bus and found it hard to believe that they would ever not be on the bus. He dozed for a bit. Sometimes he woke up and realised that his head had fallen onto Lotte's shoulder. He pulled himself back up again but as he slipped back into sleep his head would find his way back there again. She did not seem to mind. There was a definite erotic charge to feeling himself so close to her like that, but it was one he was far too tired to really appreciate. Less erotically appealing was the fact that Gav too was also falling asleep for much of the journey, with his quietly snoring head having a tendency to end up on Chris's other shoulder (they had drawn the short straw and found themselves seated at the back of the bus, with Lotte at the window).

Sleep began to elude Chris and he found himself taking more of an interest in the countryside around them, what he could see of it from his obscured vantage point. They were no longer by the sea. They were crossing the Corinth canal, which seemed to be have been cut straight through the isthmus at sea level, a prodigious feat of engineering yet one that seemed to Chris to be at least somewhat pointless. But even if the canal did not serve any great purpose as a way of moving ships and goods, it made for an effective marker of where the Peloponnese ended. Once they had crossed it, Chris felt that he was now on a bus travelling through Attica. It would not be long now before they were in Athens.

Now they had the sea on their right. Chris tried to remember maps he had seen of this part of the world, to work out whether he was looking at anything as exciting as the site of the battle of Salamis or somesuch. Every hill looked like it might have been where Xerxes sat on his throne, watching the destruction of his fleet. But there was sadly no kitsch reconstruction of the enthroned Persian emperor, so the precise hill remained unmarked for him.

They passed what must have been the port of Piraeaus, vast ships sitting in the bay waiting to dock. Gav, clearly now awake once more, nudged Chris in the ribs.

"Here, is that where I've got to get my ferry to Turkey?"

"Looks like it might be."

"Maybe I should stop the bus and walk down there."

"It looks a bit far. And I don't think they'll stop. It's an express bus."

"Oh I could make it stop. But you reckon it's too far to walk?"

"It looks like miles. And you wouldn't know the way."

"Yeah, you're right, I'll go on to Athens and go down from there."

Now they were in the outskirts of Athens. This was the non-descript sprawl that surrounds all great cities. Non-descript identikit sprawl. They could really have been anywhere, only the Greek script on the signage signifying that they were not in Western Europe anymore. And the Roman alphabet seemed to be in not inconsiderable use. Chris was no great partisan of the Latin side of the schism between Greece and Western Europe, but he felt a certain tinge of sectarian pride at the site of a strip club that prominently advertised its wares using the Roman alphabet (and English language).

And then they pulled into the bus station. Chris was surprised. It did not feel like they were properly into the city but that they were still penetrating its outer reaches. This area of dual carriage ways surrounded by low-rise buildings did not look remotely like a proper urban centre. But then bus stations were often a good bit away from the centre of a city, largely because of the problems of getting buses through built-up areas.

Chris had read his guidebook obsessively so he knew there was a local bus they could get from the bus station to a metro station further into Athens. But as the bus drew to a halt, he suddenly remembered that that bus stations often have a reputation for being a bit seedy and sketchy. Was this one of those bus stations where shady customers would be waiting to prey on unwitting travellers? It did not look too bad. There were people loitering around, but they looked pretty much like people would who were waiting for a bus (or waiting to meet people they knew who were arriving on a bus). But then again, serious criminals would hardly make it their business to look like stereotypical criminals, would they? So he was somewhat on edge when they descended from the bus and collected their bags. But no marauding mobs of thieving wastrels descended on them, and it seemed like they would be able to go on their way unmolested.

"How'm I going to get to that harbour place from here then?" said Gavin.

"I don't know for sure, but I think you can get the metro," said Chris.

"Can I get the metro from here?"

"I think it's a couple of miles away."

"Ah Jesus, I'm not walking a couple of miles."

"Come with us," said Lotte, taking charge. "We will take another bus to the metro station."

This is what they did. The local bus took them into areas that looked more properly urban to Chris. But this was a shabby urban of unkempt streets and unappealing buildings, buildings that looked like they were badly maintained and not used to regular cleanings. The same could be said of the people on the streets, who looked like they came from the less affluent end of Athenian society. Or so Chris hoped. It would be a bit depressing if this turned out to be the relatively swanky bit of town, though it would explain why so many people had made remarks about hearing that Athens was a right kip when they heard he was coming out here. But many of the people on the street looked like they were not native Greeks, with headscarves and African features being not uncommon. Chris had heard that immigrants were somewhat marginalised in Greek society (as they were in his own), so it was logical to assume that this was probably a somewhat marginal part of Athens.

The bus journey finished on an unprepossessing side street. They made their way up to an open square on which there was a metro station. The square turned out to be a roundabout. There were a lot of people milling about. Many of them looked like they were either insane or dangerous (or both). Chris was glad that he was not here on his own and that they would not be staying there long. They descended into the depths of the metro station. And then they parted, for Gav was taking one line south to Piraeus while Lotte and Chris were travelling on the other into central Athens. Gav hugged Lotte, making lewd facial gestures to Chris while he did so. He then gave Chris a big manly bear hug, the smell of several days' worth of accumulated sweat being something that he reckoned he would never forget. And then he was gone.

Chris travelled only a few stops with Lotte before she revealed that she had to get off to go to her hotel. They had no time for involved partings as she jumped up to leave the carriage. But she handed Chris a note that she had obviously prepared earlier.

"My phone number. Ring me if you want to meet for a drink. I am in Athens for a few days."

She kissed him quickly on the cheek.

"Goodbye Chris."

"Goodbye Lotte."

And then she was gone too, leaving Chris on the train, alone with his thoughts.

He travelled on a few more stops and then emerged from the metro into the area he was staying in. He was slightly to the south of the centre, in a residential area. This part of town too was quite run down, but unlike the areas he had come through on the bus the buildings were nicer, as though the shabbiness was almost a form of entropy chic rather than the sign of urban decay and social malaise. There also seemed here to be an abundance of cats on the streets, which gave it a somewhat picturesque quality. He ventured on to his hotel, checked in, and made his way to his room. It was rather Spartan. Chris found this irony amusing. After showering and changing into clean clothes he decided to head out for food. He thought of phoning his wife, but he needed to eat now and could not face the idea of a fraught dinner with her. He also thought of phoning Lotte and seeing if they could dine together, but it did not seem appropriate. So he explored the local restaurant area, somehow ending up in a pretty second-rate Italian restaurant despite the presence all around of so many places serving Greek food. He ate a substandard pizza of the kind that would shock an Italian, but in his hunger he found it sufficient for his needs, particularly when washed down with a Greek beer. And then he strolled around some more and decided to head back to his hotel.

He was ambling along, thinking about the last few days and admiring some of the pretty cats he could see staring at him, wishing he had brought some food for them (do cats like leftover pizza?), when he heard a woman's voice behind him speak.

"Julian. We need to talk," she said, in English, clearly addressing him.


The story continues

No comments:

Post a Comment