This is the story of how I ended up sitting in a cafe, sniffling away my tears of indignation and drinking my first ever frappe.
I should interject here by telling you that I don’t drink coffee. So living in Greece for all these years without having ever had a frappe to call all my own makes me somewhat of a freak and this event was entirely out of the ordinary.
Greeks only drink tea when they’re ill, European style with no milk in it. I used to get asked all the time with concerned looks if I was sick whenever I would ask for tea. We would be in a group and the conversation would go something like this:
“What are you all having?”
“What’s up? Not feeling well?”
I’ve already written about the world outside Athens, and it was my pleasure recently to experience it once more through a new medium when I took a trip to Volos using Greece’s intercity bus system, KTEL. Getting up bright and early at 5am, I jumped in a taxi and headed to the KTEL station to catch the 7am bus.
Early morning Athens has a funny way of inducing a strange sentimentality in me. Coasting past the empty streets in the blue early morning light, sun-flecked clouds dappling the sky overhead, I felt like I live in the best city in the world. Those few moments when Athens is gearing up for a brand new day are like watching a baby asleep.
KTEL buses are quite a convenient way to get from city to city, and if you’re a solo traveller, it works out cheaper than going by car counting the cost of tolls and petrol.
The night before, I had called the KTEL office and placed myself on the passenger list for the bus to Volos. I paid my return fee at the ticket counter, €47, and asked to go onto the return passenger list for the 6pm bus. The lady in the booking office tapped on her keyboard and assured me my place was booked.
Before long, we were on our way. Since my last trip, the rolling countryside outside Athens has changed. Summer in Greece makes the land absolutely burst at the seams with life, a rich tableau of the best of everything. The wheat had ripened and turned golden, most of it already harvested with tracks of straw marking where heavy heads had once swayed with the breeze.
Swathes of deep green marked where the corn was growing. This is where my favourite beach side treat of corn cobs roasted over coal comes from. Whenever I visit the beach, I always carry a little pot of salt and chilli powder to rub onto the hot, roasted corn with a lemon sliced in half.
This is how I was raised eating corn, South Asian style, and my husband has come to love my version of it. That tangy, spicy, sweet taste mingled with the creaminess of the corn and the charred aroma of the charcoal is one of the markers of summertime for me now.
As we ran along the route, weaving through villages, towns and highways, Golden Dawn graffiti competed with anti-fascist slogans scribbled along walls and streets. A common form of sabotage by the anti-fascist factions is to change the last letter on the end of the Greek for Golden Dawn, Χρυσή Αυγή, into Χρυσά Αυγά, Golden Eggs, the name of a popular Greek egg supplier.
The bus continued on its lumbering way, making various stops here and there. Until the first stop two hours into the journey, most of the bus was asleep. After that, having freshened up, stretched their legs and had the second or third frappe of the morning, lively chatter filled the air.
The woman behind me began to grumble to her travelling companion. “If I had known we were going to stop at every single little goat village on the way I would have driven!” she complained.
“The woman at the ticket office told me it was a direct bus, and they told me the same thing when I called the call centre to book my ticket.”
“Christ and Mother Mary, we’re stopping again? Don’t they have local buses here?”
“Who are we picking up now? Are we going to stop on each and every little donkey path?”
“We’ll never get to Volos at this rate.”
She said all this sat two rows behind the driver, for maximum effect, I’m sure. The bus braked suddenly, horn blaring, as a dark red pickup truck pulled out of a dusty olive grove and began reversing down the road towards us.
“Well of course,” snorted the woman “We’re in his God forsaken village, he can do whatever the hell he likes on this road and so what if he kills the rest of us.”
Having occupied a seat in the very first row, I was able to take in the route from nearly every angle and began to think of the nesting swallows I had seen on our pit stop. Swallows herald the arrival of Spring in Greece and they nest in the summer season. The roadside cafe where we had taken our break had been full of little black birds gliding and diving, searching for things to feed their precious offspring tucked cosily into their mud and straw nests.
A dull thud interrupted my thoughts as one of these unfortunate little birds ended its life journey on the bus’s windscreen, a small, liquid streak the last remaining mark of its existence on this earth. Poor little thing. How quickly life can change.
Arriving in Volos had been straightforward enough. Getting back? Not so much.
I’ve never travelled by bus between cities in Greece before. I made the gravest mistake one can make when living in a foreign country and that’s to take things for granted. Had I just moved here, I would have scrupulously checked every detail of my trip. Too many years down the line have given me a false sense of security.
Seeing that my ticket had RETURN written across it, plus the full return fare and the morning’s assurance that my seat on the return bus was booked, I assumed that this was my return ticket. So I waited with the other passengers in the sweltering heat, looking forward to being back home by bed time. When I handed my ticket over, the inspector told me to go get a return ticket issued from the booking office.
Say what? Wasn’t this the return ticket? No. So I walked over to the ticket counter and presented my ticket, asking for the return half. “The 6pm bus is fully booked.” snapped the man behind the desk.
Impossible, I told him, I had booked a place just this morning.
“All reservations are cancelled 25 minutes before departure.” he replied, indifferent.
Here’s a note: if you have any Northern European traits about how practical issues should work, abandon them all when it comes to Greece. My mind suddenly went into Northern Europe mode, a throwback after 10 years of living in the UK and an utterly useless mental state in Greece. I remained adamant. I had booked a place, so there must be a seat for me.
“It doesn’t matter if you booked a place, all reservations are cancelled 25 minutes before departure time.” he said, clearly annoyed that I was still badgering him. Where did I think I was, Sweden?
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, so I begged and pleaded to be let onto the bus, but they must get this all the time, dummies like me who didn’t know how the system worked, so they really couldn’t care less that I was stranded there for another three hours.
“There must be some way!” I cried “I have a baby at home! I need to get back on this bus!” There. I had played my last ace, the Holy Mother card. Surely my status as the mother and the fact that there was a 10 month old baby in Athens that I was still nursing would move them.
“What do you want me to do about it?” he grumbled.
So there went my seat.
I’ve been having a hard time lately dealing with Hermes’ condition, so little blips like this completely floor me. I burst into tears, completely panicked at being stranded all of a sudden so far away from home. I don’t like being away from home at the moment, and the thought of the cosy lights of my little flat burning like a lighthouse while I was stranded out to sea made me cry even more. But more than anything, my pride was hurt that I had made such a rookie mistake.
The harder I cried, the worse I felt, until the tiny voice of reason handed me a crumpled tissue and said “Well, you’re always complaining how you have no time to yourself, so now’s your chance! You can surf the net for 3 hours uninterrupted! You can go through as many pages of LOLCats as you like and no one can do a damn thing about it! The internet and all its time wasting treasures are yours for the taking!”
And so, blubbering and sniffling, mascara streaking my face, I found a café close by with internet access to write this and decided what the hell, every single time I have travelled in the last month, it’s gone completely wrong, so why not just start over and get a frappe, maybe there’s something to be said for Greece’s obsession with it.
We are all doomed to make the same mistakes again and again until we learn our lesson and try something different, so this was my way of saying “Look, Universe, things could not be any more different. Have you ever seen me drinking frappe before?”
That’s how it came to be that I sipped on my first frappe and frittered away three more hours until the next bus departed at 9pm. This time, I made sure I was first in line and pounced on my seat for the four hour trip back to Athens and home, an eerie blue light bathing my fellow passengers’ faces the whole way.
At 1.30am I stumbled into a taxi to go home. “What happened?” asked the taxi driver, “The bus got in pretty late, we thought you had broken down or something.”
I slumped into the back of the taxi. It had been 20 hours since I had stepped out of my front door.
“We stopped at every little goat village on the way.” I replied.