Monday, September 28, 2009

The tale of the erotic cockroach

So many people have seen and written about the Athenian Acropolis that it hardly seems worth saying anything at all about it. So I won't. But I can tell you that getting to it on a hot day involves so many refreshment stops that it can become quite difficult, after a while, to remember where one is, let alone the purpose of one's exertions.

I was in a state of enhanced euphoria by the time the T.P. and I had returned from wherever it was we'd been (I don't know - a big hill with columns on top is all I seem to recall), and I collapsed into our hotel room, which had seemed to have mysteriously shrunken in dimensions since we'd left it that morning. My next recollection is of being awoken by the sound of screaming. I shot bolt-upright in bed. It was the Titanium one herself, screaming blue murder for me to come and rescue her, and on the double. The noise was emanating from our little bathroom, and by the time I'd reached the room, expecting to see Alfred Hitchcock leaving, and a stream of bloody water gurgling down the drain-pipe, I realised (with relief mixed with a guilty tinge of expectation) that the malefactor was nothing more than a gigantic cockroach which had decided that the T.P.'s skull was as good a place as any to start chewing for the day.

"Get this fucking thing off me!" she wailed, as I tried to manhandle her soapy, naked body into a position where I could take a good whack at the offending creature. 

"Ow! Why are you hitting me, you idiot?" remonstrated an increasingly edgy spouse, who, with her eyes closed tight, was by this time unsure as to which was the lesser of two evils - the bug, or her obviously insane husband. We frolicked around in the shower recess for some time, both of us getting soapier and soapier, until I managed to flick the offending species of God's beneficient creation out the window. By this stage we were both sitting on the tiled floor, and I must say it was a most romantic position to be in. My thoughts were turning to other, fonder feelings than belting members of the order Blattaria. I thought I'd attempt a tone of conspiratorial friskiness.

"Do you know, my love, that cockroaches breathe through their posteriors?" I asked tenderly.

"You really are a fucking lunatic, Laurie," the Titanium P. exhaled, as she got up and jumped out of the shower, wrapping a towel around herself.  Fuck me, I thought - at least the cockroach got to chew on her for a bit. I was still sitting on the floor of the shower cubicle a couple of minutes later, humming the tune to a song called "What About Me?", when the T.P. returned and enquired sunnily "Now, what's on our agenda today?" It was back to business as usual, which is to say, traipsing the boulevardes of Athens in search of further mountains of knick-knacks and scarves. Boy, does that woman like scarves.

A couple of hours later, we clattered into the Athens Museum of Archeology. And what a place it is. Here, in a building the size of a city block, is the most stunning collection of what humans can really do well when they have a mind to it. An eight-thousand year history of life in the Mediterranean parades past the astounded visitor to this cornucopia of sculpture, craft, building, decoration and all of the other plastic arts. We spent the day in an orgy of high culture that surpassed even the post-cockroach imaginary orgy of the early morning. I do believe that marble and gold are my favourite substances, apart from Heineken, of course.

Well, once you've seen four or five things in Athens, it's time to get out, because Athens, like most other big cities in the world, is overwhelmingly crowded, dull, and commercial. I needed country. We boarded a little rattle-trap train and headed away towards Corinth and Patra, where we were due to embark on a highly anticipated cruise up the Adriatic to Venice.

But our first stop was a little town on the coast of the Corinthian Sea called Psathopyrgos. Now, here's a serious traveller's tip. When you're really hoofing hard through a big joint like Europe, every couple of weeks book yourself into a fairly swank hotel, preferably near the water, and chill out for a couple of days. The Oasis Hotel at this quaint little fishing village was just the ticket. We alighted from the train (in this case, not so much alighted, with all the connotations of grace and ease that word implies, but hastily chucked all of our bags onto the nearby track then jumped down before the driver hit full throttle and thundered away into the distance) and began trudging into town. Psathopyrgos is, I am bound to say, utterly charming. It nests on a little bay at the narrows between the Patra Sea and the Corinthian Sea, and affords a spectacular view of the steep-sided mountains on the northern side. It really is pretty, with gaily-coloured fishing boats resting at their moorings, children playing happily in the shallows, and at least two pairs of dogs enjoying sexual congress at any given moment.

The owner of the Oasis, an Englishwoman from Cornwall, greeted us effusively in an accent so broad I was tempted to ask the Greek receptionist to translate into English, but I refrained. She was a charming woman, really, and escorted us to our room, all clean and nice and with a real, spacious bathroom (pure heaven), and left us with an admonition not to "Doi arnythang Oi wardn't doi." I had no idea what she was talking about.

The Oasis was just that - a large and well-appointed swimming-pool (it had a bar in the middle) fronted the sea, and a garden restaurant just behind served delicious local fish and more salads than even I could force down. The Leader of the Opposition and I decided to plunge into the sea from a little jetty, and have a bit of a race. My wife is a particularly good swimmer, and we were neck and neck for about four hundred yards out into the briny. I finally admitted defeat, and we floated around for a while admiring the view to shore. At this point I noticed that a small crowd had congregated on the jetty, and there seemed to be much scratching of heads and pointing in our direction going on. "Wonder what that's all about?" I said, looking around for any signs of a big Noah coming our way. We decided to head back in.

As we clambered up the ladder to the jetty several voices in a number of languages seemed to be scolding us over something. We ignored them, and dived into the pool. I breezed over to the bar and ordered a couple of drinks. The barman started shaking his head and giggling. "They're all a little concerned that you swam out so far," he said. "Most Europeans don't really swim very much, and they thought you might be in trouble." I assured him that there was no problem, and that a half-mile swim in flat conditions on very salty, buoyant water was not all that taxing. It's a sad fact that surf drownings in Australia are disproportionately high amongst European and British tourists. Or a happy fact, depending on your point of view.

So we spent a relaxing and rejuvenating two days in Psathopyrgos, a beautiful part of the world I would recommend even to my mother-in-law, were she still around to enjoy it.

The second evening saw us sadly saying goodbye to mine hostess (all right - the T.P. dragged me kicking and screaming all the way to the bus stop), and we headed off for the port city of Patra. At 10.30 p.m. we walked to the rear gang-plank of the Ikarus Palace, an enormous ship that I was told was capable of housing eight hundred vehicles and a thousand passengers. There was a sign with some sort of motto emblazoned on it on an archway leading into the vessel. It was in Greek, of course, and it was only later that I discovered that it was a quote from a little book called Dante's Inferno, saying "Abandon hope, all ye who enter..."

We were about to embark on the cruise liner from Hell.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Athenium

We landed in Athens at five in the afternoon. The weather was turning typically Greek - that is to say, bloody hot. In a city like Athens, such heat, which is tolerable in Australia, becomes so oppressive that the Athenians begin to stalk the streets purposively, with glints in their eyes that suggest madness is just around the corner.

As usual, the Titanium Princess, in her never-ending quest to do Europe on five dollars a day (she still had all those dog-eared paperbacks from the seventies stashed away in our bags) had booked us into a hostel in the Omonoia district, which turned out to be the sleaziest part of town by a long chalk. Rubbish was piled ten feet high along the footpaths; drunks and ice-addicts hurled abuse at each other across rat-infested alleyways, and everywhere was the overpowering aroma of a sewerage system that had not been updated since the Romans left town.

"Jesus, TP," I complained, "if I'd known I was going back-packing with Tom Waites in a skirt I would have stayed home!"

"Ah, suck it up, Nancy Boy," was her considered response - a reply which, on reflection, was about as close as I was going to get to marital compassion.

We found our room, six gruelling stories above the reception area of the "Athens Lucky Hostel" (I suppose one must give the proprietors of such establishments a few brownie points for eponymic optimism), and collapsed in puddles of sweat on the bed. At least we had our own shower at this place, unlike some of the communal cess-pits I'd been forced to bathe in previously, and I spent ten vigorous minutes under a cold shower until life had returned. It was way past beer o'clock, so I sauntered out into the city while the TP took a short beauty sleep, on a mission for Heineken.

Omonoia, as it turned out, happened to be just my kind of place. In the Dark Ages, I used to work six nights a week in Kings Cross, Sydney - and this part of Athens took me back to those heady days of dodging puddles of urine and beating off the kinds of women who assure you they want you more than any man in history until you explain that you're rather short of cash, in which event they drop you faster than Phil Tufnell under a screamer (and if you don't know cricket, that one's going straight through to the keeper). 

I pulled up at a little roadside kiosk - the sort of joint that sells everything the modern bloke could wish for, from condoms to hair-gel, with beer in between. The shopkeeper, a young guy with a crooked nose and some serious tattoos, produced two half-litre bottles of Heineken from a little fridge, and asked me where I was from. When I told him, he became all enthusiastic, and told me he'd just seen AC/DC when they'd performed in Athens a week or so ago. Apparently AC/DC was the greatest Australian export of all time, at least according to their number one fan in Greece, who gushed on for a while before turning around and showing me the back of his head, which had "AC/DC" artfully tattoed across a shaven skull. I thought about baring my chest and showing him my "Joan Sutherland" tatt for a moment, but he side-tracked me with an offer of a "genuine shrunken head", which he pointed out to me, hanging from the top of his kiosk. It was a most unusual piece, and from the couple of flies buzzing around it, could well have been for real (and relatively fresh). It was time to move on.

I took off from the kiosk at a rather fast clip, and, rounding a corner, belted straight into a bloke coming the other way. We both bounced back and hit the ground on our backsides, rocking backwards and forwards like a couple of those blow-up clowns with sand in the bottom you used to get from the local variety store. He bounded straight back up, and let forth what I assumed was a torrent of abuse (I don't know, it was all Greek to me). I, meanwhile, was assuring myself that the Heineken was still intact (it was, fortunately), and when I finally looked at him I realised with a start that I'd bumped into the wrong bloke. He was emaciated, with a filthy shirt that was probably white, once, and a pair of grubby jeans from which protruded two bare and dirty feet. His sleeves were rolled up, and as he continued his invective he scratched one arm, and then the other, both of which were covered in evil-looking, bloody scabs. And when I looked at his face I understood that it was probably only the scabs that were preventing his entire body from dissolving and leaking down the gutters into the already overloaded Athenian sewerage network. He was an ice addict. I offered him a beer.

He looked at me strangely, then smiled, and grabbed the Heineken and poured half of it down his throat in one go. He smiled again, then his eyes glazed over, and he continued staggering away from me, up the road, occasionally stopping for another swig. I watched him until he was out of sight, and wondered how long it would be until he was cured or dead.

After wandering the streets (carefully) for another hour, sipping away at my remaining beer, I returned to the hostel to find the TP rested, refreshed and ravenous. We decided on the cafeteria at the hostel, and made our way downstairs, where a big, happy, noisy group of youngsters from all over the world, different accents plying for dominance, was devouring pizza and drinking ouzo and retsina and beer. A young woman came over to us and deposited two complementary glasses of ouzo on our table, and asked if we were ready to order. Her accent was unmistakenly Australian, and so was her body. She was aboriginal, from Byron Bay, in fact, and she sat down and we chatted away for twenty minutes until she decided to do a bit of work. A reasonably edible pizza arrived a few minutes later, washed down with a couple of bottles of Pilsner Urquell (or four - I can't remember now). I was starting to feel rather fond of the world, in inverse proportion to how the TP was feeling about me, no doubt. After all, at three Euros a go, I was blowing the next two weeks' travel budget. She's a tough cookie, my wife.

The following day dawned hot and dry, and we wasted no time in getting out and into it. It was a short hike to one of the places I'd been busting to see for over thirty years - the Academy. It was not Plato's original of course (that had gone long ago, and there is still some dispute as to whether the modern structure even sits on the site of the ancient one), but a neo-classical building designed by the Dane, Theophil Hansen, in the 1850s, as part of a beautiful trilogy of structures next door to each other (the others are the National Library and the University). As I stood in front of it, a tear or two sprang to my eyes. Here, after all, was a monument to the founding of modern thought, and its power. The moment was poignant, imbued with warmth and beauty. Even the Titanium Princess was captured by it. "Can we go now?" she asked solicitously. "And use a hanky, you sentimental fool." I like it when she's kind to me. be continued.