I found a place in the backstreets, among the ships’ chandlers and travel agencies. ‘Kafeneion O Stamatis’, said the sign above the footpath, which in another lifetime may have lit up at night, but, from its dusty, timeworn appearance, appeared destined never to shine again. Within, a handful of elderly men in raffish jackets and an assortment of hats were scattered around the plain wooden tables, seated on cane-bottomed chairs against timber-panelled walls hung with black-and-white photographs depicting scenes from the history of Piraeus. A susurration of interest went around the room as I entered, but nothing was said as the kafetzis, a younger, slow-moving man with a faintly dolorous expression, wandered over to take my order. He also said little, merely nodding when I asked for a double Greek coffee, metrio, or semi-sweet.
The coffee arrived and I wrote up my notes as I drank it, aware of the rotation of komboloi in gnarled old hands and the sporadic mutter of conversation, interspersed by ripples of laughter, passing back and forth across the room. I was writing about my arrival in Greece the previous day, remembering how I had gazed from the window of the aeroplane as we came down out of the clouds at the grey-blue sea, its rumpled surface strewn with whitecaps, rugged limestone mountains, scrubby slopes and orderly rows of olive trees in fields of vivid red earth. Whitewashed villages dotted the landscape, as well as isolated farm buildings, and radio towers crowned the highest peaks. No-one stood up and applauded when we landed, as they used to do on Olympic; but then I had flown from Doha, with Qatar Airways, and not all the passengers were Greek.
In the terminal I listened eagerly to the sound of the Greek language, relishing the sound of it as I tried to decipher the odd familiar phrase. The immigration officer who stamped my passport smiled and said, ‘Welcome.’ There followed an excruciating half-hour standing on a cold and featureless railway platform, waiting among a crowd of shivering locals (all of whom were dressed more appropriately than me) for a train into the city, in the teeth of a northerly gale that seemed to be blowing all the way from Siberia and drove icicles through my jacket. I watched the station clock with seer-like intensity: never in my life has the minute hand moved so slowly. But this, too, I said to myself, hastily shrugging on a woollen pullover that was to prove largely ineffectual against the wintry onslaught, is part of the adventure.
I wrote about drinking my first ouzo, in a café off Syntagma, and about the old fellow who offered to show me around and who, when I gave him a euro to encourage him to leave me alone, complained that it wasn’t enough. I wrote, too, about the wonderful meal of salad and gemista, tomatoes stuffed with rice, and the red wine with which I washed it down, sitting outside a busy taverna in a wash of lemony sunlight that appeared unexpectedly through a break in the clouds and proved surprisingly warm – so warm, in fact, that I had been able to remove my jacket and pullover and sit there, quietly marvelling at the scenes unfolding around me, in just a long-sleeved linen shirt.
When I finished writing and got up to pay for my coffee, the kafetzis asked me where I came from. He was behind his counter, brewing another metrio over a hissing gas flame. I told him and said that I was bound for Crete, adding, ‘I want to go into the mountains and drink raki.’ At this a happy smile transformed his face while amused laughter swept around the room, with several of the old men repeating, ‘He’s going to the mountains to drink raki,’ amidst renewed expressions of mirth. I left the kafeneion to shouts of ‘Kalo taxidi!’ ‘Good journey!’ feeling pleased by my little joke and happy that I had just made some friends.
Possibly I should have known better. This time, at least, I did manage to board the Blue Horizon (after a brisk walk around the harbour past a number of ferries bound for different corners of the Aegean, all, I noticed with pleasure, in the process of loading). But as luck would have it, I had no sooner established myself on the upper deck of the vessel, laying out my notebook and pen on a white plastic table and placing the bottle of wine beside them and my bag of food on a chair, than an announcement came over the intercom, first in Greek, then in English, informing passengers that on account of continuing bad weather sailing had been delayed till nine o’clock that evening. My initial reaction was to burst out laughing: this winter business was going too far. But then, as the implications of the situation set in, I wondered how I was going to entertain myself for the day, weighed down as I was by an unwieldy trio of heavily loaded rucksacks.
The problem was solved by one of the ship’s officers, a tall, grey-haired, imperious man in a smart navy jacket glittering with epaulettes. He ran a calculating eye over my gear and, after satisfying himself that it was manageable, summoned the purser whom he instructed to place the rucksacks in a little room off the lounge. Thus unencumbered I took to the stairs, receiving during the course of my descent the best wishes of several impeccably groomed and unaccountably cheerful crew members positioned at well-spaced intervals along the way. It was a quite a long trek down and by the time I stepped on to the dock I was feeling quite puffed up with self-importance.
I was brought back to earth with the proverbial crash when I arrived at the Metro station. This venerable transport hub was a scene of chaos, with a queue of people snaking across the ticket hall, virtually all the way back into the street. People were shouting – always a bad sign! – and waving their arms. The majority, however, possibly having become accustomed to such scenarios, waited stoically in line with long-suffering expressions on their faces, now and then uttering a forlorn-sounding Panagia mou! and dolefully shaking their heads.
Briefly, I wondered why no-one was using the ticket machines at the rear of the hall – only to suddenly remember, the previous evening, trying to operate one of these devices at Monastiraki and having no luck. Instead of offering me a ticket, it had asked me to top up a card. At the time, elevated with wine and ouzo, I had thought nothing of it, blithely purchasing my ticket from a woman seated behind a window. When the same thing happened now, however, the alarm bells started ringing. Something was clearly amiss, but I could only guess what it was – a new system, most likely, the implementation of which had not been properly thought through. My feelings of unease were heightened by the sight of Athenians to the left and right of me ineffectually pressing buttons, muttering curses and imprecations and generally looking, I thought, more confused than I was.
Reluctantly I joined the queue. I was just in time to witness an amusing incident. Inevitably in these situations, queue-jumping is rampant. However it was soon brought home to me, with amusing clarity, that little solidarity exists between the practitioners of this art. I watched with interest as a man succeeded in infiltrating himself, by nefarious means, towards the front of the queue. Hot on his heels followed a companion, who had the misfortune to be caught in the act – red-handed, as it were – by a coterie of respectable-looking Greek matrons. The women turned on him in a fury, castigating him roundly and threatening to brain him with their handbags unless he returned to where he came from and minded his manners in future. The first queue-jumper, perhaps looking to legitimise his standing, showed his companion – who by now looked quite terrified – no sympathy. In fact, he enthusiastically joined in the denunciations, waving a reproving finger in front of the other man’s face and telling him, quite heatedly, that his behaviour was unacceptable.
The queue, meanwhile, progressed at a snail’s pace, if at all. This was odd, even by Greek standards, but it was only after some time and a good deal of scrutiny that I began to grasp what was going on. My enlightenment began when I noticed that the queue was composed of predominantly elderly people, all of them clutching thick sheaves of papers in their hands. I then happened to see one old boy standing before a ticket window with his chest puffed up and his head held proudly erect, posing to have his photograph taken by the woman seated behind the glass. There ensued a good deal of confabulation as the man handed over his papers which the woman scrutinised in a desultory manner, before gracing them with a weary signature and endorsing them with a stamp. A short while later the man turned around, holding something in his hand and bearing on his craggy old face the exalted and somewhat disbelieving expression of someone who has just won the lottery; while the woman behind the window, looking as if it were all becoming too much for her, took out a cigarette and contentedly lit up.
I was so impressed by this unconventional way of doing business that I was sorely tempted to put my hands together and applaud. But as I was still none the wiser as to what exactly was taking place, I put the question to an unhappy-looking young man standing behind me with his equally disgruntled girlfriend.
‘Today they are arranging pensioners’ travel cards,’ he gloomily explained, before adding, without a hint of irony, ‘But unfortunately this is not the way to do it.’
Needless to say the kafetzis was surprised to see me again. He commiserated as I explained about the ferry and looked downright affronted when I told him about the gridlock at the Metro. But he smiled slyly when, nodding towards the clock on the wall, I said that I thought the morning was sufficiently well advanced to drink a shot of raki with my coffee. He duly complied with my request and, I’m pleased to say, the two drinks in tandem not only tasted very good, but also went a long way to realigning the day in my favour.