Symi Dream

Living on a Greek island

A Greek island blog from Symi in the Dodecanese islands of Greece. "James’s great talent lies in his careful observation of the absurd and the amusing, the dramas and the difficulties..." Anne Zouroudi.

Symi Dream - Living on a Greek island

Reshuffle

Reshuffle
Holiday Day 19 (March 20th) A Friday reshuffle

I woke up around six the next day (I had a lie-in) knowing that we had a long day and a long night ahead what with overnighting in Athens airport to look forward to. What I didn’t know then was that we weren’t going to end up doing that at all, and wouldn’t get to sleep until the following night, about 40 hours later.

Hanging around

There was no rush for anything that morning, so we let the bears sleep in, took showers, and from the bedroom window, watched planes taking off. I think we saw one in the space of an hour; a bit on the slow side for one of the world’s busiest airports. There was a strange sense of ‘nothing happening’ across the distance between us and the terminal and runway, made even more creepy by the grey morning mist.

Downstairs, the bar/dining/reception area of the hotel was equally as calm and quiet, with a few people up and about, talking in respectfully hushed whispers as if we were in church. Maybe it was because it was still early. The wide-screen TVs were on, and the volume turned to an audible but low level, the flight announcement board showed more cancelled flights, and the staff went about their business calmly and with smiles. Remember, we were not yet at the mask-wearing stage, that precaution was only rumoured.

Always have something to read.

Always have something to read. (Note the vitamin C tablets. We took these regularly every day of the trip, plus orange juice, fruit etc. Just a precaution.)

Yesterday (March 19th), the UK government “no longer deems COVID-19 to be a high consequence infectious disease.” Also yesterday, Northern Island reported its first death, the MoD formed a special force to support public services and civilian authorities, the Bank of England cut interest rates in an emergency measure and the government released £1.6b for local authorities, and £1.3b for the NHS so that 15,000 patients could be released from hospital. Prior to this, various countries had put border restrictions in place, cinemas had been closing, the BBC rescheduled programmes, there had been 104 deaths in the UK, the pound had dropped to its lowest level since 1985, theatres had closed, and the government had advised people not to travel if they could help it, work from home if they could, and, if you wouldn’t mind awfully, try not to mix with anyone there’s a good chap, and anyone over 70 should consider this advice “particularly important.” Remember, they were also telling everyone this wasn’t ‘a high consequence infectious disease.’ So, you can see why there was no great sense of urgency at our hotel, more a sense of ‘how inconvenient.’

Compare that to Greece:

February 27th. All carnival events in the country were cancelled
March 10th. The government suspended the operation of educational institutions of all levels.
March 13th. All cafes, bars, museums, shopping centres, sports facilities and restaurants in the country were closed.
March 16th. All retail shops were closed, and all services in all areas of religious worship of any religion or dogma were suspended.

End of. Get over it.

While here at Heathrow, we had breakfast, read our books, stood outside to get fresh air, and spent most of the day in our room. We washed our hands and sanitised them at every opportunity, and waited for the evening when we were to taxi over to the airport to wait for our midnight flight to Athens.

Still smiling

Still smiling

And then…

We were sitting in the reception area, well away from everyone else as most people were distancing, when I had a text message from Aegean to let me know our onward flight to Rhodes had been cancelled. That was it. ‘Your flight to Rhodes is cancelled, please check with your travel agent…’ Etc. As I was our travel agent, I checked with myself and thought, ‘What are we going to do about this?’ It was about three in the afternoon by then, and I took the executive decision to go to the airport now and see what was what.

So, we packed (checking wardrobes for left items), settled up, called a cab and scuttled over to the airport dreaming up all kinds of worst-case scenarios and thinking how interesting it would be to walk from the UK to Greece and experience the life of the refugee.

It turned out to be a timely move on our part, as we found the Aegean desk half an hour before it closed, confirmed our flight was cancelled, though the midnight one was still running (phew!) – though would probably be the last for several days. ‘Could we change our onward flight?’ was the first thought because often the very early morning shuttle from Athens to Rhodes is taken off and passengers moved to the one a couple of hours later, so that really wasn’t anything new. Answer: no, the next available flight from Athens to Rhodes that wasn’t full was a week on Monday, so that was no good.
‘Right!’ he says, adopting a Basil Fawlty voice as he strides across the concourse to find a place to sit and think. ‘Let’s start again.’

March 20th_4

We still had Blue Star tickets for the following Tuesday, 24th, part of our original plan. It shouldn’t be too hard to bring them forward and change them to the Sunday 22nd sailing, as long as we could get to the office in Piraeus, assuming it was open as most other outlets in the city had closed a few days before. A fair amount of photo tapping occurred (not that FBI kind of phone tapping), and we cancelled the Plaza Hotel room booking for the following night and the Dodecanese tickets for the Sunday. There was no point trying to follow that route. The final leg of the journey had to start from Athens, and flying on from there was out of the question. I didn’t expect any refunds for those bookings which had been made the day before and now cancelled with short notice, but within a few minutes, the Plaza had refunded me the pre-paid room, and a little later, Dodecanese Seaways did the same. A ray of sunshine in a rather turbulent sunset, you might say.

Still smiling...

Still smiling…

All that left us with a 3.00 a.m. arrival in Athens and a potential three days there to wait for the ferry. So, back on the phone, more tapping and searching, and I came up with a hotel in Piraeus that was not only still open (many had voluntarily closed already), but one which also offered meals. That was handy, remember, because restaurants and cafes etc. had already been ordered to shut, unlike the British ones where we were able to have dinner in departures.

A hotel booked, we still had the journey to Piraeus, so I got back on the Welcome Pickups website (highly recommended) and booked a car to meet us at the airport. I’ve mentioned this company before, and since first using them a couple of years ago, now always use them when I arrive in Athens. You swap your details, phone number and even photo with a stranger as if you’re on some dating site, and they send you a picture of your driver and his/her phone number in return. You also pay in advance, so you not only are you not going to be ripped off, you also know who is meeting you and don’t get in the wrong cab.

That sorted, there was nothing to do but ‘relax’ until called to board which was due to happen at 23.20.

March 20th_1

Closing down behind

As I said, we had plenty of time to hang around a quiet departures and find somewhere that was open so we could have supper and chill with a glass of wine while we waited. Most of the shops were closed, and I wasn’t sure if that was because of an edict or if they were always closed at that time of night, but we didn’t need to buy anything, so that wasn’t a problem. A pre-flight drink or three was more important and that all went smoothly, though not cheaply, until 23.00. Then, returning from a walk around, we decided on one last glass of wine at the gate, as it was right next to the shops and bars (handy).

We headed back to the last place we’d been only to be turned away as the shutters were pulled down. The government had, within the last hour or so, ordered that all bars and so forth across the country had to close at eleven. And they did. They couldn’t have made it 11.15, could they? Ah well… We found a sushi place that was somehow still able to stay open and even more miraculously had cans of G&T in its fridge, so going against the grain, we had one of those each while waiting to board.

“My poor body, madam, requires it: I am driven on by the flesh; and he must needs go that the devil drives” Shakespeare. All's Well that Ends Well

“My poor body, madam, requires it: I am driven on by the flesh; and he must needs go that the devil drives”
Shakespeare. All’s Well that Ends Well

Sorry if this reads like a list of obstacles and details but that was how that day and evening was, but finally, at 23.30 we boarded our plane, and at roughly one minute past midnight, it took off. Good old Aegean Airlines, I say. We didn’t have any accidental priority boarding on this flight, but we did have those seats near the escape hatch with extra legroom. The nearest seats in front of us were a good four feet away and the guys there were wearing masks.
The only notable thing about the flight was that we had to fill in forms before we landed. These asked what’s now become common, your name, address, phone number etc., but also your onward journey details, hotel, when you will reach home and so on. This was before the phone app that’s now in place and the other forms now in use, and there was also talk of random testing.
Maybe because we arrived at 3.00 in the morning, there were no testing stations, but the flights before us had all been tested, or the passengers had, at least, and we were only slightly disappointed we didn’t get a turn. (As it turned out, we were fine and still are, in case you were worried.)

March 20th_5

Just to recap. So far on this trip, since joining the train in Toronto: The Canadian stopped running after we left it. The CN Tower closed to visitors after we dined there. Vancouver shut as we were leaving. The bars in Heathrow shut as we left. The shows we’d seen in London two weeks earlier were now dark, the tourist attractions shut, and we’d closed most of London too, it felt like. It didn’t bode well for the next two days, and we weren’t going to be happy and secure until we were on that ferry and it had pulled out of Piraeus. More about that to come as the race to reach home continues tomorrow.

A Day with Leonardo but not Tutankhamun

A Day with Leonardo but not Tutankhamun
Holiday Day 18 (March 19th) Heathrow

The distance so far

We are on the last leg of this trip now, but not entirely on our last legs, despite travelling over 12,000 miles so far. I was interested to know the distances of the stages of the journey, so turned to Google Map Developers to find some answers. These distances are as the crow flies, assuming the crow flies in a straight line, so are not 100% exact, and I have rounded them up. Still, this might be of interest to travel nerds like me.
So far, in miles, we’d travelled:

Symi to Athens, Boat, 245
Athens to London, Plane, 1,486
London to Toronto, Plane, 3,550
Toronto to Vancouver, Train, 2,087
Vancouver to London, Plane, 4,710
Total so far, 12,078

Heathrow 19th March_4

Heathrow from the hotel room.

That is further than the distance between London and Auckland, NZ, according to Google Maps. With two stages left to go, we had only another 1,737 miles to look forward to. London to Athens by plane, 1,486 miles and Athens to Symi by boat, 245 miles.
There was plenty of waiting around time in between as we are now on Thursday afternoon and we weren’t to reach home until Monday morning.

Heathrow

That’s for later in the week. Right now, we’re stretching our legs after a ten-hour flight from Vancouver to London which, now I think back on it, seemed to pass very quickly. I’m sure there were films, sleeping and food involved, and we arrived back at Heathrow around midday to a cold and drizzly afternoon. People had onward journeys, trains to catch, cars to collect, and we said goodbyes at baggage reclaim rather briefly, as I recall. By then, I was keen to get to our hotel, book in, and check our plans for the rest of the journey because I was aware the situation out there in the real world was changing rapidly. In fact, the world had changed considerably since we were last in London, and travelling through it required a different approach.

After some to-and-fro at the taxi rank (where the driver tried to barter us off to another cabbie because we were only making a short trip and I guess he wanted a longer one for income’s sake), we set off across the airport complex towards the Heathrow Leonardo hotel. Looking back, the airport was unusually quiet, and there was no queue for the taxies – a sign of things to come.

Heathrow 19th March_2

Remember that last time we were in London we’d been to see shows, walked around the West End, battled through the traditional Saturday night fights and frolics in Leicester Square, and negotiated our way through a full Travelodge. Now, looking at the television reports and hearing news from taxi drivers and others, it seemed London was in a post-apocalyptic state of desertion. You almost expected to see zombies staggering through the empty streets. A triffid, at least. It was as if everything here had closed behind us when we left, as Vancouver had closed with our departure. We had just disembarked from one of the last scheduled flights from Canada to London.

But the hotel was open and running as normally as it could be. They preferred cards to cash and offered hand-san on counters and bars, but otherwise, the advice was still to be cautious, sing Happy Birthday and keep a stiff upper lip, but that’s London for you. We checked in, recovered, found the scheduled itinerary and set up central control in the lounge/bar area. The original plan had been to stay at the hotel that night, pop into town the next day for the Tutankhamun exhibition and lunch with friends, stay at the hotel for the Friday night and fly to Athens for two days/three nights on Saturday lunchtime. That, clearly, had to change.

Heathrow 19th March_1

Tutankhamun

While I am dealing with changing a flight from Saturday to Sunday and booking a night at the Plaza in Rhodes, let’s go back in time to 1972. I am nine and standing in line with my parents and brothers outside the British Museum, waiting to see the Treasure of Tutankhamen exhibition. I remember a long, slow-moving line of people, the black iron railings beside me on the street, a vast courtyard with the line heading towards the entrance, and excitement mounting with each climb of the steps.
After that, I have a collage of images of massive, echoing halls, lots of people, and later, dark rooms with beautiful treasures. One room was in complete darkness, it seemed, apart from the golden death mask of a boy who died about 3,300 years ago. Everything else was gold and turquoise, jewelled and dazzling, so much so, I don’t remember the rest of that day or the trip home.

The visit sparked an interest in Ancient Egypt which then led to a fascination with Universal horror films, Boris Karloff and the rest, and I am still interested in both subjects today. In fact, I still have a book of the Tut treasures which may have been bought at that time as it’s always been in my memory. I notice it was published in the year of my birth, so there’s obviously some spooky tie-in there.

I’ve seen the treasures again since then. This was in 1987, when I went to Egypt on a tour, a day of which was spent in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo. As you might imagine, it was hot and busy, somewhat chaotic, and this time, we were herded through rooms and had all of five seconds to admire each piece, but it was all there. The following year, I went back to Luxor on my own for two weeks, and one day, took a boat and taxi to the Valley of the Kings after the tourists had gone and while the hawkers and hecklers were dozing in the shade. (It was about 45 degrees or something daft.) The lack of others made it possible for me to stand in King Tut’s tomb on my own, just me, and him in his sarcophagus (because he hadn’t been removed by then), and just ‘be’ for a while. Fabulous, but I digress.

The treasures, or some of them, were due to be at the Saatchi Gallery until May of this year and we had tickets. By then, however, the event was cancelled and our money refunded.

Heathrow 19th March_5

Meanwhile

So, we had an afternoon and evening to hang around the hotel, but it wasn’t without things to do. I’d managed to change our flight and bring it forward by a day, so we were now due to fly to Athens the following night, wait overnight at the airport (only four hours) and fly on to Rhodes for one more night before taking the Spanos boat to Symi, arriving on Sunday morning. That meant cancelling one night with Leonardo, three nights accommodation in Athens, booking an extra hotel and boat tickets. Luckily, as it turned out, I didn’t cancel the Blue Star tickets from the original plan, because I thought, I can do that when we get back, as with this new itinerary, we’d get home a day before the boat we were going to take left Piraeus.
I do hope you’re keeping up.

There was nothing else to be done but wait for the (new) evening flight due to depart the next day, so we sat, read, ate and had a bottle of wine of £15.00, the cheapest way to buy wine at this particular hotel, apparently. We also chatted to a young guy who was with an under-18 football team who had been hoping to fly out to Romania or somewhere exotic for a youth tournament, but because it was cancelled, now had a squad of disappointed but understanding teens to deal with, and he wasn’t much older than them. We also met a chap who was hoping to get back to Vancouver, but wasn’t sure he could – we said, of course, he could, we’d just left it, so there was plenty of space, but flights were being cancelled left right and centre.

Heathrow 19th March_6

That’s actually the board for tomorrow, but it was the same story. As I mentioned, I was already putting my mind to what if? And we came up with all kinds of ideas for how to reach home if all else failed. I was imagining a kind of Whacky Races dash across Europe and wondering if I could still remember how to drive after 17 years of not doing so and told myself, of course, I could. Not that I wanted to… Or maybe I did. We were in contact with friends in Brighton who offered us their spare room and money should we need it while we holed up there for however many days or weeks a sudden quarantine might last, but we were, at that point, all planned-out and had everything ready to go the next day. At least the bars were still open. For now.Heathrow 19th March_7

More tomorrow, and by ‘more’, I mean more changes to the route, more things closing down behind us, and a growing sense that we were being chased by events caused by the virus.

At least we ate well.

At least we ate well.

Mainly About Flying

Holiday Day 17 (March 18th) In the air, on the ground, in the air again
And starting to change plans

Today, officially our last day in Canada, was mainly about flying. We were due to meet everyone at the hotel in the early afternoon to board the coach to the airport for the homeward flight. That left us with a morning to wander what were by now deserted streets, look at closed offices, shops, cafés and tourist attractions, and fill in a few hours of, again, brilliant sunshine. While we were in Vancouver, we had hoped to take a trip to Grouse Mountain to do this…

zipline (1)

What to do?

The mountain’s attractions, however, were closed. We’d also hoped to visit people we’d met on Symi, including Yiannis and Megan who we had first met when Yiannis was teaching here on Symi several years ago, but they live on Vancouver Island and were working, and what with ferries and work, the timings didn’t fit, and we weren’t able to do that either. So, this, our last morning, was spent walking down to the waterfront again to pass the time and take photos of interesting sights such as this:

Vancouver to London 17th march_11

You know, one of the things I wish Google had was a function whereby you could upload a photo and ask, where’s this? I can’t remember exactly where or what this building is, except it’s number 355 Something Street and wasn’t far from our hotel. Perhaps someone will enlighten me. It’s a fantastic entrance to an office block though.

Vancouver to London 17th march_02

Meanwhile, some of our party had been speaking about the seaplane excursion they’d taken the day before or were intending to take that morning. As we walked, we discussed the idea, and by the time we reached where the seaplanes operate from, we’d made up our minds to do it. It was cheaper than what we’d put aside to fling ourselves off a snowy mountain in a canvas bag dangling from a piece of wire, so, why not?
Neither of us is scared of flying, we’ve flown from Athens to Rhodes in a plane with real propellers which I loved, and been stuck in a jumbo for 24 hours. I’d survived an Air Sinai wind-up contraption from Aswan to Abu Simbel in the past, and once taken a scenic Cessna flight over Land’s End, sitting in the co-pilot’s seat and wondering what would happen if the captain suddenly jumped out, passed out, or died. (I watch too many disaster films.) But, neither of us had been in a seaplane.

Vancouver to London 17th march_01

Seaplane sightseeing

‘So, why not? Come on then, we’re not going to get the chance again. Are you sure? It’s only a plane’ kind of conversation happened for all of two minutes, and we headed to the Vancouver Harbour Seaplane Flight Centre, which we’d walked past yesterday. This must have been the only sightseeing event happening in the city by then, and surprisingly (or maybe not) it wasn’t busy. We booked onto a flight in an hour’s time, and as the tickets came with free coffee, hung out in the terminal’s very comfortable lounge watching planes take off from the water. The service isn’t just for tourists as seaplanes, also called floatplanes, ferry people and post to the islands, so there was plenty of to watch until our turn came.

Oh, we found this unfortunately apt thing on the way to the dock…

Vancouver to London 17th march_12

There were five of us and a pilot on our 20-minute flight, and, of course, we followed instructions to the letter. All bags in the boot, which must have a better name than that, everyone strap in and try not to cough on each other – no chance of social distancing there, but then, it still wasn’t a requirement, just a serving suggestion. With everyone strapped in, the pilot poked his head through the door and asked, ‘Your first time on a seaplane?’ to which everyone replied, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, me too.’

Well, it broke the ice.
The trip gave us plenty of opportunity for photos. There are far too many to post here, but rather than me trying to describe what we saw, I’ll show you a few and let you imagine the hum of the engine, the tilt of the plane, what it’s like looking down directly over the top of a city, and what it’s like to know that there’s only half an inch of steel between you and several hundred feet of nothing.

Vancouver to London 17th march_03 Vancouver to London 17th march_04 Vancouver to London 17th march_05 Vancouver to London 17th march_06 Vancouver to London 17th march_07 Vancouver to London 17th march_13Vancouver to London 17th march_08

Take off was noisy, the landing was smooth, and the time in between magical, and we survived.

Vancouver to London 17th march_14

To the airport

Afterwards, we took a slow walk back to the hotel, checked the packing, vacated our rooms, and reported to the right place at the right time.
Cut to the airport.

You might know, or you might remember me mentioning a couple of weeks ago, that Athens airport has its own museum. It shows you what was excavated before they could build the airport, and it helps pass the time when you’re waiting for your flight. At Vancouver airport, we found all manner of distractions, including a late lunch, a display of Steampunk style objects including a camera, and some haute couture.

Vancouver to London 17th march_09

I thought Elaine C might like to see these ‘Brown Paper Couture’ dresses from the Givenchy 2011 spring collection because we came across them in her homeland, and hope others enjoy them too.

Vancouver to London 17th march_19 Vancouver to London 17th march_18

We didn’t have too long to wait in the quiet airport. The boards were showing a multitude of cancelled flights, and we learnt that this was to be one of the last flights from Vancouver to London until… Well, until everyone saw how it went and decided what was to be done, took advice and so on. All we knew and needed to know was that Keith was on top of things, our check-in was seen to, and we were again accidentally flying premium economy. No complaints there.

Stepping outside for some fresh air and to watch the somewhat limited world go by, I was impressed by the openness of the place, by which I mean even their smoking areas don’t discriminate…

Vancouver to London 17th march_15

We also gave the bears some air before they climbed back into our hand luggage ready for the nine-hour-twenty-minute flight. This was due to set off at 6 pm and arrive the next day at 11.20, and I’ve never been good at getting my head around all that shift in time zone stuff. When a nine-hour flight seems to take 17, I simply don’t worry about it. There were plenty of films still to watch on my personal screen, and although it was a night fight, there were dinner and breakfast to look forward to, and the linen tablecloths.

Vancouver to London 17th march_17

Racing Against Time

From now on, until we get home in a few days and this long, winding blog comes to an end, you will be pleased to know that the entries will (might) become shorter. That’s mainly because I took fewer photos during the return trip, and saw fewer places of interest. I’ll try and make it entertaining, however, because what started out as a simple homeward bound journey, soon became something of a race against time.

One thing we had picked up on while waiting for our flight was that all tourist attractions in London were now closed. Our original plan was to spend two nights at a hotel in Heathrow, the first to recover from the flight, the second to be there for our onward flight to Athens on the Saturday. The day in between was to be spent visiting the Tutankhamun exhibition in town and then having lunch with dear friends Kinny & Nick who had offered to take us to Joe Allen in Covent Garden for a late lunch and long overdue catchup. Well, both were closed, so there was no point going into town, and not much point staying in Heathrow, but we had flights booked that would give us two days in Athens to chill before catching the ferry home.

Vancouver to London 17th march_16

We decided, as we were waiting for the flight, that there was no point sticking to that schedule. London was closed, Athens was closed, and Vancouver was closing down behind us. So, sitting in departures, I started rearranging things, and falling into travel agent mode, cancelled our Air B&B apartment in Monistiraki. (We got an 80% refund, which I wasn’t expecting as it was such short notice.) I also started rebooking flights from London to Athens. This was via Aegean, and you can pay with PayPal, except I couldn’t, because I had no money in it, and, for some reason, wasn’t able to upload any from my bank. I had to contact Jenine for a temporary PayPal loan, and with about ten minutes before boarding, switched flights, the idea now being to fly to Athens on Saturday and head straight to Symi rather than wait around in Athens for the Tuesday booking on the Blue Star out of Piraeus. We’d worry about refunds later.
More about that as we go on, for now, I’ll just say it all got very complicated, and we’d have been stuck without a smartphone and Jenine.
And so, off to departures.

Vancouver to London 17th march_10

Again, we had that unnecessary priority boarding, and although we weren’t in the front seats with space enough to tap dance, we had plenty of room and were made very comfortable for our second flight of the day.
Watched films, ate, slept a bit, woke up, watched half a film, slept some more (I’m getting better at this sleeping when moving thing), and finished off the other half of a film, were served by attendants in masks, washed our hands regularly, were given free hand-san, dozed off…

On Monday’s blog, we land in London and check into our fifth hotel of the trip (sixth if you include the train), and begin a strategic game of reaching home before we’re locked down in London. We weren’t tense, in fact, I love this kind of challenge and part of me was already plotting how we might journey across Europe by land because so many flights were being cancelled and airports were closing down. Of course, soon, entire countries and their borders would be closed, but we didn’t know that at the time and anyway, that’s a story for Monday.
As you can see, at this point, we were still smiling.

Vancouver to London 17th march_21