We got grounded. Well, the two of us and the entire country of Greece actually were grounded. There are worse places to be stuck I suppose like the Istanbul airport for one….but that’s another story for another day. To recap my last post – our trip to Greece was only minimally punctuated by the effects of the financial upheaval, political unrest and refugee crisis in Greece and the EU, up until the big punctuation mark of a big, fat, full-stop period. The full stop period, or perhaps an ellipsis ending in a question mark, came from the country-wide strike of air-traffic controllers (and some other government workers) and all flights were grounded. Just like that, they decided that for 24 hours, they weren’t going to show up for work in order to protest their pensions being cut after Greece’s deal with the EU for their bailout plan. We were left wondering how firm the “24 hour” limit was and scrambling to make the most of the extra day (and contacting our dog-sitter, our families and our jobs about it).
Overall, our experiences with the problems going on there were limited to cheaper costs of goods and services, a few calm and organized protests involving anywhere from 20 – 300 people, and two families living in tents on the side of the interstate who may have been refugees. I’m not trying to minimize the issues going on over there, the situation is dire for some; people are literally dying trying to get to Greece and out of the war-torn areas they’re fleeing. The financial uncertainty for the citizens of Greece is also a terrible thing they’re dealing with but the news paints the picture so much so that you’d imagine there was rioting in the streets and refugees at every turn. There were no riots that we saw and the refugees were either in camps at the edge of the city or the ports, or gone already making their way to the border. What we saw were regular people going about their regular business as best as possible. The Greek people we met were so welcoming, eager to discuss their country and had obvious pride in their heritage and history. The shopkeepers and waiters/waitresses were friendly, strangers on the street were helpful when we were lost and the taxi drivers gladly gave advice on the best places to go and see. They showed gratefulness when we tipped and were making the best of things generally. When we would ask about tougher topics than where the best souvlaki was, we got a wide variety of answers – as we would have gotten in the US asking about any given person’s stance on religion or politics – but everyone was willing to say what they thought and to discuss how their lives were impacted by the problems facing Greece and the EU. There wasn’t a lot of negativity (except towards Germany) and we even got a lot of questions back about issues going on in the US and well…Trump. One thing a taxi driver said that made me proud to be an American (despite Trump) was his observation that (paraphrased) “only in America can any idiot like Trump be allowed to run for President and say whatever he wants without being put in jail or worse”. So, whatever you think about Trump, he is proof of the culture of freedom we have here in America to be able to speak our mind in public, no matter if the mind is full of mush and misogyny.
So for our day on our own, with no scheduled bus tours and no dinner reservations how did we manage?? Well, we asked the concierge what things they would do and after they listed all the things we’d already done we were encouraged to go explore the nearby island of Aegina. So, we took a taxi to the Port of Piraeus and boldly bought a ticket for the hour-long ferry ride over to the island. I say “boldly” because we had heard that the next day’s planned protest was going to be a port-workers strike. I had a slight paranoia that they would change their minds while we were on the island and we’d be stranded even more so by another 24 hour government strike. Luckily, that didn’t happen.
Our day on Aegina was really quite great! We had skipped breakfast so went straight to an early lunch at a streetside cafe and looked up things to do on the island. One of the highlights there is the Agios Nektarios Monastery. We grabbed a taxi at the stand and headed out. We ended up hiring Kristos for the afternoon because the closer we got to the Monastery it became obvious that it was secluded and there wasn’t a whole lot of tourists or traffic around to hail another taxi when we were ready to leave. Also, on the island, our cell phone’s had no signal so that presented another problem. Kristos happily negotiated a rate for him to show us around after we were done at the monastery, apparently that’s the thing to do and 50 Euros (including tip) wasn’t a bad price for an afternoon tour. The Monastery was interesting but didn’t take long to go through so we headed off with Kristos to explore.
He suggested we go see the Temple of Aphaia which was an important point in Greek History and was one of the better preserved Temples we had seen. Along our drive to see the Temple of Aphaia, Kristos waved to almost every person we passed and even pointed out his elementary school! It’s a small island and Kristos’ family has lived on it for generations – he said thousands of years. One of the interesting things Kristos told us is that the island has no source of natural water, prior to water being brought in a pipe from the mainland, they relied only on rain. The biggest thing going on the island, other than the many Convents and Monasteries, were pistachio orchards. We had passed many, many, street-side vendors selling pistachios and pistachio products of all kinds down by the dock, each yelling at us they had the best pistachios or the best prices or to come try their pistachio honey….etc etc. It had been a bit overwhelming and we hadn’t stopped. Kristos though dropped us off at the stall of a friend of his and told us we could trust these guys would take care of us. Now, I know that sounds sketchy but really, he was a genuinely nice guy and his friend DID have really really good pistachios. Like the best pistachios I’ve ever tasted. Daniel thoroughly enjoyed their pistachio ice-cream and they had a Nutella-like product, except made with pistachios that was out of this world. We left with bags of pistachio products. While we waited at the dock for our return ferry, I had to go pee and there wasn’t a public restroom anywhere I could see. Since we were right across from the pistachio stand I went over to the guy and asked where the nearest restroom was. Instead of him giving me directions somewhere, he took me upstairs above his shop to his own restroom and let me use his. That’s the kind of nice the Greek people were. The pistachio guy stopped selling pistachios to help out a mildly distressed foreigner he would probably never see again and he did it gladly. If I have one story to show how nice the Greek people were….there it is. Later that night, we took advantage of our hotel’s restaurant on the top floor overlooking the Parthenon and savored our (for real) last day in Greece.