A Travel Vignette

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From a Greek Travel Diary (1980)

Greek Vacation Nightmare

A Bob Djurdjevic Column, July 1980

PLATAMON, Greece - Olympic Airways was our gateway to Greece. From our past trips to this country, we knew that from the moment we passed the Olympic Airways' gates at the Frankfurt airport, we'd have to have our wits about us. This was soon justified as the ticketing agent issued us two instead of four boarding passes. Fortunately, our self-defense mechanism had already been deployed by this time, thus avoiding the hassle on board the jet.

Having asked for the non-smoking seats, we promptly found ourselves in the smoking section. It quickly became apparent that the Cancer Research societies in Greece were either very inactive, or non-existent. Throughout the flight we were enveloped in smoke. We also noticed that the "non-smoking" seats were no better off. You see, instead of dividing the two sections into aft and forward cabins, Olympic had the smokers sit on the left, and the non-smokers on the right side of the aircraft. As a result, everybody smoked, either directly, or indirectly.

Our flight from Frankfurt to Thessaloniki took two hours. The Greek cabin staff used all of it to serve out one meal! Throughout the flight, passengers and the flight attendants were tripping over each other in the single aisle of the Boeing 727 which was always clogged up with carts. That's because Olympic had the food supply and the disposal located at the same (back) end of the aircraft. Thus, each cart had to be taken all the way back, before the next one could enter the aisle. We were being quickly introduced to the "Greek way of life..."

As we disembarked at the Thessaloniki airport, we joined the line which formed in front of the passport control booth. After that, we had to line up again in order to declare the amount of foreign currency we were bringing in. Big signs warned that failure to do so may result in the confiscation of your money when you try to leave the country. In total, our airport clearance took about one hour.

Just as we passed through the customs, a porter whisked our bags from the counter and took them to the taxi stand, some 50 yards away. I offered him US$1, since I didn't have any Greek currency. He refused it. Gesticulating and speaking furiously in broken English, he said he'd found the tip insultingly low, and would not let go of our bags until I gave him two dollars.

This may indeed seem like a reasonable tip to an average American. But, what an average American doesn't necessarily know (and I did from my past trips to Greece) is that the tip earned for a 50-yard trip pushing the baggage cart would buy four liters of (excellent) Greek wine, or four half-liter bottles of beer, or a nice T-shirt, or a snorkeling mask, or six ice creams! But, after 12 hours of flying half-way around the world, I was just too tired to argue...

Meanwhile, the Yugoslav relatives who were supposed to meet us at the airport were late. They had their own encounter with the "Greek way of life." Somebody had double-parked beside them so that they could not get out of the parking lot until the driver of that vehicle returned, about half an hour later.

The "Platamon Beach" Hotel's "Phantom" Facilities

Platamon is a small village some 100 km south of Thessaloniki. We were told by our travel agent that the "Platamon Beach" hotel was new, and had excellent facilities, including the air-conditioning and the telex facilities which I needed for business purposes. As we approached it, the seven-story structure stood out among the low-rise buildings of the little fishing village which was trying to become a resort town.

We were met courteously at the door and shown to our suite on the sixth floor. We had a beautiful view of the ocean and the beach, but no air-conditioning. Actually, the air-conditioning units were there, but they weren't operable. When I asked the front desk to do something about it, I was told that, "the air-conditioning is very expensive to run, and most of our guests have no need for it." When I replied that in the 90-degree weather at least this guest was feeling an urgent need for it, the hotel clerk promised to have someone "fix it tomorrow." Having previously experienced the Mediterranean version of the "maņana" syndrome, I had a feeling this would never happen. It didn't...

Soon, we discovered that there were other "phantom" facilities, only present in the hotel brochures. Our evening stroll to the beach revealed that the swimming pool was an empty hole in the ground; that the grass was growing from the cracks in the asphalt tennis court; that the hotel grounds were infested with mosquitoes; that neither the hotel dining room, nor any of the guest rooms had any screens.

When we asked for a crib for our infant child, the hotel staff looked at us in amazement, as if we were asking for the Moon. When we asked the head waiter for a booster chair, he was even more astonished. Meanwhile, at least half of the families which were vacationing at the hotel had small children!

After dinner, I asked to see the telex facilities in order to make sure the telex operator was competent enough to handle overseas messages. I was told the hotel did not have a telex. When I confronted them with a telex number published in their own brochure, I was told that that telex belonged to another company in Thessaloniki (as you know, about 100 km away). At that stage it became clear to me why our travel agent said he never received any replies to the three telex messages he had sent.

Having lost a night's sleep due to the time zone changes, we went to bed right after supper. All four of us were awakened at about 12:30 a.m. by the sound of loud music from the disco club below. We complained to the front desk, but to no avail. Finally, around 1:45, the music stopped. But, this was not the end of our ordeal. As the disco club patrons started to disperse, most of them seem to feel a need to rev-up their engines and "peel the rubber" as they left the parking lot. We also discovered that the Athens-Thessaloniki railroad tracks were barely 200 yards away. Dogs and donkeys occasionally filled in the gaps between the rumblings of the trains.

The following morning, we moved up to a new suite on the top floor of the hotel. The suite had an even better view of the ocean and Mount Olympus. But inside, the rooms looked unfinished. Some electrical wires were sticking out of the walls. And the guardrail on our balcony consisted of chicken wire. So, we asked the hotel staff to erect a wooden barrier to prevent our small children from falling down seven stories. The air-conditioning here wasn't working either, but at least we were on the north side of the building. We had prospects of cooler and quieter nights. Things seemed to be improving.

The Earthquake...

At 5:10 a.m. on July 9th, any dreams of a tranquil vacation were shattered. My wife and I were jumped up in our bed, awakened by a strange rumbling noise. "Why are you shaking the bed?" I asked her. "Who is shaking the bed?" she replied. "The whole building is shaking and swaying... My God, it must be an earthquake!"

We rushed to our children's bedroom next door. They were just starting to shuffle in their beds. We grabbed each of them and headed out. At the door, my wife had enough presence of mind to suggest I take my briefcase where all our documents and valuables were kept. Even though we were on the top floor, we also had enough sense to avoid the elevators. The building was still reverberating from the dying tremors of the initial shock, as we started to descend down 14 flights of stairs.

As we approached the lobby, the decibel level of human voices rose. It seemed that the entire hotel population had left their rooms and gathered in the driveway just outside the lobby. People were talking excitedly in their own tongues. We couldn't find anyone who could speak English. Finally, I bumped into the hotel manager. "Are these types of earthquakes normal?" I asked a silly question in retrospect. "No, but don't worry," he tried to comfort me. "The hotel is well built."

His reply didn't reassure me at all. I was thinking of unfinished balconies, non-existent telex machines, wiring which stuck out of the walls. I wondered if the Greeks really knew how to design the seismically "safe" buildings. Or if, even if they did, some of the steel from the reinforced concrete slabs didn't end up in the pockets of some corrupt construction official.

My distrust of the Greeks' competence had reached the stage that if one of them suggested we ought to run for the hills, I would probably have taken my family to the ocean. No one told us to run for the hills, but we went to the beach anyway because it was far enough from the building and the falling debris.

As we sat on the sand facing the East, the grayness of early dawn gradually yielded to the orange glow of the rising sun. But, thousands of mosquitoes which descended upon us had no intention of giving up that easily on the succulent human prey. I suddenly understood why some German prisoners of war, who managed to escape from the swamp-encircled Canadian camps during WW II, eventually turned themselves in -- voluntarily. The mosquitoes and the black flies were worse than their human enemies.

Similarly, earthquakes or no earthquakes, I dashed into the hotel and up to our suite to get us some clothing with long sleeves. Just as I got out and we had our children dressed, another tremor shook the place. Some more debris fell down from the hotel building. But, the building remained standing. At this stage, my wife and I realized that a slight shaking which we felt sitting on our balcony the first night probably wasn't the dizziness after a long flight as we had initially thought, but rather another light tremor. Too bad we didn't have our dog along...

Finally, after several hours of "camping out" on the beach, we went back to the hotel and tried to get some information about what had happened. Most of the panic-stricken Greeks who spoke English quite adequately the day before, suddenly seemed to have forgotten it. Finally, I saw the night porter whom I met during the disco club incident who told me that the Greek radio reported a substantial property damage in the neighboring towns. The radio said the quake registered 6.3 on the Richter scale.

By mid-morning, most of the hotel guests had departed. For a few days, the hotel looked like a ghost town. We could not help but notice that the Germans were the first ones to check out. But, this should not be held against them. Any sensible person should have done the same. Except if this were day three of his prepaid three-week vacation... And, except if this were day three of a big, long-awaited "family reunion" with his Yugoslav relatives -- all of whom, by the way, were "safe and sound" in their motor homes parked in an auto camp, a former U.S. air force base, a few miles down the road.

You see, at the time, I did not feel safe to return to Yugoslavia. Thus, the only possibility for the grandparents to see their grandchildren was, either in North America, or in the countries neighboring Yugoslavia. Even if we literally risked our lives to do it... Which was stupid. For, the following day, we learned that some people were killed by the quake, and that 17 were injured in that part of Greece. The several hundred aftershocks which followed, the strongest of which was 5.6 on the Richter scale, were the daily reminders of our stupidity.

The two and a half weeks which followed the earthquake were pure hell. We lay awake most nights listening to every sound, anticipating the frightening rumble to resume at any moment. And we remained on the top floor of the building -- something which, in hindsight, was again a stupid thing to do, the disco club noise notwithstanding.

The irony is that we knew we didn't stand a chance of escaping alive from the 7th floor. Yet, instead of getting the hell out of there, we had our childrens' clothing neatly piled up beside their beds, just in case we had to leave in a hurry. As if it would have mattered what clothes they died in... We had our "escape" plan worked out, having examined the beams which criss-crossed our suite. But, it would have been all for naught, of course. Scared people do act strangely, even if the family ties may partially explain our irresponsible behavior toward our children... It nevertheless was just that -- irresponsible.

Fortunately, we never had to put our "emergency measures" into effect. But, lying awake at night helped us get acquainted with a family of cockroaches which seemed to live under our bed. We also met several grasshoppers. And, after awhile, we learned to distinguish the rumble of the passing Athens-Thessaloniki trains from the earthquake's aftershocks.

The Fire...

After about a week, we managed to convince ourselves that the worst was over. Our sleep patterns returned almost to normal. But, not for long. At about 1:30 a.m. on July 18th, a fire broke out on the second floor of the hotel. Being five floors up, we only noticed a slight burning scent. But, in the morning, we found out that the entire second floor had been engulfed in thick black smoke. Someone had apparently fallen asleep with a cigarette burning which set the bed afire.

The fire was put out by the guests in the adjoining rooms, not by the Greek fire department. No alarm sounded... no firemen appeared on the scene. When asked about the incident, the Greek hotel staff shrugged it off with, "it was no big deal"-remark. "Everything's OK," they said. "No problem. Don't worry." This reminded us to check the hotel out for sprinklers and fire escapes. You guessed it: there were none!

Another Fire... In Belgrade

The fire spisode reminded me of another similar incident in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, just before I emigrated from there in late 1969. A cousin of mine, his girl friend and I, were watching TV in my apartment. As I recall, Roy Thinnes was starring in one of the episodes of the American TV series "Long, Hot Summer." At one stage during the program, my cousin's girl said, "don't you guys smell something burning?" (women seem to be indeed generally more perceptive!) My cousin and I dismissed her comment as if she were dreaming. But, after a few minutes, we could all see the smoke creeping into my apartment underneath the door which adjoined it with my (architect) landlord's suite. No longer was it just a "crazy girl's" opinion.

I jumped up and went into the kitchen. "Call the fire department," I shouted as I grabbed a bucket underneath the sink and turned on the tap. There was no water! Of all nights, this was the night that the city had chosen to do some repair work on the water lines. Consequently, they had turned off the water to our apartment building.

By now, the black smoke was penetrating even into the kitchen. I had to decide -- either head for the exit, or try to put out the fire somehow. I thought I'd try the latter alternative. Since there was no water in the sink, I opened my fridge looking for whatever liquids we could find. As it turned out, I had plenty of beer there. So, my cousin and I starting emptying the beer bottles into the pail, as his girlfriend went to make a call to the fire department.

I grabbed the pail and opened the door of my landlord's apartment. Thick, black smoke hit my face. Instinctively, I crouched before proceeding. I proceeded slowly, my eyes watering, almost crawling ahead to his bedroom. There, I saw that the mattress on his bed was on fire. It would appear, that he'd left his bed light on. Somehow, the light fell and eventually ignited the mattress.

I threw the contents of my pail into the mattress. There was a hissing sound. I then ran back to the kitchen, trying not to breathe along the way. Meanwhile, my cousin had another pail partially filled with beer. I repeated the trip back to the burning bedroom...

By the time the fire department people arrived, the fire had already been extinguished. There was only a smoldering mattress left. At the time, I remember noticing with a youthful ridicule how all the firemen, their gas masks, helmets and all -- literally crawled on the floor over which I had already run several times before they came. At the time, I thought that what I did was a "macho" thing to do. Today, I think it was only -- stupid...

The Windstorm... And At Last -- The End

It would have been perhaps too much to expect that the last day of our stay at the Platamon Beach Hotel would end uneventfully. At 1:15 a.m. on July 22, we were awakened by a howling wind. As my wife and I hurried to close the doors, a tremendous crash shook the place. The gale force winds had torn off a metal balcony divider and threw it some 15 feet away, as if it were a toy. Meanwhile, our children were blissfully asleep.

In the morning following the storm, I tried to lift this divider back into its place. I couldn't. It must have weighed well over 100 pounds.  Luckily, our Greek vacation was almost at an end...

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