Sweet Tweets

Thursday, September 20, 2007

On a midnight train to Athens

When you’re in Greece and you have the opportunity to go to Athens, a city you’ve never been to before, you would go wouldn’t you? I used this logic, and so, willingly entered into a Milton-esque experience…but would still do it again if I had the choice.

One of our major goals this week is to provide rest, refreshment and a break away from a hard and challenging summer and to hopefully send Romania’s college student leaders back with a high energy level and encouraged. One way we were hoping to accomplish that was to provide a free day for them to spend all day at the beach. They had other ideas…like riding on a train for 5.5 hours overnight to get to Athens, Greece and spend the day there. Most of the Americans were hesitant, but decided it was going to be a great experience, and better to be with the Romanians as much as possible.

So at 11:00 pm we rode a bus to the train station. Then discovered that the train was an hour late. Bad news for those of us that took a sleeping aid before we left the hotel in hopes that the miserable night of sleep in a train would be better with the magic of chemicals. So myself, Anna and Savannah were all under the influence of Tylenol PM while standing on a dark train platform. Picture 3 blond zombies leaning on one another.

As the train pulls in the station we see full cars passing by, and the dread starts to seep in. As we clamber on board, all 25 of us, we realize that there are no seats to be had. As we sway with the train’s movement, trying to stay upright, we look at one another asking the silent question, “this isn’t really happening is it?” I must say the Romanians definitely handled this better than the 6 Americans. A conductor told us that there were open seats 3 cars up. Hope blossoms. We start the trek…walking over people standing in the aisles, lounging in the connecting sections, and one very angry old gypsy woman that was screaming at each of us that stepped over her ample dimensions. I hear Stephen call out, “just 2 more to go!” And Savannah responding, “let’s just get off!” with equal passion. I am carrying a packed breakfast for Mark and myself in one hand and a 1.5 liter bottle of water in the other. Not a smart combination to be balancing when two men decide to pass you in the opposite direction in an aisle 2 feet wide and the train comes to a hard stop. I went flying backwards, cracking my ankle on a metal rod while Marcus lurches forward trying to catch me. Luckily, he kept me upright.

We arrive at our land of milk and honey…and realize that the milk is sour and it is exactly was what we feared. A completely full train with everyone going to the same destination. You then start thinking…5 more hours of this. No sleep. All day in Athens climbing, walking and sweating. The odors of insufficient deodorant application, baby diapers and cigarette smoke is overwhelming. After a while we decide to sit where we stand. We try the back-to-back partners strategy in hopes we might be able to rest. Savannah scores a seat and 2 hours later the man sitting to my right nudges me and pantomimes that I can have his seat since he is leaving. Sweat seated bliss! Unfortunately it is 2 more hours before Anna gets a seat while the guys never do and not one of them will take up on the offer to switch out. At one point I see Mark and Stephen completely prone on the train floor. It is amazing what you will be willing to do to try to sleep. Marcus decided to venture to the WC – and discovered that in the two bathrooms at the each end of the car were full of people…sleeping on the toilet. On a crusty, public, nasty train toilet. That is desperation.

We finally arrive after a torturous 5.5 hours of travel, not one of us sleeping, even those in seats, and ready to start the day in Athens with climbing up the Acropolis.

Luckily, arriving at 6 AM allows you to get to the Acropolis before anyone else, beating the crowds and heat. One of the oddest things I’ve seen yet on this trip (other than the 40-odd fur coat shops here in a seaside town – more on that later…) was an old man carrying a long wooden board down an Athens street and deciding to take a swing at a roughly 80 lb stray dog. A lot of barking, lunging and snapping ensues, with his other doggy friends rushing to the rescue. We stood in amazement at this old man swinging a board at the circling, barking dogs, not knowing what to do. Our attention was eventually ripped away by one of our students injuring themselves by walking into a fire hydrant while trying to watch this man get eaten alive. It is amazing how many large stray dogs roamed around the Acropolis, all the way into the Parthenon, where they lay sleeping.

The ancient ruins were amazing, awe-inspiring and not to be forgotten. After lunch we split up and decided to meet up at the Temple of Zeus across town an hour before we had to be back at the train station. At this point I decide to go off on my own (Mom and Dad, stop reading at this point, I’m fine, I was safe, I just wanted to do something different than the group and I made it back) and venture into the market area of the city. Incredible life, bustling and crowded and crazy. I haggled with shopkeepers, wandered the streets, watched the locals and came away with a few Grecian treasures. I hopped on the metro to meet up with the rest of the groups. Successfully navigated a line switch and came out at the right spot. Oh wait. I knew the stop, but where, oh where to go from here? Where is this “Temple of Zeus?” Not on any map evidently, and when I stopped a passing soldier and asked him, he quickly replied, “there is no such place.” Now, I have really enjoyed not having a cell phone this week, but I would have committed any number of embarrassing acts to have one right then and there. I start wandering, trying to figure out where I’m supposed to be and worried that I’ve scared my fellow tourists by not being there at the right time. I wind through the city gardens, knowing that this was supposedly close to my destination. I walk on down the city streets, hoping to catch a glimpse of ruins, any ruins; any old crumbling temple will do at this point. I finally see 3 decaying columns in the distance. Speed walking to get closer, I see what is called Temple of Olympian Zeus or on every map of Athens: the Olympeion. Actually, on every map it was more like: Τεμπλε οφ Ολμπιαν Ζυεσ. Not really, but something like that.

Anyway, I make it into the old temple ruins after confirming with the gatekeeper that I’m in the right place and start circling, looking for familiar faces, while the group was evidently circling exactly opposite of me. Thankfully Mark spotted me and Stephen ran the length of a football field yelling my name. Turns out they hadn’t been there for long, weren’t worried about me a bit and were impressed with the fact that I had found the place after all.

Tired, hungry and dusty, we headed back to the train station where we purchased tickets at the same price and had assigned seats on a new, shiny train. Why this little piece of train heaven was the same price I’ll never be able to figure that one out. Our trip was uneventful, other than the odd, random old woman falling into Mark and me twice. We caught the bus back to the town (after missing the first one and waiting another 20 minutes) and called it a night. The Americans did indulge in a few Nutella crepes at the local gelato place, the Ice Factory, sitting in a combination of stupor and exhaustion-induced hysterical alertness.

We all agreed that we would do it again just to see what we did. Maybe it’s sign of extreme jet lag and delusion, but we all thought it was worth it.

1 Remarks:

Shannon said...

I LOVE this! You are such a great storyteller Melissa!! You should be a travel writer. Seriously. This is what travel is all about... the unexpected twists and turns that end up making great memories! I don't think I would have enjoyed reading this nearly as much if you had ridden on a sparkly new train overnight and arrived well rested in Athens! :) I'm glad your trip is going well and can't wait to hear more and to see some pics when you return! Love and miss you!