Just when you think that’s it, no more Hellenic ruminations from me – for this year at any rate – up pops the airport. Preveza: an establishment as eccentric as the country it serves, although a good deal more organised these days than the first time I flew in and out, some twenty-six years ago, bound for an Ionian villa/flotilla holiday.
Then it was just a series of military-style concrete huts, the departure lounge an outdoor holding pen of scrubby grass and broken concrete, tall razor-wired fences keeping us in check. Our flight was delayed so there we languished, slowly expiring, with neither plastic seating nor shade, the midday sun beating down relentlessly on our tender English heads. No café, so no bottled water supplies. The only available toilet blocked and overflowing, soiled paper trailing across the floor – and no fresh supplies. Thank the Greek gods we were packing Wet Ones – or whatever they were called back then.
The airport is still used by NATO and Hellenic Air Force Command but now it’s a good deal busier with holiday traffic. There are ladies with clipboards who call you ‘sweetheart’ and smile when you enquire after your queue. But be not deceived by their kindness. I don’t for one minute doubt their soft hearts, but behind those clipboards lurks a firm hand, guiding bewildered holidaymakers into line.
With limited check-in desks at one end, the queues file to the opposite end of the hall before, rather confusingly, criss-crossing at the front when it comes to check in, causing much last minute swapping of lines for those foolhardy enough to ignore the clipboard lady – and a good deal of tutting from those whose queues they muscle into. There’s an art in positioning yourself in readiness, adjacent to the spot your queue might begin to form, ready to beat the coachloads sure to spill through the doors at any moment.
Once checked in, you’re advised to leave the airport completely. Imagine that! From there, you can visit Jimmy’s, an eat and drinkery where white plastic tables beckon, nestling under shady trees, and the home made pizza and spinach pie taste fantastic, a final blast of Greece. Or you can take your life into your hands crossing the busy road to another establishment (which last year we did, and found disappointing).
Finally, you amble back into the airport, through the security screening and into the departure lounge, now fully equipped with snacks and duty free, choice of toilets, an ample sufficiency of loo roll and running water!
Who knows, next year, they might even have departure screens which actually work, thus eliminating the guessing game about which gate you might be departing from – and saving the voices of hard-pressed staff yelling into mics. But then, what would I write about?
What is it about Greece that brings out that inner yoghurt knitter in us all? Two weeks under the Ionian sun, chomping on goat’s cheese and olives, swigging cheap wine and unidentifiable liqueurs, and suddenly we’re floating about in cheesecloth and woven ankle bracelets.
I can express my inner hippy with the best of them (let’s face it – I was almost there first time round. This is the girl who bussed it across Manchester to art college every day in the early-seventies, dressed in flowing kaftan and flip flops – even, occasionally, a floppy hat – much to the amusement of our next-door neighbours). But even I’m struggling with what appears to be a growing trend amongst women well into their ‘silver years’. At least two sail past, stately as galleons in their flowing robes, long hair plaited into Heidi-style pigtails, one on each bosom, plastic ribboned-bows clipped demurely at their temples.
Another – only slightly less mature – lady wanders by in a dress style originally conceived for a five-year-old, row after row of smock-stitched ruching squishing her boobs into flat-chested submission. And she’s wearing false eyelashes!
Meanwhile, young girls drift around in little more than floaty, spaghetti-strapped frocks, all muzzy sun-bleached hair, bracelets and flimsy flip flops. Suddenly, I’m channelling my mother, hoping they’ve packed some sturdier shoes and a cardie in readiness for the shock of September in England.
There’s a male equivalent too. The office clerk gone rogue, straw trilby perched jauntily atop bronzed brow, carefully positioned back to front in contrived defiance, brim cocked upwards over the forehead and down at the back, the mid-life version of the reverse baseball cap.
Another silver crop-haired gentleman sports a white T-shirt (all the better to display his nut brown skin), tucked into US Army desert fatigues, tucked into scuffed rigger boots. Not sure what message his body was shouting but he was shouting it loud.
Finding the real country
The airport also reminds us how crumblingly chaotic life is in Greece, and Levkas in particular – despite being touched by the gods. Sappho is said to have leapt to her death here and Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, to have been born here. The German archaeologist, Wilhelm Dörpfeld (who died on the island in 1940), having uncovered the remains of a settlement dating back to 2000 BC, believed that the bay of Nidri on the eastern coast was the Ithaca of legend, home of Odysseus.
As one holiday company’s reps mill cheerily around their departing guests, their T-shirts bear the strapline ‘Find the real country’. And you don’t get much more ‘real’ than here. Three out of six toilet cubicles ‘out of service’, door handles falling off their screws, hand dryers stubbornly refusing to blow any air at all.
Back in Vass, pavements crumble precariously at the edges. In the cafés, chairs and tables teeter perilously close to the harbour’s edge and a four-foot drop into dark, greasy water. On the other side, 4x4s pulling trailered boats fight for road space with puttling scooters and growling motorbikes as they negotiate their exhaust-fumed way through ambling pedestrians and rushing waiters bearing trays of food, barely two feet from the shoulders and noses of the evening’s diners. All part of the Greek experience!
A makeshift sign at the new wooden bridge across the stagnant outflow between our hotel and town – comprising a stick hardened into a bucket of cement with a board nailed to its top – forbids motorbikes and cars to cross. Half way through the week, it tumbles (maybe thrown) into the stagnant mire (daring anyone foolish enough to retrieve it), and there I suspect it will stay. Within moments, motorbikes are rattling their way across the woodwork. This time next year the bridge may well have gone the way of the sign, plank by splintered plank.
Everywhere you look, half-constructed concrete structures loom from scrubby wasteland, a derelict restaurant sprouts weekend squatters, wires and bits of crumbling masonry dangle from roofs. All this alongside newly-tarmacked roads to once-secluded beaches and shiny new, glass-fronted hotels (shades of things to come).
But despite all that, despite their crumbling homes and shambolic surroundings, a more generous, warm and easy-going people you couldn’t wish to meet. They are the real country. The real Greece.