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Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Trouble with Athenian Buses

Today a headline is "Athens Bus Hijackers Threaten Blast". Apparently two men with shotguns hijacked an Athens bus, demanding to be taken to the airport and flown to Russia. This, of course, reminds me of my own Athens Bus drama.

Amy and I went to Athens in Summer 2000, after visiting London, Cambridge, etc. as part of our honeymoon. Now on the planes we had gone over a touch of modern Greek, things like hello, thank you (efharisto), counting. But to be honest we weren't even comfortable with the alphabet yet. And I had never been to a non-English speaking country, so I was quite apprehensive anyway.

Getting off the Greek plane (a decidedly second-rate machine compared to U.S. planes), we knew we had to catch a city bus to our hotel. Now most of us are use to it being obvious where and how to procure your next leg of transportation after deboarding at a modern airport. But we proceeded outside, found the bus stop, and were simply baffled about how to get tickets. Amy was brave and asked a couple people, both of whom were impolite, but at least one told us where to go. You see in Athens bus tickets are only for sale in bars. This is even true at Athens International Airport, believe it or not. You buy your bus tickets at the Athens International Airport frigging bar. Makes sense, right? "Two shots and two bus tickets. Efharisto."

So next we are on this bus heading towards downtown Athens, each of us carrying two or three big bags. It is very hot. And we have no clue where to get off. At first there is hardly anyone on the bus, so I figure when we get into downtown we can walk to the front and ask the driver. Brilliant, Brad, except that it is rush hour, and soon the bus is totally packed, and we are sandwiched near the back. With our big bags there is no way we are getting anywhere close to being able to talk to the driver.

Now a confident traveller would ask those nearby, until someone who knew English well and who was not rude would help. But my xenophobia was peaking at this moment, and I wouldn't want to bother these tired Athenians who just got off of work with my stupid American questions. And you couldn't have paid me to speak a word of Greek to an Athenian, even though I knew "excuse me" at the time -- I felt too stupid for that. Anyway, I figured, Amy had had a lot of experience in international places, so she should be the one to play the ignorant American traveller murdering the local language, she already had that skill!

So I just focused on watching the street signs to see if I could transliterate any of them into anything corresponding to anything in our guide book, while my brand new wife got annoyed waiting for me to stop being so useless. The problem with my approach was that it would take me a full minute to transliterate all of the Greek letters on a single street sign, by which time it didn't matter because the bus had gone a quarter mile further. And none of these streets were on our super-simplified guidebook map anyway. All I had going for me was a strong suspicion that we were on the main street into downtown, which would (according to our map) have to be the same street that our hotel was on.

So having "decided", through indecision, that we would just get off the bus at some random point and then do something, this is what I had us do. The bus was getting into some big buildings now, it was getting sort of downtown-ish, and heck the other American couple in the front of the bus was getting off here, so we pushed our way through the other passengers (who hated me, I'm convinced) and exited the side-door here -- wherever "here" was.

It was a releif to be off of the bus. Buses on lines you don't know can be so demanding, you know, as if they are saying: look, figure out where to get off or you're going to be screwed, fool!

We stood on the sidewalk and looked around. We were next to a park around some sort of national monument, and across the street were some large buildings. Athens was hot and dirty and loud, and a stream of rush-hour mopeds was going past on the large street, filling our noses with exhaust. In front of the park, a little ways down, a young uniformed guard was holding a machine gun. How nice.

I went to work transliterating the nearest street sign. Then the sign on the building across the street.

O Greek gods, efharisto: That building is our hotel!


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