Margaret and Dick   


July 2014: The Greece chronicles
Our 2014 "Limoux" stories start in Greece. 

The doctor will see you now  
You won't like it 

There may be one more story coming -- TBD.  


Back in the day, I had occasion to test various techniques of hitch-hiking.  I have one epic tale on this topic, but to hear it have to give me two glasses of wine and also drink a couple yourself.  No, it won't ever appear as a Limoux story.

I've tried hiding a guy behind a tree while we two women did the thumb-in-the-air thing, which worked well.  I’ve tried putting on a pretty dress, which I can't recommend because I ended up jumping out of a moving vehicle.  In my 1970s experience, traveling salesmen always drank beer while driving through dry counties in the South.  I've enjoyed sun-drenched bliss on the back of a flatbed truck in Algeria, where a hand from the cabin passed us oranges, then bread, then olives.  In Ireland, every donkey cart and elderly couple would stop for us immediately, and we were abducted by a voluble Irishman who insisted on driving us around the Ring of Kerry before delivering us, some eight hours later, at our destination.  Guinness was involved.

These are some of my most cherished memories, and frankly I thought my hitch-hiking days were over.  In Santorini, however, I discovered the most effective hitch-hiking gambit ever.  It is, alas, this senior citizen waving down traffic with a cane.

I had spent three weeks in Greece in 1977 and was looking forward to showing Richard this magical place.  Imagine my dismay when, on a short hike to view the famous caldera of Santorini, I sprained my ankle in a moment of inattention.  When the initial blinding pain subsided, I looked down at an ankle the size of a cantaloupe.

There are no flat surfaces on Santorini.  As it happens, my loving husband had brought a cane on the hike as a prophylactic measure.  I had created a terrible fuss last year when he bought it, encouraging him to forestall infirmity by walking cane-free.  Now that I was the infirm individual, the cane seemed a brilliant idea.  I ate some crow before he was willing to let loose of it.

I hobbled to the road, and in no time the cane enticed some Québécois tourists to give us a lift back to town.  Richard went on errand of mercy to a pharmacy that serves many tourists with sprained ankles.  My gallant guy also came back with Vin Santo (comes from Santorini -- who knew?) and cigars.

It was turning out to be a good vacation after all.


The doctor will see you now 

Five weeks before our trip to Greece, I had some minor surgery.  Nothing big, just enough to warrant my surgeon's caution about traveling abroad so soon after the procedure.  

The ankle issue was a good distraction from the surgery issue.  On the long ferry ride from Naxos to Piraeus, however, I decided I wasn't happy with the (d)evolution of my incision.  By the time we reached the hotel in Athens, I decided that immediate action was necessary to avoid infection.  The next day was to be spent walking around hot gritty Athens (the Acropolis, museums, Plaka old town) and doubtlessly sweating up a storm, and the following day would be spent in transit back to Limoux.  If I was going to be dealing with medical issues, it would be now.

Lousy internet at the hotel.  The hotel clerk assured me it was working. Or, if it wasn't working just now, it would surely be working in ten minutes.  Roaming charges be damned, I thought, and called the surgeon's office back in Atlanta.  I described my symptoms.  

"Are you back already?"
"I'm in Athens."
"Oh, good.  When can you come in?"
"Not Athens Georgia.  The other Athens."
They told me to relax and assured me I probably didn't need antibiotics.  In any case, the surgeon would not be able to help me with a transatlantic prescription.

I went to the lobby and told the hotel clerk that I needed antibiotics now.  At 6pm.  He connected me with a pharmacy, whose responses were, basically, "I don't know, I don't know, I don't know, I'm sorry."  The hotel clerk thought it would be difficult to get a last-minute doctor’s appointment and I might have better luck at a hospital emergency room.  He gave us the address of the nearest hospital.

We jumped in a taxi for a ten-minute ride to the hospital.  I paid the driver five euros and, feeling grateful in my time of panic, added a two-euro tip.  (Huge expression of gratitude as he waved good-bye.)   

A moment later, the hospital security guard explained that the emergency room was closed.  "How can an emergency room be closed?" asked Richard.  So sorry, tough times for the Greek economy, let me give you the address of the one hospital whose emergency room is open right now.

We jumped into another taxi for another ten-minute ride to the second hospital.  I paid the driver five euros and, still feeling grateful, added a two-euro tip.  (Another huge expression of gratitude as he waved good-bye.).  While walking up to the emergency room, we wondered how many people would be in line ahead of me.  As it turns out, we could not possibly have imagined.  

We walked into the entry room of Dante's inferno and took our place in line.  When we reached the window, I told the triage nurse that I needed to see a doctor to get a prescription for an antibiotic to avoid infection.  "Pathologia", she said, handed me a piece of paper with the number 66, and waved me down the hall.  We walked down the hall to a door marked ПΑΘΟΛΟΓΙΑ.  An electric sign above the door showed the number 24.  It quickly advanced to 28, so there was hope.  We scored two chairs in the crowded hallway.

Occasionally the door would open and I would peek into a room crowded with row upon row of gurneys, each holding a person waiting for medical attention.  I looked around the hallway to see dozens of people who were settled in for the duration.  Many people had ports for IVs taped onto their arms.  A gurney rolling by had a sheet that was splattered with (really only a bit of) blood.  The medical staff wore white coats that had not been ironed in, maybe, forever.  Twenty minutes into this waiting game, I looked at the electric sign.  Still the number 28:  thirty-eight people ahead of me.


"We have to get out of here," I told Richard.  I was not going to trust my medical fate to this system.  In a country where the long leisurely lunch begins at 2pm, surely there would still be a doctor available at 7pm.  Somehow.  We walked out and hailed a taxi.

"Areos Hotel.  Near Alexandras Street."  
The driver smiled.  "Near where on Alexandras Street?"
"Sorry, I don't know, it's Areos Hotel.  Here it is on the map."  We showed him the annotated tourist map, which of course was in English.  He looked in vain for the word Αλεξαηδρασ.  We pointed to "Alexandras", a big busy street, but it was all English to him.

He handed the map back and started to laugh.  "Do you have a card from the hotel?"  Uh, no.  He was having a really good laugh by now.  "How do you expect me to find your hotel?"  It was decided that he would drive down Alexandras St and we would figure it out.  Which we did.  I paid him seven euros and, again feeling grateful, added a two-euro tip.  (Yet another huge expression of gratitude as he waved good-bye.)

"Everything okay?" asked our smiling clerk.  "No, nothing's okay.  I need to see a doctor right now."

A moment later he had located and phoned a nearby doctor.  "Would you like the doctor to come here, or can you go to his office?  He's three blocks away."  We were more than happy to go to his office.  He wrote down the doctor’s name (“Wow, this name is difficult even for Greeks!”) and address.  We walked/hobbled to the office, and the doctor greeted us warmly.  I tried to address him by name, but he stopped me short.  “Never mind, my name is difficult even for Greeks.”  He ushered me in to the examination room and asked the usual new-patient questions in perfect English.  "Are you a smoker?"  Uh, two cigars this year, but they were both this week.  He did not scold.

After a thorough examination of the angry incision and a thorough all-over palpation, he had good news.  "Your body cannot hide infection.  You do not have an infection.  You should stop panicking.  Breathe."  He suggested, considering our itinerary of the next few days, a week of antibiotics to keep panic at bay.  I breathed a sigh of relief. 

We told him the story of the emergency room.  He apologized and said that this was the state of public medicine in Greece.  "The facilities are old, but the doctors there are very, very good.  That is where I did my residency.  Unfortunately people usually have to wait three or four hours.

"Now we're going to talk about that foot.  Unwrap it, please."  I didn't have the nerve to tell him I had been logging four miles a day on my sorry ankle.  "You definitely need an x-ray."  He pointed at my (now) purple toes.  "You're sure you're not taking any blood-thinner?"  He gave me a gentle tongue-lashing and I promised to get an x-ray immediately upon my return to France.  We left very impressed and very grateful.  The pharmacy was just next-door, and by 8pm I had my first dose of antibiotic.

Back at the hotel, we told the story to the clerk.  "By the way," I asked, "how much do you tip taxi drivers?"

"Oh, we don't tip taxi drivers usually.  Maybe fifty cents, but you really don't have to."

I think it was an excellent investment in karma.  My good fortune in meeting this doctor was surely a direct result of over-tipping.  When we arrived at the Athens airport two days later, I upped the tip to five euros.  The driver responded with a huge smile and thanks.  "You're a really good driver," I said, and I gave him a wink.

You won't like it 
"You won't like it," said George, our hotel host.  "They take a fresh cheese, salt it, and let it sit for months.  It will be too sour for you."  Our host is a man of strong opinions about anything and everything, including my taste in cheese.  Immediately upon tasting an aged anthotyros (“flowery cheese”) at a little beach restaurant in Naxos, it became a quest:  must bring home.  Wikipedia describes its complexity as “powerful aroma of sherry”. 

The second-generation owner for this family hotel, George is the boss, and he herds his guests with the energy of a sheepdog.  A larger-than-life extrovert, he gave us the flavor of conversation in Greek culture:  savor, don’t rush.  I told him that I also love to cook.  He pointed to his ample belly and said, "Yes, but you have to taste it also.”  

We enjoyed interactions with George, and we especially enjoyed his fabulous breakfasts.  We had arrived the previous afternoon after walking twenty minutes in a howling gale, reported to be force 10 on the Beaufort scale.  The process of disembarking from the ferry had been somewhere between controlled chaos and abject panic, as the ferry was unable to stabilize at the dock.  Have you ever seen a roller-board suitcase leave the ground and extend like a sail from its firmly-grasped handle?  When we arrived, we competed with George’s cake for his attention to get advice on what to do in Naxos.  "Just a moment, I have to get back to the kitchen to whip up the eggs and get the cake into the oven.  Otherwise you won’t have cake for breakfast."  

The cuisine of Greece provided a great snapshot of the culture.  The underlying philosophy appears to be:  use farm-fresh ingredients, prepare it simply and with love, and get out of the way.  A salad of fresh cucumber, tomatoes, red onion, and olive oil with a dusting of oregano, Feta cheese, olives and/or capers, with a squeeze of lemon to finish it off – who knew that Greek salad could be this wonderful?  Fried sardines.  Fava beans boiled tender, puréed with olive oil, decorated with plenty of thin-sliced red onions, served warm and unctuous.  Tzatziki, taramasalata – the old standards suddenly make perfect sense when prepared with farm-fresh ingredients.  
  We went to three very different places in a week.  Santorini, the legendary Atlantis, did not disappoint, with gorgeous views abounding along the top edge of the not-quite-dormant volcano.  We were there just on the leading edge of the tourist season, and there were already a zillion tourists.  When we went to the ferry, twice as many people disembarked as embarked with us.  The cuisine was fabulous, fueled by ample tourist dollars.  

Athens, huge and gritty with air pollution, was a busy modern city but with a twist:  right downtown, the Parthenon was perched on top of the Acropolis hill.  In the fabulous museums, sculptures of real people in real situations were as fresh as when they were made four thousand years ago. 

But I prefer to explore off the well-worn tourist path, so Naxos was my favorite.  Big enough to have self-sustaining agriculture with charming farm villages, Naxos was our best window on Greek culture.

On a day trip hosted by Stuart, an Englishman who came 15 years ago and stayed, we sampled the inland culture, beginning with a hike to a ruined monastery in the middle of nowhere.  At a café shaded by plane trees like we have in France, we snuck photos of a local Orthodox priest and friend while they gave us the evil eye.  In a small historic church, a little old lady in a headscarf admonished us:  “No photos.”  But she was happy to take a one-euro donation for a beeswax candle to add to others burning in a shrine.  She looked like she’d been sitting there for a hundred years.  

We had perhaps our best meal of the trip in the village of Filoti, near the center of Naxos.  There was no need for a menu:  mama’s in the kitchen and you'll eat what she’s cooking today.  Her Greek salad had veggies picked that morning.   Our foodie/wino traveling companion declared the local wine oxidized, then went back for seconds and thirds.  A platter of the best French fries was the best we had ever tasted, thanks to great potatoes and stove-top frying in olive oil.  They also required seconds.  After enjoying a couple of casseroles cooked low and slow, we went into the kitchen to thank mama.  Papa handed us a sack of cucumbers he had just picked from the garden.  How is it possible that the grown daughter who so competently waited on us wore no wedding ring?  “She’s choosy,” explained Stuart.  Choices are few in a little village at the center of Naxos.  The bill for two hours of bliss:  7€ per person, around $10.

Wrapping up our trip with a whirlwind day in Athens, I happened on a little gourmet store near the antiquity sites.  “Aged anthotyros cheese?  Yes, we have it.”  She didn’t say, “You won’t like it.”  She knew I would.

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