I love the theme from this month’s travel linkup: the most interesting character you have met.
But the face that immediately popped into mind wasn’t who I expected. It was a face from a bus in Athens some 13 years ago… but before I get to him, you need to know some context.
Some 12 or 13 years ago, my boyfriend at the time and I took a trip to Greece. I was studying in Paris and he lived in Lausanne. I’d developed the world’s best weekly routine: classes Tuesday afternoon to Thursday morning, hop on a train to Geneva on Thursday afternoon and return on Tuesday morning. I’d do most of my school work on the 4 hour ride down (to this day, still one of the prettiest train trips in my opinion), spend the weekend on the French/Swiss border or in Lausanne and wrap up any reading for the week on the train ride back up. It was wonderful. And because of it, we were basically broke.
Somehow we managed to scrape together money to get tickets for a few days in Greece in the springtime – it was a big trip for us and I was beyond excited to travel to a country where I couldn’t even read the language. We arrived in Athens and immediately caught a ferry from Piraeus to Naxos – the biggest island in the Cyclades. We’d planned to spend a few days exploring the island and then gently make our way back to Athens to wrap up with a few days there. I remember Naxos being calm and humid – we basically just wandered the little whitewashed alleyways, ate Greek & octopus salads and pasta bakes with aubergine and drank ouzo on our little balcony.
One day, as we strolled through the harbor, we happened to see a sign in a travel agency window in English that read: “Strike imminent – ferries cancelled.” Cue panic once we learned it was a national strike that would mean we’d be stuck on the island for days and wouldn’t make our plane back to Geneva. We needed to leave our hotel in Naxos a day early, book an earlier ferry and find a place to stay for a night in Athens a night before we’d planned to be there. These were the days before widespread WiFi… we did it all with the hotel lobby’s phone and a Lonely Planet guide.
We loaded up the backpack – we’d stuffed everything we were travelling with into one oversized duffle bag which normally held a surfing kite – jumped on the ferry and sailed away. Straight into a thunderstorm. The next four hours were honestly some of the worst I have ever spent. The ferry we were on was gigantic but we were tossing and turning on the water. Never was I happier than when we touched dry land.
Except it wasn’t dry… Athens felt like it was drowning in a monsoon it was raining so hard. Our canvas backpack and everything inside it was absolutely soaked through. We made our way to the train station to learn that the strike had already started and extended as far as taxis. The only way to get from the port to central Athens was by a few night buses that were still running that would make a giant circle across the city. Absolutely miserable by this point and – at least for my part – seriously close to tears, we needed to figure out where to get off.
And this is where we meet our hero. As I tried to decipher the rain-drenched route map in my hands – holding on for dear life as the bus took sharp corners like a rally driver – I happened to glance up at a little old man sitting on the seat right in front of me, leaning on a cane. He had one of those faces that looked remarkably lived in: wrinkly, friendly and authoritative. He gave me a quizzical little look as if to say “what are you looking for?” I tried to pronounce the name of the neighborhood we were hoping to reach. He gave us one sharp nod of the head, touched his fist to his chest in a gesture that clearly meant “trust me” and then waved his arm down in a strict motion that clearly meant “sit down, stop worrying, you are being ridiculous”.
It was one of the most reassuring things any stranger has ever done for me.
With no words and two gestures, he’d made me realise we weren’t going to be stranded in some random neighborhood in a city where we didn’t speak and couldn’t read the language. All of our clothes would eventually dry out and the rain would stop. Our preciously saved up for vacation wasn’t ruined and we would see Athens after all. The adventures you come across when you travel don’t have to seem scary. They can just be adventures.
We travelled in silence together for maybe 30 minutes or so until he made some shoving motions that we should get off the bus. And that was it. But I don’t know if I’ve ever been so grateful to someone who never said anything to me. And it makes me smile to remember him 13 years later – now much more adept at travelling, but still just as grateful.
Really looking forward to reading others stories from this week’s linkup. To see more, check out Rebecca (this post is incredible), Emma, Kelly and Molly’s blogs.
Photo of Naxos by Sergio Alvarez found on Wikimedia