Chapter 1 – The Beginning
“Heads it’s Napflion, tails its Crete.” I had the quarter in my hand. The plane was in its final landing stage. Engines roared. I could feel the thrust and temporary burgeoning power of the behemoth as my breath quickened. The rooftops and greenery of land defined itself as we quickly descended, thrusting upward to meet us. I tossed the coin in my right hand, slapped it down on my left. “Okay Trent, what is it?” I didn’t look, just opened my left palm. I wanted my fifteen year old son to be the first one to discover which road we would travel, our destination, our future for the next year.
“It’s tails, Mom. It’s Crete.”
The plan to leave our safe, comfortable, but slightly crumbling world in Salt Lake City, Utah had as much to do with an elevated sense of adventure as economic necessity. Ever since reading “My Family and Other Animals” to my two older boys, Trent, 15 and Tyler 12, I had promised them we would live in another country for a year. Like the Durrell family in the book. “Sometime” I had said, meaning it loosely. The book, read years earlier, is the true story about a young English boy, Gerald Durrell, fascinated with animals and a budding naturalist, who lived on the Island of Corfu, with his eccentric family.
Shortly after my divorce putting two and two together only added up to three, and I realized that we would have to move from our family home……or rent it until I could engineer a plan B to consistently pay the mortgage. Fluctuating child support payments, late payments, and escalating costs with growing children made it a challenge.
“Okay, “ I said, glad the decision had been made and I could plan the next step after exiting customs. If it was Crete, we would be going to Piraeus to catch the ferry. Napflion would have required finding a car rental agency and driving the 10 hours to the city on the Peloponnese Peninsula that had captured my attention during my research.
Deciding where to spend our year away had been no easy feat.
“I want to go to France,” nine year old Ashley had spouted during one of our family planning meetings we called ‘Pow Wows”. She had watched a movie where a line of French girls were doing the Can Can. She had been practicing in front of the full mirror on my door, wearing one of my old full sequined skirts, kicking up her legs as high as possible, falling often.
“I think we should go to Italy,” Tyler added, who had been studying Roman mythology in school.
“Well, Mom speaks German,” Trent chimed in. “That makes more sense. And I want to go to those salt mines in Austria. You slide down huge tunnels on the cart tracks….in the dark.”
“Yes, I’d love those countries too,” I admitted twirling our world globe. “But we have to find a place where the cost of living is low. Way lower than ours, so we can factor in the cost of our traveling to get there and the cost of housing and food, and still live more cheaply than here. Otherwise we will just need to move into a 2 bedroom little apartment on the west side of town.” I paused and made the statement that became my mantra. “I’d rather go where deprivation is an adventure.”
“Yeh” Trent agreed. “If we have to be poor, I want to be poor in someplace fun.”
We narrowed our choices down to Mexico, Portugal or Greece. Because of Gerald Durrell’s book, we chose Greece.
“Make sure the kids’ seat backs are up, have them gather up all their stuff, crayons, books, pillows, put everything back under the seat in front of them” I enlisted Trent who looked chipper and ready to conquer the world. I turned to the row behind me. “Tyler, wake up. We’re landing. Put all your stuff back.” The three of them looked like they had been dragged through a storm, and moved like automotoms.
It had been 23 hours since we left Kennedy Airport in New York. There was the layover of 12 hours in the Airport in Prague, which seemed endless, and now the three hour flight to Athens. We were too tired to get excited about anything.
“Hey guys, zip up your bags, come on,” Trent was balancing a small suitcase and three carry on bags as he worked his way forward along the narrow aisle of the plane. “Clay, you forgot your jacket. Do I have to carry everything?”
We drifted mechanically down the stairs to the ground, the sultry warmth of Mediterranean air fought for prominence over the smell of jet engine fumes. But the sky was crystalline blue, and we all looked up, eyes squinting to the expanse of heaven that would be our piece of earth’s atmosphere for the next year. We filed into the arrival area and customs hall, claiming and gathering our ten pieces of luggage.
“Tyler, go get another cart,” I turned to son number two. “Follow Trent, he’s over there. Clay, stop putting your hands on the baggage belt while it’s moving. Ash, stay here with Clayte and these bags. I think I see the blue one on the other side.” Eventually the ten suitcases, and twenty carry-on bags (two per person) were piled on the luggage carts, passports checked and we entered bedlam. Immediately swarthy, dark haired men approached us, asking “Taxi? Taxi, Where you go? English? German? I take. Need hotel?” I fanned them all away and barrelled my way to a currency exchange booth to buy drachmas while the children gaped at the crowds, people gesticulating over other people, shouting (the Greeks love to shout!) hugging, calling, complaining, waving.
I knew since we were bound for Crete we needed to get to Piraeus, the port, which was about a half hour away. I had arrived at Piraeus almost 20 years earlier on an overnight ferry from Brindisi, Italy, with my friend Carla Cannon on our hitchhiking through Europe adventure. I knew personally how far from Athens we had to travel to the port city. The only other option from Athens to Crete was flying, which was not in our budget. Besides, the thought of a 12 hour ferry ride sounded fun.
Outside the glass doors the moustached Greeks were as relentless flogging their taxis as inside. We ploughed past them and stopped a few yards away, distanced from the tumult while I took a big breath.
“Okay, “ I said to one man who had followed us from inside. “How much to take us to Piraeus?”
“Where you go?” he started looking at our luggage, taking in the full measure of the situation.
“We are going to Piraeus to catch the ferry to Crete.”
He immediately whistled and his cab drew up driven by a young boy who quickly disappeared. The taxi man started lifting a suitcase into an open door of the vehicle.
“No,” I took the bag back. “I need the price first.”
“Good price,” he answered as he started to lift another bag off our cart. Trent stepped in front of him, as bag guard. “3,000 drachmas” the man said. I had read my Greece on $5 a day and I knew what the price was supposed to be. In those days the $5 a Day Books for Europe were a travelers bible. “I will give you 1,500” and I turned away from him and started towards another of the cabbies that had clustered around us.
“Okayee, okayee, 2,000 drachmas.”
“1,500,” and I turned to another man and began a discussion about price for his services.
“No problem misses, I do for you,” our original entrepreneur agreed. And he quickly began loading our suitcases into the open trunk of his cab.
“There’s no way we can get all our stuff in one taxi,” said Trent to me and Tyler under his breath.
“Does anyone have a big taxi, a van?” I yelled loud enough that the talking stopped. All the men looked at each other and then started up again, louder, with more animated hand gestures in what sounded like The Tower of Babel on market day. ‘Big” I stretched out my arms so they would understand what I was saying, because I seriously didn’t think they did.
“Mom,” said Tyler, “I can’t see anything bigger than these taxis. The only vans are for hotels. We’ll just have to get two taxis. Maybe us in one and our suitcases in the other.”
Our little Greek taxi driver refused to see the writing on the wall. He was bound and determined to get us and all our luggage in his taxi. I peered inside the open driver’s window and realized the small mini vehicle would not even fit four of us, let alone all five.
“It is not possible,” I tugged on our driver’s arm as he started piling bags on the top of his cab, obviously intending to produce some rope or twine. The trunk was full but would not close. Even then there would not have been adequate space. It was like a size 16 woman trying to zip up a pair of size 10 pants, refusing to admit defeat. Just then a policeman who had been casually observing the scene tapped me on the shoulder and said “No five in taxi. “ And he shook his finger at our driver.
“Okay, we need two.” and I turned to the other taxi drivers still arguing, but awaiting the outcome of the preposterous optimism of this cabbie.
“Who speaks English? “ Several of the dark haired men moved forward. I turned to one whose halting syllables sounded most convincing,”You take us to Piraeus, too? Some in your taxi, some in his? And you follow each other?”
The thought of separating my children in two separate vehicles in a strange city was horrifying. What if the taxis didn’t stay together? What if the other taxi just took off in a different direction and I never saw two of my children again? I have an amazing amount of faith in the universe, which has dragged me through some incredibly harrowing experiences. But this one involved not just me, but my children, and I felt like I was facing a diluted version of Sophie’s Choice.
“Trent, you get in the other taxi with Tyler. I’ll take Clayton and Ashley. If your driver starts going a different way, roll down your window and scream or open the door. Here’s 200 drachmas”
“It’s okay Mom, we’ll be fine,” he said, but Tyler’s eyes were wide and uncertain.
“1,500” I said to the second driver as I shut my two oldest boys in his vehicle. “And stay right behind us.”
Once in the taxi I let myself relax. Both Ashley and Clayton were nodding off even though it was the middle of the day here in Athens. I looked out the window at the industrial outskirts of the big city finding nothing quaint and charming about the plebian route we were taking.
“I think no ferries tonight to Kriti,” said our driver, turning his head back to me. The front seat was piled high with bags.
“Oh, yes, I know their schedule.” I answered back. “ There is one at 7 pm every day.
“Ah but tonight ferry full. I take man there today. All tickets gone tonight. Must wait. Must go tomorrow morning. Ticket sell out fast Sundays.”
“Well, I think we should just try,” I answered.
“I know good hotel, very cheap. Stay tonight, rest, and go in morning. Better. Get ticket. Monday morning not busy.” I could see his eyes in the rear view mirror waiting for my response. He knew he hadn’t convinced me so he continued. “We ask other taxi. Him knows no more Kriti tickets on ferry today.”
Then he pulled off the side of the road, and flagged down the following taxi to stop. We were in a large semi deserted intersection and our driver walked over to the other car, which was sitting right in the middle of the road. The two drivers started talking loudly, yelling, waving their arms up and down, back and forth. I got out of our taxi and hurried over to them.
“What’s the matter?” I looked at both men. “I want to go to Piraeus.” The children were all wide awake, watching the drama. A few other cars passed by, driving awkwardly around the two taxis and the dramatic scene. My heart was beating. There was no one around to be my advocate. I took a big breath and with the instinct of a mama bear protecting her cubs I said in a slow loud command: “I don’t care if there are no tickets. Take us right now to Piraeus or we will get out now with our bags.”
As I spoke it came to me in that flash that this was a ruse, that our driver was trying to make money, get a kickback from a hotel.
I could tell the driver of taxi two was not in agreement with the nefarious plan. He spit out the window mumbling something unfathomable in Greek. He was shaking his head and shouting out to our driver as he walked sullenly back to his taxi. Our man was angry and kept up his litany of Greek anger under his breath the entire drive to the port.
At the port of Piraeus our bags were bailed out unceremoniously. Not a word was said. I paid each driver in the awkward silence, giving a meagre tip. We were left alone by ourselves, no one else in sight, only 50 yards from the ticket office.
“Kids, stay here with the bags, I’ll be right back.”
With a sigh of some kind of relief for one hurdle conquered and faith in my ability to conquer the next, I opened the glass door that was plastered with posters of Greek islands. “Are there any tickets for the ferry to Crete tonight?” I asked the pleasant looking young man at the counter.
“Yes miss” he smiled and answered in clipped proper English ,” how many would you like? Do you wish for the deck chairs, the inside hall chairs or the private cabin with four beds?”
The tiny cabin with four slim beds was the height of luxury. The cost was about $100, but well worth every penny. We had been up for so many hours. Even the fact that I had to share a three foot wide bunk with my five year old son could not dampen my exhilaration as we watched the mass of land, frosted with random shaped rooftops recede into the dusky night.
Each step had been a challenge. We were NOT travelling light, and the younger children could not even lift their big suitcases which were weighed down with everything we would need for a year. Trent and I had moved the mound of luggage slowly, piece by piece. First into the small office to wait, then in the line to board the ferry, to wait, then finally down three sets of metal stairs to the luggage storage area in the hold of the ferry.
The air was balmy as it blew away our travel fatigue. We all leaned over the railing into the wind, swallowing eagerly our first taste of Hellena as the stars cast their twinkling omens of luck like a protective covering over all. When we tired of that we explored every one of the five levels of the large ferry, bought some chips and drinks and harmonized our inner melodies to the steady hum of the engines, the languid movements of the boat. Later that night as I carefully slipped Clayton onto the narrow floor space between the bunks, I could see half smiles on the faces of my little sleeping warriors already dreaming of their mountains to climb and dragons to slay.