FROM THE WILDS OF MANHATTAN
Greece: It’s a Riot
Maybe I’ll go to Amsterdam or maybe I’ll go to Rome
And rent me a grand piano and put some flowers ’round my room
But let’s not talk about fare-thee-wells now the night is a starry dome
And they’re playin’ that scratchy rock ‘n’ roll
Beneath the Matalla moon
Carey, by Joni Mitchell
After 35 years of living in New York, Desk Jockey realizes that New Yorkers hate minding their own business.
You can see it when we mill about construction sites and peer through windows workmen have cut into the wooden barricades, relishing our role as “sidewalk superintendant.” You can also see it in Central Park when that “hotdog cyclist” who refused to wear a helmet suddenly wipes out on his bicycle and blood gushes from his head as a crowd of bystanders stops to gawk at him.
But there are certain times—like annual vacations—where controversy and mayhem are shunned. That’s why last winter Desk Jockey began planning his vacation to begin in Athens so he could see the Parthenon and then fly to the quiet island of Crete, about an hour’s flight from Athens, for a biking holiday.
In early May, two days before his departure from the Big Apple, Desk Jockey learned via a news story on the Internet that his flight was cancelled.
The reason: Strikes. Oh, yes, and three people burned to death in a bank building in Athens.
Rioting on vacation? Swell
Greece has faced a significant crisis this year with rising unemployment, insufficient bureaucracy, tax evasion and corruption to name a few of its problems. All of this precipitated a calamity throughout Europe. In May, Greece’s bonds were downgraded to junk bond status prompting Germany to acquiesce to the rest of its EU brothers and sisters and sign on to a 110 billion Euro bailout package.
Greece’s part of the bargain included freezing salaries, raising the price of petrol, and extending the age of retirment. On the very day Desk Jockey was due to arrive in Greece, Trade Unions and anarchists took to the streets of Athens, staged massive strikes shutting down all government-run entities including the Parthenon and the sparkling new Parthenon Museum. Sympathizing with the strikers, air traffic controllers’ no-show behavior caused all flights in and out of Athens to be suspended for two days.
Additionally, rioters hurled Molotov cocktails in the street near the Grande Bretagne Hotel where Desk Jockey and his trusted companion C were due to stay. So much for ordering an Ouzo and water at the rooftop bar.
Getting out of Manhattan, any way you can
The first item on the agenda for Desk Jockey was to get to Greece in the first place. The second item was to rebook his internal flight so as to skip Athens and fly right to Crete.
After waiting two days for a new flight out of JFK and biting his cuticles down to his knuckles, Desk Jockey and C finally flew to Athens Airport, and thereafter, directly to the isle of Crete.
Riot? What riot?
Crete is an island that has seen its own share of violence over the last 2,500 years. First, the mainland Greeks invaded, followed by the Romans, then the Byzantines (twice), then for a short period the Arabs, then the Venetians (for 400 years), then the Turks (for another 200 years).Only in 1898 did the Cretans become bonafide Greeks.
In May 2010, Crete was about as peaceful as peaceful can be. There was absolutely no evidence of any serious violence with the exception of a few smashed ATMs and graffiti scrawled on a couple of bank facades. And while Desk Jockey was there, that’s how it stayed.
A Third-World country, smack in the middle of our world
Apart from major cities like Heraklion, Rethymnon and Chania on Crete’s northern coast, Desk Jockey found the island to be rather out of the mainstream of modern life. He actually experienced this enjoyable feeling first-hand because he cycled rather than tour-bused through the scores of little villages across the island.
Roads in these villages looked as if they hadn’t been repaired since they were built nearly a century ago. Instead of Starbucks, FedEx, and Kinkos, he and C cycled past little shops that looked as if they hadn’t seen anybody but other Greeks in decades.
Old men in dark suit jackets over baggy trousers hobbled with canes in the middle of these roads, oblivious to automobile traffic (because there basically wasn’t any). If they weren’t on foot, they were surrounded by a group of men just like themselves at small cafes playing backgammon in the midday sun, puffing away at cigarettes and drinking small cups of coffee.
Free of traffic. And tourists, for that matter.
Another thing Desk Jockey noticed (and was reminded of by his hosts) was the fact that most of the restaurants and hotels on the island were empty. Save for a few beach-y resorts on the northern and southern coasts, the tourists—mostly French, Germans, and Poles–were largely absent from Crete. Explanations ranged from the poor economic conditions in Europe to the fear of being stranded due to transportation strikes in Greece. While Desk Jockey found this disheartening, he was also secretly pleased that he had the island mostly to himself (and C, of course).
The ancient past is very nice, thank you very much
However, the tourist-free island of Crete held a very special attraction for Desk Jockey, who regards himself as the epitome of the overbooked, ultra-sophisticated Manhattanite. The sky was cloudless; the oceans, sapphire blue; the temperatures were in the 80s; the beaches clean and restful. If the beach at Matala was good enough for Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan 40 years ago, it was good enough for Desk Jockey.
Photo by Desk Jockey
Descending by bicycle from the 4,000-foot-high White Mountains of Central Crete, Desk Jockey gazed upon the Libyan Sean dotted by whitecaps. He pedaled (mostly up) through terrain that varied, in a single day, from desert-like to Caribbean-lush. The food was so irresistible and well-prepared—crisp spinach pies, lamb stifado with local herbs, complex, cave-aged goat cheese–and a far cry from the generic mushy moussaka and pastitsio you get in most Greek diners back home. Desk Jockey actually gained weight on a bicycle journey where he biked 450 miles in one week.
Photo by Desk Jockey
Recommend Greece? Hmmm
Desk Jockey has mixed feelings about the homeland of Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Aristotle (Onassis). The country depends on tourist dollars, but tourists may feel somewhat apprehensive about visiting a country where their well-being is threatened by strikes and violence.
The solution may be to do as Desk Jockey did: avoid Athens altogether and head straight for the islands—Crete, in particular, for its history, beauty and cuisine.
After all, if Desk Jockey wanted protests, noise, demonstrators filling the streets and sirens going off all night, he would have stayed in Manhattan.
August Cosentino is a professional writer who cycles passionately, eats discriminately, attends theatre religiously, Facebooks constantly, and as the photo indicates, is as good to his mother as he was to his father who passed away in 2012. He lives in Manhattan with his two carbon-fiber bicycles, and G.
ARTICLES BY AUGUST COSENTINO
AIRMAIL – From the Wilds of Manhattan
The End of the Bucket List
Fifty Shades of Pain: Cycling the Pyrenees, One Mountain Pass at a Time
Go West Young Desk Jockey
Greece: It’s a Riot
How Many Facebook Friends Are Too Many?
Marylebone and Me
The Sandwich Generation: Eldercare and Me
Scandinavia, The Great Escape
Welcome to the Jungle: Is Mad Men Really About Advertising
Work Like Wall Street: Earn Like Main Street