Part 1: Arrival
5 May 2014
Since the flight is run by Air France, the announcement is made three times, in three different languages. First, French, of which I catch about every third word. Then, English. “Ladies and gentlemen we are beginning our final approach into Athens. Please make sure that your seat is upright and your tray table stowed.” Third, Greek. This last is a recording; apparently no members of the flight crew speak the native language.
I look out the window, but get barely a glimpse of the city before we descend into the clouds. Fine by me. While I normally enjoy watching take off and landing, right now I’m feeling loopy from the effects of jet lag. Instead, I close my eyes, and let memory wash over me.
My first trip to Greece was not my first time on an airplane, but up until that point I had never travelled further than from Pittsburgh to Boston, at least by air. We had visited Toronto twice, but those were road trips, and back then you didn’t even need a passport to go across the US-Canada border.
That first trans-Atlantic flight was made via British Airways, on their then-daily run from Pittsburgh to London Gatwick. For a wide-eyed ten-year-old, it was quite an experience. The flight crew were all extremely polite, and seemed charmed by me and my seven-year-old sister. Coloring books and crayons were provided, and they even allowed Dad and us the opportunity to go up front to the cockpit and meet the pilot and co-pilot.
I don’t remember sleeping at all on that plane, probably due to excitement. I vaguely remember how it felt to look out of the window and see another country for the first time: The Thames was plainly visible, but I recall thinking that, initially, it looked very much like home. Of course, as we got closer I realized that the cars were driving on the wrong side of the road….
Compared to Pittsburgh International, Gatwick was HUGE. We had enough time to find a restaurant that served food which my sister and I would eat, food that tasted somewhat like we were used to, and then changed terminals to catch the next plane.
Landing at Athens that first time was like going back in time. The airport had no jetways; planes landed and then rolling staircases were pushed into position for passengers to debark. Buses waited at the bottom to take passengers to the terminal. It was mid-morning, but already it was hot. Inside was not much better, and was hazy with cigarette smoke. Mom led the way through customs, using Greek learned via teach-yourself cassette tapes. Luggage was finally claimed, and when we finally made it into the terminal proper we discovered that Grandpa and Grandma had come to greet us, bringing little presents for my sister and I. As Mom now jokes, they seemed to have eyes only for the two of us, while Mom and Dad were left to deal with the bags….
There is a bump, and the plane has landed. I open my eyes to see the scenery flashing past. As the plane slows and taxis to the jetway, I take a moment to admire the “new” airport. In all, I only flew in and out of the old airport three times, because the current one opened for business in 2001. Once stopped at the gate, I take a moment to turn my phone back on. It has to think for a moment, but then it connects with the local network and I receive a message about how to make calls, what calls and texts and data will cost, and where to call if I should need assistance. My seat is further forward than my parents’, so I am the first to debark, saying a quick “merci” to the crew on my way out the door.
I don’t remember much of the old airport anymore, but I do remember that all of the signs were in Greek. If you were lucky, there were pictures. Not so here: All signs are in Greek and English, with pictograms to help get the point across. Since we are flying in from another EU country, we don’t have to go through customs. As we walk, the familiar ding-dong, like some gigantic door bell, heralds announcements, made both in Greek and English. Suitcases are retrieved, and the three of us head for the taxi queue.
When we first started traveling to Athens, the taxi ride to or from the airport was almost as exciting as the flight itself. Local roads varied by condition, and many of the taxi drivers were, as Grandpa once put it, “training for the Indy 500”. Then there was the price: Much haggling was involved, and you had to look sharp to make sure that you were not being charged an outrageous amount of drachma. Cabbies may or may not have spoken English and may or may not have admitted to it. As much as Mom worried about them coming out to the airport, I suspect she was secretly pleased to have Grandma along for those first couple of years: Cabbies didn’t give a native nearly as much trouble.
As the cab pulls onto the highway, I examine the scenery. It’s greener than I remember. Then again, it’s May. By July and August, it will brown out due to heat and dust. The architecture is a mix of modern and what I think of as “classic” Greek: white walls, red terra cotta roofs. Even once we enter the city proper, this still holds true, although the modern buildings predominate. It’s not long before the driver pulls up in front of the Park Hotel. Once inside, my family is greeted by the desk staff as friends; we’ve been staying here for over a decade.
The first two years we came overseas, we stayed at a different hotel: the Museum Hotel. Located five blocks from my grandparents’ flat, it was best described by my mother as a “grade Z” hotel. The furniture was so basic that the drawers didn’t have backs, and in the bathrooms the shower area merely consisted of a raised section of tile on the floor, no curtain. The mattresses felt as if they were made of rocks, and there was a bed my parents dubbed the “sarcophagus” because when one lay in it, one could not roll onto one’s side. The elevators were of an older European style; that is, hand operated, hinged doors on each floor, with no door on the elevator itself. It wasn’t uncommon for the elevator to stop an inch or two above or below the floor. No air conditioning, but each room had a small balcony and a ventilated metal door that could be pulled into position to let in air but not too much light. The hotel dumpsters were located across the street, and were emptied every night some time between midnight and one in the morning. There was no breakfast room; instead, we bought cereal and milk at a little grocery store midway between the hotel and the flat and had breakfast with the grandparents each morning.
When we started staying at the Park, my sister and I felt that we’d died and gone to heaven. Air conditioning! Beds with soft mattresses! A rooftop pool! Breakfast at the hotel!
In those days, the Park was decorated in a very European motif, with touches of local Greek culture here and there. There was the main entrance, which let you into the coffee shop/cafe area, but a smaller side door led directly to the lobby where the front desk was located. White marble floors in the lobby, vast mirrors on the walls. Where there wasn’t a mirror, there was coral-colored wallpaper, and brass trim in Greek key designs all around. This color scheme was found throughout the building: A slightly darker carpet covered the floors in the hallways and rooms, but the same wallpaper could be found in all hallways.
I still expect all of these things to be the same, but they are not. The hotel has been bought and sold several times, and now is part of the Radisson chain. What was the coffee shop and cafe is now the main lobby, while the old lobby has been chopped in half to allow for the creation of a conference center. Faux tree trunks stand in the lobby, and the ceiling has been redone to give the appearance of a starry night sky. Up on the floors with the rooms, dark green carpeting has been laid down, and the light fixtures have been replaced, too. At least the rooms look basically the same.
We are in our rooms just long enough to set down our bags and call Yiayia (Greek for “grandmother”; pronounced YA’ya). She is eagerly expecting us, and tells us to come on over. It’s only two blocks to the flat, and in no time she is buzzing us in. The closet-sized European elevator was replaced a few years ago with a closet-sized “modern” elevator, although the manual doors on each floor remain. It’s a bit of a squeeze to get three adults in, but we make it work. When we get out, Yiayia is waiting for us with an open door.
When we were younger, Mom or Dad had to lift my sister or I up to reach the buzzer, and opening the front door took a bit of work. When we’d arrive on their floor, we’d knock on the door. Half the time, we’d hear knocking from the other side. The other half, Grandpa would open the door, say, “We don’t want any,” and pretend to close the door in our faces. Then he’d open the door wide and give us each a hug before we could get inside, where Grandma would be waiting to also hug us. (I’m ashamed to say that I was in high school or college before it occurred to me that it would probably mean a lot to her to address her using her native language.) The flat was not air-conditioned then, so Mom or Dad would head out onto the balcony to lower the awning and we’d all gather outside to visit.
As I knocked on the flat’s door, I still expected Grandpa to respond. Instead, Yiayia opened the door and enfolded me in a hug, trying her hardest not to cry. I knew exactly how she felt: This was my first visit since Grandpa passed away, and I couldn’t help but feel he’d walk out of the bedroom or kitchen at any moment, exclaiming over how I’d grown. Instead, I held Yiayia, who I had passed in height about four years previously, and was suddenly aware of just how old she was.
Yiayia’s eyes light up when she sees me, and her smile is wide. “Ahhh!” she exclaims, folding her arms around me. I gladly return the hug, careful not to squeeze too hard. This is only my second visit since I started hormone therapy and she feels thin enough under my arms that I worry about hurting her. But her hug is strong, and she looks so much better than my last visit two years ago. Finally she lets me go, and motions me inside. And I feel like I’ve come home.
More to follow in the coming days!