Disco Boat

The Superfast VI is a hybrid – part car ferry, part entry-level cruise ship. The garage portion of the ship as it is called carries semi trucks hauling trailers andP1000612 passengers cars, mostly the former.  Then there are passenger cabins with four-berth inside and outside cabins, and “luxury” single bed accommodations.

There is a self-serve restaurant, and another with a wait staff and linen napkins. There are several bars and a casino area with slot machines, video roulette and the like. There is a discotheque, described as follows in a brochure:

Dance the night away to the biggest Greek and international hits in our Disco! Do not miss our happenings, including traditional Greek shows and theme nights. The Disco operates daily from 10:30 p.m. until late hours.

The word “disco” does not carry the opprobrium here that it bears in America. I can attest that it runs until late hours as I could hear it thumping away when I awokeP1000694 briefly at 2 a.m.  I should have gone so as to be able to report whether the Euro-teamsters were shaking it to the international hits.

The Adriatic Sea is choppy with three to four foot rollers but the ferry moves through it like it was on rails, with little yaw or pitch. The ship has Internet access, 3 Euros for 2 hours, as compared to the Acropolis Select Hotel, where they wanted 5 Euros for 1 hour.

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St. Andrew’s Basilica, Patras

I’m on the Superfast VI ferry travelling between Patras and Ancona, Italy on the
Adriatic. I booked a four-berth outside cabin and have lucked out as there are no other passengers in it. Having the four passenger cabin to myself feels decadent.

Before sailing I spent time at St. Andrew’s Basilica, a Greek Orthodox P1000652Church. It is an impressive building architecturally with many treasured mosaics and the relics of St. Andrew.

Andrew, a fisherman, was the brother of Simon Peter, and a follower of John the Baptist; he introduced his brother to Jesus.  According to tradition Andrew was martyred in Patras by Aegeas, the governor of the region. He is believed to have been crucified on an “X” shaped cross on the site where the Basilica now stands. All of this is represented in iconography and mosaics in the Basilica. The church features a display of fragments of what is understood P1000636to be the cross upon which Andrew was martyred.P1000634

While I was visiting there was a steady stream of mostly older believers, who reverently addressed the reliquary and icons. The Basilica is very much an active church and the courtyard was filled with schoolchildren at recess from the associated school.

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No One Wants Vietnamese Currency

I left Vietnam with several hundred thousand in that country’s currency, the dong, tucked in my bag. At $4.80 per 100,000 dong, this is no big deal but I have periodically tried to unload it, without success. Most recently the Bank of Greece in Patras declined, saying they had no information about an exchange rate.P1000603

In the process it struck me that bank robbery in Greece must be a significant problem given the security measures they have implemented. At the BOG you stand at the entry vestibule and ring for admission. Two men look you over and, passing this initial inspection, you are buzzed into a tall enclosed glass tube with rotating doors where you stand, like a roasting chicken, while undergoing a secondary electronic inspection of some sort. Only then are you allowed to see a teller.

A similar system was in place at Citi Bank in Athens, but instead of a narrow tube you are buzzed into a box with locked doors on either side, like the entry to the aviary at the Seattle Zoo.

And sure enough I ran across this older article about a very tough Greek bank robber.

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An Afternoon in Patras

I had several fine, inexpensive meals in Athens, most memorably at a family-run restaurant in the Plaka section, just below the Acropolis. While I was there P1000601the staff was somewhat frantically preparing for a private dinner party for 60 people but took me in and served a fine beef and onion stew with good bread and red wine, and a traditional Greek salad.

Monday morning was spent at the bank near my hotel, arranging for a cash infusion. I disliked the hotel, the Acropolis Select, but it would be hard to beat the location. No other hotel has been quite so mercenary about access to the Internet and, behind its splendid lobby, the rooms are grubby.

The bus to Patras, located in northern Peloponnese, takes about three hours from Athens. It was crowded and again no one talked. Patras itself is a pretty seaport town of 160,000 souls, and it was another gorgeous day. P1000620I detect the influence of Italy in the clothing of the residents and in the shops, which makes sense since Patras is connected by ferry to Venice, Ancona and Brindisi. I took a taxi from the bus terminal to my hotel, the Smart Hotel, which is sleek and modern with red and impractical modern Italian plastic furniture in the lobby and rooms that are clean and functional, if a bit to the Ikea dorm room side. The desk clerk is stunning and carefully explained in very good English how the ferries work.

I took a late afternoon walk to the Blue Star Lines office down the waterfront from the hotel and secured a cabin on a ferry leaving tomorrow for Ancona, which will put P1000616me within striking distance of Florence. There are quite a few North African men seeking day labor work and others selling bags and pirated DVDs. Every corner has at least one squeegee person cleaning the windows of cars that stop for traffic signals. Patras is also connected by ferry to Ethiopia. The Greek economy is terrible and it appears the Africans are having a difficult time along with the rest of the populace. There are also quite a few young hipsters out enjoying the splendid weather at the many outdoor cafes.

The crossing to Ancona is 21 hours and I am looking forward to being at sea again.

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Athens Without Drachma

The flight from Istanbul to Athens is a short one, a little over an hour, but the Aegean Air staff managed to get a dinner service in. I took the Metro from the airport and, while standing in the crowded train, had my wallet stolen. This is a huge P1000562pain as I had to spend hours cancelling cards and trying to figure out what to do about it. I lost my debit card so can’t readily use ATMs, and have a grand total of 2 Euros in change. I have a spare credit card but the banks are closed on Sunday and only they can make cash advances. Thankfully I still have my passport but the whole thing is dispiriting since it takes time away from exploration of Athens.

How does that Cracker song go?P1000589

Took the train down to Athens,
and I slept in a fountain.
Some Swiss junkie in Turin
ripped me off for my cash.

It is an absolutely beautiful day in Athens, sunny, warm, clear air. George, who approached me on the street near the Acropolis today, is an impeccably dressed older Greek gentleman who, to my surprise, wasn’t selling anything and just wanted to talk. He asked me if I knew how he learned English and I almost said “From monitoring our radio and television broadcasts?” like in the old sci-fi movies but held my tongue. He learned English he said working on an American military base in Corfu. He cautioned me about keeping my wallet safe and, when I told him the advice came too late, launched into an entertaining diatribe against the “facking Bulgarians and Romanians” who he feels are ruining his town. (For the record, I have no idea of the nationality of the guy who picked my pocket. As Kilgore Trout said in Breakfast of Champions, when asked to describe the occupants of a car who mugged him, “For all I know, they may not even have been Earthlings. For all I know, that car may have been occupied by an intelligent gas from Pluto.”)

Last night after I walked up to the street from the train, another older fellowP1000588 gave me precise directions to my hotel. He asked where I was from and, when I told him, asked me what the four most important things to come out of Seattle were. I said, Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon, with no idea where this was going. “Amazon, yes,” he said, “but I think Nirvana and Kurt Cobain.”

I’m not going to write about the Acropolis, since I have nothing new to say. It is beautiful on a day like today and the best place for people watching I have ever been. Thankfully admission was free today. P1000582The walk up the hill to it is fairly easy and invigorating, with lots of shady spots to plant yourself on a marble step and just gawk at the scenery and the people moving past. I had fragments of e.e. cummings’ “(ponder, darling, these busted statues” running through my head most of the morning. I’m going back tonight.

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The Grand Bazaar

On my last day in town I visited the Istanbul Archeological Museums. It is probably a bad idea to visit a museum when you face a deadline for checking out of your hotel and an afternoon flight. These things distracted me from any real enjoyment of the exhibitions and I found myself doing a “drive by” viewing of the antiquities.P1000430

On the other hand the Museum doesn’t really go out of its way to engage the visitor. There were no curators or docents available to answer questions, only police who spoke no English. I was curious why so much of the statuary had been damaged by apparently violent removal of heads and bare arms, while the remainder of the statue was left relatively intact, but there was no one to ask.

The Tiled Kiosk portion of the museum was unimpressive and, again, the significance of the displayed pieces escaped me. I had hoped to see mosaics, but there are none. I should have gone instead to the  Kariye (or Chora) Museum instead to see what look to be brilliant examples of Byzantine mosaics but will have to do that on a future visit.P1000531

I also went to the Grand Bazaar for gifts. The place is a huge mostly covered market, with over 4000 shops and eateries. Although it is tourist oriented some real business continues to be done here – down one alley I watched an spirited auction of something I couldn’t identify that looked exactly like the pit at the NYSE used to.

The experience is useful if only because it is so foreign to American style of trade. There are no Target stores or chains of any sort, just small merchants trying frantically to cut a small piece off the passing crowds. There is no window shopping; if you pause for even a second to look at the wares you are approached by the proprietor with questions about where you are from, what you want, etc. There are literally no price tags on anything – it is all wide open for bargaining.

Many of the shops sell basically the same items, and so must hustle to make lira, and hustle they do. The rug merchants are the most aggressive and work hard to get you into their shops where they spin endless yards of bullshit about knots, materials, dyes, stories allegedly told by the rugs, etc. One was ridiculous in trying to convince me that a rug told the story of Noah’s ark, on the slimmest of pictorial evidence in his rug. Another claimed that a rug was made by a young woman, and that she created it to convey a negative response to a marriage suitor. What, she couldn’t just say “no thanks” or “bugger off?” No she instead spent however many hours weaving a rug that she hung outside her tent, just to give some guy the kiss-off. The whole deal is to create a sense of obligation, of having accepted their hospitality by taking a glass of tea or a map so, of course, you must spend hundreds or thousands on a rug. P1000532There are hundreds of rug shops in the Bazaar.

There are also freelancers, guys walking around with armloads of perfumes or men’s socks for sale. One young fellow needs to work on his approach: “Hey, beeg boss man, you want some socks?”

Here’s a pictures of what the average shop in the Grand Bazaar offers. Starting from the bottom right are the anti-evil eye amulets in blue and white, then boxed Turkish Delight, then the hookahs, copper knick knacks and garish religious iconography. Throw in some leather goods and scarves and you’ve got the picture.

We go out of our way to avoid this kind of experience. GM started a whole car company, Saturn, on the premise of eliminating bargaining over automobiles and, had they made better cars, would have succeeded. We experience real anxiety over the idea of bargaining for goods.

There are quality goods at the bazaar, mostly textile products. I bought some of these as gifts and had a nice relaxed bargaining session which brought the cost down by half. The merchant histrionically slapped my lira down on the floor of his shop, praised Allah for sending my feet into his shop for his first sale of the day, and gave me the whole Bazaar experience. I have no idea if this was a good or bad deal but we both felt good about it.

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