Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Greece, Day Ten

(Rick's words are in black; Jenese's words are in blue.)

Oh-dark-thirty.  The alarm shredded apart the thin veil of sleep that had wrapped us for but a couple of hours.  We had to meet the taxi at 3 a.m.

Our flight's departure time was 6:50 a.m.  The original plan was to catch the very first metro train, which departs at 5:00 a.m., but when we shared this plan with the desk clerk at the hotel the night before, he convinced us that it would be cutting it too close.  (He was the same young man who advised us to park our car all the way up onto the porch, although we thought one wheel up on the curb should've been plenty, for Greece.  A darling, tanned lad, he tightened his lips and jaw into the most approved manner of managerial knowledge and authority, as he explained how we were just going to have to set the alarm early.  I wanted to pinch his cheeks, but chose instead to go upstairs and start packing.)  After going to bed, I had a brainstorm, which was to simply keep the rental car and drive ourselves to the airport.  I got back out of bed and called the rental company.  They told me that was doable for an extra drop-off fee, but he said they really don't like doing that, since they don't have an office at the airport.  I didn't like the idea of getting behind the wheel again, anyway, so I decided we would just take the airport bus, which runs from Sytagma all night long.  That would necessitate a taxi ride to the airport.  I always view getting into a taxi as a failure of some degree, but it was to be.

The taxi was on time.  We got in, and in less than two minutes, it seemed, the taxi pulled up behind the bus stop.  Just too late.  As we got out, the bus pulled away.  The cabbie flapped his arm a time or two, and I half-heartedly jogged about as many steps, but it was too late.  We were going to have to wait for the next bus.

I can't remember if we waited 15 minutes, or half an hour.  I do remember that a few more tourists, of varying nationalities and luggage preferences, were deposited by taxis to wait with us.  (It wasn't until the tourist numbers hit 7 or 8 that I began to feel at ease on this city sidewalk at 3:30 a.m.  I don't why I assumed that these other tourists had my back, but it worked.)  Syntagma Square sleeping.  Someone with a tanker truck was power-washing the square's pavement.  I remarked to Rick how clean these Athenians were.  It was not until after we were home that we learned the reason why the square needed scrubbing.

That would be the scrubbing away of tear gas residue, broken glass from Molotov cocktails, maybe some blood -- all the things that were hitting the pavement while we were blissfully unaware, driving through the orange groves.

Finally, the bus arrived, and we were back at Athens' airport.  One advantage of arriving so early, we told ourselves, was time to shop in the duty-free stores.

It also allowed us the additional time required to obtain our boarding passes from one of only two "automated" kiosks.  There was an airline customer service representative standing beside each kiosk, helping each passenger with the "self-check-in" process, since the machines seemed to respond only to the loving touch-screen taps and cooing of the CSRs.  (The process was the same at the Rhodes airport.)

There were several other kiosks available -- all lit up and inviting -- but no amount of touching the touch-screen would illicit a response.  Periodically, an impatient passenger would break free of the line and walk over to one of these other kiosks and start tapping.  Soon, they would pressing hard enough until their finger was about to pierce the glass screen and come out the other side.  Then they would give up and return to the line.  ("We knew you'd be back.")  All that was missing was an audible "WAUGH waughhhhh . . . " coming from the machines.  I was convinced it was it all a human behavior experiment.  Somewhere, someone was watching it all on closed-circuit TV and making notes.

After getting our boarding passes, we passed through a check station to enter into the ticketed passenger section of the duty free shops, which was extensive.  We had been shopping at one of the first stores when we heard yelling and turned around to see a dark-skinned man throwing a fit at the check station that we had just passed through.  He was yelling in French, which probably didn't have the effect he was hoping for, because a group of men and women in uniform wrestled him to the ground and pinned his arms behind his back.  My high school and college French faded long ago, so I had to speculate as to what he was yelling:  "No, I don't have a boarding pass!  Those touch screens don't work!"

The flight to Paris was greatly improved by the conversation of a friendly Texan woman on my left, who'd just spent several weeks in Greece with her husband, visiting one of their children.  We chatted off and on for most of the flight.  

As we drew close to Paris, the captain announced that head winds had so slowed our progress that some of us might miss our flights.  Panic and disorder ensued, like the Tower of Babel squeezed into a 747.  In an attempt to help us shave off a few seconds of scrambling through the airport, the flight crew began reading the gate numbers for all our connecting flights.  My new Texan friend softly mentioned something about Charles de Gaulle Airport being a mess to navigate.  She started hoping out loud for an excuse to spend the night in Paris.  I focused all my energy into listening intently, to decipher the letters and numbers from the thick accent of the crew member on the microphone.  When ours was announced, I scribbled it all down, and then consulted the airline magazine.  Ha!  I thought, a bit (too) triumphantly, and showed Rick the diagram.  It looked like our next gate was very close to the one at which we were going to arrive.

Little did I know that the Gallic gods of travel had swept Charles de Gaulle International Airport with an epic plague of construction and confusion, to satisfy their own dark mirth at the expense of us hapless mortals.  Scylla and Charybdis in berets, if you will allow the mixing of cultures for the purpose of metaphor.  And we were heading straight for their sneering maws.

Even with the delay, we had an hour to catch our next flight.  Plenty of time, right?

The first delay was caused by all the construction detours, which converted what looked like an inch on the diagram in the back of the airline magazine into a good half-mile trek.  The second delay was caused by what greeted us at the end of the trek, which was the largest passport control rope line I have ever seen.  This was totally unexpected.  We were passing from one EU country into another.  Wasn't the free movement across borders one of the selling points for the European Union?  What happened?  I know I've flown through Paris before without going through passport control.  I thought that surely this wasn't meant for us, but there was no way around it, so we joined the sad, slow, shuffle of defeat.  We knew immediately that any hope of making out connection flight was gone.

Sure enough, by the time we got to the head of the line, it was past our departure time.  But just to make certain that we wouldn't make it, the security screeners decided to interrogate me about my duty-free bag, containing vacuum packed black olives, ouzo (for Scott, to thank him for loaning us his iPhone), and several other items.  In a think French accent, the female screener asked me what I got.  "Uh, well, let me see . . . there's olives, ouzo . . ."  "No, no, no!" she said, "Not 'what,' WHERE?! Where did you get this?"  It seems that my duty-free bag did not look like the duty-free bags you get at the shops at Charles de Gaulle International Airport.  I explained that I got it in Athens, which seemed incomprehensible to her.  I can't believe that no one has ever passed through that line before after arriving from Athens, so maybe this was her first day, or maybe she's just surprised to learn that Greece still has an operating airport.  In any event, she had to call for other screeners to examine the bag, examine all the contents, and discuss, and then repeat.  Meanwhile, an exasperated Jenese was standing beyond the screener line, wondering what was going on.

I just know that if she'd have only let him through quickly, we could've made our connecting flight.

Once the screeners had satisfied themselves and returned my duty free bag, Jenese and I literally sprinted for our gate, where our plane was still parked, but the door was closed.  The CSR at the counter told us were were too late.  Now, I've sat at gates in the past and watched other people in this same situation moan, cry, and yell until the gate agent relented and opened the door and let him/her onto the plane.  This option was open to us, but I did not want to receive the same treatment as the gentleman at the Athens airport, who got a knee in the middle of his back.

We couldn't do anything for a moment or two, except pant.  The kind CSR and his cohort immediately began typing and making phone calls, and within about ten minutes, they had found seats for us on another flight, and we'd only have to wait about an hour and a half!  We accepted our new boarding passes with gratitude and meandered to the other end of the concourse, to our new gate.  We were going to be flying back into Atlanta, instead of Minneapolis.

The CSR was black, tall, slender, and had a shaved head, looking like an ESPN commentator.  He spoke English without an accent, helping us feel like somehow we had already made it to Atlanta.  That, plus his professional and helpful demeanor worked to set our minds at ease.

We wandered, visited the Internet kiosk, and munched on beef jerky (how treacherous that bag would turn out to be!).  Now, our seats for the flight were not together, which worried me.  When the three Js went on their famous British jaunt, we were forced to remain in our assigned seats -- I presume this was to make the identification of remains easier in the event of an unfortunate occurrence.  Rick, however, assured me that he'd never had such a problem, and most folks would be glad to switch seats, so a married couple could sit together.

He was right.  I should have trusted his greater experience.  After boarding, he lost no time in talking to the lady next to him, who graciously smiled, gathered her things, and motioned me over.  We settled in, luxuriating in the luck of being in a front row, with plenty of room for Ricky-length legs to stretch comfortably.

I enjoyed one minute of glorious comfort before musical chairs resumed.  The guy behind us asked us if we would switch seats with him and his wife.  They had a baby and had been promised the front row, which had a place for some sort of baby contraption, but somehow ended up being seated elsewhere.  I wanted to say, "Hey, parenting is filled with daily pitfalls.  Isn't it enough that you get a child tax credit when I don't?  Do I have to get leg cramps, too?"  But that baby was going to be directly behind me and crying in my ear, so whom would I really be hurting?  We switched seats and the couple, as well as the stewardess, was very thankful.

The video selections I made for the flight:  Moonlight Kingdom (too much whimsy and atmosphere and not enough character development; Bill Murray is wasted; but still an enjoyable ride), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer (as ridiculous as it sounds, but well directed; surprisingly, has a good moral element, but is not fully developed), and an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm that I had seen years ago.

Dinnertime approached, and the flight crew distributed the menus.  Never did I think I would ever find duck or camembert on an in-flight dinner menu.  Or even be offered a menu, for that matter.  This flight definitely gave British Airways, my airline gold standard, a run for the money.  The entrees were beef with broccoli and other vegetables, and canard avec I can't remember what.  And cheeses, all the bread you could stuff, and a delicate apple pastry.  We came up with sort of a game plan, to get one of each entree, which I promptly botched by asking for canard after Ricky did.  And poor Ricky, who despises mashed potatoes, could not consume this duck-ish version of shepherd's pie.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, but Ricky didn't want to bother the attendants by asking for another entree, and so made do with the camembert and bread.  It was probably just as well.  He also hates broccoli.

The rest of the flight progressed as you'd expect a nine-hour exercise in pretending to sleep would.  Long.  It's always such a relief to see the next airport, even if it's not the last stop before home.

At the airport in Atlanta, I thought it was a vain exercise, watching for our luggage on the carousel before passing through customs.  How could the airline have possibly pulled our bags from the missed flight and moved them to our Atlanta flight?  But the CSR at the baggage claims area told us to give it a try, and we had plenty of time, so we stood and watched.

Soon, a uniformed U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent came by with a beagle on a leash, sniffing people and their bags.  Each bag would get about two seconds of the dog's attention, but my black backpack proved to be a source of prolonged fascination.  The beagle circled the bag, continuing to sniff, and then looked up at the agent.  The agent looked down at the beagle and, using her beagle/baby voice, asked, "What are you supposed to do?"  The beagle did some more sniffing and then laid one paw on my bag and looked up at the agent.

This is not the agent and beagle that we encountered, but close enough. 
This was enough to cause the blood to drain from my face.  It was probably a good thing that Jenese was there, because she didn't seem the least bit bothered by the little furry narc and was able to laugh and chat with the agent with a "ha, ha, I wonder what's in there that he likes?" sort of attitude.  I, on the other hand, adopted a cold, self-preservation attitude of "yes, boss . . . no, boss," knowing that the tap of that paw meant that at the very least, we were going to be subjected to the delay of thorough questioning and inspection, and at worst, we would be starring in a sequel to Midnight Express.

I didn't learn until later that the Beagle Brigade is not made up of drug dogs.  The beagles merely sniff out prohibited agricultural items.  So maybe I overreacted a bit, but the anticipated delay was indeed coming.  The agent asked us if she could look in the bag and I said the equivalent of "yes, boss."  Jolly Jenese volunteered that there was beef jerky in the bag and that the beagle must be smelling it.  I didn't say anything, but I assumed that the dog would be trained not to respond to tempting smells like that, so it must be something else.  My guess was that it was the chi mali (mountain tea).  It is found only in Greece and Albania and has a distinctive odor that is a bit like chamomile.  Since the beagle was unfamiliar with it, he hit on it.  (In my defense, I really didn't think about the tea.  And the beef jerky received much more scrutiny, later.)

Would you take this through Customs?
"Can we give him some jerky?" Jenese asked.  The agent smiled, but shook her head.  "No, he's not allowed to do that."

She asked to see our Customs Declaration form, which I knew would only spark more questioning.  That's because I determined long ago to always answer yes to every one of their overly-broad questions on that form, lest I fall into their trap.  Bringing in "fruits, vegetables, plants, food"?  Isn't that redundant?  Does that include a candy bar I bought in the airport?  That's food, right?  It certainly includes the figs and olives in my bag.  "Animals/wildlife products"?  Does that include a wool scarf or a leather wallet?  Been on a "farm/ranch/pasture"?  I walked across a field.  How should I know whether someone considers that to be pasture for their goats?  It's best to play it safe and check the "yes" box for all of these questions.  Besides, it has been my experience that it doesn't make any difference -- they just glance at the card and don't pay attention to what is checked.

That is, unless the Beagle Brigade sends up an alarm.  The Customs agent looked at the card and questioned us about our holiday ranching activities and the plants, seeds, and live animals we decided to bring home with us in our bags.  She made a little scribble on the card and sent us on our away.  I knew exactly what that scribble meant.  I don't know why she didn't simply direct us to the naughty room right then and there, rather than allowing us the false hope that we would be heading for our gate.

Oh!  But on an up-note, our luggage appeared on the carousel.  I was stunned.  It was a logistical miracle.  We picked up our luggage and headed for the exit.  We handed our Customs Declaration form to the agent at the exit and . . . he sent us to the naughty room.

(I have visited this room once, on the way back from Britain, when we Js were subjected to a shoe-scrubbing due to our admitting to traipsing through a field liberally decorated with "sheep pressies.")  You could feel the tension of the other passengers, muttering worriedly about making flights.  A Greek couple behind us, with their little dog in a carrier, had very little time before their connecting flight.  We offered to let them go ahead of us, and they gratefully accepted.  We chatted a bit.  Ahead of that couple was a family from India with about three carts loaded with taped boxes and huge suitcases, and a small toddler.  Slowly, the line crawled through the doorway.  Our disciplining (mustn't say punishment) began.

Step one involves waiting until an officer waves at you.  That means you're supposed to put your bags on the X-ray machine's conveyor belt.  Step two is standing awkwardly, watching your luggage disappear, until another officer waves you further down the line.  In step three, another officer rifles through your bags, right in front of you, and questions you about the contents of whatever catches his or her eye.  I'm not sure how many times I had to point out the beef jerky.  The ingredients were read, over and over.  The bag was opened and peered into.  "It's cow!"  I wanted to scream.  "It's not going to blow anybody up!"  They dug into our duty-free bag.  "What's in the olives?"  "Uh . . ."  "Any vinegar?"  "Uh . . . "  Then they found the tea. "What is this?"  "It's mountain tea.  It's really good."  Yeah, they've probably heard that one, before.

All of the U.S. Customs agents who spoke to us were immigrants.  I don't know why you would want to use agents who can barely speak English to question new arrivals, many of whom speak little or no English themselves.  My guess is that these "agents" are in fact recent arrivals who were caught with undeclared, prohibited agricultural items.  Their punishment is to work out their sin in the purgatory that is the Customs naughty room.

Try our jerky.
The agent who was so distracted by our beef jerky was African and could speak only in half sentences.  I told him we had the beef jerky when we left and that it came from Oregon, as stated quite clearly on the package.  This made no impression on him.  As far as he knew, Oregon is an island in the Aegean.

Finally, we were motioned to the end of the line.  We watched the Indian family's luggage being excavated (they must have been planning on an stay of a month, or more), until the Powerful Ones deemed us thoroughly chastened and thus ready to return to our better-behaved fellow passengers.  We sprang on our reclaimed luggage like starved hyenas on a gazelle, hastily repacked everything (duty-free must now go into checked luggage) and made for the door.

As we were repacking, we were able to observe the dressing down given to the Indian family.  They had enough spices in their bags to open an Indian restaurant and had declared none of it.  The customs agent, a Dominican, I believe, held up one particular plastic baggie and told the Indians it was a banned spice.  Waving around a lock-blade knife she used to cut open suspicious packages, she angrily chewed them out for not declaring on their declaration card that they were bringing the spices into the country.  (I'm sure we would have received the same lecture had we not checked the "yes" boxes on the form.)  The Indians maintained blank expressions throughout their reprimand.  They were probably struggling to understand the agent's English and were bewildered by the entire experience.  I'm sure they became even more bewildered when they were handed their uniforms and badges and assigned to their duty stations.  

As for our repacked bags, they would not remain packed for very long.  When we got back home, we found TSA cards inside each bag, informing us that the TSA had opened the bag (including the sealed duty-free bag), inspected the contents, and tried on our clothes.  But nothing was missing.  Even the replacement honey was present and accounted for.  

Once we found our gate and sat down, exhaustion quickly set in.  From that point on, we were travel zombies.  Neither of us remember boarding the plane or taking off.  I looked out the window, expecting to see the tarmac, but instead saw city lights far below us.  Before I knew it, we were touching down in Tulsa.

And I thought I couldn't sleep on a plane.  I just haven't been tired enough!

My dad greeted us near the baggage claim area.  We retrieved our bags and found Donnie, my brother-in-law, waiting for us behind the wheel of his new Hyundai at curbside.

It was a struggle to stay awake, to answer their questions about our trip.  [Back in our little yellow house,] Indignation over our pawed belongings gave us just enough energy to do a bit of unpacking and snacking before we lost consciousness.  


It was a very enjoyable trip.  I encourage everyone to visit Greece before they turn the lights out.

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