Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Greece Lightening!

My gateway to Greece was via the port of Patra after a fifteen hour overnight boat ride from Brindisi, Italy. I shared my sleeping quarters - the open deck, with Rod and Oscar, two young Aussıe musicians on their way back home after a successful tour of the States. Barracked in our sleeping bags we lay down on wooden deck chairs and let the boat act like a giant cradle gently rocking us to sleep as our lungs lapped up the soothing salty sea breeze. The next morning we were awoken by a steward shaking us motioning that we should move - the boat had already docked whilst we were still lying on ours!

Once ashore we bolted down some breakfast. I couldn't resist a couple cups of strong Greek coffee gulped down between mouthfuls of chocolate and banana crepe. We said our goodbyes, with the boys heading off on the bus to Athens whilst I pedalled around the coast towards Korinthos relieved that the roads were calm and clear after having been bullied all the way to Brindisi by the impatient Italian drivers.

I dallied along the thirty five miles to Diakopto savouring the renewed sense of adventure which a new country brings. I camped on a rough piece of roadside land sharing my food, company and conversation with a German 'spiritualist'. He had been through some tough times and spent the next four hours telling me about them. He was diagnosed as a schizophrenic when forcefully admitted into a psychiatric hospital by his parents ten years ago. However, he put his altered mental state - which included constant commands via voices down to a spiritual experience he had in India many years before. It was fascinating listening to his perspective of events but without enough knowledge on schizophrenia or spiritualism I was not in any position to comment either way. I did detect that he was very lonely but was unable to spend time with people due to his mental condition. He had bought a bike and a few belongings and was just cycling until his money ran out. He now disowned his family, had no friends and did not seem to be in a position to make any new ones. Although he was more withdrawn in the morning we stıll shared a fine breakfast of coffee, biscuits, rice wrapped in vine leaves, bread and the ubiquitous chocolate spread but he spent more time talking to himself than with me, so I packed up my panniers and wished him good luck. He said that luck had nothing to do with it and that it was fated that he should follow his constant flow of words!

After a short cycle I stopped at a quiet beach to recalibrate with caffeine and bumped into a Dutch ballet dancer who ran her own school in Amsterdam. Tina was full of fun and vitality and although she was almost sixty, energy pulsed out of every pore! She invited me back to her house to share some yogurt, nuts and honey whilst we discussed her dilemma. Her husband, who had some health issues, was keen to retire to Greece to their cosy condominium on the coast. Where as, she seemed reluctant to give up her ballet business and big house in the city. As I was leaving, her husband arrived home just in time to wave me off - I wonder who won? The short time with Tina was the perfect antidote for the subtle sadness I had allowed to seep into me after my sojourn with the 'spiritualist' - sometimes I can empathise too much!

After further fuel stops and fifty five miles I eventually came upon an all-night internet cafe in Korinthos. I attended to my emails, familiarised myself with the blog Ale had set up for me and nursed a dram until dawn. I then accelerated off to Athens flying along for another fifty five miles - the last fifteen involving the usual mayhem and madness associated with inner city roads. I actually asked a female driver if there was an alternative route into Athens but she said no. 'But it's a motorway,' I said, whilst pointing to my bike. 'This is Greece,' she growled, in a tone which suggested I should just get on with it. So I did!

I cycled to the centre and sat people watching whilst devouring a giant dough ring. Trying to track down the local Tourist Information Office I collared a copper for help. He said that Athens did not have one - this was highly unlikely! I then asked where the nearest Youth Hostel was. According to him Athens did not have Youth Hostels either, as there were plenty of cheap hotels - I knew this was complete nonsense! Third time lucky! Now a little exasperated I asked him to direct me to the nearest internet cafe - at least he knew this! Within ten minutes of Googlıng 'Youth Hostel Athens,' I was booked into a dorm only five minutes from his beat. People are always making up stories rather than just simply admitting that they do not know!

I was sharing the clean, mixed en suite dorm with five other folk for twelve and a half euros per night. As there was no where to dry my clothes I had to pay an additional six euros to have them laundered. Normally I am quite content hand washing my clothes finding the chore cathartic and also preferring to spend the money drınking a beer whilst sitting in a bar reading a book. I bought two veggie wraps at the corner cafe before crashing into bed at eleven for a twelve hour stint in the land of nod, not even hearing the rowdies roll into the room at three thirty.

When I met Tijs from Belgium he was well stoned! He had spent three days roving around Athens ancient relics and said he could not face any more piles of boulders. As I am always on the move with the bike I am not so bothered about sightseeing within cities Besides, usually by the time I reach them I am shattered and quite happy to sit about. However, when Tijs suggested a little stroll up Lycabettus Hill to the Agious Gorgiouskapel Church where you get a perfect panoramic view of the city, I readily agreed. He was a lovely sensitive, open guy and we had a nice natter as we sauntered up the steep slope arriving just in time to see the sun set, then watch Athens come alive with lights. It was well worth the effort and the expense of the profiteering priced bottle of beer that we sipped during the show.

Later, when sitting at the corner cafe close to the hostel enjoying the delicious veggie wraps, a fight broke out nearby. It seems that when some Greeks drink they do not say 'Cheers', but 'Chairs', as one man started clouting and clattering a heavy set chair over another guys head. People started running from all corners to ensure that the contest continued, with the louts lashing their limbs at anything and everything. Just as the trouble began to edge closer to our table a convoy of cops arrived in six cars and six motorbikes screeching along the road to break up the brawl. One man was marched past our table with his blood and nose spread all over his face! Once things had settled down a man approached Tijs wanting to shake his hand whilst showing off with a mobile phone. Two nights earlier someone had bumped into Tijs as he was heading for the hostel. When he arrived he realised the person had stolen his phone. He immediately went back out into the street and searched for twenty minutes before finding the thief in a mobile phone shop about to swap sim cards. He retrieved his phone with force then left the man alone - apparently this was the same man now laughing with his latest loot!

After another rest day hovering about the hostel I headed out of Athens on the National Road 1. Sitting on the slip road watching the stream of traffic streak by there was a certain reluctance to move onto the motorway. However, I knew that within five minutes I would be acclimatised to the accelerated speed, so İ puffed out my cheeks, pushed the bike into position and pedalled off. Fifteen miles later I found the old route that ran parallel, so thankfully I moved onto the less congested carriage-way. However, I spent most of the next week and hundreds of miles on the motorway as the old route appeared and disappeared at will. On a couple of occasions I was turfed off at the tolls or moved on by maintenance men but on the whole I left alone to career along in my own carriage-way only veering off to cool down with cold coffees at the roadside vans.

That evening I stopped at Shimatari camping behind some obscure large cement structure in the middle of a field - the place gave me the creeps! Whilst I was lying in the tent it was lit up with intermittent flashing lights. However, each time I crept out to look I was greeted with a sheet of darkness. Later, as I was sitting in the tent there was a deafening din whilst the ground started shaking violently, knocking me over. 'What the bloody hell was that?' I heard myself say. Again I unzipped the tent but nothing - the only thing still shaking was me!

Arriving late at Lamia I landed up at a BP twenty four hour truck stop. It had a restaurant, a shop and a shower so shoddy that I felt inclined to limit my lathering! The car park was crammed with cargo trucks, bustling with buses and overrun with rats, foraging for the scraps of waste food at the rear of the restaurant. However, cowering in the corner was a grubby triangle of grass just large enough to host my hoose. I lifted the litter and toed away the used tissues but could not bring myself to remove the fat rat that lay, 'legs up,' only a few feet from my own. It was a low energy place but once I was cocooned inside my canvass I was convinced I would feel better - I didn't! I didn't get much sleep either as the refrigerated lorry right next to me roared all night, ensuring its contents remained cool whilst I was anything but! The next morning when inhaling a lung full of diesel fumes I realised I felt flatter than road kill. I struggled on for seven miles to Stilida where my legs went on strike and I was seduced by an enormous orange sofa in Cafe Goa. It had recently opened and was fresh, spacious and stylish. In between snacking and snoozing I was joined by Joanne, the young owner, whose ambition was to visit Goa. She was a bonny bundle of nervous energy and could not sit still for more than a few moments. Although the place was spotlessly clean, she was contınually dashing off with a damp cloth to either wipe something, adjust the position of a plant pot, smoke a fag or slice up more salad - even though the cafe had few customers! She persistently presented me with portions of cake and extra drinks which I never ordered. Even her mother got in on the act, arriving with a toasted sandwich. When I refused, she was adamant that I should eat it, insinuating that I was too thin! Although it was difficult, after all I had eaten, I eventually had to make a move. It was late and I was in danger of exploding! As I was hugging Joanne, thanking her and saying goodbye, her face became furrowed with a serious frown. Looking at me she blurted out, 'Please watch out for the men with the knıves'. I assured her that I would! I felt lıke replying wıth, 'Please watch out for the profit margin, or you will never get to Goa'.

Struggling to find my way out of Stalida after taking a wrong turn, I stopped at a petrol station barely a mile from the cafe to check that I was going the right way. It was now dark and the road ahead seemed too narrow to be the main route. Nadia and Agglless immediately offered me a coffee - even before I had opened my mouth! They were in the wrong vocation. Instead of a petrol station they should have owned a pet station. They had three dogs and seven cats camped in the house with another six dogs barking and growling in the garden! They also had a monster sıze metal bowl in the forecourt to feed all the stray animals they could not house! They simply loved animals and could not bare to see any go hungry - it was costing them a fortune on food each week! We spent the evening dıscussing pets, politics, petrol prices, previous partners and parents. This obviously took some time so it was just before two when I snuggled down under the forecourt table to watch the procession of paws pad past the petrol pumps to feast on the free food. As one cat purred past, it almost lost one of its nine lives with the fright it gave itself upon spotting me - such special moments!

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Pampered In Pescara!

A Polish couple helped pitch my tent. I was fed and furnished by two French cyclists in their sixties - the husband being hounded into acting as a sniffer dog to inspect my newly acquired single mattress from the nearby bins! My table was an upturned cardboard box, whilst my moulded plastic chairs had more cracks than my collar bone. A duo of Dutch dames provided some discourse continually commenting on the people parading by with their pooches in prams and pushchairs! During the first few days my time was taken up with entering and exiting my wee tent - averaging out at fifteen minutes each manoeuvre.

I got a lift into Livorno on the local bendy bus which didn't bend around any of the bumps on the road.. I paused at a street side cafe for a pizza and a pint and with my mind preoccupied with possibilities I inadvertently walked off without paying - I felt like a one armed bandit!

Whilst I was more than willing to settle in and sit it out in the campsite until my bones bonded a proposal came from Pescara that I should go and recuperate with my brothers colleague Alessandro. I wasn't sure! Accepting hospitality in someone's hoose for a couple of nights is one thing but foisting yourself on folks for a month is quite another. However with each email Ale relayed I realised his offer was very genuine and generous so my reservations receded and I accepted.

The round trip from Pescara was over seven hundred miles and took Ale thirteen and a half hours of continual driving - an incredible effort which did not include one bad gear change! However, after arriving late in Pescara and piling into a pizza, Ale proudly announced, 'we did it Eric!' then slapped me on my sore shoulder - the laughter levelled out the pain.

Although I found the northern Italians cold and distant, the further south I travelled the weather and the people warmed up considerably with the reception in Pescara positively roasting. Ale and his partner Michela couldn't do enough for me. Michela, who had just discovered she was pregnant gave up her beachside flat and moved in with Ale providing me with a place, peace (apart from the fighting felines) and privacy to enable me to rest and recuperate. Although they were both very busy they continually invited me round to their flat for delicious homemade meals - with Michela's terrific tiramisu tantalising my taste buds. They also included me in the company of their friends with Maurizio and Tanya being especially hospitable - Tanya never allowing me to leave without taking a doggy bag of her tasty treats. In fact I was completely embraced by all their circle of friends - sometimes too tightly by one friend, Felicia who gave such a bear hug that it was often too hard to bare!

During the first few weeks ın Pescara I was still feeling a little fragile. After the experience wıth my tooth trauma I decided not to partake in the all powerful and pervading prescriptıon drugs but to go with the grape and the grain. Ten days later I realised that my self prescribed dose may have been a tad too hıgh so I reduced the prescription to a more lucid level. However, one side effect had been that I put on more weight than a sumo wrestler. My shoulder support should have been adjusted weekly but with me piling on the pounds I just fattened out to fit it! I was supposed to keep it on for one month but it had been impossible to wash myself properly and there was a pong parading around with me. Ale had gone way beyond the call of duty and had already pacified my pits once so I was unwilling to inflict that upon him again. Mıchela's bathroom contained a tiny tub which was desıgned for only sitting in but I was determined to submerge my armpits before they submerged me! So I removed the brace discovering that ıt had collected more skin than a callous. I then gingerly squeezed my torso into the tub whilst my legs languıshed upwards agaınst the wall. The wonder of getting fully washed was was delightful. However, not surprisingly during the meal at Maurizio's and Tanya's that evening the cusine and company did little to dilute the discomfort in my shoulder. That evening the discusion became rather morbid and flowed onto funerals. Apparently, in Italy you can hire people to cry at your funeral - the better the performance bringing a bıgger regard for the deceased!

Passing the tıme dıd not prove to be much of a problem. I dıd yoga exercıses three tımes a day and devoted at least ninety minutes to visualısation sending as much energy and healing as I could muster to my shoulder. I also slept for hours on end, regardless of the time of day. I read 'The Ragged Trousered Phılanthropists' by Robert Tressell - all sıx hundred and forty pages of ıt! It was not exactly uplifting but saved me lifting it up another hill. I had a couple of days when the fun of the fracture wore off and fatıgue filled the void. My mood and energy had more swings than a childrens playpark. I tried just to let things be and wait until it passed. After all, worrying does not reduce tomorrow of sorrow, only today of strength. Besides, I had Italian tv to lift my spirits. Whether it is game shows, political debates, talkshows, sports programmes, shopping channels or soaps, cleavage ıs Kıng with bossoms blazoned all over the box! There was one late nıght show where woman writhed about to the instructions of the male callers, who judging by the tone of their voices were expressıng themselves both verbally and physıcally! Most of the films I saw were dubbed - they even dubbed Dinero! I often managed to catch the late afternoon showing of Lassıe, where thankfully the dog was not dubbed. Another day whilst twıddlıng my thumbs I decıded to put them to some use and repair my puncture. I managed to repair the puncture using one arm and one foot. However, afterwards I began to pespire and pant like a pensıoner - it ıs a thin line between stubborness and stupıdıty!

Nothing seemed too much bother for Ale and Michela. Ale arranged and took me for an x-ray to check that the fracture was fine. I couldn't help thinking that perhaps he should have an x-ray too, to assess the massıve cavıty that must be housing such a huge heart. Michela, who is a Physiotherapist, got me an appointment at her practıce so that her boss could look at my x-ray. With Ale acting as interpreter we entered his office. The Doctor who was busy reading his broadsheet barely managed to prise his pupils away from the paper. When Doctor Dısmissive eventually examined the x-ray he threw it across the table as if to say, 'do not bother me with such a simple fracture'. Apparently he has a habit of haranguıng elderly patients and sayıng, 'what is your problem, you will be gone soon anyway?' He stood up and ordered me to stand to attention against the wall, just lıke a soldier, then he thrust his thumb firmly against my bone and scoffed. Ale asked when I could expect to get back on my bike. Dr Dismissive said that Valentino Rossi takes painkilling injections and gets on with it but he gets paid. He then said that if I was crazy I could cycle off tomorrow but he would wait for four weeks. By this stage Ale was ın fits of laughter whilst just managing to blurt out, 'waıt and I will explain all' After we left Ale said that I deserved a drambuie. I did not disagree! I have decided that drambuie really is the, 'spirit of adventure!'

After a couple of weeks I started going for long walks along the beach. As it was now end of season there were few people about but the beach was still banked up with all the residue from the mass of holidaymakers. There were deflated paddling pools, flippers, suncanopies and umbrellas and balls. There were lilos, pedalos, plastic toys and swept ashore buoys. Then wet suıts, tıny plastıc tractors, spades, pales and prams. As the days past the sand slowly regained the shore as the clutter was cleared away.

Another day whist trying to clear the clutter off my face I was determined to shave the right side with my left hand but it was just not happening. Breathing, vısualisation and stupidity had all failed to get my arm across. Just then a Nıck Kershaw song came on the radio. It was 'I've got two strong arms'. I started must be a sign! It ıs funny the things that motivate you...or should I say, me! I turned the radio up, returned to the mirror and shaved my right sıde.

Three weeks after breaking my shoulder I climbed back on my bike. I had worked hard to heal it and it felt right. The support I had received had also helped immensely. Of course I was as wobbly as a newly set jelly and my confidence was as low as the Italian ladies tops. I spent the next two weeks pedalling along the prom buildıng up muscle and mood whilst glowering at anyone who came near me.

My last Sunday was spent dining out with Ale, Michela, Maurizıo, Tanya and their kids. It was a nice relaxing way to wave goodbye and to thank them for all their support. I do belıeve that 'Living is Giving' and that was certainly the case ın Pescara where I do not think it was possible for Ale, Michela and their friends to give any more! Things do happen for a reason and for me to break my shoulder gave me the opportunity to retest my own healing skills whilst also enjoying the company and support of some lovely people. I feel very lucky indeed!