THE TRAVELLERS ARRIVE
Then the road bent once again to the right around the mountain and the view to the left just opened up. We were still quite high up on the side of the mountain and there down below…well, that had to be Ioannina. The town sat there squat against the lake, back-lit by the late afternoon sun. The light slanted across the buildings and flashed up at us reflected from the little waves on the surface of the lake. Breathtakingly beautiful but terrifyingly alien and shockingly oriental.
This was not the Greece I knew from Ancient Greek studies – the Greece of Homer and Perakles, clean smooth marble and Apollonic clarity. This was something from Ali Baba or Aladdin…the Turkish Kastro lurking to the left of the town, the minarets poking up to the sky, the haziness of the light…something mysterious and chthonic was going on here.
And we are going to live here for a whole bleeding year!
There are situations in life which provide definitions for words – in this case the word was “trepidation”.
The road kept going behind rocky outcrops which hid the view for a moment as we slowly descended but then it was there again…Ioannina, each time at a slightly different angle…and now seeming even to harbour a little broodiness.
From our vantage point up the mountain the town had also seemed very serene but as we came down and rounded Perama and got onto the road into the centre of town that all changed; cars, mopeds, handcarts, kids, old men, old women, masses of clapped out vehicles and hobbling people spewed out all over the streets…this was Ioannina in the early evening – a loud time.
No doubt this didn’t happen but I recall the bus skidding round abruptly in a semi-circle and coming to a kind of sideways halt in the bus terminal. The doors hissed open and another titanic struggle began in and around the doors where the passengers were now trying to get off. These people who had all seemed so friendly and good-natured on the journey suddenly turned back into wild maniacs, eyes blazing, foaming at the mouth, pushing and shoving madly.
Then they were off and we, somewhat dazed, started to get off too. The passengers had now calmed down but now a new squabbling had broken out. A group of blokes with handcarts had started fighting over the cases; grabbing them from the bus, pulling them out of each others' hands and trying to snatch them from their colleagues’ handcarts. These were presumably porters.
And there again the alien nature of our environment went up a few more notches in intensity. I mean I knew what porters were and what they were supposed to do…but for me they had always been very peaceful chaps who stood around on platforms in the larger railway stations in the vague vicinity of a trolley which was invariably empty and they had the inborn ability to become invisible whenever a train approached the station and looked like stopping.
These Greek porters on the other hand were now streaked with sweat and red in the face from the effort of their murderous tussle for business.
A short stocky bloke deftly manhandled our cases onto his cart and sped off down the road; his feet pattering on the uneven pavement. We ran after him shouting, “hey…hang on!”
When he was at a safe distance from his competitors he stopped and we caught him up.
“Wskvnhfzrsldofhycnfvinfenfnalslfjknrnekodoen…” he said.
We had been practising for this very moment on the bus having finally realised that a little strategic preparation is quite a good thing.
“Xenodocheio…?” we said, trying to include in the intonation the extra information that this ‘hotel’ should also be cheap but not too nasty and not too far away.
“Koitaxte..” he replied, “shcbndrkyxnsmkfkdkkpsldmfnenfn.”
I remember having time in that moment to think, “hmm… koitaxte…that is the imperative plural of the verb koitazo which means ‘look’. What in the name of buggery does he want us to look at?”
It was weeks later that it dawned on me that just as we would say, “now, look…” to introduce an idea, the Greeks say koitaxte for the same thing. At that moment though I hadn’t a clue what he wanted.
He set off again purposefully and we tried to keep up with him. He disappeared into a narrow doorway and we followed him. It was very dark and seedy inside.
Looking at the hotel later, it was very dark and seedy outside too. We were in the reception at the very dark and seedy Hotel Metropole. Does the hotel ranking system with stars also use negative numbers? Whether they do or not we were about to spend our first night in Ioannina in the hotel frequented mainly by the town’s prostitutes and their clients!
A journey of three and a half days and two and a half thousand miles to spend the night in a brothel.
This was going to be some year!
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