THE TRAVELLERS DEPART
“A coach!? Three days on a coach to Greece? Good idea! Well done.”
Well, it was a good idea – seemed like it anyway. I think it cost something like ₤26 which was excellent for 1975; before the days of cut-price cheap never-come-back air fares. To fly would have cost hundreds of pounds.
“Ok, meet you at Euston next week.”
We seemed to be taking this journey to Greece a little more seriously…but as it turned out not seriously enough…
According to my diary I didn’t do any packing until the day before I left which is really being a little too relaxed when you consider I had to pack for a whole year. In the first suitcase I packed my stereo - padding it in with a couple of sheets – and then a few records which I did not think I could live without for so long. A few people had said at university that it was a bit dangerous taking stuff like stereos into Greece because the customs were very hot on it. Apparently there was a big market for people bringing stereo equipment, TVs, other electrical goods and even cars into the country because they were all so expensive in Greece and you could flog them for huge profits.
“Ah, I’ll be ok! Why should they want to look in my case?” was my standard reply.
In the other case I packed everything else I would need for a year; clothes and erm…more clothes. Actually I hardly had any clothes but I had just been on a cheapo cheapo shopping trip through town to get shirts and trousers and stuff. And finally there was my guitar. I had to improvise a kind of shoulder strap for the guitar case having realised at the last moment that I only had two hands and that two cases needed at least a hand each to carry them.
It was my dad who pointed this out. Casting a sceptical eye over my “kit” as he called it he said, “how in the name of Christ are you going to carry all this? We carried less stuff when we landed on the beaches of Normandy.”
What is hard to remember these days is that something like going off to Greece for a year then was seen as something ranking alongside Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery in the South Pacific or Scott of the Antarctic’s doomed attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole. People just didn’t go off for a year…especially as far as Greece and if they did there was a distinct possibility that they would never come back.
And so the neighbours and relatives had been discreetly visiting over the couple of weeks prior to my departure, as if it were some kind of pseudo-funeral, to express their condolences, take their leave of me, remind me of their moral support and sort of imply that I’d had…well…a good innings and a nice life.
So why was I undertaking this trip? Me, who up to now had never managed to plan any trip more ambitious than to the local ale-house.
Well, it was the consequence of a decision made over two years earlier in the 6th form at school - a decision to do Latin, Ancient Greek and Ancient History for A-level. Now this would normally lead to doing Classics at university…but when the time came to look for a degree course to do we discovered that at Birmingham University there was an alternative. They were offering a four-year course in Ancient and Modern Greek which spanned the birth and whole development of the Greek language from the time of the linear B tablets from Crete, around 2000 BC to the literature of the present day - and down there in the small print was this bit which said that due to this being partly a modern language course, students who took it would spend the third year in Greece to enable them to master the language. Unfortunately they could not offer the same feature for Ancient Greek because the Science Faculty had not yet invented the time machine (that last bit wasn’t really in).
So the chance to give up Latin AND have a year swanning about Greece…that was the very fellow for me!
The incredible popularity of this course meant that in the end there was a total of two students doing it. Bob and I. Deborah was also unsurprisingly alone in studying French and Modern Greek and she wisely had opted to spend her 3rd year in Greece instead of France. And it was this very self-same Deborah who had booked the coach and whom I was going down to meet at Euston the next day.
At Euston Deborah and her boyfriend Tim were there as arranged. Phase one completed successfully.
Deborah also had a mound of luggage but between the three of us we managed to manhandle the stuff over to Victoria coach station where phase two would begin.
There were still a couple of hours before the coach left so we went for a pint…a last pint…into a scruffy horrible pub around the corner.
When we got back there were a few people already waiting for the coach. They were all Greeks. This coach would take us to Dover where we would catch the ferry to Zeebrugge and there be picked up by the splendid European Express Coach which according to the brochure was going to be a pretty impressive piece of engineering...air conditioning, television, bar, toilets…when I looked at the brochure later after experiencing the reality I noticed that they never actually stated anywhere that these features would be on the coach but more or less just that they did exist somewhere in the cosmos.
More Greeks turned up. It looked like we were going to be the only English people on board…pretty obvious really; any normal, sensible, in-their-right-minds English people would have been going to Greece on holiday and so would be well back by now, 27th September.
More Greeks turned up. We were beginning to hope that a lot of the people had come to see a few of the people off. But looking at their luggage it was more likely that these were just the Trojan Horse advanced guard before the real hordes of passengers arrived. If I thought we had a lot of stuff with us what they had looked like the collected wares from the last five years of jumble sales around the country. Boxes tied with string, plastic bags, pots and pans, carpets, trunks, probably a couple of budgies in their cages and no doubt a kitchen sink or two.
However it did give us the advantage of feeling we were actually travelling ridiculously light and so when the coach pulled into its berth and the driver got out and gazed in disbelief at the amount of people and junk he was going to have to cram into his poor coach, we were able to catch his glance, gesture over to the Greeks, roll our eyes and tsk.
Somehow all the people and all the items of luggage managed to cram themselves into this coach which was sinking lower and lower on its suspension. The driver watched, hands on hip, shaking his head in dismay. He squeezed himself in, we waved farewell to Tim and to London in general and off we went. Nothing much happened on this part of the trip because nothing much could happen – none of us could move a muscle we were so tightly packed in. And then we got to Dover and the driver opened his door - we all kind of oozed out in one big blob, like toothpaste from a tube.
We tramped on to the ferry, dumped our stuff by a seat and went up on deck. It was a curious feeling watching the sailors sever the last link which bound us to the place where I had spent all my life so far. A delicious thrill of delight and foreboding.
We had a few drinks at the bar and listened to the parents vainly trying and failing to stop their babies from screaming all the way over the Channel and along the French and Belgian coast. Four and a half hours is a long time on one of these ferries. You can walk around them in say ten minutes…and then? We decided to go on deck and have a look at the white cliffs. I remembered my dad telling me how when he was on the ship to Normandy in the war (and let me just clear this up, although he always used to talk about fighting on the beaches of Normandy and show us his medals, he also freely admitted that he didn’t arrive there until D-Day 30 or so, about a month after the murderous landings), he had stayed at the back end of the ship – aft, I believe is the technical term – and watched the wake just in case the ship got bombed and sank…so that then he would know which way to swim to get home!
England slowly disappeared into the mist and fuck me I had a lump in my throat!
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