7. Greece

After the grace of MB’s presence in Florence, I was lucky enough to be joined in Athens by another accomplice, whose wise and sometimes stern counsel - aptly, here in the Birthplace of Thought - lead to some serious self-reckoning. But as in, like, actually useful self-reckoning, not the kind of wanky, piteous stuff I usually go in for.

During a discussion about feminism’s recent mainstream breakthroughs, I was made to recollect the fact that I have, all too often, in the (all too recent) past, behaved in an egregiously misogynistic manner, probably most severely when drunkenly shouting salacious, even sexually aggressive things at women in the street. A few years on, I now claim honest and meaningful regret for these actions. But still. Not cool.

I mention this now because it casts a strange light on the consideration given in my Italy post to the growing prevalence of public sexual harassment of women in European cities. My point here, I think, is that perhaps I don’t have the requisite authority to be going around like the grand High Male Feminist of Europe when the foundations of my own Sexual Wokeness are so fragile.

There was cause for further contemplation of the kind of self-presentation plied in this blog, when my accomplice (who’d kindly carried out a baton pass of my debit card with my housemate in London) revealed that the father of said had read my blog and had called his son to check if I’m alright. I am alright, and I’m sure my housemate assured him as much. ‘It’s just his shtick’, he probably said, an occasional catchphrase of my ever-supportive closest friends these last few years, I’m sure. But I voiced concern to my accomplice that people might be inferring from these sketches that I’m having a bad time. I do, I suppose, tend to focus on the negative, but that’s just because presenting only the positive would be boring and disingenuous.

My accomplice asked whether dutifully writing a long blog is in fact a good thing to be doing, during what will in hindsight surely seem a precious but all-too-short episode in my life. Perhaps it’d be better to take the time off to just appreciate things and maybe read some books rather than typing out thousands of words of regret over not having enough time to appreciate things and being a slow reader.

I disagreed and my accomplice compromised by gently suggesting that if I must write a blog,  I might feel less duty-bound to spill the grimmer psychological beans if I restrict myself to just one paragraph per entry.

I saw the value in this approach. It would allow me to get down enough of my impressions and observations to provide a good source for expansion in years to come, while at the same time, keeping me in sufficient check to avoid giving anybody else’s father cause for concern.

So I’m going to try it, not restricting myself quite as rigorously as my accomplice suggested, to one paragraph to cover the entire Athens stint, but at least to one paragraph per day of the trip.

Day One

Slept long and decently on the ferry, across a bank of airline-style seats. Awoke to see the sun climbing over the Ionian islands.

Passage from the port of Patras to Athens, 200km over the Peloponnese, which might have been tedious in the midday heat, proved straightforward. Off the ferry, I was straight on a shuttle bus to the port entrance, and straight off this onto the town bus to the coach station, and straight off this onto the Athens coach. Then a delicious two hour drive with a window-scape of violently blue coastal vistas. The fates were smiling. Their smiles weakened slightly, however, when I reached the bus station in Athens and found myself utterly discombobulated. The deep pertinence of the possibly xenophobic idiom ‘it’s all Greek to me’ became apparent as I looked around for general signage or indeed any sort of intelligible linguistic marker. Whereas in France, Spain and Italy, I’d been able to infer, deduce and guess my way through the semiotic landscape, here I was utterly impotent. My Airbnb host, Karelina, said she’d pick me up by the station entrance, bus the station had at least three entrances and I couldn’t even be sure I was at the right station. She’d said she’d pull in on ‘Kiffisios Street’ but the only nearby road accessible to public vehicles was a roaring dual carriage-way, overrun with urgent, loud traffic. She can’t possibly mean she’ll pick me up here, I thought. But a quick phone call revealed she did. Shortly thereafter, her grey Ford Focus screeched into a narrow gap between idling cars and I flung myself across the path of a beeping coach and into the passenger seat. Karelina, who had the kind of smile that hits you like half a Valium, was immensely charming and helpful, until she turned out to be - like Eloise in Foix - a casual racist, so revealed when she recommended go to a beach someway out of town because the nearest one was ‘where the Albanians and Pakistanis go’.

[Probably a good time to admit defeat with the one paragraph per day approach. I tried. Also to acknowledge that when the hosts say these racist things I habitually do the pathetic liberal thing of simply muttering polite disagreement. If it happens agan, I’ll contest it properly.]

I asked Karelina how long it would take to walk into town and she told me 30 mins but warned me it was a bad idea because I would see ‘nothing that is special on the way’. She’s clearly no psychogeographer, I thought. But she was right. The narrow, unevenly paved, balcony-overlooked, stray cat-ruled streets surrounding the Airbnb were quite special in my eyes, but these soon gave way to the most tedious and polluted road I’ve seen in all of Europe. Like Euston Road but hot. Unsure where to come off said, I got lost, and not in a thrilling psycho-geographical way, just in an annoying way. Eventually found more interesting terrain, saw the Acropolis, luminescent up a hill. Found a smashing little bar with a busy terrace in a fragrant and tree-shrouded back street. Ate in a heavily tourist-focussed restaurant, but as tourist-focussed restaurants go it was a good one. Think the waiter found my order (one stuffed pepper, one stuffed tomato, bread and a big beer) quite weird.

Day Two

Went to Syntagma Square and saw the Parliament building. Watched the lads with the big soft balls on their shoes clomping about. In addition to these fellas, the area was awash with militarised police officers. Walked around the National Gardens, which, like all good green spaces were heavily shaded and easy to get lost in. Went back to apartment to buy food before accomplice’s arrival (find the Metro a joy to use here, very modern and marble bright – possibly because of Olympics?; later read about the improvement of services for the olympics having been exemplary of Greece’s uneven and neglectful infrastructural spending). In the supermarket struggle to find hummus. Really expected there to be like a hummus aisle. But, I now realise, hummus is not really a Greek staple, more a Levantine speciality, which becomes dietarily auxiliary north of Cyprus (until you get to East London amiriii) . Accomplice arrives at airpot about midnight and I wait at arrivals with a funny sign. I’ve insisted in advance we get the bus back into town because it is 10 times cheaper than a taxi. Accomplice reveals that a British ex-pat on the plane has called me ‘cheap’ because of this.

Day Three

Morning. Accomplice has to drink Athenian cold cafes  or ‘Freddos’ (as in ‘cold’, sadly nothing to do with the little frog chocolates) ‘for work’. These are nice. Frappes, basically. While we drink them, a destitute-looking, elderly woman, who has been removing plastic cups from a bin, approaches us and indicates that she would like my cup. Accomplice and I conspire in weird, whispering tourist fashion and decide that she probably just wants the cup for a recycling reward or something but that maybe it would be A Very Nice Thing For Me To Do to give her the remaining third of my Freddo. She appears incredibly grateful and slurps the bastard down with a big smile. In my head she then lobs the cup onto the floor, but that’s just in my head. In reality she hung on to it.

The Acropolis. A fairly transcendental experience involving standing as long as possible before the deeply familiar and yet somehow disarmingly Osymandian monuments of Classical Greece, before the heat becomes unbearable and flight shade-wards necessary.

While we’re eating dinner (very good, mostly seafood) a man maybe in his mid 30s, approaches, and regales us with stories of his rambles. By the sounds of it, he’s been homeless in every single major city on the continent. His stories are entertaining and any suspicions over the veracity over claims to have e.g. discovered and inhabited two separate, unoccupied yet fully-furnished German castles go unvoiced. Eventually, a waiter indicates that he should leave the apparently public thoroughfare, upon which our table is situated. Callous.

After dinner we walk to Exarcheia, apparently Athens’ ‘anarchist neighbourhood’ which saw riots in 2008 following the police shooting of a student. Judging from this brief foray into the area, its anarchism now manifests mainly in the form of fairy lights and trendy bonhomie. Nice though. We drink beer and Ouzo and discuss, amongst other things, my great area of expertise, feminism.

Day Four

Visit Aegina, a small island, one hour from Athens’ Piraeus port by ferry (40 minutes by ‘Flying Dolphin’ catamaran). From here we take another boat to Moni Eginas, an islet off the far side of the island. I can’t recall ever having been to an islet before, and I’m not disappointed – except by the fact that Trip Advisor describes the island as being ‘a haven of peacocks’ and we see not one of the special-feathered specimens. We do hear one or two though, crying out from hidden depths on the pine ridges, their plaintive note warbling, as if to say: ‘I wish all you fucking pricks on your sun loungers with your Greek salads and your small Heineken cans would get off my island’. Accomplice, I think, remains amused and not too perturbed by my neuroticism over travel logistics and suncream application.

On the way back, the Flying Dolphin is full so we have to take the slow ferry, which turns out to be the Serendipity of the Year, as we chug back through the gulf at sunset, as hues of gold and sixteen shades of red pervade the sky. We each nail a couple of Heinekens and the lights from the islands begin to pierce the gloam. You can see how he might have dreamt it all, Homer – whoever he or she or they was/were – Saronically drifting, the impressions of islands, in darkling layers on the horizon, flanking channels and suggesting that untravell’d world, whose margin fades forever and ever.

Day Five

Accomplice leaves to join family holiday in Italy. Sad. Go to the Acropolis museum and flesh out the meagre learnings of two days earlier.

Btw, the Greeks really, really want their marbles back. And, to be fair to them, it’s hard to dispute their case. The British argument, which basically seems to amount to, ‘they don’t know how to look after them properly’, seems pretty paltry when you’ve walked around this state-of the-art museum devoted to preserving ancient stone monuments. [By utter chance, a few days later see a Yougov tweet stating that British public are strongly in favour of returning them].

In the evening, walk up Mount Lycabettus at sunset, which provides yet more Homeric transcendence, despite the presence of 16,008 other tourists.

Re-visit the Exarcheia neighbourhood on the way home. It’s anarchist credentials more apparent now: graffiti and posters for political events and rave nights everywhere; riot officers standing at ease, resting huge shields on their legs, on the boundaries of the district; at the centre of things, a large square, rather like Plaça Orwell (Acid Square) in Barcelona or Notre Dame du Monte in Marseille – a couple of hundred people, lots of them apparently migrants and/or refugees sitting on benches and kerbs, lots of cool, lo-fi bars, off-licenses, kiosks, kebab shops on the sides. Sit down outside a shisha bar and, for some reason, order a shisha, plus an aubergine curry and a large beer, all for 10 euros.

Two bros in vests and caps approach and ask me in over-deliberate English what the food is like. I reply that it is good and they’re like ‘oh you speak good English! Huh!’. I explain I am English and they’re excited. These two guys are from Oklahoma and have been in Athens for something like six weeks volunteering at a refugee school around the corner. They explain this is a big area for refugees and refugee activism. Two women, apparently European but not possibly not Greek, join the bros but seem a little less enthused by me than the American confreres. One of the bros is like: ‘wow you’re just sitting there with a shisha and a beer and a nice meal, huh’. I ask if they’d all like to join me because I’m not going to smoke the whole pipe on my own and the bros seem keen but the Euro-women say they would rather sit inside and that is the end of that.

Walk ‘home’ feeling a bit sick, but fairly content nonetheless.

Day Six

This is supposed to be final full day in Athens but it’s transpired that a friend from the States will be coming to town tomorrow on her way to teach at an Ancient Greek summer school (as in a summer school on the subject of Ancient Greek not a summer school which is..). I look into changing plans to stick around but the next few weeks are administratively tricky (entirely my own over-organised fault of course), involving, as they do, a pre-booked train to Thessaloniki, a pre-arranged day of volunteering with a refugee charity, a pre-booked coach to Skopje, and a pre-booked Airbnb there, whose host has already gotten onto me about arrival and departure times, and a pre-arranged low-level anxiety attack about the whole business. Dolefully email friend to say I will not see her.

Realise I’ve seen no remotely modern art in Athens so go to the Contemporary Art Museum, which turns out to be not only closed but apparently completely empty. A sign mentions the ‘documenta’ [de-capitalised, of course] , which I now remember my Marseille host, Thibaut (himself an artist) mentioning. The documenta is a global art exhibition held annually in Kassel, Germany, but this year for the first time it also visited a second site, i.e. Athens. A later Google reveals this to have provoked allegations of a new-colonialist agenda: the implication being that Athens is trendy/ attractive to the contemporary art scene partly as a result of the counter-cultural responses to the economic crisis, a crisis which many people see as being gravely exacerbated by EU policy, strongly advocated by the German government.

Indeed, an intricate stencil graffito on the wall outside poses a sort of quiz question:

‘documenta 14 is like:

A. The World’s fair
B. The Eurogroup
C. The Eurovision
D. All of the above’

Voters had given their ballots in the form of discarded chewing gum, affixed after the optional answers. (D was winning).

Later get a strong impulse to change plans in order to see friend, which obviously turns out to be quite an easy undertaking..

Day Seven 

Have to move to a new Airbnb, just south of the National Gardens. This is of a type which makes up maybe about 15% of listings on the site, as in its definitely not a spare room belonging to a citizen just trying to make ends meet. It’s a professional operation. The listing’s profile picture is a sleek logo rather than a photo of the place and its description dizzyingly pitches it as an ‘Airbnb, Restaurant and Spa’. Any qualms over community-threatening socio-economic evils and imprecise branding are supplanted, however, by its market-beating star-rating-to-price ratio. Ain’t that just modernity for you!!

The booking confirmation comes with a near-primer in the ‘self check-in’[ process, which seems to involve putting more codes into more doors than a medium difficulty first-person shooter level. Along with these are rigorous instructions about dropping my bags off and then going away again until the room is ready.  In the event, though, when I arrive the host, Niko, is there to greet me. He’s a tall and ebullient fellow of about 32, who I suppose might register as having the vibe of a ‘Greek God’, albeit a slightly comical one (e.g. Eureus, God of the unlucky East Wind. . I veer between enthusiastic approval and wild dislike of Niko on an almost second-by-second basis. One minute he’s telling me about his small stone dwelling on the island of Ithaka which he lives in for three months a year without mains electricity, the next he’s boasting about how many holiday apartments he owns and how many more he intends to own.

He gives me a plate of delicious melon slices (water, honeydew, and, I think, gala) which somewhat sugars the pill of some of his more annoying utterances.

He rhapsodises about the natural splendour of the island and then recounts the destruction of som precious, ancient trees by inordinate floods a couple of years back. ‘That’s terrible!’ I say.

‘Yes, he says, but it is nature. You cannot control nature.’

A few days later, wild fires begin to burn around Athens.

I go to the Benaki Museum where the fates have played a blinder by staging a temporary exhibition about Patrick Leigh Fermor the British writer whose European memoir, ‘A Time of Gifts’ inspired this blog (or at least its title.)

The exhibition charts the friendship between Leigh Fermor and the artists John Craxton who designed the covers for all the former’s books and Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas. The three friends spent a lot of time in Greece together, as documented by the paintings and written extracts on display. Leigh Fermor built a house on the Mani peninsula of the Southern Penepolese, and would spend summers there with his long-term partner and eventual wife, Joan Rayner, and a revolving cast of friends, staying up late eating, drinking, discussing poetry, painting theatrical backdrops. Later life could be alright, I think. Could be. If we’re not all dead in the nucle

After getting, probably excessively, stuck in to that exhibition, my powers of concentration are all but sapped and I waste the opportunity to learn something substantial about modern Greece as I rushing around the rest of the museum. All I can tell you with any certainty about the last century of Greek history is that lots of things happened.

I did just about have enough in the tank to sit and watch a well-executed video exhibit, which was an interview with Jeff Koons, whose work I’ve never appreciated, but he came across alright here. You sit in a chair looking at a, big, portrait-aspected high-def screen projection of the artist sitting in a chair talking, more or less directly to the camera. His  monologue was on what is still vital and instructive about Classical Greek, primarily its propensity for ‘balance’. Something we should surely take heed of in our lopsided times. The Greeks strove for the harmonious counterbalancing, and even the resolution, of apparently antagonist opposites: Apollo and Dionysus, masculine and feminine, the ambition to build colossal marble monuments and the desire of the enslaved underclass not to do backbreaking unpaid, manual labour.

When I get back to the Airbnb, the self check-in process proves to be actually of boss-level difficulty, relying on key-pad technology so modern as to be virtually unusable. Inside, I look around and suspicions about the property’s former life are aroused: there is a large foyer area, with no windows, decked out like a lounge, but really atmospherically more like a waiting area. There are maybe six bedrooms, some of which can only be the size of large cupboards, and these directly abut the waiting area. The advertised ‘spa’ element is comprised of a sauna and steam room, apparently out of action, and the showers - as in the actual showers for guests to use - are separated from the central space by plastic curtains. It looks like used to be a brothel, in case that needed spelling out. A weird move to convert a brothel fairly directly into an Airbnb, in my book. Still, as a young entrepreneur in a struggling economy, you’ve got to be resourceful, especially if you’ve a isolated island retreat to maintain.

Later I answer a frantic knocking on the door to find a guy outside looking baffled by the keypad. I show this fellow guest, a Chinese man of about 20 named Ping, inside and orientate him around the probable former knocking shop, as Niko is apparently nowhere to be found. This is, it strikes me, the height of modern bourgeois capitalism: arranging your business in such a way that your customers end up having to perform labour for you. Canny stuff.

But, Lo, the big man is soon back on the scene to esteem himself once more, when he discovers me working in the kitchen and, when I ask him whether there’s a good restaurant nearby, he insists on going downstairs to his own restaurant (currently closed as the BrothelBNB is apparently bringing in sufficient revenue) and bringing me stuffed tomatoes and peppers with a glass of red wine. There’s no price for any of this except that he sits with me while I eat it and shows me slow-motion videos on his phone of him swimming and jumping off a boat, all of which he seems to find genuinely hysterically amusing. He then excitedly tells me that tomorrow three more guests are (separately) coming for the weekend: an American girl and a British girl and a British guy (whom he seems less excited about). He suddenly has the idea that we should all go on a boat to ‘a private island’. I tell him that I can’t because I have to meet my friend and he looks utterly bamboozled and states his proposal again with added emphasis and goes as far as to show me the women’s profile pictures, which strikes me as fairly invasive.

I humour his proposal. It is a weird move from the fates to bolt this one out of the blue, but I did not decide to stay longer in Athens in order to lounge around on a boat with strange babes, I stayed in Athens to sit in a restaurant by the acropolis with a jet-lagged woman who will do her best to remain awake while I bombard her with questions about Greek Mythology.

Day Eight

Try to go to another contemporary gallery (The Breeder) in the afternoon. This too is closed. See police raiding brothels near Metaxourghiou Metro station. Perhaps they’ve been earmarked as Airbnbs.

In the evening go for dinner by the acropolis with my friend who is jet-lagged but does her best to remain awake while I bombard her with questions about Greek mythology. We have a good, wider-ranging chat besides this, all of which, I tell her, was worth sticking around for, admitting that I was unduly anxious about changing my plans. She suggests that this aversion to spontaneity might be a British thing, and I riposte that I think it’s more just a me thing, before going to on to posit that perhaps spontaneity and the anxiety, which might accompany it are perhaps related to class and economics. At this point, her fatigue becomes too great and we call it a (very enjoyable, semi-spontaneous) night.

Day Nine

Travelled to Thessaloniki, northern Greece by train. Had read in the early summer about a crash on this route in which four peopl died after a train came off the tracks.

A couple of hours into the journey the stopped suddenly, without explanation, and we were made to board a coach, which took us north for a few hours, before we disembarked and got on another train the rest of the way

Arrived late to the Airbnb, whose host, Sukie, an instantly very likeable, woman of about 50, welcomed me with measured and slightly nervous jollity. I apologised for how much I was sweating and asked to re-fill my water bottle as soon as enter the kitchen. She told me it was fine: she herself had drunk six litres of water that day!

‘In my ex-life I must have been a frog’ she joked.
‘Yes, or a fish!’ I added.
‘No, a frog because I can be out of the water, I just like water’ she said, and that was the end of that riff.

I apologised for my lateness. I’d already texted her to explain about the train delay and it transpired she knew precisely what had happened because she used to work on the railways as a signaller so looked into what the delay was about. Turns out that the previous day a train HAD come off the track! It was just a goods train and no-body was hurt but it had meant that a section of track had to be closed off. Sukie told me all this with the casual dispassion of someone reporting a minor traffic tram. She later told me that she retired early from her job because it became too stressful after the economic crisis.

‘They stopped buying new trains, new signals, the things you need to make the railways run properly and people blamed us’.

Now, I infer, she lives on the income from renting out her two spare bedrooms on Airbnb, which seemed a logistical stretch given that her son and daughter, both mid twenties, live with her as well and there appeared to only be three bedrooms in the apartment.

Day Ten

When I woke up and entered the living room, I found Sukie sleeping on the sofa but she awoke abruptly and insisted she had fallen asleep there unintentionally.

This was the long-awaited day on which I would perform my one vaguely utilitarian duty during the entire three month project and volunteer with a refugee charity. Being accepted onto one of the various refugee projects in the region can be a difficult process, as my fellow volunteers – one of whom was a nurse, another a teacher, and both experienced crisis volunteers to boot – attested. I’d had a Really Good Friend of Mine put a word in for me with the charity’s CEO to ensure a volunteering place. Apparently there were no deliveries going out on the day I was there, which was why I couldn’t go to a camp, but then I wouldn’t have resented them for explaining that I can’t just turn up for one day, untrained and useless, and expect to be spirited right to the front line. To have protested would have smacked of voyeuristic self-importance so I happily went and did my logistical bit.

It’s two busses to ‘the warehouse’ – a storage and distribution facility located in a former warehouse in the industrial near-wastelands which fringe the city.

Here, seemingly, there’s a rolling cast of maybe about 30 volunteers, 15 or so of whom are there slightly longer term, as in for at least a few months. On this day there were about 20 people in the warehouse, about six of whom were newly-arrived and either, like me, leaving all too quickly or were not yet settled into regular roles. I joined this group for the duty of packing pallets to be distributed, as per order forms sent from the camps. A camp might send off an order along the lines of: 500 litres cooking oil, 1000 kg salt, 1000kg flour, 1000 kg sugar (perhaps to make a big, horrible cake!) and the volunteers will fetch all this stuff from the stockpiles and stack it all on the pallets ready to be loaded into vans and taken out. It was good, proper physical work of a kind, that I rarely am required to carry out and therefore fetishise. There was lunch and good camaraderie and the whole experience was giving me a kind of base-level sense of contentment that I’ve invariably gotten from the few stints of volunteering I’ve done in my life.

The charity in question is Help Refugees, which started in 2015 when a group of friends set out to raise £1,000 to take a van of donations to Calais. Within a week, they’d raised £56,000 and were soon receiving 7,000 donated items a day. Now, as the biggest facilitator of grassroots humanitarian work on the continents, they fund more than 80 different projects.

I almost launched off here into an overwrought digression on how this impressive harnessing of a mass, though often repressed, tendency for economic selflessness, provides a demonstrative example for the kind of new social and economic models we’ll need to establish very soon. But then it struck me that doing one day of volunteering in a warehouse (with a very long break in the middle for a Freddo from a nearby petrol station, initiated by the nurse and teacher) doesn’t quite give me the requisite authority.

My giddy, altruistic high was destroyed by a, looking back, bathetic chain of events at the end of the day: I was helping to make a stencil for a mural with an immensely fanciable South African woman, who announced suddenly that she was going home for the day, getting a lift with another male volunteer, and didn’t offer me a ride (and, in the end, why should she). I said I’d stay and finish the stencil, before realising that all the other volunteers had left as well. One of the more ‘senior’ volunteers (not using inv commas facetiously, just don’t know her proper title) was left but she apologised that she was driving in the ‘completely different direction’ from the city so couldn’t offer me a lift. No problem. I’d come by bus and I’d go home by bus, though I was a bit worried that with the warehouse being way out of town and it being a Saturday night that the buses might have finished. She assured me they were still going a few times an hour so I’d be fine.

I thanked her for having me and she said I should get in touch if I ever want to come back. I said I would and made to leave, but just as I did so received a message from Airbnnb: Niko was requesting money. I read the accompanying message which went along these lines:

‘Liam! It was great to see you driving the big boat. I think you’ll make a great skipper one day. I’m glad you decided to stay with us one extra night but I did not find any money left in the room. I will have to charge you an extra 30 euros for this!’

Attached with this was a photo showing Niko and (presumably) the British and American women lying on the deck of the boat grinning, and behind them, with his back to the camera, a thin pale man in a cap driving the boat (the other British guest?).

He was trying to rip me off! I knew he was a scoundrel, luring me in with melon and peppers before trying to extort me. If I rejected the request for extra money he’d send the photo to Airbnb and say it was me. Gallingly, I realised I had left no message confirming my check out time the previous morning.

It wasn’t really about the money; I just utterly resented this devious effort to rip me off. My mood crashed. I sent a tactful reply suggesting that I had left the apartment the previous morning as agreed and that he must have made a mistake. Then I trundled to the bus stop - a derelict, litter-ridden, shadeless structure by the edge of the busy road. ‘I bet I’ll have to wait the full 20 minutes for this bus’ I internally grumbled. And in the event, I did. And then another 20 minutes. And then another. Cars and lorries appeared, shimmering on the horizon like beads of hot oil, before roaring by uncaringly, but no buses.

I saw a car leave the warehouse. It was the senior volunteer. She gave a timid wave as she drove by, in the direction of the city.

This was the perfect metaphor, I decided. For everything. Me standing there, on a Saturday night, in this graveyard of South European industry getting a taste of the reality faced by so many in this region who know a very different Europa from the one I know. The buses must have finished for the night, and I had no way of getting back to the city. It’d be dark soon and it was too far to walk. I’d have to spend the night in the warehouse yard and get the bus back in the morning, which would mean I’d miss my booked coach to Macedonia so I’d have to buy a new ticket and I wasn’t even sure there’d be another coach until the following morning so I’d have to book another night’s accommodation and I’d probably have to pay that prick 30 euros or else he’d give me a bad review! Maybe the easiest thing would be just to get a flight home in the morning. I’d had a good time, but this was all just too much no-

And then the bus came.

When I got back to the Airbnb, Niko had replied to insist that he didn't have the wrong person and that I was on the boat and the photo proved it. Not quite ready to write him off as a crook, I fired off one last missive urging him to consider whether he might have confused me with the other British guy who’d come to stay that weekend. And then I began photographing evidence which would prove (or at least heavily imply) me to have been in Thessaloniki at the time Niko was saying I was illegitimately remaining at his Airbnb – train tickets, food receipts, messages from Sukie telling me not to worry abut being late. I was about to send these to both Niko and Airbnb, when the Athenian antagonist replied to say he had made a huge mistake! He had confused me with another guest! And he was sorry I was not on the boat because it was a great day!

Later had a good chat with Sukie in which I sought her Take on contemporary Greece, with particular regard to the social effects of the debt crisis. Here is a potted list of her statements and my reflections thereupon, bearing in mind potential translation issues on her part or memory issues on mine.

- Before and during the crisis several politicians had personally embezzled state money and never faced reprisals
- She didn't believe in Syriza to effect change. She felt Tsipras was like ‘any other politician’ and had made impossible promises.
- She had no cause to be optimistic about the country’s economic or political future
- She said most people were getting along okay because they had savings or property and could do things like Airbnb (unclear whether this applied to the whole country, Athenians, or just people she knew)
- Young people, as a rule, had to live with parents, no prospects of buying houses or really living independently for most
- This chimed with something accomplice said about there being a subculture (or just a culture) amongst Greek youth for ironic, gaudy largesse of buying cheap yet extravagant items e.g. those fake roses guys sell in nightlife spots, and then take these to cabaret style shows and throw them at the stage
- She felt that young people were too arrogant to adjust to the new economic circumstances as they did not want to be seen as ‘the waiters of Europe’
- This seemed at odds with the resourcefulness and resilience (or at least ebullience) of the (admittedly few) young Athenians I’d met (some of whom were waiters)
- Her son had studied engineering at Leeds Uni. Now was hoping for job in UK. Her daughter had applied for teacher training at Leeds Met but was rejected (I’d met her briefly and she seemed smart but it takes more than that to make a good teacher I suppose, as I found out at the time of my own failed attempt to do a teacher training qualification)
- She hoped to move with her son to UK, ideally to Leeds or Manchester
- I went to bed wanting to move to Leeds or Manchester.

Day Eleven

Took coach to Skopje, Macedonia.

So that was Greece: birthplace of western literature, realm of Freddos, diminisher of hummus, stomping ground of accomplices, accepter of refugees, harbour of the erudite jet-lagged, supposed terminal zone of European ambition, belonging place of marbles, sumptuous sunset kingdom of the imagination.

6. Italy

Arrival in Genoa borrowed a lot of elements from arrival in Marseille, 400km down-coast: the lateness of the hour, a failing sky, a protracted process of self-orientation in a large and slightly ghostly train station, and, finally, a nervy stomp, Airbnb-wards, through certain half-deserted streets. For the first time, though, my pre-booking judgement was called into question as it transpired that my ‘Very Nice Central Room’ was a fifty minute walk from the train station - ordinarily no hardship, but laden with bags and night-time anxieties, I opted to take a bus, necessitating the rather quaint ritual of going to, specifically, a ‘tobacconist’ and buying a ticket (a bigletto) and, when on the bus, punching this in an analogue machine. 

First (or really second) impressions (for what they’re worth) of the city and its people were also redolent of Marseille. The at least twenty year-old, internally-graffitied bus was near-enough full of passengers, many apparently from other countries. A few looked poor and/or tired. But there was jollity. Some young alt-trendies got one with their small dogs and a few people went mad with glee and started stroking and asking about the dogs. Out of the window, shadowy facades of barely-seeable tenement buildings yielded to flashes of immense architectural largesse. Grand palazzi rose above high-end commercial outlets. Then came a plaza, a small park, high-rise commercial buildings, The ‘President’s Hotel’, another major train station. 

It was all pleasingly discombobulating but I was distracted by the requirement to look out for my stop, there being no system of announcement on the charmingly battle-worn vehicle. Foolishly, I failed to save a zoomed-in-enough screenshot from Google Maps (I don’t have a smart phone – have I mentioned that already? If not I won’t go into my reasons now but will admit that this trip is pushing to the limit my resistance to getting one) so knew only that I should get off after about 21 minutes and the stop was called ‘Terralba Torti’.

By way of navigation, I tried peering out of the bus door each time we stopped, but the signage was too dim and distant, and in the end I just trusted a hunch and jumped off at a fairly arbitrary juncture and then, upon looking up to see ‘Terralba Torti’, printed nice and small above the bus stop, gave thanks to whoever the Patron Saint of Luddites Travelling Abroad is.

As in Marseille, I ‘checked in’ or ‘received the welcome’ (or whatever the correct nomenclature is for turning up at your Airbnb and nodding along politely as your host shows you how a shower works and how a hob works and how a washing machine works and how a wifi-router works and how a key works and then finally says ‘welcome home’) and then went to a neighbourhood bar just in time for last orders. But, whereas in Marseille a post-beer stroll had led to scenes of mass gregariousness, in Genoa it led only to quiet streets and subdued traffic and homebound pedestrians, all set to the weird soundtrack of a Beatles cover-band playing a concert in some sort of stately home perched inaccessibly up a hill behind the apartment.

Inside, this place was every bit the bourgeois interior: all mid-century modern furniture,, bright but not lurid colours, and tasteful but unchallenging art (you get more bourgeois bang for your buck in the smaller cities). I did feel ‘Welcome Home’, I must admit, and slept incredibly fell, despite being being bit to ribands by mosquitoes. My host, Matteo, had warned me not to sleep with the balcony door open – that will teach me to be so flippant about the all-important Welcome. 

***

[Another one of my trademark, utterly inexplicable shifts to the historical present tense now…]

I’m still chugging along on my six euro per diem budget, so the next day heralds no grand touristic designs. After a slow morning basking in the apartment’s cheerful luxury, I wander out and arrive quickly upon a Real Genuine Italian Fruit and Veg Market! Absolutely gutted I forgot to take a photo here, for it would have made for an absolutely belliiiiisima cover photo!

I buy a banana and a nectarine, costing one whole euro, a bit more expensive than I’ve liked.

Then I shlep along the same busy and boring roads the bus had taken me down the previous evening. At a major junction some Romany women were offering windscreen washes to the idling drivers. Of all the world’s tough jobs, this one always seems particularly thankless

I’m aiming for the Via Garibaldi, according to Matteo, the most tourist-worthy part of town, as this is where Genova’s powerful families built palazzi in the 16th century. Sans smartphone, I quickly get lost and although this feels like a semi-deliberate,‘anti-tourist’ tactic, it does almost become a regrettable state of affairs, owing to the fact that Genova is, much like Edinburgh, built on many levels, meaning that covering a distance that is technically about 50 metres can take 20 minutes. 

After a great deal of climbing and descending and re-climbing and stopping to nod and quietly whistle at unusual buildings and sudden sweeping views and worry that I have heart arrhythmia (despite medical tests having proved that I do not), I arrive at Parco Villa Gruber, an apparently abandoned mansion house, where I enjoy a tremendous downhill view of a long and sloping garden, framing the mid-distance seascape.

Next comes the deliciously manicured wildness of the Villeta di Negro, where I encounter a grand, widely encompassing view of the city, and a woman painting said, and men sleeping in the shade, and, I think, a couple fucking on a bench. 

From here it’s really just a 20 minute downslope stumble, following the trajectory of the old funicolare, before I eventually arrive at Via Garibaldi. This is indeed a street of Palazzi, which despite my growing (but admittedly often quite laboured) enthusiasm for celebrated architectural content, I find a bit boring. The historico-touristic premise of every single one seems to be: once upon a time a very rich family built a lovely house! And once you’ve encountered that six or seven times in quick succession it begins to grate somewhat. 

The issue really is that I’m getting hungry. So I stumble off into a maze of small alleyways (caruggi), with medieval and baroque elements, reminiscent of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. Mark Twain, after his own wanderings here, described this part of Genoa thus:

‘… crooked as a corkscrew. You go down these gloomy cracks [and look up to] behold the sky as a mere ribbon of light’.

Here, cheek by jowl with café owners and restaurateurs and artisanal shopkeepers, are women sitting in doorways and murmuring ‘ciao bella’ to passersby.

I find a café in a small but lively piazza with a ‘refugees welcome’ graffito and decide to blow the depleted budget (and my depleted dietary ethics) on a goat’s cheese panini and a coffee for six euros. I have to say this is truly the best panini and coffee lunch I’ve ever had. 

Eventually I rowse myself from a post-prandial stupor and shamble towards the docks, an important part of Genoa’s history (though just imagine a port city where that isn’t the case; ‘yes, we do have a massive port but we never really use it’).

A strange ennui is setting in, whence, against my will, I’m beginning to feel a bit bored of everything. Suddenly, it’s a real strain to find the surroundings interesting. I’ve seen too much incredible art and architecture and unusual spectacles and my mental observations are now hardly more sophisticated than e.g: ‘people like to spend a lot of time in cafes here’ and ‘there are bidets’.

I stand dehydrating on the hot quay-side, blinking at things. The sea seems miles away, obscured by densely packed sections of pleasure boats in the marina. There is a gigantic facsimile of a old pirate-ship, some sort of children’s attraction. I read an information board about the history of the port. It was an important part of the city’s growth. It now has a large crane. That’s about all I remember.

I stumble defeated into a bookshop and find a short publication of Mark Twain’s previously quoted reflections about Genoa, an extract from his book ‘Innocents Abroad’.

He contemplates the city with a similar weariness to my own, as he remarks on his irksome tour guide and the inordinate number of churches he’s been inside in Europe, though of course he does it all with more eloquence and underlying respect for the city than I’m managing to muster. He also reckons Genoa’s women to be ‘the most beautiful in Europe’, estimating, in a weird move, ‘about two thirds of them’ to meet his personal aesthetic criteria. 

Before wandering ‘home’, I contrive to visit some of the sights Twain mentions, such as the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, where I’m struck by the incongruity of the confession box, standing as it does in the middle of what I consider to be, it now dawns on me, a tourist attraction. In Toledo, the old places of worship now serve almost entirely antique purposes, whereas here (and elsewhere in Italy, I’ll find) the tourists mill about amongst actual worshippers. On the wall next to the confessional, a sign schedules when confession is held and which priest will be hearing it. I wonder if sinners try to schedule their weeks around avoiding the more admonishing priests, as a modern heathen might in order to avoid an especially nasty gym class instructor.

Walking idly towards an altarpiece, I realise I’m standing directly in front of some people vigorously praying – kneeling and leaning forward, palms together, fingering the rosary. Like, I’m standing right between them and the crucifix, presumably obstructing the divine traffic. What am I even doing in here? Not learning anything, just wandering about in a big church because I reckon somehow it’s what I’m supposed to be doing. I never even make a donation to these places, just wander about pointlessly then leave.

And yet, reflecting on it now, one week on - and on the churches and cathedrals seen before and since - something does get to you as you stare up at the stained glass or the gilded dome ceiling. The very fact you’re having such a self-questioning moment in such a setting is telling somehow. And often when I step out of these buildings I do feel calmer, as if some nameless flux has ended. They certainly know what buttons to press, God’s architects, I’ll give them that much.

As I walk back to the Airbnb, I see the Romany women again, still at the junction, still being repeatedly dismissed by the idling drivers. They’ve been there all day presumably, in the heat and fumes. 

***

The next morning I’m tired and angry because I’ve got to catch a train at like 8am from the Piazza station, the one at the other side of town, and it’s a headache because before I can get on the bus I need to buy the ticket but, of course, there’s nowhere going to be open in this quiet neighbourhood so early in the morning, of so I fear, until I step out and the streets are full of people and all the tobacconists are open and it’s almost some Oliver Twist scene of bodacious signoras wandering about with baskets of bigletti singing ‘who will buy a single bus ticket?’. And, in fact, the bus stop proves easy to find, and the bus comes straight away and it’s packed but somehow that doesn’t bother me and, when I struggle to reach the ticket-punching machine, a woman punches the ticket for me and I stand there smiling amongst the commuters, watching the middle aged women in dresses nonchalantly steer mopeds through the traffic, thinking that Twain was maybe right, the silly old chauvinist.

But it’s panic again when I realise I’ve gotten off at the wrong stop and, if the map on the street is to be trusted, the station is too far away for me to get there on time, which is terrible news because if I miss the train (the first of three connections) then I can’t, in my current state, afford to buy a new ticket and I’ll be stuck in a Genoa with no accommodation and no cash. But it turns out the scale of the map was confusing and the station is right around the corner and I make the train and, although I do mess up the second connection and get on the wrong train, I get back to La Spezia in time to make the Pisa train (the correct one) and before I know it I’m out amongst the Apuan Alps, in a carriage with a woman who has a chicken in a sack.

The hourly bus from Barga station is about 20 minutes late, but I’m not bothered by this point and I just wait happily alongside an old woman who keeps checking her watch but never frowns, and eventually the bus comes and it’s a minibus, full of people, whose driver doesn’t let me pay and takes me up the hill to my hostel (booked through Airbnb) which is a century-old villa, like something out of The Godfather Part II, run by a Scottish family and the view from my room is the best view I’ve ever had from my room, looking out over the hills, somewhere up in which, in a village called Sommocolonia, my great, great grandfather, Domenico Dario Rinaldi was born.    

I walk to Sommocolonia the next morning. It’s a two hour climb up a winding road with no footpath, up and down which cars come fast, beeping their horns as they approach the bends to give you just enough time to jump towards the vertiginous roadside as they pass. I don’t know much about my Italian ancestor, except that he was born in 1861, went to America in 1882 and married in 1886, in London, where he died in 1912. I certainly haven’t inherited his presumed complexion, or his ability to withstand heat and altitude and I sweat my way around his native village, deserted except for a family eating lunch in a garden.  

‘Ciao’ they all shout as I pass by the gate.

‘Ah what a fantastic traditional Italian family’ I think. And, then, when I’m a few yards away, I hear one shout ‘pass the ketchup, Andrew!’ in an extremely Scottish accent.

The village is spread across two minor peaks with most of its deliciously bucolic houses on the farther peak, along a path, away from the abode of the Scottish clan. I climb a centuries-old stairway, and proceed tentatively through the quite ghostly village, being careful to stay on the barely demarcated footway, and not wander into someone’s garden lest an angry Scot should appear and throttle me. 

I sit on a low stone wall and contemplate how strange it is that one day long ago, only a few metres away, up in this remote and sleepy Tuscan hill settlement, my great, great, great grandmother and great, great grandfather fucked each other. 

I reach a crumbling, but apparently still operational church. Certainly it’s bell still clangs away in the cuboid belfry once an hour, but there’s no sign of any human campanological presence. Here I’m hoping to discover a graveyard and (therein, perhaps, a baroque Rinaldi family tomb), but there isn’t one. There are, though, several war memorials knocking about, and engraved on one I find two Rinaldis: Alfredo (civili), and Venanzio (milita).

Mildly excited by discovery of possible, very distant relatives, I text my uncle and then find yet more war memorials. The place is one big hilltop shrine to the Ultima Guerra. On cue, my uncle replies to say these are probably the casualties of the ‘Battle of Garfagnana’,  Christmas 1944 - a key engagement of the German assault on the ‘Gothic Line’ - which he reckons could make a good film, as it has, he says, ‘everything: ordinary people, suspense, action, hand-to-hand combat, racism [the hosteller later explains that American troops stationed here would have included the first black people the villagers had ever met], short-term defeat, but ultimate victory’.

 It certainly gives me plenty to ponder as I let gravity speed me down and along ‘Via Buffalo’, a narrow overgrown footpath, leading to a rocky trail. A determined young woman in sportswear climbs uphill as I descend. ‘Mi scusi! This way Barga?’ I inquire, over-emphatically’.

‘Aye, yer going the right way! Just follow the signs’ comes her Caledonian reply.

Later, the hosteller tells me that Spike Lee already made a film about the battle and the locals were pissed off with the disruption, so I abandon the idea.

***

At characteristically short notice, my pal MB decided to come and join me here in Barga and drive us both down to Florence the next day. The original plan was for him to meet me in Sommocolonia at lunchtime but he texted to say he’s ‘messed up his time zones’ and eventually turned up at the hostel late in the afternoon in a drop-top Fiat Spider. He didn’t, he insisted, request it specially at the car hire. His arrival brought with it my reunion with the world of cash, and my now customary evening routine of sipping one or perhaps two small beers before dinner was jettisoned in favour of our being six pints deep before the sun had even had the idea to set.

To prevent complete catastrophe, I called a ceasefire at about 6pm, whereupon we returned to the hostel to kick a flat football around on a dusty pitch for a bit, before grabbing a couple of showers and heading out for dinner. We ate pizzas, which were alright, and then climbed to the top of Barga, where a churchyard provided vantage over the undulating landscape. 

I can’t do descriptive justice to the splendour of the sunset here, only urge you to go and see it yourself one day.

Halfway back down the hill, crowds were gathering in a small piazza where, every night that week, the local football team were running a bar and nightly live musical entertainment. MB and I settled at the side of the grassy stage, where we enjoyed a reasonable view of the band, a Green Day tribute act called ‘In Need of Green’. The performance went down very well with the locals, who were in excellent voice, and it reminded just how many of those old Green Day songs I know and love (two).

***

Next morning, we’re in the Spider, and, after negotiating some treacherous mountain bends, and a quick detour to Pisa to see the tower (which was fine), on the autostrade, roof down, speeding onwards, like Virgil and Dante flying from the undergloom of hell, the disturbed air banging off the windscreen.

It was fortunate that my debit card-wielding pal picked this moment to join me, because my own new card - long-expected to be waiting for me in Florence - had, it now transpired, still not turned up. It was doubly fortunate, in fact, because at this time of the year, ‘doing’ any of the classic Florentine tourist stuff – the Uffizi, the Accademia (which houses Michaelangelo’s David) etc – entails a period of queuing too great for my patience threshold and complexion to withstand. So, instead, we relied on more accessible distraction: Friday night beers on the steps of the Giardino delle Rose, affording, it was agreed, the best visuals of any Friday night session in living memory; a visit to an outdoor swimming pool where we did actually have to queue quite a long time to jump off a diving board; and a walk around the botanical gardens, which were serene, even though most of the plants were dead.

On the Saturday night, old MB arranged a Tinder date, purely he insisted, ‘ because it’s a great way to get some first-hand local knowledge’. The fact that his date was a dutch woman, staying in Florence for only one night en route to a wedding in rural Tuscany, went unremarked upon. I went along (for a bit of) the date too, and we all had a lovely conversation over some hard liquor.

The next day was one of those where you can just about hold it together if you keep the shutters closed and turn the fan onto ‘turbo boost’ and stay in bed until the afternoon and get up eventually and have a cup of tea and then go back to bed for a bit and then get up again and reheat the previous evening’s pasta and then go back to bed for a bit and eventually stumble out into the hot evening and look at some statues for a bit and eat an ice cream and do you best to clean yourself up after with a couple of napkins.

And with all this done, and your faculties more or less restored, you can attend mass at Il Duomo, and, if you’re able to suppress every screaming moral objection that erupts at the mere countenancing of this deeply rotten and hypocritical institutional ritual of sin-forbidding, you might, through the healing power of catastrophic boredom and strange Latinate cadences, manage to shake-off some of the psychological symptoms of your hangover.

After one rather lavish final dinner (including a reckless late night espresso), and the totting up of the eye-watering expenditure owed to MB (including a cash transfer designed to last until Athens), we part ways, he bound for the airport, where he discovers his flight cancelled, necessitating an overnight stay in a hotel in Bologna, which, he consoles himself, will at least yield the opportunity to have a really good spag bol, but the hotel is uninspiring and miles out of town and there’s no bolognese on the menu. I don’t know what he ate instead, perhaps he’ll blog about it himself.

As for me, with all my thoughts now fixed on Greece, (to be reached by sea via Bari) a seven hour train journey south becomes an 11 hour train journey south, due to ‘a fire on the track’.

As alluded to in the previous post, I am treated compassionately by an Italian woman of about 65, the only other passenger in my six-person carriage, who does her best to translate the announcements and insists, using only gestures and facial expressions, that I keep her remaining half packet of biscuits. She also suggests I go to the station bar, as we’ve been informed that the train will not move for some time. I do so only to buy a bottle of water (yet another Bad Thing to Do in this Day and Age but I can’t remember even being so thirsty) because I’m scared the train will suddenly depart with my big bag on it and leave me sitting on the platform with only a few euros and half a Peroni to my name.

Instead I just mooch around on the platform and slip back into playing voyeur as the other passengers react to the delay with remarkable stoicism. Once again, it’d be gratuitous to extrapolate heavily from this little scene and conclude that the Italians are a Remarkably Accepting People or something equally platitudinous but, as the sun falls steadily away behind the buildings in the un-famous town of Termoli, they definitely do, without visible exception, remain cheerful. More than cheerful in fact, gregarious. What in England would surely go down as a week-ruining, fury-inducing feat of cosmic injustice for all involved, here becomes an opportunity to make friends. And apparent strangers go wandering about, in and out of each other’s carriages, and down onto the platform to share cigarettes. 

They talk animatedly but not, seemingly, angrily about the situation at hand. Of course, for all I know they might have been spitting blue murder but the tone and manner of the discourse doesn’t imply as much.

When I return to my compartment, my Good Samaritan and I have been joined by a woman of about 25, who eventually acknowledges me in Italian. The older woman explains that I am from England and the young woman laughs and tells me in English that she assumed I was north Italian, because I am ‘reserved’. She says she used to live in Ireland and would love to practice her English, if I don’t mind, which of course I do not. We have a good conversation, during which I learn the meaning and semiotic importance of several Italian  hand gestures. 

The woman, Alìda, asks me if I’ve learned many Italian words during my stay and I’m like, ‘yes, of course I have’, thinking myself a instinctive linguist, albeit a lazy one. And she’s like ‘which ones?’ and I go to start reeling off a list but, beyond the obvious social phrases, find none come to me easily. I’d seen a ‘Beware of the Dog’ sign in Tuscany, which I seem to remember containing the word ‘carnie’ or something so I try saying that but she explains that ‘dog’ is actually ‘cane’. I have a go at saying what I think is the word for ‘exit’, (again from having seen it on signs everywhere), but I also get this completely wrong. In the end I just resort to ‘panini’ and some other food words. 

Alìda doesn’t judge me too harshly for my idiocy and asks whether I’ve spoken to many Italian people during my trip. After a moment’s reflection, I realise I haven’t. Between all the travelling about and hanging out with MB, I haven’t had a real conversation with any Italians. There were the Scots in Barga and we had a few good chats in Florence, but only with other tourists. I thought I’d left this problem behind in Paris – where, at least, it troubled me that I was failing to speak to any french people -  but, it’s now clear, I’ve managed to blithely pass almost 1000 kilometres through Italy without having any sort of meaningful interaction with any of its people. Now, thanks to Alìda and the other woman (who’s name I shamefully failed to learn) I more than make amends (my usual political hobby horses are kept in the stable by Alìda’s insistence that she’s not interested in politics, despite having just complained about the state of Italy’s train network, north-south divide, and lack of job opportunities for young people), until the train finally does get moving and they both alight at Foggia.


***

Bari, encountered at 1am on a Wednesday morning, feels comfortingly reminiscent of certain provincial British cities, owing to certain elements: a large, bright, echo-riddled train station, spilling light onto a sprawling concourse, which blends vaguely with the roaring road beyond; a McDonald’s and a luxury hotel greeting those who emerge here; a rigid grid of streets, lined with mid-range clothes shops and pharmacies and cafes, empty save for a few service workers and late night strollers and taxis; and a smartness to the city centre which contrasts the industrial visions of the train’s approach. I could be in Leeds, if it weren’t for the heat and the smell of the sea and the absence of visible drunks.

The night is devoted to sleep and the next morning to admin, but there is a time for a lunchtime wander before the ferry leaves. North of the generic metropolitan grid, in old town Barivecalia, Bari distinguishes itself with its basilica and cathedral and theatre, and, crucially, its two harbours, split by the headland. In the more easterly of these, I catch the vestiges of the morning’s fish market, and watch the mongers hose down the concrete stalls. At the end of the market strip, there’s a compact but intriguing bar, and behind this, in a small yard open at two sides, about 30 men crowd together in a slightly bizarre formation, tightly packed in a circle as if they’re watching something at close-quarters. But as I get closer it appears they’re not, they’re just standing like this and laughing and shouting.  

On the way to the port, a newsstand relays La Republicca’s headline:

‘ARRIVANO IMMIGRANTI AL PORTO DI BARI. LA CITTÀ SI MOBILITA PER ACCOGLIERL’
(Immigrants arrive into the port of Bari. The city gets ready to welcome them’.

And, a few hours later, with this echoing in my mind, I (all too easily) board the sumptuously-appointed, high-speed ferry to Patras. Soon enough, I’m up on deck watching Italy disappear, stewing in remembrance of the childhood holidays and school trips and lads weekends of my youth, and dreaming of Greece. 




  





5. Marseille

I arrived in Marseille on Bastille Day, but not, sadly, in time for the fireworks. The lateness of the hour - in strange, urban-gothic symphony with a lad trying to sell me hash the very second I stepped out of the Gare St Charles and a man scowling at me from his car as I crossed the road and the slightly sketchy dimness of the two or three streets between the station and my Airbnb and, let’s not forget, my naturally skittish tendencies - was a bit disquieting.

Further, more reasonably-founded anxiety came with the discovery that the apartment’s keys were not where my host Thierry, who’d decamped to the Alps for the festive weekend, had told me they would be, i.e. in a bar just below the apartment. The barman here, presiding bored over an empty interior and a couple of pavement tables of men drinking demis, met my enquiry with a frowning shrug that suggested he’d not only never heard of ‘Airbnb’ before but had also never heard of ‘keys’ (or ‘clés’).

I called Thierry and he, in fairly fluent English and in that shrill and indignant tone so commonplace in the fretful tourist realm, (which I’d probably addressed him in first to be fair) insisted that the keys were behind the bar. So I went back and said as much to the guy and it turned out yes they were, they were hidden behind a glass.

The apartment, a few floors up a steep spiral staircase, which served as an atrium for the many-levelled utilitarian tenement building, almost broke from the ‘bourgeois interior’ template observed in each city theretofore. Upon entry, the air was still and warm, and it was heavily dark, until I found the switch and the apartment’s suddenly over-lit characteristics revealed themselves: somewhat pokey, a little untidy and furnished in a basic, even, homespun way, with bricks and planks for bookshelves and tatty, little curtains instead of cabinet doors. For all of this though, it was not ‘unhomely’.

There was no living room, just a large open space, skirted with worktops and shelves and boxes of what seemed to be artist’s tools, paints and materials. Strewn across a large desk were pencil-drawn design sheets, apparently for sculptures and installation pieces. On one wall were painted humanoid figures, men as if seen via an x-ray-type device, with, it looked like, large (literal) boners.

In the corridor, a male mannequin, wearing only a cowboy hat and boxer shorts, with a ripped torso, daubed with black paint, had stuck to its arm a piece of paper with the customary Airbnb host’s slogan ‘WELCOME HOME’ written on it in sharpie. Thierry had left several such hand-written notices around the place, denoting: my room, his room, the bathroom, the toilet, the kitchen, the fridge, how to turn the gas on, how to turn the gas off, the wifi details, and several other useful points of domestic information. At no stage in this (or in any other) feat of communication, however, did he say anything along the lines of: ‘btw my flat is quite weird’. And, in the end, why should he?

I sat down to carry out my ‘safety in Marseille’ Google search, having neglected to perform this important duty in Madrid, and quickly discovered a familiar kind of forum-mediated consensus: the city centre is pretty safe, save for a few streets around the station, which are better avoided at night (tricky, I reasoned, as that’s where Thierry’s apartment was). One forum poster suggested that women might not wish to dress up nicely and walk around in the evenings as they could be mistaken for prostitutes. Another had it that the city is run by gangsters and the police serve only an ‘ornamental’ presence. Further consensus came with the observation that the Quartiers Nords are the most impoverished parts of the city and that it might be dangerous for tourists to go there, but, as one poster, asked ‘why would you bother if it’s so far away from the centre’?

Further reading revealed these cautionary notes to be the tip of an iceberg of journalistic reporting into Marseille’s endemic, heavily institutionalised poverty. One article suggested that the city is ‘more like Britain than Paris’ in that social housing is contained within the city itself rather than being shoved out to the suburbs. But many others talked of Marseille’s outer cités being damaged by under-investment and effectively being cut off from the rest of the town by the Metro and Tram lines.

I went down to the bar beneath the apartment and drank a demi while trying to figure out whether the place was owned by gangsters and whether the other drinkers were gangsters and whether the men drinking at another similar looking bar over the road were rival gangsters. I remain inconclusive on every count.

The bar closed at 11 and I wandered towards the centre-ville. My first impressions of Marseille (quiet, too quiet, and a touch sinister) were belied as soon as I stepped onto the Boulevard de la Libération, which was a dynamic picture (a video?) of people strolling and people sitting and people standing, outside bars and restaurants and on benches and on fountains. Trams shoved through the happy crowds, which swelled still more as I joined La Cunebière leading to Le Vieux Port (old port), where the fireworks had been. Here was L’ Église Saint-Vincent de Paul, standing gravely above the merriment, there an art-house cinema, vomiting l’hipsters all over the pavement.

My Foix Airbnb host, Eloise, had felt it important to warn me that ‘there are a lot of Muslims in Marseille’ and I could see that, in the raw veracity of her statement, she was correct. The majority of people on the streets that night did seem to be of Arabic or North African heritage. But guess what: the cautionary element was blatantly unnecessary. At no point during this evening, nor at any point during my stay, did a Muslim (or indeed anyone) attempt to do anything bad to me at all (except for one (white) waiter who was rude and didn’t give me free crisps but did give them to everyone else).

It was almost as if those Muslims that they had there in Marseille were just human beings walking around, taking the evening air, pushing prams, eating ice creams, taking photos, just like us non-Muslims do!

I wouldn’t be so flippant in assessing whether the forum post about the city being unfriendly to women dressed up and walking around at night had any validity. I didn’t see any kind of harassment taking place but then I wouldn’t necessarily be attuned to its happening, and, as observed elsewhere, I must resist drawing grand conclusions about these places based on the specific low-level happenstance of my short visits.

More trustworthy are repeat themes across conversations I’ve had with people in various cities. And twice now have I spoken to women (not including the conversation with Eloise) who live in Europe - namely in the cities of Paris and Rotterdam - and have been harassed or made to feel threatened by men they perceived to be immigrants. It’s not a totally unfamiliar issue to me, your archetypal, would-be engaged, metropolitan, liberal-leftist white male, but it remains one I habitually meet with a dumb confoundment. N.b. Neither of those women seemed to be arguing that anti-immigration policies represent a solution to the problem.

That night, at least, in Marseille all seemed well on the streets. More than well, blithesome in fact, The crowds surged around the old port. The lights of the bars, restaurants and the big Ferris wheel played on the water, and everyone was smiling.

***

The next day, Saturday, would at last bring the opportunity to get hold of some cash (as I’m still without a bank card). Or so I thought. It turned out that all central Marseille branches of my bank (I’m too paranoid to reveal which it is online; is that stupid?), which has basically no presence in Spain, were closed for Bastille weekend. They’d re-open on Tuesday 18th, the day after I’d leave the city.

So it was off to the Western Union again to undertake the drawn out process of having funds transferred from my account to the Union and then given to me in cash. The big headache with this operation is that you’ve to confirm with the WU branch that they are able to conduct the transfer, as some branches are not, and on this particular Saturday lunchtime in Marseille, as it had in Barcelona, it entails a half hour wait - mainly because of a boorish Italian family who push to the front of the queue and, speaking only Italian, demand to be served before everybody else, a woman with a small baby included, because they have a taxi outside – to be told: ‘no sorry, we are not doing it ‘ere’.

It’s a twenty minute walk to another branch, which, mercifully, uses a ticketed queue system, like at the butcher’s, and I spend an actually quite pleasant half hour sitting down and reading my book (still A Time of Gifts; I’m a slow reader) before being told by a very friendly woman that she does speak English and she would love to help and I just need to get the transaction code from my bank.

So then follows maybe another half an hour on the phone to the bank, being tossed around different departments and having to explain the situation to every different advisor I speak to, all of whom then ask whether I have a bank card with me and whether there might actually be a branch of [bank] open nearby, and, if not, whether there might be someone there with me who can lend me the money, and after I’ve told them NO! on every count, feeling ashamed at myself for actually allowing anger to leak into my voice, they eventually try to connect me to their ‘Western Union team’, keeping me on hold for ten minutes, before coming back on the line to say that the department is closed for the weekend and to try again first thing Monday morning, which, of course, is when I’ll be leaving Marseille.

Foiled for the weekend and determined not to waste my only full day in my next stop of Genova going through this not quite Kafkaesque but still pretty annoying process once more, I decide to just eke out what’s left of my cash reserves until I get to Florence, where a friend of a friend has kindly agreed to let my new debit card be posted to her house. This means getting by on about eight euros a day until then, which realisation sends me into a self-pitying fury, lasting as long as it takes me to walk 10 metres down the street and see at least three people who look like they’d be delighted to live on eight euros a day (with or without the pre-condition that they have a pre-paid Airbnb room to retire to whenever they please). And I remember I’m in a city where the percentage of people living below the poverty line must be well, well into double figures, and that soon I’ll be in another fancy-arse city, with access to money again. And then I pull myself together.

In fact, eight euros a day proves more than adequate an expenditure. A walk up to the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde costs nothing and affords not only stupendous views of the city and coastline but also quite a fun chat with four 18-ish year-olds, originally from Tunisia. When I ask them whether they now consider themselves French (a latent, reactionary ‘intergation not immigration’ thirst at work here?!) they emphasise ‘Marseillaise!’, not Français. It’s not unusual, I later read, for Marseille’s immigrants to feel this way.

Their group dynamic felt somehow reminiscent of the little crews who’d wander around the Leeds suburb I grew up in: three lads - one cocky and loud; one more polite and nervous; another reserved, almost catatonic - and one girl, (girlfriend of the confident one seemingly) apparently brighter than her male confreres (in this case, the best English speaker anyway) but also prone to giggling self-apology.

They roll a spliff and I ask if they’re not worried by the presence of several armed soldiers patrolling only a few metres away. ‘They are only here to shoot terrorists’ the confident one states bluntly. I half-hope they’ll offer me a toke but they do not. They do, though, tell me I look like Wayne Rooney.

‘Parce que mon visage est très blanc? I ask.
‘Oui’ the leader replies, ‘et très rouge’.

Before traipsing off down the hill, they also tell me that there are more fireworks at the port tonight. So, after making a sub-three euro dinner of pasta and vegetables, I buy a couple of Cans for Melenchon and go and enjoy this free spectacle from the vantage of a side street off the Vieux Port, where I have a conversation with a middle-aged guy who also happens to be drinking cans in the street. I say ‘conversation’, but it’s really just him saying ‘C’est beau! C’est beau! Bravo Marseille!’ over and over again and me saying ‘oui’ and smiling. He offers me a cigarette and looks heartbroken when I decline.

***

More costless joie the next day in the form of a visit to one of Marseille’s famous ‘Calanques’, which are narrow Mediterranean coastal inlets with very nice beaches in them..

I go to Calanque de Sormiou, known apparently as ‘the lazy’s man’s Calanque’. It disturbs me to imagine how hard-to-reach the other Calanques must be, given that my reaching this one represents perhaps the most gruelling beach trip I’ve ever undertaken, necessitating an hour walk to a bus stop, where I discover I’ve missed the bus I need, so have to wait half an hour for another one, which doesn’t take me quite as far as the other one, so I have to walk half an hour to the edge of the Calanque road (where traffic is restricted due to the prevalence of wild fires in the region), which then leads me onwards sweating for 10 near-shadeless minutes, and then up and then down a steep hill, in a circuitous contour, and all of this in 38 degree heat. But from the moment the sea, with its sparkling and mobile blueness framed by the limestone horseshoe of the Calanque, becomes visible over the crest of the hill, the reward more than justifies the effort.

Improbably here, in the Mediterranean, on one of the hottest day’s of the year, the water feels as cold as the North Sea holidays of my childhood.

On the way back into town, when I go to pay my fare, the female bus driver, presumably picking up on my shambling and self-pitying demeanour, bats my hand away. I’ve mentioned her being female not with some regressive, ‘it’s weird for a woman to be a bus driver’ motive, but because I felt somehow that this timely act of kindness might have had a gendered significance. But then a few days later I read in some essay an assertion that the idea that ‘women are inherently nicer than men’ is a patriarchal lie. So, I suppose, in the end, what I’m trying to say is this: that bus driver, who just happened to be a woman, was the nicest bus driver I’ve ever encountered.

Moreover, because of her, I could afford to treat myself to an Orangina on the way home.
This I drink outside a bar in Notre Dame du Mont, which, with its many chalkboard bars and cafes, large rectangular plaza covered with colourful awnings, and wall-to-wall upbeat graffiti, is surely the Shoreditch of Marseille.

Notice that in the main I’m managed to resist the tic of identifying ‘The Shoreditch’ of every city I’ve been to, but here it’s just too irresistible (or perhaps I’m just being lazy because I’ve been on a hot train in Italy for seven hours and the train has now stopped because of a ‘a fire on the tracks’ and there’s been no indication how long the delay might last and I’m feeling woozy (but once again a fellow passenger is being extremely nice to me, giving me food and biscuits and explaining the Italian announcements. I’ll let you guess her gender).

Needless to say, the prices are a good 20% cheaper here than in Shoreditch. And sitting with my ice cold, corporate-branded soft drink on this sultry Sunday evening I begin finessing my Take on Marseille, reckoning the city to be Up There With Barcelona as My Favourite of All the Places I’ve Been To So Far. I can picture myself living in Marseille, perhaps bombing about on a little moped with a shoulder bag full of hash, and bae on the back, smoking in Adidas flip-flops. Or, more realistically, I’m sitting alone outside the salon du thé, reading Le Canard. Either way, it’s a happy picture.

When I get home I meet Thierry who’s returned from his Alpine  retreat. A friendly, tall and slightly nervous man, verging on middle age, he’s relieved to hear that all his signs were helpful. I ask him about his life and work in Marseille. He’s an artist, working with the media of ‘paint and the body’ but for a day job works as a social worker in a prison.

He is astounded that I can afford to go round Europe like this for 10 weeks and is even more so when he learns that I’m a fellow artist (his word) and don’t have another job. ‘Do you earn a lot of money?’ he keeps asking and I try to explain that I don’t really, not enough to think seriously about trying to buy a house or bla bla bla anyway, and that I just happen to have had a good year this year, whereas the year before was bad, and that there’s no knowing which way any given year is going to go.

He just seems too distracted by the fact I don’t have a day job and it brings home to me quite the quantity of privilege that’s underwriting this trip. I try to change the topic and ask Thierry about Marseille but he seems a bit down on the place.

‘When I came back from the Alps,’ he tells me ‘I thought to myself: oh why do I have to come back here? But that’s life.’

That’s the reality I suppose I’m fleeing from (and occasionally being reminded of), as I dart around Europe on my mega-holiday: people coping (with varying degrees of success) with dissatisfaction, repetition and the sense there’s something better out there, in some inaccessible elsewhere.

Whatever happens, I’ll definitely come back to Marseille.