Friday, February 17, 2012

An Adventure on Thera

Sometimes, when travelling in a strange country, one has occasion to meet and interact with the local constabulary, and sometimes with interesting results. My encounter took place in Greece in 1973, when that country was under the dictatorship of Colonel George Papadopoulos, and on the island of Thera. When a tourist boat landed, it was the custom for everybody to rush off and claim a donkey or mule to take them up the long switchback cobblestone trail up the cliff to the town of Santorini, and hurry around town looking for lodging. 
I hired a mule, one of three animals owned by the driver (two tourist-bearing animals, a horse and a donkey in front of me were apparently his), settled my string bag of possessions in my lap, and off we went, the first in line. I was two thirds of the way up when the driver slapped the mule to make him go faster. Instead, the mule slipped; I made a circular trajectory over the animal's head, and landed hard, first on my hip, then shoulder, and finally, head. After determining that I was not dead and retrieving my string bag and my glasses (still intact, by some miracle, though I was uncertain about my body), I had to climb back on the mule and continue to the top. I haggled with the driver for a reduced rate—after all, I had been thrown, I hadn't fallen off—and paid him. Then I tried to think of how to get medical attention for the fall; I wanted to be sure nothing was broken or concussed.
Greece has a branch of constabulary known as the Tourist Police, whose job it is to look after tourists in trouble, answer questions, give directions, and other benign activities. I saw a sign pointing to the tourist police station, fortunately only a couple of blocks away, and hobbled over.
Once there, I explained my plight, and one of the policemen took me, on foot, mind you, to one of the two hospitals in town. Unfortunately, it was the insurance hospital, admittance to which I was not entitled. A doctor there took over from the policeman, and escorted me to the free hospital, luckily quite nearby. By this time the shock of the fall had worn off and the pain of it started to set in. The insurance doctor was very sympathetic, and worried, too, because the free hospital was apparently not open for business yet—the door was locked, it being about 8:30 AM on a Sunday. So he left me on the steps and went back to his own hospital to telephone for someone to come and let me in.
Eventually, a nurse came to the door, took one look at me, and escorted me into a waiting room. Soon a tall teddy bear of a doctor inspected my injuries, decided I wasn’t concussed, and gave me a shot for the pain. He told me to come back that evening at 7 PM to have an x-ray of my hip; he had no film at the moment, but he was expecting some by that time.
By now, it was 9:30 AM, and I still had no place to stay. I had to go on foot from rooming house to rooming house, back toward the center of town. There was nothing. The Fortuna wind was up, and no ships could leave the harbor. Therefore, all those already ON the island, and who had booked all the rooms, were not going anywhere. The two thousand newly arrived tourists were really scrambling to find places. I began to worry that I would be sleeping on the street with my string bag for a pillow.
I spied a barber/beauty shop at the top of a long flight of stairs. It had a porch on which a wall-eyed man was sitting in a rocking chair, looking down at me; it also had a sign that offered rooms. I looked inquiringly at the man, but he offered no comment, so I toiled up the steps, wondering how long the pain killer would hold up. I found out halfway up. One second, I was feeling OK, the next, I was really hurting. But I struggled all the way to the top. As I mounted the last step, the man said, "No room." That did it. I started to cry.
No Greek man can stand to see a woman cry, I think. Immediately, he was all concern. I told him the whole story, from three animals to fall to top step. He listened carefully, and sympathetically, and took me into the barber shop, where he sat me down in a chair in the back of the room. An old lady came in, and he introduced me and told her my story, whereupon she ran off and returned with a cup of coffee. The two of them decided that they would ask a current resident to leave so I could have a bed. I tried to protest, but they had decided. It was only a question of which one would have to go.
Soon a customer came in, looked me over curiously, and inquired of the barber what I was doing there. The barber introduced me and explained. The customer asked me a couple of questions, then grabbed the phone and began shouting into it. I speak a little Greek, and I could tell he was repeating my story, and he was angry about the way I had been treated; the mule driver should have seen to it that I had medical attention, and then the Tourist Police should not have just abandoned me at the wrong hospital. And I should have been helped to find a room, under the circumstances. He was the mayor, the barber explained, and he was determined to do right by me. And he had the authority to do it. I was to wait at the barber shop until an escort came for me.At this point the old woman returned and guided me into the beauty parlor part of the establishment, as one of the regulars had come in and objected to a woman in the barber shop. I sat and drank my coffee, and wondered what would happen next. I was really in pain by this time; moving any part of my body hurt, and I wished I had thought to pack aspirin in my string bag.
Within half an hour, my police escort arrived. The mayor barked instructions at him, and told me I was to follow him to the regular police station, not back to the Tourist Police. It was a slow and painful walk of four blocks. The policeman (whom I came to know as "My Policeman") opened the door to the police
station and motioned me inside. It was a simple room, with lots of windows on one side with a bench underneath, a large desk in front of a wall with a door, and a couple of plain wooden chairs against the blank wall opposite the windows. The obligatory portrait of George Papadopoulos hung behind the desk. My Policeman pointed to one of the chairs, and I sat down, gingerly and slowly.
My Policeman knocked on the door, and a few seconds later it opened and a tall, handsome, hatless man strode into our presence. He sat down at the desk, and rummaged in one of the drawers, removing a peaked officer's cap; this he jammed on his head, causing his Beatle-length, luxurious hair to poke out all around. It did not seem the appropriate time to giggle, so I suppressed my immediate reaction to this man, who now regarded me sternly.
"I am the colonel of police," he said in flawless English, "tell me your name and what happened."
             I repeated my story once more, in English this time, explaining about the three animals and my fall, and the Tourist Police, the hospital, the barbershop, mayor and all. I did withhold my haggling over the price, as it added nothing to the story. The colonel asked if I knew the name of the driver, and I said I didn't, but he was the first in line when I raced off the ship. The colonel nodded, and asked how long I planned to stay on Thera. I told him several days, as the Fortuna would prevent the ships from leaving, and I wanted to see the dig at ancient Thera and the museum in Santorini. He already seemed to know I had no lodging, because he asked if I could stay at the hospital. I said I didn't think so, as this had been discussed between the doctor and the nurse, who determined I wasn't injured badly enough. He picked up the telephone and called the hospital to verify this for himself. As I expected, the answer was no. 
            The colonel glowered at me, and asked for my identification papers, including my passport and my visa, if any. He looked these over, handed them back, and told me to wait there while he sent My Policeman to find me a room and incidentally investigate my story. Then he removed the peaked cap, put it back into the drawer, stood up and marched from the room. My Policeman tipped his hat and left me alone in my chair.
An hour later he was back, nodded to me, and knocked on the door. He said a few things I couldn't hear to the door opening, and soon the colonel was with us. He performed his hat routine, and looked enquiringly at My Policeman, then at me, and asked, in Greek, "Did you find the driver? Did you find her a room?" My Policeman handed him a piece of paper, and told him that I had been truthful in my story, that the driver, Damigos, had indeed been running three animals. "Then there will need to be a trial," the colonel said, still in Greek. My Policeman nodded. The colonel looked as grim as possible with his hair standing out over his ears like a fringe. "And we will have to have a hearing. Tomorrow." He made some notes on a pad on the
desk and turned his attention to me.
            Now at this point, I decided that, although my Greek was pretty good for most purposes, perhaps it would be a Good Thing to seem as though I was unable to speak or understand more than a few courteous greetings; I had not spoken Greek to anyone, not even My Policeman, since I had explained my plight to the mayor, so I thought I could carry this off. "He," the colonel said, pointing to My Policeman, "has found you a place to stay." He consulted the paper My Policeman had given him. "There is a room out in the country, which you can have to yourself. And, there is a bed in a place in town, but you will share the room with
three Danish girls who have agreed to let you stay with them. I strongly urge you to take the room by yourself. And I urge you to leave the island as soon as possible."
"But sir," I said, ignoring this last remark, "that would be most difficult. I am to get an x-ray tonight at the hospital, and I might need some help with the pain in the middle of the night. Also I will need to be near taxis to get to the excavation. I think it would be better to stay with the Danish girls."
The colonel sighed heavily and with a look at My Policeman that clearly said "Women! Tourists!" nodded at him and told him to escort me to the rooming house with the Danish girls. Then he said to me, "And you, please be here at 2 o'clock tomorrow afternoon."
With that, the colonel removed his hat, put it into the drawer, and without so much as another glance at me, went through the door behind the desk.
My Policeman led me through the streets of Santorini to the rooming house. I was shown the room by the landlord, and gratefully put my sakkoula of belongings on the bed indicated. The Danish girls were not in evidence, but I assumed I would see them at some point to thank them. I followed the landlord's instructions on how to get to the toilet, and then set off to explore Santorini. I discovered that I was very hungry, so I found a restaurant that looked pleasant, went in, and sat down. I ordered a horiatiki salad, my favorite lunch in Greece (a simple dish of tomatoes, cucumber, Greek olives and feta cheese, smothered in olive oil) bread, and a small bottle of Demestika white wine. I figured any buzz from the wine would wear off well before I got to the hospital; I would even have time for a short nap and dinner.
On my way back to my room, I noticed My Policeman sitting in a kafeneion across the street, and smiled. He tipped his hat. I thought nothing of this, as Santorini is a relatively tiny town, and one is bound to run into the same people from time to time.
            After my nap, I wandered around for a while, checking out the town, buying some aspirin, locating the museum, and scoping out someplace reasonable for dinner.In Greece at that time, you could go look at everything the restaurant had to offer, arranged for your inspection in the back, by the kitchen. That was so the unfamiliar names of dishes on the menu would not cause a problem for foreigners: One could merely point to the dish one wanted, and that was that. I don't remember what exactly I chose that evening, but it could have been an eggplant dish, a stuffed tomato, or perhaps pastitzio, a noodle dish reminiscent of macaroni and cheese, but made with ground meat. I picked a nice, clean, brightly lit establishment, and chose my meal from the array of dishes displayed. My Policeman wandered in and took a seat near the window, tipping his hat when he saw me.
When the time came to go back to the hospital, about a mile away, I considered taking a taxi, but I had noticed that walking apparently helped ease my banged-up muscles, and as I was not in a particular hurry, I made my way there on foot. Every once in a while I would see My Policeman, on the opposite side of the street or on a corner I needed to turn. Each time we made eye contact, he would tip his hat. In the hospital, the Teddy Bear doctor led me into the room where his X-Ray machine stood. It was a most interesting contraption, unlike any machine of its kind I had ever seen, on a frame of one-by-four lumber bolted together. The doctor patted it fondly, and explained that he had made it himself from parts he had scrounged here and there. But, he assured me, it worked very well. Then he arranged me against the machine in order to x-ray my hip, the portion of my anatomy that had hit the ground first. He did not have a
lead apron, but he didn't think that would be a worry as I wasn't pregnant. He took a couple of pictures, and while he was doing that, mentioned that he had to have the film smuggled to him by some accommodating U.S. Navy corpsmen, who delivered it on their twice-weekly helicopter run to Thera. I felt guilty about having the precious film used for my benefit--I envisioned some poor Greek child with a broken limb unable to get an x-ray because of me. The doctor said that was not a problem, as in a real emergency, he could get a friend at the other hospital to steal some film. This kind of attitude is known as "systima hellinico"--perhaps best translated as "the Greek Way."
Another man arrived on the scene, another doctor, as it happened, from the insurance hospital down the street. He had been pressed into service to explain to me in English what the x-rays showed. Teddy Bear Doctor went to his darkroom to develop the film, and Insurance Doctor stayed with me and said in a most sympathetic tone that my injury was most likely "nothing," in spite of the magnificent bruise that had been revealed during the x-ray process. Teddy Bear Doctor returned with the results, and the two of them conferred over the picture, agreeing that nothing was broken. The Insurance Doctor repeated, in English, "It is nothing," several times to be sure I understood. I wasn't sure I agreed entirely with his diagnosis, but I understood that he was trying to tell me nothing was broken. Rather than embarrass him by repeating in Greek what I thought he meant, I nodded and thanked him. He left, and I asked Teddy Bear Doctor how much I owed him. He was most unhappy to take any money from me, as I looked (by design) like a poor student travelling on a shoestring, but I finally wormed out of him that he paid for the film out of his own pocket, so I was not to worry. In one of the strangest bargaining encounters I have ever had, I finally got him to agree to take the cost of replacing the film, which turned out to be a whopping $6, which he asked for in U.S. dollars., if I could manage that.  Professing to have no other American money, I insisted he take the $20 bill I had tucked away for emergencies. He thanked me warmly, though he was clearlyembarrassed about the enormity of the transaction. I thought I had gotten a bargain.
As I walked down the hospital steps, I noticed My Policeman lurking over a newspaper box on the corner. When I passed him, he tipped his hat. I went on back to my room, where I finally met the Danish girls and was able to thank them for their kindness. I went to bed and soon fell asleep in spite of my aches and pains.

To be continued. Sorry there aren't any pictures; after the fall, I was afraid to use my camera until it got checked out at a camera store in Athens. 



1 comment:

  1. This is a great story! Finally catching up on your blog.

    ReplyDelete