When traveling, things go wrong. I’ve spent all night trying to get across the mountains in California thanks to an ill-placed mudslide (You went over Sonora Pass for the first time at NIGHT?). I’ve been stranded in Chicago overnight on the 4th of July. Resenting these experiences is no fun. It really helps to learn to appreciate them.
Which takes me back many years. More years than I like to think about. Back to my very first trip that needed a passport…
Trying to Get to Corfu, An Adventure
My dad chose the destination; the Greek island of Corfu. He reasoned that as a place that had been owned by the British for many years it would be less of a cultural jump than going to, say, Rhodes or some place in Spain. (not the “Costa del Brit” NEVER the “Costa del Brit”).
This being well before the internet (I was a teenager), we booked a package deal through one of Britain’s store front travel agencies; not Thomas Cook, but the Co-Op Travel Agent, which helped us select a smaller operator. The deal included our flights and a “self-catering” apartment on the island. My parents were not fond of traditional hotels (and when we tried that on another occasion we got a reminder of why that included getting stuck in the elevator).
We booked for two weeks because if we were going “all that way” we wanted plenty of time to enjoy it. Now as an adult, a four hour flight seems perfectly reasonable for a one week trip, but at fourteen…
So, What Went Wrong?
The short version is: Everything.
The long version is this:
We were flying out of East Midlands airport, a small regional airport with not a jetway to its name. It’s a lot nicer now (although still sans jetways), and actually has places to get food and such.
Back then it might as well have been a cargo terminal. We get there the obligatory two hours before our flight and wait.
We had an evening flight. The plane had a mechanical. Because it was a small charter operator, they did not have a spare plane.
So we had to wait while they fixed the plane.
We finally got on the plane.
Yes, it was fixed, and we took off. They gave us all free cocktails, including me. (My first alcoholic beverage. And before you say anything, it’s legal for fourteen-year-olds to drink in the UK with parental consent, under certain circumstances. They seemed to think this counted as one of them). It was a Buck’s Fizz, which I didn’t much like.
We fly across the darkened European skies. Dawn hits as we start to descend towards Corfu airport.
Now, a word about Corfu airport: Pilots hate it. They hate it almost as much as Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which I’ve also flown into. The runway was the bare minimum for the plane we were flying.
And there’s nowhere to go. If you miss the runway you’re going to hit, pick one: The ocean, Corfu town, a mountain, or a marsh.
We line up with the runway, I feel the undercarriage drop…
…then the plane sharply angled upwards. It wasn’t quite a touch-and-go but it came very close. It was my first go-around and I liked it even less than the Buck’s Fizz.
Then we circled.
Finally, the pilot came on the intercom and explained what had happened. He had come in, realized he couldn’t see the other end of the runway because of early morning fog. The fog was not clearing and we were about to run out of fuel.
So, no, we were not landing at Corfu that night/morning. We were diverting.
The Biblical Census
We touched down in Athens, none of us having really slept. A plane full of cranky tourists who weren’t getting to their beach in a Greek city none of us really knew much about.
What we didn’t know, because it hadn’t seemed relevant was that that Saturday was the day of:
The Greek general election.
There are three things the Greeks take seriously above all others: Food, soccer, and politics.
My dad theorized that it’s because they’ve spent a good amount of time under a dictatorship. The right to vote was a serious responsibility.
And here was the catch.
You have to vote where you are registered.
You are registered where you are born. This doesn’t change through your entire life.
At this point, and it might have changed, all the good maternity hospitals were in Athens.
Of the 8 million people in Greece at the time, 6 million were registered to vote in Athens.
Where we were now with no hotel reservations, no nothing.
They did find us a hotel. A five star hotel. We collapsed into bed for a bit, then went out and explored Athens. We already knew we weren’t getting to Corfu that day because even though they had refueled the plane, our crew was out of hours.
Athens at that point was beautiful and terrible, ruins on every corner and water that stank when it came out of the tap. I’m told it’s much cleaner now.
Then back to the hotel for a very nice meal. At which the tour representative came up to us and told us the bad news:
We weren’t flying out of Athens any time soon. Air traffic control had no takeoff slots for us. We were leaving the following morning…
…by motor coach.
An Unexpected Road Trip
Our tour representative turned impromptu tour guide was, I will note, amazing. We piled into the coach for a trip that would take us from Athens to some place called Igoumenitsa. It was going to be an all-day trip. We would go along the north shore of the Peloponnese, seeing the Corinth Canal on our way.
Then up through the mountains to Igoumenitsa. It was beautiful. Greece is a jewel that everyone should see once in their lives, although I’d argue that the true birthplace of our kind of democracy is really Iceland.
We saw orange groves that went as far as they eye could see, and stopped to pick up orange liqueur (which my parents did not let me try) near Patras.
None of this was something we would ever have done by choice. I get sick on long coach trips, but oddly enough not this one. We got to see this amazing cross section of Greece and learn that drinking red wine from the skull of one’s enemies was really a thing at certain times. The only thing I would have added would have been to see Olympus.
Then we got to Igoumenitsa and were herded onto a Greek inter-island ferry. These are, shall we say, rather interesting boats. Across the Mediterranean at night and we finally made our way to Corfu.
This wasn’t the vacation we planned, and my dad said he felt sorry for the people who had only booked a week.
But it’s so memorable I can recall many details over thirty years later.
When you have something go wrong on a trip, don’t resent it. Appreciate it. Enjoy it.
The sad epilogue to this story was that the tour company went out of business the following year. We joked that the last straw for their finances was putting up a plane load of people in a 5-star hotel in a capital city; and perhaps it was.
But no, I will never forget that trip. It taught me that a night spent in Chicago watching fireworks and eating really good pizza isn’t an interruption in your trip.
It’s an addition.