Merle, like most people I know, is not a morning person, so I sat reading for a couple of hours the following morning, a Saturday, until she got up. We had decided to go to Parnassos, a ski area about 5 hours from Athens, but by the time we left, we knew we wouldn’t make it in time to ski today. In fact, it was almost lunch time before we’d finished pouring over road maps and decided to go directly to the village where we’d stay the night, rather than touring the north coast of Peloponnese. This would mean that we’d miss most of the ancient sites, but the guide suggested that they’d be closed at this time of year anyway. Merle drove until we were out of town because she was better at driving like a maniac than I am, and that seems to be a requirement for getting a license in Greece. She screeched u-turns where the signs clearly said it wasn’t allowed, crossed roads between cars only 5m apart and going at 70kmph, and slammed brakes on when we missed a turn, forcing the cars behind to scatter onto the footpath and median strip.
“Don’t worry. They can’t book me because I’ve got a diplomatic ID,” Merle said, wincing as she ran over another pedestrian. OK. I’m being unfair. Merle was actually driving more safely than most others on the road, but the Greeks even made Belgian drivers look safe, doing all the same things, but there were ten times as many and going at twice the speed. I happily took over once we’d reached a highway, where an overtaking lane would stop too many people getting upset at me abiding by the speed limit. Not that anyone bothered looking at the lane markers. There were often four cars abreast in a two-lane road.
The signs to Delphi came and went along the way, usually disappearing before a turnoff. We learnt to navigate by waiting for signs to disappear, then going back to take the previous turnoff, arriving at our destination at about 4pm. Most hotels were busy, but we found a carpet shop that clearly said ‘rooms to let’ in English that had no other customers. I assume this is some tax dodge, and that by writing the sign in English, he’s minimising the chance of being picked up for a second income. I’d forgotten to bring my passport wallet from the car, so Merle had to hand over her precious diplomatic ID as a deposit. The rooms were above the shop, with the door halfway up a set of stone stairs just as you see in movies, and our window looked out at the street below. The building across the street, and most others I’d see later, were thatched, and held down with shoe sized stones, though whether it was for protection against wind or snow, I never found out.
I was starving by the time we’d unpacked, so Merle found a place she’d been to once before with some more experienced friends and I had the best roast wild boar I’ve ever had. It was probably the best meat dish I’ve ever had, with the meat pulling away at the lightest touch and with none of the gamy flavour I’d expected. Merle had a rabbit dish she’d had before which was quite plain compared to what I was enjoying. Apparently they didn’t go in much for domestic animals in these mountains.
There wasn’t much daylight left, but we headed on to Delphi to try to see the amphitheatre there. It was closed, but we enjoyed an hour of windy mountain roads, the green hills falling away sharply to our left. “Look, that’s the sea,” Merle said at one point, but I was concentrating too much on giving another car room to pass me to look. We stopped a couple of times to look down at the rich green hills. They were covered in the leafless bristles of deciduous trees, occasional tiers for farming, and some stone pillars, remnants of the ancient architecture. “You can see the trees change there,” Merle said, pointing about halfway down the mountain. “That’s the olive trees. They only grow to a certain height, apparently.” She’d done her homework and had plenty of fascinating things to tell me about her new home, most of which I promptly forgot before I could write them down. One thing I do remember was that the Oracle, whose abode we passed, was an old woman who went into a trance, probably from breathing gases that erupted from the earth where she sat. Her priests would interpret her incomprehensible babble into vague prophecies for visitors. The building no longer stands, but the altar she sat at remains in a cut in the mountain.
Eventually we headed back to the hotel, but it was already dark and the passenger seat was on the cliff side. Merle was almost ready to pay for another hotel for the night in Delphi rather than face the mountains in the dark. I assured her it was fine and we set off. It might have been better to stay. “You’re swerving all over the road!” she said as I took a corner at 10kmph. “Don’t go so near the edge! We’ll fall over.” “Slow down!” I ended up driving in second gear all the way back while others tore down the road at 100kmph.
In a bar back in town, we started talking more openly than we had before and I found out that Merle had an 8 year old daughter, meaning she’d had a 5 year old daughter at the time of our tryst. It was a shock, but I was more intrigued than ever. Merle had managed to raise a daughter on her own for eight years, with a meagre salary from the Estonian Foreign Ministry, all the while continuing to travel and build a career.
She was a low level in the industry, but with great responsibilities and important contacts. A typical story casually names people you expect to see only through a wall of secret service guns and hidden communicators.
“The Spanish President was visiting and I was taking notes from the meeting when an aide came in and whispered something to our Prime Minister. I didn’t think much of it, but when the Prime Minister went on he deviated from the notes I’d prepared for him. “It’s important for us to have good relations, especially with the world in the state it is today.” We all wondered what he was talking about and he went on to explain that a plane had just crashed into the world trade centre. We all rushed out to the big screen in his office to see the second one hit.” Again, I’ve probably got half of the details wrong, but you get the idea.
Before going back to the hotel, we walked up the hill to the castle at the top of the town. Not much more than a square block, it nevertheless commanded a position of authority over the town, with a wide courtyard looking out along the valley in both directions, and down to the dwellings below. It was easy to imagine a handful of soldiers pacing the boundary, keeping watch for enemies or local brawls.
The next morning, I gave up trying to sleep and opened the windows to find it was already 10am and the town was deserted. Merle showered while I went to hire a snowboard and we rushed off to the snowfields, Merle driving since I’d never driven on snow before and she lived in it.
In the end, we didn’t need the chains, despite the 2m of snow beside the roads, but had to spend about an hour finding a place to park in the ants’ nest of roads and parking lots near the lift. We paid about 25 Euro for the lift pass, full price even though there were only a few hours remaining before the lifts shut. The first lift only took us to the main ski area, and we were pretty late, so we were happy to find that there was no queue. At the top, we found there was a choice of five lifts, and that was the extent of the park. Merle left a bag containing her drinks, sun cream, and goggles outside the restaurant at the bottom, confident it would all be there when she returned. I can’t imagine that being true anywhere else, but she was right and it was.
We made about eight runs over the next few hours, always choosing the chair lifts, though there looked to be some good runs on the lifts I refused to take. Anyone who’s ridden a snowboard knows that the lifts where you put a stick between your legs and get dragged up are a good way to get a twisted spine. Most of the snow had been compacted down, which is the most difficult condition for boarding, but I soon discovered where the other boarders were going and stuck to that for the rest of the afternoon. The main lift went straight up the hill in front, and the skiers were coming down either side of that hill, but there was a wide expanse of fresh snow on the front, near the lift, if you put in some effort to get there. Fresh, deep snow, few to share it with, and spectacular views of the Greek mountains – I couldn’t have asked for more. Except perhaps some sunscreen. I hadn’t bothered to put any on, thinking we were only there for a couple of hours, but I spent the next few days in St. George colours, a white stripe over my eyes against a deep red background.
There were surprisingly few foreigners – I only heard two people not speaking Greek – but after a bit of thought, I realised that the surprise was that we were here. You could see it in the eyes of just about everyone we talked to, in the village and at the ski park. It wasn’t particularly strange to see a couple of English people there. They don’t have too far to come, and it’s cheap. But why would an Australian come from the other side of the world, leaving their summer, or an Estonian come when she could go directly from her home most of the year? We were definitely a surprise to everyone we met.
The park officially closed at 5, but people started leaving well before and we weren’t crowded on the way out. After returning the snowboard, we made good speed back to Athens, but had a horrible time trying to follow the signs again. I was doing OK until we got into Athens itself, and missed the turnoff to Messogian. It was marked as straight ahead one minute, and the next the highway had shrunk to two lanes and we were squeezed into a truck depot. Merle took over driving and between my navigating and her stopping to ask people the way, we eventually made it back to her house. The city has a lot of work to do to get ready for the Olympics – the roads are a mess, and the public transport doesn’t run – but I remember Sydney being in the same state when I left, and it all worked out there.