I was flying from Athens to Milos in a small aircraft belonging to Sky Express. When I say it is small, I mean there are propellers on the wings and there is only one door and you spend time deciding whether to put your bag in the overhead locker and sit in the seat, or whether it mightn’t be more comfortable the other way round.
We flew 20 minutes to the island over a sea so clear I saw our shadow on the seabed in the shallows. We descended over the white chalky cliffs and I could see young girls riding motorscooters and I could already taste the ice-cold wine and the first mouthful of crusty bread and fresh Cycladic fava, when we pulled up and turned back to Athens.
The pilot said something in Greek and someone across the aisle shrugged philosophically. ‘Too much wind,’ she translated. Back at the airport we gathered at the ticket office in a melee of elbows and fists and slapped foreheads.
Do you think I mean the Greeks? No, the Greeks are a fiery lot but if there’s one thing they understand, it’s the actions of Fate.
‘What do you mean, you don’t know when the wind will stop?!’ yelled an American. ‘You must know! That’s your job!’
The woman behind the counter gently raised her eyebrows and said we could wait for tonight’s flight or we could switch to the flight tomorrow. If tonight’s flight was also cancelled, we’d be given a complimentary hotel room. But if we didn’t want to wait six hours in an airport for a flight that might not happen, we could go enjoy our evening and come back in the morning, but we’d have to pay for our own accommodation.
The American was outraged. ‘It’s not fair!’ he yelled. ‘We didn’t do anything wrong!’
Some of us tried to explain to him about Acts of God, and how sometimes travel is like life: it has unexpected falls, and that there isn’t always someone to blame and it won’t help you even if there is, and our chief job as travellers, as humans, is to work out how to deal with those falls so as to be as happy as we can be in this our only life.
He didn’t want to hear. As I left with my partner for the metro, he was on his phone trying to reach his insurance company in America. He was damned if he was going to pay for a hotel room when it wasn’t his fault.
At Monastiraki, the dropping sun was washing the Parthenon in light and we stood for a moment and admired the golden stone and thought what a gift it was that we were here to see it. We checked into a room above a pizza place just off Ermou Street and were greeted by a wonderful, bountiful woman named Soula who hugged us and told us we were beautiful and gave us free pizza and a beer each because she was sure we were tired from our travelling.
That night we strolled round the base of the Acropolis and stood outside the
Odeon of Herodes Atticus on the south-west slope, listening to music from the concert inside, and found a bar that made – in Athens yet! – the best BBQ chicken wings in the world.
The next day at the airport we saw the American. He had waited six hours, and when the flight was cancelled he’d demanded his free room. No one had taken him for a fool. He was richer than we were. He had an expensive watch and he earned dollars. He looked tired and grey and taut around the jaw, and when he glanced at me I know he was thinking: ‘Ha! That poor sucker got ripped off last night.’