Back home now. The heat and energy of Greece seems a long way away. I was in the lobby of the hotel at 5.45am on Monday, and the others gathered - two needing calls to wake them! We took some fruit from the dining room, stashed our bags into the not-quite-big-enough boot and drove quietly away. The water in the bay was absolutely calm, it seemed terrible to be leaving.
In the back seat one of our passengers was strident - what name had we given the voice in the satnav? How fast were we going? Shouldn't we be more to the left? More to the right? Could the window be opened? Closed? Would it be better if she drove? Why couldn't she take the wheel? What did we mean - insurance? What insurance? Surely that roadsign said Athens?
We had the mountain road to ourselves, stopping for a pee and a coffee at a garage. The man produced two Nescafés instantly, and then brewed two Greek coffees on a tiny meths stove. He also gave us each a ring of hard, slightly spicey dry bread, and a glass of water. Patrick took over the driving. On and on we went, through the magnificent mountains, with those wild flowers thronging the verges. We reached the sea again approaching Epidavros, with islands scattered in the mist and the water still calm. Again we whizzed over the Corinth canal, looking so small and grubby - that is the impression it gives now. On the motorway, thank goodness the traffic was light. On the outskirts of Athens we stopped again for breakfast - fragrant fresh orange juice, delicious little warm sweet pastries, a dull baguette, and coffee. Patrick took an opportunity to say to me what he thought our strident passenger was all about....
I had no address for the airport to hand and the satnav could only direct us to Athens Centre, so we switched the voice off and followed the airplane signs. We saw a horrendous traffic jam on the other side of the road, and ambulance lights - thank god our side was clear. We had to get two of us to check-in by 10.30 or 11am, and a hold-up might have been expensive. But Patrick cruised us in to the Car Rental carpark, we handed the car over, sorted the paperwork and said our goodbyes. The other three headed up to the check-in, and I put my case into storage and rang my friend in Athens. I took a bus into the city, feeling really exhausted, and the day grew hotter as the X95 headed into the traffic.
I had a short walk to the Benaki Museum - past the big government building with the pom-pom guards slightly ludicrously on parade at the front, and then into the blissful cool and quiet of the National Gardens. Birds were singing, girls pulled boughs down to smell the blossom on the trees, old men disputed on benches, a middle-aged couple in the shade of the café terrace looked lovingly into each other's eyes... A tiny paradise in the heat of the city.
I crossed the road to the museum, passing a police bus parked right across the road, and a line of officers with lots of guns and riot shields in front of them. A small group of rather academic-looking people held up a huge banner - something about Europe. Slightly scary. Across the road I went into the Museum, once a private house and now a marvellous rich collection illustrating the whole history of Hellenic culture. This must be one of the best museums in Europe - focussed, calm, confident, accessible, friendly and rich. It was filled, filled with wonders which I cannot describe here, but I urge you to go there as soon as you possibly can. When I left, they gave me (on request) two beautiful books - a set of essays about the provenance of some recent acquisitions, and a catalogue of the replicas they sell in their excellent shop.
My friend came to pick me up, in her new Mini-Cooper. She explained how protesters like to demonstrate in that particular street because the King used to live there. She cruised effortlessly through the mad traffic, completely at home. She took me to lunch in the Dionysos restaurant looking out to the Acropolis, and feasted me with divine wine and salad and fish... a superb meal in one of the most spectacular places in the whole world. I cannot really describe how I feel about this generosity - it was amazing. We talked and talked, about our friends and their recent calamity, about our children, about Greece and Greek culture. She said we could go on to another museum, with more ancient artefacts - and when we got there, we had a parking place directly outside the door which seemed miraculous. We felt we had someone on our side - but, the museum had closed its doors just two minutes before. Alas.
However, it seemed sensible to make use of the time by having some refreshment, so we sat in a cafe and had ice-cream and orange juice... and carried on talking. Then she took me on a leisurely journey through the city, past the university, out into the suburbs towards the airport. The driving we encountered was unbelievable - manic, mad, dangerous, stupid, terrifying, unbelievable... but she took it all in her stride. The light on the land was shining - she said, this is one of the marks of Attica - the famous, glorious light, which she misses every time she is away from her country. I could see why. Saying goodbye was almost impossible. I wanted to stay forever, in that light and heat and that friendship - but of course, I had to go.
I had lots of time at the airport, felt unhurried, bought something light to read as my excellent C. Darwin might be just too much. Two new friends from the conference tapped me on the shoulder - they were on their way home to Brussels, looking tanned and smiling. My plane was called. I chose my seat near a window. We left on time, with some space around us. We flew right over Athens, then up the Adriatic with the coast of Italy visible all the way. Venice lay glittering beneath us, like jewellery. Then into the darkness of the mountains, and light sleep, before we circled down into London. Cold, cold wind, darkness. Something rather ratty and tired about the North Terminal at Gatwick though it is not really very old... but the carpets are worn, and the ceiling panels are loose and dirty. Andrew arrived from Brighton to meet me, and we cruised home. How odd Faversham looked, after all the Greek style of things, even though I had only been away for six days. Home. Bed. Sleep.