Sailing into Patmos, a quintessentially Greek island in the Dodecanese, a layer of stress easily melts away and we have not a care in the world. We tie up at the marina, and get ready to explore. It is September 11, 2001.
My friends and I rent scrappy little mopeds and head out of town on the mostly paved roads. Every once in awhile, we wave at a friendly Greek walking along or riding on a donkey. We slowly climb up the side of the hilly island, and we have to stop so we can stare; the water IS that blue, and we ARE on top of the world. We finally make it to our destination, a little open-aired restaurant that serves the best milkshakes on the island, according to Diane, my friend and our skipper.
We sip our milkshakes (which are yummy), unwind and share stories. We are relaxed, yet not quite fully settled into Greek island life since this is only Day 2 of our sailing adventure. The longer we sit, the more mellow we become, but we finally start our ride back to town. Along the way, a big tall German man (our neighboring yachtie from the marina) waves our group of seven down to stop; he is on his cell phone. I stand with him a little annoyed, and curious, that after making us stop he is too busy to chat.
Very Bad News
“There has been a terrorist attack. New York and the Capitol have been hit,” he says. I am incredulous, and rebuke him for making such a bad joke. “No, really, I am on the phone with my wife in Germany and she is watching CNN live. It might have been the Palestinians,” he continues. My response is visceral and I have goosebumps. My friends had stopped, still straddling their mopeds, and I shakily tell them “get back to the marina, it is bad.” That layer of stress returns. Our collective mood is black.
Back in the marina, we are able to find a TV that is broadcasting Greek CNN with English subtitles. We watch the North Tower of the World Trade Center fall. It is mesmerizing, horrific, chilling and we are stunned. Details emerge and we learn the Capitol is not hit, and the Palestinians are not likely to be involved.
Our sailing group numbers 25 and we are from all over the USA, including Washington DC and New York City. One of us works in the Pentagon, another few live in Manhattan. Our phone calls cannot get through and we are starved for information. Unsure about everything, we take our small American flags down from the masts – no need to call attention to our American selves! I wander around the rest of the day, numb, and wondering “what next?”. There is nothing we can do.
The next morning we sail on to Arki, a tiny island that is home to only two families. They are known as the Hatfields and McCoys because they apparently have been feuding for ages. We are thankful for the humor in that and have mixed emotions about not having a radio or a television on the island. We feel bittersweet that we are forced to temporarily forego the onslaught of terrorism news reports.
We sail on for days, stopping and visiting islands such as Kos, Leros, Kalymnos and Lipsos. News is trickling through and somehow we learn of some friends who are missing, of some family who are safe. When we sail into Lipsos on a Friday morning, bells are tolling. I ask Diane about it, and she explains that the locals are tolling the bells in honor of the Americans. Wow. Barbara, Al and I find a little church, trying to coordinate with the moment of silence that President Bush had called for that morning; we ignore the time zones. We have learned friends and colleagues are missing in New York and the Pentagon, and while we cannot understand the Greek Orthodox service, it is comforting to be here and have thoughts and prayers for everyone.
Wrapping up our incredible sailing adventure in the Dodecanese, we are able to easily catch our short, domestic flights from Kalymnos back to Athens, but Athens is where our chaos starts. Athens already has a 6 day backlog of flights to the USA because, we’re told, “there are no planes”. With the thousands of grounded flights, the normally scheduled flights TO Athens hadn’t occurred.
Warm Greek Embrace
Forced to get a hotel for a night, we are overwhelmed at the support, concern and care that the Greek staff at Athenaeum InterContinental give us. In front of the hotel, flags fly at half-staff. We are given looks of sympathy and warm hugs when we check in. We are gifted the use of the third floor concierge and office service; all calls and faxes to the USA will be complimentary.
With probably a dozen different flights and itineraries to return to our respective homes, our group slowly disbands and we start to go our own ways. No one really wants to hang around Athens for days, hoping to eventually get a flight back to the US. Some catch flights up to Brussels, others to Paris. Al and I luckily reserve the last two seats on a British Airways flight to London, where we find huge support and friendship from the Brits.
I am not sorry to be in London for a few more days; it’s a vibrant city and people are warm and welcoming. Thousands of bouquets and mementos are left on display at the front of the US Embassy, and I really want to visit to see for myself. No doubt it would be a very emotional visit, and Al is disinterested. I regret never somehow making enough time to visit that scene.
Delta Airlines treats us well and (appropriately) does not charge us for our itinerary change of flying back to the States from London instead of from Athens. We welcome the ultra tight security at Heathrow. Shoes? Off. Socks? Off. Need to x-Ray my earrings? No problem. Bring it on.
I am delighted to be back in the States and to call the USA home. Of course the terrorism events of 9-11 change the world forever, and this is a memory I could easily live without. Now how about sailing in the Dodecanese? That is a whole other story, and one that I share next…