Nancy Smith


Four years after Nelson’s death in 1983, our daughter, Anne called from Zurich.  “Let’s meet in Greece this June,” she said “Hartwig and I have been offered Fanny Milia’s vacation home in Heliopolis, and we’d love to have you spend a week with us.”


Departure day came: Palomar Airport to LAX. Then LAX to Athens with a stop in Rome.  Our stop in Rome was grim.  We were herded off the plane and into a holding room the size of a gymnasium.  Fierce-looking soldiers gripping machine guns lined the walls.  Security was ultra tight because that morning a passenger had been kidnapped from an Italian cruise ship.  All luggage would be hand-searched, checked bags as well as carry-ons.  The hand search took hours, and the machine guns were daunting.


In contrast, reception in the Athens hotel couldn’t have been kinder.  The clerk said, “The room you’re assigned is too hot.  Let’s transfer you to the shady side of the building.”


The only problem was that she made no note of this change.  When Anne and Hartwig phoned from Heliopolis, they were told,  “ Mrs. Smith has not arrived.”

And when the friend who was spending the summer in Athens came to take me to dinner, he was told, “There is no Mrs. Smith here.”


Hartwig persisted, and reached me by ten o’clock that night.  We planned that I would sight-see in Athens the next morning and then take the bus to Piraeus, where I could catch the hydrofoil to Heliopolis.  Heliopolis is a small coastal village on the Peleponnesian peninsula.  He and Anne would be at the landing to meet me.


The hydrofoil turned out to be very noisy, a persistent hum overpowered by loud roaring.  Seats were so low that I could barely see out the window.  I had had a long flight from Carlsbad, the air was warm, and I fell into a deep sleep.


I woke in confusion.  The boat had stopped.  The passengers all seemed to be leaving, so I gathered my belongings and joined them.  I followed the crowd down the gangplank, and the ship began to pull away.  I had arrived, but not at Heliopolis.


I was on a tiny, brown island that rose steeply out of the Mediterranean.  No trees, no grass.  The only buildings I could see were a shabby hotel with an outdoor café, and two or three small houses on the steep hillside.  It was austere and dreary in spite of the bright sun and blue sea.  The passengers disappeared quickly, and I couldn’t tell where they might have gone.  Where was I?  What should I do?


Some elderly Greek men in dusty black suits relaxed around small tables near the hotel, playing cards or chess, drinking and smoking.  They ignored me completely.  I could see three women by the side of the dirt road.  Dressed in long black robes, their frizzy iron-gray hair piled high,  they might have been witches.  I didn’t know a word of Greek, and felt shy about approaching them.


I stood there with my suitcase, indecisive.  The three women walked over to me.  We found we could communicate adequately in German.  I had forgotten how European strangers could usually find a common language.  They assured me that all was not lost.  A ten-minute ride in a water taxi would take me to Heliopolis.  What a relief!


They braved the sprawling men and found a boatman who would ferry me to Heliopolis.  They bargained a lower fare for me.  Even though the boatman and I had no common language, it was obvious that once we left the island and my friendly witches, if I wanted to land, there would be a significant extra charge.  I paid it.  Anne and Hartwig were nowhere in sight.


The villagers who had gathered to watch the hydrofoil arrive were still milling around the small green park, gossiping and drinking sodas.  My arrival by water taxi was an unexpected diversion.  They stood in a circle around me to see what would happen next.  My boatman, fortified with the additional fare, went off to find someone who could speak a little English.

He brought a taxi driver who was courteous and friendly.  “Map?” he asked. 


I opened my suitcase to get the crude little sketch Fanny had sent.  I was standing on a grassy knoll, and the congregation watched, fascinated, as the map and all the odds and ends – notes, booklets, Kleenex, pen—slid from the pocket in the lid of my suitcase onto the grass.


The pencil drawn map showed no street names or numbers, just a curved line for the road and a few squares to represent houses.  The driver studied it for some time, nodded, and said something like, “Let’s go.”


We started out by circling the park several times.  I wondered why.  Then off we drove, on a roughly paved road that soon turned to dirt.  We could see the sea from time to time, and a few spread-out small houses.  The driver pointed out one elegant farmhouse on a several-acre property.  “Mine,” he said.


Almost four miles from the boat landing we came to a configuration that seemed to match the drawing.  We stopped in front of a small white stucco house.  He asked, “This, maybe?”  I went to the door and knocked.  No answer.  I walked around the not-quite-finished building and thank goodness, I recognized Anne’s bathing suit on the clothesline.  Much relieved, I returned to the car.  I think the driver said he would return to the village and try to find my family.  I circled the house again, and then sat in the shade to wait.  Tiny pale pink cyclamen flowers grew wild all around.


Sure enough, about forty minutes later my rescuer returned with Anne and Hartwig.  He stopped the taxi and all three got out.  We stood there laughing and hugging each other—all of us, including the driver.  I enjoyed tipping him! !


Now I could hear the other side of the story.  Anne and Hartwig had walked the four miles into the village and asked a taxi driver, who later turned out to be my driver, to meet the boat and drive us all back to Fanny’s house.  When I didn’t come off the hydrofoil, Anne and Hartwig left the landing area to telephone my Athens hotel.  While they were calling, I turned up in the water taxi.


The driver realized I must be the missing mother, and took me to his taxi.  He circled the village, but couldn’t find Anne and Hartwig.  The situation was too complicated for him to explain to me, so following my sketch map, he took a chance on finding the right cottage.  I hadn’t a clue about what was going on.  When we were finally reunited, I could appreciate his ingenuity and kindness.  It was a great introduction to Greece.


The rest of the trip was wonderful.  We explored antiquities, snorkeled in isolated bays, ate in small restaurants.  We walked and walked.


But what I remember best about the trip was the getting there.


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