Gary in Greece, on Tripod Road

Book research has its advantages when you're the author of The Athenian Mysteries.  I and my family have been in Greece, and it's been a fun and very hectic time.  Here's the view from our hotel room. That's the Acropolis.  It was dusk when we arrived and the first thing we did was take a picture.

So now in the posts to come I will deliver some photos, descriptions, and random thoughts.  Let me begin with Tripod Road.

When I told my literary agent that we were in Athens she replied, "Walking in the steps of Nico and Diotima!"

I replied, "It's funny you should say that, because the hotel we're staying at is on Tripod Road."

In the books, my hero Nicolaos and the lovely Diotima have to walk up and down Tripod Road almost every day.  It's the main road from their house to the agora.

Tripod Road was lined with victory tripods, put up by the winners of the choral contests at the arts festival called the Great Dionysia.  Pericles himself had a victory tripod on Tripod Road, because he funded a winning play.

These days Tripod Road is called Nikodimou Street, but we know it was the original Tripod Road, because there's a single surviving tripod.  It's called the Lysikrates Monument, erected by a very happy fellow named Lysikrates to celebrate a victory at the Great Dionysia some time around 334BC, and it's known to have been built on the west side of Tripod Road.  Here it is, and it's about 100 meters down the road from where we're staying. 

Yes, I know it doesn't look remarkably like a tripod.  The victory monuments became very ornate over time.

So this means every time we walk down the road for the inevitable evening dessert of waffle and chocolate sauce, we are in fact walking in the footsteps of Nico and Diotima.

Modern Greek toilets

So with all of us recovering from excessive New Year partying, I think it's time to talk about going to the toilet.

Let me start with some modern travel advice:  it's a little known but quaint custom of modern Greece that you do not put the used paper in the toilet and flush it.  This is because Greek sewerage pipes are half the width of pipes anywhere else on the planet, and if you flush the paper, then the drain will block and that with which you thought you were permanently parted will make an unwelcome return.

Modern Greek toilets have a bin next to the bowl.  The paper goes in there, and is disposed with the other trash.  I mention this little detail because many tourists find it impossible to believe, despite the numerous signs put up by the locals begging people not to flush the paper.  (Recent buildings don't have this problem...sometimes.)

Another interesting custom is the bathroom attendant, who is to be found at many conveniences throughout the eastern Mediterranean.  Bathroom attendants have approximately the worst job in the world.  You pay this nice person a small sum at the entrance, in return for which you are given the toilet paper which you otherwise will not find within.  Tourists who don't know the system will sometimes be heard from within toilet stalls, calling plaintively for help after it's too late.

Of course, the attendant system leaves the question of how much paper you get for your money.  I recall this being a particular problem in Yugoslavia in the years before that sad country imploded.  It was quite normal to hand over your cash and receive three thin squares of forlorn paper that weren't going to stretch the distance, so to speak.  The value of the dinar was in free-fall at the time due to hyperinflation.  For the cost of the toilet paper, we calculated that it was cheaper to cut out the middleman and just use your paper money.

This is why backpacker guides sometimes advise you to carry your own rolls of paper, which then become the target of desperate thieves.

Gary and the chemical explosives

Some years ago, in 2002 I think it was, I happened to be passing through Los Angeles airport on my way for a flight back home. Airport security was considerably tighter than it used to be, but all those incredibly annoying scanners had yet to be installed.

I was randomly selected for a baggage check. (The fact that not all bags were checked tells you how long ago this was.)

Fine. I handed over my bag.

They opened it up, had a poke around, then swiped the inside with a small piece of material which they popped into a machine.

Red lights flashed! Alarms sounded! Nice men with guns appeared!

"What's wrong?" I asked.
"Sir, please step back behind the red line," said a nice man with a gun.
I stepped back behind the red line.
"What's wrong?" I repeated.
"Sir, your bag has tested positive for chemical explosives."

Well this was going to be fun! I knew I was pure as the driven snow, in this one small respect at least, so I settled in for an interesting experience.

It will come as no surprise that everything came out of the bag. Then they pulled the frame out of the bag. Then they looked inside the frame. Then they looked inside the lining. All clothing was minutely inspected. I had probably 15 or 20 books in that bag, some of them huge technical volumes. They turned every single page.

While this was going on, another nice man took my passport and wandered off with it, no doubt to ask the FBI if I was known to them. He returned while they were still flipping pages and tearing my laptop apart. He gave me a strange look, and didn't return the passport.

That's when I remembered that, not long before, I'd had to get a Federal Police security check.

The check was so I could do some work at Argyle Diamond Mine, which is the largest source of pink diamonds in the world. Once you're inside the compound, the diamonds are just lying on the ground, so they prefer to restrict visitors to honest people and successful thieves who haven't been caught yet. (While walking past swept-up heaps of small black rocks, I'd asked, "Where are the diamonds?").

But the nice men at LAX wouldn't have known that detail. All they would have known was that the Australian Federal Police had queried the FBI for a standard check on me, and the FBI had probably recorded that query. And now here I was, testing positive for chemical explosives.

After they had reduced the bag to its component atoms, they asked, "Have you ever spilled any soap or washing powder in this bag?"

As it happened, my wife and I had used this bag on our honeymoon, and washing powder had indeed been spilled. Fourteen years before.

"That must be it, then. The machine detected the phosphorus."

From fourteen years ago?

They reassembled the bag and repacked. I tried to help several times, but each time was politely but firmly told to get back behind that red line. So I watched them make a complete hash of the repack. Lumps bulged in odd places and the zipper strained. They handed back my passport. I moved to pick up the bag, but was told, "No sir, this man here--" they indicated one of their own, no doubt the most unimportant man present, "--this man will carry your bag until you get on your plane."

My new friend was having none of that. He picked up my bag, brushed past the long queue of people waiting to check in, and stopped at the front desk.

"Check this passenger in at once."

And that's how to get to the head of the queue at LAX. But I wouldn't necessarily recommend it. We threw away the bag when I got home.

Hegesistratus of Elis

Since I'm in an icky gruesome phase, here's a quote from Herodotus. Not much I can add to this.

Hegesistratus of Elis had once been arrested by the Spartans on the charge of doing them a number of injuries of a very serious nature. Flung into prison and condemned to death, Hegesistratus, realizing, in his desperate situation, not only that his life was at stake, but that he would be tortured before his execution, dared a deed which one cannot find words adequate to tell.

He was lying with one foot in the stocks--which were made of wood reinforced with iron--and somehow managed to get hold of a knife, which was smuggled into the prison. No sooner was the knife in his hands than he contrived the means to escape--and how he did it was the bravest action of all those we know: he cut off a piece of his foot, having nicely judged how much to leave in order to pull it free. Then, as the prison was guarded, he worked a hole through the wall and escaped to Tegea, travelling at night and lying up during the day in the woods. The Spartans went out in force to try to find him, but he got clear and reached Tegea on the third night. They were astonished at the man's daring when they saw half his foot lying by the stocks and yet were unable to find him.

I'd love to know what Hegesistratus did to annoy the Spartans. Whatever, it must have been spectacular.

Herodotus say Hegesistratus got himself a wooden foot made. He later went over to the Persians during the wars and became one of their seers.

My Life In Ruins

I wouldn't normally watch a romantic comedy, except maybe if it was the only alternative to taking, say, hemlock. But there I was on a big plane for 12 hours, on the first leg of the journey to Bouchercon: total transit time a bit over 25 hours in case you're wondering.

I did manage to write two scenes for the third book while in flight, but it wasn't the most inspiring environment, so I had a look at the movies. There was one called My Life In Ruins, about a tour guide who takes tourists around the ruins of Greece and inevitably finds true love.

How badly could they screw this up, I wonder. So I watch it.

I can't comment on the movie, not being a romantic comedy connoisseur, except to say if this is typical then hemlock might actually be the better alternative. But the movie went from Olympia to Delphi to the Acropolis, and to my astonishment, they shot the real sites from good angles. The heroine trots out whole sequences of facts about the sites, and as far as I could tell on the fly she got them all correct.

I'm not sure this is enough to make up for the rest of the movie though.