Travels with Ruairi

I’m writing this as I sit on a ferry on the final return leg of our epic round Europe driving work / holiday trip.

Vicky and I left Vliho nearly three weeks ago for our first break together since precovid, it’s been kinda long overdue. Apologies to those who have experienced slow information and feedback  on winter work projects but now things will be back to normal at least until Christmas.

Highlights of the trip other than meeting up with family and friends were visiting Trinity Marine salvage in Devon, these guys buy containers packed full of bits from ex RN and commercial ships which are broken up in the Far East, restored then offered for sale. We bought some period lights and brass hooks for our own boat, but if you are down near Exeter look up their web site it’s an astonishing place to absorb real nauticalia not the crud that you normally see.

Windermere museum in the Lake District and Lords tool salvage on the way there, added some culture to a couple of days in the area, which offset our touristy boat trips on the lake.

After a ferry to Larne in N Ireland , we managed to smuggle our salvage contraband without inspection, it was a quick trip down to my home town where my brother and his family still live in our house. A week of seeing people and shopping, N Ireland is an incredible place to shop, especially if you have been starved of the experience for a few years.

More walking, few ancient sites and a lot of food later we boarded the WB Yeats in Dublin, put the World Cup on in our cabin and 16 hours later woke up in Cherbourg. A night in a truly amazing hotel in Milan (motel piranha) and a lot of driving either side saw us arrive in Ancona from where coincidentally, it’s another 16 hours to Greece and home.

A great trip, thoroughly enjoyable with the luxury of not having to fly and having your ‘ stuff’ with you the whole time. I think we did 6000 kilometers over the three weeks. We also did some work stuff but more on that at the end.

It’s cold outside, wind is from the northeast, must have been blowing for some time, as the seas are well established, not that we notice it aboard the Hellenic Spirit, 25 knots and solid as a rock. It does however remind me of a delivery I skippered up in this neck of the woods nearly fifteen years ago. We had the same north Easterly but not the same ship. Then it was an old leaky 40odd foot ketch, which never leaked at anchor but upon seeing a wave, welcomed it aboard with open arms! Of the delivery itself I remember only a few details…

The job was to relocate the boat and the young couple who were its owners to Montenegro where they had picked up a job with a new charter company, which had sprung from the profits of a natural resource of the Soviet Union. The boat was awful and truly leaked like a sieve. Along with the owners the below decks watch comprised of a pair of Jack Russells whom never approached finding their sea legs. Slow uncomfortable progress, seasick dog watch, deck watch and a swill of seawater and diesel drenching the inside of the boat is the abiding memory. Of course it was slow cold progress, depressing cold, threatening snow cold, which being mid December was not surprising. Vicky had warned me not to miss Christmas, not for that warm tv advert like cuddling in front of a log fire reason but because we had about 100 people booked for Christmas dinner and she needed me in the kitchen…… a good time to run away to sea perhaps.

It’s the trip home however which earned its place in the Bradley hall of fame, not a subject often discussed in nautical tomes as, for instance a writer will try to make an interesting story of motoring from Greece to Spain rather than the infinitely more difficult prospect of using public transport to move West to East in Europe.

In this instance although Montenegro and Greece are close on a map, they are legions apart in reality, in this case one of the countries was Albania.

But it was okay we had a plan…

Helene our chef, who is originally from Albania, had a brother who was still in Albania and he knew a guy who was friends with another guy who had a taxi… sort of… All I had to do was get to the Albanian border, meet the driver who was fluent in Albanian, be driven to the Greek border where Yannis from our awesome taxi company would pick me up and be back in Vliho within twelve hours.

I had to go for a farewell meal, which went according to plan, the bad bit was the post meal survivor piss up that normally follows a shared experience with two seasick Jack Russell’s, trust me try it. The following morning was a mess of taxis, phone calls back to mission ops in Vliho, packing and being shuttled toward a border by a guy who I swear did not know yes and no in English, my problem not his.

After an hour or so I was deposited at a bridge which separated me from a Trumpton style guard hut and the obligatory red and white striped pole. This I deduced was the Montenegro/Greece border and as my bag was on the ground, in a puddle which was cleaner than the mud around it and as transport #1 was disappearing back from where it came made the decision to cross the bridge easy. I suppose when border guards talk about the weird shit they have to deal with, the north Albanian border does not offer up many interesting anecdotes but I hope that the pantomime of a very wet and hungover Irishman walking into their country with no common language, no idea where he is and very little local money lives for a short while in their memory.

It took twenty minutes of complete and utter incomprehension on both sides of the conversation for them to give up and raise their red and white barrier, this was entirely ceremonial as I could easily have walked around the end but I think it was a metaphorical acceptance of the terms and conditions of entering Albania, they were absolved of responsibility and I was on my own in another new country.

Light fades quickly in this part of the world on a rainy mid December afternoon, so the dismal little gathering of buildings I was walking toward looked particularly uninviting but as options were limited to solely this, I resolved to get out of the rain and wait for my transport #2 to arrive, if it was not indeed waiting for me. I thought this was unlikely as apart from a suspicious looking cat and a donkey on its lunch break nothing stirred. A pile of moss covered beer crates served as marketing for the village cafe and that squeaking hinge thing that doors only do in the worst of movies evidently was the service bell. I was greeted by a female who was in her forties and a pair of green Wellington boots, obviously she had more pressing duties out back but had come in out of the rain as I had done. She smiled, an experience and hoping to avoid another pantomime I tried that glorious of words…’beer?’

I seem to remember a lack of cash being an underlying theme on this trip, but I suspect it was currency, because when I presented a ten euro note in payment she looked horrified and then followed a twenty minute one man rendition of Jack and the Bean Stalk, the upshot of which was I got a Tab. Content with securing medication for my self inflicted ailment, I settled down to wait. Beer number two arrived with a half burnt red candle stuck in an empty Vodka bottle, a little amorous I thought, watching the flare from the ignition match reflecting from her teeth, both of them but it was more practical in purpose. Abruptly the lights went out, much much later I learned that this was normal, just the government being frugal for everybody for three hours.

I will speed up a little, although I could quite literally write a book about that place where absolutely nothing happens, the wait lasted four hours as transport #2 had for some reason gone to the other border crossing and had to drive two sides of a triangle to get to me. I settled my tab for the day with the ten euro note and left a tip of nine euros so as not to confuse the whole change thing. My drivers, as it appeared I had hired two, were furious at this act of generosity and definitely started to view me as a lion would a slightly tipsy, bewildered wilder beast.

Albania resembles a very well made single bed with two pillows, the foot of the bed is the north and on the other side of the pillows is Greece. An hour after leaving my little border crossing we had reached civilization i.e. An occasional street light and white bits in the middle of the road. Speaking of which transport #2 had turned out to be a Mercedes Bitza, it would have taken a forensic mechanic to work what constituted the original car that had departed Germany sometime shortly after the war but at heart it was a Merc. Pretty comfortable too, or the beer had been strong for I fell fast asleep on the back seat for three hours, which if added to the afore mentioned one and subtracted from the six and a half promised at the beginning,  meant that in two and a half hours I would be back in Greece. Irish boy plans… Gods Laugh, long and hard, big belly full laughs.

I had until that point never been in a car crash, on reflection I’m still not sure if this qualifies as my first. Potholes were an intrinsic part of the road surface in Albania twenty years ago, not in a bad way, more a method of keeping drivers alert with a kind of naturally occurring traffic calming. We had just come off the main north south highway, joining the route which began the ascent of the pillows, or mountains which separate most of Albania from Greece.

Big Bang, car up in the air, landing paws, down screeching of steel, fountains of sparks, screams from the front of the car and then slowly coming to a stop at a peculiar angle. Definitely all the makings of a car crash, but I’m still not sure, you see we had just driven into a pot hole, a big pothole, taken off and on departure and lost contact with the rear axle .This made the resulting landing the dramatic affair described above and rather signaled the end of transport #2 ‘s part in my story.

On the plus side we had destroyed the car close to a brightly lit cafe, which was handy as any lingering benefits from the afternoon beer stop had just been well and truly eradicated. With heavy hearts and a heavy kit bag, theirs and mine, we set off trudging down the road to regroup at the cafe.

It was full of teenagers, noisy irritating happy teenagers, what on earth were they doing here in the middle of nowhere, on their big shiny bus. Transport  #3 perhaps! Hmmm, one of my now unemployed drivers went off to investigate.

My father, an academic from a family of academics, would frequently opinion that education would be my salvation, normally on the back of a one sided conversation about my lack of interest in continuing the family legacy.

I don’t think a group of University of Durres students returning to Kalamata for the Christmas holidays was quite the salvation he had in mind, however any Port in a storm as they say. With a bit of cajoling the driver agreed to take me on board, though he kept mentioning that I had no papers. I managed to use a pay phone to update the gang back at Vliho, then boarded the bus content that the crazy part of the trip was over, once back in Greece I could use my mobile phone to arrange a rendezvous with Yanni the taxi driver and be back in Vliho in no time. Irish boy plans…………………

Shortly after we left and began the ascent of the mountains it started to snow, sitting at the front of the bus in the jump seat was like the early Star Trek shows, it certainly felt like space travel after the Mercedes Bitza. The higher we got the thicker the snow fell and lay, with the Christmas noise playing over the onboard radio I felt quite relaxed and almost in the mood, so like grandpa I nodded off. After a week of rude awakenings it was almost a surprise to be woken by the bus slowly coming to a halt. ‘Chains’ the driver grunted as he brushed past, I followed as it was a new thing for me and I couldn’t work out how this little guy was going to wrestle snow chains onto the wheels of this bloody great bus. I have to say it was a thing of genius, from the luggage compartment in front of the double back wheels he pulled a wooden block the size of a sports bag. Back in the driver’s seat he inched forward until on top of the blocks which elevated each sister wheel off the ground. Hang the chains on and tension them, then reverse off the block and store it back from where it came. The whole operation could not of lasted ten minutes before we moved off as surefooted as a goat. That could not be said for what we encountered five minutes later when on rounding a corner we met the unfortunate spectacle of another coach lying at a funny angle in the roadside ditch.

Matching livery I thought as we came to a halt, must be the same coach company, drivers were cousins I later learned. The next part was really cool, the combined able bodied passengers from both coaches got around the stricken vehicle and with enormous roars and yells and screaming engine managed to coax it first upright then amazingly back on to the road. It was all completed with such good bonhomie and lack of hard hats that I was well and truly seduced by the whole Christmas thing.

So much so that I was surprised by the lack of back slapping between the group, in fact the spirit which had been used to such good effect moments earlier had completely evaporated. Odd folk I thought as we crawled further up the next incline, we hadn’t gone more than 300yards before our progress halted again, nothing obvious I could see in front, a bit of banging and grunting outside, then a feeling of moving slightly forward and up, before the driver left and didn’t come back.

Well he didn’t come back for at least twenty five minutes, until our friend from earlier pulled up beside us and he got out. I will spare you a description of the next nine hours of the most bizarre game of leap frog you could imagine, you see we had two buses and one set of chains. On the flat bits we would trundle along carefully with a wheel each but on the steep bits it was one at a time, chains off refitted to the other bus and relaying up and over the mountains, the passengers helped both drivers to pull the heavy chains back and forth with a sort of grim determination that was really inspiring. We passed other vehicles which had given up and were parked on the roadside, engines on but slowing disappearing under the snow. This was one of those fifty year storm events, later it dominated the local news with helicopters being used to rescue people from cars in the area, so that we made it over the mountains at all was down to the determination of the drivers but it really did feel like it lasted forever.

Down in the foothills there was still snow but the roads were clearer and we made much better progress to the Greek border. My phone binged into life for the first time in a week, being at that time a pay as you go, there was no way it would work in Albania, so reading Cosmote in the top left of the screen was like returning to earth. Four in the morning I woke a very relieved Vicky, our trip over the mountain had taken seven hours longer than expected and even the resourceful Yannis waiting at the border crossing had not been able to get any information other that the mountains pass was really treacherous. ‘Not to worry tell him I’ll be there soon’ but of course understandably he was long gone and even more understandably he was not answering his phone. We ended the call with Vicky investigating how to get me collected from Kakiva the border crossing at four am on a December morning.

As we coasted to a stop the driver leaned across and said the border was less than a kilometer away, thank you I replied, out he said, you have no papers to travel in this bus. I put my sailing Jacket hat and gloves on and with my bag on my shoulder, set off in heavy snowfall after the fast receding red lights of the bus. It only took twenty minutes to make out the buildings of the crossing but by the time I got to the deserted window of the guard hut there must of been two inches of snow across my bag and shoulders. I presented my passport whilst breathing in the smell of coffee and cigarettes readying myself for the interrogation as to what the …….. I was doing in that place at that time, however the lady merely smiled, with many teeth and said welcome to Greece.

I trudged across the car park to the only shelter there, one of those three paneled bus stops which was oriented to catch as much snow as possible, huddled up in the corner and waited. In the end, for a variety of reasons I sat there for five hours before Vicky arrived in her commandeered transport #4, I learned all about her adventure… no fuel no one awake and roads blocked by snow but to be honest I could have dreamt the last bit because I was fast asleep in minutes.

Delivery work sure is an adventure!