In quest of our frozen yoghurt we hit the road again, back down the way we had come along the coast, and twenty minutes later we arrived in Fira. Once we were in Fira Center we suddenly encountered a completely different driving experience to that which we had known so far, with pedestrians and stray cats and other vehicles everywhere and absolutely no space. Madness, madness. Average happiness levels dipped slightly, while anxiety and stress slowly increased.
We drove around looking for some likely parking spots, Judy leading, me right behind, and Tiff in the back, but on one right turn into a side street we lost Tiff, who'd been too far behind us to see us veer right. After peering over our shoulders hoping she'd appear in our sightline for a few minutes to no avail, Judy and I pulled over to reconvene and figure out what to do. And also to note how getting separated from Tiff seemed to be emerging as yet another theme of our trip.
Eventually we decided it would be best for us to go and look for her rather than sit and hope she would somehow find us, so we got on our ATVs and turned back to the road where we'd lost her. And as soon as we rounded the corner we saw her serenely driving toward us from the opposite direction, exactly in accordance with the other aspect of the losing-Tiff theme, namely, the finding-Tiff with minimal effort.
Having reunited and worked out a response plan for any other such separation crises, we finally found suitable parking and got our frozen yoghurt and some other snacks, and then got back onto our ATVs to go back to Oia to watch the sunset one last time. We were about a third of the way there, and had stopped at our scenic turnout again, when someone proposed the idea of going back to our b&b in Firostefani to change into warmer clothes before going all the way to Oia. I'm not sure who was the initiator and who the galvanizer, but the upshot of the discussion was that five minutes later saw us turning around and going away from Oia, back the way we had come, to change. A good decision, as it turned out, since we would have frozen on the drive back after the sunset at night (so yeah, you're welcome, Judy).
After we'd changed into warmer clothes, we made it - really, truly - all the way to Oia without stopping, parked in our earlier parking spot (so yes, thank you, Judy), and headed west to find a good spot for sunset viewing. None were available, however, all the empty spaces in the streets having been filled up with people lined shoulder to shoulder to watch, so we settled for a little ledge that afforded a decent if not spectacular view, and quietly watched the sun slip down.
We could see the building atop which perched probably all the tourists currently visiting the island, where we had sat two days ago, as well as everyone else lining the streets, and even the boats on the water that had stopped and remained perfectly still to watch, with only the water moving in ripples underneath them like some kind of surreal optical illusion. And it was all just as beautiful as the first evening we had watched it, if not more so. We lingered a little while longer afterward; the sky after the sun had set was even lovelier than while it was setting, and it was comparatively quieter. Also because that was what all the tourist guide books and websites said you should do, and if you don't listen to all the tourist guide books and websites, what kind of tourist are you.
I took a head start back out of Oia, ahead of Judy and Tiff, so I could stop by Atlantis Books one last time. By the time they came to meet me, I was sitting on the floor in a corner reading about Greek heroes and very content. But even beautiful independent bookshops with sleeping cats and wooden ladders have to be left, so I tore myself away for the third time that day and we finally, finally left Oia, for the last time, no backsies.
We drove through the dark back to Firostefani - an exhilarating experience, once you got over the terror of it - and returned our keys to Louis-Elias (I'll never think of him any other way now). Thanked him for everything - he really was the most gentlemanly and accommodating host - and headed toward Fira, weighed down by our backpacks once again, to pick up some quick eats for dinner and then get on the bus to the airport.
The bus journey itself was another perfect experience of the utter madness that is Santorini's bus system, aptly enough. Just trying to figure out which bus to take was a headache, thanks to the information services folks who apparently preferred playing mind games with would-be passengers to actually giving them any information. I went up to the little window to ask what number bus we needed to take to get to the airport, but the lady inside waved me away, saying, "10:30. It comes at 10:30. I will tell you later."
"Yes, 10:30. But do you know what number the bus itself is?" I asked patiently.
"I will tell you later," she repeated firmly, and shooed me away with a well-manicured hand.
Several buses rolled in, and the station was soon a chaos of people milling around trying to figure out which bus to board, in the face of a complete lack of useful signage or announcements. (See previous post re: lack of audio visual technology on Santorini's buses.) We finally figured it out, thanks to some other confused and harried travelers, and found ourselves cramming into the front of a fully stuffed bus.
The seats were full and the aisle was jammed with people standing, and no room to swing a gerbil, let alone a cat. I wondered how and if the bus fare collector was going to make his way down the bus to collect everyone's money, but it seemed he was determined to make it happen or die trying in the attempt, as he presently squeezed his ample belly past Tiff and me, reaching over our heads to the people behind us. This left me, Judy, and Tiff right next to the driver, who, as soon as we had maneuvered our way into the space on his right, opened his mouth and asked where we were from. To nobody's surprise, he wasn't satisfied with the California answer, and asked if we were Chinese or Japanese? When Tiff reluctantly said yes, Chinese, he excitedly pulled up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo of Chinese characters on his arm, signaling to Tiff to read them, which she was unfortunately unable to do, on account of her being from California, not China.
I suppose it was the only adequate way to go. We'd come a pleasing, full, racist circle from our aggravatingly idiotic Uber driver in Stockholm on day 1, to this clearly well-meaning but equally aggravating bus driver with the Chinese tattoo that probably said "lobster" or "teapot" in Santorini on day 13. I can imagine no other final public transit experience that would have been as fitting.
The airport itself, once we arrived, was no better bus than the bus stop at Fira; I believe the phrase "hot mess" has been used to describe similar situations. Once we were finally able to line up to go through to our gate, we had a spot of bother with the security lady, who insisted that we needed to check our backpacks because they were too big and wouldn't fit in the bag size measuring box. When she said as much to Judy I practically saw the gleam in Judy's eye that plainly said hey lady you wanna bet, and sure enough, she immediately went to work stuffing her backpack into the size measuring container, while the security lady half-heartedly rolled her eyes and turned her attention to Tiff and me. She - Judy - was about 80% there but I was dubious of her success, given that her bag looked ready to burst and scatter Belgian chocolates everywhere, but she remained defiant, and the security lady, who clearly could not be bothered to deal with her anymore, waved her through with a sigh. Judy pranced past her, triumphant.
Tiff's and my backpacks were blatantly overweight, so we didn't protest when she stuck the check-in stickers on our backpacks, and walked through peacefully enough to join Judy on the other side. We were complaining about the extra wait time this would add once we landed, when Judy suggested we just remove the stickers and carry the bags on with us since no one else knew our bags were supposed to be checked. The security lady hadn't told anyone, after all, just given us the stickers.
It is a sign of what pathetic, goody-two-shoes existences that Tiff and I have led so far that we both initially balked at this suggestion as breaking the rules. But neither of us wanted to deal with the hassle of checking our bags, so I am sorry to report that laziness won out over integrity in this particular matter, and both of us ripped off our "checked bags" stickers and stuffed them out of sight. The adrenaline rush of such blatant rule-breaking was both thrilling and terrifying. Judy is a terrible influence on us.
The flight into Athens was about half an hour, a half hour which passed smoothly enough (and no, neither Tiff nor I were apprehended by anyone for carrying on our too-large backpacks instead of checking them). Once we landed (at around midnight), we set off to the other gates in search of some comfy couches to sleep on for the night, only to be stopped in our cheerful tracks by airport staff who told us we couldn't go that way as the gates were all closed. We had to settle instead for the less comfy seats at baggage claim, but we were comforted to see that there were several other airport slumber parties happening there as well.
We made ourselves as comfortable as we could be given the circumstances, and Judy and I put on the moisturizing face masks she'd brought with her from California. Might as well go all out as not, if you're already at a point where you're spending the night in an airport. Judy then put on a long sleeve shirt over her t-shirt, looked down at herself, and, turning to me, asked, "Do I look incredibly weird like this?"
"Judy, I think you passed 'incredibly weird' already with the face mask," I told her.
"Right," she said, and carried on getting ready for bed.
We slept decently enough, though the airport was cold, the seats were uncomfortable, and it is rather disorienting to wake up to dozens of strangers milling around you picking up suitcases, but I suppose that was all part of the experience. We got ready and left at around 9:30am to check in, made it safely onto our flight to Stockholm, transferred, and now we are on our transatlantic flight back to Oakland, with 6.5 hours to go, and several hundred thoughts running around my head, such as, wow I'm hungry and the guy behind me really needs to stop kicking the back of my seat and I can't believe it's over and how am I going to go to work tomorrow?
It has been, in every regard, a perfect holiday. Yes, food poisoning and bug bites and annoying public transit drivers notwithstanding. I don't have any words to sum it all up - but then, that's exactly why I wrote such excessively long posts to recap every single day. Because some experiences simply can't be summed up, so why bother trying at all?