Besides the bridge at Chalkis, Evia is linked to the Attic mainland by five ferryboat lines. From as far back as I can remember, the Eretria-Oropos ferries took half-an-hour to cross and they left every thirty minutes; less, if it was rush hour on a Friday or Sunday. Like the rest of us, the boats got older, and louder, and slower. The crossing began to take over forty minutes, the boats vibrated and the engines knocked and rumbled and more than one engine sounded like it had no muffler.
One day a new brand-new ferryboat arrived. Not just bigger, it had panache: a huge symmetrical ro-ro where one drives in, and then on the other side one drives off, no three-point turn, no reversing up the ramp. When the ferry entered the harbour for the first time, it pirouetted proudly on its own vertical axis...spinning for ten minutes, sounding its horn. The saloon was state-of-the art: cheerful with deep armchairs, large television screens and air-conditioning. A long shiny sandwich bar with faux burled poplar and a large espresso machine stood in place of the familiar dark corner with the tiropita case and little gas ring.
It was the talk of the town, and soon all Evia knew that the new boat was fast. People began to take the ferry again, avoiding the not-so-new bridge at Chalkis. Cars queued on the quai while the old ferries left empty or with the odd truck or two. At times, out of loyalty, I took one of the old familiar boats and watched the new ferry sail past us, first in one direction, then the other. It was hard not to look at my watch and calculate travel time.
Other changes came. With the new ferry running circles around the old ones, its owner soon registered his own line, drew up his own schedule and printed up his own tickets. Soon the other owners upgraded: more new boats, more colourful tickets. The character of the harbour changed as the ferries cut sportily around each other like enormous jet-skis. The schedule was confusing and irregular, but because there were so many fast boats, there was never a long wait.
There was, however, a down side: every time a ferry would zip in or out of the harbour it trailed an enormous wake – so strong that every few minutes the caiquia were in danger of being ripped from their moorings. The word “tsunami” entered the vernacular of my fishermen friends. Even bathing in the sea was considered to be dangerous, and the port authority put up a warning sign that swimming was forbidden. The municipal beaches were threatened, the townsfolk discontent, but the ferry association had lost its cohesion and there seemed to be no one to complain to. After some time had passed, the concrete landings on the quais started to crack. Now that much of the quai in Oropos has crumbled, the boats maneuver more carefully, the antics of their early days forgotten.
Last month my daughter and I began commuting to Athens: the sun rising over the mountains of Evia found us at sea. Such a beautiful way to start the day! The first morning, we took the seven o'clock over to Oropos, and in the afternoon, the five o'clock back to Eretria. The sea was calm, it was sunny and so hot in Athens that we glowed as we stood on deck and grinned happily into the briny breeze.
Early the next morning, I asked about the winter ferryboat schedules and was told that they were not yet fixed. At seven a.m. the boat remained moored, finally leaving about seven-twenty. All that week and the next, the ferry would leave either at seven o'clock, or seven-fifteen, or even seven-thirty. We played it safe and were down at the landing by seven every day. “Dealing with adversity,” I explained to my daughter, “involves patience and foresight.” Sometimes we waited over twenty minutes, sometimes, only two. Every morning irate truck drivers and commuters complained; all were told that the winter schedule was not yet fixed. Finally, one afternoon I saw something white posted on the ticket-booth, and with a light heart and a smile, I hurried over and asked for the schedule.
“Here,” replied the young lady as she tapped on the hand-written sheet taped to the glass from the inside. “See? Monday through Sunday: these are the times that the boats will not be running.” I thought I'd misunderstood, and asked her to repeat herself. “These are the times that the boats are not running,” she said again. I looked at my daughter, frowning. I looked at the schedule : Monday, 6:15, 6:30, 7:00, 7:45... Tuesday, 6:00, 6:45, 7:30... and so on, with no readily discernable pattern.
“But please,” I asked, “ may I have the schedule of when the ferryboats ARE running?” She shuffled through her papers. “No,” she said. “I'm sorry, the winter schedule is not yet fixed”. Then taking pity on us, she whispered, “but tomorrow there will be no seven-fifteen boat.”